Now that I’ve moved out of my hometown of Mishawaka, IN to Bloomington, IN, I’ve noticed just how important prettifying the urban environment is to really make a city feel naturally connected with it’s location, rather than just plopped onto the land it owns. In the 1940’s, Indiana University’s 11th president, Herman B. Wells, started a campus beautification project spreading greenery in between every crack of the campus, and his legacy is still seen today at one of the nation’s most beautiful university campuses. Urban landscaping is it’s own battle comparatively, but if you live anywhere where buildings are divided by square, empty, brown lots (like my hometown of South Bend), you might be thinking how different your city might look with a bit of extra green.
Surveying the Land
As opposed to traditional landscaping, where most everything except the building is part of your canvas, urban landscapers have to understand the environment a little more thoroughly. From the roads and sidewalks up to the materials used in building construction, everything must be accounted for to make a landscape design work. Shadows cast from tall buildings and cars can pose big threats to plant life, even make it so they won’t grow properly without frequent care. Heat reflected off of glass can kill flowers very quickly. Already it’s sounding like greenery isn’t welcome in the urban jungle, but that’s okay, because we’ll invite ourselves in!
Suggestions for Shady/Hot Areas
Luckily for us, there’s a lot of plant species. Too many to count, probably. Mother Nature really wants to grow sometimes, even if the odds seem terrible. That means there’s an opportunity to plant almost anywhere. For a landscape project in the shadow of a large skyscraper, plants with a high tolerance to shade or indirect light (bounced off of a reflective surface, like glass) work best. Make sure to take into account the possibility of moss/algae growth, which thrive in darker areas. Choosing hardscape materials that clean easily can be beneficial to both the plants and people inhabiting the space.
Plants are pretty hardy little things. They want to survive no matter what, and it’s not too hard to help them along the way. If reflective heat gets too much and your grass/flowers start dying, think about planting a line of trees in the direction of the problem, creating a micro-ecosystem of sorts where the trees filter out most of the harmful stuff and allow the lower plants to thrive. Choosing a grass seed that works well in hotter climates than those in it’s cooler proximity will also be beneficial in keeping the soil cooler, which your plants would thank you for (if they could speak).
If you’re from anywhere else in the US, you probably get less rain than we do in Bloomington, Indiana. It’s a geographical oddity. Because of our surprising amount of rain each year, the city has built accordingly. Stormwater drainage is a vital part of construction as improper water flow could be costly, or even deadly. Not only water, but hazardous chemicals that come with the environment, like sediment and petroleum runoff, can sit in areas causing harm when they get stuck.
Suggestions for Water Drainage
Luckily, the plants are here to help again. It’s a symbiotic relationship. More plant life means less standing water, since they’ll want to drink it up more than grass, mulch, or pavement would. Deep rooted plants like trees or shrubs can be placed near areas of high velocity water to slow down the tide and help disperse water further. Find a few more suggestions in an earlier post here!
Much like water, soil gets contaminated pretty quickly in urban environments. Litter, runoff, and whatever else finds it’s way into the dirt usually ends up deep down, free to disperse it’s nastiness throughout the layer of soil. Because of this, every square foot of a plot could have a different chemical composition – a nightmare for plant logistics.
Suggestions for Soil Safety and Health
Again, deep rooted plants work great for overall plot health, if you’re confident there’s enough space for them to reach. Making sure to keep track of the soil makeup with testing strips will help with choices of fertilizer to keep it the way your plants want. I have a guide on soil fertilizers here as well.
These are just a few of the many different problems urban landscapers grow accustomed to throughout their many varied projects. Just like any lawn, no two cityscapes are the same, and each project requires it’s own unique vision to survive and thrive.