The Most Ambitious Public Planting Ever?

London's Olympic Park brings together three of the most innovative plantsmen in the world.  Will the results live up to the hype?

Not since the Victorian era--at the height of the British empire--has a park been created with as much ambition or swagger.  The London Olympic Park, a 247-acre "park with venues," is the largest urban park developed in Europe in 150 years. 

Professor Nigel Dunnett standing in one of his annual meadows.
The master plan for the park was developed by American landscape architecture firm Hargreaves and Associates together with British LDA Associates.  Hargreaves Associates is known for their sculptural treatment of large, post-industrial sites--an appropriate choice for this former industrial site at Stratford in east London.  But for once, it is not the architecture of the park that will take center stage, but the planting instead.

The planting was lead by  two of the most innovative, cutting-edge plantsmen in the world: Professors James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett of the Department of Landscape, University of Sheffield.  Their research-based approach to planting has produced landscapes that are both ecologically funtional and jaw-droppingly beautiful.  Hitchmough and Dunnett pioneered a unique approach to urban planting, which combines native and non-native plant species in low-input systems based on semi-natural vegetation types, such as meadows, woodlands and wetlands.  This approach has come to be known as `The Sheffield School´ of planting design.  The two men bridge the gap between ecological restoration and horticulture, creating landscapes that address urban ecology and beauty.

A 'pictorial meadow' in South Park developed by Dunnett/Hitchmough.  Photo: Dunnett

Dunnett developed the concept of `Pictorial Meadows,´ a planting strategy that is aesthetically-driven, but which also has the dynamics, biodiversity, and management advantages of meadow systems. The concept is an alternative to traditional herbaceous and perennial planting approaches: directly-sown annuals and perennials that produce dramatic, exciting, and colourful displays in a  wide range of contexts, from small gardens through to extensive areas in urban parks, alongside highways and in housing areas.

Annual meadows comprise a large portion of the south section of London Olympic Park.  The annuals surround the Olympic stadium and are timed to be in peak during the opening ceremonies.  The color theme is "gold."
Annual 'pictorial meadows' with blues and yellows
In addition to the annual meadows, the park has over half a mile of naturalistic perennial plantings.  Not since the Highline in New York or the Lurie Garden in Chicago has so much area of a public site been dedicated to perennial plantings.  The design of the gardens is a collaboration between Hitchmough and Dunnett (who developed the concept and plant lists for the gardens) and landscape architect Sarah Price. 

Sarah Price
Price, fresh off her gold-medal performance for the Telegraph garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, is the horticultural IT-girl of 2012.  After starting her own company in 2006, Price has gradually nabbed some of the most prized landscape commissions in England, including the Whitworth Art Gallery.  Known for her moody, poetic combinations of structural plants, Price's plantings convey a rare combination of delicacy and strength.   For the Olympic Park, Price developed the spatial design and detailed planting plans for the gardens. 

The are four gardens that run in sequence and form a "timeline."  Each garden represents a different region: Western Europe/The Mediterranean/Asia Minor, the Temperate Americas, the Southern Hemisphere (particularly South Africa, Australia, New Zealand), and Temperate Asia (China, Japan, Himalayas).  The gardens are composed of three main elements: clipped formal evergreen hedges that create a permanent structure; monocultural 'strips' of ornamental grasses or structural perennials that frame the main components of the gardens: the 'field' plantings' that determine the character of each garden.  
Texture diagram by Sarah Price
The main compositional gesture are strips of planting that weave together the site. While I find "stripes" of planting to be very graphically pleasing on paper, they rarely translate well with plants. It's not that I have an issue with formality and geometry in planting, just not with herbaceous plants. Unless bounded by a clipped hedge or architectural edging, herbaceous plants rarely lend themselves to formal arragements like strips. On a site, the gesture often ends up looking contrived and small; the patterning pulls the eye inward, away from the horizon, thus reducing the impact of the planting. The one photo I've seen of the strips of perennials felt a bit under-scaled and precocious.

Clipped hedges and rather unconvincing "strips"
While the strips failed to impress, the "fields" of plantings were much more interesting.  The "fields" used a much more innovate approach to laying out herbaceous plants.  Within the fields, there was no planting plan with exact locations for plants. Instead, there is simply a mix of perennials that grow well together.  The fields were laid out randomly, giving each area a feeling of spontenaity, but since the mix was restrained, there would be legibiltiy created through repetition.  This style of interplanting is very similar to the work Michael King has done with his "Perennial Meadows." 

"Field" planting at the Southern Hemisphere garden
The different regions of the world concept struck me initially as a bit trite--a kind of reductionist, Epcot-Center-ride through the plantings of the world.  But the British garden is indeed a compilation of plants from their former empire, so the stylized meadows from around the world will is, in a way, a uniquely British concept.  With a large site, huge ambitions, a rushed schedule, and big cast of designers, there is always the possibility that the execution of the plan lacks the heart and intensity that a single designer could bring to a small site.

The sort-of North American garden with American Coneflower, South African Verbena, and European Allium
That being said, I find the scale of the plantings and the choice of designers to be delightful.  Bravo to the clients for dedicating so much of the parks to experimental planting.  With so much planting experimentation, there's bound to be some wonderful successes that will advance naturalistic perennial design, particularly for public sites.  If these gardens can combine the more cerebral aspirations of the Sheffield School with the more artsy, restrained stylization of Sarah Price, these could be some truly ground-breaking gardens. While the world watches this summer's Olympics, I'll be eagerly watching the gardens.

Images from this post were taken from Nigel Dunnett's site.  For more information about the park, visit the site:
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