Worthy but wasted? by Jill Sinclair

January 16, 2014

in Articles, General Interest

Here we are again, after a short break which had you all hammering my door down, demanding a new post. So here it is.

Sustainability is good, yes? And parks are great places to play, sunbathe, take the kids, walk the dog and play football – right? Well, perhaps… Jill Sinclair has been having slightly different experiences..

Anne Wareham, editor 

(Oh – and the first of the new thinkingardens suppers is booked up.)

Parc Monceau, Paris

Parc Monceau, Paris

The Problem of Sustainable Parks:

Jill Sinclair

Christopher Lloyd declared himself unattracted to “gardening with a moral implication.” Discussing the threat of climate change, he worried that people might feel obliged in future to accept dull, sustainable landscapes sponsored by worthy institutions, complete with signs explaining why they looked so awful.

For Lloyd, this was almost a throwaway remark to a friend, an example of his usual wry humour. Yet it captures one of the most difficult questions around sustainability in public parks and gardens. How do you create healthy places that sustain themselves – and still sustain people? Do sustainable parks end up more as exemplars (as Lloyd feared), with signage and warnings, rather than as places people actually want to visit and enjoy?

I’ve been spending some time in public parks that wear their environmental responsibility on their sleeve, to see how they compare with traditional parks – and how far their designers have felt the need to explain or justify their appearance.

First, the public park that was recently proclaimed world landscape project of the year – Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park in equatorial Singapore.

Sustainable parks

Here a standard neighbourhood park with a concrete storm-water drainage system has been dramatically converted into what the designers call an “urban sponge” with a naturalistic river and newly created flood plain. There is a big information area explaining all the admirable bio-techniques used (bioengineered soil, biodiversity, bioswales). It’s undoubtedly impressive, but the result didn’t feel like a public park; it felt like restored wetland and, apart from the playgrounds and a few kids dabbling about in the water, its 62 hectares were virtually empty of people when we visited. Indeed it wasn’t clear to me what visitors were meant to DO there.

Sustainable parks Photo: Jill Sinclair for thinkingardens

Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park today. Photo: Jill Sinclair

A similar issue arises in the self-proclaimed sustainable park recently installed in the middle of Paris. Les jardins des Grands Moulins – Abbé Pierre is undoubtedly on the side of the angels. Its design seeks sustainable approaches to everything from water and waste to energy, noise and travel. Recycled rainwater flows through its two hectares of recreated natural habitats, while signage dutifully explains the various environmentally responsible processes at work.

Without doubt, its installation demonstrates Paris’s green credentials far more than policy documents and statements ever can. Yet, like the Singapore park, the main role for visitors seems to be to admire how splendidly sustainable it all is. And, in truth, as one commentator on my blog pointed out, “it looks like the City stopped maintaining it four years ago.”

Sustainable parks Photo: Jill Sinclair for thinkingardens

Les jardins des Grands Moulins – Abbé Pierre. Photo: Jill Sinclair

Paris is working hard to make its green spaces more “green.” Some of the initiatives are fun and thought-provoking, like the introduction of sheep as natural lawn-mowers (sheepy video) in the grounds of  the City of Paris Archives. Others are PR disasters, such as attempts to manage the lawns of the venerable parc Monceau (see also) more sustainably. It started with swathes of unmown meadow and small signs explaining how leaving the grass longer was good for wildlife. But, sadly, such gentle pointers soon gave way to stern prohibitions and ugly exclusion zones.

Sustainable parks 4.zones

Exclusion zones at Parc Monceau. Photo: Jill Sinclair

 My final example is the new and little-known Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, being created in the grounds of India’s Jodhpur Fort. This 70-hectare park is a gentle showcase for native vegetation, planted after an invasive jungle of mesquite (Prosopis juliflora) was painstakingly chiselled out from the rocky landscape. The park is hardly showy but, with the help of lots of signs and an excellent guide, we came to understand anew the dangers of introducing exotic species into natural landscapes, and to appreciate the stark beauty and appropriateness of these desert plants. I should stress though that our visit was essentially a guided botanical tour, and did not feel at all like a traditional meander through a public park.

Sustainable parks 3.png

Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park. Photo: Jill Sinclair

 None of these places look as awful as Christopher Lloyd feared (well, except those ludicrous exclusion zones at Monceau). But he was right that designers seem to believe these prototype parks need explicitly to proclaim and display their environmental virtue. We are encouraged to admire them, not for their aesthetic values, or for the pleasure a visit might bring, but for the moral high ground they have claimed.

In their different ways, these examples feel like rather bossy lectures on how naughty we have been in using up resources and trying to impose our human will on nature, and how we must just learn to love clover and cactus and marshland. Maybe that is right. But I would also love to hear of examples of sustainable parks that don’t shout about their environmental credentials – pleasing parks designed for people to enjoy today, without any moral implications.

Jill Sinclair  website  

Jill Sinclair portrait on thinkingardens


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