Human Centred Design

wild aster
a wild aster

Beauty isn’t optional. Living in a beautiful world is a requirement for human health and sanity.

The beauty of clean water, clean air and clean soil is undeniably necessary for good physical health. But, don’t we also need more than the bare minimum? Colour, harmony, surprise … all those abstract elements and principles of art are just as important.

So how is a place of beauty created? Can we trust the wild to spontaneously develop into something lovely? When is the human touch necessary; when does it become too much? The art of gardening and urban development is about finding that balance I suppose.


I have had the good fortune to witness the progress of two local restoration projects that embrace quite divergent philosophies. Today I think I’ll concentrate on the project at Willowbrook Reach which tends to rely on natural processes to guide aesthetic decisions.

The people involved use a light touch: invasive plants get removed by hand; indigenous plants are re-introduced in strategic locations. The community hosts regular creek clean-ups to remove any garbage finding its way to lower ground.

The project began several years ago when a number of creeks in Austin became eligible to participate in a riparian restoration project. As far as I know our creek was one of the first to join because it had some promising characteristics.

Unlike virtually every other creek in Austin, our creek bank was never paved. In the 1950s it did have a lawn but by the time I became acquainted with the area, wild trees and shrubs were growing in abundance along the water’s edge.


Alongside the trees are meadows! These plants are chaotic. Each year brings a completely different display. The more I get to know this area … the more I get to know.

Change is the rule even within the year. Forget the four seasons. In a meadow some seasons last for only a couple of weeks; some for months at a time. I mark each season by which flower happens to dominate the landscape. Sometimes the hillside is splashed with wild drifts of pink; sometimes blue; often yellow. For every new flower display there is a brand new supporting cast of wildlife.

Ever go to a party where the quiet person finally delivers a sentence so astonishing or meaningful it is the only thing you remember from the night? So it seems with native flowers. During the absolute worst weeks of this summer’s heat when everyone else lapsed into silence, the kidneywood decided to seize the moment. Though it only lasted a couple weeks, I still remember its fragrance and gentle white flowers.

evening primrose1 oct 2014I worry that these opportunities to join a conversation with the land are becoming something available only for the elite. In Austin many (though happily not all) of the best green spaces cannot be reached without a car. Some charge an admission fee.

Everyone ought to have equal opportunity to share the public green spaces. Not many know of this unintended exclusion because few people are aware of Austin’s hidden widespread poverty or the gross inadequacies of the public transit system. Austin looks wealthy on the surface but the terrible fact is that the -vast- majority of young families with children qualify for free and reduced cost lunch programs — the last I heard it was 75% and upwards.

So, for many Austin residents, ordinary interactions with green things and the creatures that need them typically comes from garden ‘installations’ which I call ‘human centred designs.’

These plantings are about as boring as they can get. They don’t have a loving gardener to take care of them — just a landscape company that arrives on a regular schedule to spray some kind of scary liquid, blow away any fallen leaves and trim as necessary.

These ‘plantings’ feel soul-less; they best resemble plastic. They lack dynamism because they are designed to be easy to care for rather than as an element of beauty or for creating/nurturing community.

Installations tend to include mass orderly plantings of annuals. In Austin those annuals can last three seasons so the unlucky residents will see the same coleus or begonia display from May through November. Sometimes the display will be replaced by a cool weather planting. If not, the community will be treated to a heap of coloured mulch. Some places avoid the flowers altogether and just stick to a patchy lawn with evergreen shrubs or succulents that never ever change. The guiding principles seem to be efficiency and doing the least amount of work possible. Whither joy and delight?

I suppose I ought to look on the bright side and think that at least there are living things present.


anarchyI think the ‘plant installation’ concept is another example of our crazy culture’s need to control nature. There is a logic behind the fact that these installations always begin with hard-scape. The hard-scape provides a kind of plant prison where everything can be put into its place — quarantined and controlled. Do we really need to live in a world where even the plants must be pushed into designated areas?

Maybe a little anarchy would be as Martha might say, “a good thing.”


30 thoughts on “Human Centred Design

  1. Thank you for describing your observations with such exquisite detail, Debra. You have raised many important questions! The one that resonates most for me at the moment is “When is the human touch necessary; when does it become too much?” I took on the challenge of trying to reclaim a long neglected yard in the lower income neighborhood I moved into three years ago. Many parts of the yard were covered with invasive plants, perhaps purposely planted, with roots that were so thick and tangled that water didn’t penetrate and the earth couldn’t breathe. I do dislike removing any plants, but in this case I literally had to jump up and down on my shovel to create more intentional, though eclectic, garden space. Like the meadow you describe, each year and each season, I am surprised by a new assortment of flowers – some I planted and some that must have been buried years before under the impenetrable mat I removed. I suspect I will always question whether to uproot the dandelions or creeping Charlie that smother out other plants because they bloom early and feed the bees, but I don’t question the wisdom of digging up the rest of the grass to create more garden space.


  2. the solution could be as simple as – untidy our minds – the forest in which I live looks ( to some ) messy and chaotic certainly unplanned and incoherent . Yet – it is a vital living system – self nourishing self educating and self aware. In 30 years of observation I am still more than ever perhaps in the discovery of it all – a conversation of which I can never tire. the wildness is as necessary to us as breathing and absolutely vital for our creative response to life. Shame on the controlling manipulation of the natural world and the locked gate attitude. I am all for guerilla gardening – even a peach pip out a car window is a wonderful investment in our grandchildrens future and the future of all beings.
    and thanks debra very thought full reflection.


  3. I definitely sympathize with your point of view. People need access to common green space. I would accept a smaller house on a smaller lot if it meant there was more open space accessible to all. But I’m curious about what is meant by a plant installation – would that include basically any formal-style garden?


  4. Very good points, Debra. Every botanic garden in the larger Los Angeles area seems to charge an entrance fee now (some quite hefty) and getting anywhere on our LA freeways is a challenge in the first place. Most of the city parks are open without charge but they also tend to be sterile creations. All the more reason to create pockets of beauty wherever possible – perhaps we need more guerrilla gardeners.


  5. That’s terrible that some of the green spaces in Austin require a fee to enter. Surely everyone should be able to enjoy a bit of nature.
    I completely see what you mean about nature installations, there’s something so beautiful about nature and how it changes. I remember when I was little on the walk to school we went through a little park and on either side in the early spring crocuses would come out and later daffodils. It was magical!


  6. An interesting post. I live in a rural area so I don’ t know much about urban green spaces. But the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park designed by Piet Oudolf and James Corner who designed New York’ s High Line looks very promising. Covering 568 acres, it will be the biggest new park in Europe for 150 years. I am looking forward to visiting it. Wetland habitats will be restored and trees and native wildflowers will be planted.


    1. Thanks. I am new to garden design so I’m still kind of parsing out the how much is enough and how much is too much when it comes to human intervention.


  7. An important post, Debra. You’re correct on so many levels–the amount of poverty, often unseen in hype of the “Texas miracle”, the landscape business model of specific plantings and over-maintenance , regardless of benefits to the natural environment, and the lack of well-thought out green space.


    1. I see those landscape trucks drive by all the time. Since I live close to campus I also see a lot of ‘installation’ type gardens and how they are treated by those companies. It makes me think that if those apartment complexes had a resident gardener/caretaker we might have many more truly beautiful spaces. Someone has to be there to care, witness and nurture a garden. Maybe? I don’t know. I am excited by how some apartment communities have turned their greenspaces into veggie gardens. That’s a great way to build community and care about plants.


  8. A provocative post and I am in complete agreement with most of what you write. Parks or greenbelts and commercial landscape installations serve a range of different purposes and as a part of that answer to different masters. The old attitude about using xeric natives was “if native is the look you want just see what’s growing in the ditch by the highway and copy that!”. That is changing, slowly, and there are landscape and garden professionals here that do astonishing and creative work, though they may at times be leading a very reluctant company, charging into a new way of doing things. I recall overhearing landscape professionals discussing how often their plans are either poorly revised or totally ignored when it comes to installation, as owners cut costs, native plants prove hard to source within the desired time frame, or proper upkeep proves difficult to implement using one size fits all show/mow/blow/go maintenance teams. There are a lot of amazing designs that never quite make it off the page apparently. What we expect and/or what we demand from our public outdoor spaces is shifting, albeit slowly. We have a lot further yet to go than how far we have already come!


    1. I am excited about how far we’ve come. I was not aware that so many of our public spaces were inaccessible until I read a report recently. Austin was in the running for some green award until the judges found out that there was no way for them to actually see the parks. As a result the city lost a significant number of points in that category.


  9. Very interesting thoughts. I find the plant installations surround me here and getting to green spaces can cost but not everywhere thankfully. And poverty is on the rise in every community we just don’t see it…we do in schools though. I love my meadow and it changes so often as well. Meadows are meant to view every week to see what new plants are flowering. I also describe the seasons in the meadow by what is growing. So much to think about in your post!!


  10. An excellent observation! Being a designer I am asked to design functional spaces and outdoor rooms. I try to achieve a balance with the plantings and I push myself to find native and wildlife sustaining plants to put into my designs. I think most of the gardens will not achieve the effect I am going for for several years. I find my own garden is becoming softer and more creature friendly. Gone are the days of beds with specific color combinations, now I am interested in plants that have the same light and water needs. I like the way leaf colors play off each other and work together. I rarely look at the whole of it but focus on the individual plants. And I like to see something in bloom all through the year. Personally I prefer nature to contrived and I am humbled by natural beauty as it is far more restorative to my soul. I was recently thinking about how many great painters started painting very complex detailed paintings but as they aged they became more interested in form and color in the simplest form. I am saddened by the cityscape and public landscaping, it lacks imagination and harmony with nature. It is over manipulated and controlled and the natural beauty is lost. Thank you for a provocative post! I will re-read it over the next few days.


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