January 28th, 2020 by Mark Laurence

If you work in the realm of landscapes, you cannot ignore the huge rise in the use of artificial plants, “green” walls and especially, grass. It’s a booming business and many companies are doing very well from it. But we should also be hearing warning bells ringing about how damaging these things are, both to the environment and to our individual well-being.

I’m concerned about this damage, mostly to our inner beings.  I wonder if we have become unable to comprehend that such things show our disconnection from the real.  I’ve worked with plants all my life and always my prime motive has been our connection to nature.  Now I design, write, think, talk; always my concern is for the environment and the well-being of the human spirit. This artificiality in landscape betrays both these things.

It is not enough to say this, so I must justify it, even though the obligation should really be the other way around; people who purvey such things should have to prove that they don’t cause ill-effects. But such is the state of human consciousness that commercial profit always comes before anything else.

This is not an article about the merits of grass as such, nor what we might use as natural substitutes; that topic has been written about many times. This is about what we do to ourselves when we surround ourselves with fakery – and I don’t mean in politics, although there are parallels, doubtless.

We constantly sell ourselves short on what it is we actually need, as individuals. This is me, an environmental designer, saying us humans should be selfish, and demand more. But not more in material terms, in things. More in Soul, in environmental harmony, in biophilic contact. More respect for the awesomeness of Nature. How can we substitute the reality of Nature with plastic, and tell ourselves it’s okay? This is self-deception on a massive scale, and we need to be aware of it, and reject it.

Before going further on the psychological front, let’s talk about the environment. Artificial plants are mostly made from plastic (although high end plants may be silk). Plastic is a one-way route to pollution and there is no difference between the plastic in a green or artificial grass and the plastic that’s floating around in our oceans. It’s the same stuff and will end up in landfill, being burnt or in the sea as microplastics, amongst its peers.

Grass comes in many forms, from tidy, to uncouth; the less couth, the better.

Artificial grass also is responsible for killing off the soil and its ecosystem in areas that once were living. Even (real) lawns are of environmental benefit, although other forms of landscape are preferable and yield higher benefits. Yet a lawn is alive, absorbs rainwater, has a life within of earthworms, larvae and micro-organisms, and stores a surprising amount of carbon. Artificial lawns do the inverse of all that and are not even as low maintenance as people think, requiring regular brushing and hosing. You must replace it every few years, too, with rubber crumb underlay being especially problematic to dispose of.

We buy into these products because we think we are being sold an easy life; in fact, we are being sold a deception, that Nature can be imitated, bettered. That you don’t have to get involved with it in any way, that the real thing offers nothing better, that biophilia (your innate need and love of Nature) can be mimicked. But your inner being is not deceived, just your outer one.

On the whole, we don’t realise just how disconnected we have become, in our modern societies. Each generation has less contact with natural systems and ecologies than the last, and each generation perceives its own experience of reality as normal, how things are.  If we could go back 100 years, I think we’d all be astounded at the verdancy and variety of life, of just how rich and varied Nature was.  Perhaps then we would wake up to the fact that we have forgotten our roots and lost our way. Now, we surround ourselves with the artificial and think that it is okay.

Landscape design doesn’t help in this respect, especially in the public realm.  Commercial space becomes dominated by hard materials; plants, where they exist, are regimented and ordered.  Water features are devoid of plants because they are messy, need skilled maintenance and the chemicals in the water wouldn’t support their growth anyway.  How sad, what an opportunity missed, what absence of life in our urban landscape.

In all our striving, we should remember above all where we came from.  A disconnected life allows not only the artificial to be okay, it switches off our concern from the environmental and climate crisis, as if we live in a bubble of man-made life, separate from the planet.

So for the sake of you own being, ditch the artificial.  Embrace the messiness and verdancy of Nature, get your hands dirty – the bacteria are good for your health and your happiness.  Let your children experience this, teach them about that wild and somewhat frightening side of Nature, for it needs our respect, and our love.  And if we love Nature, we might just find we can finally love ourselves.

Posted in Biophilia, Climate Change, design principles, Environment, landscapes, Natural Landscapes, Uncategorized, Urban Landscapes Tagged with: , , , , , ,

Children and water, Boston
January 30th, 2019 by Mark Laurence

The safety of children and water is potentially a controversial issue and I want to make it clear from the start that these are genuine thoughts, with genuine intent but please don’t try and hold me liable for any disasters or accidents that may befall you or your loved ones. I cannot be responsible for your life and any decisions you make on this issue are yours alone. I naturally hope and intend that only good and positive benefit can come from this writing.

Children have an almost universal fascination with water, and parents an equally almost universal fear of it, or of their children being near it. We have all heard the horror stories of children drowning in a pond, or even a shallow puddle and our hearts go out to those unfortunate few who have suffered such a fate.

children enjoying the water

Children enjoying the water

But we seem to live in a fear-driven compensation culture, which stifles creativity or adventure because of the risk of hurt. Authorities and companies cannot afford to take risks, or allow other to take them. Consequentially, more and more things get banned in the interests of public safety. The world may be safer as a result but it is certainly blander.

As a young child I would walk the suburban mile or so to school on my own, ride my bike to visit friends, play down at the dump, swim in the sea and generally have freedoms many children are not now able to experience. But creative play is an essential part of a child’s development and must be catered for somehow. A love and respect of water should be encouraged and this requires contact and familiarity with it. I believe that those most at risk are those who do not appreciate the dangers and those who are too young to.

A burst watermain in Iraq

Out of the disaster of the Iraq war, this burst water main provides a moment of joy for children and adults alike.

It is true, of course, that much of this familiarity, or lack of, will be caused by the geography of your environment. If you don’t have water in daily proximity, it is hard to become familiar with it. If you don’t see with your own eyes how a little stream can become a raging torrent after a downpour, then you will not be aware of the potential danger. Knowing the dangers brings about respect, gives us boundaries beyond which we know that things aren’t safe. In urban areas, the increasing use of WSUDs (water sensitive urban design) in the form of swales and rain gardens is a positive development.

There’s another good reason for us to have regular contact with water and that is a biophilic one. Water is a vital element, which, through modern living, we now tend to regard as no more than a right of utility. But water is the life force of the planet, and so of ourselves. Why else would we want it in our gardens? It soothes us, distracts us from our cares, puts us in touch with those deeper fundamentals of life, if we but let it. Children who experience this often can only be better off for it.

Children playing in a rain garden
Children playing in a rain garden in their family home. When dry, this is empty.

So if I’ve convinced you that it’s good for children to experience water, let’s think about how we might do so with some safety. First of all, young children should be supervised by an adult or responsible elder child, that goes without saying. I don’t advocate that you leave them alone.
I don’t know if there are any statistics available as to the ages of children that have accidents with water, but parental sense will tell us all that children under five have little comprehension of danger and must be watched very carefully, as must those of all ages with special needs. Water features should perhaps be fenced off while children are in their early years.

If there’s not much you can do about water in your wider environment, then you can perhaps create a feature in your own garden.

pond profile showing gentle slopes

This drawing of a stream cross-section could also be for a small pond. Pebbles and shingle make a good base, which the children can play with. Shallow water with gentle slopes mean that if they fall over, they can stand up and climb out.

Steep sides are the most dangerous aspect of a water feature, preventing children (and animals) from being able to stand up or climb out.

Loose paving on the edges of ponds is another risk factor; use only large slabs or stones and make sure that they have only a small percentage of overhang, and are securely cemented in place. Better yet, use a pond-edge design style which doesn’t use paving in this manner at all.

safe play with water

A reminder of what it’s all about – fun! Don’t do this on paving which may become slippery and prevent algal build-up.

With gently sloping sides, layers of subsoil, gravel or shingle will protect the pond liner and give good grip for feet and hands – bare liner tends to be slippery and is more vulnerable to damage. Good construction helps all round, although that is not the subject of this article. If you have an overhanging deck, make sure the water is not too deep at this point and that children can’t get trapped underneath it. Metal or plastic grids can also be built into a pond, sitting just below the water level. These need careful thought as to their siting as they must take the weight of a person without breaking. The danger is these can look very industrial.

As a final thought, if you want moving water but don’t want the depth of a pond, consider a stream garden, where water just flows along a shallow water-course. There is no pond as such and the water just disappears underground into a hidden sump tank, which houses the pump and which is inaccessible..

a stream garden

This stream feature is used by children – the water barely laps their ankles. Stones are moved, small dams made…

In conclusion, there are many things that children learn from playing with water: self confidence, balance, awareness of danger, responsibility, experience of wildlife and of Nature’s rhythms. A careful and reasoned approach is what is required for allow a child safe, creative exploration.

And of course, we adults are all children at heart, too. Play safe.


First published in 2009, updated 2019

Posted in Biophilia, Design, Garden Design, landscapes, Ponds, rain gardens, Water Gardens Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,