During the fascinating BALI tour around the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park led by Alistair Bayford and his colleagues at the Landscape Group I learnt far more about urban landscaping than I could ever fit into one blog. The high profile site covers over 200 hectares and has changed hands through different phases of construction, and has managed to keep a dedicated focus on high quality sustainable landscaping throughout.
I have picked 5 key themes that I noticed in the park which I think are representative of the new movements in modern urban soft landscaping.
Biodiversity – meaning space in which humans and wildlife can happily co-exist. Biodiversity is a word used so often in modern environmental landscaping that it can mean different things to different people.
The Olympic park encompasses a lot of different habitat areas, situated on the Lea river valley, and has been designed to integrate into local wetland and riverside ecologies. However there also are many human-focused planted areas that can also provide a lot of support for wildlife. Piet Oudolf, Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough are among the designers who have been involved in developing pioneering perennial and wildflower planting schemes demonstrated at the park. Our plants for wildlife catalogue gives an idea of just how much wildlife value so-called ‘amenity’ planting can have in the right context.
Space to escape and relax – The Olympic park provides many pockets of colour and relaxing space, some of which are easy to find and others that are much more secluded. Even children’s play areas are very varied, suitable for different ages and abilities. There are different playscapes, incorporating sand, water, pebbles and plants. Even the odd spikey or prickly plant has been allowed in so that children can learn about all aspects of nature, not just the soft fluffy plants.
Cultural expression through landscaping – there is a prominent, central display of planting from different continents around the world with reference to the 2012 Games. However a closer look around the park reveals references to Stratford’s history, with wildflower and perennial planting blocks that represent the locations of warehouse and plant locations before the redevelopment.
Permaculture – landscapes to provide food and inspiration. Fruiting hedges have replaced standard hedges along some of the walkways in the park, a clever way to increase the function of a normal landscaping feature. One of the feature plazas on a different part of the site uses bright and unusual hard landscaping materials with pleached fruit trees, combining art and food production.
SUDS – Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems, or Water Sensitive Urban Design if you prefer. This is not really a new idea but legislation and integration into common practice feel like they are taking a long time. Now we have a successful large scale case study that involves complex habitats and river management integrated into the larger catchment area.
All of these topics deserve an entire blog to themselves, but it’s nice to have an overview of how soft landscaping is progressing from being an adornment considered as a ‘nice to have’ to a vital tool in shaping our future on a changing planet.