Perspectives Landscape Design

Designing and Nurturing Public Landscapes: The Critical Role of Maintenance

“It is the bane, or perhaps the beauty, of many landscapes, that significant and ongoing care is required not only to preserve day-to-day appearances, but to ensure the design’s structure evolves fully…. As architect of a living medium, landscape designers have a mandate to guide their work throughout its successive evolutionary stages — or relinquish its integrity.” - Dan Kiley

As landscape architects, our primary focus lies in representing, mapping, designing, and constructing landscapes. The long-term quality and success of any landscape scheme hinges on acknowledging the pivotal role of gardeners who will maintain these spaces. Their horticultural knowledge and maintenance efforts are not just determining factors for landscape health and vitality but also invaluable assets that enrich our professional expertise as Landscape Architects. This collaborative partnership yields mutual benefits, with both parties contributing to and reaping the rewards of the project’s success.

At Gillespies, we actively forge strong partnerships with gardeners during construction and after project completion. Engaging with them directly in planting guidance enables us to influence and oversee planting delivery, ensuring high horticultural standards, and fostering biodiversity. This collaboration also facilitates continuous learning from their expertise, shaping our design approach to create resilient plant communities that can be easily maintained and withstand challenging urban conditions.

After completing the Public Realm and Park at Elephant Park, the regeneration of Elephant and Castle into a thriving green neighbourhood, we continue to oversee and guide the maintenance of the stunning rain gardens and have been doing so for several years. This forward-thinking approach, championed by visionary client Lendlease, recognises the enduring value of our ongoing involvement beyond completion.

The invaluable insights gained from the expert gardeners at Elephant Park have not only guaranteed the vitality of its green spaces but directly influenced the planting selection.

Rain gardens and retained mature trees edge Ash Avenue at Elephant Park. Image: Gillespies
The rain gardens during the summer months at Elephant Park. Image: Gillespies

As the impact of climate change continues to intensify, alternating between droughts and heavy rainfall, it is imperative to know how to create and maintain resilient and long-lasting landscapes that can adapt and thrive during these extreme events, while also mitigating the impact on surrounding communities.

Our in-house planting team has dedicated many years to researching and planting test beds to understand the natural growth patterns and habitat preferences of various plants. This extensive research has taught us how to create biodiverse habitats that restore natural networks, enhance ecological connectivity, and effectively respond to extreme weather conditions. Additionally, our approach provides meaningful benefits to people by creating beautiful, uplifting spaces that enhance the environment and encourage local wildlife.

Below are a number of best practice recommendations on how to create and maintain successful and beautiful public realm planting, that can be applied to all scales of projects across the globe:

Engage early with the gardeners who will be constructing and maintaining your projects

Include in your brief and fee proposal an allowance for ongoing collaboration with gardeners to guide the planting process during the project and in the years following construction. Explain the benefits of this approach to your client. Leveraging the expertise of skilled gardeners in plant placement and long-term maintenance will ensure that the planting remains healthy and continues to thrive through routine care and adaption, achieving both aesthetic and sustainable outcomes. Implementing a long-term maintenance plan will create efficiencies in the whole life cycle of a scheme and help the planting reach its full potential and maximise habitats biodiversity value.

Conduct detailed studies for optimal plant selection

Ensure a meticulously detailed sun/shade and soil condition study is performed on your site at the outset of the project. This comprehensive study will precisely determine what plant communities can thrive where, giving you confidence in the suitability of the proposed species for your landscape.

Adopt a habitat-based planting approach for ecological and aesthetic benefits

Advocate for a habitat-based planting approach, a method that not only celebrates the uniqueness of each plant community but also brings significant ecological benefits. We can create resilient planting schemes that inspire and benefit your landscape by placing plants according to their natural growth patterns. Prioritise species with a broad ecological amplitude that are adaptable and can withstand non-optimal conditions in terms of light and soil moisture. Species with a very narrow ecological amplitude can quickly fail when the conditions are not ideal.

The newly implemented SuDs at Brent Cross. Image: Gillespies

Plant trees in optimal conditions

Ensure that trees are planted in the right conditions. It’s important to understand and match the specific requirements of each tree species to the site conditions, considering factors such as light exposure, wind tolerance, soil type, moisture levels, and climate. Providing ongoing maintenance and monitoring will promote the health and longevity of the trees.

Create spatial complexity

Use a wide range of native and non-native, pollinator-friendly, non-invasive woody and herbaceous species to create the spatial complexity that academic studies have shown is essential for supporting biodiversity.

Opt for late winter cut back

Postpone the pruning of deciduous vegetation until late winter, allowing insects to safely hibernate overwinter within the spent vegetation.

Promoting plant establishment
Ensure that all new plants are regularly irrigated during the first three years to aid establishment.

The microclimate created at Crossrail Place Roof Garden has allowed the planting of rare plant species. Image: Nunzio Prenna, courtesy of Canary Wharf Group.

At Gillespies, our team of highly trained experts are committed to crafting exceptional settings that not only enhance wellbeing, foster biodiversity, and unite communities but also remain effortlessly beautiful through effective maintenance practices.

We champion a regenerative design philosophy that harnesses Earth’s natural networks to develop interconnected ecosystems that are not only robust but also circular and resilient. We deliver places that not only stand the test of time but thrive with minimal intervention and help to reverse biodiversity loss.

Contact us today to explore how our expertise can help you create public realms that are not only captivating and meaningful today but will endure and be cherished for years to come, with planting schemes that are as well-designed as they are easily maintained.

The Park at Elephant Park continues to thrive three years after its completion, thanks to expert maintenance. Image: John Sturrock/Gillespies