Beautifying Public Places: The Importance of Plants
by Lynden B. Miller
One of the most important elements in successful public urban green space is PLANTS. Over the last 30 years in New York City, we have found exciting reasons to use plants in new ways to improve the lives of city dwellers. We now know that plants have the power to soften and civilize public urban space, even in places once thought to be dangerous. These green oases give pleasure to millions who crave a connection with nature in their lives.
People are always astonished to find something natural and beautiful in the middle of a big city. Whether it is an old garden in Central Park, a community garden in the Bronx, or a spectacular urban flower display, like the ones in Chicago when Mayor Richard Daley was in charge, people simply feel better about themselves and their communities when surrounded by beautiful plants. Since the earliest times, human beings have always needed oases of green escape – a relationship with nature. It is no wonder that in many religions Paradise is envisioned as a garden.
An important key to successful public landscape design, though lacking in many landscape architecture projects, is to think about the people who use the space, i.e. the client – the public. Why do they want to come to this space? What do they want when they are in it? The designer must put himself into the space he is creating and move around in it to see if it really works. An important ingredient for any project is seating, and those seats should be put where people will enjoy them. Many successful public places now have moveable chairs so that the client can determine the most enjoyable location and feel a sense of ownership in the space.
After organizing the hardscape for the people who will use it, the next most important ingredients are soil, plants, and maintenance. The right soil is the foundation for the plants of the site. Once good soil is in place, you should try to locate the best and largest plants available, using a mixture of shrubs and perennials in combinations that produce year-round effect. Good, lush, healthy plants are magnets that attract people, and using large ones right away gives instant gratification and confidence in the space. Once soil and plants are in place, then of course you need the best maintenance available. “Sustainable” is a buzzword these days, and to a large degree, a sustainable public landscape depends on the designer picking the right plants. If the designer specifies the wrong plant (a sun loving plant in deep shade or a thirsty plant in a dry location, for instance) and plants it in bad soil, then you can’t take care of it and it will never be sustainable.
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