|Nature in the city has gotta look pretty. The New York High Line
In a recent, and well-argued post, fellow blogger Thomas Rainer quotes landscape architect Martha Schwartz as saying that “Americans treat nature like Victorians treated women: as virgins or whores”.
I know what she means: landscapes are either wild or they are not, and not-wild-landscapes in the US tend to be treated in a way which is almost abusive – the sadistically-mown grass and cruelly-clipped evergreens. Thomas though is interested in the nature side of the quotation – that “if nature (OUT THERE) is not some pristine wilderness, then it’s not nature”. As he points out there is very little pristine nature left.
All this is part of a discussion about a very thought-provoking book (Rambunctious Nature by scince writer Emma Marris) which I raised in a blog last year. I'd like to carry on the conversation.
Thomas announces that “now is the era of the designer”, that landscape designers will have an increasingly important role in designing nature, that “(t)he ecological warriors of the future will be gardeners, horticulturists, land managers, Department of Transportation staff, elementary school teachers, and community association board members. Anyone who can influence a small patch of land has the ability to create more nature. And the future nature will look more and more like a garden.”
Too right. Which raises all sorts of questions about “what is nature?”, “what is a garden?”.
They are liking it wild at last! - changing public perceptions of what a garden is
Increasingly people are appreciating gardens and public plantings that are far wilder than anything that would have been acceptable in the past. The New York High Line is probably the best example of that. Nature in the city is now seen as not just ok but highly desirable. At least in the industrialised world (it'll take a while to catch on in China!). Managing nature in the city involves habitat creation and management which is a kind of gardening. This is not actually that new – the Dutch have been doing this since the 1930s in the parks of Amstelveen.
Recently, on a trip to South America, I saw what garden designer Amalia Robredo was doing with her land in Uruguay. A lot of her 'gardening' is actually land management – deciding what to cut, when to cut it, on the basis of aesthetic decisions (to encourage spring or summer flowers for example) or functional (such as short-grass around seating areas to discourage snakes). Increasingly this land management will be seen as part and parcel of normal garden practice. Part of the reason for this is that more and more of us are gardening places which used to be farmland, but which is now uneconomic to farm; Amalia's land used to be rangeland, my own here in the Welsh borders used to be sheep pasture, and before that, arable crops.
BUT - people like their nature stylised
Especially in urban areas. Hence the incredible success of the Dunnett and Hitchmough Olympic Park plantings in London and of course the High Line. There is nothing wrong with this, so long as people realise that this is 'enhanced nature' or 'stylised nature' and not the real thing. Given how difficult it is to actually see the 'real thing', it is probably more important for us all to realise that what we are looking at may be a fantastic wildlife habitat, but that there are a whole lot of species (mammal, bird, primarily) which will not choose to live here, because they need bigger territories or need to be well away from humans. The ReservaEcológica Costenera Sur in the middle of Buenos Aires for example is never going to have any jaguars, nor the NY High Line any mountain lions.
A point that Emma Marris makes in Rambunctious Nature is that this stylised nature offends some people, the 'ecologists' who are still wedded to the idea that 'nature' is something which can only happen 'out there' and untrammelled by us (Martha Schwartz's virgin/whore dichotomy). The central thrust of her book is that 'nature' should be seen as anywhere where natural processes have at least some leeway; certainly including the weedy waste ground at the end of the road.
Anyway, what is nature?
An awful lot of what we think of as 'natural' is actually human-managed, or human-impacted. This was one of the points I was trying to make from Bolivia a few weeks back. So many cherished landscapes are actually farmland, or were trashed by our ancestors. Some human management actually improves biodiversity (a heretical thought for eco-purists), as in European hay meadows or fire-managed Midwest prairie and savannah.
One of the most insidious illusions of a particular romantic and often quite techno-phobic way of thinking is that our ancestors: 'traditional societies' or 'indigenous peoples', cherished nature, lived in balance with it, and we are somehow different. Hardly. We just have more destructive tools. Our ancestors consciously manipulated nature or made huge impacts on it in many different ways (again see the Bolivia post). These ways are sometimes so deep in the past that we are not aware of them – we do not even know what 'nature' is.
- Fire – some areas have had millennia of burning for game management (much of the grasslands of the Americas, Australia, Scotland)
- Mass extinction – our tribal ancestors wiped out wildlife on an epic scale, with the Maori killing of the giant moa birds in New Zealand simply one of the latest episodes.
- Farming – whether through slash-and-burn or more sophisticated methods, vast area of the globe have been cultivated at some stage.
I believe it is important that these illusions make it very difficult for us to appreciate the history of our wild and not-so-wild places, and therefore complicates the task of how we think about managing them in the future.
Farming, and more eco-illusions
Ok, we want wild: we like it, and we want it because we have finally recognised that the rest of creation has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of (whatever passes for happiness in a newt's brain) as we have. We are getting used to the idea of nature in cities, and gardens, and that we can garden in such a way as to maximise it. We want nature reserves and national parks and wilderness areas – the latter probably as much to feed our own illusions about the 'wilderness' as actually to protect nature. And many of us would actually like a lot more for this kind of nature than there is currently is. We like to hike in it, birdwatch in it, see in on telly in David Attenborough programmes, above all to know it is there.
There is an awful lot of us, and we are getting more, and richer, and when people get richer they demand more food, and more cotton, and palm oil and all the other stuff that consumer-humans want.
And the biggest destroyer of unmanaged landscapes is the agriculture which produces all this stuff.
Which is why we need to ensure that agriculture uses land really efficiently. This is something which again attracts lots of feel-good sounding eco-illusions. Many of the so-called sustainable farming approaches, such as organics, may be good and appropriate for marginal regions but fail utterly to deliver the sheer volume of calories needed. It is right and proper that fertile flat places are used for intensive arable production – with some areas set aside for nature of course. They can take the pressure off more biodiverse, more vulnerable habitats.
In thinking about how we 'garden the earth' I would suggest that this is the biggest blind-spot many people have – the failure to appreciate how efficient farming and nature conservation actually dovetail. Think of the earth as a garden, with a well-run tidy vegetable patch, a lawn area to play on, some nice wild borders and a really wild unmanaged bit somewhere.
The nation as garden – the Dutch analogy
'Gardening the earth' – was an expression I dreamt up years ago, in a essay for a collection in a book called Vista – Culture and Politics of Gardens.
It is interesting to develop this analogy: we need places to grow food, to live, and for nature. The Netherlands seems to have come pretty close to this, with its very dense juxtapositioning of land for living, working, recreation, some of the productive farming on the planet, and yet with a long and pioneering history of habitat creation, and one of the most radical departures in wilderness creation – the Oostvaardeersplassen.
We have far more to thank those sensible, level-headed Dutch for than just tulips!
So, we are getting used to the idea of the earth as a garden. Often badly managed by us, and by our deep ancestors, for sure, but as we learn more about our ecological history, and about ecological processes, we can become better managers. We need to. As we are just about to reach a point where designed vegetation will play a vital role in how we manage the planet.
In April Piet Oudolf and I are bringing out another book – on planting design. The introduction however makes the point that we are expecting plants to do more and more for us: wetlands to manage sustainable drainage systems, green roofs to moderate the extremes of urban climates, bioremediation planting to purify effluent, living walls to clean the air. Managed vegetation will play a more and more important role in reducing the impacts of climate change, and might even help reverse the rise in CO2. Nurturing nature will not just be about creating habitat, but about planet-management too. As we nurture nature it in turn will nurture us.