Public preference for ecological vegetation types

For reasons of time and space, this review of the available research about public attitudes to ecological plantings in public open spaces concentrates predominantly on the UK, but comments are also made about Europe and the US, where evidence is available.

Different countries and cultures have very different planting traditions in their public landscapes and this needs to be borne in mind when interpreting the literature. It is noteworthy that, whilst theorists and practitioners such as William Robinson in the UK and Herman Jager in Germany, were writing about how to establish naturalistic meadow – style plantings from the late nineteenth century onwards (Woudstra and Hitchmough 2000), these ideas appear to have had little impact in, for example, southern Europe. Naturalistic plantings began to be used in the Netherlands from the 1930s onwards in the Amsterdam bos and the gardens and parks of Jacques P. Thijsse (Ruff 1979), and from the 1920s in Germany in the work of A. D.Heicke in Frankfurt am Main (Woudstra and Hitchmough 2000). In the UK, on the other hand, ecological plantings in public open spaces did not begin until the later half of the twentieth century in the ecological woodland plantings of the new towns. Whereas naturalistic landscapes and an ecological approach to green-space management are widespread in Germany and the Netherlands, they are still the exception rather than the norm in the UK. This strongly suggests that these variations are cultural in origin, rather than being due to an absence of awareness or expertise. The basis of these differences may well lie in fundamental differences in the way these different cultures see the relationship between humans and nature.

Predicting how people might react to ecological plantings in public urban settings is a difficult task because both plantings and context can differ so widely. For example, ecological plantings of herbaceous vegetation can take the form of a meadow comprising only native species, but can also become a formal herbaceous border, comprising mainly exotic species. Both can be described as ‘ecological’, but the whole style and context is different.

Given the diversity of possible approaches, it is impossible to come up with one universal formula to predict public reaction. As ‘naturalness’ and ‘degree of human influence’ are a fundamental basis for discriminating between landscapes, it seems reasonable to draw a dividing line between naturalistic and non-naturalistic plantings when considering public attitudes towards ecological plantings. A further useful division is between woody and herbaceous vegetation, though clearly there are many plantings that include both.