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.