Landscape ethicist Rick Darke’s conservation-based design is about observation, editing and embracing the accidental
The striking forms of European birches (Betula pendula) follow historic trackways in Berlin’s Natur-Park Südgelände. The trees serve as living architecture that, in concert with the rails, adds visual order to the scene. The birches are not irrigated or fertilized and no herbicides or pesticides are employed in their care. None were planted – they are entirely the result of regenerative biological processes.
With a main entrance at the Priesterweg S-Bahn station, this beautiful, highly accessible public park owes its origins to accident. The 18-hectare site was once part of Tempelhof freight railyard, built in the 1880s. The yard became part of West Berlin when the city was divided in 1945. The Reichsbahn, controlled by East Germany, halted most train service to western districts in 1952. Wild plant and animal species, both native and introduced, began colonising the abandoned landscape. The indigenous white birch is a broadly adapted pioneer species, and it soon became a dominant feature of the regenerating woodlands.
Designers accustomed to working with blank slates might ask “What is the nature of design in such a place?” The answer is that Südgelände is an example of revealed order versus imposed order. The designer must have the skills to recognise inherent order that can be articulated and accentuated through the artistry of composition. This type of design is akin to photography. The subject matter is already there – the artist only resolves the image.
In popular context the word ‘chaos’ is used to describe a state of confusion and absence of order. In actuality, chaos describes the point at which our powers of observation fail to recognise the inherent order and our intellect fails to accept the unseen. In scientific context, the order and complexity of dynamic natural systems are givens, and ‘chaos’ refers to the difficulty of predicting future behaviour rather than to an absence of order. Applying these distinctions to garden design suggests assuming there is always order in existing landscapes will make us more careful conservators.
Design needn’t always begin with destruction. The first rule of truly sustainable, conservation-based work is to make careful assessment of existing elements and to make the preservation of living and non-living resources a principal goal. Accidental, minimally managed landscapes, including derelict gardens, are often home to diverse and intricately-related living communities that have proved their adaptability to site conditions. Since editing – selective removal – rather than clearing and replanting is more conserving of resources and relationships, the resulting landscapes are usually richer in the living diversity that offers visitors opportunities to observe, engage and be sustained.
Globally, the post-industrial landscape is rich with abandoned sites in close proximity to densely populated urban neighbourhoods underserved by conventional parks and green spaces. Brownfield to greenfield transformations on a broad scale will depend on design and management approaches that are extremely resource-efficient, and there are certain to be many opportunities for imaginative design professionals.
The Addition by Reduction project, at Carrie Furnaces National Historic Landmark in Pittsburgh, is another example of using an editing approach to create attractive, useful landscape elements at a fraction of the cost of traditional design-build techniques. The 14-hectare site is dominated by two non-working blast furnaces that are all that remain of a once-vast iron-making complex. Serving as a museum, park, and economic engine, it is managed by Rivers of Steel, a non-profit agency dedicated to celebrating industrial heritage in ways that inform and empower the region’s communities.
The Addition by Reduction project was conceived to make best use of the regenerative vegetation that had colonised the site in the decades after the furnaces were shut down and peripheral structures were demolished. The surface of much of the site consisted of thin soils underlain by concrete rubble and other materials from demolition, and summer conditions were often extremely hot and dry.
Despite this, self-sown seedlings of native and introduced herbaceous and woody plant species blanketed the majority of the area and provided shelter and sustenance for a surprising diversity of wildlife. Dense growth of locally indigenous sycamores and poplars created virtual forests. Though regrowth threatening the historic furnace structures needed to be removed, vegetation nearer the periphery afforded opportunities to create space for shade and shelter and to direct visitors’ attention to site history by framing strategic vistas.
The plan of the ‘Iron Garden’ was laid out on foot following assessment of the site’s plant and animal communities, aided by high perspectives from atop the furnaces, which were communicated to ground staff by mobile phones. Multi-ton dressed stones that were once part of the site’s hot-metal bridge were repurposed as garden seating. A temporary furnace capable of melting scrap iron pipes and radiators was set up, and a collaboration of graphic artists, sculptors, ecologists and gardeners resulted in cast-iron interpretive signage to tell the Iron Garden’s story. The entire Addition by Reduction project has been photodocumented and is available in PDF.
Design lessons from accidental landscapes can often be applied to home gardens, especially those in which a healthy measure of authentic wildness is allowed to flourish. Our half-hectare home landscape in Pennsylvania was relatively open when we began our time here but has become mostly wooded during the decades we’ve managed it. It’s a combination of plantings by former owners, plantings we’ve made or set in motion, and others carried in by wind, rain or local wildlife.
For years we enjoyed the shelter, shade and fruit of an ancient apple planted by the folks who built our house. It created conditions that allowed us to grow local woodland wildflowers under its spreading branches, un-irrigated after establishment and sustained by residual moisture. It was the ideal spot for a bench, away from the summer sun yet offering pleasing views out into our home habitat.
When it was finally felled, aged 60, by windstorms, we took stock and realised its footprint offered great opportunity for reimagining the space. In the five years since we’ve done some planting and watched closely to see how the existing plant community responded. To our delight, the bench again offers shade and a spontaneous redbud seedling now adds spring colour that rivals apple blossoms.
We created the path flowing north from the bench by planting young pawpaws and ferns along its edges, and selecting spontaneous American beech seedlings that we’d allow to become trees. Over time, the grassy turf on the north end of the path diminished due to increasing shade from the beeches and pawpaws, and mosses began establishing. Instead of fighting this we aided the moss by weeding out the grass, and the result has been a soft, green surface that is the cool, moist delight of barefoot summer days. No irrigation is necessary in the north side shade of our mostly spontaneous woodland.
Editing by selective removal can be used to organise spaces and can be equally effective in organising views. Applied in this way, editing becomes even more like the framing techniques used in photography. A designer’s ability to frame elements in existing landscapes improves with practice, and the camera can be an important tool. Editing vegetation to frame a single vista is relatively straightforward. Since vistas appear differently from different points in a landscape, editing a vegetative framework must often be done with multiple vistas in mind. In many cases, editing a framework is less costly in time and resources than clearing and replanting.
Famously accidental and uniquely improbable, New York City’s High Line may be the most celebrated example of a public landscape that has grown directly from the living dynamics of its own wild origins. The modern, urban nature of the High Line’s reinvention will be forever linked to the authenticity of its gardens’ reprised naturalism. There’s deep precision in the gardens’ design and care, yet the plants and patterns are ever-evolving, constantly in flux. It is a revolutionary landscape, romantically post-industrial and progressive in its embrace of emerging ecologies. It is rich with intrigue because it is full of chance.
Like the landscapes of Südgelände and Carrie Furnaces, the High Line was created by accident. When the trains stopped running in 1980, the elevated line quickly evolved into a uniquely beautiful wild garden, and after a quarter century of abandon it supported a plant community made up of a documented 162 species.
Preliminary intentions to preserve the wildscape intact while turning it into a public park proved impractical, due to lead paint and clogged drains threatening the structure. With the exception of the rail yards at the northern end, the entire line was cleared of existing growth. The challenge for Friends of the High Line and for their landscape design team, James Corner Field Operations and Piet Oudolf, was to authentically recreate the dynamic naturalism of the accidental landscape without turning it into a museum. They accomplished this beyond all expectations, guided by design principles stating the landscape should “remain perpetually unfinished, sustaining emergent growth and change over time”.
The landscape of the abandoned High Line was a beautiful, yet edgy destination for urban explorers. Recreated as a series of contemplative gardens, the same landscape now safely provides an authentic opportunity for millions to experience the thrill of discovery inherent in places of accidental origin.
Rick Darke is a design consultant, photographer and author whose work is grounded in an observational ethic that blends ecology, horticulture and cultural geography in the creation and care of living landscapes. He was previously Head Gardener at Longwood Garden in the USA and is co-author of Gardens of the High Line.