Stephen Richards is landscape architect working in urban spaces.
'Appreciating the beauty of a blossom, the loveliness of a lilac,… are all ways in which people can, in some small measure, fill their daily lives with evolutionarily inspired epiphanies of pleasure' D M Buss (2000)
In 1918 at the end of World War One the French Impressionist painter Claude Monet offered the people of France a series of large canvases of his garden pool at Giverny. He wanted his panoramic masterpiece, ‘Nympheas’ in the Musee de l’Orangerie, to become a space of refuge and sanctuary, to heal those souls worn down by the brutality of conflict, with a spectacle of nature and eternity.
Monet understood the ‘epiphanies of pleasure’ we take from nature. Building his garden certainly helped his own struggles with depression. As a practicing landscape architect dealing daily with this living medium I am fascinated by the positive power of nature on increasingly dense urban existence, especially now as we emerge from our own global conflict.
‘Nature connectedness’ is a relatively new subject of enquiry that seeks to explain through empirical evidence of our oneness with the natural world, the positive impact on mindfulness and wellbeing that comes from a meaningful involvement in something larger than oneself.
To commemorate 125 years, the National Trust is using its immense holding of open spaces to highlight how those who make small, every day connections with nature are much more likely to take action to protect it. The results of their research together with the University of Derby should concern us all. When questioning children in the past year:
Our urban existence and apparent need for speed and instant gratification has clearly separated us from the natural world of which we are part. We resonate with our surroundings so it is no wonder that the lives we have created for ourselves engender feelings of anxiety and depression. We simply do not understand what is going on, that it goes against nature. The pandemic isolation has fed this fear, thrusting onto us something we simply cannot control or comprehend.
The Finnish theoretician Professor Juhani Pallasmaa sees our appreciation of cause and effect in nature as the reason it helps to heal:
‘We are products of nature and we are natural phenomena ourselves, [yet] we consider ourselves as something else…everything is causal, whereas modern life becomes increasingly non-causal so things happen without the possibility of us understanding why. I think understanding and experiencing the causation of natural phenomena, like the waves of the ocean and rain from the sky, is what balances our mental world. Although it’s a great mystery, nature is also a phenomenon that we seem to understand, or at least accept as a system of experiential causalities.’
The phenomenon of which he speaks is a system of interconnectedness between plants, animals (which includes ourselves), insects and microbes, and soil, sunlight, water, seasonal change and time. Nature has its own clock and the interconnectedness of the natural world runs at a slower pace than our lives.
Making ‘slow space’ where one can find refuge amongst plants is one way my practice is building empathy with the natural world. Shifting and flexing the urban grain to create pocket parks along busy streets, bringing nature into our buildings through biophilic design and reclaiming roofscapes as gardens, all present the urban dweller opportunities to socialise or meditate in spaces that are governed by a slower, natural pace.
The huge uptake in gardening this year must frustrate those not able to access the space to grow and nurture their own plants. We are looking at how the urban dweller can interact with nature within their living environment. At Elephant Park in Southwark the new residential masterplan revolves around a major park, green streets and roof gardens. The place is infused with nature that is embedded into the fabric of the architecture and where water run-off from building and streets nourishes the planting. Grow-gardens give occupants the opportunities to touch the soil and experience that nature connectedness. We are doing similar work at Kings Road Park where the occupier can customise their balcony as well as sharing courtyard gardens and a new park. Slow, interactive nature permeates the approach to and from a dwelling as well as life within the home and is surely a model for post-Covid urban life.