Introduction to naturalistic planting in. urban landscapes

James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett

Although this book is potentially relevant to many urban contexts, it is most strongly aimed at the ‘public’ and ‘semi-public’ landscape. Some of these landscapes are public parks of one sort or another. The remainder are a difficult-to-characterise mix of spaces around public housing, commercial developments and institutions, car parks, left-over spaces from development, structure plantings of massed trees and shrubs, and strips along paths, roads and other corridors. Taken as a whole, these often very ordinary places are the landscapes we are most familiar with and which inform, and perhaps even shape, our attitudes to the world around us. In combination with private gardens, these urban spaces are also the landscapes where we have most of our first-hand experiences of ‘nature’. The design form of these landscapes is as diverse as their physical size, location and history. Examples of planting styles inspired by or derived from the picturesque, the gardenesque, the garden city, the modern movement, the municipal engineer, the ecological and, latterly, the community involvement style can all be found. Irrespective of how we now judge the aesthetic merits of the planting styles associated with these movements, in their day all were founded on the principle of being pleasing (as well as functional) to their creators and to the public at large.

Over the past couple of decades in Britain and other Western countries, the ongoing decline of public landscape maintenance, the realisation that funding will never again reach the levels of the nineteenth century or even early twentieth century, and the arrival of new social and environmental movements, has initiated a search for ‘new’ planting styles to help re-envigorate public landscapes. Views differ on what these might be, however the consensus is that these plantings should have relatively low-maintenance costs, be as sustainable as possible, taxonomically diverse, demonstrate marked seasonal change, and support as much wildlife as possible. These requirements fly in the face of traditional horticultural wisdom, which rightly argues that maintenance costs are generally proportional to planting complexity. We argue in this book that the only possible way to escape this restriction is to move away from wholesale reliance on traditional horticulturally-based plantings. By ‘horticultural’, we refer to plantings composed primarily of exotic species and cultivars, organised in culturally informed arrangements, rather than as ecologically-based plant communities, and managed relatively intensively to reduce competition between planted stock and spontaneously invading weeds, and to instead develop plantings that exploit ecological as well as horticultural processes and understanding (Figure 1.1).

It is reasonable to ask at this point whether the notion of maintaining a degree of quality in urban public planting should really be a point of concern—does urban

horticulture, as represented in the diverse plantings of a well-maintained public park, for example, any longer have relevance to the general urban dweller? What is the benefit of introducing and maintaining ornamental or amenity vegetation in urban areas? Setting aside the purely functional roles of spatial subdivision and screening, and the obvious benefit of aesthetic delight, urban landscape plantings may become increasingly important to the health of the city environment and of those who live within it. With ever greater emphasis on the ‘compact city’ and higher densities of building in urban areas, good quality green spaces take on a special recreational, social and

Introduction to naturalistic planting in. urban landscapes

Introduction to naturalistic planting in. urban landscapes


‘Horticultural’ landscape vegetation:

(a) blocks of evergreen shrubs, mechanically cut on a regular basis to maintain an artificial geometric shape, combined with mown grass and widely spaced trees. A very common and unfortunate contemporary approach to public landscape planting; and

(b) seasonal bedding—still regarded by many as the epitome of the craft of public horticulture. The extensive and vibrant colour of such bedding is achieved as a result of significant financial, labour and resource inputs

environmental role. There is mounting evidence that environmental quality is one of the factors that has a direct affect on the health and well-being of people in urban areas. This goes much further than a simple feeling of uplift at the sight of colourful flowering vegetation. In a wide-ranging study of urban green spaces in England, Dunnett et al. (2002) found that the quality of green spaces and their maintenance is likely to be viewed by local residents as one of the main indicators of general neighbourhood quality. There are therefore compelling arguments to be made that urban public planting has an important role to play in the general quality of life of people living in towns and cities, and this is before we even consider the benefits to wildlife and the functioning of a city’s ecological networks. It is all very well to

Introduction to naturalistic planting in. urban landscapes


Direct-sown annual meadow 10 weeks after sowing in a Sheffield housing estate. Mixed native-exotic meadows provide high-impact, long – lasting colour and receive high public support

make general statements like this about what is desirable, however the real challenge is how can these benefits be achieved in reality? And in particular, how can we both uphold the quality of plantings where they exist already but equally importantly, how can we extend the benefits of good urban plantings to those areas where they have been lost or may never have existed in the first place. It is hoped that this book provides some possible answers. Before going on to discuss the principles behind a more ecological approach to urban planting, it is first important to consider the social implications—what do people generally like to see in their surroundings and can an ecologically-informed approach provide this?