Public places beyond wildest dreams

Public places beyond wildest dreams
Monique and Thierry Dronet’s garden perches 700m above sea level in the Vosges region of eastern France.

Transforming public spaces into wild areas benefits everyone, according to Peter Dowdall.

Rarely have I left an event asinvigorated and as full ofenthusiasm as I did last weekend after the Garden & Landscape Designers Association (GLDA) annual seminar.

The theme of the day was “Rewilding Green Spaces” and French couple Monique and Thierry Dronet started off proceedings by showcasing how they had created a magnificent garden, the Jardin deBerchigranges, at 700m above sea level in the Vosges region of eastern France.

They began with a disused granitequarry which had been planted withconiferous woodland. What they havecreated in unison with nature is a living, breathing, interactive work of art.

Like most gardens, this one has evolved. They first created, obviously enough, considering the raw materials onsite, a rock garden and this has now been added to with an enclosed area and the rather fun pinball garden, among other areas.

However, for me what caught my imagination was — and this is what they were both passionate about — the Bohemian Garden.

The word “bohemian” is defined as “being socially unconventional in an artistic way” and to that end I’m not sure if it’s the correct title for this concept. For, the Bohemian Garden here in the northeast of Francehas been created largely by Nature. So isNature “unconventional” or is it we, who have foisted our ways upon her, that are theunconventional ones?

To quote their own phrase, they rely on an “acrobatic equilibrium” of what is wild and what is rare. They clear areas and allow whatever comes back to do so, encouraging all plants and then planting some more choice specimens through the area.

This garden is a constant and evolving experiment, mixing the rare with the wild — all the time being mindful of the altitude. After the heavy snows each year the garden comes alive with over 800 cultivars and many thousands of specimens of narcissus — an important collection now from a European and, probably, global perspective.

Adjoining this area where everything is happening apace and colour abounds is a more restful area beneath trees and again with much rock where Monique and Thierry have established a moss garden using over 25 of the 200-plus species of moss. It has that effect of calming the visitor after the “unconventional” area.

Being from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, landscape architect Kevin Sloan has been deeply inspired by the Blackman Prairie which he described as being like a “land ocean” at the time of the first settlers.

These great plains were developed before their flora and fauna could be properly studied and though the planet could do with them now more than ever — since theysequester four to seven times more carbon than forests — tragically, only 0.1 of 1% of the original 16 million acres of Blackland Prairie remains.

Kevin, who studied architecture and lived for many years in Florence, hasdevoted much of his professional life tocreating spaces for living — spaces that are beautiful and cost-effective and that live at the intersection where landscape architecture, urban design and the environment meet culture and human activity.

There have been several “rewilding”projects in Dallas over the last number of years and much wildlife has come back. The American bald eagle and bobcats are now common in this huge urban jungle.

Speaking to Kevin at the associationseminar, I was congratulating him, not only on his vision and enthusiasm but also on that of the City Fathers in Dallas. It made me consider how we need forward-thinking people in our city and urban councils.

He was quick to point out that he is often a lone voice, as in a city such as Dallas where real estate is valuable and the dollar bill speaks, it has been a difficult journey getting landscape and rewilding projects across the line.

However, he has learnt that the way to do this is to illustrate the commercial value that comes with doing the right thing: “There is something about nature and being close to it that makes people want to live there and thus the real estate becomes more valuable and people are now accepting higher-density living in areas which are landscaped sensitively and sustainably.”

Far from sacrificing space, the developers, by setting aside much of their land to rewilding and landscaping, are making their developments far more commercially valuable.

Now, if only the decisionmakers anddevelopers in Ireland would pay attention to what is being learnt in the USA. This desire to live near nature is innate within us and over 35 years of research has been done to identify the health benefits of living inrewilded areas.

Two words which resonated throughout this thought-provoking and inspiring day were “equilibrium” and “balance”.

Environmental consultant and Cork native Feidhlim Harty, who specialises in the design and construction of wetlands reed beds, zero discharge and other natural sewage treatment systems, further impressed upon us the importance of working with Nature, not against her and maintaining this delicate but essential balance.

Where Feidhlim concentrated on managing water when it has become a problem at the point of flooding, the final speaker of the day, Londoner Dusty Gedge, has dedicated his professional life to “source control”. Dusty and spoke about the importance of using green roofs to capture rainwater and slow its progress into our drainage systems and rivers.

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