Landscape architects share the conviction that urban planning and design should enhance ways for people to interact with nature.
This connection is often unlearned yet instinctive, and we continually chase opportunities to integrate natural processes within the built environment. But we are often challenged. The barriers are endless – maintenance costs, safety concerns and legal hurdles abound. There has always been an excuse.
But one just needs to look at the award-winning Barangaroo Reserve in Sydney, which has been open for just a month, and how bringing nature into our cities engages our curiosity and interest. We love being connected to nature, and Barangaroo Reserve is an exemplar of our opportunity to embrace nature and the human delight it can cultivate.
These relationships vary through time, both on the human scale, ranging from children in natural playgrounds to seniors with the opportunity to see birds approach their homes, and on the annual scale, as the seasonality of our physical environment changes what we can expect and enjoy from our interactions.
The inherent human attraction to all things that are alive and vital must now be at the centre of our design of urban environments. I refer to such developments as living precincts, where a connection with nature is at the heart of the design brief.
Here are 10 key attributes of the living precinct, a playbook of opportunities for next generation urban development:
Our cities are typically built on a buried network of streams that persist in pipes and engineered drains. Open water allows people to see and hear this traditionally hidden system. Practices that mimic natural hydrological cycles, such as regenerative stormwater conveyance, must now become the norm, not the exception. The living precinct contains a network of constructed wetlands for wastewater and/or stormwater treatment, and replacing culverts with open channels.
Above ground level, roofs supporting vegetation that acts in water filtration and nutrient cycling has the opportunity to expose people to nature in their daily settings. Green roofs and rooftop gardens are often dreamed of but rarely delivered in Australia, and this trend needs to be disrupted.
Vegetation in an urban landscape can provide shade, air quality benefits, and structural forms such as living buffers between pedestrians and busy streets. Often, stormwater management is an added benefit. Street trees and other creative planting opportunities can be used across the precinct to create habitats with vertical structure that can support a wide array of life.
Accessibility in design
Natural interactions should be accessible to residential, commercial, and industrial users and designed in compliance with relevant accessibility codes in mind. Ensuring that all stakeholders are accounted for is an important part of planning the living precinct. One useful approach is to track people’s movement through the precinct, from opportunities in buildings to interactions with nature throughout their daily lives. These could include everything from bus stops to schoolyards, parking areas, walkways and buildings.
Mixed park typologies
Parks and green spaces provide opportunities for community gathering, active recreation, and spiritual reckoning. In addition to the larger habitat hubs described above, working with relevant authorities and other partners, the living precinct can seize a wider variety of opportunities for interaction with nature in the form of pocket parks, nature play areas, and multicultural landscapes that begin to tell the story of the precinct.
Multimodal pathways and trails
The pathways and trails traveled by pedestrians, bikes, and even cars provide residents, workers and visitors with various experiences of and interactions with nature – walking, hiking, biking, running – in a safe environment. Trails can be designed alongside and within parks and natural systems, though they must be planned in a manner that minimises the fragmentation of important habitat patches or corridors. These elements increase the health and well-being of residents and provide areas for both passive and active recreation. Local trails can also be temporary, making use of undeveloped or vacant lands before they are transitioned to a new use.
Biophilic buildings and infrastructure
Buildings, bridges, and other architecture in the precinct are opportunities to incorporate biophilic design principles. Office buildings, schools, and residential dwellings can integrate plants and living walls to support improved indoor air quality. There are many ways designers can use biophilia: placing operable windows that provide natural sunlight and ventilation; designing for views and viewsheds of natural areas; using natural materials in a way that celebrates sustainable production and consumption; or including signage explaining the material selection and telling the story of built infrastructure.
Environmental awareness and identity
Underlying ecological zones and historical systems can become powerful parts of how people think of the places where they live and work. Efforts to enhance this awareness can include signage that engages visitors with the natural history of a place, integrating local ecology and stewardship into curricula, and creating citizen science or outreach elements in local parks. Planning activities and festivals around birding, migrations, and other seasonal cycles can embed celebrations of nature into the precinct’s identity.
Stewardship and action
Groups that are organised around specific efforts to improve the living infrastructure of a precinct can be powerful assets. Programs to adopt a stream, help plant native plants, control invasive species, and clean and maintain rain gardens are great ways to engage residents as stewards of their natural resources. Citizen science programs are also effective ways to engage interested community members in stewardship.
Art installations can celebrate human interactions with – and perception of – the natural world. Local artists, environmental scientists and educators, government agencies, and community members can use art pieces to interpret nature and inspire the community to engage in conversations about the natural environment. The use of local materials can also reinforce the idea of closed-loop systems.
The living precinct is one that fundamentally connects people with nature, and these 10 attributes are but some of the multiple opportunities to enhance the interaction of people with nature in our urban development projects. It is not about landscaping, but rather putting landscape and landscape architects at the centre of our planning and design efforts, and not last.