Public plantings—the social dimension

The nature conservation movement has seized upon the inability to adequately fund the maintenance of traditional horticulturally based plantings as an opportunity to increase the use of native ‘habitat’ plantings in urban landscapes. This has occurred to a considerable degree over the past 20 years in Britain, mirroring what had happened much earlier in some other European countries. This has been a very positive development, the most obvious product of which has been substantial areas of young woodlands, which, although rather ecologically depauperate, should enrich with time. This movement has not, however, been able to fully address the latent needs left unfulfilled by the decline of traditional horticultural planting. To do this, it is necessary to understand the reasons why these horticultural styles developed in urban public landscapes in the first instance.

In Britain, even at the height of the most ascetic planting traditions of the eighteenth – century English Landscape movement, highly colourful planting persisted within Pleasure Grounds (Laird 1999). People continued to pursue the horticultural exaggeration or ‘improvement’ of the nature they knew in the countryside. However abstracted, planting in private gardens nearly always demonstrates this exaggeration of nature; a latent desire for colour and drama appears to be an important part of the human psyche. This desire might be seen as a form of decadence, of wanting more than nature can offer, but why should this be considered to be regressive? Most lay people intuitively make judgements on the semi-natural vegetation around them on the basis of appearance, and always value some bits more than others, often because they are more colourful (Figure 1.2). If we are honest about it, and for a moment strip away learnt notions of ecological value, design values of rhythm and unity, and remove it from its context as part of scenery, on most days of the year semi-natural vegetation is often visually rather mundane. For individual people, this common, passive response to semi-natural vegetation can be papered over by taking on-board additional value systems that suppress or redefine these visceral aesthetic feelings. By doing this, tall rank grassland goes from being untidy and dull to a worthy vegetation involving a dramatic play of pulsating stems against the light, as well as being an important habitat for small mammals. Dullness or subtlety becomes reinterpreted as a virtue. There is merit in this reinterpretation, but we should not lose sight of how these values come together if we are not to be blind to other people’s perceptions. As a cultural institution, one of the key roles of the garden is in effect to gather together the plants, and the communities drawn from semi-natural vegetation, that are the most appealing to humans (Figure 1.3).

It is interesting that in Germany, the Netherlands and North America, the idea of nature-like, ecological planting was well founded by the end of the nineteenth century, and was vigorously pursued by landscape architects who were as strongly influenced by aesthetic as well as ecological and cultural outcomes. Art and design traditions would be invoked to package nature to look good and, by doing so, more urban people would be able to embrace it. These ideas are discussed in greater detail by Jan Woudstra in Chapter 2. Awareness of these foreign traditions was limited in Britain, and even when present, became lost or perhaps obscured towards the end of the twentieth century in the enthusiasm to embrace a more literal ‘native’ urban nature. In this later habitat restoration inspired movement, art and culture, and aesthetics play little

Public plantings—the social dimension


Spontaneous urban vegetation. An important habitat resource, yes, but is it appreciated as such by the general public?

Public plantings—the social dimension


Ponds and lakes in urban parks offer great potential for dramatic planting; Parc Andre Malreaux,


or no conscious part, putting back what has been lost being the key measure of success.

Although in Britain many of the urban Wildlife Trusts maintain a very liberal perspective on conservation, grounded in social awareness, overall habitat restoration is a conservative rather than a creative discipline, sometimes motivated by rigid moral assumptions about what is right. Proponents adhere to the philosophy that if you put back the species that were there before humans destroyed them, the aesthetics will sort themselves out. In any case, with such moral authority on your side, there is no need to consider whether such vegetation positively enriches the lives of the public. This philosophy is less troublesome to apply in toto in rural landscapes that are less subject to intense public scrutiny but is sometimes problematic in urban landscapes founded on different cultural assumptions. Whilst they share many common goals, these two traditions of using nature-like landscapes in urban landscapes are sometimes difficult to reconcile in practice.

This impasse is perhaps the ideal place to tackle exactly where a book about how to design and manage ecologically informed, nature-like planting fits in practice and philosophy. Books written by a collective of authors are often awkward in that it is often impossible for everyone to sign up to the same principles. The idea that unites all of the contributors of The Dynamic Landscape is that, in urban contexts, designed, nature-like vegetation must be strongly informed by aesthetic principles if it is to be understood and valued by the public at large (Figure 1.4).

This prompts the question that Anna Jorgensen explores in detail in Chapter 11: what do we know about how the public appreciate nature-like vegetation? Do people actually like this type of vegetation, and if so why and if not why not? There is a tendency for all professional groups and disciplines to believe that their perceptions of worth and beauty are intrinsically valid, and that those who hold different views are at best poorly informed. Such attitudes are particularly strongly held within nature conservation, where attitudes are increasingly shaped by a sense of a moral outrage. Aesthetic perceptions and preferences do however differ enormously between individuals, peer groups and cultures, with truths being relative rather than absolute. If it were not for this psychological quirk our species would have no need for landscape architects and related disciplines to exist. We would happily live surrounded by whatever vegetation sprouted spontaneously from the soil. Our own experience of some of the ecologically-based vegetation we have created is that, to many lay observers, until it flowers and, in some cases, even when flowering, it is indistinguishable from weed communities! On the other hand, it is interesting how readily some aesthetic preferences change, through experience and learning. These values are not fixed and this process can be readily observed, for example, as landscape design students progress from the first to final year.

There has been much research on landscape perception and preference in rural situations. Most people seem to like ‘natural scenes’ in a rural context, however it is unsound to try to apply this verbatim to urban spaces. There has been little work at the level of individual plant communities. Culture, context and familiarity seem to be very important, but, in general, the disorderly appearance of nature-like landscapes seems to be challenging in many urban situations. This suggests that nature-like vegetation which is not designed to make it clear that it is meant to be there and is cared for, may not be widely valued. It is certainly naive to imagine that 100 m2 of vegetation ‘lifted out’ of a semi-natural landscape scene will be perceived in the same way when placed in an urban context. In most cases, the transformation will only be successful where the scene is ordered in some way, the viewer provided with cues, or the visual intensity exaggerated by design, as previously mentioned.

Given our strong concern for the aesthetics of landscape, this book adopts a pluralistic approach to nature-like planting. The authors suggest that it is possible to identify at least three broad strands within nature-like planting, which, to some degree, are encompassed by the authors within this text. A more detailed exploration of these strands is provided in the context of practice by Noel Kingsbury in Chapter 3. The first of these, and probably the least relevant to this text, is the habitat restoration landscape. As commonly practised, this involves trying to establish, or failing that, guessing what species might have occupied the site in the past, then locating seed of these, preferably from local, extant populations. Reinforcing biodiversity, and essentially not adding anything as either species or sub-populations that might not have existed on the site, is uppermost. The core values of this activity are nature conservation per se and, with the exception of overall planning issues, design plays a very limited role. Habitat restoration projects of this type are most frequently associated with parcels of land that retain some semblance of natural character, whether in urban or rural locations. Frequently, this type of planting is used to create connections to link surviving fragments of semi-natural vegetation, to improve the movement of plants and animals and, more importantly, their genes, and create the opportunity for the development of viable populations.

Habitat restoration is an important form of practice. However, as it is based on the assumption that such works are an indisputable good, it sometimes generates social and political tensions when applied to highly urbanised landscapes. Despite being a highly conservative approach to the use of native plants, habitat restoration can be despised by the arch puritans of the environmental movement, especially those operating within the frameworks constructed by philosophers such as Katz (2000), who argue that the very act of creating a facsimile simultaneously devalues it. Some of this unease, together with fears about the commodification of nature, have led to less interventionist forms of habitat restoration, where management is used to create the conditions to kick start the redevelopment of plant communities by natural colonisation. This seems a very elegant and attractive approach, but is potentially very long term and, in the case of species that are poorly dispersed, a supremely optimistic practice.

The second strand in creating nature-like plantings is the creative conservation landscape style. This involves a less rigidly defined approach because it is often impossible to know exactly what once occupied a site; practice is therefore inevitably conjectural. Even where prior plant composition is known with some certainty, this merely provides a snapshot of an arbitrary point in time, before and after which plant composition would be different. The problem of timescale and the fact that the conditions on urban sites in particular will generally be very different in the present than in the past, undermines the rigid right or wrong presumptions associated with a pure habitat restoration approach. The creative conservation style is, in essence, a process that leads to some, as yet undefined, future product, the precise nature of which is shaped by the combination of site and management. The conservation charity Landlife, based in Liverpool, is the most articulate proponent of this approach in the UK. As a result of these considerations, native species that are associated with similar environmental conditions as those that prevail on the site to be worked upon are selected. Seed or plant material is obtained from native plant nurseries within the geographical region, for example, in our case the UK. The rationale for doing this is that there is little evidence (see Wilkinson 2001) that the genes of more local populations will be better fitted to the changed site conditions and, in any case, natural selection will sort things out. Fears of out-breeding depression, reducing the fitness of extant local populations of species (Keller et al. 2000), are often overemphasised (Luijten et al. 2002), especially in urban situations where such populations may be absent or effectively quarantined by surrounding urban development. The visual characteristics of the vegetation that is produced will often be recognised within this approach to be important in gaining community and political support. This style is based on a number of key principles: plants must be ecologically well fitted to where they are to grow; they must function as a plant community rather than as individual species; change in plantings is inevitable and must be allowed for; and management practices need to be informed by ecological as well as horticultural understanding. Darrel Morrison discusses this approach in greater detail in Chapter 5 (Figure 1.5).

The third approach involves the application of human agency to create nature-like communities of species that could never have ‘naturally’ occurred on the sites but which may, given its current conditions, be well fitted to it. This anthropogenic landscape approach may be seen as an abomination by those who pursue habitat restoration, and even creative conservation landscape approaches, because it involves the synthesis of novel plant communities that have never before existed and that cannot be found in any flora. This practice has been an unconscious trait in human beings for millennia, indirectly through hunter gathering and latterly through low-intensity agriculture, creating along the

Public plantings—the social dimension


‘Creative Conservation’—a flowering meadow and wetland landscape around a new commercial development in Germany

Public plantings—the social dimension


‘Anthropogenic’ naturalistic vegetation—a naturalistic mix of herbaceous perennials and shrubs, but composed predominantly of non­native species, Henry Doubleday Research Association Headquarters, Ryton

way plant communities that we now consider to have high nature conservation value, for example cornfield annuals. It has reached its zenith in the spontaneously occurring and planted vegetation of cities. Anthropogenic plant communities are based on exactly the same ecological processes as habitat restoration and creative conservation landscape styles, although this is obscured by the use of species that are not native to the site. It involves the assemblage of species that possess evidence of fitness for a particular environment that are then subjected to the combination of low-intensity management and natural selection (Figure 1.6).

The anthropogenic landscape approach is strongly influenced by aesthetic concerns, but also recognises that some of the species we want to have in the community will fail and disappear. Change in the composition of this type of vegetation across time is an inevitable fact and, even when dealing with entirely non-native plant communities, clearly distinguishes this approach from horticultural plant communities. Given the aesthetic perspectives of managers and the public however, it is inevitable that managing change will not be value neutral but will be focused, where possible, to favour the retention of some species at the expense of others.

This text is mainly concerned with creative conservation and anthropogenic nature­like vegetation. As soon as one begins to discuss ecological principles in the creation of vegetation that does not follow a pure habitat restoration approach, a raft of issues arise. Is it possible to reconcile the creative conservation landscape and, in particularly, the anthropogenic landscape style with current urban environmental dialogues on issues such as sustainability, biodiversity and developing local character? Is it ethical, at a time of clear evidence of massive human impact on the environment, to create new plant communities that are not the same in terms of species and sub-specific genetic variation as those that may once have occupied what is now an urban site? The remainder of this chapter attempts to address these issues and to steer a course through a debate that is at times heavily confused through the adoption, in the urban context, of ideas developed primarily for use in nature conservation in the rural environment.

Updated: September 23, 2015 — 7:25 am