Plant Communities of the Future
We need plants
In many major cities, urban design mixes with garden design through the incorporation of greenery, from the ‘living walls’ in London to the ‘vertical forests’ in Milan. These herbaceous installations take advantage of natural carbon trapping and air filtration, though widespread use seems unlikely.
Arguably, the melding of cityscape and landscape design is taken to its zenith in Singapore, which has been named Asia’s greenest city. Here, nature is interweaved with the building design. Take for example the esteemed Parkroyal hotel or the monumental ‘Supertree Grove’. These colossal, landmark projects highlight the possibilities for hybridising city-life and plant-life.
Plant communities for you and me
In light of our need to be immersed in plant-life and for it to be ubiquitous, how can we achieve this on a sustainable level? How does landscape and garden design need to respond?
Claudia West’s concept of the ‘sustainable plant community’ fills this need perfectly. She writes about how we can construct plant communities that sustain themselves, thus providing the environmental benefits of plant communities without the continued expenditure of time, money, and resources. West proposes this ecological planting design as a pragmatic solution to the problems of contemporary landscaping.
When building a resilient plant community, we must consider the interactions and relations between plants as well as between plants and their pollinators and, in turn, key wildlife like birds. It is through these considerations that we can have true resilience.
The point of emphasis is diversity. High plant diversity is more efficient, by exploiting maximum soil resources, and more resilient due to the increased chances of possessing traits that return the community to equilibrium after perturbation. With this comes better stability, because different species will respond variably to fluctuations in the ecosystem and thus provide functional compensation for species that would otherwise perish.
The collectivity of plants will always be in flux, not building to some end state or climax, rather change is its equilibrium and variance its nature. The kinds of and intensity of these fluctuations will vary depending on the specific environment, so each plant community needs individual planning. There is no one size fits all, but if the right care and forethought is given, we have, as West describes, ‘a rich mosaic of species, exquisitely tuned to a particular site’.
In this diverse and pragmatic form, West’s artificial ecosystems are communities in the true sense; various elements working together, functioning in their different capacities to the mutual benefit of said parts, including to their continued survival and prosperity.
Blechnum spicant (deer fern) and Scabiosa in a water’s edge plant community in Loch Ness
Gaultheria procumbens (wintergreen), mosses and grasses form an evergreen ground cover in a wild plant community in New Hampshire
Pragmatics in practice
We cannot divorce the given plant community from its context. The plant life should be conducive to the human communities they’re situated within and the plant-life should be ecologically appropriate for the environs. A rightly touted example of a well-executed, artificial plant community is the High Line Garden in New York.
This garden is a greenway on an abandoned railway line, which, according the project’s website, was inspired by ‘the self-seeded landscape that grew wild for 25 years after the trains stopped running’. This project brilliantly makes use of a brownfield site and pre-existing structure, preserving some urban history whilst introducing sustainable garden planning to one of the most iconic cities in the world.
This industrial repurposing need not be limited to the rich metropolis, such communities can be started by grassroots initiatives or carried out on smaller scales, like that of domestic gardens and community spaces. Look to projects by Claudia West. Her work in Lancaster, Pennsylvania utilised the key principles of designed communities that we have discussed. West used over 20 different species to create bioretention facilities for storm water management: functional, beautiful, and teeming with life. This plant community makes the wider community safer and more attractive, with minimal upkeep. Such an installation requires great care but is hugely rewarding; they can survive from nursery to landscape and continue on for years to come.
Beauty of the wild
These kinds of diverse and individual plant communities possess many advantages to more typical installations that are homogeneous or that favour an idyllic picture over practicality. Crucially, their diversity and individuality confer greater toughness and longevity with less maintenance. West emphasises, however, that this is not the main selling-point to focus on. Beyond the argument of functionality is that of aesthetics, for these plant communities are also beautiful.
The harmony achieved within the community and compatibility with its surroundings finds its mirror in the visual harmony and experience provided to us. Our perception of these functional yet beautiful ecosystems is vastly different from that of green mega-projects, which loom with a modern gravitas. These plantings evoke the wild, the flora that survives on the back of its own mechanisms and gives us an authentic connection to nature. With the renewable self-sustainability comes continual newness for us to (re)discover. Such gorgeous, floral newness is missing from so much of modern life but is not something out of reach.