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Nature under totalitarian rule

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.”


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.


18 comments on “Nature under totalitarian rule

  1. Adam
    May 20, 2011

    Great article.

    Why in your opinion is it that Paris can’t manage grass? In the English parks of my youth we played football and cricket, rode bikes, ran and jumped, and there was always never less than a comfortable green blanket beneath us. Where kids are allowed to play on the grass in Paris there’s soon none of the stuff left, and they then have to close it off again for 6 months until it grows back again.

    Were those English parks of my childhood full of pesticides and fertilisers?

    Concerning the creation of natural meadows, I’m all for it, but closing them off to the public just seems ridiculous.

    • landscapelover
      May 21, 2011

      Adam, thanks. I suspect the rapid wearing away of the grass in the parks of Paris (compared with those in the UK) is a result of the city’s relatively warmer, drier climate, the grass being mown too often or too short, and the intensity of use – given the fact that virtually no-one in Paris has a garden, and so many parks are unbelievably packed with people.
      That, and perhaps a touch of nostalgia in our memories of childhood…!

  2. I agree with the comment above. It is crazy to close off the areas, especially how they did it so ‘unnaturally.’ All the signs and the barricades. This falls under, ‘What were they thinking.’

  3. Michael B.Gordon
    May 21, 2011

    Thanks for a great post. I work on some public spaces in New Hampshire, USA and am glad to hear of the Nassauer article. Education, ecology and trying to keep public spaces beautiful can be a challenging combination. I still haven’t tackled the fertilization issue but is on my “to do” list.

    • landscapelover
      May 21, 2011

      Thanks for calling by. The Nassauer article is great – based on research and full of practical proposals for introducing ecological design in a way that people can understand and appreciate.

  4. lula alvarez
    May 21, 2011

    Fascinating topic! I feel ambivalent, because on the hand you have to care for the green spaces, and on the other why do you have them if not for the public use? Children must be able to understand how nature grows (that brings me memories of play and freedom!) I totally agree with you that intelligent use of signage must be for educating not for alienate parks/nature from their public/users, like a museum: see, don’t touch! But there is also the problem of density of population especially in metropolis. Taking decisions seems to be hard, therefore they don’t take any!!!

  5. maggie
    May 22, 2011

    Mown lawns are reliable and predictable, and provide a resilient floor for outdoor rooms such as parks. And grass is good at enduring trampling, flooding and vehicle driving.
    Green spaces can be imagined too literally, with green equaling lawn and open meaning a floor of grass onto which people can sort themselves comfortably, and all sorts of activities can be projected.
    Your photos of good-intentioned lawn modification and interpretive signage show the kind of earnest efforts that don’t engage my attention–some great content without a form.
    From a design standpoint, I’d say that changing one’s approach to the site material (grass) and management (water, upkeep) requires changing the supporting design structure. I’m not advocating tearing up Monceau, just saying that the imposition of a new concept, and one that is not reinforced by a strong physical design, doesn’t integrate itself or highlight the existing Monceau surroundings, which are part of an earlier design approach.

    • landscapelover
      May 23, 2011


      What an interesting viewpoint – that it’s impossible successfully to graft a new approach driven by sustainability onto an existing traditional form. I’m not sure that I fully agree with you (after all, Monceau has developed from a mad, Disney-esque eighteenth century pleasure ground into today’s naturalistic public park while maintaining something of the same design structure) but it does help explain why some of the changes being trialled at Monceau seem unlikely to stick.

      • maggie
        May 23, 2011

        I wouldn’t say that it’s impossible—there are lots of historic sites whose contemporary faces differ from their original ones—for me it’s more that an overlay, especially one driven by content, should have a design language to enhance it, and to acknowledge that it’s laid atop a non-static design history.
        But I think I need a field trip to examine this for myself!

  6. Kerry Hand
    May 23, 2011

    I believe the best solution is as you describe in part ” ….. to mow sections of the grass in great sweeping curves, leaving islands and swathes of longer, more mixed greenery…..”
    Why – well first because I just like the look. And the difference and contrast between the two is interesting.
    I always liked golf courses with the ‘fairway’ and the ‘rough’.
    It’s practical too. While green trimmed sward is not fashionable in ‘green’ theory it is in fact more comfortable to sit on, for children to play on and for sport.
    Here in Central Otago, New Zealand I absolutely love the wild grass of the field, and go to lengths to preserve it. However you would be crazy to go walk through it in bare feet. etc etc. So we do have a small trimmed lawn around the house where we can lie about and play.
    The combination of the two is just great usefully and visually. One enhances the other.
    See the post. http://thefieldofgold.blogspot.com/2010/08/green-lawn.html?utm_source=BP_recent
    see also the post on the lavender there.

    • landscapelover
      May 23, 2011

      Thanks for the link to your blog, where you describe a similar approach around your home. I agree with you that regularly mowing some of the grass seems a sensible approach – it meets Lula’s point (above) that visitors have to be able to use and enjoy a park, not just look at it. And it helps people understand that the longer grass is meant to be like that.
      But if you then continue to water and fertilise the mown grass, how far can you really say the park is being run sustainably? The combination of ugly “diversity zones” and daily sprinkler use at Monceau to me is a rather confusing message…

  7. Jill, I just got back from my son’s college graduation in North Carolina. The highway department there has replaced the large areas of mowed grass at interstate exits with large areas of beautiful meadow flowers–not necessarily native but still gorgeous and lower maintenance. In fact they were so beautiful I almost drove off the road admiring them. When we visited a rest area (bathrooms and vending machines with parking), I noticed that the whole canopy was native oaks and that native dogwoods, redbuds, hydrangeas, and fothergillas were prominently featured in the plantings along with non-invasive exotics. The alternative to grass is not necessarily unmowed grass and weeds. I think Paris needs to be a little more proactive in its approach. Carolyn

    • landscapelover
      May 24, 2011

      Thanks for the mouth-watering descriptions of North Carolina’s meadows and woodlands.
      I know in your recent post http://carolynsshadegardens.com/2011/05/02/letting-go-part-1-the-lawn/ you argued convincingly for people to abandon their high-maintenance, resource-hungry lawns and plant shrubs and perennials instead. At a domestic level, I entirely agree.
      One of the challenges for the parks department here is that the grass at Monceau is one of its most treasured features: virtually no-one in Paris has gardens and, on a pleasant day, you can barely see the park lawns for picnickers, playing kids and sunbathers. Leaving it to grow long is one thing, but I think riots would ensure if the city started digging it large parts of it up to make flower beds! It’s such a difficult, fascinating issue…

  8. Jill, Then I think they should go back to mowing the lawn (maybe less often) but not water or use chemicals on it. I understand that people need places to “play”, but I don’t think unkempt unmowed lawn serves this purpose. Carolyn

    • landscapelover
      May 26, 2011

      Hey, I think the parks department heard you – I was in Monceau today and the grass has been mown pretty much everywhere I think. But the signage is still there (presumably taken out for the mower and then put back in) so I guess the intention is to let some of it grow again.
      Parts of the grass are actually very pretty as it gets long, and there are lots more birds pecking about for seeds. So it seems to be having the desired effects of both increasing biodiversity and gently raising public awareness. But I hope we see fewer obviously unkempt and fenced off sections in future.

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This entry was posted on May 20, 2011 by in Paris, Parks and tagged , , .

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