Monday, May 7, 2012


Near my office there’s a stretch of sidewalk that typifies what passes for urban landscaping these days.  It’s a laser beam-straight ribbon of concrete almost a quarter-mile long. Trees--all of the same species and all spaced exactly the same distance apart--  march rigidly along one side, seemingly poked into the ground like so many Tootsie-Pops.

Granted, it’s a fine thing that developers and public works departments have begun cooperating to guarantee our city streets some kind of natural relief.  But it’s also appararent that we could do a lot better, at the price of little more than a bit of careful thinking.

It’s been said that the essence of beauty is a recognizable pattern brought to life by unexpected variations.  In other words, the human mind is comfortable with basic patterns that are familiar and easily grasped, but it also gets bored when it doesn’t come across a surprise or a challenge in these patterns now and then.  

Nowhere is this more true than in landscape design.  The human brain is not at all used to seeing mind-numbing sameness in nature--and why should it be?  There’s no such thing to be found there.  In even the most outwardly uniform forest or expanse of desert, Mother Nature is nevertheless teeming with variation.  Hence, when we see a line of trees rigidly arrayed and spaced equidistantly like points on a number line, our minds rebell.  Well, mine does, anyway.

What’s most puzzling about this sort of rote design is that making it less oppressive costs next to nothing when it’s done in the design stage.  There are plenty of simple and inexpensive ways to relieve the usual row-of-lollipops landscaping scheme, for example.  Tree spacing can be varied--oh, the shock!-- a few yards this way or that.  A different species can be introduced now and then as an accent, and the sidewalk inflected a bit to acknowledge it.  And once the streetscape is a little less daunting, a simple bench here and there might be welcome for people to sit down and enjoy it.

In landscaping, as in so many other facets of architecture, blind habit, laziness, and hurry are the archenemies of good design.  Especially with today’s computer drafting programs, it’s much easier to fire off a perfect row of identical trees on a landscape plan and call it good, than it is to introduce the sort of small variations that are the hallmark of all human endeavor.  And while precision can be a wonderful thing, it can also stultify the spirit.  Our world, like ourselves, is always a little bit off-center, unpredictable, and imprecise, and I suspect that most of us like it that way.  At least, we’d like it even less if it were otherwise.

In an era increasingly running at the pace of electrons, we have to be especially wary of what we stand to lose in worshipping speed and precision above all else.  Urban landscapes aren’t printed circuits, and planners ought not treat them as such.  It’s ironic that despite--or perhaps because of--our technical wizardry, we have to try even harder to do what Mother Nature does with ease.  


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