Landscapes in Transition
“The world is ‘changed’. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was, is lost; for none now live who remember it.”
These are the words of the Galadriel, the Elvish Queen in JRR Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’. She is describing the transitions in Middle Earth and her fears for the future as a Dark Necromancer rises in the east and gains power. But it is not just about a threat from an evil power, it is a philosophical recognition that nothing ultimately stays the same.
The analogy should not be lost on us who live on Planet Earth! We may not have orcs and trolls running around the streets of Sheffield (well not after freshers week anyway), but we are faced with a world undergoing transition. The reality is of course, that there is nothing new about a changing world; most of us don’t live in cycad forests or bump into velociraptors down the pub anymore. Things have moved on. What perhaps is genuinely new though, is the rate of that change. We are in an era of massive environmental, social, cultural and technological change, and change that is happening fast. As a society we are faced with huge challenges due to this rate of change, but also immense opportunities.
So why chose landscape architecture to get a better handle on these challenges and opportunities? Well quite simply, I love to understand the world around me and with the possible exception of astronomy, landscape is about as wide and all-encompassing as it can get. Also within the landscape architecture discipline, I am a very rare ‘sub-species’ called a landscape scientist (I think the Landscape Institute has about three ‘on the books’). My own personal motivation is to delve deeper on some of the common issues within landscape architecture and help dissect ‘the whys and the wherefores’. So it is about the landscape we live in, but also about science and that whole world of exploration. It is about constantly challenging contemporary thinking and using factually coherent arguments to hopefully make things better. Science by definition tends to be reductionist in nature, however, I believe landscape science allows its observations to be much more aware of context. This is important as it is not just about how does A affect B in some isolated ‘theoretical test-tube’, but what are the additional ripple effects on C, D and E? So the science of landscape architecture deals with the challenges outlined above, but in an encompassing, holistic manner and at a ‘landscape’ scale.
As old as the hills …‘Reading a landscape’ often involves detective work. Scientific processes can help illuminate a landscape’s physical, ecological, cultural and even emotional aspects. The photograph may imply a ‘benign and static’ landscape, but in reality it is one that has undergone considerable ecological, social and cultural change over the last 500 years.
My own specific specialism is plant science – how do plants grow, why do they grow in certain places and not others, why are some better-adapted for certain conditions or habitats more than others and why are the range of plants used in design often so limited. Looking at where a plant comes from, the conditions it survives in within the wild, and how it adapts to these conditions i.e. its ecophysiology, can give us some clues to how these plants can be used in the human landscape. There are still surprises however, for example some drought adapted (xerophytic) plants, such as those found in the Mediterranean region, can have surprising good levels of tolerance to water-logging (see figure below).
It is though, also about plants in the wider context – what wildlife do they attract, why do people like them so much (and not just to eat!), how do they interact with the big questions of the day – e.g. their potential to mitigate the effects of climate change, to help provide habitat for fauna (especially in unusual or challenging places such as city centres), to improve the quality of life for humans and even to help off-set depression and other key illnesses. As a scientist though, landscape architecture allows the theory to be put into practice. It isn’t just about papers on dusty shelves, it is about lobbying policy makers, dealing with reality on the ground and activating real change.
Not all plants are equally suited to urban environments. Survival and harvestable weight (biomass) of Mediterranean plant species exposed to flooding stress at different times of year (winter v spring v summer). Summer flooding is far more detrimental than flooding at other times due to higher soil temperatures reducing oxygen levels. Note though that not all species have the same susceptibility to this stress.
A strong driver for me has been the ambition to see a more diverse and interesting landscape, that different regions and locations retain their individual identity and character. In a rural context I am keen to see resilient, ecologically-sound landscapes – ideally with the full complement of native flora and fauna. I am certainly one in favour of restoring the Forest of Caledon in my native Scotland. Not only is it desirable to see this populated by strong populations of capercaillie, black grouse, cross bills and crested tits, but also lynx, boar and wolf; at least in certain locations with appropriate landscape scales and species ranges being viable. These are the keystone species, allowing for richer, more complex ecological interactions to occur, and providing new niches that other species can exploit. I am not in favour of this because it is ecologically ‘right’, but the fact that it is intrinsically ‘interesting’. As such, in addition to the ecological benefits, I think the economic arguments are strong for example in terms of tourist potential and spin-off cottage industries.
Regenerating the ancient Forest of Caledon. Whether the north of Britain actually looked liked this in its entirety in a previous era is a moot point with ecologists and landscape historians. Nevertheless, this form of landscape has opportunities for increasing biological diversity and economic opportunities.
In an urban context, I would like to see plants used much more effectively and the boundaries between grey and green infrastructure become much more blurred. Indeed as a trained horticulturalist I am keen to see the wide and extensive value of ‘ornamental’ landscape plants realised more fully. These have traditionally been grown for the sole purpose that they are ornamental, i.e. attractive to look at and have aesthetic value. This has meant, however, that their roles can be trivialised, by policy makers, but also by practitioners in the landscape and other end users. I see this trivialisation as a distinct problem. These plants are not trivial – nothing could be further from the truth – I believe their role in our day to day lives is almost as important as the role edible plants have in our society. So called ‘ornamentals’ produce a whole range of ‘societal services’ including ability to clean air, water and contaminated soil, to provide city-wide cooling and combat urban heat islands, to improve the energy dynamics of nearby buildings, to regulate hydrological flows, to provide habitat for wildlife, to enhance social and economic capital, to impact strongly on our quality of life with the potential to improve health and well-being in many individuals as well as give locations a strong identity. Even just setting a conventional school in a green space improves the academic performance of the pupils that attend the school. Thus ornamentals are important!
A Rose by any other name…Pretty perhaps, but does it have other attributes that help it perform in the landscape? How do we determine the other ‘functional favours’ that landscape plants confer?
Much of my recent research has been focussed on trying to quantify the precise extent of these benefits that ornamental landscape plants confer. One of the fascinating aspects of this is how individual genotypes can strongly influence the level of service provision on offer, and how this may impact on the landscape designs of the future. We could see plant communities being promoted in certain situations for their ability to transpire large quantities of water and thus keep their immediate location cool, in a similar manner that current ones are promoted primarily due to their aesthetic colour or form. Hopefully, many landscapes of the future will be a case of form and function working in harmony together.
Research on the thermal properties of plants. In UK conditions a plant can keep a wall (and hence a building) 3 to 4oC cooler than normal, thereby significantly reducing the energy used in summer via artificial air conditioning.
In line with this research theme, I feel we need to move away from the concept that ornamental / landscape plants are something to add in at the end of a development (if they are remembered at all). I know they can be costly, need some degree of maintenance and can be messy by throwing their leaves and fruit around the place. On the flip side, we as a species have not evolved one bit (psychological speaking!) from the era of the caveman. There is good evidence to suggest we need green in the spaces we live in. Our psyche is tuning in to viewing natural shapes and forms. We need green spaces as an antidote to life in front of the computer and the steering wheel. Deprived of green space and access to the natural world (so called Nature Deficit Syndrome) can lead to a range of psychological and social problems. So why is it often the last thing on the wish list in the process of urban development?
Stachys byzantina – an urban super plant! – drought and (to some degree) water-logging tolerant, but also able to provide localised cooling via reflecting sunlight and through high evapotranspiration rates when soil moisture levels allow. Nectar too, provides a ‘service’ to pollinating insects such as this red-tailed bumble bee (Bombus lapidaries).
Not only is this disengagement with green space a threat to our well-being – it has significant consequences for our attitudes to other living entities. Essentially, if we don’t know about nature, we won’t care for it; we will be trapped in an ever-increasing anthropocentric view of the world. This is probably most manifest with respect to the information that appears in the media from time to time about children’s (and increasingly adults’) knowledge about food and where it comes from – milk is ‘produced’ in a plastic bottle and sausages come from Tesco’s – not from a pig! This nature deficit syndrome has other manifestations too, captured by statements such as:
“Nature = OK in the right place – but not everywhere”!
“Wilderness = A place you stand around in and get cold”
“Scary Nature” and more worryingly “Dirty, Messy Nature”.
Recently a young adult visiting the giant redwoods described the experience as = BORING
This is not particularly surprising when a DEFRA survey from a few years ago suggest that 20% of children had never visited the countryside. Between 1997 and 2003 alone, it is thought the proportion of children (9-12 years old) in the USA who spent time hiking, walking, fishing, playing on the beach or gardening declined by 50%. Living in solely grey cities, people are becoming divorced from nature.
For many urban dwellers engagement with the natural world is a rare opportunity, and now the family pet has to suffice for any biophilic interactions.
So the inclusion and direct access / exposure to urban green space becomes increasingly important, as large components of our increasingly urban-dominated society have little understanding or concept about the countryside, never mind true wilderness. In essence, those engagements with the urban fox and magpie in the city park become vital if in the longer term an appreciation and concern for the elephant, panda and rhino is to be fostered at all. As such, much of the conservation agenda for the 21st century will be determined by the inclusion and design or our urban green spaces. As a landscape scientist then this becomes the important ‘battleground’ to present the ‘need for nature’ case both for preservation of rare and precious species, but also for our own future.
Embracing green space more fully and more effectively in an urban context, may in itself throw up a few surprises. What we once saw as ‘static behaviour’ in the plants and animals that are intimate with our urban world is beginning to change. The aggressive territorial rural robin is beginning to tolerate its neighbour, as a plethora of feeding stations in suburban gardens result in food supplies being more bountiful. Some animal species are becoming ‘chilled out critters’ – much more languid in their behaviour than their rural cousins. When surprised or threatened, their endocrine systems release lower-than-usual amounts of stress hormones. This is an adaptive behavioural response to an environment that is full of noise, light and frequent interactions with humans and their pets. In essence, urbanisation in itself is becoming an evolutionary driver. There is also some evidence that species that were traditionally ‘urban avoiders’ are becoming more bold and entering our cities to exploit the green spaces and food sources that are present. This includes moose, coyote, wolf and if in India – leopard! This makes walking the dog in the evening somewhat ‘more stimulating’!
Moose (elk) and other large mammals are becoming ‘city slickers’ in those suburban areas where ecological niche opportunities present themselves. In the case of elk in Scandinavia there is less hunting pressure than in the rural hinterland.
I mentioned that landscape is about as wide and all-encompassing as it can get, with the exception of the study of astronomy. But I am doing landscape architecture a disservice! Once landscape architects have made their contribution to combatting the effects of climate change, global population growth, land degradation and biodiversity loss on planet Earth, the next key challenge is terraforming. This the process by which (as yet theoretically) we manipulate the landscapes and atmosphere of other planets such as Mars to allow carbon-based life to be viable. This may still be some way off, but the future is exciting and in case I haven’t mentioned it before – change can happen fast.
From Middle Earth to Mars via Planet Earth that’s probably enough for now!