Super Bloom: New Floral Frontiers in Public Planting Design

Immersive, thoughtful and resilient planting is the unsung hero of some of the world’s most celebrated urban places – a design device/attractor that’s often underused or valued. Using high-intensity, naturalistic planting in a way that connects with people and commands attention, landscape architects can add value to public open spaces beyond the accepted ecological and green infrastructure benefits. How can we, as designers, open eyes and minds to the powerful impact of stunning ‘wild’ urban gardens, and encourage greater buy-in and proliferation?

The High Line, New York. Photo by Michael McCoy.

The misunderstood magic of the High Line

The High Line is an interesting conundrum. Imitations of this most influential and adored landscape project are ubiquitous. But, just like our favourite unknown musician becoming successful, there can be an inevitable backlash; numerous half-baked copies appear, and then we forget what made it great in the first place.

The High Line in New York spends approximately US$18 million annually on the maintenance of the extensive planting along its 2.5 kilometre length, as well as the management and operation of its public activation program.

The High Line, New York. Photo by Michael McCoy

Speaking with Robert Hammond, the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the High Line, he revealed that their visitor surveys indicate the park’s planting is the number one touchpoint for visitors, with 95% also indicating it as their reason to return. Conversely, 5% of visitors cited the programming as something that left an impression. Overall, the three things that people most wanted more of were planting, art, and programming.

The planting design of Piet Oudolf is rarely cited as a reason why numerous urban landscape design briefs include a precedent picture of the High Line, or why a consultant’s concept design includes a detail of its planting and paving. Preference is usually given to ‘activation’ as an attractor to an urban project – usually through food and beverage and occasionally via event spaces for pop-ups – ahead of planting.

Oudolf knows better, summing it up in the 2015 book he co-authored with Noel Kingsbury, titled Hummello: A Journey Through a Plantsman’s Life: “The group of tourists looks out over the city. One takes a photograph while others point to something in the cityscape. The view down the street from two stories high, however, soon exhausts their interest and they move on. Just a few feet later, something else seizes the attention of one of the members of the group – a flower in front of her. Soon everyone is photographing it. Progress along the elevated walkway keeps being delayed by plants, which attract their attention again and again.”

Of course, $18 million is at the high end of the scale for maintenance and we cannot expect budgets like this to be the norm for all public planting. The work of practitioners such as Nigel Dunnett in the UK, however, has demonstrably shown the increased footfall and dwell time achieved in high impact planting projects such as The Barbican in London, or Grey to Green in Sheffield – both of which have been achieved on local government budgets and maintenance regimes.

The High Line, New York. Photo by Michael McCoy
The High Line, New York. Planting detail. Photo by Michael McCoy
The High Line, New York. Planting detail. Photo by Michael McCoy

Plant blindness

Unfortunately, proposing large expanses of planting on a public project, to the point where it becomes truly immersive and engaging, is a hard sell. Australian lifestyle programs such as Gardening Australia and Dream Gardens, are incredibly popular, as are exhibitions such as the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show. We easily accept the idea of ‘the garden’ within our own fence lines, but unfortunately, too often the concept doesn’t extend into the public open spaces of our cities – instead we have acres of lomandra and Philodendron ‘Xanadu’.

‘Plant blindness’ is a term coined twenty years ago by Elisabeth Schussler and James Wandersee, botanists from the United States. They refer to “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment,” which leads to “the inability to recognise the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs.” Plant blindness also comprises an “inability to appreciate the aesthetic and unique biological features” of plants and “the misguided, anthropocentric ranking of plants as inferior to animals, leading to the erroneous conclusion that they are unworthy of human consideration.”

Further research into plant blindness shows a demonstrable preference among children for images of fauna versus flora. This is for a variety of reasons, including the lack of a face, movement, colour variety and – with increased urban living – a lack of physical connection with plants.

Why is something as beautiful as a colourful, densely-planted garden in the city such a hard sell?

Jon Hazelwood

As landscape architects, we instinctively know that greater density of tree plantings and more green, open space is a good thing for cities. Cities create iterations of ‘green grids’ and x-million tree programs, but if city residents aren’t engaged and overjoyed with this planting – enough to become champions and stewards of their city’s flora – then these initiatives stall when it comes to implementation.

There are reams of quantitative research into the environmental benefits of city greening and tree canopy expansion, but less so on the value of our emotional responses to it. We need to arm ourselves with evidence of the ‘wow factor’, the excitement and engagement created through immersive planting schemes (and the inevitable ‘Instagram moments’ that come with it) to ensure buy-in from city-shapers and makers.

Immersive urban gardens – A new floral frontier

In January of 2019, the Victorian Government announced HASSELL and New York based architects SO-IL as the designers of the new public realm and landscape for Australia’s Melbourne Arts Precinct Transformation. The project will deliver around 20,000 sqm of public open space, stitching together the National Gallery of Victoria, the Arts Centre Melbourne, and a number of new cultural buildings. The design proposal is simple and clear – fill the space with plants and then carve out the various ancillary, performance and movement spaces. But, the planting will be of a scale and complexity previously unseen in Australian cities, and will be designed in collaboration with world-renowned horticulturalists James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett from the University of Sheffield.

Professors Hitchmough and Dunnett are world leaders in creating ‘high impact, low input’ urban planting proposals – a body of work that’s often referred to as ‘The Sheffield School of Planting’. Much of their research centres on the emotional responses to this style of planting, which takes its cues from spectacles in nature, such as a Californian super bloom or kilometres of fox tail lilies (Eremurus tianschanicus), flowering at once on the steppes of Kyrgyzstan. Their work explores how these breathtaking floral events can be replicated in an urban setting as ‘designed plant communities’ and how we respond to these events.

Fox tail lillies (Eremurus tianschanicus) flowering in Kyrgyzstan. Photo by James Hitchmough.

Planting vs program – which delivers the best high?

In the paper, All about the ‘wow factor’? The relationships between aesthetics, restorative effect and perceived biodiversity in designed urban planting, Hitchmough et al collected the responses of over 1400 members of the public who walked through planting of varying structure, species character, and percentage of flower cover, while completing a site-based questionnaire.

The research demonstrated an emotional response of ‘excitement’ and ‘elation’ to planting that was highly floral, and a response of ‘calm’ and ‘relaxed’ to predominantly ‘green’ vegetation. “Percentage of flower cover had the single largest main effect on aesthetic perceptions. Planting with a flower cover above a threshold of 27% was perceived as significantly more colourful, attractive and had a higher perceived invertebrate benefit than planting with a lower flower cover.”

While we all need moments of calm and relaxation in our busy urban lives, it’s the moments of elation – and the subsequent triggering of endorphins – that create return visits and excitement in our public realm. These are the very same responses that a marketing consultant would attempt to elicit using food and beverage activation and ‘pop-up’ stuff.

This appreciation of the emotional response to planting (not just its green infastructure credentials), is being slowly accepted in Europe and the United Kingdom. Projects such as Grey to Green by Sheffield City Council, The Barbican in London by Nigel Dunnett, Beethovenplein in Amsterdam by Ton Muller, and Kings Cross in London by Dan Pearson, all demonstrate public support and return visits that would make a branding consultant hot under the collar.

The Grey to Green project in Sheffield, UK. Image by Nigel Dunnett

Learning to embrace the ‘urban garden’ together

So, where are these schemes in Australia? Of course I would argue that they’re coming with the Melbourne Arts Precinct Transformation, but I’m still constantly amazed by the response to landscape, trees, and in particular, the word ‘garden’. Why is something as beautiful as a colourful, densely-planted garden in the city such a hard sell?

As Julian Raxworthy notes in his book: Overgrown: Practices Between Landscape Architecture and Gardening, perhaps the problem stems from our own profession – with landscape architecture distancing itself from gardening, and landscape architects “taking pains to distinguish themselves from gardeners or landscapers”?

I have to be honest and admit my past frustration when a fellow architect or client called me a landscaper or garden designer. But I’m now happy to embrace this. It has taken getting my own hands dirty – testing, killing, and most importantly, watching plants and how they respond to the seasons and different growing conditions, to feel fully connected to what should be the landscape architect’s primary artistic material.

To quote Nigel Dunnett, in his writing for the Melbourne Arts Precinct project, our public landscapes should be ‘exuberant and overwhelming in their beauty, provoking a deep, uplifting, joyful and sublime emotional response’ and we need more local research into these responses, along with more hard monetary facts. Let it not be forgotten that the High Line has brought an estimated US$1.5 billion to its surroundings, not bad for a giant 2.3km-long garden. Beat that, ‘activated food and beverage street’.

Cover image by Jon Hazelwood.