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.


  1. I suspect other factors are the low skills / prestige of those who maintain public spaces and a consequent over reliance on machinery. And loss of public parading as the Victorians used to call it, when a family would go for a walk in a park (or public cemetery) and wanted to see first class planting.

  2. Good points Philip - the lack of funding I spoke about affecting plant choice has also meant a decline in the number of people looking after our public spaces. This has also led to a mechanisation of the process - which in turn has led to the kind of activity like I talked about in my pruning rage piece last year. I'd also like to know the kind of training/supervsion the people contracted to do this kind of work have had in horticultural matters.

  3. And yes, people working in the horticultural industry tend to be very poorly paid - even those who had first class training at places like Kew and Wisley.

  4. My Grandfather was a professional gardener and planted many of the new estates in Barking & Dagenham in the 1930's. I remember him talking about the huge labour gangs he had but most of all the pride they took in it all. He would say 'I planted that' with obvious satisfaction in how 'his' plants had done over the years.

  5. Uh, no, I can't really say that I'm involved in planting the public spaces in Britain. ;-)

    Except to take note of what you're doing, that is...In fact, I'm very interested in your idea for a quarterly meme for VP. Just yesterday I was talking to my students about the subconscious effect public plantings have on us-it's on my mind right now in part because of your recent post.

    I also happened to be thinking about the "tragedy of the commons" last week--the notion that "it's a public space, therefore someone else must be taking care of it." I get a little frustrated with it, not so much because I don't understand it, because I do--I think people naturally get wrapped up in their own little worlds and it just never occurs to them to pitch in. I get frustrated because I despair of snapping people out of that sort of fogging thinking...

  6. Hi Susan,

    What you're doing is great - thanks for the feedback. Opening up the debate elsewhere (not just the UK) is just what I've hope for :)

    And a thought a meme would be the perfect vehicle for a 'show and tell' kind of thing. Just because you're not in the UK doesn't mean you don't have a perspective, ideas, things that happen down your way that we can learn from. And people travel too - so there could be all sorts of things from there that are worth a mention.

  7. Hi Hermes - thanks for coming back with another contribution :) I wonder if we've lost that sense of pride like your grandfather had?

  8. Susan - another thought. Yes that subconcious thing's really interesting isn't it? How often do we go past these things in our daily lives and not really notice hem? Yet when something happens such as (hopefully) an eyesore gets turned into something much better it really does give the spirits a lift. That's why I was horrified when I found one council advocating just planting trees. Yes trees are good, but if they're still amongst tons of concrete we need much more.

    And when a planting goes - it does get noticed and our lives become a little bit poorer because of it.

  9. i am wondering what sort of rules & reglulations there are as to what can be planted, how tall, colors, etc.? are people possibly hesitant to take 'ownership' of public plantings near their homes due to unease about how to go about it? or if it is even legal to do so? some of the median strips on our state highways are planted with native wildflowers as a way to prevent erosion & to bring driver attention to the fact that a median is not to be used as a shortcut!

  10. Interesting questions Petoskystone and I don't have any full answers or concrete evidence at the moment. These are my thoughts:

    Britain in Bloom and community initiatives tend to have a co-ordinator who will muster volunteers. Guerrilla gardening is technically illegal, but with a mix of both supporters and detractors.

    As for roadsides, we don't really have a history of them being looked after by the public, though I've seen plenty of adoption signs when travelling in the States. I think it's more inertia than lack of knowledge here.

  11. Oh and I've no info on rules and regulations.

  12. Public plantings set the tone for the character of a place. The City of Chicago & my own suburb both realize this and have invested in planting public places to improve the appearance. In particular, my town is very interested in the area along the commuter train tracks at the east end of town, as the town leaders believe it creates a good first impression in visitors from Chicago. There's also the theory that people behave better when in beautiful surroundings.

  13. I imagine that many public spaces have to be filled and looked after on a shoestring by staff who are not paid enough. Obviously this leads to low maintenance, generally dull planting and shrubs pruned and grass cut to a timetable, not when they really need it. Not much chance of enjoying your work in those conditions if you are remotely interested in gardening.
    I can't see the situation changing any time soon without increased funding.

  14. Oops..using a new laptop and posted comment before I typed my url in!

  15. MMD - that's an interesting theory especially as I got berated by someone for complaining about the state of Chippenham's planting. Their argument was it was pointless as it'd be vandalised. I like your town's attitude - I'd particularly like it to be adopted at our towns' gateway roads.

    EG - unfortunately I have to agree with your assessment of the situation, but I have found some exceptions to the rule which are worth celebrating.

  16. Did you hear back from the council following your letter regarding the severe pruning incident ? Thanks for the link in this post. The full article should be with you soon. Unbeknown to me himself threw in the paper bin and you can guess the rest ! A friend is coming to the rescue. Can you email me your address and I will get off in the post as soon as possible :)

  17. Anna - thanks so much for your article - it arrived today :)

    And no, I haven't heard back from the council. But I'm going to do so much better as I've been given the phone number of the main guy contracted to do the work. I need to talk to him about some work needed on our part of the estate and will take the opportunity to grill him about the pruning rage!


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