design in urban public areas - The Good, the Bad and the Indifferent
Reproduced from an article by
Aitken Ltd Landscape Architects
16 Bale Place
From the New Zealand
Garden Journal (Journal of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture),
Volume 5, Number 2, December 2002, pp. 8-10.
In 1999, the author
presented the Ian Galloway Memorial Lecture to the Wellington Branch
of the RNZIH entitled "Planting Design in Urban Public Areas - The
Good, the Bad and the Indifferent". This article is a revision and
summary of the main points covered in the lecture.
of Municipal Horticulture
Few issues distinguish
landscape architects from parks and reserves horticulturists more
dramatically than our respective attitudes to plant material, and,
in particular, our use of plant material in urban public spaces.
In the nearly thirty years since I graduated as a landscape architect
from (then) Lincoln College, I have been surprised at how little
change we have seen to the basic tenets of what Professor Kevin
O'Connor used to refer to as "the religion of Municipal Horticulture".
This approach, demonstrated
so ubiquitously throughout New Zealand, relies heavily on the use
of colourful beds of annuals and herbaceous perennials such as marigolds,
begonias, salvias, primulas, impatiens, petunias and so on, which
are lovingly propagated, transplanted, tended and eventually replaced.
Recent variations on the theme expose a new cast of bedding roses,
day lilies, succulents and ornamental grasses enjoying the limelight
but essentially singing the same song. Overwhelmingly, the emphasis
is on colour, colour and more colour.
per cent of respondents can't be wrong, can they?
One might well ask, "What
is so wrong with that?" Time after time, surveys of public satisfaction
with the performance of municipal departments provide encouragement
to parks and reserves managers, who see sometimes as much as 97%
support amongst those surveyed for the philosophy and performance
of their staff. Letters to the newspaper praising the prettiness
and cheerfulness of our public open spaces and comments from the
"average person in the street" serve to firm even more the attitude
that "If the public says they like it, we'll keep giving it to them".
To answer the question
one needs to look critically, from a design perspective, at the
elements of the municipal horticulture approach, and also put forward
credible alternatives that might be expected to achieve similar
levels of popular public support. It is also important to point
out that the issue is not solely about the use of colour as a design
element per se: colour remains an important ingredient in any planting
design palate. The issue is more about the reliance on colour used
as an element at the expense of other equally valid considerations.
schemes have always been labour intensive, requiring propagation,
planting, regular weeding and eventual replacement within a relatively
short time span. In addition, planting beds require nourishment
and regular irrigation in drought-prone areas for the plants to
look their best. The replacement programme carries with it the inevitability
of times when beds are in their non-flowering phase.
The colour-oriented basis
to the design ignores the other plant characteristics of form, texture,
scale and, above all, context that other approaches do offer. Furthermore,
many traditional planting schemes lack a sense of integrity either
to the composition of planting areas within a public space, or the
relationship of planting to surrounding hard landscape elements.
How often, for example, do we see the pinks of impatiens or begonias
clashing vividly with their terracotta paved or brick surrounds.
Spatial context, scale,
climate and opportunities for historical, cultural or regional expression
tend to be completely overlooked in the pursuit of giving the public
more of what it believes is good for it!
of an appropriate design philosophy
Underpinning all good
landscape design is the development of what Charlie Challenger,
founding Head of the Landscape Architecture Section at Lincoln College,
used to call "an appropriate design philosophy". Design should be
driven less by what has always happened in the past, or what public
expectations might be, and more about what is right for a particular
Soil type, climate, aspect,
the size of the space, the scale of the elements that form the space,
the nature of any existing vegetation, the type and number of users,
the presence or otherwise of overhead or underground services, and
so on, all need to be considered carefully before conclusions are
reached, even in a conceptual form as to what sort of planting arrangement
would best fit the site.
The placement of planting
areas themselves is part of that site analysis and design process.
Too often one sees sadly misplaced planting beds providing "a splash
of colour" where other options such as retaining the integrity of
a grassy bank, a tree or a paved surface would have been infinitely
There are some signs
that municipal authorities are beginning to break out of their planting
design mould. This may be more a result of the increasing influence
of landscape architects and urban designers giving downtown areas
"makeovers", with greater emphasis on hard landscape combined with
trees and prostrate perennials, than an indication of any fundamental
shift in the mindset. It may also reflect the increasingly popular
trend internationally in favour of a bolder, more romantic design
style featuring broader sweeps of more permanent, though still colourful,
plant compositions. It may also be a result of greater interaction
between municipal departments, allowing, for example, the consideration
of planting possibilities at the same time as the layout of a street
or the placement of underground services rather than being the last
step in the chain.
One consequence of the
old adherence to the municipal horticulture dogma was the sameness
of our city landscapes throughout New Zealand, regardless of the
wide range of climates, soils and population bases in various centres.
The gardens of Invercargill, Blenheim, Palmerston North and Whangarei
all had a similar look to them as if there were a requirement to
use the same ingredients and recipe. Thankfully, this has begun
to change as parks staff and landscape architects employed by territorial
authorities are being given the licence to develop their own regionally
How much further this
new, more creative approach develops is largely in the hands of
the personnel involved. Trendsetters like Grant Porteous (former
Parks Manager in New Plymouth) need to be congratulated and encouraged
for their innovativeness and confidence in trying new approaches,
and in employing the appropriate resources to get things done.
such as those proposed by Di Lucas for Christchurch, based on historical
layers of former vegetative cover also offer a chance to re-establish
the landscapes of old, or at least modern equivalents based on what
was there before.
I was interested to observe
in the urban areas of Japan the almost total reliance on indigenous
plant material: azaleas, camellias, maples, cherries, witch hazels
and zelkovas were all put to good use in creating a distinctively
Japanese landscape. On the other hand, the Japanese tendency to
either over-maintain their plant material (as in the fastidiously
clipped azalea beds of the Imperial Palace gardens), or to leave
their plants completely to their own devices (as in so many of their
roadside plantings) leaves a little to be desired, at least to Western
I have already touched
on the desirability of an integrated approach to urban design and
the planting that is part of that. Putting in place systems and
personnel with the skills, vision and determination to allow those
systems to be implemented to achieve optimum outcomes is the key.
Scale is still the most
frequently misunderstood principle of planting design. I still see
numerous examples of pretty beds of petunias cringing self-consciously
at the base of multistorey buildings. This can be overcome, to some
extent, by broadening the horizontal base of the planting to compensate
for the lack of height.
Integrity of plant material,
both within a planting composition and in relation to the prevailing
site conditions and associated structures is also widely misunderstood.
Mixes of plants from widely disparate parts of the world is inevitably
a recipe for visual disharmony. Having said that, a planting design
with a strong unifying theme and structure can serve as a basis
for a supporting cast with variations in colour and texture.
Simplicity is, as always,
a virtue in planting design. Historically, our horticultural credibility
has been strengthened by our ability to grow unusual plants or a
wide variety of plants. The search is always on for a newer, more
fabulous version of the more commonplace varieties. This is not
a bad thing in itself, except when it expresses itself in the public
domain as a hotchpotch of individuals all competing for the viewer's
attention. How often do we see planting beds on all four corners
of an intersection, for example, planted up with four completely
different types of plant with no thought given to the bigger picture.
|Figure 1. A choice from the palate
of native plant material used to good effect in a very public,
private area. Colin and Pat Stuart's front garden. Photo courtesy
of Alan Titchener.
Maintenance of public
planting areas also needs to be considered in the selection of plant
material. There is a terrific palate of native plant material that
is now beginning to be exploited in public areas to good effect:
plants such as pimelea, pratia, many of the coprosmas, scleranthus,
and some of the hebes to name a few (Figure 1).
I have presented a case
for a move away from our historical love affair with the gardenesque
approach of the British-derived religion of Municipal Horticulture.
What I am saying is not particularly new. That it still needs to
be said is perhaps a measure of the continuing popularity of the
traditional colour-dominated style and an unwillingness of those
in positions of responsibility to make change.
Examples of a more creative,
integrated, regionally distinctive approach to planting design are
beginning to appear. For more of this sort of development to happen,
people in positions of responsibility will need to have the confidence
to pursue new, more appropriate ways of dressing our towns and cities.
More and more I am coming
to realise that it is by using our indigenous plant material that
we will achieve that level of appropriateness that is so apparent
in a place such as Japan, which hasn't experienced the overlay of
an imported mindset, and public expectation born of repetition and
a lack of effective alternatives.
Other elements and principles
of good design, such as an understanding of scale, context, site
constraints and opportunities, simplicity and integrity all need
to be considered carefully in our planting designs.
In the end, our enjoyment
of our public urban areas is going to depend on how well we integrate
all these factors together in firstly, creating opportunities to
soften our built environments, and secondly, achieving satisfying
and memorable results.
is a Director of Titchener Monzingo Aitken Ltd Landscape Architects,
based in Havelock North. He is a Fellow and Past President
of the New Zealand Institute of Landscape Architects, and
has academic qualifications in both horticulture and landscape