Urban Bad: Rural Good? Notes from the European Landscape Conference

Hongkong_central_kowloon-fullIf you play the word association game, and ask someone to come up with the first word that enters their head when you say ‘Urban’, surprisingly enough, the answer is not ‘Ecology’ in much the same way as if you say to someone ‘European’, they do not say ‘Landscape Conference’. If you put ‘Urban’ into Google, this is the image that comes up as number one.

 

In fact the first two hundred or so images are nearly all either glossy (shiny glass, steel, night shots) or gritty (traffic, graffiti, urban decay). People make brief appearances here and there. Urban parks make their first entrance – actually the first representation of a tree – at image number 46. At around number 240, a subtle shift occurs and ecology, water resources, and urban agriculture not only all make appearances but then feature strongly in the following returns. It is almost as if when you ask people to think of urban, they first think of the non-human aspects, then the human – side and finally natural features. So clearly, we tend to think of cities as dense, built environments, with people coming second and the natural world coming in somewhere way down the field. And yet despite this, as recent studies have shown – iTree amongst them – London is 52% green or blue with most other UK cities doing at least as well if not better.

aerial photograph of Belgravia London England UK
aerial photograph of Belgravia London England UK
an aerial view of London
an aerial view of London

The left hand photo of Central London show as much green as grey; this of course shows some of the more affluent parts of the city. Indeed the word ‘Leafy’ is synonymous with affluent. In fact, as the right hand picture shows, the green/grey ratio holds up pretty well across the urban grain.

street trees per km LondonLook at this map of London – it shows the density of street trees. The interesting thing about this is that apart from the obvious – fewer trees in the city of London for example – there is no clearly predictable pattern, which suggests it is more about policy than topography or other factors.

 

In fact, the relationship between gardens, ecology and landscape is not only very old; it is intrinsic. What is the oldest garden you can name, other than the Garden of Eden? The answer is of course the hanging gardens of Babylon. Cities came about with the development of organised agriculture, on a scale which allowed specialisation. This in turn led to spare time and resources for elites. Gardens, both public and private, were a natural and inevitable development. These are well documented in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cities, but also in China and South/Central America. Although medieval cities were often very dense, during the C18th and C19th, cities began to develop a more intentionally porous character. Garden squares, church yards and left over market gardens all became absorbed into the urban grain.

Everyone's dream house?
Everyone’s dream house?

During the C20th, the emergence of the Garden City movement in Hertfordshire, Merseyside, Birmingham and London added a new dimension to these public spaces.  For the first time, private gardens en masse became a feature of cities and laid the pattern for modern suburbia. It was everyone’s dream to have their own house, with their own front door and their own garden.  Of course, private gardens can be rich and diverse ecosystems.

The more we pack into a garden the richer the biodiversity.
The more we pack into a garden the richer the biodiversity.

Gardens are per se good, but the more diverse the environment, the richer the ecosystem. The less we intervene, the better: untidy is good. So, in many ways this suburban movement has brought advantages for ecosystems, but as the density of development has increased, all too frequently what we end up with is this: *. Tiny patches of grass and slabs with no shrubs or trees, and a sterile ecosystem. There is a strong argument in favour of creating even higher densities, and combining them semi-public communal spaces. This allows the creating of meaningful chunks of dense landscape for everyone to enjoy. Look at these examples from Darbourne and Darke’s work in the 1960s that I took on a recent visit to the Pimlico estate.

Lillington Gardens Pimlico, by Darbourne and Darke
Lillington Gardens Pimlico, by Darbourne and Darke

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And yet recently, in city centres we seem to have lost the plot completely. When it comes to public space, we frequently end up with Sterile spaces. An endless recreated pastiche of about four elements that you will all be familiar with: box hedging, black granite or basalt, plane trees, sterilised water features. In London, a city driven by money and commercial power, the primary goals of restoration are twin (and linked) aesthetic, and return on investment.

I think this (From Niemann & Schadler; ‘Post Industrial Urban Strategies’, 2012) neatly sums it up: “It might be that the deficits in frequently criticized modern urban design practices are less related to the quality of individual buildings but rather in the neglect of gaps and the spaces in between them.” There is an interesting unintended double meaning from the word ‘neglect’ there, for it is indeed when we neglect spaces that the best results sometimes happen: just as we create better ecosystems in our gardens by intervening less, I am fascinated by what happens when we do nothing. Left to its own devices nature does a pretty good job. Transport corridors for example, left virtually untended have been shown to have a much higher value for wildlife (particularly pollinators) than surrounding land, even where that land is low intervention agriculture. Often, the most interesting urban landscapes have occurred spontaneously in post-industrial environments, and some of the best approaches celebrate this rather than seeking to wipe it out and replace it with sleek granite and water features. Perhaps the most celebrated in recent years has been the Hi-line, because the way that it threads through communities catches the imagination. But for me, the Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord by Pieter and Tilman Latz is really interesting.

1210_DU-Landschaftspark_DSCF0095_3007x1050

Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord - Garten im Bunker
Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord

 

Tim Collins (interventions in the rust belt: the art and ecology of post-industrial space, 2000 ) suggested some good guiding principles:

Post-industrial public space should:

  • Reveal the legacy of industrialism, not eradicate it or cloak it in nostalgia; create images and stories, which reveal both the effect and the cause of the legacy;
  • Unveil social conflicts in the city, not repress them; create works that illuminate and explicate conflict and points of dynamic change;
  • Reveal ecological processes at work in the city, not eradicate them; build infrastructure which embraces ecosystem processes and a philosophy of sustainability;
  • Enable an equitable community dialogue, which envisions a future; produce new forms of critical discourse, which provide access, voice and a context in which to speak.

permaculture-wordleWhich brings me on to permaculture. What is permaculture? It started from a principle first put forward by a New Zealand ecologist, Bill Mollison (and his student David Holmgren) who noticed that the greatest amount of useable biomass in terms of food was produced by multi-layered complex ecosystems such as forests. It has long since expanded to cover a whole philosophy of life and way of thinking. One of the interesting things about permaculture is its understanding of the importance of edges. Edge is king – the rougher the edge, the better. It is also worth looking at some of the more celebrated examples of brownfield site use along permaculture principles – Cuba.

Salad crops grown in a central Havana organic garden. Note the simple raised beds made of concrete channels.
Salad crops grown in a central Havana organic garden. Note the simple raised beds made of concrete channels.
these Aloe are grown for medicinal purposes in this Central Havana Organoponica. Plant based medicines are common in Cuba.
these Aloe are grown for medicinal purposes in this Central Havana Organoponica. Plant based medicines are common in Cuba.
These guys were really keen to show us around. Spot the tourist!
These guys were really keen to show us around. Spot the tourist!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cuba went through an almost complete socio-economic collapse in the early 1990s when the subsidised oil for sugar deals came to an end with the implosion of the Soviet Union. It lost 34% of its GDP over a fairly short period. Pesticides and artificial fertilisers were unavailable. All land was pressed into [organic] agricultural production, particularly in urban areas. Although many of these Organoponicas no longer survive, some still occupy the derelict spaces between buildings in meanwhile use. The benefits are huge. Apart from the obvious ecological and environmental ones, there are also community, education, food production, as well as health and well-being (you can read more about some of these Cuban Gardens in another post on this blog here). These principles can and are being applied throughout Europe and America. Anarchism and Community action have led to some exciting developments. Allotment 2014-10-23-14_30_10I am a trustee of a community Garden in my home town of Hitchin, near London. We simply took over a forgotten nettle-bound corner of the park: *, and after some initial suspicion from the local authority they are now enthusiastically behind the project. Fifteen years later, it now runs a community garden, two allotments and a resource building, employs several people, grows vegetables in several different projects with people with learning difficulties and runs sessions on wildlife, growing produce and other subjects. Community action should not be underestimated as a way of producing sustainable results. You can read much more about the Triangle community garden in another post on this blog here, or by visiting www.TriangleGarden.org)

IMG_5618So what of other edges? How can we ‘roughen up’ the edges of built structures? Well’ clearly ‘green cloaks’ are one option. Living walls, green roofs, etc. are all important and have a role to play. They cool buildings in the summer and insulate them in the winter. They reduce runoff, decrease CO2 both actually and in terms of emissions, have been shown to lower pollution levels, they provide food sources and increase biodiversity. A recent project at the south bank centre combines both – retrofitted ‘green roof’ on concrete terraces, run by a community garden and used by the public.

 

I was on Waterloo Bridge recently; as I walked across my pace slowed and I drew to a halt and gazed around. Of course it is virtually impossible to walk across that bridge without looking at the view, but what really struck me was not the undeniable grandeur and panorama of the city, or the sense of history laid out before me. It was instead the sense that the river is the forgotten part of all this. It is a truly wild thing flowing through the heart of a civilised city, which the bridges do no more than span. Jens Haendeler, a student working for me has come up with a novel solution for boosting diversity in river environments. Basically it is a system of crates containing a filling which can be populated (either directly or indirectly) with aquatic plants and fauna. This is the sort of creative thinking which we need to apply.

Picture-1-Living-Wall-Sketch Picture-1-Intertidal-Zones Picture-1-Graphic_Greened-River-Wall

 

Concluding, I have included some shots (taken on my mobile phone, so forgive the quality) on a 15 minute walk along a canal through NE London last week. In a short stretch, many of the principles that I have talked about are demonstrated.

It will require action by all of us as professionals not only to design the positive responses to urban situations, but to consciously create spaces in which spontaneous reaction by either nature or community can occur.

These are opportunities, not problems to be solved.

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A tale of two cycle trips…

At noon on 15th September 1986, Vicky Stammers and I set off on our bikes from Westminster Bridge, cheered off by friends and relatives and a class of school children. Our destination was China and we had spent a year preparing for this trip. About nine months later, slightly battered and bedraggled as well as nearly three stone lighter, I cycled across the high Himalayan border between Nepal and Tibet and officially entered the Peoples’ Republic of China.

Part of the brochure that we produced for our 1986 ride.
Part of the brochure that we produced for our 1986 ride.

The journey was both more fulfilling and more taxing than either of us expected. After many adventures together, I had to leave Vicky in Kathmandu, resting after injuring her back – the road to Tibet becomes impassable following the monsoon, so we took a joint decision that I would press on ahead in order to fulfil our obligations. In fact, the route was very nearly impassable – there had been some severe storms and in places I had to carry my bike across landslides and rockfalls. I also began to lose weight alarmingly quickly. In fact I was suffering from a form of amoebic dysentery, although I didn’t know it at the time. Although I made it across the Tibetan border, I was stopped in side China by an Army patrol and prevented from cycling. Vicky and I met up again in Chengdu, in western China. We made our way back to the UK and were married the next year. The trip raised £14,000 for work in Eritrea and Tigray.

Thirty years later, almost to the day (September 18th 2016), I will be setting off on a slightly less ambitious trip, also for a very good cause. Hopefully it will also be less calamitous than my 1986 efforts! Some of you may remember that three years ago I joined colleagues in the industry to raise money for Perennial with our Three Peaks Extreme challenge. We climbed the three highest peaks in the UK, and cycled between them, in just 5 days raising over £26,000 for our industry charity. This time, two teams of cyclists will set off from Snowdon in September 2016, one team on road bikes, the other on mountain bikes, both aiming for Lands End. One team will stay on-road, the other will ride exclusively off-road. Needless to say, I am in the on-road team! It is no picnic – over the course of six days, I will climb over the height Everest by bike and more than the height of Ben Nevis each day! Total distance is a little shy of 500 miles.

Four happy faces after 107 miles and seven punctures!
Four happy faces after 107 miles and seven punctures!

Training is going well so far – I cycled 173km (107miles) yesterday and I am topping that up with two or three shorter rides during the week. Finding enough time during the working week can be difficult, but luckily at about 40km of hilly terrain, my journey to or from the office can be easily converted to a training run!

The main purpose of this is to raise funds for a great charity close to my heart, called Perennial.  This may not seem an obvious first choice, but for those in the landscape industry, it can be a lifesaver. There are 500,000 people working in or retired from horticulture in the UK. Many are not well paid and pension provision is poor. In addition, Horticulture has one of the worst rates of workplace injury – perhaps not surprising, given it often involves working at height, in cold and wet conditions and operating machinery. Horticulturists are completely dependent on their good health and physical fitness to be able to work, an accident can have severe consequences for the horticulturist and their family. Perennial exists to support them when the going gets tough, which can be as a result of illness, bereavement or workplace injury. For more information about who and how Perennial helps, visit: http://perennial.org.uk/home/ways-we-can-help/

To donate to the challenge visit https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/John-Wyer. There is also a team page here. I’ll post some pictures and an account of the ride here afterwards.

A case for greater democracy in the SGD

Voting handsCan the SGD truly claim to be a democratic organisation?

I am a member of the Society of Garden Designers (SGD), British Association of Landscape Industries (BALI) and the Landscape Institute (LI). Of the three, I had always considered the LI to be the stuffiest, the least likely to embrace real change. Which is why last night’s EGM for the Landscape Institute represents a remarkable sea change. At a landmark meeting, members voted to make a number of changes to rules governing the Institute, including the Royal Charter, its regulations and bylaws. In the words of Merrick Denton-Thompson (the incoming president, as of last week):

The results of the EGM now mean the LI is at the forefront of modern, progressive, inclusive and democratic professional bodies.
The changes mean those with a stake in the organisation’s future have a say in it. Licentiate and academic members will now have voting rights and a seat on the Board; experienced practitioners will now have a route to Chartership; those working in landscape and related fields will be able to join as non-chartered members; our disciplinary processes now represent best practice across the sector; the trigger for members calling an EGM is now in line with similar bodies; and our election and voting systems have been simplified to allow far greater online participation. All of the changes mean we can now focus on growing membership and representing the increasingly diverse range interests and practice that makes up the modern landscape world.”

As Merrick suggests there, the changes also include routes for experienced practitioners to full membership, which the SGD has long had. However, the rest of the proposals put the LI clearly at the front of the pack in terms of democracy – they include changes to allow online voting and a more democratic process as well as greater representation.

This is a huge achievement, but is not the work of one president. It builds on the progress made by a reform-minded group of members, as well as the last two presidents – Sue Illman and Noel Farrar, who were both hugely energetic and forward thinking and represents a major turnaround in mindset for the Institute.

I have long argued that the SGD should be more democratic in the way it is organised. The governing council is made up of nine people who are elected from roughly two hundred members who are eligible to vote, but represent the interests of around 1400 people in total. So only around 14% of the membership are allowed to vote. There has been some move to get this changed, principally coming from those that don’t currently have the vote, but the case has not yet been put sufficiently strongly to convince the registered members to change the status quo.

At the very least, there should be representatives on council of the interests of non-registered members, but I actually think there is a strong argument for much greater reform. Some of the reasoning I have heard put forward by registered members – that other grades of membership would dilute the standard needed for qualification once they had the vote – at best sound like restrictive practice and at worst like the sort of arguments used against the suffragettes.

The SGD is still a vibrant and influential organisation. However, if it doesn’t reform, it will find itself becoming increasingly detached from the real world and less relevant. A bit like the Landscape Institute was a few years ago.

Is that a whiff of revolution I smell?

Permaculture versus my lettuces.

For advocates of permaculture, this will probably make them bristle. Although secretly, they will admit (but only to themselves in the wee small hours) that sharing their lettuces with the pigeons, slugs, rabbits and anyone else that wants some is at best irritating and at worst – well let’s not go there. What is permaculture? It started from a principle first put forward by a New Zealand ecologist, Bill Mollison (and his student David Holmgren) who noticed that the greatest amount of useable biomass in terms of food was produced by multi-layered complex ecosystems such as forests. It has long since expanded to cover a whole philosophy of life and way of thinking.

The three core principles at the heart of permaculture are:

  1. Care for the earth: No disagreement here, right?
  2. Care for the people: Well, that sounds pretty sensible too.
  3. Return of surplus: Reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two ethics. Needs a bit of clarification perhaps? This is sometimes referred to as ‘Fair Share’ to reflect that each of us should take no more than what we need before we reinvest the surplus.
Plenty for all - come on down! Although if I am honest, these are not my lettuces. Mine didn't get quite this bad.
Plenty for all – come on down! Although if I am honest, these are not my lettuces. Mine didn’t get quite this bad.

The third ethic – fair share – is a great principle, and clearly life would be a lot better if we all lived like that. However, will somebody please tell the pigeons in my garden? They seem to think that ‘fair share’ means all my brassicas, lettuces and young pea shoots. This year, they have been kind enough to leave me the broad beans (although read my blog post from last year – ‘Badly balanced vegetables’ for other problems with broad beans). They have also pointed out to me on a number of occasions that I can also have the nettles and thistles. Negotiations are ongoing, you might say. Meanwhile, I have netted my lettuces to keep them off and also have some (totally ineffective) cloches over my kale and cavalo nero. This also seems to keep the other interlopers (rabbit and his friends & relations) out of the beds. However, this particular year slugs are taking their fair share. Unfortunately, they seem to take it rather unevenly – a bite here, a bite there – and also once they have eaten their fill, like to snuggle down for a little nap between the leaves. This does not go down well with offspring (or anyone else at the table, come to that).

These are my lettuces - complete with plastic slug collars.
These are my lettuces – complete with plastic slug collars.

My solution has been to use plastic soup containers (herein lies an admission that I sometimes don’t make all my own soup – but don’t tell anyone). I cut the bottoms off them and gently thread them over the lettuces. this seems to work, and it is even a bit permaculturey – I am recycling after all! You might notice in the picture mulching with grass clippings and my irrigation system, which runs off rainwater stored in an IBC (International bulk container). All a bit Bob Flowerdew, but it works! Ignore the weeds please.

Of course this acceptance of intervention is at the heart of gardening and of garden design. Indeed, it is what defines it (see my blog post from a couple of years ago – When is a garden designer a landscape designer?). By making interventions we clearly make conscious choices about what we will or won’t allow in our space. The natural world impinges upon that space; it is allowable if it works with or doesn’t directly undermine our choices. When it does, we define it as a pest. So I suppose what fascinates me about all this is that we are very keen as gardeners and garden designers to cater for ‘wildlife’. As long as it doesn’t eat our lettuces, that is. This same view pervades our view of plants as well. The difference between a wildflower and a weed? Well, the old adage is that a weed is just a plant in the wrong place. So by extension, is a pest just wildlife in the wrong place? Squirrels are OK when they eat nuts from your hand in the park, but not from your walnut tree? Rabbits are OK in a hutch but not (as with us this winter) when they cause several hundred pounds’ worth of damage to newly planted trees – all ring-barked. Do I sound bitter and twisted? Maybe a little, but as least with my soup container solution, the slugs and I can live happily side by side! Maybe they will even eat the weeds…

Wild about Chelsea?

Confident Design from Andy Sturgeon at this year's Chelsea Flower Show
Confident Design from Andy Sturgeon at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show

The gates have closed on this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. Actually, I thought that 2016 was quite a good year. True there were some ‘oddities’ – Diarmuid Gavin’s Great British Eccentrics Garden perhaps? Anyway, it was a pretty diverse bunch and a lot of really good gardens. One interesting theme which started in 2015 and gathered pace this year was the ‘reconstructed landscape versus designed garden’ debate. Last year’s best in show – Dan Pearson’s Chatsworth Garden – was a clear example of the former. It was a brilliantly skilful piece of design and construction, but there were mutterings amongst the garden design ranks that it was ‘not really design, but just a piece of landscape re-creation’. I think this undermines the skill and dexterity of the designer. How much of this was sour-grapes at not winning best in show themselves was not clear; nonetheless, there is a serious point here. The implication was that all other things being equal, original design should be valued more than re-creation.

James Basson's Provencal recreation at Chelsea 2016
James Basson’s Provencal recreation at Chelsea 2016

This year’s winner (Andy Sturgeon’s Jurassic garden for the Telegraph) was firmly in the ‘designed’ camp. It was a head and shoulders above the other serious contenders and was a supremely confident piece of design, down to the last detail. Interestingly, the other two clear contenders for the title (in my opinion) were Cleve West’s garden for M&G and James Basson’s recreation of a parched Provençal landscape for l’Occitaine. The three gardens together almost make up the spectrum from one end (James’) to the other (Andy’s), with Cleve’s garden occupying a deftly executed middle ground.

Subtle use of colour and form in Andy Sturgeon's garden
Subtle use of colour and form in Andy Sturgeon’s garden

There is of course a great deal of precedent for this in English Garden Design. In the C17th, garden design in this country had been largely pale versions of continental renaissance creations. The English landscape movement swept much of that away in favour of what was essentially the modernism of its time – based on simple natural forms and recreation of paintings of landscapes. However, what is more relevant to today’s ‘re-created landscapes’ is the picturesque movement that followed. This was based on an essentially romanticised appreciation of the savage side of nature – wild rock formations, twisted trees and magical woodland dells. To me, Dan Pearson’s 2015 garden speaks directly from this tradition. This is not surprising, partly because the garden was based on a piece of historical landscape design, but also because Dan has always had a great affinity with and appreciation with nature. This is evident in much of his work, but never in a cloying way. By contrast, Andy Sturgeon’s designs whilst rooted in the natural world are much more conscious design statements.

My own designs are also conscious statements of form where geometry plays a strong part, even if it is sometime distorted (Spokane) or curved (Pavilion Apartments). Recreations of natural landscapes can be subtle, beautiful and clever, but I wonder whether Chelsea Show Gardens shouldn’t be more about pushing the boundaries of design? Most of the great gardens that stick in my mind certainly fall into this category.

Or perhaps the two ends of the spectrum are equally valid, just different – what do other readers think?

The Lancasters – from genesis to realisation

 

View Looking east websize

As this project has recently received some press and won the UK Society of Garden Designers Award for Public and Commercial space, I wanted to share something of the design process, particularly as it is an unusual design.

We were approached by Northacre PLC in 2008 to advise them on proposals for a new property they had acquired near London’s Lancaster Gate. It was the surviving arm of what had originally been two identical terraces, and was divided from Bayswater Road by a garden approximately 120m long, but only 15m wide. The building had a fine stuccoed façade – said to be the longest continuous stucco façade in Europe – which lent a flamboyant feel. it reminded me straightaway of the grand promenade buildings in Brighton, where I had often stayed as a child. But here, instead of facing out to the sea, the stuccoed façade looks over Hyde Park.

One of the sea front hotels on the Corniche in Cannes that influenced the architect in the mid C19th.
One of the sea front hotels on the Corniche in Cannes that influenced the architect in the mid C19th.

When I began to research the history of the building, I discovered that the architect was a big fan of French architecture and had indeed been influenced by the grand hotels of the Corniche in Cannes. I discovered an early stereoscopic photo of the development, taken just after it was built and the street trees were planted in the 1850s. Before that, it had been pleasure gardens for a long time, so it seemed appropriate to recreate gardens there again. As well as this flamboyant character, the building had something of the self-assured solidity of the Victorian era: confidently decorated and built to last.

A couple of early sketches for the scheme showing the genesis of the patterns.
A couple of early sketches for the scheme showing the genesis of the patterns.

Pattern 2

An early sketch of the scheme.
An early sketch of the scheme.

A design started to emerge in my mind. I started leafing through books of late Victorian patterns – stylised leaf and flower forms in swirling motifs. We developed a design based on these motifs – cut up, blown up on the photocopier, twisted and repositioned so that they rippled down the length of the garden in an undisciplined, freeform parterre. to give a vertical link with the building, and as a nod to the Corniche at Cannes, I placed a series of 6-8m fan palms along the back of the garden, punctuating the façade of the building. The design was finished, now all I had to do was convince the client. I made an appointment and turned up at the developer’s office. I sat in the meeting room with the head of architecture, the chairman and the development director, and went through the presentation I had prepared, slowly telling the story before showing the final plan. A long silence. “Absolutely f@#*ing brilliant” the chairman said slowly in his strong Swedish accent. Then he called the whole office in (nearly 40 people) and made me go through the whole thing again. In the end, they based the marketing of the development around the landscape and used the palm trees as the logo for the development.

The final plan. The free form shapes of the Buxus hedge swirl down the length of the terrace.
The final plan. The free form shapes of the Buxus hedge swirl down the length of the terrace.
Preformed steel edges made it easier to form the shapes on site
Preformed steel edges made it easier to form the shapes on site

Getting it built was another matter. How on earth to translate a drawing like this into a scheme? Eventually after much discussion, we decided to pre-form all the complex shapes in steel, so that they could then be planted as a box parterre on site. This worked OK, particularly as there was some flexibility in actual positioning of them. The next problem was the build-up over the roof slab. To start with, we had a 300mm drainage blanket of gravel to act as attenuation. Then beneath the planting, following advice from Tim O’Hare, we had layers of graded washed sand topped with a layer of rootzone material. This was a sand-rich growing medium with good drainage properties and some added fertiliser and organic matter. The whole lot was free-draining, non-compacting and well aerated. We insisted on test certificates for everything. All the specimen plants were pre-tagged and we had a short-list of nurseries that contractors could buy the other material from.

The final result was just as we had envisaged it. It was a long wait to see it finished, but it was worth it. There was no doubt that the constant support of the client was a major factor in realising the scheme.

A view looking west down the garden
A view looking west down the garden
The lawn at the eastern end of the garden.
The lawn at the eastern end of the garden.

Has Cuba’s urban organic revolution stalled, and should that be a surprise?

Salad crops grown in a central Havana organic garden. Note the simple raised beds made of concrete channels.
Fruit and vegetable stalls are on almost every corner in Havana
Fruit and vegetable stalls are on almost every corner in Havana

We were over in Cuba a couple of weeks ago. This trip had been planned for years, but has only recently come to fruition. As it turned out the timing was interesting to say the least. We were there just before Obama’s ground-breaking visit (and that of the Stones). One might argue that Cuba is on the cusp of change, and I am sure the history books will mark Obama’s visit as the great change point, but the truth is that change has been happening at a remarkable rate for the last few years. The alterations brought about by Raoul Castro in 2010 onwards, such as deregulation of farmers markets and allowing home-run restaurants and guest houses to open are the most obvious manifestations of these changes to a visitor. The Cuban government is trying to pull off a difficult balancing act of maintaining ‘democratic socialism’ whilst allowing inward investment and motivating private enterprise by allowing individuals to keep profits. One can argue about the degree of democracy of course, but there is no doubt that broadly speaking the system has popular support.

Trinidad rural organoponico
These sort of out-of-town organic farms were established in Cuba during the special period and are still fairly common
Built from raised concrete beds and re-inforcement steel to support shading, they are a simple solution to a production problem.
Built from raised concrete beds and re-inforcement steel to support shading, they are a simple solution to a production problem.

Around twenty-five years ago, Cuba entered what is known as its ‘Special Period’. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the cheap oil for sugar deals that Cuba had benefitted from came to an end. At the same time, the world oil price rose sharply. The country lost approximately 80% of its imports, 80% of its exports and its Gross Domestic Product dropped by 34%. This caused major hardships for the population and a considerable rethink in the way Society operated, particularly with regards to energy policy and agriculture, as oil, pesticides and chemical fertilisers became unavailable. Australian and other permaculturists arriving in Cuba at the time began to distribute aid and taught their techniques to locals, who soon implemented them in Cuban fields, raised beds, and urban rooftops across the nation. Organic agriculture was soon after mandated by the Cuban government, supplanting the old industrialized form of agriculture Cubans had grown accustomed to. This is all well documented and probably well-known to many of the readers of this blog. And up until around 2008 or so, the system remained in place. One of the most interesting and unusual characteristics of the Cuban agricultural revolution was the widespread dispersed urban agriculture movement. Any free space became a food-growing resource – courtyards, rooftops, empty public and private plots were all turned over to communally cultivated fruit and vegetable plots. Check out this article from the Guardian almost exactly eight years ago for an interesting snap shot of where the country was in 2008. Oil and commodity prices were high and rising, the US blockade was still in full force (although the cracks were beginning to appear).

We went to Cuba expecting to see many ‘Organoponicas’ as they are known. However, over the last six years or so, a combination of lower oil prices and higher personal incomes has had some interesting side effects. The rise in roadside markets (on almost every other street corner in some areas) and the falling cost of growing food, coupled with more money in people’s pockets has meant that many of the smaller unorganised urban agriculture projects have foundered. Others are threatened by development although many of the larger ones survive. I guess this shouldn’t really be a surprise, although to many starry-eyed western permaculturists it may come as a bit of a shock. I suppose the real surprise is why they thought that Cubans were really any different from anyone else. After all, if you have spent ten hours at work, why would you want to stop by the community garden to tend the vegetables when you could buy them cheaply at the corner stall on your way home. Unless you wanted to that is. Because like anywhere else, there is a significant minority of the population that are motivated and interested growing things, but it is a minority. The legacy of the special period in Cuba has meant that unlike other countries there is an understanding of and skill-set in organic horticulture.

As well as Terrazas (a well known sustainable settlement dating from the late 1960s), we also visited a number of smaller local Organoponicas in Havana that have survived. Some of these visits were by arrangement and others just be looking over the fence!

So where does this leave Cuba and where does it leave permaculture? Well, the answer is certainly in a better place than it was before the agricultural revolution. But in the end it should be obvious that given the chance, people will specialise in what they do best and enjoy. That after all is how cities and indeed civilisation work.

As far as horticulture goes, our trip was exciting as we had expected as well as being interesting in unexpected ways. Plus we got to hear some really good music and drink a few knock-out mojitos.

Urban Havana School garden
Urban Havana School garden
These Aloe are grown for medicinal purposes in this Central Havana Organoponica. Plant based medicines are common in Cuba.
These Aloe are grown for medicinal purposes in this Central Havana Organoponica. Plant based medicines are common in Cuba.
Salad crops grown in a central Havana organic garden. Note the simple raised beds made of concrete channels.
Salad crops grown in a central Havana organic garden. Note the simple raised beds made of concrete channels.
These guys were really keen to show us around. Spot the tourist!
These guys were really keen to show us around. Spot the tourist!

 

Perchance to dream…

Copyright PollyWyer https://www.behance.net/PollyWyer
‘Beginnings’ by Polly Wyer – https://www.behance.net/PollyWyer

I was listening to Yann Martel (the Canadian author of ‘Life of Pi’) on the radio yesterday speaking about his project ‘What is Stephen Harper Reading’. Over a four year period form 2007-2011 he sent a book every two weeks with a written recommendation to the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. This started because Martel had heard that Harper had stopped reading fiction as he felt it was not relevant to daily life. Martel’s opening line was “I know you’re very busy, Mr. Harper. We’re all busy. But every person has a space next to where they sleep, whether a patch of pavement or a fine bedside table. In that space, at night, a book can glow…” Martel went on to say that he felt it important that leaders should be able to dream. If they are leading us into the unknown, they need to be able to dream a future, to be visionary. He could see no better way of strengthening this than by either reading fiction, or travelling.

Surely much the same is true of garden design? We are constantly dealing with abstract ideas and unrealised futures, the more so as uniquely in design, landscapes change hugely with time. Our ideas are elusive and the best ones often come to us from unexpected sources or at surprising times (read my earlier blog post ‘Where do ideas come from?’). Many of the core ideas for schemes I have worked on have come to me seemingly out of nowhere. Sometimes they arrive like a thunderbolt, leaving me wondering why I hadn’t thought about it before. Once you have had an idea like that, you can’t ‘unthink’ it. On other occasions great ideas just sort of sidle up to me. There I am playing around with a felt pen and paper, and it seems to kind of emerge, to seep out of the end of my pen in a quiet sort of way, like a flower opening from a tight unpromising bud. And, just like a flower from a bud, you can’t pack it up and put it back in again. I love that moment when the idea starts to take shape (literally sometimes). It really is the most magical part of the process and I get the same buzz from it now as I did when I designed my first project.

This process of disconnection from reality, this ability to dream is at the core of what we do. If we were entirely rooted in reality, our designs would be very mundane. Imagine visiting a client and trying to describe how you have reached the point you have, but doing it without visual language, without atmospheric terms. Difficult isn’t it? Our ability to verbally flesh a scheme out is what makes it ‘fly’. I always like to present a scheme in person to a client and these days I insist on it. In the past, occasionally this has not been possible, either because diaries did not allow, or because someone else wanted to control access to the client. It is always a disaster for a third party to present your design because they don’t know the story – designs are all about the stories we tell ourselves and others.

This week I’m going on holiday and I will fulfil both of Yann Martel’s conditions – travel (to Cuba) and reading – I always read loads when I am on holiday, and 80% of it is fiction. I also think loads. So while I am away I will be recharging my batteries, but I will also be in my own private dreamtime. Let’s see how it affects my work…

 

Why do developers think that garden designers are sexier than landscape architects?

There have been a number of high profile projects in London recently where developers have employed garden designers. This is nothing unusual, you might think. But in actual fact it is a departure from traditional practice, and quite an interesting one.

Firstly, the projects are not ‘gardens’ as such (see my post on ‘When is a Garden Designer a Landscape Designer’ for more details on this and for definitions of what a garden actually is). Most of them are in the semi-public or public realm – parks, squares, pedestrian spaces between buildings, etc.

Secondly, this is traditional territory for landscape architects. In the past, the likes of Gillespies, Capita Lovejoy, Townsend and the like would generally have undertaken these sorts of projects. However, if the client wanted someone high profile, they would have perhaps engaged a ‘rock-star’ landscape architect such as Martha Schwartz, Kathryn Gustafson or perhaps even Eelco Hooftman of Gross Max – all from outside the UK, you will note (although many practice here).

The large (non ‘rock-star’) practices are still very much engaged in the public realm – more so than ever. One doesn’t hear much about them however. And perhaps therein lies the key to what is going on here. To use developer-speak, they are not ‘sexy’. Dan Pearson, on the other hand, is sexy (forgive me please Dan!); as are Andy Sturgeon, Christopher Bradley-Hole and Tom Stuart-Smith. All are gold medal winners at the Chelsea Flower Show, which receives more TV coverage than any annual event except Wimbledon and all are therefore household names, to a greater or lesser extent.

Handyside Gardens, Kings Cross. Photo courtesy of www.kingscross.co.uk
Handyside Gardens, Kings Cross; designed by Dan Pearson. Photo courtesy of www.kingscross.co.uk

So is it that developers simply want some of this ‘brand’, some of the glamour of Chelsea to be associated with their developments? That probably accounts for a lot of it. Branded ‘products’ are appearing more and more with developments. Interiors by so-and-so, architecture by practice X (although often only the concept) and so on. But if that is so, then perhaps a more interesting question is why are there no ‘sexy brands’ in landscape architecture. Why is it “Gardens by Dan Pearson” and not “Landscape by Townsend”. I would argue that it is a systemic problem with landscape architecture in the UK. Ever since landscape architecture emerged as a self-made idea, it has hitched itself to architecture. In the UK this meant mimicking the RIBA – copying its structure, professional values, procurement strategies – although inevitably always a step or two behind. However, as a result the public has failed to distinguish landscape architecture as a separate profession. It is almost as if the landscape profession puts on its dustiest jacket to go to the professional party. Even the name is confusing. the two individual words are perfectly understandable to people, but together they don’t really make a sensible meaning – is it really the architecture of landscape? Or perhaps it is just the landscapey bits of architecture (there we go again…). Now garden design, on the other hand, what could be clearer? To make it worse (or perhaps illustrating my point) many landscape architects really look down their noses at garden designers.

So what is it that distinguishes the landscape professions from all the others? The answer is that we work with plants. Paving, levels, external space, all of these things can be and often are done by other professions; though often less successfully in my view. Those Latin names though – that always gets them! Planting design is a specialism in itself, and one that most landscape architects don’t do often enough to excel at. Garden designers on the other hand often come into the profession through the planting door. Sometimes I think that this is exactly why landscape architects look down on them. To be fair, many garden designers are not very good at all the other stuff.

Of course the ultimate irony is that most of the garden designers who are taking on public realm work employ landscape architects in their practices to help them implement the projects – because they have a better technical knowledge. Sad then, that landscape architects are basically seen as good technicians, but not as creatives.

One question that remains hanging is that of aftercare. Perhaps you have already read my other articles about maintenance of public landscapes (‘The whole life cost of a Citroën‘ and ‘The great divide … north/south? or capital/maintenance?’), but if not, then my point here is that there is no point in designing something without making sure that the resources and skills are there to care for it. Dan Pearson is famously careful about this, as are Argent Estates, his ultimate client at Handyside. But it is a point to consider: garden designs need gardeners to look after them. So is it the case that if developers employ landscape architects, they get something boring, but if they employ garden designers, they get something exciting? Maybe, but it’s a moot point. However, the truth is that in most cases, what garden designers deliver is still garden design, which may be unsuitable for the public realm resources. It will be interesting to see how it pans out in years to come.

 

Roof garden Design: #4 – Planting for green roofs

Continuing in our series on roof gardens, this post is guest-written for us by Maggie Fennell of GreenSky, a nursery specialising in supply of plants and substrates for green roofs and which has joint research projects with University of Sheffield. Her contact details are at the end of the post.

All green roofs share certain challenges for the plants. From lightweight, extensive roofs to full scale roof gardens, they will be living in an artificial, sterile growing medium without the diverse soil ecology that supports plants in a more natural environment. Unlike ‘terrestrial’ planting, they have no access to the water table so they are completely reliant on rainfall and artificial irrigation. Add to this the extremes of temperature and wind exposure at roof height and it is clear we have a very challenging environment in which to plant.

Extensive, lightweight green roofs take on this challenge by using only the very toughest, most resilient plants which are naturally found in poor, shallow soils facing harsh conditions. This means wildflowers and hardy succulents such as sedums are most commonly used. At the other end of the spectrum intensive roof gardens provide increased structural loading and maintenance access to support a wide plant range from trees to turf lawns.

Biodiverse green roof at Sharrow School
Sharrow School in Sheffield is a world class example of a green roof that is both biodiversity-driven and visually stimulating

In between these two extremes there is growing interest in ‘semi-intensive’ green roofs which support a much wider range of plants than the extensive roofs by providing 150-250mm depth of substrate and a modest maintenance burden. Hardy perennials and some small shrubs can be used to create a variety of ecologically diverse and visually attractive ‘roofscapes’ without the heavy loading requirements of an intensive roof.

To maximise the effectiveness of this kind of planting it is important to consider two main differences from ground level landscaping. The first is the survival of plants in these harsh conditions – how can losses be reduced? The idea of forming a healthy community of plants that mimic a natural ecosystem is not one that often arises in the realm of aesthetically driven amenity planting, but on the roof it is more important. The second is the changing viewpoint. Often there is not a ‘front’ or ‘back’ view, as green roofs might be overlooked from various angles rather than from the same level.

Randomised plant placement is the normal planting method on extensive roofs requiring minimal maintenance
Randomised plant placement is the normal planting method on extensive roofs requiring minimal maintenance

The natural planting technique that results from both of these considerations is one that mixes up individual plants alongside different species in a mosaic-like form, rather than swathes of a single species. This randomised or ‘naturalistic’ arrangement of plants can seem quite foreign to landscapers used to working to precise planting schemes which carefully position plant structures and colours for a certain visual display.

One reason why the juxtaposition of varied species is helpful for green roof survival is related to how plants cope with the stresses of limited substrate depth. Different species have their own techniques for gaining the maximum moisture and nutrition from the limited supplies available on the roof. A sedum with shallow, fibrous roots will provide less competition to a neighbouring, relatively deep-rooting wild carrot. Plants can differ nearly as much below ground as above it, and the diverse root structures will exploit different levels of the substrate layer to the best effect.

This variation of plant performance also means that interspersed species show off their best colours in different seasons. The overall effect of a reasonably colourful carpet of vegetation is maintained throughout the year rather than having isolated patches that look great in spring but a bit bare in autumn.

Mixed planting on a semi intensive green roof

The wet summer of 2012 was excellent for alliums on green roofs
The wet summer of 2012 was excellent for alliums on green roofs

An extension of this idea is that species react differently to the fluctuations in annual weather patterns. A particularly cold spring, an unusually harsh winter or an unseasonably wet summer might each have an adverse effect on particular types of plants. By combining many plant genera, the chances are that whatever record-breaking weather statistic should be quoted in a given year, a proportion of the species on your roof will be performing well, or enjoying an unexpected advantage. If those plants are mixed fairly evenly across the scheme they will serve to compensate for struggling neighbours, who may get to return the favour in future years.

This demonstrates how a community of plants work together in a way that reduces maintenance while maintaining a pleasing visual effect. Another example of this is resistance to pests and diseases which might have a noticeable effect on a large mono-culture, but less impact amongst varied species.

This ecosystem approach does not necessarily conflict with a designer’s artistic aspirations, it merely recognises the increased horticultural and practical requirements of the planting scheme. Plants can still be arranged according to flower or foliage colour if desired, and deeper substrate areas can provide anchorage for taller, more structural species. It is always important to consider the client’s expectations concerning both aesthetic effect and maintenance provision when designing a successful green roof – as they can both differ greatly from a ground level garden.

For more details or advice, look on the GreenSky website at www.boningale-greensky.co.uk or contact Maggie Fennell directly at maggie.fennell@boningale.co.uk