Soft Landscaping – We need to Try Harder

Our island is precious. Land is a finite resource that must be used wisely for current and future generations to thrive. And if we hold our island in high regard, it stands to reason that when we allow development to occur, we should expect nothing but the best. There are many issues associated with development which often cause heated debate. Building intensity, house design, traffic issues, the ratio of affordable housing, for example. As an arboriculturist I am interested in amenity trees which deliver benefits for our society, environment, and economy. Are new developments delivering the goods?

As I go about my business around the island, I see many examples of developments where, whatever the intention, the end result is poor.  Some people will be quick to blame the perceived bad guy: the ‘developer’. I’m sure they have a part to play but there are lots of other stakeholders who contribute to the delivery and maintenance of quality landscapes.

Let’s start with the Cabinet Office, responsible for planning policy. Policies relating to the design and delivery of quality landscape schemes appear to be lacking, meaning there may be very little leverage to push for greater landscaping efforts through the planning process.  

Although DEFA’s Planning and Building Control Directorate are stuck working with the Government’s existing policies, they don’t have anybody with landscaping expertise assessing planning applications. How can they assess the quality of a planting plan submitted to support a planning application when they can’t tell an alder from an elder? DEFA’s Tree Officers (Agriculture and Lands Directorate) cannot be relied upon to provide advice because they are already vastly overstretched as it is.

The Isle of Man Government launched a ‘Built Environment Reform Programme’ this week. A strategic objective is to ‘improve the planning process’ but the delivery of quality green space and landscaping is unfortunately not the focus. The quality of landscaping currently being delivered with approved developments is not recognised as an issue.

So, it appears that ‘good will’ is all that currently exists to motivate developers to take soft landscaping seriously.  I think proper incentives and regulation would get better results.

Next up are the contractors who put the trees in the ground. Unfortunately, many trees that are planted die within the first 3 years of planting due to poor planting practice. Basic mistakes, such as planting the tree too deep in the ground, are sadly commonplace.

On-going maintenance is also severely lacking. Whether it is the responsibility of the developer or the local authority that has adopted the land would need to be investigated in each case, but there is often no irrigation, mulching or weeding around newly planted trees. Where maintenance does occur, it is often simply grass cutting, undertaken without due care for the trees. Strimmer damage to young stems, for example, is rife.

If there are public amenity areas with failed landscaping which have been adopted by local authorities, why aren’t they doing something about it? I’m confident that a detailed assessment of planting opportunities in Douglas, for example, would identify that there is plenty of scope for increasing our urban tree canopy cover from its baseline value.

So often people demand to know ‘who is responsible?!’ but wouldn’t it be nice if we came together as a community and took responsibility for the areas of public ground which we ultimately reap the benefit from. If I had a newly planted street tree outside my house and I was doubtful it was receiving the care it needed, I would water it and look after it. Perhaps it is naïve, or wishful thinking, to expect ‘normal’ people to do the same. If communities aren’t engaged, however, perhaps we should ask ourselves….why? It seems obvious to me that communities, above all others previously mentioned, are the most important stakeholder.

The photos below are examples of soft landscaping from a variety of recent developments across the Island. I think we deserve better.

Dead twigs in an uninspiring grass verge
With soil cells placed below hard surfaces the islands between parking spaces can accommodate a tree and soften an otherwise harsh appearance – this is a missed opportunity
A beech tree (capable of being 25m tall) planted within 2m of a house. Its healthy but will have to be removed within 10 years. Wrong tree, wrong place.
3 trees have less than 25% of the leaves they should have at this stage, 1 has died back to its basal shoots (thankfully not removed in a process of formative pruning) and 1 tree has been vandalised (and not replaced).
Welcome to death row.  Only a few low-level shrubs survive here.
Inspired by the Taylor Swift song, Blank Space?? This space is currently a close mown grass monoculture. Trees and native flowers would look more inspiring for residents, deliver benefits for biodiversity, and increase property values.
This space is too small to support trees in the long term. This is gesture planting at its best (worst). Luckily, for the residents of these ground floor flats, these trees haven’t been watered and have now died.
Apparently, a few low-level green blobs were enough for this development. There isn’t much ‘park’ in this ‘Business Park’.
And the award for the most mundane, unloved roundabout goes to….