There is a large body of evidence suggesting that contact with nature in various different forms has a beneficial effect on human beings, physically, psychologically and socially. Most of this research is outside the scope of this chapter, as it does not relate exclusively to ecological plantings: in most cases it would be impossible to assert that ecological plantings do more good than any other type of planting.
However, there are some notable exceptions to this. The first relates to the benefits sustained by people as a result of wilderness experiences. Kaplan and Kaplan (1989) summarised the results of a decade of research into the effects of participation in outward-bound programmes. They found that the participants gained certain physical crafts and skills, as well as an improved self-image: feeling more self-confident and having a more positive outlook. They also found that after a fairly rapid period of acclimatisation, participants experienced a sense of self-discovery, wholeness, wellbeing, renewal and restoration, as well as what Kaplan and Kaplan described as ‘the recovery of aspects of mental functioning that had become less effective through overuse.’ They concluded that:
The role of the natural environment is inherent to these experiences. Not only did participants notice more aspects of that environment, but they
came to realise that they lived differently and felt differently during their immersion in this setting. The coexistence with other creatures and growing things gave them a new perspective on themselves. The existence of the wilderness became a comforting thought.
Yet there is also evidence that some young people particularly have very different and negative reactions to exposure to nature as part of wilderness experiences (Bixler and Floyd 1997). It is interesting that The Blair Witch Project, a film by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick about a group of young people lost in the woods, who become prey to supernatural forces, should have a dense woodland of young trees and saplings for its setting. These polarisations are likely to become even more extreme given the nature of contemporary childhood, with outdoor play competing with virtual reality and being further restricted by parental concerns about safety.
Tartaglia-Kershaw (1980) found that, as well as
Two views of a lake in Central Park,
New York—they indicate that rich naturalistic wetland planting is fully compatible with the recreational use of an urban park
valuing local woodland for aesthetic and functional reasons, urban dwellers valued them for bringing a sense of continuity to their lives: they had played in them as children and now their children and grandchildren were playing in them. Bussey’s (1996) research has confirmed that, as well as having restorative benefits, urban woodlands are rich in cultural and symbolic meanings for urban dwellers. Respondents valued their woodland visits for their ability to relieve stress and for their spiritual qualities. The woodlands were found to have a range of meanings, including acting as a woodland garden, doorstep recreational area, symbol of the pastoral idyll, wildlife sanctuary and gateway to the natural world.
As Rohde and Kendle (1994) have pointed out, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions from the findings to date, particularly as to the implications for the design of urban public open spaces let alone ecological plantings. They have questioned whether the value of wilderness experiences may derive partly from the perceived scarcity of these environments: if wilderness was commonplace then its perceived value and consequent benefits might diminish. Arguably, this concern has been allayed by Bussey’s research, which strongly suggests that natural areas that are closely integrated with an urban setting are no less valued for being accessible.
Another exception relates to the developmental benefits to children of growing up in natural environments. A number of Scandinavian studies indicate that playing in complex natural environments has a positive impact on children’s social play, concentration and motor ability (Bang et al. 1989; Grahn 1991; Fjortoft 1995, 1998, 1999; Grahn et al. 1997). Diversity in vegetation and topography enhances the ability of the natural playscape to improve motor ability (Fjortoft and Sageie 2000). Clearly, vegetation is just one component of complex natural environments. Nevertheless, this research does suggest that an urban setting containing robust naturalistic woody and herbaceous vegetation is likely to be a more stimulating environment for children than some of the more conventional alternatives. Given these findings, it is interesting that people with no knowledge of this research often support urban nature on the basis that it is beneficial to children, relying on their own childhood experiences to support their beliefs (Tartaglia – Kershaw 1980; Burgess et al. 1988).
Thus, we can say that there is clear evidence suggesting that natural or semi-natural landscapes in urban settings have distinct benefits in terms of their restorative qualities, cultural meanings, and their beneficial role in many aspects of children’s development. It seems logical that naturalistic ecological plantings would form part of these landscapes (Figure 11.5). There is evidence that some people may have equivocal or even negative feelings about such landscapes but it is suggested that in many cases this can be overcome through sensitive planning and design, and public involvement.
There is no consensus yet as to the precise nature of the relationship between our visions of nature and our preference for different landscapes. Ulrich (1986) and Kaplan and Kaplan (1989) found that people generally seem to prefer urban landscapes with a natural content over those consisting of predominantly built form; though in these studies the so-called natural content was often limited to small quantities of vegetation without any ecological value. The question remains as to what form the natural content of urban landscapes should take. To date, preferred landscapes have been exemplified by parkland in the English Landscape style. However, it may be that other types of landscape bearing these basic characteristics would be considered equally attractive. The challenge for designers is to find out what these alternatives are. One option would be to adopt the savannah style as a large-scale framework, which then becomes the setting for a number of more diverse, complex and ecologically-rich smaller-scale landscapes.