Human Happiness versus Urban Biodiversity? – Dr Helen Hoyle – 2nd November 2015

Dr Helen Hoyle gained her first degree, in geo­graphy, at Oxford University three dec­ades ago, even­tu­ally becom­ing head of geo­graphy at schools in London and Hertfordshire, but a career change brought her to our fair city where she gained an MA (Distinction) in Landscape Architecture at the University of Sheffield between 2009 and 2011.

This was where my real interest in eco­lo­gical plant­ing design was sparked,” she told us, and the title of her well illus­trated talk was also the sub­ject of her PhD Research Project: Human Happiness v urban diversity? Public per­cep­tion of designed urban plant­ing in a warm­ing cli­mate.

People have vary­ing ideas of what exactly land­scape archi­tec­ture is,” she admit­ted. “It is not about garden­ing, as some might believe, but about cre­at­ing useful public spaces for people to enjoy at all stages of their life.

But we also under­stand the import­ance of biod­iversity, and my work is trying to improve human exper­i­ence while at the same time look­ing at eco­lo­gical object­ives.

As a land­scape archi­tect I believe strongly in the import­ance of design for the ‘ordin­ary Joe or Joanne’ rather than for design elites, and for the need to recon­cile human aes­thetic pref­er­ences with the need for biod­iversity.”

Helen’s research work coin­cided nicely with the build-up to the 2012 London Olympics, and in 2010 she was invited to work on the wild­life mead­ows which became a much admired fea­ture of the land­scap­ing around the sites of the main Olympic sta­dium and velo­drome.

Her brief was to pro­duce a spec­tac­u­lar flower­ing dis­play which would be at its very best for the open­ing cere­mony of the Olympics on 27th July 2012, and early work towards this goal star­ted on an allot­ment in Walkley before moving to the Olympic Park itself.

Different types of ‘meadow mix’ of seeds were planted on nine sep­ar­ate plots around the Olympic Park, and these had to be mon­itored reg­u­larly from the summer of 2011 to see what was flower­ing and to what extent they were flower­ing. Helen trav­elled to London every Friday to carry out an on-site data col­lec­tion, giving flowers of each spe­cies a score and estab­lish­ing vari­ous cut­ting ‘regimes’ to suit the type of plant.

In December 2013, Helen was offered the oppor­tun­ity to become a research asso­ci­ate with the Urban BESS pro­ject – the ini­tials stand­ing for Biodiversity, Ecosystem Services and Sustainability – funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.

Her role was to over­see an urban exper­i­ment, involving day-to-day col­lab­or­a­tion with Bedford and Luton Borough Council Parks Departments. One aspect was to set up a ‘meadow manip­u­la­tion exper­i­ment,’ sowing areas of dif­fer­ent per­en­nial meadow mixes in the towns. These real world labor­at­or­ies would allow social sci­ent­ists to assess the human per­cep­tion of and pref­er­ence for spe­cific meadow mixes. Animal and plant sci­ent­ists would assess the soil and insect response to the same mixes. This would enable park depart­ments in the future to sow plant spe­cies which were attract­ive to the public, bene­fi­cial to wild­life, sus­tain­able and – import­antly in times of aus­ter­ity – cheaper to main­tain than amen­ity mown grass.

Reaction to the plant­ing by local res­id­ents was mixed. Some found the areas of meadow mixes attract­ive, while others described them as unsightly weeds.

As Helen her­self con­ceded: “There is some basis in the view that a weed is any plant which is grow­ing in the wrong place. Even a palm tree grow­ing in the wrong place might be regarded by some as a weed.”

I can’t speak for Bedford or Luton but, having seen the wild­flower mead­ows at the Olympic Park, I think a few weeds in the right places can be very attract­ive indeed. And if they help reverse the decline of bees and but­ter­flies, so much the better.