Posts Tagged ‘sustainability’

I am delighted to have joined the rosta of writers at ThinkinGardens, a British website eager to encourage serious, stimulating and critical writing about designed landscapes.

My first piece is Worthy but Wasted? on the challenges of sustainable parks (and from which I’ve taken the title of this brief post). It has already attracted lots of interesting comments. Please do go over and have a look.

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Awards are funny things. A while ago I was sniffy on this blog about Gardens Illustrated’s Garden of the Year, which seemed to be picked from a random shortlist solely on the basis of a few photographs.

Now I’ve visited another feted design, this time with the even grander award of World Landscape Project of the Year.  The current holder of this title is the awkwardly named Bishan – Ang Mo Kio Park in Singapore. It’s a linear neighbourhood park in the residential centre of the island, a bus ride away from the tourist spots, and of course on a recent visit I dragged my reluctant family there to see what the fuss was about.

Bishan Park 04

The judges’ comments certainly made it seem worth a visit:

This remarkable project fundamentally transforms the urban landscape of Singapore by reversing the fundamentals of 1960s thinking on drainage canals into an ecological and people-friendly urban sponge. It powerfully embraces the extremes of flooding disasters, while providing a rustic and poetic simplicity with its landscape strategy for the public. Its large scale with subtle local effects also showcases truly sustainable strategies.

Fifty years ago, in line with the thinking of the time, the Kallang river had been forced into a concrete canal to whisk storm water efficiently away from this developing part of Singapore. The park was added either side of the canal in the late 1980s but, for safety reasons (remember that this equatorial part of the world has up to 25cm of rain a month, much of it in thunderous downpours), the water was fenced off and inaccessible to park users.

image from information board at the park

Image of the old canal from information board at the park

Now the German design firm of Atelier Dreiseitl has broken up the canal and introduced a naturalistic path for the river, which flows through a created flood plain, allowing the water levels to fluctuate significantly and thus limit the risk of flooding downstream. The new approach also allows visitors to interact with the water, and better understand its processes, and has apparently increased the biodiversity of the park by thirty percent.

Bishan Park 01 Bishan Park 14 Bishan Park 13 Bishan Park 05

Bishan Park 08

Plan of the park, from information board on site.

As a helpful sign explained, the risk of soil and bank erosion along the new waterway has been addressed through various combinations of vegetation and other natural materials, from rip-rap and fascines to reed rolls and gabions.

Bishan Park 10

Bishan Park 03

There is also a large bioswale, which uses certain plants to improve water quality by filtering out pollutants and absorbing nutrients.    Bishan Park 16

Part of the purpose of the bioswale is to support the children’s water playground, which when we visited was sadly closed for unspecified reasons. But there are two other funky (if not obviously eco-friendly) playgrounds.

Bishan Park 15

Bishan Park 02Bishan Park 12 Bishan Park 11

This project is doubtless a great piece of engineering, probably worthy of its award, and has without question left Bishan-Ang Mo Kio park more aesthetically pleasing than it was. There is an impressively holistic approach to the redesign, and a nice attention to detail. Informational signage is good (if all clustered in one part of the park), the playgrounds were a hit with my nine-year-old, and there is little doubt that the changes aim to make the park work in a more natural and sustainable way.

You can probably sense the “but” coming. I was left with two nagging concerns: first that this naturalistic park somehow couldn’t escape the manicured, pristine feel that pervades all of Singapore, which I have described elsewhere. Maybe that is just because it so new.

More worryingly, it was a public holiday when we visited and yet, as you can see from these photos, the park was almost deserted. A few children made use of the playgrounds, and we saw two small groups of older kids near the water, armed with little fishing nets. It struck me that there is precious little shade (less than before the changes), and most of the paths felt very exposed in the constant heat and humidity of Singapore.

For much of its 62 hectares, and despite the designers’ aims to create new spaces for the community to enjoy, Bishan-Ang Mo Kio park felt more like a piece of restored wetland than a traditional public park – and I am still musing on how far that matters. Do designers need to do more to make sustainable landscapes obviously suitable for people – or do we as visitors need to adjust our expectations and find new ways to enjoy and use this innovative kind of park?

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The India Habitat Centre recently hosted an event led by noted French landscape architect Pascal Cribier. Called Garden, Nature or Landscape?, the workshop allowed Cribier to explain his design approach through a variety of projects.

For me, the most fascinating part of the day was Cribier’s description of what ecological design means to him. (He spoke poetically and passionately on the subject in his broken English, and would I suspect not entirely approve of this short and rather prosaic Anglo-Saxon summary of his views.)

Put simply, Cribier argued for the conservation of gardens. Not conservation in the usual sense of meticulously recording and expensively safeguarding important historical features; but conservation simply in the sense of keeping as much as possible of what was already on site. He does not believe in adding to landfill by ripping out plants and materials just to impose his own design on a garden. Instead he strives to keep what is there and just amend it. He gave the simple example of a brick wall which he did not like; instead of replacing it, he used the same bricks to build a wall in a different style. A more flamboyant example was a fussy little Victorian water feature he found in the garden he was redesigning at Woolton House in England, which he extended into a far more effective large pond while keeping the original feature at the centre.

A conserved but transformed water feature at Woolton House. Image from http://www.etab.ac-caen.fr

There was a second, equally important, part of this approach. Cribier also strives to create a design that will last, that will not in its turn get ripped out as uninspiring or too difficult to maintain. He almost starts with what he considers a realistic maintenance plan and works backwards. And his focus is on producing something that the owner and gardener will love and want to maintain; in this way the garden is more likely to persist.

Several of the young Indian landscape architects in the room pressed him on his use of non-native plants. But Cribier was unrepentant: it was ecologically more important to give clients a pleasurable garden that they would love and preserve, than to strive to recreate some lost ecosystem. He argued that nature is self-balancing, able to cope with disruption and change, and not in need of frantic attempts to return to what has been lost. To be fair, he did say that if France’s native flora was as beautiful as India’s, his attitude would be rather different; but providing enduring beauty was more important than a focus on native plants.

It was a fascinating account of one individual’s approach; not one I am sure I fully support (and certainly his argument that bees will visit hybridised double flowers as readily as native single ones seemed based on nothing more than a fervent wish that they should), but one which left all of us pondering on what really is good ecological practice in garden design.

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The city of Paris has admirable policies on biodiversity, climate change and other ‘green’ issues. Previously I’ve blogged about how these policies are playing out in the capital’s public parks – arguably in a rather clumsy way at the grand parc Monceau, and more successfully at a pleasant new neighbourhood park in the 11th arrondissement.

But here is an example of a full-on sustainable park, recently completed in an area of the 13th arrondissement that is undergoing major, innovative urban renewal. Underpinning the development work is an environmental charter that covers “water, waste, ground and sub-ground, energy, noise, journeys, urban landscape and governance.”

view of park in front of old flour mills

view from bridge

The park itself, known by the rather awkward name les jardins des Grands Moulins – Abbé Pierre, was designed by landscape architects Ah Ah to showcase “la conquête végétale” [the triumph of plant life], with vegetation spilling over paths, seeding between paving stones, spreading into ponds and clambering up walls. It has two distinct areas: a series of terraced meadows on one side, and a mosaic of different habitats on the other, from pond and bog to meadow and forest under storey.

Rainwater is collected from neighbouring rooftops and channelled down pipes and along open gullies or rills in the park, through the various ponds and marsh areas, and then down to a vast underground storage tank, from where it is used for irrigation.

the water tanks at Grands Moulins

Sketch of the water distribution system at les Grands Moulins, from an exhibition at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine

pedestrian bridge

We visited a couple of weeks ago, after six weeks of unusually hot, dry weather. I found it difficult to form a clear opinion of the park: on the one hand, it has admirable ambitions as a sustainable landscape, demonstrates the green credentials of the city far more than policy documents and statements ever can, and is for all of us an example for the future.

There were some lovely design touches, like the curving boardwalk engraved with messages about the park’s sustainable features, and the sinuous pedestrian bridge that invites you up to view the park from above.

sign on pathway

On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine what you are meant to DO in this park, apart from admire how sustainable it all is. My eight-year-old proclaimed it ‘boring’ and I could sort of see what she meant. The water channels were dry and the pond area murky and slightly smelly. The only other child present during our visit was poking round rather disconsolately with a stick. You couldn’t really sit on the grass, and the planting was all environmentally-sound species like clover and prairie-style grasses, with little that was sensually arresting. Despite its claims of encouraging biodiversity, the park’s the only obvious wildlife was some fat feral pigeons waddling round, and we can see those pretty much anywhere.

pond area

planting and signageMaybe the shortcoming was mine, but  les jardins des Grands Moulins – Abbé  Pierre somehow felt almost like the Emperor’s New Clothes…

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La Folie Titon

Here’s a better example of sustainability in the parks of Paris. I wrote the other day about the park department’s rather ham-fisted attempts to introduce biodiversity in the grand parc Monceau in the 8th arrondissement. Today I saw a much better version.
general view of parkIt was in le jardin de la Folie Titon, a neighbourhood park in a fairly gritty part of the 11th arrondissement. Once this was a grand country estate on the outskirts of Paris, owned by Louis XIV’s secretary Évrard Titon du Tillet. It later became a wallpaper factory and, when that was demolished, in 2007 the city created this little (0.5 hectare) park.

pondjardin partagéThere is a splendid 150 square metre pond with a viewing platform, designed to encourage biodiversity, various beds of woody plants with informative but unobtrusive botanical signs, and a jardin partagé – thirteen allotments gardened by (among others) local school children and a group of people in wheelchairs. These features are complemented by an area of lawn with amphitheatre style seating, small playgrounds and a sandpit.

botanical signboardwalk

It’s well-maintained, informative and popular, and seems to me an excellent example of how to create a sustainable and attractive public park.


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Paris is gaining something of a ‘green’ reputation – with its Vélib’ bike-rental scheme, its organic markets, and a profusion of pocket parks and vertical gardens.

For the City parks department, one of the trickiest issues in this move to a more sustainable Paris is the management of the grass in the capital’s public parks. As the title of this post suggests, lawns are traditionally maintained with lavish applications of pesticides and fertilisers, and a fierce regime of cutting, clipping and watering. How can you ensure that – without mowing, without chemicals – park lawns look appealingly sustainable, rather than simply unkempt and abandoned?

At our local park, Monceau, the parks department is trying two approaches. First, it is continuing to mow sections of the grass in great sweeping curves, leaving islands and swathes of longer, more mixed greenery. It’s the approach recommended in a seminal article by Joan Iverson Nassauer, who found that the wholesale reinstatement of native vegetation generates little positive response; people perceive something as beautiful and valuable only if they can see evidence of continuing human intervention. Basically, we need to know that the “weeds” are meant to be there.

'Weeds' under treesFlowering grassSecondly, the parks department is putting up signs to explain what it is doing (regular readers of this blog will know my fascination with signage). Notices at the entrance to the park, for instance, explain that the site is now certified as being “ecologically managed,” preparing visitors perhaps for some non-traditional features. Once inside, other signs among the long grass gently explain that “we are letting native flora grow” or “we’re creating meadows to encourage biodiversity.”

sign about native florasign about meadows

But there is a danger in this approach. Christopher Lloyd (of Great Dixter fame) worried over a decade ago that, in an effort to produce more sustainable sites, authorities might start sponsoring worthy but unattractive gardens, designed to teach people environmental lessons, and with “little informative plaques” explaining why they looked so awful. And I think we are heading that way now at Monceau. Look at these recent examples, where gentle pointers about the advantages of sustainability have given way to stern prohibitions and ugly exclusion zones.

Exclusion zoneAnother exclusion zoneAnd in any event, all this effort at promoting sustainability has only gone so far. The parks department has had the sprinklers running at Monceau every day this week…

Sprinkers at MonceauI’d love to read comments about what you think of the approach at Monceau – and about what your local parks department is doing (or not doing) to introduce more sustainable lawn care practices.

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