Ecology, buildings and landscapes: restoring ecological processes


Anyone walking along Belton Road in Silsden would probably have heard some pretty blue expletives hit the air, sometimes in quick succession! It’s come to this as the only way I can release the anger, and smooth over some of the jolting pain, from hitting yet another solid obstruction as I do the groundwork and planting around the Ecology Building Society’s new headquarters (see for views of this low impact and energy efficient building).

Lumps of concrete and tarmac, bits of brick and breeze block, but also scraps of metal sheet and rod, barbed wire, and even broken compressor tool-bits litter the site, covered over by a thin and barely-disguising layer of “top soil”. Hidden also are caches of dumped aggregates, broken glass, rotting fence posts, shards of clay drainage pipe, fragments of geotextile fabric, snaggles of bailer twine, polythene sheeting (the black stuff of silage bags and films), plastic bottles, lumps of polystyrene and crisp packets - all waiting for the prongs of my fork to search them out. Gardeners usually carry around a trug or something for the weeds – I have to carry around some robust waste sacks and plenty of patience, and a wheelbarrow to cart off the larger lumps of tarmac and concrete.

When I completed the survey and design for acre (0.4ha) site over a year ago, I thought my main task was a restoration of the diversity of the site’s native plant population: an enjoyable task in this semi-rural, edge of town site, of plant selection and placement and with some basic groundwork in soft landscaping before a mass plant-up. Instead, the subterranean garbage has made everything hard work – HARD WORK. It’s also put a focus for me on what are the challenges facing a broadening, international movement of people committed to healing the harm that humankind has unthinkingly rent on our landscapes, but more of that later.

The preliminary design brief had elements of landscaping to improve security at pinch points, but what made it enticing for me was an opportunity to work through a design that brought vertical structure and native diversity back to what was basically a big mess of disturbed-ground weeds that had developed after the building phase was complete. The docks, nettle and thistle infestations should have been a warning of the horrors to come, but I was too much looking forward to “solving” those infestations by light-excluding mulches followed by planting up with woody, shade producing shrubs and trees. I must also have blotted out of my mind the experience of an earlier landscaping project of designing and building a community market garden. The land was rough pasture, but it was heavily populated with ragwort, docks, nettles and thistles, and extensive areas were matted with bailer twine (see The Hoe and the Plough, Feb. 2001).

For the Silsden site, I took as guidance for plant choices the very useful “postcode” list of native plants known for the area, provided as a database online by the Natural History Museum through its Flora for Fauna project (see The list for the Silsden area shows the typical native plant vocabulary of southern Pennine oak woodland, with a rich woodland-floor flora of ferns and bulbs, and a wide variety of woodland edge shrubs and small trees. Who needs the latest faddy landscaping or gardening book when Mother Nature provides all the advice you need? And if you think that this approach is too “hair-shirt” then note that the list picks out those native plants that are GW - garden worthy – and aren’t garden plants just cracking wildflowers anyway??

As the hidden junk of the site made itself “felt”, I had to make decisions about its disposal. It is plain to see now that the site has been a convenient waste tip even before the builders of the new headquarters did the usual builder thing, and spread everything out before they left. It’s a contemporary archaeology of layers of trash, put out of sight and out of mind by the next concealing layer of soil, knowing that it will be someone else’s problem.

Recycling where I can, some has had to go into the waste stream, but the tarmac, concrete and brick is neatly stacked and retained on site. I haven’t hidden it, but then I haven’t abdicated responsibility by "skipping" it so that it ends up polluting somewhere else. With time, moss will grow over it and the structural vegetation planted around the site will obscure its presence. And since nature is often blind to our perversity, some wild creatures will probably find habitat and refuge in it.

Land reclamation is often a preparatory need for derelict or once-used and now neglected sites being brought back into use in an around our towns and cities. Machinery claws through, clears and flattens, and new buildings rise up. Where land is less sought after for redevelopment (and is thus less common in our regime of artificial land shortage), some is cherished by local communities who see a better use in restoring ecological processes on it for the wild refuge and the ecological services that it provides, and the wonder that it gives.

This ecological restoration is a repair of the damage and degradation that we humans routinely leave in our wake, and it is one of the challenges that we must pick up alongside all the more headline-grabbing environmental imperatives of the moment (see the Society for Ecological Restoration – It perhaps is not surprising that the Ecology Building Society is supporting one such ecological restoration as a fitting contribution to it making use of this site. It must be possible to convince local authorities and their planners, and other land owners and users of this view.

Mark Fisher 16 January 2006

You can download the concept designs and full design for the landscapes around the Ecology Building Society headquarters from Reports, research and designs.