Monday, July 2, 2012

The Most Ambitious Public Planting Ever?

London's Olympic Park brings together three of the most innovative plantsmen in the world.  Will the results live up to the hype?

Not since the Victorian era--at the height of the British empire--has a park been created with as much ambition or swagger.  The London Olympic Park, a 247-acre "park with venues," is the largest urban park developed in Europe in 150 years. 

Professor Nigel Dunnett standing in one of his annual meadows.
The master plan for the park was developed by American landscape architecture firm Hargreaves and Associates together with British LDA Associates.  Hargreaves Associates is known for their sculptural treatment of large, post-industrial sites--an appropriate choice for this former industrial site at Stratford in east London.  But for once, it is not the architecture of the park that will take center stage, but the planting instead.

The planting was lead by  two of the most innovative, cutting-edge plantsmen in the world: Professors James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett of the Department of Landscape, University of Sheffield.  Their research-based approach to planting has produced landscapes that are both ecologically funtional and jaw-droppingly beautiful.  Hitchmough and Dunnett pioneered a unique approach to urban planting, which combines native and non-native plant species in low-input systems based on semi-natural vegetation types, such as meadows, woodlands and wetlands.  This approach has come to be known as `The Sheffield School´ of planting design.  The two men bridge the gap between ecological restoration and horticulture, creating landscapes that address urban ecology and beauty.

A 'pictorial meadow' in South Park developed by Dunnett/Hitchmough.  Photo: Dunnett

Dunnett developed the concept of `Pictorial Meadows,´ a planting strategy that is aesthetically-driven, but which also has the dynamics, biodiversity, and management advantages of meadow systems. The concept is an alternative to traditional herbaceous and perennial planting approaches: directly-sown annuals and perennials that produce dramatic, exciting, and colourful displays in a  wide range of contexts, from small gardens through to extensive areas in urban parks, alongside highways and in housing areas.

Annual meadows comprise a large portion of the south section of London Olympic Park.  The annuals surround the Olympic stadium and are timed to be in peak during the opening ceremonies.  The color theme is "gold."
Annual 'pictorial meadows' with blues and yellows
In addition to the annual meadows, the park has over half a mile of naturalistic perennial plantings.  Not since the Highline in New York or the Lurie Garden in Chicago has so much area of a public site been dedicated to perennial plantings.  The design of the gardens is a collaboration between Hitchmough and Dunnett (who developed the concept and plant lists for the gardens) and landscape architect Sarah Price. 

Sarah Price
Price, fresh off her gold-medal performance for the Telegraph garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, is the horticultural IT-girl of 2012.  After starting her own company in 2006, Price has gradually nabbed some of the most prized landscape commissions in England, including the Whitworth Art Gallery.  Known for her moody, poetic combinations of structural plants, Price's plantings convey a rare combination of delicacy and strength.   For the Olympic Park, Price developed the spatial design and detailed planting plans for the gardens. 

The are four gardens that run in sequence and form a "timeline."  Each garden represents a different region: Western Europe/The Mediterranean/Asia Minor, the Temperate Americas, the Southern Hemisphere (particularly South Africa, Australia, New Zealand), and Temperate Asia (China, Japan, Himalayas).  The gardens are composed of three main elements: clipped formal evergreen hedges that create a permanent structure; monocultural 'strips' of ornamental grasses or structural perennials that frame the main components of the gardens: the 'field' plantings' that determine the character of each garden.  
Texture diagram by Sarah Price
The main compositional gesture are strips of planting that weave together the site. While I find "stripes" of planting to be very graphically pleasing on paper, they rarely translate well with plants. It's not that I have an issue with formality and geometry in planting, just not with herbaceous plants. Unless bounded by a clipped hedge or architectural edging, herbaceous plants rarely lend themselves to formal arragements like strips. On a site, the gesture often ends up looking contrived and small; the patterning pulls the eye inward, away from the horizon, thus reducing the impact of the planting. The one photo I've seen of the strips of perennials felt a bit under-scaled and precocious.

Clipped hedges and rather unconvincing "strips"
While the strips failed to impress, the "fields" of plantings were much more interesting.  The "fields" used a much more innovate approach to laying out herbaceous plants.  Within the fields, there was no planting plan with exact locations for plants. Instead, there is simply a mix of perennials that grow well together.  The fields were laid out randomly, giving each area a feeling of spontenaity, but since the mix was restrained, there would be legibiltiy created through repetition.  This style of interplanting is very similar to the work Michael King has done with his "Perennial Meadows." 

"Field" planting at the Southern Hemisphere garden
The different regions of the world concept struck me initially as a bit trite--a kind of reductionist, Epcot-Center-ride through the plantings of the world.  But the British garden is indeed a compilation of plants from their former empire, so the stylized meadows from around the world will is, in a way, a uniquely British concept.  With a large site, huge ambitions, a rushed schedule, and big cast of designers, there is always the possibility that the execution of the plan lacks the heart and intensity that a single designer could bring to a small site.

The sort-of North American garden with American Coneflower, South African Verbena, and European Allium
That being said, I find the scale of the plantings and the choice of designers to be delightful.  Bravo to the clients for dedicating so much of the parks to experimental planting.  With so much planting experimentation, there's bound to be some wonderful successes that will advance naturalistic perennial design, particularly for public sites.  If these gardens can combine the more cerebral aspirations of the Sheffield School with the more artsy, restrained stylization of Sarah Price, these could be some truly ground-breaking gardens. While the world watches this summer's Olympics, I'll be eagerly watching the gardens.

Images from this post were taken from Nigel Dunnett's site.  For more information about the park, visit the site:


  1. Very interesting post. I did not know any of these designers, but it sounds like I should. Great that this park is not all lawn and trees!

  2. Yes, all three of the landscape architects are worthy of knowing. Hitchmough and Dunnett for their combination of ecological restoration and horticulture in urban sites; Price for her artistic and atmospheric plantings. Three people worth following.

  3. Thomas, what a great post. I shared it on my FB page and just noted that I agreed with much of your thoughts. For example...geometry and perennials as shown in the photo
    Clipped hedges and rather unconvincing "strips". However, the information was very interesting and I would love to see the park when completed. (Or maybe since it has a lot of perennials, a year or two later.)

    1. Susan,

      From what I understand, most of it was planted last year (or at least earlier this year), so it should be a pretty good year for it. Year three always seems to be the glory year for perennials--at least in my bit of experience. Yeah, I've never been entirely satisfifed with geometric arrangements of loose plants like perennials or shrubs. Clipped hedges, I like, and of course architectural elements like walls and edgings make great geometric features. But plants don't seem to pattern that well. And the effect of patterning makes the space feel smaller to me instead of expansive. If a geometric pattern is done, it needs to use really wide, ample thickness for the pattern to read and have impact. Landscape architects do this striping thing all the time, and it rarely has the graphic effect that it has on paper.

  4. I came to the realization a few months ago that gardens I had been admiring in magazines were all Sarah Price. Love her!

    I had read about the Olympic Park, but hadn't seen photos until this post. I'm now calculating how soon I can make a trip to the UK to see it for myself...

    1. Yeah, she's one of my favorites as well. Her style is actually not that over-the-top. Kinda subtle and delicate. But she uses these wonderfully wiry sculptural plants and layers them vertically to create these airy, moody palettes. Very sophisticated stuff.

  5. Abso stunning! Nice to see the combination of professionals/academics who have artistic and horticultral science smarts support and create beautfiully designed spaces that are more than just eye candy.
    Bravo to their ingenuity and fearlessness to create spaces(ecologically) right and visually seductive!Cannot wait to see this post the Olympics.

    1. Totally agree. I wish there would be more of a movement here in the States do do ecological planting that is drop-dead gorgeous. We have ecologists and horticulturists, but the two disciplines rarely talk to each other. It's one of my personal passions: showing how ecological plantings can be rich and beautiful as well. We CAN have it all. We just need the right designers.

  6. Thomas,
    Don't be too quick to dismiss strip planting. I use it often to bring structure to otherwise mixed perennial planting and I like the results. You, after all, recently praised Oudolf salvia rivers - when does a strip become a river? - all a mater of scale I suppose.
    One of the most beautiful perennial gardens I ever saw was more than 25 years ago during my first visit to Ernst Pagels' nursery. What I was looking at was not a garden, but his production beds; perennials growing in rows, but arranged with an artist's eye.
    Strips of one species are also easier to maintain than mixed plantings which contributes dramatically to the durability of perennial plantings in my experience.
    Great post.

    1. Michael,

      The scale and context of perennial strips have to be right. Oudolf's massive river of salvia was 8m wide at some points and was a singular gesture that cut through and entire field of more intricate perennials. That had scale and power. And I also agree that there is a kind of agricultural beauty of production beds like tulips or even perennials where a rigid geometry creates bold patterning (similar to seeing the patterns of agriculture from a plane). What works in both Oudolf's strip or production beds is either the massive scale of the patterning or the contrast against a non-pattern.

      It's hard for me to make judgements about this park since I have not seen it in person (but here goes), but it appears to be a lot of thin strips of perennials (1-3m wide), stacked up one top of each other. Some of the strips are only 5-8 plants wide. I'm skeptical. Perhaps there are other areas where the strips contrast against a larger field of mixed perennials. I can imagine that could be more effective. But I see a lot of landscape architects who want to create some kind of graphic patterning with plants without really understanding how it reads on a site. And without understanding how a geometric pattern is maintained over time.

      I have no issue with massing perennials together in monocultural blocks for the sake of legibility and maintenance. In fact, I have found few other techniques that hold up over time. I just question the scale and context of these strips.

      A great comment, by the way. I always enjoy the exchange with you. It stretches me.

  7. Absolutely agree with all your points. However, here, budgets are split into construction and ongoing maintenance; replanting invariably falls outside of these!
    Massing, mixing strips and rivers, we need it all - setting is everything.
    I hope to get over to see what Nigel has done in the Olympic Park later this summer. The photos so far published do not really allow any judgement to be made.

    1. Good. Let us know when judgement can be officially dispensed.

  8. I like seeing the walkway through the annual meadow in the second picture above, since I think the aesthetic and emotional impact of a meadow would only be fully realized by moving/pushing/brushing through it. You wouldn't just want to look at it from the edge. (The romantic in me would like the walkway to be a close, single-file dirt path -- not practical in a park, I know.) I hope all of the pictorial meadows allow for at least a little tactile contact from the inside.

    The park sounds wonderful. I am going to start looking for more on the Sheffield School and Sarah Price.

  9. Brilliant post Thomas! Your insights are so spot on, that I think you should have been selected to plant and design the London Olympic Park. When are we going to see more of your designs in the high profile venues that they deserve!

  10. Who knows,maybe in a few years they will call on Beth Chatto to transform the parking lot.

  11. It'll be interesting to see how it turns out -- thanks for a insightful post!

    I've been interested in the ecological approaches of European plant/garden designers in England, The Netherlands, and Germany for awhile -- remarkably innovative, especially in the use of North American natives! And I'm looking forward to garden-visiting this fall in Germany and The Netherlands -- can't wait.

    1. I went over for the Olympics, and it all looked very nice having matured slightly. Some of it wasn't entirely to my taste, but it's a darn side better than what was there before!

      Simon @Ambius

  12. I found your website the other day and after reading a handful of posts, thought I would say thank you for all the great content. Keep it coming! I will try to stop by here more often.

  13. Wow! This garden is so amazing! The result is so splendid; it gives me the impression that the people behind this are truly talented. I hope more of these gardens will be exposed to the public, not just for sight-seeing but also to promote the importance of having plants in the community. :)

    -- Shona Martinez

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