Public Planting: Do We Care About It?
Frosted public planting - Chippenham - in early January
I didn't expect to be returning to public planting so soon, but after last week's post on the subject, Anna (thank you!) sent me details of a recent article in The Telegraph which needs a little comment and debate right here, right now.
Harvard Professor Martha Schwarz claims that the poor standard of our parks and other open spaces is due to the British public attaching less importance to them than we do to our own gardens.
I think it's great that people want to express their individuality through their gardens, she said. However, the romanticised ideologies attached to this are holding Britain's back from thinking about the wider issues that face their landscape. By this, I do not mean only the British countryside, but the space "in between" buildings, which is a notion people in Britain struggle with.
She has a point, but my preliminary research into this topic shows there are other factors at play. The RHS (The Garden, May 2008) cites a decline in funding since the 1970s which has seen council parks departments and other institutions reduce the range of plants used in public displays. I've also found a couple of council design specifications for urban areas on the internet which clearly state the need for low start-up costs and low ongoing maintenance solutions for their outdoor spaces. One even goes as far as recommending confining their planting to trees only.
In my own experience there's also a general inertia amongst lots of people for anything in the public domain really, not just our open spaces. There's a belief these things are someone else's responsibility: "it's what I pay my council tax for". Think about what would happen if our councils no longer had the responsibility to look after our open spaces and it was up to us instead. Would it be any better? Would enough of us care?
Fortunately there are exceptions to the general dross, both by public bodies and public led: the Radstock planting we glimpsed last week is a well designed open space, looking good even on a very dull January day. But it's interesting it came about because there's an ongoing regeneration project in the town at the moment, thus perhaps there's a little extra money available and public will to make something of the town. Noel Kingsbury is working with Bristol City council to improve urban spaces there, particularly roadside plantings. Professor Schwarz could potentially benefit from one of these initiatives herself as her company is on the shortlist for the King's Cross Square regeneration project. There's also a whole raft of community initiatives around such as the annual Britain in Bloom competition and work undertaken by organisations like Groundwork. And, dare I say it after last week's Gardeners' Question Time debacle, guerrilla gardening shows there are many people out there who are keen to improve their own community's surroundings and are prepared to take their own practical measures to do so.
It's not a perfect world and there's much room for improvement. However, I believe the issues are more complex than Professor Schwarz suggests. What do you think? Are you involved in Britain In Bloom, another community initiative or guerrilla gardening? Perhaps you work for a council or another public body and can give us a different perspective. I'd love to hear about your experiences.
After last week's posting, it's clear you have an interest in public planting. Thus I'm considering introducing a quarterly meme to take a look at it through the seasons. The first one's set for March and I'll tell you more about it then.