When Cities Grow Wild - Natural Landscaping from an Urban Planning Perspective

by John Ingram

Chapter 1 - Introduction

At the ringing of the recess bell more and more young children are rushing outside to play not on hard edged, concrete games areas, but in small, naturalized woodland, prairie or meadow settings reminiscent of the days of the one room school house. From informal lunch time play, to structured science and geography classes, ever more schoolground naturalization projects are helping introduce a new generation to the importance of nature, its value in the city and the wonder of its processes and functions in regulating environmental health. The benefits of schoolground naturalization are now widely accepted and actively pursued by school boards, parent groups, non-governmental organizations and students across the continent.

Here in the Halifax (Nova Scotia) Regional Municipality, there are a number of projects underway and the practice is supported through both municipal and school board policy1. Yet despite its wide acclaim for providing such rewarding and positive experiences, the whole process is unfortunately diminished the moment the child leaves the schoolground to walk home through an urban landscape marked by conventional horticultural standards and aesthetics that can neither provide the same educational experiences, nor the same environmental value.

For the most part, the tapestry of parks, private gardens and formal open spaces that make up the vegetated urban landscape are a disturbing reflection of an aesthetic preference and cultural tradition out of step with current environmental, ecological and societal realities. Why? The landscapes are dependent on constant and expensive energy inputs to retain their cultivated forms. Their maintenance is responsible for considerable environmental degradation through the pollution it causes (lawn mower emissions, herbicide and pesticide run-off, etc.). And they perpetuate our dated cultural attitudes concerning nature in the city and the relationship between human society and the environment2. In short, most urban greenspaces suffer many of the same environmental shortcomings that the advocates of schoolground naturalization use to justify their projects.

This is a strange fact. If we are trying to teach our youth to be good environmental stewards, should we not be teaching by example? Should not municipalities as the protectors and guardians of public and environmental health seek to apply the same successful programs to its own properties? Should not private homeowners reevaluate their own landscaping practices as a matter of public responsibility? Why should the benefits so clearly linked to naturalization be restricted almost exclusively to schoolgrounds?

This document addresses these questions and the larger issues to which they are related. In light of the successes of the schoolground naturalization movement, it questions the value of the current urban landscape ethic, examines its associated environmental and economic problems, and makes the case for the adoption of naturalization, or natural landscaping as an alternative design approach that better reflects current ecological and fiscal realities. Specifically, the document poses the question:

What are the barriers and opportunities for the adoption of a natural landscaping strategy for Halifax Regional Municipality?

Although the terms will sometimes be used interchangeably, this document will favour the term natural landscaping over naturalization. Natural landscaping may be defined as the practice of ecologically sensitive landscaping that uses regionally native plant species to help create specialized and self-sustaining plant communities (prairie, woodland, etc.) to restore landscape functions and processes. It shares the same larger goals of schoolground naturalization in that it seeks to actively engage and educate its users about the value and importance of nature in the city. Additionally, given its self-sustaining qualities, natural landscaping offers public authorities an inherently sustainable management approach that can help save public grounds maintenance dollars. A more complete definition of both the larger concept of natural landscaping and its practical applications follows in section 2.0.

It should also be stated that this document and the arguments it makes are steeped in a strong and obvious environmental bias. It assumes that planners and other public authorities should place environmental considerations as priority issues in all land use and land management decisions. As Grant et al. put it so succinctly in a recent article in the American Planning Association Journal:

Human development depends upon a healthy environment; economic vitality and social equity can follow only if ecosystems thrive. If we do not protect the land and its resources, the land will not support us. Species survival and ecological diversity depend on landscape function. (Grant et al., 1996, p332)

This moral and scientific position forms the basis of the exploration of the urban landscape issues in this document and underpins the arguments and policy recommendations made in section 4.03.

This document is not limited to a narrow examination of the research question itself. A full analysis of both the barriers and opportunities to the adoption of a natural landscaping strategy in Halifax Regional Municipality requires a broad introduction to the subject. Despite the recent surge in popularity of schoolground naturalization, natural landscaping on private property and in the public realm represents a relatively new topic in urban planning. General awareness of the subject and its body of literature are correspondingly limited. To best answer the specific research question, therefore, it is important not only to thoroughly define natural landscaping as both a concept and a practice, but also to provide a general analysis of the conventional landscaping approach it seeks to supplant. Additionally, assuming as the research does that Halifax should adopt a natural landscaping policy, an overview of what other municipalities have achieved in the field will also be conducted to determine what general opportunities and barriers to natural landscaping have already been encountered.

For these reasons, the body of the document is broken into three major chapters. The Chapter 2, Natural Landscaping: an Introduction, places natural landscaping in the larger context of landscape management and expands on the issues touched on in this introduction. It provides an overview of the problems associated with conventional landscaping and introduces natural landscaping as an alternative landscape approach.

Chapter 3, Municipalities and Natural Landscaping: Other Initiatives, provides a brief overview of current policy and program initiatives in the field of natural landscaping. It also traces the development of the natural landscaping movement from its historic private property roots to its current public applications. The component is broken into two distinct sections: private property and the public realm. The first focuses on the legal context of naturally landscaping private property, while the second provides an overview of publicly funded and coordinated efforts. The second section does not limit itself to purely municipal efforts. Upper level policy and programs are also reviewed, as some provide legal mandates for municipal action while others are influential in their approach and urban locations.

With the important background or context in place, Chapter 4, Natural Landscaping and Halifax: Barriers and Opportunities, deals specifically with the research question. In answering it, the component explores two fundamental areas: first, both the enabling and constraining legislation, regulations and policy objectives are presented and reviewed; second, the more subjective informational, attitudinal and bureaucratic opportunities and barriers are summarized. Following a general analysis of the research, conclusions on the subject and some personal observations, a series of policy recommendations are presented to help the Halifax Regional Municipality realize the adoption of a natural landscaping strategy.

The last chapter concludes the document by reviewing its arguments and its recommendations. It is followed by a series of appendices which include excerpts of several municipal natural landscaping by-laws, some cost comparisons between natural and conventional landscaping, an example of a site analysis matrix for roadside naturalization projects, and a table outlining some of the human health effects of lawn care pesticide and herbicide use.


1. For information regarding HRMs schoolground naturalization policies please see section 4.2.1

2. As is discussed at length in Section 2.1, conventional urban landscaping perpetuates the idea that the city and nature are mutually exclusive and independent places, and that human control and dominance of nature is required to maintain its proper function and health.

3. Of the various humankind/nature paradigms that exist, this thesis subscribes to that of eco-development. Eco-development sets out to restructure the relationship between society and nature in a positive sum game by recognizing human activities that are synergistic with ecosystem processes. As a paradigm it is partially informed by biocentricism, or deep ecology which believes in the value of protecting nature for its own sake, apart from human interests (Rappaport, 1993).

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