Appreciating our Designed Landscapes

As a teacher in urban horticulture at the University of Melbourne’s Burnley Campus, I’m really interested in understanding the connections people make with the landscapes they spend time in, and what they focus on when they visit these places. Plants are the crucial element in our environment, and getting our plantings right in managed landscapes is key to building people’s engagement with them. Over the past couple of years, through the medium of student assignments that assess the success (or otherwise) of designed landscapes, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and, occasionally the ugly. I’ve taken virtual mini-tours of around 150 public and private sites that I certainly wouldn’t have visited otherwise.

Most of us travel through designed spaces on a daily basis, whether on foot, on bikes, in cars or on public transport. It seems important that we think about the value of these spaces to us, whether they fulfil their functional purpose and design intent effectively, and better still, if we can identify what it is that makes them special to us. I bet that readers who visit the RBGV Melbourne or Cranbourne Gardens regularly will each have a favourite haunt that you head to automatically if you have the opportunity  – but why do you choose this space, time after time?

One of my favourite places in the Perennial Border at the Melbourne Gardens - I always visit when I come to the Gardens, to check on which plant is doing what. Most  of the year, this extensive border planting offers an engaging mix of textures and colours. Thanks to thoughtful plant  selection, the downtime over winter is short, and the permanent deep green backdrop of the well-maintained hedge of Luma apiculata demonstrates that the site is well cared for, even when there’s not much happening in terms of foliage or flowers. For me this is both a teaching resource and an opportunity to visit some great performers. So I know why I go there – why do you visit your favourite spot?

Garden

Everyone’s experience of a landscape is (theoretically) unique. Your experience may vary depending on the time of day or season in which you visit, your mood, whether you’re visiting alone or with a companion. The speed at which you’re travelling through the landscape will certainly affect your experience. Try jogging through a park and noting what you observe. Now try a gentle stroll through the same place. What’s different about the two experiences? How much do you really focus on what’s there in those two scenarios? (If you’re jogging, it’s a fair bet you’re a little more focused on not falling over and a little less on observing the rich visual landscape you’re travelling through.)

If you’re interested in working out why some spaces are better than others, you might consider taking a psychogeographic approach. Psychogeography examines the effects of the geographical environment on the emotions and behaviour of the people who experience it, and is largely dependent on you having no particular purpose to your journey, so you are free (potentially) to have any experience at all along the way. Now, most of us don’t have a lot of time to  be  purposeless, but we should be able to carve  out some time when we’re not ‘doing’ and where we can just ‘be’ – or at the very least to stray off the path for a short amount of time on our way to the next appointment. British author 

Robert Macfarlane provides his recipe in A Road of One’s Own: ‘Unfold a street map of London, place a glass, rim down anywhere on the map, and draw round its edge. Pick up the map, go out into the city, and walk the circle, keeping as close as you can to the curve. Record the experience as you go, in whatever medium you favour. Catch the textual run-off of the streets; the graffiti, the branded litter, the snatches of conversation… Be alert to the happenstance of metaphors, watch for visual rhymes, coincidences, analogies, family resemblances, the changing moods of the street. Complete the circle, and the record ends. Walking makes for contemplation, footage for footage.’ It’s literally ground-truthing an area to find out how things actually are, rather than how you imagine they might be; taking mental (preferably) or physical (if you must) snapshots as you go. It involves complete immersion in the environment with all your senses heightened, and there’s every reason to apply this approach to the green spaces you find yourself in, including thinking about how the plants are contributing to your experience.

The NYC-based Bureau of Unknown Destinations1 provides a (somewhat prescriptive) set of suggestions as part of its ‘Psychogeographic Destination Kit’ to help guide your next visit. Aimed predominantly at the hipster market (I guess), the authors of the downloadable, foldable one-page mini notebook2 provide a simple means to record your experiences – which you may like to send back to the Bureau, for inclusion in their archives. The Bureau’s view is that ‘The unknown is everywhere intertwined with the known; to see it, we only need break our own habits. Take a wrong turning one day. Navigate by mismatched maps. Get on a train without knowing where you’ll end up.’ To this I would add – turn off your devices. For the psychogeographical artist, the contemporaneous recording of the experience is essential – but it’s my belief that you will have a fuller experience, which will remain embedded in your memory if you’re not distracted with running the equipment. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was a junior psychogeographer, navigating lanes and occasional vacant blocks (back then, well and truly sans devices) on my way to and from school. I can still take some of those mental journeys to this day – and I bet many people reading this article can recreate some of the journeys they took through past landscapes too.

So to return this piece to where it set out, what landscapes do you love? Next time you’re passing through a familiar or favourite space, consider taking a psychogeographic approach, immerse yourself in it, and focus on what is in it that you  value.

What are our expectations of designed landscapes in the public realm? Are we being realistic about what they can deliver? These landscapes are expected to fulfill a variety of purposes for a broad range of users. You might think of our public open spaces as sites for plant conservation, or to build appreciation of particular groups of plants – the Melbourne and Cranbourne Botanic Gardens are key examples of this on a huge scale, with 170,000 plants at Cranbourne, and more than 50,000 plants covering 10,000 species in the Melbourne Gardens3. They might be heritage landscapes – again, our metropolitan and regional botanic gardens fulfill this role, with another key inner-city example being the Exhibition Buildings and Carlton Gardens – a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site.

Our suburban public landscapes (aka parks and reserves) are places for active and passive recreation, with plantings dominated by mown turf and trees. As our population grows – and the lowest projections from the Australian Bureau of Statistics for Australia over the 25 years to 2041, suggest an increase of 7 million people, most of it in capital cities4 – it’s inevitable that the pressure on our existing green spaces will increase. Unless – as some forward-thinking inner-Melbourne councils are already doing – we begin a deliberate program of reserving areas for public open space now, we will  see a per capita shrinking of green space, with existing spaces supporting more intensive use by a larger number of people. The underlying expectation will remain that these spaces can accommodate the requirements of a broad range of  users. It’s great to see so many people using public parks across so much of the day, with personal training sessions and group fitness activities starting early and finishing late, in addition to the traditional team sports training sessions and matches we’ve always seen. However, sports and fitness users aren’t the only people who need these spaces, and the professionals working to plan, design, manage and plant our open spaces need to understand this. If you’re living in a small apartment without a garden (as many of us will be before long), you’ll probably look to the local park to provide some colour and beauty, and we need to factor that into our future landscape designs.

What can you do about it? Well, it’s actually never been easier to get involved in consultation, discussion and decision- making with your local community and council about the nature of vegetation in your area, whether it be choices about street trees, or planning for the provision and format of new community gardens. Talk to your local council to find out how they’re planning to support the need for green space with an influx of residents over the coming decade.

I’m writing this piece in the year that the Burnley Campus launches its celebration of 125 years of continuous teaching of horticulture. This is a major achievement for my institution, but it’s also a trigger for my colleagues and me to think about how our horticultural teaching practices relate to real-world design and management of landscapes, particularly those publicly- accessible spaces that are shared by an increasing number of users with diverse needs and expectations.

We can’t do this alone, and nor should we. I believe we all have a responsibility to look at the landscapes we make and spend time in, to think about what they’re achieving and how we can all play a role as stewards of these spaces into the future. And if you find yourself having a psychogeographic moment  in a landscape and you realise the designers and managers are doing an awesome job – tell them!

Written by Dr Sue Murphy, the University of Melbourne, Burnley Campus

Published in the Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens Botanic News, Spring Edition

Footnotes:

  1. See http://unknowndestinations.org
  2. See http://unknowndestinations.org/files/destination_kit_1_0.pdf
  3. See http://www.rbg.vic.gov.au/plants-and-landscapes
  4. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 3222.0 - Population Projections, Australia, 2012 (base) to 2101; release date 26/11/2013; viewed 12 March 2016, http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/ 3222.0Main+features32012%20(base)%20to%202101