A VIEW FROM INDUSTRY: WHAT IS POSSIBLE AND PRACTICAL TO ENABLE ETHICAL LANDSCAPING AND GARDENS IN AN URBAN ENVIRONMENT?
We talk about the importance of greening our urban spaces, but the way we green them is equally important. Installing neat rows of box hedging and manicured lawns alongside concrete paving is a token gesture to bio-diversity and environmental awareness. Landscaping materials and practices should be not only ethically sourced and responsibly installed, but should make a positive contribution to the urban environment.
Climate change and rapid urban growth places the world’s cities in a precarious position with the threat of severe storms, enduring droughts, raging floods and extreme heat. The lack of trees, vegetation and open space, combined with dense hard surfaces of concrete and asphalt produce and trap huge amounts of heat generated by idling traffic, cooling buildings and homes and so create an urban heat island. In NYC for example, temperatures are often 20 degrees hotter in the city than in nearby suburbs. Research shows the unhealthy effects not just of heat waves causing death, but also exacerbating illnesses, particularly respiratory.
A blue-green infrastructure, creating green and blue corridors within a city is therefore not only aesthetically pleasing, but has a practical and sustainable purpose, helping to offset the creep of urbanization and the predominance of hard landscaping, but also to cope with one of the greatest urban challenges, water dispersal. Hard surfaces increase the amount of rainwater run-off by as much as 50%. Attitudes towards water need to change and emphasis placed on collecting rain water, recycling waste water and catching stormwater. Bio-swales, rain gardens, green roofs, green walls and wetlands all help to catch water as well as provide bio-diversity and a sense of well-being to the urban dweller.
Planting trees and investing in parks and natural spaces also help water dispersal as well as creating bio-diversity and habitat for urban wildlife. Trees planted in the right place provide shade and windbreaks, lowering temperatures and absorbing carbon emissions, helping to cool the urban heat island. There has been a massive global increase in green roofs, which also include edibles, bee-hives and insect hotels. In London alone green roof space has more than doubled in the last 3 years. And in France in 2015 it became law that all new commercial buildings be topped by green roofs or solar panels. Even the interiors of buildings can be naturised with podium plantings, internal greenery, green walls and facades.
All hard landscaping materials have a price tag, from the environmental impact of taking and moving materials from their source and the ethical issues around imported stone. Over-use of cement (responsible for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions), can be reduced by the recycling of materials eg: glass, rubber, crushed brick, paving which create new landscaping products. Composite wood products are becoming available and sustainably harvested wood has become relatively easy to source. Sustainable materials need sustainable landscaping techniques such as paving laid on a permeable base, solar powered lighting and grey water irrigation systems. These can be supported by maintenance programmes that reduce waste and avoid or minimize the use of chemicals and planting schemes installed which require minimum intervention.
Few would argue with sustainable landscape practice in principle, but in a world where landscaping is usually the last item on the budget and the first to be squeezed when there is a budget over-spend, the reality is often very different. Whether commercial or domestic there is always a client to convince that the use of sustainable materials and practice is more important that cost-cutting corners. That is not an easy task. It is therefore crucial in our increasingly urban world that designers, landscape architects, suppliers, landscapers and gardeners educate themselves to ensure that our green urban spaces are constructed and planted with care and consideration for the environment and the health and well-being of the people and wildlife that use these spaces.
Our attachment to gardens and landscapes is rooted in the past. Memories and emotions from childhood, books we have read, films we have seen, paintings we have admired. An unconscious memory bank making us who we are and based upon our relationship with Nature – the smells, the sights, the sounds. Even now, with our hectic lifestyles, our natural instinct is to sit beneath a tree on a sunny day; to think, to read, to dream in the sheltered embrace of something which is larger than ourselves.
The nineteenth century was boom time for public parks. Enlightened philanthropists and governments saw the need for green spaces in the new industrialised cities. In the UK our most famous and enduring parks were built. They have survived, unlike in other major cities, for instance Barcelona, where the economic imperative for more commercial and residential buildings has accelerated and green spaces have been lost.
Vauxhall Gardens, laid out in the eighteenth century and covering 6 acres, now has a budget of just £10,500 per annum. In 2014 the Heritage Lottery Fund published a report on the state of UK parks. 86% of park managers reported cuts to their budgets and the report concluded that some parks will become no-go areas or even be sold off. Not only are maintenance costs not being met, but there is a very real shortage of young people wanting to make a career of working in our parks.
Is the historical layout of grass and tree canopy in city parks still relevant today? The traditional maintenance rituals of mulch, spray and mow where gardeners mount a heroic struggle to tame nature are high maintenance and at odds with modern research into the importance of bio-diversity. Have tidy rows of tulips in Spring followed by serried ranks of begonias and lobelia in Summer become redundant?
Nineteenth century garden and landscape design was often a grandiose statement of status and prestige. By contrast, The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London is a direct response to the changing urban environment and the necessity for multi-functional urban green space. The park reflects the ethos of modern urban landscaping, which is more about reshaping the identity of a place. Does the ecological and social success of the Olympic Park point towards the future for twenty first century parks?
The trees planted by the Victorians in London are now fully mature. A Forestry Commission study estimated that 20% of London’s surface area was covered by trees. It is the largest urban forest in the world. Very few large trees have been planted in London in the last hundred years. Large trees take up space in a city where a square metre of land can be worth tens of thousands of pounds and tree maintenance costs are high. A thicket of skinny fastigiate ornamentals won’t make much of an impact in Berkeley Square. History needs to repeat itself. Numerous organisations encouraging urban tree planting are spreading the word eg: Trees for Cities and Tree Design Action Group in London and New York City has spearheaded a Million Trees Project.
The historical value of brownfield sites and neglected wastelands has been recognized in recent developments such as the High Line in New York and proposed development of the Peckham Coal Line in London and the Templehof Airport in Berlin. These abandoned sites hold memories and are part of the local community’s history as well as providing habitats for urban wildlife. By giving them a new lease of life, they become part of the urban green infrastructure while retaining their historical significance.
Letchworth Garden City, built in the 1960’s, was one of the world’s first new towns and the first garden city, influencing future town planning and inspiring other projects around the world. That influence continues today. In April 2016, London hosted the China Garden City Conference, which discussed to what extent the UK Garden City model was useful in the context of twenty first century garden cities being built in China
How will history with its decorative but valuable parks and gardens influence the future? The Victorians recognized man’s need to connect with Nature in an urban environment and that need remains. The emerging impact of climate change and the changing nature of urban living demand multi-functional urban spaces, which are interactive rather than the decorative parks of the past. The question is, what kind of space will offer the best quality of life to the modern city dweller? Is the answer rooted in the past, but focused on the future?
ENVIRONMENT AND SUSTAINABILITY
Global urbanization will not go away. In the UK alone 82% of the population lives in an urban environment. What can be done to bring nature into our cities and make urban living more people friendly? How can we create a balance between built and natural environments? What are the possibilities and how do we achieve them?
Research increasingly shows that it is the space between the buildings where nature grows and how these spaces interconnect that has the greatest impact on human health, happiness and well-being. Without nature we as people cannot thrive. “Nature is part of our inherent biological need.” (Frederick Law Olmsted)
Green infrastructure is recognized as crucial in creating a balance between built and natural environments. Parks, allotments, green corridors, street trees, roundabout planting, urban forests, roof and vertical greenery, wetlands, nature reserves, unused open spaces, private gardens. These meet our need to interact with Nature on every level – biophilic, recreational, social.
Green infrastructure is crucial too in combating climate change, creating healthy built environments and improving quality of life. Not only does vegetation aid bio-diversity, but it reduces energy consumption, reduces surface water run-off, stabilises soils, filters air and water pollutants, provides wild life habitat, affects summer cooling and pumps down atmospheric carbon.
In Greater London private gardens account for one fifth of the green spaces. They are a major contribution to bio-diversity in urban living and an important part of the green corridors that run through our towns and cities carrying the ‘traffic’ of plants, insects and mammals. Garden owners are being encouraged to go a little wild in their back gardens and to plant their front gardens instead of paving them. The RHS Vision, which espouses ‘greening the grey’ had a much publicized front garden at Chelsea this year, designed by Anne-Marie Powell.
The traditional bedding out of our parks and public spaces is also starting to change. The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London was an astonishing revelation to many of its visitors during the Olympic Games. So much colour and movement, so many butterflies and different flowers, so much NATURE and not a begonia to be seen anywhere. The park is a model of what a twenty first century park can be in terms of sustainability and positive environmental impact and a place where local people can go and connect with nature on many levels.
Plantings are heading skywards too. Roof gardens have never been so popular and living walls are becoming more and more common as the technical challenges of irrigation and feeding have been mastered. The Bosco Verticale in Milan shows just how far skywards plants can go and how high gardeners can fly to tend them. The recently completed Oasia Downtown in Singapore offers a model for sustainable skyscraper construction in the Tropics by cladding the tower in plant-covered aluminium mesh trellis.
Paris and Berlin have always had intensively wooded areas within the city limits which are part of the identity of these cities and help to keep its population well and happy and connecting with nature. Increasingly, modern urban landscapes are connecting with local eco-systems. In Santa Monica, a former parking lot has been transformed into a dynamic landscape the design of which was determined by an extensive community process and inspired by the Southern Californian arroyo landscape. Urban spaces designed to reflect a city’s own unique energy by connecting with its ecological, cultural and historical connections are an exciting way forward in urban landscaping.
These are changing times for landscapes and gardens. Creating a balance between built and natural environments where the fundamental human need to connect with Nature can be met is crucial. Whatever our involvement, whether it be to design, supply materials, maintain, record, research or simply look after our own small patch of green, we need to educate ourselves. Urbanisation is here to stay, but that is no bad thing. It offers all of us involved in gardens and landscapes a unique and exciting opportunity to find a balance between economic development, environmental impact and the basic human need to interact with Nature through the creation of natural environments.
“If you ignore Nature without, you ignore Nature within.’ (Laurens van der Post)
Jennifer Gayler 25 May 2016
The world cannot escape urbanisation. According to UN data (2014) 54% of the world population lives in an urban environment. In 2050 this figure will have risen to 75%. In the UK alone, only 20% of the population lives in a rural environment and 50% of new homes being built are apartments.
Urban living is an environment that could not be further removed from the one in which humans evolved. Russell Page in his “Education of a Gardener” in 1962 wrote, “It’s no accident that people sit under trees to do things. It’s something that is deeply imbued.” And yet a recent UK survey of 7-11 year old children concluded that their least favorite activity was being outside and in the USA only 10% of teenager go outside every day.
In 2005 Richard Louv coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder” in his hugely influential work ‘The Last Child in the Woods’ which examined the decreased exposure of children to nature in American society and how this harms children and society. In recent years there has been an overwhelming body of research into the effect of a lack of interaction with Nature on human health, well-being and happiness, not just in children, but in adults too. The evidence is incontrovertible: from the improvement of ADHD symptoms in children who play outside, to the improved health and well-being of women whose apartment block windows face onto greenery. In California, the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital writes prescriptions for outpatients to visit a nearby park.
“Nature is part of our inherent biological need’ wrote Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) the designer of New York’s Central Park. Few would dispute his words, but we live in the twenty first century in an increasingly urbanized world and there is not as much Nature around us as there used to be. Looking to the future our task is how best to manage our relationship with Nature in response to all the research, as well as our own hearts, telling us that something essential, not only to our welfare, but to our very being will be lost if we do not.
Nature has to be mainstreamed into health and social well-being agendas in the urban world. Landscape architects and garden designers therefore have a crucial role to play in making this happen. Great work is being done. High profile schemes such as the High Line which ‘greened’ a disused railway line in New York (pictured), or the Bosco Verticale in Milan where a pair of residential towers have been ‘greened’ and each apartment has its own balcony’garden’. Roof gardens proliferate in many of the world’s major cities as do the ‘living walls’ first introduced by Patrick Le Blanc in France. At street level, Guerilla Gardening is becoming mainstream, pop-up gardens are proving hugely successful in New York, and there is a popular movement to make London the World’s first National Park City. In our private gardens the RHS Vision is encouraging us to ‘green the grey’ and tear up the paving in our front gardens and fill them with plants. Future projects are no less exciting: the recreation of garden cities in China, the Low-Line in Miami and the LOLA project in the Netherlands which will connect three existing parks in the Hague to create an ‘urban wilderness.’
In setting up the European Landscape Conference we wanted to create a forum for debate on what we see as crucial to the future health and welfare of mankind: a humanized environment in an urban world where man’s need to interact with Nature can be met effectively every day. We invited eminent landscape architects, garden designers, academics, historians and garden builders to join us for a 2 day Conference and Exhibition and, almost without exception, they accepted. It will be a memorable weekend sharing information and inspiration, celebrating what has been achieved and what can be achieved, and now that we are starting to take bookings we can hardly wait.
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” (John Muir, naturalist, 1858-1914)
Jennifer Gayler, 4th May 2016