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A sense of place

Dan Pearson
23 November 2009

Creating green infrastructure is not just a technical exercise in environmental engineering. It is about creating beautiful places that have a heart and soul.

Dan Pearson. Photo by Howard Sooley.

Dan Pearson. Photo by Howard Sooley.

So we need strong design principles behind green infrastructure. In effect, it is garden design at different scales. From Rousham to garden cities and new housing like Accordia, the UK has an unrivalled history of putting gardens at the heart of great placemaking. 

Dan Pearson has been a garden and landscape designer for over 20 years and he has an international reputation, not least for the way he works with nature, and creates a strong sense of place through landscape.

At the launch of the Grey to Green campaign, Dan talked us through some inspirational examples which show how green infrastructure creates delightful places where people love to live.

Saiho-ji, Kyoto

This is one of the most beautiful Japanese gardens I know. It is Saiho-ji: the temple moss garden in Kyoto. You very quickly stop hearing the hubbub that is just beyond the garden fence. You feel better by being here. It‘s sensual. It lowers your blood pressure. It has an innate sense of place. It’s a place to commune with yourself: green places allow you to do that.

Saiho-ji, Kyoto
Photo by Dan Pearson

Roppongi Hills, Tokyo

This is Roppongi Hills, in the centre of Tokyo. A 14 hectare site that has been developed with the premise that 28 per cent of it will be greened – entirely through using the roof tops. The soil insulates the buildings, protecting them from overheating and it keeps them warm in the winter.

Roppongi Hills, Tokyo
Photo by Dan Pearson

Gardens in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo

We’ve planted gardens on the Roppongi Hills rooftops that are a complete surprise to arrive in. Areas which don’t have access have been planted as little woodlands, so there will be the sound of birdsong. People will be transported. Gardens have that wonderful ability to do that.

Gardens in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo
Photo by Dan Pearson

Accordia, Cambridge

England has a fantastic legacy in Garden Cities. I’m glad that architecture that embraces landscape is gaining recognition too. This is Accordia in Cambridge, by Feilden Clegg Bradley. Its wonderful landscaping helped it to win the 2008 Stirling Prize: it gives the place a very particular atmosphere. Accordia is a three hectare site with 120 dwellings, but the predominant feeling is one of softness.

Accordia, Cambridge
Copyright Tim Crocker

Guerilla gardening, New York

I first came across the guerrilla gardeners of New York in the late 1980s. These were people who broke through chain link fencing around orphaned spaces, to create what are in effect a series of little allotments. These spaces have had an incredibly powerful draw within the community. People became so impassioned they raised the money to keep them as pocket parks. They give the Lower East Side of Manhattan a strong identity.

Guerilla gardening, New York
Photo by Dan Pearson

Bonnington Square, Vauxhall

I worked on this garden square when I lived in Vauxhall. We were lucky to get the last inner city grant for a community park, and local people matched the funding. This space has always provided a central hub to Bonnington Square. People started coming from far and wide to use the café. It generated its own kind of mythology. I remember when the houses in this square were squatted: now the high prices there reflect how much people value a tranquil oasis in the centre of a city.

Bonnington Square, Vauxhall
Photo by Dan Pearson

Maggie's Centre, London

This is Maggie’s London, designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, which won the 2009 Stirling Prize. I worked on it over three years. It is open to anyone affected by cancer in London but the site is on a very busy road and wedged between the huge Charing Cross Hospital and a funeral director. People often come to Maggie’s Centres three times before they summon the courage to step over the threshold; here we entice them through to the front door, with a series of gardens. Once inside, each room looks into green courtyard spaces. Visitors have said this place is about living, not about dying.

Maggie's Centre, London
Photo by Richard Bryant

Avinguda Diagonal, Barcelona

In Barcelona, they have re-landscaped one of their most important avenues, Avinguda Diagonal. I love the way these tramlines have been grassed over, to connect like green ribbons under the silent trams.

Avinguda Diagonal, Barcelona
Photo by Dan Pearson

Millennium Park, Chicago

This is the Millennium Park in Chicago, with a Frank Gehry building behind. It is on top of a five-storey car park. Cities do not exist in limbo: they are connected to the wider natural landscape. It’s hard now to find a prairie in the prairie states and so it is wonderful that here, within this incredibly hard metropolitan environment, the prairie is invited into the city. You are looking at all native American plants and they are interesting 12 months a year, whether they are in flux in the spring or in their burnt-off winter forms.

Millennium Park, Chicago
Photo by Dan Pearson

The High Line, New York

A project to make you feel inspired about city places. Everyone who hasn’t been to the High Line in New York needs to go. It’s absolutely magical. It is an elevated 1930s freight railroad which was derelict for 23 years. It only opened in June 2009 but already it is accepting twenty-five thousand visitors a day. It’s a big commitment by the City to something wonderful, and it’s really paying off. The Whitney Museum of American Art is taking over a site at the southern end of the Line.

The High Line, New York
Photo by Dan Pearson

Los Angeles River

Remember Arnold Schwarzenegger charging down a concrete lined bunker in The Terminator? That was actually the Los Angeles River. People didn’t even know it was there. Now the City is greening a thirty-two mile stretch of this forgotten river, taking it from a cement puddle to a restored corridor of wetlands and parks. It will help cool that part of the city and provide a linear green walkway, a beautiful focal point for the people who live alongside it. Once the river is naturalised, it can again connect the ocean to the landscape north of Los Angeles, recreating a corridor for wildlife.

Los Angeles River
Illustrative Rendering by Wenk Associates, Inc., courtesy of the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering