Author Archives: René van der Velde

The chair of Landscape Architecture invites you to a new series of lectures in How-Do-You-Landscape tradition entitled “SCAPES”. This series continues the direction of the HDYL lectures, this time focusing on specific emerging themes for spatial design, such as disasters and emergencies, co-creation, social justice and new technology. We invite leading academics and practitioners with contrasting or complementary views to speak about their work in an informal setting. The presentations are followed by a discussion chaired by an academic from the faculty. A screening of a film or documentary on the same topic follows up the lectures in the weeks following.
The first theme in the new series revolves around Disaster-Scapes, exploring the role of spatial design in the wake of environmental catastrophes, conflicts, poverty and socio-political upheaval. We have invited Gabriella Trovata from the American University of Beirut, and SueAnne Ware from the University of Newcastle in Australia, to speak on their work in this area.
Gabriella Trovato – Landscapes of Emergency                  Religious and political conflicts, natural disasters and poverty are creating a new wave of displaced people across the globe that may well be the beginnings of a permanent flux of people escaping unsustainable conditions. While spatial design disciplines chiefly focus on temporary housing and emergency logistics, bigger questions of cultural, social and spatial cohesion in the adopted countries – and the territories left behind – receive less attention. Trovato’s research proposes new models and approaches to re-establish lost connections, identify new structures and and catalyze processes of integrated design at different spatial and temporal scales. Trovato’s work in real-life territories of emergency in Lebanon explores the role of design in the mapping and representation of narratives, testimonies and values, and through observations and interventions in the field. She aims to develop flexible, and creative strategies capable of managing continuous transformations. She also explores the notion of “landscape as infrastructure” through the sustainable re-organization of contemporary migratory territories.
SueAnne Ware – Landscapes of Emergency                  Ware’s projects reflect her strong commitment to marginalized groups and issues such as drug addiction, ‘illegal’ refugee policy and homelessness. She aims to create spaces that generate friction, where protests are permitted and possible, where the attention of passers-by is drawn to some of society’s most pervasive issues, and where those passers-by who choose to engage with the space may discover insight into what Ware hopes is a more humanitarian approach. Ware will speak on the SIEVX project (Humanitarian crisis- reconstruction) and will also talk on a recently completed project for a series of memorials to the Victorian Bushfires in 2009 (Ecological Crisis – reconstruction). Ware is now Head of the School of Architecture and Built Environment at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Before this she held the position of Deputy Dean, Research and Innovation, in the School of Architecture and Design at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Each time I visit an urban park I take note of the choice of plants in the design. Not just because I am interested in plant species or their aesthetic or sensorial qualities, but also because I an interested in the ethical and ecological notions behind a planting design. Questions like: do plants have ‘rights’? and what is a native and what is an exotic plant? impact ideologies and approaches to nature conservation, ecology and planting design. These questions have surfaced in the design competition for the Singel park in Leiden, won earlier this year by Lola Landscape architects from Rotterdam and Bureau Karst from Switzerland. Lola’s planting concept for the competition accentuates the diversity of green spaces around this six-kilometer long linear park by proposing a ‘necklace’ of different plantings featuring plants from around the world.  Under the theme ‘cosmopolitan nature’, their idea is to showcase plant communities from international plant-geography zones similar to that of Leiden, from North and South America, South Africa, Madagascar, Australia, China and Japan. It promises a spectacular array of plant material on a scale unprecedented in a Dutch public park. The Leiden Hortus Botanicus, also situated in the park, has been invited to develop and manage the planting, an opportunity for the botanical garden to re-invent itself and its relationship to the city and the world in a new public park.

Lola Landscape Architects_cosmopolitan nature

Despite the scale and originality of the idea however, it did not attract the unanimous approval in Leiden that other aspects of their scheme did. Doubts were raised about management and maintenance: would these exotic plants take over the park and out-compete native species? Ideological discussions also emerged. Why use ‘foreign’ plants? What was wrong with using plants which were native to the area? A political analyst might interpret this response as a reflection of the rise of populist political ideologies promoted by the likes of the PVV. This analysis might be newsworthy, but surely it would be too simplistic? Lets take a look at it.

Motivations for using native plants vary, from a simple interest and concern for local plants and biodiversity to adepts of concepts such as phytogeography and phytosociology. Phytogeography is the demarcation of plant species into specific plant districts around the world, determined by their biotic, abiotic and cultural landscape conditions. Phytosociology is the study of the relationships between individual species in these plant ‘communities’. Adepts of phytogeography and phytosociology promote the exclusive use of plants from the phytogeographic zones only. These concepts have increasingly influenced garden and landscape design in the last hundred years, leading to the Heemtuin movement in the Netherlands, and parks such as the Jac. P. Thijjse park in Amsteleveen by Chris Broerse and Koos Landwehr from the 1930s.

There is however, a major ethical problem with phytogeography and phytosociology. If we look at it from a bio-centric worldview, we humans are part and parcel of the natural world and all organisms have their own intrinsic value. We therefore have no fundamental right to decide the fate of another organism and the decision to contain plants within their phyto-geographical district must be deemed wrong as we are deciding for plants where they can and can’t grow, based on our own interpretation of where they are considered to belong or not. Phytogeography and phytosociology must then be seen as an anthropocentric approach as we are the ones determining where plants are to grow, based on our own insights, with ourselves and our own futures as the primary focus. This is fine, were it not that few adepts of phytogeography and phytosociology would consider themselves anthropocentric. There is also a more fundamental problem here: Who are we to decide they only ‘belong’ in one particular district and not in another? They may do well in specific phyto-geographic conditions and with particular neighbours, but who is to say they mightn’t do better in different circumstances on the other side of the globe? And if we were to apply the same rules to humans, wouldn’t we certainly be infringing on fundamental human rights? Suddenly a scientific concept starts to display political undertones. Concepts such as phytogeography have been linked to dubious political ideologies in the past: Jewish people were prohibited from gardening with native plants in Nazi Germany, a doctrine linked to the emergence of phytogeography and phytosociology.

Opponents of the Lola’s planting concept face another dilemma: how does one determine what is a ‘native’ and what is ‘exotic’? From the perspective of evolutionary biology the concept of ‘native’ and ‘exotic’ is certainly fluid. Plants and plant communities are anything but static organisms, developing and adapting to different circumstances over time. Native or exotic thus depends on when one starts and stops the deep-time clock. It is also a question of cultural history, particularly in the Netherlands. Many of the plants we now consider native, migrated here in the holds of cargo ships or war fleets or were introduced by new cultures, first from Europe, later elsewhere. Dutch nature has been termed a ‘mosaic of memories’ by the biologist Piet Schroevers, a curious inter-relationship between shifts in biodiversity and periods of discovery, trade and contact between the Netherlands and the rest of the world.

Plant ethics also plays out differently in different types of green space. In parks, planting design is not only about the choice of plants and plant communities for phyto-geographic goals, but also for spatial, temporal and sensorial effects in this most complex and fascinating of urban public spaces. Plant ethics in urban gardens, parkways, remnant landscapes and natural areas however, may be another question entirely. Lola’s winning design has re-opened the Pandora’s box of ethical and ecological problems for landscape architecture in planting design – something academics and practitioners need to explore and debate if they are to offer some alternative viewpoints to approaches based exclusively on science. To start the debate I propose we cease using the terms ‘native’ and ‘exotic’ and start a broader debate between botanists, gardeners, landscape architects, historians, anthropologists and philosophers on planting in the global metropolis.

The city of Leiden has announced plans to develop the 6 km long fortification walls (Singel) encircling the historic city centre into the “longest, most beautiful and exciting city park in the Netherlands.” A few weeks ago I gave a lecture on linear parks to a public meeting about the new park, as part of the preparations for the drawing up of a competition brief for the project. I expected a modest turn-up, but the venue was packed with over a hundred politicians, administrators, designers and residents. There was a buzz of camaraderie and collective energy in the meeting, such a contrast to the distrust and reservation that mostly accompanies public meetings about urban developments. That may be because parks are relatively harmless affairs but it may also have to do with the fact that the term park has become so ubiquitous that concept is open to any and all interpretations. Parks can be anything and everything, so how could you be against them?

The inclusiveness the term park is the result of an historical process; in the course of time the park has substantially developed, transmuted and diversified. Today, the term has a broad range of interpretations within differing contexts. ‘Park’ is used in reference to public open space facilities such as recreation areas, playgrounds, sports fields and manifestation areas, but also denotes green space typologies ranging from remnant landscapes to buffer zones and even ecological corridors. Heritage landscapes within urban areas are also regularly referred to as parks – as are theme parks, vacation parks and zoological gardens. The term also appears in recent formulations such as Regional Park, Landscape Park, Metropolitan Park, Pocket Park and Country Park, and has even found usage in urban developments bearing little relationship to the (historical) park model, such as industrial areas, technology zones and housing estates. These developments reflect a broader dissolution of the park as definition, prompting the question: What is a park and what is not a park?

Despite its ubiquity, there is a relatively limited ‘body of knowledge’ and critical theory on the park  – from an historical, cultural, sociological or design perspective – to discuss these elementary kinds of questions. The ‘diaspora’ of the park also presents a challenge to its political, social, cultural, experiential and design traditions, and threatens the distinctive-ness of the urban park as spatial type: its theoretical, methodological and instrumental foundations. While each park is a unique creation arising from the particular morphology of natural, cultural and urban (landscape) conditions, its typological ‘DNA’ remains crucial to spatial design disciplines. The continuing diaspora of the park can be interpreted as an indication of our failure to nurture the park legacy.

To call the Singel in Leiden a park is thus certainly correct within the current broad range of interpretations of the term park – the question is, what else is needed to make it more than a route connecting a series of green spaces – which is something very different than a park. No easy task for a park commissioner or designer, and even less for a sensitive historic site with a linear form.  In typo-morphological terms, the Singel park in Leiden is a ‘transformation of infrastructure’ park – in essence the same kind of park as the Promenade Plantée in Paris, or its now internationally famous successor, High Line in New York. Given the crowd at this first public meeting and the commitment of stakeholders, Leiden has the potential to develop a park which can hold its own with Paris and New York. But even if Leiden doesn’t have this level of ambition, the group preparing the competition brief would still do well to study parks like Promenade Plantée and High Line and figure out why these parks can rightly call themselves parks – and why they are so successful.

What is it about the Promenade Plantée and High Line that inspires millions to climb up a long flight of stairs to experience them? What have the designers done to make users equate these projects to other great city parks around the world?

Is it the choreography of views and images along route reminiscent of the dioramas of natural and cultural scenery in the landscape parks of the 19th century? Or is it the clever combination of the diorama with our fetish for jogging circuits and ‘fitness promenading’ – or as Midas Dekkers calls us: the Homo adidas?

Is it the representation of garden, landscape and wilderness through skilful (inverse) compositions and views? Or is it the array of landscape experiences through the inspired use of planting and materials?

Is it the way the projects reconfigure the city as a landscape made up of buildings situated within a larger landscape space, materialized by the linear park? Or is it that they set up a new aesthetic of architecture and nature?

I hope Leiden finds the answers to these questions in the coming weeks and manages to keeps the park type within their sights. Now that they have set the tone so well, anything less than a real park just won’t do, I’m afraid.


Kaashoek, A., Jansen, K., Belt, M., (2011) De Leidse Singels: het langste park van Nederland! Visie Leidse Singels. Leiden

van der Velde, r., de Wit, S., Milanovic, S., (2011) Urban Landscapes Reader, MSc2 Landscape Architecture. Delft.

Dekkers, M. (2006) Lichamelijke oefening. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Contact