Professor James Hitchmough on designing for maintenance

Professor James Hitchmough on designing for maintenance

Professor James Hitchmough’s ground-breaking work at Sheffield explores how ecology can be applied to designed and managed herbaceous vegetation in urban and parkland environments in order to maximise sustainability, support native wildlife and create beautiful meadows. In conjunction with his colleague Nigel Dunnett, James has designed all of the 8.5ha of sown native vegetation types (meadows, swales and woodland understories) at the 2012 Olympic Park.

How would you describe yourself and your current projects?
I’m a curious hybrid – a scientist and a designer. I’m currently working on the Olympic Park – Sarah Price and I co-designed the planting in two of the gardens; Nigel Dunnett and Sarah designed the other two.  

How important is ‘design for maintenance’?
I don’t think you can sensibly design things unless you have a clear idea of how it’s going to be managed in the future. A lot of my work is about trying to join those two things together – the conception of what you’re going to make, and what resources are needed to maintain it.

I like to work with very low levels of resourcing – a lot of the stuff I make is manageable to five or six hours per 100 square metres per annum, which is very low when you compare it to typical maintenance management for conventional herbaceous planting, which can be anything from 10 – 50 hours per hundred per annum. Most of the vegetation I work with is grown from seed; seeding represents lower cost per square metre. 

The costs of meadows seem attractively low – do you think we are going to see public parks turned to meadow?
One of the first things we’re going to have to do if we’re going to have a more sustainable world is to look at the areas of ‘mown grass’ we have in the UK and look at treating them in a different way. Typically in Britain we have a lot of mown grass – local authorities are addicted to mowing grass, it’s part of what they do. One of the reasons why the large parks aren’t covered in meadows is down to  ‘attitude’ – most green space managers are sceptical of everything other than that they know very well and they know mown grass very well. They’re still looking at things from an inherited Victorian view. This inherited value isn’t lateral or creative.

How do you begin to change these values then? I don’t want to replace someone else’s orthodoxy with my own, so we’ve done a lot of research into what the public and green space managers think about the things we make and what they like. Quite often the green space managers are more conservative than the public. Technical things can’t break the log jam, for me as a research scientist who crunches numbers, it’s about getting people interested. My work in terms of how to do things cheaply, easily and on a big scale has to be backed up with ‘what do people think about this space and what it looks like?’. I like to go to bed thinking I’m doing something positive. 

On a practical level what’s involved in your ‘scientific research’ and how does this impact upon ‘design for maintenance’?
At Sheffield, we work in experimental plots to fine tune things. I travel to look at stuff in its habitat. If I’m going to make a meadow out of seeds from South Africa I need to see the species in its habitat – once you see the species in its habitat its much easier to see what the maintenance and planting challenges will be; it’s hugely valuable for putting together management programmes. Three weeks before the Palmstead workshop in September, I’ll be in the mountains of South Africa looking at stuff – I spend as much time as I can and try to use the resources to see and understand vegetation in it’s natural habitat.

What is the secret to creating a long lasting meadow?
The construction of these things is relatively straightforward, but my role is to try to work out how to design to make maintenance as simple and resourceable in the long term as possible. Horticultural practice sometimes values complexity for its own sake; to me things that are simple or sometimes even crude are beautiful. My work is about trying to find a way to design with seeding to give you control – in most conventional seed mixes there’s no control; you don’t know what to expect, you don’t know what the results will be and when it doesn’t work you don’t know why.  So I’ve developed establishment protocols and seed mixes that deliver – actually deliver, in the same way when you design with conventional plants. If you have a vision of what you want and go out and make it, you can have the same control you have with plants.  In the longer term mix design is key, as this is how the relatively abundance of species in vegetation is initially controlled.  We can make really successful mixes because of the years of research we have invested in understanding how large numbers of sown species behave in sown vegetation.

What’s the secret to the ‘mix’ you use?
I like to think that these meadows can last forever given appropriate management – they won’t stay fixed however, some things become more dominant, some less, but as the alchemist I’m trying to work out which ones will be forever and what will the dynamics of the interaction e for the next 10 years. My work is all about the distillation and understanding of the species interaction in the seed mix.

You’ve been trialing the meadows on site in the Olympic Park – is the mix right now?
Yes it’s true we have been trialling. We’ve got to try and push back the flowering to the games window and the way we’re going to do that is defoliating them ‘x’ number of weeks before the games so they re-grow their flower buds again – typically this takes about  8-10 weeks to happen. 

Were people sceptical about your original ideas for the Olympic Park?
The contractors were initially quite sceptical and now I think they’re actually quite ‘wow – it looks like that!’- it’s been a change in attitude and I think some of the contractors will be interested in meadow projects in the future.

What can we expect to see at the Olympic Park?
I think what will have the biggest impact is the scale. If we can get the meadows to flower on time, the whole of north landscape will be meadow of some sort or other, so people will be deposited into  80 ,000 sq metres of this stuff – it will be very dramatic and colourful – a magical experience really.   In the south park the gardens will be very exciting too by virtue of their scale and the unusual things that people haven’t seen before .

What is your favourite space? That’s an impossible question to answer. If pushed I’ll say I really like the landscape of Warrington New Town as an example of a 20th century ecological landscape new town but I also really like Beth Chatto’s dry garden.

Professor Hitchmough will be addressing the annual Palmstead Workshop at Palmstead Nurseries on the 28 September 2011 and will talk about ‘Design for Maintenance’. He spoke to Vikki Rimmer.



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