Climate-adapted, traditional or cottage-garden planting? How acceptable is ‘climate ready’ planting to the public, and what drives these reactions?

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By Helen Hoyle…..

The UN COP 26 2021 Climate Conference heightened public awareness of the need to act now to mitigate the climate crisis. This in turn precipitates a call to ‘futureproof’ cities by introducing resilient urban green infrastructure compatible with future climates. Yet how do the public respond to ‘climate-ready’ planting in public places, when this may be unfamiliar and very different aesthetically to native vegetation? My earlier research indicated strong public support for the introduction of aesthetically exotic, climate-adapted planting in public parks and gardens, particularly if it was better adapted to the changing climate than traditionally-used species, yet understanding of the values underlying this acceptance, and the socio-cultural drivers of people’s perceptions, was lacking. Matthew Pottage, the Curator of RHS Wisley, was also keen to know more about public attitudes to climate-adapted planting, having recently (2017) introduced an Exotic Garden at Wisley. Incorporating species such as dramatic cannas with large vibrant orange flowers, and Chinese dwarf bananas, this is an innovative experiment to gauge the response of exotic planting to the UK climate.

Our research at Wisley involved a comparative study of public reactions to three contrasting garden styles: the exotic, an informal, English cottage-garden style, with a wilder aesthetic, incorporating familiar native species such as foxgloves, geraniums and roses, and a traditional, English formal style of planting in blocks, incorporating plant species both native and non-native to the UK such as the dahlia, rose, and clematis.

The three contrasting garden styles at RHS Wisley, Surrey

We asked:

  • What is the key driver of people’s perceptions in relation to aesthetics, self-reported restorative effect, and plant and invertebrate biodiversity: planting style or socio-cultural variability?
  • What are the socio-cultural drivers of people’s held values in relation to climate change, the introduction of non-native species, and nature-connectedness?
  • Do the perceptions and values of people with a personal interest or professional involvement in landscape, horticulture or the environment diverge from those of other members of the public?

The research was conducted on-site at RHS Wisley, Surrey, UK. Members of the public were invited to walk through one specific area of planting. We wanted people to report their own responses to engaging directly with the planting, because “the environment is experienced rather than simply looked at” (Ittleson, 1973). The questionnaire addressed participants’ perceptions of the aesthetics, biodiversity and how mentally restorative it was to walk through the planting, participants’ beliefs and values including climate-change awareness and nature-connectedness, and participants’ socio-demographic characteristics.

The Exotic Garden, most preferred aesthetically, incorporates dramatic cannas with large vibrant orange flowers, and Chinese dwarf bananas,

Our findings revealed that:

  • Aesthetically, the exotic climate-adapted planting was preferred over other two styles, whereas the cottage-garden style was perceived as the least attractive to walk through, significantly less so than other two styles
  • In contrast, the cottage-garden style was found to be the most mentally restorative to walk through
  • Members of the public accurately perceived lower levels of native biodiversity perceived in the exotic climate-adapted garden-style
  • There was a direct relationship between climate change awareness and participants’ educational qualifications. Those with no formal qualifications had significantly lower awareness of the implications of climate change than other participants.
Although perceived as the least attractive garden, the Cottage Garden was the most mentally restorative to walk through

We also found that:

  • Participants who were professionally involved landscape, horticulture or the environment perceived lower aesthetic value, restorative effect, and native biodiversity for the planting overall than non-professionals
  • Those with a personal interest enjoyed the aesthetics of nature more intensely and had stronger climate change concerns than other participants.

Our findings inform policy and practice towards the realisation of environmentally and socially sustainable urban green infrastructure in public parks, gardens and greenspaces. That participants expressed a significantly higher aesthetic preference for the Exotic, (climate-adapted) Garden over the other two garden styles provides further evidence of public support for this unfamiliar style of planting, a positive transferable finding informing policymakers and land-managers seeking to ‘futureproof’ cities by introducing climate-adapted UGI in parks and gardens. Nevertheless, the cottage-garden style, perceived as the least attractive, was considered the most mentally restorative to walk through. This provides further evidence that different stimuli elicit contrasting responses in the public. Landscape planners and designers should draw from these findings to inform practice on the ground, also providing opportunities for restoration amongst familiar, naturalistic planting in public parks. When planning and designing culturally acceptable urban green infrastructure, professionals should also be mindful of the divergence of their own perceptions and preferences from those of the wider public. That we identified significantly lower levels of climate change awareness amongst people with no formal qualifications is a striking finding. It highlights a need to consider novel science-communication strategies to transcend formal educational channels if the public is to be better informed about the challenges of climate change and their implications for urban green infrastructure. This will also broaden understanding of the positive potential for climate-adapted urban green infrastructure to deliver ‘futureproofing’ benefits for climate-change mitigation and human mental wellbeing.

You can read the full open access paper here.

Thank you to Matthew Pottage for the opportunity to conduct this research at RHS Wisley.

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