Let’s immerse our cities in nature

Can the great outdoors counteract modern problems? Peter Dowdall reports

An example of Nigel Dunnett’s “artful Eeology” planting design in urban areas.
An example of Nigel Dunnett’s “artful Eeology” planting design in urban areas.

It's time for more dynamism in our landscapes and gardens. That was certainly the message which came from the Garden and Landscape Designers Association (GLDA) seminar recently in Dublin.

This was, once again, a fantastic event for anyone with even a passing interest in gardens and in particular, the role that the great outdoors can play in counteracting many of our modern-day problems.

Speaking on the day, Cassian Schmidt of the renowned research garden Hermannshoff in Germany highlighted the need for dynamic planting schemes. Top UK designers Sarah Price and Nigel Dunnett also impressed upon us the need for such dynamism and so too, Ireland’s leading wildflower expert and conservationist Sandro Cafolla.

The repeated message form all the speakers was the importance of using the right plant for the right conditions in the right place. In truth, this is a message as old as time itself but perhaps somewhere along the line it has been lost on us.

Nigel Dunnett looks at Planting Design in two ways: as an art form and also as an essential element in creating healthy cities and liveable places.

As an art form, Nigel takes his inspiration from nature, as you might expect. Ever since childhood he has been aware and observed that being in a beautiful natural space can “give rise to the most incredible feeling of joy”, it uplifts us and is “an intensely spiritual experience”, making us aware that we are all part of something much bigger.

Interestingly, Nigel noted that he doesn’t always get that feeling from a designed garden. In such a space we all feel a bit more like onlookers, admiring rather than experiencing.

In the natural world, things are a bit different you see. It’s not just plants, when you are in the great outdoors you are part of and looking upon a more entire unit. Plants are an essential part of it of course, they are fitted perfectly to their specific and exact place having overcome challenges and obstacles to their very survival so that only the right plant remains in their optimal position.

In nature though, there is so much more happening: the fallen logs and leaves have created their own little ecosysytems, insects and wildlife are flourishing, water and other natural features may be present and also, everything is to scale.

Scale and repetition are both features of garden design but it is in nature that we see these aspects at their best. There is an in-build connection within each one of us which makes a natural experience immersive. Being in a natural landscape is a high energy experience as all our senses react at the same time. The natural landscape looks different depending on the scale at which you are looking at it.

Nigel Dunnett amongst the Californian poppy superbloom in the mountains of California
Nigel Dunnett amongst the Californian poppy superbloom in the mountains of California

Nigel used the example of the Superbloom, a rare natural phenomenon which was particularly spectacular in the Californian mountains during 2019 as millions of Californian Poppies came into bloom at the one time. From a distance it looked like the mountains were covered in a supernatural orange paint. It looked perhaps like a scorched landscape. However, as he got closer to it, he could see that the display was made of many different patterns and details. What appeared as a massive drift of the same thing was actually quite intrinsic.

As the motorways and pathways of California clogged up with travellers visiting to see and experience this natural phenomenon one thing became apparent and that was that the vast majority of the visitors were young people, illustrating their need and their desire for a natural experience.

This is a good example to illustrate the second way that Nigel looks at planting design, that as an essential element of healthy cities. He is not backward in expressing his beliefs either and nor should he be as he says that “I believe we can create things better than nature in the designed landscape”

To mimic nature, our landscapes need to be “living and dynamic” (there’s that word again) with no more than two or three species flowering at any one time and these should change through the seasons.

We need to bring the immersive qualities of nature to our cities and urban areas. Urban landscaping must be transformational and it must be everywhere. It’s not enough for local authorities to plant a few street trees here and there and tick a box. We have even gone beyond, just parks and green spaces being enough. Bringing nature to our cities must be planned for, designed and nurtured. It will deliver huge environmental benefits but it must be beautiful and good for people. “We need to make a new or future nature for our cities” in what Nigel refers to as “artful ecology”.

We know the benefits that the garden and nature has to our mental health, our physical health, the role that it plays in offsetting the effects of climate change and species extinction so why is it not being regarded as part of, if not the entire solution.

Is it perhaps that it is largely regarded as a hobby and a relaxing, pleasant yet unimportant pursuit? I cannot think of anything more important that our city and county planners should be focussing on right now.

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