Public Space Workshop: Approach to Design

This is the third in a series summarising the Public Space workshop I attended on 24th September. I introduced you to the speakers here and gave you an overview on Tuesday. Today I'm looking at the approach to design: my asides to the presenters' comments are shown in [square] brackets.

We had speakers from two very different schools of thought on the day. Richard Bisgrove is firmly rooted in our historical gardens, particularly those of Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson and has also served on the National Trust's Gardens Panel. As with many English gardeners and designers, Richard's resultant approach is consideration of texture, form and colour groupings.

On the other hand Brita von Schoenaich has grown up with plantings informed by the landscape and nature surrounding her. Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury have made this approach much more familiar to us in the UK. She was involved in the design of the naturalistic planting at Garden Organic which is pictured above.

John Tweddle is using all kinds of approach and designs as part of the 106 gardens plus 3 cemeteries in his remit as Parks manager at Westminster council. Economic necessity has bought this about: there'll be less annual bedding seen there in the future, though it will be retained in key gardens such as Victoria Embankment i.e. where the garden is noted for that particular style.

Approach to Design

  • Take inspiration from the past, but don't follow it slavishly e.g. use Box (Buxus), but not necessarily in the form of 18th Century style parterres
  • Plants need to be related to each other in some way - grouped rather than scattered evenly [ref. Loudon]
  • The cottage style suits our [British] humanity [i.e. our heart or soft side]: contemporary design is a more intellectual approach
  • Very little is new: Gertrude Jekyll used Cannas and Robinson devoted 23 pages to them in one of his books, yet tropical planting is often considered to be a modern invention
  • A design isn't permanent: it needs to be refreshed at least every few years. 15-20 years is the maximum lifespan [excluding trees], but also depends on the type of planting. [Many of the audience thought 5 years was more realistic]
  • Increased use of technology means that previously labour intensive designs and plantings such as carpet bedding are becoming economically feasible again e.g. use of CAD to generate the design and using modules of pre-planted groups at the planting out stage
  • The 'Car park' and 'B&Q' style approach to planting need a major re-think! [I have an example from Garden Organic worth sharing later]
  • Less can be more. The use of simpler plant palettes can be effective and not boring, especially if the plants used within individual groupings are changed around in the design and...
  • plants at all can be a viable option, especially when also considering the use of public art or... [NB Loudon's principles re the siting of plants mentioned above also applies to the placing of public art]
  • ...the design context is important e.g. the need to see clearly at roundabouts [aka sightlines] means a plant height of no greater than 60cms is often specified. Plantings can also be used to direct how people move around
  • Design context also includes looking at the landscape and native plants surrounding the open space, as echoes of these in the design can mean something that's more pleasing to the people using it and it's also easier to look after
  • Evidence of changing seasons is important: people want a connection with nature, even in the urban environment [this has implications for planting schemes solely using evergreens?]
  • Softening the edges might not be the design solution for monuments [like the planting at the back of the viaduct I showed on Wednesday]. See examples by Martha Schwartz for alternative ideas
  • Some designers are experimenting with succession planting [annual or herbaceous] to give 8-9 months of continued interest. This is an improvement on the standard 3-6 months achieved with most annual bedding and herbaceous schemes [the workshop host was most taken with this point and is looking to include a session on this topic for next year]
  • Most schemes include biodiversity in the design brief. Bear in mind that a small planting palette doesn't necessarily mean a corresponding decrease in biodiversity [implication that plant species count is often used as a success criteria during design commissioning?]

A final closing thought from Brita von Schoenaich:

  • Dieter Kienast, designer of the garden at Tate Modern said: ...initially, reduction draws from everything, then makes a selection. If, in the beginning, there is already little, one would not call it reduction, but poverty. [This implies landscape architects need a detailed plant knowledge in order to design successful schemes. I wonder how much of this is included in landscape architecture training?]

There'll now be a brief pause for the weekend and October's Events Diary. The next installment, Management, will be on Monday.


  1. what a fantastic post. a lot of the elements you have listed are SO important, and yet are overlooked by many designers as a pastiche of the past is recreated instead of something contextual.
    I'm sure you had a brilliant time - this is exactly the kind of event that gets me re-fired up...
    thanks for communicating it so wonderfully.

  2. The idea that design needs refreshing every few years makes me feel less of a failure for wanting to reinvent my garden (a fancy way of saying: fix my mistakes) now...

  3. Hi VP, I agree with Helen. I never thought about renewing designs, but should have. Thanks for teaching us something new. I await the future posts about this topic, and others. :-)

  4. Some very interesting things that will help me in future. I look forward to more. Thanks.

  5. Claire - thank you. I'm sure there's loads more to it, but it was great to get an insight into the design process. And yes, I'm very fired up - I was out yesterday taking lots of photos of the area in the centre of town ready for putting some suggestions together of what could be done to the area. Of course there's no money available to do anything, I wouldn't be the person to do it either and of course my ideas might not be what the majority of people of Chippenham might like, but at least I'd feel much better about having done something instead of just saying that the area looks awful.

    Helen - you know I felt so relieved when it was said. It kind of gives permission for all the changes we make doesn't it? I did some 'creative staring' on Saturday as a result and I've come up with a new idea on what we might do with the big conifer trees in the garden :)

    Frances - I've done a lot of 'fiddling around the edges' before, but I'm in the middle of ripping out a bed and starting again with it. Now I feel I'm doing exactly the right thing instead of the guilt I was feeling about taking out perfectly good plants! Derry Watkins at Special Plants does major revamps every year. But then she is a plantswoman and has her own nursery, so perhaps that's not so surprising in her case!

    Mary Delle - welcome! Good to see you here and I see you're also in Blotanical :)


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