Landscape as Protagonist?

Protagonist. The main character. The hero. It’s rare in the tales of our cities and their evolution that landscape, plants, and nature are ever assigned the role of protagonist. Secondary supporting roles perhaps, and sometimes even the villain, but rarely the lead. The reasons for this are many and varied. They relate to the economic and social systems within which we exist, and cultural ideas about how we see ourselves in the world. A recent symposium and upcoming publication titled Landscape as Protagonist, aims to explore this issue deeper, with the aim of finding a pathway forward, to a place in which landscape is BOSS.

Landscape as Protagonist symposium. Image supplied by Molonglo

Instigated by Molonglo Group, the Landscape as Protagonist symposium was a gathering of many minds connected to landscape in some way. Leading international landscape designers Dan Pearson and Thomas Doxiadis and artist/architect Marjetica Potrč joined local artists, landscape architects, property developers, gardeners, architects, researchers for a day of discussion at the Melbourne Botanic Gardens, on Kulin land. We poked and prodded the issue of landscape as lead – analysing existing challenges to the greening of urban spaces and proposing new ideas and ways of thinking about, and working with, landscape. It was a fascinating and ultimately hopeful day. I recently caught up with landscape designer Dan Pearson and Dan Honey, Executive Director of Creative Operations at Molonglo, to follow up on some of the ideas and issues raised within the symposium.

Landscape as Protagonist symposium. Image supplied by Molonglo
Landscape as Protagonist symposium. Image supplied by Molonglo


In new developments, the value placed on nature is illustrated by where landscape sits within the development process – typically at the end. Budgets reflect this position. Dan Pearson suggests this is one of the biggest obstacles to creating cities where landscape is the lead character. “Budgets allocated to landscape should not be undermined in the process of value engineering. They should be thought of as sacrosanct, as a foundation for the good heath of a development/building.”

He suggests that things are changing, that developers and architects are realising the importance of green space in cities. “People have become more aware of biodiversity and not divorcing ourselves from it… I do believe that developers and architects alike are now seeing that places that connect to greenery and gardens are places that are more comfortable and better to be in.”

Dan Honey also sees economics as the biggest challenge to the idea of landscape as protagonist. She says, “It’s financially difficult to get an exceptional planted space to work in building developments. To do things well is expensive. You need money to research, appoint a gardener or landscape architect, source and purchase the plants, provide good quality soil, irrigate the area and maintain it. At the same time, it’s difficult to yield any direct return on the planted areas in the short-term; so it is money out and no direct money in.” One way to address this challenge is to consider what we might be willing to go without, suggests Dan. “If developers don’t need to construct things like car parking or install services like air conditioning or premium, luxurious finishes and fixtures, there may be more money available for plants.”

Landscape as Protagonist symposium. Image supplied by Molonglo


Much of the conversation at the symposium floated around issues of (dis)connection. Connections between people, plants and place, connection between the act of designing and the act of tending landscapes, and ultimately acknowledging the truth of humans as nature, not as separate and above.

This is a fundamental, and perhaps deeply challenging, notion that dictates the terms of much of the current human/plant/place relationship. “It seems bizarre to me that we (humans) have been able to separate ourselves from nature but there was a collective feeling at the symposium that over time we have done so,” suggests Dan Honey. “To move towards a more holistic state, we need to exercise our agency and demand that nature be incorporated into our built environment, as it is essential and part of us.”

“We need to be prepared to get our own hands dirty and care for the planted spaces that surround us, not leaving it to somebody else.” This is an important point. Often in cities we don’t think about who tends the plants, the landscapes. It’s a job outsourced to councils and city maintenance teams, but maybe city gardening can, and should, be a collective action. Dan Honey points to the plant-lined streets of Tokyo as an example of citizen-led guerrilla gardening.

“Walking the streets of Tokyo is a beautiful thing and a good model for how we can collectively be more active. Here we see pot plants populating footpaths, median strips, up public staircases, at entrances to subway stations, on overpasses. This is a community action, not initiated or managed by government and private developers in any way. Here, we see people collectively committed to enhancing their environments through plantings and a preparedness to tend to them over the long term.” If we want better landscapes in cities, if we want landscape to lead, we as individual citizens have to be prepared to care, to garden.”

Connection to place was a thread that wound through conversations over the day. It began with Wurundjeri Elder, Uncle Dave Wandin, who spoke of the importance of knowing land, respecting land, listening to land. Questions of how the act of listening can strengthen connection to urban landscapes were raised. New developments in our cities can be incredibly generic, with the outcome being cookie cutter landscapes that say nothing, mean nothing. And if they don’t mean anything, how can we expect them to be valued? How can we expect them to be cared for? Perhaps the best place to start is to listen. “I was very moved by the connectedness of Uncle Dave to his land”, says Dan Pearson. “The land was part of his DNA and the way he saw it and the way to be in it was the way we are meant to live. I felt there was much to be learned from simply listening. It felt familiar, humbling and deeply resonant. If we are to engage properly with the place we live in, we can learn much from what landscape has to teach us.”

Landscape as Protagonist symposium. Image supplied by Molonglo


What does it actually look like when Landscape is the Protagonist? For me, it looks like a garden space that sings. It’s a public or private space that is vibrant, atmospheric and bold. It’s a wild, plant-filled space that stops traffic. A space that makes people slow down, look more, breathe deeply. It’s a space that people WANT to spend time in. It’s a space that speaks of the ecological and cultural layers of a site. It’s a space where plants have agency.

I asked Dan Honey what she thought it might look like when landscape plays the lead role. For her it’s about respecting plants and non-human nature. “I get disappointed when I see new development (public or private) incorporate green areas with little care or botanical knowledge. Too often I see areas planted out with ill-considered plants where the selection criteria is focused on two aspects: hardy and cheap. It’s tokenistic and demeans the real value of what plants can do. An urban environment where the plants are the hero would be seasonally changing, provisioning, cultural, self-regulating and wild. This is what I’d like to see… So often we try to keep plants hemmed in place. I’d like to see what would happen if we gave up on this and let plants do what they do best – grow and reproduce.”

I love this sentiment. Let’s just give up on the control and let plants do what they do best. Maybe this is what it all comes down to – a protagonist is someone/something with agency – a leader. If we truly want to see landscape as protagonist, maybe we just need to get out of the way.

Dan Pearson, Marjetica Potrč, Thomas Doxiades (L-R). Landscape as Protagonist symposium. Image supplied by Molonglo