Landscaping is passé

August 5th, 2008 atam Posted in Culture | No Comments »

Whether it was for the princes of Babylon or the aristocrats of Renaissance Europe, landscape architecture had, historically, played an important part in projecting the power and magnificence of the ruling class.

Today, this fine art has evolved into a means of relieving the drabness of the urban environment. After all, who can’t do without a bit of greenery amidst the endless sea of concrete, steel and asphalt?

Except that, rather than to soothe sore eyes, it is more often deployed for the following reasons:

  • To justify the destruction of natural greenery. Existing vegetation that gets in the way of a property development is comprehensively removed to make way, and in its place there will be prettily arranged shrubs and bushes, with a grand fountain thrown in to ensure a good market value.
  • To pump up fragile egos. Landscape architecture’s historical associations are appropriated to give governments a sense of “having made it” in the world. Never mind that rice paddies are razed or shorelines destroyed to build humongous edifices – be they convention centres, airports, administrative headquarters or something else – surrounded by extensive landscaped grounds – which, of course, are sold as a nod to environmental protection.
  • As a barrier to access. Strange but true. You’d think that greenery is there to invite us to enjoy a bit of reprieve from endless hard work, but no: they’re actually there to make sure we don’t move with freedom, never mind having fun (hence the Freedom Ball challenge some activists have started in various parks around Hong Kong). Instead, landscape features are strategically placed to prevent us from so much as touching a blade of grass or behaving in any way that the property manager of the space concerned deems inappropriate.

Landscape architect may ply their trade with the best of intentions, but in this era of climate change, where water resources are becoming increasingly scarce in many parts of the world, decorative landscaping is simply no longer viable.

Given rising food prices and transportation costs, the time will come – sooner than we’d like – when more people in more cities will have to rely on local produce for their survival. Any space that is given over to greenery is best used for growing plants for food, not decorative shrubs and bushes selected for the convenience of property managers because they are low-maintenance. Had the Hanging Gardens of Babylon been in existence today, it too would have to dangle fruits and vegetables rather than flowers and vines to please a queen.

A potential piece of good news is that Hong Kong is full of green fingers waiting to pounce, if given half a chance. In an informal workshop on the topic of a ‘dream home’ held recently, the majority of participants produced drawings that include vegetable plots. This is cost-effective greening: just make the space available, and let the residents do the rest. But then, of course, the best Hong Kongers can hope for is more like the announcement of a two-year study, to be followed by two years of public ‘consultation’, on the ‘feasibility’ of growing our own spinach.

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