Category: Ecosystem Services

November 2nd, 2018 by Mark Laurence

This article was first published in 2007 and has been updated 2018.

Future gardens will be an integral part of a living biosystem that is part house, part garden, an energy conserving and production environment, a resource for water retention and cleansing, food production area, biomass and environmental haven as well as a sanctuary for the soul and from the world at large.

Why do I say this? We cannot consider the future of gardens without accounting for climate change, which is now having a tangible impact on us all. UN scientists say (in 2018) we have 12 years left before things reach the point of no return. Whilst there is less talk now about global oil reserves peaking and that energy will be in increasingly short supply, it is still true that we have a long way to go before we have a fully renewable clean energy supply chain. Whatever the outcome, big changes are on the way.

So when we look to the future of our gardens, it’s not so much a matter of what style or vogue will be popular, for such things come and go and in this context are not particularly relevant. You might imagine it is a case of asking what will our climate be like and how will gardens adapt. Yet to talk only of adapting plants to suit the changing conditions is actually to miss the main opportunity for our gardens to become part of the solution to global warming and perhaps, even a core part of our individual – and so collective –  survival.

House-garden water capture, cleansing and re-use system

House-garden water capture, cleansing and re-use schematic.

 
That might sound ridiculous in the face of such monumental problems but I don’t think so. If we all decided to make sure that in our personal lives, we were “carbon neutral” (or as close as possible) then energy demands and pollution from domestic use would drop considerably.  At a rough estimate, gardens in England and Wales occupy at least 80,000 hectares, mostly in urban and suburban areas. This makes them a precious resource and opportunity for change on a big scale.

The first thing we have to do is start looking at our environment as a living bio-system; in this case, the house and garden, with its connections to the wider world (air, earth, wind, rain, food, materials, waste, energy, communications). Think of it as one cell in a big organism. Almost all the elements this cell needs to survive are coming from outside, beyond its sphere of influence. Yet the way that cell is constructed, used and connected to its immediate surrounds (garden) could, if designed correctly, reduce its dependency on external (manmade) systems. To decrease those we must increase our connectivity with natural systems, namely the sun, wind (energy) and rain. To put it more directly, with have to reduce to a minimum the inputs and outputs of our homes.

A fedge (fence-hedge) uses biomass grown in the garden to create new boundaries.  good for wildlife

A fedge (fence-hedge) uses biomass grown in the garden to create new boundaries. Good for wildlife and resource conservation.

Those items which we cannot produce internally, need to be sourced from outside, as close to us as possible. Therefore neighbourhood and regional systems need strengthening to minimise production/transport costs. This is particularly true and desirable for food products, but also building materials etc. For that reason, even if we manage to live off-grid – the ultimate, but extreme, conclusion to this line of thought – we cannot do it all alone and live in splendid isolation, nor would most of us want to. Many bio-systems will only work efficiently when connected together to give sufficient inputs to allow them to function properly (for example, reed-bed sewerage systems). Local community-generated bio-systems are essential to a sustainable future.

The main areas which the outside garden spaces could deal with are:

  • Passive solar gain (microclimates)
  • Water saving and (grey water) cleansing
  • Waste recycling (composting)
  • Energy production/conservation
  • Increasing site biomass
  • Food production
  • Biophilic nurturing
  • Nature conservation/biodiversity

You may think this all sounds very philanthropic, but where is the incentive to expend all this time and money “greening up” our homes and gardens? Some of the incentive will be economic; for example metered water users already consume about 15% less water than unmetered and government will gradually introduce a number of Carrot and Stick measures. But as cost of pollution will have to be met by industry and so, by consumers, simple economics means that inevitably everything will get more expensive. For many people, I suspect that having a lifestyle that gives independence and doesn’t add to pollution will become increasingly desirable, as we all witness first or second-hand the effects of climate change.  Whilst we all see the horrors of hurricanes and droughts in distant lands, at home (for me, the UK) we see increasingly severe flooding etc. right on our own doorstep. Less dependency on outside systems will give increased sense of security in an uncertain world.

In all of this, beauty and relaxation will be paramount, so gardens will still fulfil this most traditional and personal of roles, giving us joy, relaxation and sanctuary. For example, looking at a beautiful water system of rills and planted gravel filterbeds is made all the more exciting by knowing it has a useful function and is saving resources.

A rain garden which captures roof-water and allows it to infiltrate the ground

A rain garden which captures roof-water and allows it to infiltrate the ground

For these principles to be taken up by the average garden-owner and made successful, we must resolve two conflicting issues: the subject needs to be driven by a sense of fun, adventure and positive aspiration to really make a difference; and yet we must also avoid the “dumbing-down” or over-simplification of a complex topic, something that can occur when it appears in magazines and TV shows.

An example might be solar panels: it would be wonderful to run your garden pond pump, shed, or garden office from solar panels – no cables to the house to bury, a good eco-friendly solution. But you have to balance that ideal with the cost of initial installation (probably greater than laying electric cables from the house), the limitations of supply and the increased maintenance that may be involved. Having got your solar supply, you might be frustrated to find that you can’t charge your battery mower if you didn’t purchase a high enough generative capability. This is typical of a fragmented approach to sustainability – it’s a start but not really useful just thinking of the power to your pond and ignoring that used within the house, or your car.

 

So where are we? Standing on the threshold of an exciting new future, I would say. Technology and information is available as never before, and hooking up to the IoT (internet of things) is great fun and useful too. The brightness, however, is troubled by the looming stormclouds on the horizon and the knowledge that the societal cost of failure is high – and will be witnessed by ourselves but paid for by our children.

I do firmly believe that we can all make effective choices in what we do and in what we demand of the world, of business and our societies. We have to make rational choices and sometimes temper our own personal indulgence. Gas or electric patio heaters may be a nice luxury but the environmental damage is not justifiable. Maybe a log burning fire basket is, provided we do other things to counter the carbon emissions, such as growing more bio-mass. Extra woolly jumpers may simply be the best bet along with passive solar designed spaces! Most issues simply come down to us making informed decisions and balancing personal ease with environmental sanity.

Remember, what sounds “eco” or fringe today, is going to be tomorrow’s norm.  Get out there, explore ideas and enjoy being the change!

Posted in Adaptive Planting, Climate Change, Design, design principles, Ecosystem Services, Edible Planting, Environment, Garden Design, green roof, Landscape Futurism, Planting Design, rain gardens, Smart Cities, Sustainability Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,

A natural Xeriscape
March 23rd, 2018 by Mark Laurence

A problem, or an opportunity for a new landscape paradigm?

 

I was recently working on a tree project in Abu Dhabi when I came across a derelict site which intrigued me with it’s range of exotic self-seeded, non-native plants.  The site was next to the Corniche and sandwiched between the Formal Park, my hotel and Capital Gardens.  It struck me initially as the perfect basis of a xeriscape, as all the plants (mostly trees) were thriving without irrigation.  On closer inspection and identification of the species involved, things got more complex and raised a lot of potentially conflicting thoughts and issues.

A natural Xeriscape

A natural Xeriscape

The site was clearly awaiting redevelopment and the plant invasion was opportunistic.  Nothing that I could identify was native, yet all seemed happy there.  When you see the list, you might understand why.  Amongst the plastic and litter I identified:

  • Prosopis juliflora
  • Ficus benghalensis
  • Eucalyptus glaucescens
  • Conocarpus lancifolius
  • Washingtonia robusta

Of those plants, the P. juliflora was the most robust and when you look at its reputation, that is of no surprise. It was of landscape scale, lush and greener than anything in the adjacent parks.  It’s form, leaf, flowers and seeds are attractive from a landscape perspective.  Yet this is undoubtedly the most controversial plant on this list – some would say alarming.  A Native of arid zones in central and South America, this was, like so many others, introduced into the UAE in the 70’s as a forestry plant.  Lauded as something of a super-crop tree, it is tenacious, vigorous, provids fuelwood and stock-feed in the form of abundant seeds.  The latter, it turned out, were a problem in that they are spread by cattle and are extremely aggressive.  Plants also regenerate rapidly from the roots when cut back and they reputedly produce biochemical inhibitors to suppress competition (allelopathy).  With no natural competitors in the UAE and roots that can descend 50m in search of water, they out-compete native flora, even their cousin, Prosopis cineraria (ghaf tree).

Prosopis juliflora flowers

Prosopis juliflora flowers

P. juliflora has a low, mounding habit, attractive from a landscape point of view.

P. juliflora has a low, mounding habit, attractive from a landscape point of view.

Also on the site were a number of Banyan trees, Ficus benghalensis, which seemed to be growing happily. Another tough survivor, it should be borne in mind that the water table here is likely only a metre or so below ground, although it will have a high saline content.

Ficus benghalensis

Ficus benghalensis

Then there was Eucalyptus glaucescens, another forestry/amenity introduction of the 70’s, also known and now generally avoided for its aggressive roots, yet here looking beautiful with its grey, lanceolate foliage.  This was the tallest tree on site.

Eucalyptus glaucescens, showing adult foliage

Eucalyptus glaucescens, showing adult foliage

Of course, there was the ubiquitous Conocarpus lancifolius, widely planted still yet also recognised and a danger to any nearby drains, and on it’s way out in popular use.  Except it does make such a good tall hedge, and it has a much nearer native origin, coming from Somalia, Djibouti and Yemen.  I’m not sure that the UAE landscape industry is ready to ditch it just yet.

Conocarpus lancifolius

Conocarpus lancifolius

There was even a palm, Washingtonia robusta, self-seeded around the place.  Much of it was to be found growing underneath the canopy of the P. juliflora, so that at least is not put off by any allelopathic biochemicals from the Prosopis.

Washingtonia robusta

Washingtonia robusta

There were also a few unidentified things, this shrub, for example.  A legume of some kind, if anyone can ID it, please let me know.

Unknown Legume

Unknown Legume

Rose-winged Parakeet

Rose-winged Parakeet

Inhabiting, or at least visiting the site, was a Rose-winged Parakeet.  Another exotic invasive with beautiful form but aggressive tendencies; it seemed appropriate to the moment, somehow.

 

What does this mean for future landscapes and ecology?

 

From a conventional ecology point of view, these plants are all threats, and the threats probably outweigh their usefulness.  So why am I even talking about this?  Clearly, the move towards more naturalistic landscapes draws heavily on native species and would shun all of these species.

Except we have climate change.

Climate change is the elephant in the room, when it comes to ecology, in fact when it comes to sustainability generally and a livable planet overall.  That we have already moved beyond vital tipping points is highly likely; that climate zones are moving away from the equator at a rate too fast for nature to adapt is a fact.  Flora and even some fauna just can’t move regions that quickly.  They will adapt, eventually; but those that are rare, specialist and struggle with change, will die.  The tougher generalists will adapt and survive.  Nature will build a new ecology to reflect the new reality, and it doesn’t mind if it takes a few thousand years to do so.  Only we humans mind and so, if we are to survive, we must adapt our environments to fit the new reality.  It is a sad fact that many cherished plants will eventually die out or move zones.  In the UK, I dread losing our native oaks (I view these as our ghaf tree equivalent), yet we may get Mediterranean species to replace them, such as holm and cork oak.

If you are already positioned in the arid equatorial zones then you have precious few plants that will form your new ecologies and landscapes.  Perhaps the plants I have described above will be UAE naturalized-natives in 100 years’ time and the ghaf and sidr may be gone, or diminished, or moved north.  I hope not, but before we spend vast fortunes on eradication and control of non-natives, we should look to the future.  These aggressive invaders may just form the landscape of our children; I know I’d rather live with a landscape, than none at all.  If there is no landscape, there is no life.  They may, in fact, be here to save us.

Once we grasp this fact, we can look at building new landscapes to suit our changing environments. I’ve written about this before and you can read the articles listed below.  We must be vastly more holistic in our thinking in order to do this and broaden our horizons to understand the new future.  Technology will help us to monitor, collect data and produce working strategies.  Robotics and drones will help manage and control plant communities.  Alongside that, we need a vastly better understanding of soils, microflora and fauna, for the bit of nature that we see is just, literally, the tip of the iceberg.  The selection of tree and shrub species for adaptation is easy, we get this wrong when we don’t deal in whole context thinking eg. only thinking of forestry or ornamental benefits.

The challenge ahead is huge but in a weird way, exciting; it will challenge the human race to grow.  There’s a whole new science to develop and we’d best get on with it.

 

Other articles by ML that relate to this topic:

 

http://www.marklaurence.com/wp/trans-migrational-landscapes-a-survival-strategy-for-the-world/

http://www.marklaurence.com/wp/why-we-can-and-must-create-new-adaptive-ecologies/

http://www.marklaurence.com/wp/trees-climate-change-our-landscapes/

 

 

Posted in Arboriculture, Climate Change, Dubai, UAE, Ecosystem Services, Environment, landscapes, Middle-East, Natural Landscapes, Regenerative Planting, Sustainability, Trees Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

horticultural robot
August 23rd, 2016 by Mark Laurence

The way in which we design, create, maintain and use urban landscapes is likely to change radically in the next 15 years (in fact, modern society is in for overwhelming change).  Urbanisation, climate change and the rapid rise of technology and artificial intelligence (AI) will see to that. Don’t think that the rate of change will be the same as has occurred in the previous 15 years, for technological growth is on an exponential growth curve, not a linear one.  Cities and systems are becoming smart, connected to the Internet of Things and that is just for starters.  So how will this change the way we design and use our urban landscapes?

Firstly, we know that there is huge movement of populations from rural to urban life, especially in the developing worlds and most markedly in Asia.  This creates huge pressure for new urban infrastructure and this is not always well planned growth, especially in terms of forward thinking to account for future changes.  Nonetheless, it is happening and happening fast.  The UN expects 66% of the world’s population to be urban by 2050, by which time there will be 9bn of us – so 6bn in cities.  Mega-cities have to grow in a way that sustains huge numbers of people.

Secondly, climate change is also occurring at exponential rates, raising the difficulties of living in any environment but with especial problems for mega cities, most of which are in coastal regions and subject to rising sea levels and worsening weather patterns.  Cities are hotter than the surrounding land due to the nature of materials used, whilst heavy rainfall brings flash-flooding. In arid countries, built environments are in danger of becoming too hot for humans to inhabit. Cities will have to take on these challenges, generating micro-climate.

Thirdly, technological change is happening exponentially and this will impact what we do, how we live, how – if – we work and how we tackle the above problems.  Some view the challenges and changes with fear, thinking they will only exacerbate problems.  They could do, anything can be mismanaged (such as a planet) for example.  I foresee that technology is actually the only way we are going to get ourselves out of the mess we have created, the only thing that can act on the vast scale needed to re-balance an out-of-kilter Gaia.

When we take these three factors into account, we can see that the future of urban landscapes has to be so much more than the addition of the odd pocket-park here and there.  Landscapes have to mitigate the environmental factors, make huge mega-cities liveable for a population increasingly disconnected from nature and provide meaningful lives in an era when many of us may not work in the way we are used to.

A weedy landscape

Weedy and neglected landscape plantings are all too common. No-one wants to pay for maintenance

How will cities become smart and use this to better the environment?  If we are looking to increase the amount of urban landscaping significantly, then the first issue to tackle is cost of maintenance.  No one wants to pay for maintenance and often, no one does.  How many planted landscapes do you see smothered in weeds, wrecking or negating the designed purpose?  Or municipal plantings and car-parks where plants inevitably die and are never replaced, leaving huge gaps.  Shrubs hedge trimmed into amorphous shapes because that’s the quickest way to “maintain” them.  It’s a poor standard and it’s all we’re going to get – no-one is going to pay for trained horticulturalists to do something better.

landscape lobotomy

Landscape lobotomy: maintenance is the quickest, cheapest possible

Yet there is an interesting possibility – automation is likely to remove nearly 50% of jobs in the next decade, especially low-skilled or repetitive ones.  In the landscape trade, there are already semi-autonomous strimmers and grass-cutters on the market, how long before we have horticultural robots maintaining our landscapes?  All the technology is already here, prices are falling and an uplink to an AI would identify every weed known, give the correct procedures, know how and when to prune every plant in common cultivation. Robots would work long hours without tea breaks!  If basic maintenance getters a lot cheaper, we can have more landscape and such robots would be cheaper, eventually.  Living walls would be a prime candidate, with a simple maintenance cradle (much like a 3D printer head) that crosses the wall with a maintenance bot on it.  I’ve seen so many potential living wall projects fall at the maintenance-cost hurdle.  In such a scenario, displaced maintenance crew can retrain as bot-supervisors or true horticulturalist for private clients.

horticultural robot

Horticultural robots will make maintenance cheaper and more effective.

We’re going to have to do more than just make maintenance affordable; rather, that is the factor that releases the possibility to do more urban landscaping.  Many of the elements we need to put in place are already in existence and being used, but we need to join the dots and think holistically.  For example, green roofs are seen as a separate trade from green (I prefer living) walls.  Instead, we need to be talking of biological membranes (biomembranes) for buildings, a whole-system concept, where the living skin regulates the internal environment, filters pollution in both directions, dealing with generation of energy, cooling, clean air and water. Living walls that currently use potable water for irrigation when they could be cleaning up the used greywater that all buildings generate is another example.

building biomembrane

Building Biomembranes regulate building ecology and create vertical landscapes

Systems that provide services that are of consequence to the functioning of a building, street, or neighbourhood need careful management and control, much of which will become automated.  In just the last year, for example, new irrigation controllers have come on the market which not only are connected to you via internet, they also connect to the nearest weather station and adjust their regime according to the conditions.  I use these for living walls; I do not advocate any irrigation for horizontal landscapes in temperate climates.  But things will move beyond this, with AI monitoring ground moisture levels and moving harvested rainwater from one holding system out to another part of the city where it is needed.  And urban farming – especially vertical – will be a large part of mega-city greening, although it might not be on display.  Sophisticated hydroponic systems are springing up in warehouses and roof-top polytunnels all over.  Such food can and should be organic, local, healthy, nutritious.

A smartly connected landscape means we can maximize the benefit it gives to the people who live, work or pass through it.  With the majority of people living in urban mega cities, we have to create an environment that is fit for ultra-dense urban living.  As these metropolis’ grow, people will have less and less daily contact with Nature, which is not good for our deeper wellbeing.  Biophilia is our innate need for contact with the natural world: plants, trees, flowers, insects, sunlight, water, earth.  A concrete jungle is not a substitute for the real thing but we mostly won’t have time to “get out there” and experience wild Nature.

I think inner city pollution will blow over – excuse the pun- in the next 5-10 years as we start a massive switch over to electric transport, most of it driverless.  In fact, drone taxis are already under development and as buildings and living habitats reach skyward we can expect the landscape to move with them.  It will become commonplace to have high-level dronepads – even private ones.  Some people might not even go down to the ground much!  So landscapes and biophilia must come to them.  Fortunately, there is a rash of building-integrated vegetation going on and I see this trend increasing.  Incidentally, if you wanted more good reasons for using bots to maintain planting, imagine working on living walls or trees that are 50 stories up!

As for the wider environment and the looming crisis of climate change, I can only hope that emerging nanotechnologies give us the tools to clean up our act and neutralise the positive feedback loops we are creating.  Scientists are already working on nanotechnologies which capture and convert carbon into useful materials and one day such microscopic machines may roam our land and seas, removing plastics and other dangerous waste.  If this is done at a molecular level, we turn problems into resources.  We’ll be printing our houses (already being tested) compounds made from waste materials but without the current worries of using say, bricks made from recycled plastic which off-gas VOCs.  We can only hope these technologies emerge before it’s too late to save the climate in a state that we can survive in.

 

So the next 10-15 years are going to see change at an unprecedented rate and it may not all be a smooth ride.  I am excited by it however and think that there is much to be done to ensure that we create new urban environments worthy of habitation and that we take care of all environments and indeed the whole planet.  Smart cities are coming and at their best they could loosen our imaginations and liberate us from a monotonous life of work and stress.  Let’s make that the scenario that happens…

Posted in Biophilia, Climate Change, Design, Ecosystem Services, Environment, Landscape Futurism, landscapes, living walls, Smart Cities, Sustainability, Urban Landscapes, Vertical Greening Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

July 10th, 2016 by Mark Laurence

This article first appeared in Pro Landscaper Gulf – a .PDF copy can be seen here on page 12.  It is based on tree consultancy work I have undertaken in Abu Dhabi in recent years.


Irrigation is taken as a necessity when landscaping in arid climates.  It is a view that I wouldn’t like to completely contradict, yet I have seen a fair bit of evidence that tells me many plantings, and trees especially, are over-watered.  Of equal importance is the fact that many of the irrigation methods are wasteful of water and sometimes damaging to the trees themselves.

 

Tree sprinkler damage

Lawn Watering with sprinklers is damaging the trunk of this Millingtonia


 

We have to discern the different needs of trees and understand that what is necessary for one species is overkill for another.  I particularly speak of natives verses exotics.  Ghaf and Sidr you will see growing wild and without irrigation but imported exotics need a regular supply.  I have seen Ghaf blown over in irrigated plantings, caused by shallow rooting from an easy water supply.

Bacterial wetrot in Delonix

Bacterial wetwood in Delonix regia caused by overwatering. It also reduces the flowering, for which these trees are famous.

How the water is put on is just as important; pop-up sprinklers in lawns can damage the trunks of trees, causing aerial rooting in species like palm or fig, discolouring bark and causing stress-induced rots to occur in others.  Exotics like the Flame tree (Delonix regia) get over-watered, causing a reduction in flowering and a susceptibility to bacterial wetwood (slime flux). Even drip irrigation is not ideal, as it applies the water at the surface and promotes shallow rooting.  Trees with shallow roots are vulnerable to drought and so dependent upon the irrigation supply – a vicious circle.

Excess surface irrigation is wasteful.

Excess surface irrigation is wasteful.

In the UK, we are used to putting in a subterranean irrigation ring around trees, which gets water to the tree roots at a deeper level.  For watering established trees, perforated tubes can be utilised, inserted vertically throughout the root zone and either manually watered, or connected to standard irrigation systems.  Supplying water at a slightly deeper level means less water used and wasted. A word of warning though – most feeding roots occur in the top 300 – 500mm of soil, so watering too deeply can also be wasteful.

Tree roots growing along the line of irrigation pipes

Tree roots growing along the line of surface irrigation pipes

In coastal cities, problems can arise from a naturally high-level, saline water table.  Halophytes (salt tolerant plants) have evolved to cope with this, but for some imported species, salinity can be a problem.  You also have to be aware of the quality of the irrigation water itself, which if drawn from the ground, may have a high saline content. Get your water supply tested if you are unsure.

 

Ultimately, I believe that planting styles and expectations of “landscape” must change.  A more natural style, with more xeriscaping and use of natives or other arid loving plants from different parts of the world (but from similar conditions), will emerge.  More important, in my view, than using strictly native species, is building plant communities that function and thrive in place without much human care or maintenance.  As climate zones shift rapidly around the world, nature cannot keep up and it will be down to us to create landscapes that sit well in their altered environments, whether native or not.  I believe we can do this with considerably less use of irrigation.  The water we do use should then be grey water (from taps and sinks), which is a much better way to conserve processed water use.

Canopy of Delonix regia

Canopy of Delonix regia

The goal has to be minimal water use, natural, ecologically benign planting and urban environments which feed our biophilic needs for connection to nature.

Zizyphus spina-christi

Zizyphus spina-christi, crown of thorns tree. A native of the UAE

Posted in Arboriculture, Dubai, UAE, Ecosystem Services, Environment, landscapes, Middle-East, Trees Tagged with: , , , , ,

hazel pruning methods
January 9th, 2016 by Mark Laurence

In my previous post I talked about a regenerative planting methodology for urban landscapes, in which I suggested you would manage, rather than maintain your planting areas. So how exactly do you you do this? Both involve work and the difference is a subtle but important one, in both attitude and application. Think urban forester rather than garden pruner. The picture above illustrates this perfectly, so let me explain.

It shows two hazels in my garden, both planted as young bare-root trees in the winter of 07/08. The one on the left was coppiced down to the ground in the winter of 12/13, the other has been pruned to keep a structure of older wood, with all suckering growth removed annually. What is the difference? The coppiced hazel has been less work overall and has not been touched since it was coppiced, the pruned tree has been pruned annually, which was not great amount of work but this is just one tree. If there were a hundred, it would be a different matter. The main difference is that the pruned tree has catkins, the coppiced tree does not, but I think this is a difference of genetics, rather than pruning technique, as they have always been like that. The shape of the pruned tree is also wider in its spread and will become gnarled as it gets older.

So in terms of management, if you go the coppice route you do nothing much to the trees except coppice them every 4-5 years. I would suggest that 50% of the trees are coppiced so that not all structure is removed at once. Notice that the growth of the coppiced hazel is straighter, making for a productive yield of canes and poles that can be used in the local community. Other trees that can be coppiced include sweet chestnut, lime, alder, ash, willow and hornbeam. Birch and oak will coppice, but from young trees only. Willows and dogwoods grown as bushes for their winter colour can be coppiced or “copparded” (inbetween coppice and pollard) to around 300-600mm every two years to keep the winter stem colours strong.

Salix elaeagnos

Salix elaeagnos (foreground)

By adopting such techniques in our larger masses of urban street planting and parks, we would deliver a more biodiverse, beautiful and biophilic interaction for all concerned. It would also cost less both to establish and possibly to maintain, than traditional planting. The above willow is beautiful and graceful, yet I have seen it all too often used in municipal car-parks and reduced to a-n-other shrub that is caressed all to frequently with the indifference of a hedgetrimmer.

Time to re-wild our inner selves, and our urban landscapes. We can do so much better than the average landscape we see in our towns and cities.

Posted in Arboriculture, Design, Ecosystem Services, Environment, landscapes, My Garden, Regenerative Planting, Trees Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

regenerative tree planting methodology
December 29th, 2015 by Mark Laurence

Almost all urban landscapes are contrived and designed, due to their artificial nature and short timescales of development and use.  We see increasing use of mature rootballed trees and extensive hard landscape and this is normal for intense inner urban areas; I do get concerned that the increasing complexity of urban planting systems divorce trees particularly from their natural functions and prevent the occurrence of the biological interactions/communities that go to make up an ecosystem.  For example, I have seen trees planted whose surface levels are around a metre below the surrounding paving level.  No matter how well designed, this seems fundamentally wrong to me.

So I’m thinking that there must be a way of dealing with the majority of less intense landscape zones (especially where there isn’t the financial budget that a high-end development attracts) to provide urban regeneration, ecological restoration and biophilic connection, all on a modest budget.  This would create a new method to allow for wide-spread adoption in urban and suburban zones.  I think the solution comes from Nature’s own process of natural regeneration and a developed philosophy of minimal (but specific) preparation.

silver birch regeneration

silver birch are pioneering species for natural regeneration

Starting from the observation that Nature is very efficient at regenerating itself, what can we do?  Too often, I have seen unnecessary interference in this process.  I still recall that a few years after the great storm of 1987, I walked through some nearby National Trust woodland of pines and birch.  A great deal of damage had been done with many trees blown over.  Birch had however, regrown abundantly from dormant seed and was already three or four foot tall.  The NT then sent in the bulldozers to clear out the fallen wood so the area could be – replanted.  I watched them tracking over all the natural regeneration.  Why didn’t they just leave well alone?  The restoration of the woodland was only slowed down by such clumsy interference and this was not even a productive forest.

If we simply broke up paving in our urban centres and loosened up the sub-base, what would happen?  Nature would soon find a footing and things would start to grow; however, that process would be too slow and unpredictable for human sensibilities.  So what if we did a little more, adding a small amount of topsoil to the rubble, planting small (1+1 year transplants) bare root trees and shrubs,  with plugs of understory forbs, ferns and grasses. Starting so young, we’d generate a successful community in no time.  These could be designed as narrow ribbons – two to four metres wide, inserted into suitable wider areas of paving.

An urban area suitable for natural regeneration

An urban area suitable for natural regeneration

The above area was one I thought would be suitable for such an approach; there are many such areas throughout all urban spaces.  They cry out for regeneration, yet seldom can this be done for lack of adequate finance.  Below is a quick sketch showing how it might look.

Sketch showing regenerative planting

Sketch showing regenerative planting

The benefits of such an approach would be huge.  It would cost far less than using a traditional approach to landscaping such an area, maybe half (I haven’t costed it!).  The care would move from maintenance to management, using a rotational coppice methodology, rather than trim and tidy (which always ruins a plants natural habit. Biodiversity would be hugely enhanced, air pollution mitigation would increase, wind buffering, urban heat island reduction, stormwater runoff (they would act as rain gardens) and of course, our biophilic needs, our connection to nature.

Someone needs to be bold and try it; talk to me…

Posted in Arboriculture, Biophilia, Climate Change, Design, Ecosystem Services, Environment, landscapes, Regenerative Planting, Trees Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Living wall Maintenance
November 29th, 2015 by Mark Laurence

We are now a decade into the explosion of living or green walls.  There have been many successes and some notable failures along the way, some of of which may be system-induced and some caused by inadequate or inappropriate maintenance regimes. Assuming we now have systems that work at least reasonably well, what is required by way of maintenance to keep walls looking good?

First of all, we have to acknowledge it is the large, commercial projects which get the attention and sit within the public eye.  If anything goes wrong with these, it is noticed, big time. Commercial walls, I have found, are governed by financial pressures and that can sometimes mean that over time, budgets are cut and maintenance regimes compromised. When maintenance goes out to commercial tender, it is usually the cheapest price that wins.

Secondly, we have to understand that there is a profound difference in the way we perceive vertical landscapes from horizontal ones.  With ordinary planting beds, we would plant probably between five and nine groundcover plants per m². Living walls are planted at between 30 and 100 plants per m², a highly artificial and crowded environment.  Yes, we are treating these as groundcover which knits together, but unlike horizontal beds, gaps between plants are not deemed acceptable.  It is also harder for plants to spread or fill in laterally, depending upon the system they are planted into. Visually, when you look at a living wall, you look straight on at eye-level, then upwards. So the lower sections of walls can come under intense scrutiny.  Any failures have to be replaced and the rate is higher than that of horizontal planting, for the aesthetic reasons just stated.

Thirdly, living walls depend upon the right plants being chosen; they have to have the right characteristics of habit, growth and longevity. Some common garden plants are notoriously temperamental, short-lived or subject to pests such as the notorious Vine Weevil (which seems to attack an ever-increasing variety of plants). As a designer, I have previously used many plants that I don’t use now, and I find the list is shrinking, as you learn about a plant’s ruggedness over time. We are still pioneering a new methodology and now I’d rather use a smaller palette and feel more confident about it’s long-term success.

Fourthly, finally and perhaps of greatest importance, is the maintenance given to a living wall. I prefer the term living wall to green wall, because it reminds us that they are just that, living. They are also put into an extremely hostile and unnatural location and aspect. Sometimes those who look after them don’t do a good enough job. Many commercial landscapers are not horticulturalists and don’t really know that much about plants.  That may sound shocking (and I’m pointing fingers at no-one, for this is just they way things are) but a Kew or RHS trained gardener is unlikely to be employed in a commercial company. Even knowing what to do for the best health of a plant on the ground could be inappropriate if done to the same plant on the vertical.

maintenance-03 maintenance-02 maintenance-01

The pics above show living walls in three different systems, all in poor condition (including one using my older system); I’m not saying where or who because blaming is not appropriate nor my intention; rather, awareness raising is. The fact is that each and every system out there has good and bad examples to show. It is interesting to note that training efforts have been begun in at least one university, but this type of knowledge is a hands-on, college affair. Right now, it is only learnt on the job and this is art of the problem; many operatives simply don’t know their plants. If you don’t know the name, you’re not going to know anything about how it grows or when and how you should prune it.

My answer (and this goes much against my designer instincts) is to restrict the planting palette to those most able to survive. I always want to use more varieties, but it is sobering when you see them dying because they can’t cope with the conditions, or falling off the wall because the roots have been eaten by Vine weevil or millipedes. Beautiful grasses that  have high levels of old, straw-like debris among the new healthy leaves are a no-no and geraniums may or may not look good in the winter months; such plants must be used with care. Patterned designs seem to fall by the wayside too; bold swathes are fine until one species fails and dies back, then you are left with a gaping wound.

So you may be thinking, should we do this at all?  My answer is an emphatic yes, we should and must. We need to green the vertical in cities, for it is often the only space left available. We have all the needs of biodiversity, pollution mitigation and biophilia to account for and living walls provide those where no other greening method can – not even trees. We still have much to learn however, and the skill of maintenance has to be appreciated more by all involved. In fact it needs to be venerated and it’s practitioners respected and paid more.

Systems, at best second or third generation, need to evolve and be better understood.  Or rather, plants need to be understood more, and their optimal needs met.  We have, as I keep saying, hardly scratched the surface of what is possible and of what needs yet to be done. We need to learn more, try more and expect more.

Let’s get to it.

Posted in Biophilia, Climate Change, Design, Ecosystem Services, Environment, Green walls, landscapes, living walls, Sustainability, Vertical Greening Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

A Living wall designed by Mark Laurence
October 31st, 2015 by Mark Laurence

There is something incredibly exciting about living walls.  Stacking green plants on the vertical plane on buildings, where you’d think they just should not be, goes against the odds.  Yet nowadays they are almost commonplace, and most people have encountered one somewhere.  They cling to life with extraordinary tenacity, usually in a growing medium only a few centimeters thick, with water fed via irrigation pipes. Cynics may criticize and some walls are without doubt better designed and maintained, or use a better system than others, but we should applaud this urban green trend, and encourage it.  We need it.  Modern systems are reliable and use very little water or energy to run.

As a global society we are going through unprecedented changes; now more than 50% of the world’s population is urbanised and this will grow to 75-80% by 2050.  Most of those people are essentially disconnected from Nature. It is now recognised that we have an innate need, called biophilia, to maintain our relationship with Nature.  Not surprising really, when you think how we have evolved, yet the psychological and physical cut-off, over the last 100 years, has been astonishing.  This can only become more pronounced as cities continue to swell, and highly-stressed people produce dysfunctional societies.  If we can green our urban streets then perhaps we can counter this negative effect.  Green walls take up almost no footprint in the urban landscape, not even a pavement width.  All that is needed is a supporting wall and we have plenty of those.  Trees are beautiful and add huge amounts of biophilic interaction into a citiscape, but we find them increasingly difficult to site, due to underground services and growing space needed.  Those of you who read my blog will know that I also consult on trees, so I love them dearly, but I see living walls as having a different role to play and as being more versatile.

Living Wall in a small courtyard garden by Vertology

Living Wall in a small courtyard garden by Vertology

Living walls have physical benefits on the environment too.  They provide a haven and food source for insects, especially bees.  Birds find seeds, berries and of course, insects on the wall and smaller birds are known to nest amongst the foliage.  Living walls are also helpful in mitigation of air pollution; I was involved with designing and plant selection for a wall put up by Transport for London (top picture) to test the ability of plants to capture pm10 – airborne particulates, primarily from diesel engines.  Whilst we need to remove the source of these pollutants, capturing them is a good secondary strategy.  It turns out that walls in a street canyon (where the building height is greater than the street width) cause the air to move in a cyclical manner, so air passes through the foliage of a living wall several times.  Trees can do this, but dense canopies can actually trap particulates down at street level, concentrating them where people are.  Most trees also are deciduous, so have no such benefits in the winter months.

Interior Living wall in Norway, designed by Mark Laurence

Interior Living wall in Norway, installed by a Vertology partner

We can bring living walls into the interior, and in fact in hostile climates, that’s where you’ll find most of them.  Whilst I have designed outdoor walls in climates as diverse as Dubai, Norway (Trondheim, 62° latitude) and Chicago, in such places it is often easier to put your dose of biophilia indoors!  We spend 80-90% of our time inside, so this makes sense.  Such walls also clean the air.  Much quoted studies by NASA have shown that a range of common houseplants (which are basically plants of a sub-tropical origin) are efficient at removing Volatile  Organic Compounds VOCs, such as formaldehyde) from the air. These can be found in concentrations far higher than outdoors, due to the nature of air recirculation and energy conservation.  So we bring the jungle indoors, where we live and work.

Walls have the most drama when they are large, but they don’t have to be.  Small walls in intimate spaces still have a large impact.  This can be a home, courtyard, rooftop or office reception.  Small is beautiful.

A small indoor living wall by Vertology

A small indoor living wall by Vertology

Having worked extensively with living walls over the last decade,  I now consult, design and install them worldwide via my company Vertology Living Walls, and its approved partners.  Grab yourself some biophilia – install a living wall!

Posted in Biophilia, Design, Dubai, UAE, Ecosystem Services, Green walls, living walls, Retail, Vertical Greening Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,

October 14th, 2014 by Mark Laurence

The Walkie-Talkie building, infamous for melting cars, has one of the UK’s largest green walls, to the South side of the building, facing North.  I designed this wall as my last commission for Biotecture, the living wall company I conceived and co-founded. They were in turn commissioned by Willerby Landscapes.

Early Sketch of layout

Early Sketch of layout

20 Fenchurch Street Green Wall design by MLD

The final layout and planting plan

The design went through many permutations but in principal I wanted to use the wall size to create a banded horizontal wave pattern, each band consisting of a matrix of similar plant types.  Some smaller areas of single-species plants were also included as these would be better defined by the contrast.

A detail of the wall living wall design to 20 Fenchurch Street, by MLD

A detail of the wall living wall design to 20 Fenchurch Street, by MLD

Plants were chosen with a wide mix of Natives – at least 12 species – 9 groups of the aforementioned matrix planting and a number of single species groups and clumps, such as Luzula sylvatica (native woodrush) or Polystichum aculaetum (hard shield fern).

The lower bands were much smaller than the upper bands, to give the best visual aspect to those at street level and to bring things to a human scale.  The layout design was simple, the plant groupings and textural contrasts more complex.  Time will tell if they work out as planned!

Installation seems to be happening in stages, as the building works complete.  the photo below was taken in July.

Fenchurch Street Living Wall being installed July 2014

Fenchurch Street Living Wall being installed July 2014

Posted in Biophilia, Design, Ecosystem Services, Environment, Green walls, living walls, Vertical Greening Tagged with: , , , ,

September 6th, 2013 by Mark Laurence

Reporters always have to grab a headline, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when the new green wall near Victoria station started grabbing headlines such as “London’s largest living wall prevents flooding”.  It’s a misleading headline to say the least: A, it’s not the largest wall, that “accolade” (if size is all that counts) belongs to Patrick Blanc for his wall at Leamouth Peninsular, constructed by Biotecture in 2009 and B, it doesn’t prevent flooding.  How could it?  Striding about, with a big umbrella?  No, it has rainwater harvesting – as can any building, regardless of whether or not they have green walls (although they then have to have some use for it, such as flushing toilets), and that helps absorb water and delay rainfall from contributing to stormwater runoff.  It may directly capture a small amount on the surface of the wall, but not much.

Rubens Hotel greenwall by Gary Grant and treebox

Rubens Hotel greenwall by Gary Grant and Treebox

Now don’t get me wrong; this is a lovely green wall and most welcome.  I know all the guys involved and they’re all genuine people. The wall will have many environmental benefits. No, what bothers me is the way the press grab shallow headlines that reduce the very real benefits to glib catchphrases, often completely divorced from meaningful context .  Of course rainwater harvesting reduces the risk of flooding, but one small scheme in a large area will have negligible benefit (just as the Edgware Road wall I designed for TfL will, on it’s own, have a negligible effect on air pollution); unless many buildings in that area follow suit and harvest rainwater, the impact will not be felt.

What walls such as this do, is pioneer and display the possibilities of what we may do and the potential outcome if we do enough of it.  But the current attitude is, right, we’ve put up a green wall/green roof/planted trees, so job done, environment’s sorted… it’s just so NOT.

Right now i’m frustrated by this attitude.  For example, it seems that government, having done their bit (on air pollution, mentioned above), now have no monies in the “clean air fund” to take things to the next level; where we so urgently need to be going. The simple reality is that a lot more testing is needed, more system trials; ways need to be found to effect a large-scale roll out of affordable greening (a major criticism is that the technology is too expensive).  If the government won’t make funds available to do this, even in the face of massive EU fines for breaching air quality standards, then who will?  So the Edgware Road green wall becomes just another political chess piece, used then forgotten once it’s done it’s short-term bit of marketing.

It’s time that as a society, we grew up, stopped living off of vacuous soundbites and got to grips with our environmental issues.  One headline I got from a talk I gave last year, was “designer calls for environmental efforts to be put on a war footing”.  Another bit of melodrama, but I did use the phrase, and meant it.  Only with that level of serious intent and commitment can we get to make meaningful progress on adapting our societies to the incoming effects of now unstoppable climate change.

Time to get real…

Posted in Climate Change, Ecosystem Services, Environment, living walls, Sustainability Tagged with: , , , , ,