One of the difficulties in evaluating a more naturalistic approach to urban tree plantings in the UK is that such an approach was rarely used as part of planned or designed urban landscapes before Birchwood. Tartaglia- Kershaw (1980) carried out a study of the Gleadless area of Sheffield, in the UK, a housing area planned around existing mature woodland. Although the woodland in Gleadless was generally within 500 metres of the housing, and often considerably closer, it was not closely integrated with the housing, as in Birchwood. Seventy two per cent of the sample in the study said that the woods were important to them. An overwhelming 90% liked living on the estate, and 94% said that they liked the way the area had been planned. However, Tartaglia-Kershaw (1980) concluded that the overall findings did not support the approach used at Birchwood:
“The residents do not want woodland to the door as many figures in the “Nature in Cities” movement suggest, and which is happening in New Towns based on woodland structure planning (sic).”
Burgess et al. (1988) found that traditionally managed urban green spaces characterized by isolated trees and mown grass were not valued as much as natural or semi-natural urban landscapes characterized by woodland, multiple layers of vegetation and an un-mown grass/herb layer. However, they also found that many people had ambivalent feelings about the landscapes they most valued: these landscapes were also the ones that aroused the most fear. In this respect they went further than other commentators such as Kaplan and Kaplan (1989), who had suggested that “mystery” was an important component of landscape preference; but who did not go on to explore the adverse responses that many people experience when faced with wild urban nature in any detail.
Although Valentine’s (1997) research was carried out in a rural context it exposed the contradictory notions that parents hold regarding their children’s safety in green settings generally: on one hand such settings are seen as good places to bring up children, yet on the other, such surroundings are also perceived to be fraught with danger.
Burgess’ findings about the value that people place on natural or seminatural urban landscapes were confirmed and explored in more detail by Bussey (1996), who found that woods were ranked above parks, and second only to open countryside, as the preferred landscape for informal recreation.
Despite the innovative work done by researchers such as Burgess and Bussey, the idea that “woodland structure planting” is regarded as unsafe by members of the general public, and is therefore unsuitable for use in urban situations has persisted (Thompson 2000). There is clearly a danger that, in seeking to reassure the general public by the removal of dense woody vegetation, we are also destroying the landscapes that people most value, despite their understandable fears. However, it may also be the case that “the Ecological Approach” was too wholesale, in that naturalistic vegetation was used too indiscriminately and too close to people’s homes, as predicted by Tartaglia-Kershaw (1980). There may well be an appropriate gradient of planting styles, ranging from formal and manicured to wild and nature-like.
In his study of the use of woodland in conjunction with housing, Dowse (1987) recommended an interface between the dwellings and the woodland containing a parkland zone at least 500 metres wide comprising “clumps and specimen trees set in drifts of shrubs at a distance from housing”. Manning (1982) has also advocated an appropriate gradient between “intensive” and “extensive” landscapes, though unlike Dowse (1987), he does not seek to prescribe particular types of vegetation in particular locations or lay down strict guidelines. Arguably what is needed is an element of choice, as proposed by Burgess et al. (1988). People may welcome more naturalistic treatments provided they can choose when to interact with them.
The key issues that emerge are the conflict between human appreciation for urban nature and the fears that urban green space (and especially naturalistic or wild-looking landscapes) can engender in urban dwellers, for themselves and for their children, as well as the implications for the planning and design of new urban areas.