Gardening Newsletter - November 2003, Issue 15
Things are very busy at My Shade Garden. Despite winter being just around the corner, we are receiving orders for designs. Now is the perfect time to get your plans in order so that you will be ready for to start planting as soon as the weather gets nice again.
I was reading an article in a garden magazine the other day which mentioned, in passing, the term ‘sense of place’. The article’s casual, off-handed use of the term struck me as rather flippant. From what I see, sense of place is perhaps the most neglected aspect of design, not just in the home landscape, but in public areas as well.
Living near New York City I hear a lot about the plans to rebuild lower Manhattan. Center to the debates on this subject is balancing the economic needs/wants/desires of the developers and politicians with a sense of place.
Despite all the recent debate of how to develop lower Manhattan, I wonder how many people really understand what is meant by a sense of place. The magazine I was reading seemed to take it for granted that everyone knew exactly what it was. Yet, this is something I rarely, if ever, thought about before my studies at the New York Botanical Garden. I suspect most people rarely do think about it. Yet, sense of place is critical to good design, our heritage, and our ecology.
As such, most of this newsletter is dedicated to the term sense of place. If you never thought about it before, I encourage you to think about it now, both in terms of your own landscape, and in the development of your community.
In addition, I have included an article on the 2004 Perennial Plant of the Year. In gardening circles the announcement of the Perennial Plant of the Year is greeted with much fan-fair. The winner for 2004 just so happens to be a fabulous plant for shade gardeners and certainly will be readily available in the spring with its new crown of glory and publicity.
Sense of Place in the Home Landscape and Community
Design professionals use the term ‘sense of place’ a lot. In this article we are going to explore what sense of place means to you, the homeowner who wants an attractive landscape, as well as you the public citizen. Once you understand what sense of place is and how it is achieved, I hope you agree with me that it is something worth preserving and developing.
What is Sense of Place?
There is no exact definition for the term sense of place. On the simplest level it means a garden compatible with the style of the home and well suited to the land. An example of a home landscape with a sense of place is a shingled Cape Cod house with a brick walk leading to the front door ,and scrub pines and beach grasses planted in the garden. The brick walk is in harmony with the architecture of the home, while the scrub pines and beach grasses are native to the area and well suited for the climate. A garden with neatly clipped topiaries or tropical foliage would be totally out of context with a shingled Cape Cod house. A Cape Cod house in the tropics has no sense of place. It is not consistent with the culture and style of the area.
More broadly, a sense of place is used to describe the feeling of comfort experienced by humans in a particular geographic space. Some places feel good while others feel uncomfortable or hostile. Each environment is created by a unique combination of buildings, interior and exterior spaces, landscape, climate and light. Sense of place is shaped by all these characteristics, as well as the use of the facilities, the local rituals and community traditions. It reflects both the cultural and ecological histories of the location. If we are to be in harmony with nature our architecture and land use must be in harmony with a location’s sense of place.
The Walt Disney Company is a master at creating a sense of place. However, most of the time they are not creating authentic places, but rather imaginary places for entertainment. Frequently the plants used to create these places are not even real!
An authentic and meaningful sense of place must evolve. A design that carefully incorporates a sense of place is merely the beginning. The saplings planted in the garden need to grow into trees and buildings need to gently age. Creating a sense of place is analogous to planting seeds and watching them grow.
A new construction site isn’t a blank canvas. The topography of the land and the history of the region lay the fabric for a sense of place. Preservation and maintenance of this fabric is fundamental to maintaining a sense of place.
Rather than replace a crumbling stonewall with a new wall, repair the old wall. In the short term it may be more inefficient, but in the long term the effect is more evocative.
Sense of place is not only applicable to the out doors. Continuity between indoors and out is important too. Issues of human scale are multiplied in importance in interior spaces.
A Location’s Sense of Place Evolves
A sense of place is not static. As cultures change and world events make their mark, a geographical location’s sense of place changes. A sense of place needs to incorporate an area’s story into its design and existence.
The most striking example of a change in the sense of place in recent history is lower Manhattan. Admittedly many design professionals would argue lower Manhattan didn’t have a strong sense of place before September 11, 2001. Nevertheless, the area’s story has changed dramatically since that day. To ignore that would be inexcusable. While the existence of the twin towers may have had a negative esthetic impact on the surrounding area, it served as a landmark that is now gone.
While perhaps the recent changes in lower Manhattan are the most violent and abrupt change in New York City’s sense of place, they are by no means the first. The creation of Central Park was a catalyst for change, inspiring street grading and neighborhood development. Yet the appropriation of land needed for the park had devastating effects on the communities living there.
Core to the essence of a sense of place is the preservation of special or historic places. Yet a landscape valued by one group may be offensive to another. In some instances strict preservation is not always appropriate. Managing landscapes involves both planning for positive change and preventing negative change.
Creating a Sense of Space
Whether you are creating a home landscape or revitalizing an urban area, the site must be analyzed to reveal the most meaningful subtleties. The analysis should include the following:
Historical Development Patterns
This is additional analysis that must be done beyond the analysis of light, soil conditions and measurement that are basic for any landscape plan.
Because the sense of place varies dramatically from location to location site plans to develop or preserve a sense of place vary widely. A plan developed for a property in a historic community may call for little change but extensive repairs to existing structures and plantings consistent with the historical period of the location. However, a plan for a new property with weaker character warrants a more aggressive agenda to create a strong identity.
Unfortunately most building codes do not address the sense of place. Less than a mile from where I live is an example of why they should. The subject neighborhood is comprised of one-story homes nestled in woodland. The homes are constructed primarily of wood, blending in seamlessly with their surroundings. They typically have courtyards that open to the outside and large windows. Recently an owner of one of these homes tore down his house to build a new one. In the process some trees were removed. The new structure is a two story French provincial peach stucco with a circular driveway. The landscaping around the home is comprised of evergreen topiaries. Although the house is attractive, it is an eye sore. It doesn’t belong and has a jarring effect. Local residents sued the town for this grievous violation of sense of place. However, the courts ruled that no building codes were violated and the new home was perfectly ‘legal’.
Robert P. Davis stated, "Getting comfortable is a complex act with emotional and physical components, contextually and culturally sensitive, with an indeterminate path to get there, but an absolutely certain sense of arrival.”
From this statement several design characteristics that foster a sense of place can be derived:
The place makes pedestrians feel good
The design should be contextual and culturally sensitive, incorporating both historical and current trends
There must be a grand sense of arrival.
In the example I just sited near my home the first two of these design characteristics were violated. The new house does not make you feel good, whether you are a pedestrian or driving by in your car. A circular driveway for cars, not a path for pedestrians, dominates the front yard. While the house is attractive on its own, it is neither contextually or culturally sensitive. Its existence in the neighborhood is not comfortable. It looks out of place. Nevertheless, there is a grand sense of arrival when driving up to it on the circular driveway.
All too often these design characteristics are violated. Most new houses have a straight path leading from the driveway to the front door. Typically there is only a six to ten foot strip of land between the house and the path for landscaping, no where near wide enough for trees. The paths are typically narrow, about three feet wide, rushing the pedestrian into the front door in the most efficient manner possible, a straight line. There is no sense of arrival once the pedestrian reaches the front door. The skinny path generally leads straight into the house, a most efficient yet unsatisfying design. Usually the landscaping is done as an after thought and the last thing the homeowner wants to do is rip-up the newly installed path and front stoop. In addition, the architecture gives little, if any, consideration to the surrounding context or culture. Generally it is impossible to distinguish a house in Arizona from one in Ohio.
A far more pleasing design for a new house would incorporate these three design characteristics. In my vision of a new house there is a broad path, four-and-half to five feet wide, meandering slowly to the front door. Small to medium sized trees indigenous to the area line the path, providing the pedestrian dappled shade and the home shelter from the elements. Flowering ground covers and shrubs are planted beneath the trees, providing fragrance and beauty. If the area is rocky, like where I live, large boulders excavated when the foundation for the house is dug would be incorporated into the landscape. At the entrance to the house there would be a wide covered stoop and perhaps a piece of art. The structure would reflect the culture of the area, but would be simple with huge windows that unify the inside and outside into one connected environment.
In the urban landscape New York’s two largest commuter rail stations, Grand Central Station and Penn Station, exemplify how a sense of arrival can have a great impact on a community’s sense of place. Grand Central Station has a voluminous grand concourse and intricate architecture that demands attention. It creates the feeling of arriving someplace important. However, Penn Station fails to create emotion, other than perhaps a feeling of gloom. Its architecture is trite and the low ceilings and being below ground dampen rather than lift the spirit.
A lot of attention has been given to the consideration of developing a grand transportation node in lower Manhattan as part of the reconstruction effort. Assuming its architecture is befitting, such a facility would create a sense of arrival and hence place, which lower Manhattan lacked even before September 11.
Incorporating art into the landscape can significantly contribute to the sense of place. Art can be found in the form of:
Amenities such as seating and lights
It can evoke a sense of beauty, history or interest. Art in the landscape promotes social gathering. It attracts people and offers a place to meet. Many times it symbolizes the history of the place. Other times fountains and sculptures are used to celebrate the very existence of the place.
Art need not be relegated to merely public areas. It can be incorporated into the home landscape as well. Fountains are becoming increasingly popular and provide white noise that hides the sound of traffic. A strategically positioned statue can become the focal point of a garden. However, art should never be used in place of plants.
Has America Lost its Sense of Space?
America’s sprawling suburban landscape is increasingly concerned with movement rather than a sense of place. When the suburbs were first developed their main value was that you could live close to a city, but not in the city itself. Not the city and not the country, suburbs frequently lacked identity. Town squares have been replaced by shopping malls and parking lots.
A sense of place differentiates one environment from another. Yet many suburbs across the nation are indistinguishable, despite vast differences in culture, history, topography, and climate. Where once the plant life between certain regions of the country at least differed, this is becoming even less the case, as water is being diverted into desert regions. Increasingly many Americans complain that their suburban neighborhoods have no sense of community, or sense of place.
In nature sense of place is everything. By homogenizing our built environment we are loosing our ecological sense of place. Perhaps this is why many people do not relate to nature. If people are to live in harmony with nature our development must preserve and continue the diversity of life on the land.
There are indications that the nation’s consciousness of place might be increasing. American cities are starting to become more sensitive to their sense of place, realizing they can offer an alternative to the suburban monotony. Cities are realizing that a unique sense of place can make them competitive with the suburbs for jobs and residents.
Education is of course fundamental to any real change. The Nichols Arboretum at the University of Michigan, sponsored by the Ford Motor Company, conducted a program called Landscape Explorers: Uncovering the Power of Place. Landscape Explorers teaches children to become aware of landscapes and their role in shaping them. Children who understand the role of place become adults committed to conserving and enhancing their environment.
Each of us can make a difference. Start by creating a sense of place in your own garden. Not only should your garden design reflect your home’s architecture, it should be in harmony with your climate. You can also let your government officials know that you want future development to be sensitive to your neighborhood’s sense of place.
Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’, Japanese Painted Fern - the 2004 Perennial Plant of the Year
The Perennial Plant Association has named Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’ perennial plant of the year. Athyrium niponicum is botanical Latin for Japanese painted fern. ‘Pictum’ is a named cultivar of this type of fern that grows about 18 inches tall and can grow into a clump two feet wide. It is hardy everywhere except in the desert and the northernmost areas of zone 3. It prefers partial shade and moist soil.
Japanese painted fern is native to China, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. Yet it has established itself in North America as a versatile shade garden plant.
It is easy to understand how Japanese painted ferns got their common name. The fronds of these ferns are a silver to gray color with delicate markings of red and blue. They almost look hand painted. ‘Pictum’ has wine-red stems.
Most shade gardens are composed of plants with diverse textures. Ferns, especially Japanese painted ferns, provide the shade garden with wonderful textural contrasts. The delicate leaves are striking with hosta and Carex (grass-like plants commonly called sedge). Ferns also make interesting companions with Brunnera macrophylla.
To learn more about the Perennial Plant Association visit their website at www.perennialplant.org.
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