Paradigm Shift in urban green design: from aesthetic to nature based solutions

How another way of designing and planting urban green can create a more contemporary urban living environment and at the same add more value to our cities

Photo Anouk Griffioen for BDA April 2021

3 years ago, I met Willem de Feijter, working as an expert under the name City Forester. Together we discussed the value of trees and he taught me that in cities, trees are mostly planted from an aesthetic and efficient point of view: one tree here, one tree — of the same species — 20 meters away.

This way of designing urban green has a couple of downside effects: first of all not all benefits of green are used and trees are treated as a cost rather than a benefit or asset; 2nd trees grow slower; 3rd it creates a larger risk on tree illnesses; 4th people only have an aesthetic relationship to green and what we know about aesthetic is that it is a matter of taste and therefor creates subjective discussions that help opponents of trees in their argumentation to get rid off the tree.

Image quality plan from a Dutch municipality. Is ‘goed’ better indeed?

Willem showed me all the functions trees can have which opened my eyes at the time. If people would know about all these functions, not only the economic value can increase, but also the awareness of the importance of trees increases and the connection of people to green can be restored.

Making use of all these benefits of green means that a different set of design principles come in, resulting in another design.

For the municipality of Rotterdam we analyzed the process of the river tidal parks that are realized or planned. The interesting thing about these tidal parks is that they are mostly at the boundaries of our cities. Frictions between nature and city became more apparent as tidal parks moved into the city, into more densely populated areas.

Image BDA for Municipality Rotterdam

Long processes are needed for nature to develop into a strong ecosystem. But in cities we want ‘instant green’, we don’t want to live in an empty area for years. Furthermore, in cities nature must look as if it is properly maintained, otherwise it might attract litter (is what I’m told). I’m not sure if that’s true and to what extend you need to maintain it, but in our current cities we cannot let nature do its work completely; we have to take other interests and functions into account. However, working with ARK and WWF convinced me we need a more balanced approach between natural processes and aesthetics.

I’m not an opponent of aesthetics, quite the contrary. But I think it’s time for another way of designing, moving away from the traditional and efficient cleancut straight lines towards a more wild and organically formed urban green. Fortunately many landscape designers are already designing like this, however it’s still not common practice and linking it to value creation needs more attention.

Image Piet Oudolf

And this ‘new’ way of urban designing does have some parallels with the current interior design trends right? We tend to have our interiors more cosy, less clean, more plants. This is maybe what we want for our public space as well: a more warm, comfortable, friendly, safe feel. Look at the work of Piet Oudolf for example. He is able to create ecosystems with variation and without clean cut plants.

To sum up, this paradigm shift has some challenges but mostly advantages: a stronger ecosystem adding to climate adaptation, a more pleasant living environment, more value creation, more contemporary aesthetics, a better “look & feel”, resulting in more people that have a closer connection to green (again).

Photo Anouk Griffioen / High Line NYC / green design by Piet Oudolf

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