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Seeds of change

The research that gave us the Olympic meadows is now spreading across the globe.

If you want to know anything about working with seeds, then James Hitchmough is your man. He explains on his university research page ‘Since returning to the UK in 1993 after ten years of working in Australia, I have focused my research on how to create and manage flower (and species) rich naturalistic herbaceous plant communities for use in urban greenspace.’ Now, in a delightful irony he is taking that research back to Australia again, working on the development of ‘woody meadows’ a type of planting particularly suited to the Australian climate.

However ‘naturalistic’ we think his style of planting may be, because it is urban and in relatively small areas we want it to do an awful lot. James says, ‘Much of my planting design research has addressed the conundrum of how it is possible to create contemporary urban planting that is taxonomically and spatially complex, highly attractive to the average Joe, yet manageable at low resource levels with limited maintenance skill levels. This complexity is useful as a means of firstly providing a long season of seasonal “events”, and secondly maximizing the capacity of that vegetation to support a diversity of animal life. Much of traditional mainstream landscape architectural planting design does not do this very well.’

His research has focused chiefly on using seed that is sown in situ to achieve these objectives but, he says, ‘whether employing seeding or planting the research questions are broadly the same; what are the consequences of placing many different species very close together in terms of long term persistence, and how can design and management be used to positively influence these ecological processes? Competition for light is the factor that ultimately determines the outcome of nearly all of these interactions.’

In the UK, he says, ‘my research has provided “good enough” answers to many of these questions, and there is now a canon of my vegetation in public landscapes in the UK, from the Olympic Park to the pocket park scale, for example, the Oxford Botanical Gardens.’

Now he is applying this approach in other countries. The ‘woody meadow’ in Melbourne, Australia is a research project co-ordinated by Dr Audrey Gerber of the University of Sheffield and supported financially by the city of Melbourne, with research collaboration with the University of Melbourne and the Melbourne Botanic Garden.

The aim is to design and road test long-flowering, multi-species shrubby vegetation for urban spaces, which should be sustainable virtually forever if the canopy is coppiced every three years. This requires the use of shrubs that are designed biologically to sprout again after the canopy has been removed, a category known as ‘post fire re-sprouters’.

This unusual trait has evolved in around 30% of native Australian shrub species in response to fire. The other 70% are killed by fire (or by coppicing at ground level) and are known as ‘post fire re-seeders’. ‘Most Australian landscape plantings,’ James said, ‘are dominated by post fire re-seeding species, and cannot be regenerated by severe pruning, leading to endless cycles of replacement, but most importantly also to ever more senescent, and unattractive looking urban vegetation. Fire ecosystem Mediterranean shrubs are most attractive generally in the first five years after a fire event, so the challenge is how to capture this appearance in designed plantings more or less in perpertuity.’ The team has now evaluated the thousands of species that make up the shrub flora of Southern Australia for these traits and has identified the post fire re-sprouting species with which it wishes to work. ‘We are,’ James said, ‘about to contract grow the thousands of plants that we need to set up three large landscape experiments in the public green space of Melbourne to explore how plant density and diversity determine both the visual and functional success of these designed communities.’

‘The species are arranged in three layers (all on top of one another): a low, less than 300mm tall base layer (the most species diverse), a less than 1000mm emergent bump layer, at much, much lower density, and an occasional taller emergent layer. This vegetation is radically different to the monocultural shrub massing spawned by modernism.’

The experiments will be planted in July 2016 with data recording (of what the species and the communities do, and what greenspace users think of these) undertaken by the University of Melbourne over the next five years. At the end the work will be published in the prestigious academic journal Landscape and Urban Planning, but also in professional journals.

The aim is to extend this planting design research to other Mediterranean and near-Mediterranean parts of the world. Currently Sheffield is in discussion with universities in Cape Town, and this will be followed by California and southern Europe.

And this is not all. James is also undertaking research in China, to develop native herbaceous plants as urban designed plant communities.

‘In Western China,’ he said, ‘we have a research contract with Kaixian, a city near Chongqing, and in northeast China a collaborative research project with Shenyang Architectural University and the Liaoning Province Transportation Authority.’

Both projects involve the construction of large field stations to test native and non-native species and develop novel, sustainable, designed communities. They also require the collection of seed from wild populations of species that are not currently in cultivation (the case with most species) to provide the building blocks for these communities, and to form the basis of a native seed and plant nursery industry which will allow these plants to be available to more sustainable Chinese landscape architecture practices.

This is work on a hugely ambitious scale, but how can it be extended more widely, since it requires more than a single practitioner to carry out the large number of projects that are desirable and desired? And is the very precise work that James Hitchmough undertakes just too difficult for most landscape architects?

He doesn’t think so. He says, ‘The role of my research is not to make things more complex for practitioners, but rather through understanding the process really well to be able to simplify as much as possible. Complexity for its own sake is a nonsense, and just leads to un-reflective practice.’

In order to help the dissemination of knowledge, he has written a book, out shortly, on the interface between his research and practice. It is aimed at a non-academic audience and he has, he says ‘tried to make it possible for any average person to use the methods and techniques I have developed through research to create designed sown vegetation that is as successful as the understandings and skills of that person allows.’

Research will always be at the forefront when developing new approaches he believes, because practice ‘rarely involves what ifs (research is full of what ifs) and tends to restrict how far you dare push the boat out. Practice can only know what happens, and rarely in ecological areas why something happens; research is better at that.’

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