Thursday, April 22, 2010

gardens and gardening

A sense of place has to do with the feelings one has while being in that place. It may be the historical significance, the cultural richness, the natural beauty. If it’s a sense of place for the place in which we live and work, our sense of place is not just about our current feelings but also about memories of past feelings.

Where we live and work most likely includes some human constructions, i.e., the built environment. Most of us live in a built environment. For a very few, that built environment is a house far from other neighbors. But even that isolated home probably includes some human-created landscaping around the house

The rest of us work or live in a much more built-up environment. We live with many buildings, roads, yards, and many people. Our sense of place thus includes not only the aesthetics of the built environment but also the community and how the built environment and community interact. Does the built environment lend itself to pleasant community or does the built environment isolate people and thwart community? Architects and planners study the traits of a place that most likely will lead to pleasant community. They talk about creating community spaces. Sometimes it works. Soemtimes it doesn’t. There are examples of spaces in which the concepts and data suggested that it should create community, but the community just didn’t gel. Conversely, some places feature thriving community despite the data that would indicate that they shouldn’t. Most often it does work. Places can be made intentionally according to a big plan, or be made organically, piece by piece.

Public gardens are important parts of the built environment. I recently read a wonderful book, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, by Robert Pogue Harrison. The author is a professor of literature and his essays are about gardens and what they mean for those that view them and those that tend them. It’s not strictly about making spaces from a landscape architecture point of view, but the ties to literature and spirituality connect places, history and community.

Gardens can be community projects. The gardens thus enhance the community in their tending and in their viewing. For example, Charlevoix, Michigan is famous for the plantings of petunias all along the main highway through town. This tradition started in 1982 with a group of people who wanted to enhance Charlevoix’s natural beauty (

Some people feel so strongly about improving the appearance of abandoned urban lands that they resort to ‘guerilla gardening,’ which may include tossing ‘seed bombs.’

Private gardens also enhance the built environment. I have seen towns in which almost everyone has some carefully tended plantings around their house or on their patios. As a visitor, it really enhanced my feelings about that town. (But I also know of complexes that limits all owners to two potted plants on the patio. Apparently the homeowners’ association doesn’t want to break up the geometric symmetry of the townhouses with something chaotic like a potted plant.)

Sault Michigan awards ‘Garden of the Year’ prizes to encourage attractive gardens. I don’t think the criteria include working with nature, but maybe they could have a special category for that. Wise gardeners work with the climate, sun exposure and soil to select plants that can do well in the specific areas. Thus native plants are often a good choice. A garden that reflects the characteristics of its place will be unique and not just an imitation of the gardens of some other place.

Given the power of gardening for place making, some towns, including Sault, Michigan, have developed community gardens for growing vegetables. We have more than enough garden space on our property so I have not participated in the community vegetable gardens, but from what I hear, the Sault’s community gardens are growing community as well as vegetables. The gardens and the gardening add to the sense of place. My sense of place for the Sault is enhanced by knowing that it’s the kind of place that does things like putting together a community garden.

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