The theme – University of Copenhagen

The theme

Plants are playing an increasingly important role within architecture and urban design. Plants have become both a hallmark and a trademark, an approach that reaches back to the very origin of landscape architecture. However, in the context of the contemporary city the knowledge, aims, means, techniques and aesthetics of plant use are radically expanding and changing.

Today, green cities are synonymous with good cities, with green roofs and walls becoming ubiquitous and urban forestry, urban food gardening, urban ecology etc. promoted as active agents for the greening of our cities. Many practicing designers and maintenance experts see plants as key means to realise the desired future city.

However, the extent to which urban vegetation can help adaption to climate change, for example, or more optimistically, contribute to mitigation raises many questions. Plants are expected to help us solve ecological, technical and social problems, and yet our perception of, and relationship with plants is culturally conditioned. The interplay of politics and aesthetics with the creative production by practitioners creates a situation where there is not one, but many ways to interact with plants – many ways to imagine and use them.

Plants are increasingly seen as technical components within systems such as phytoremediation projects and hydroponic vertical gardens. At the same time they can be seen as the building blocks of urban ecology and biodiversity typically triggering associations to ‘wild’ nature vegetation. Where does the emerging dichotomy of use and aesthetics take us? How does the integration of an archaic and familiar element as plants with futuristic high-technology influence our developing sense of ecological awareness? And what is ‘the sense in the making’ for the selection of plants, for applying strategies for their use and design by maintenance?

Any intervention in the urban realm, understood as ’the art of cultivation’, is helping to frame models for an urban development where temporality and uncertainty are enduring features. Cities may be expected to perform as cohesive and integrated urban ecosystems, but this requires systems with and ideas of resilience are transferred to the often unpredictable and dramatic transformation of the urban fabric. How are practitioners from the disciplines planning and design of the urban realm responding to notions born from the discipline of ecology? Which are the potentials and limitations of such a transfer? And how can concepts such as dynamics and resilience become more than simple buzzwords?

But whether we view plants in the city as constituents of a wider ecology or simply as ameliorators of microclimates for human comfort their dynamic aesthetic power cannot be ignored. These diverse and sometimes unpredictable living beings in the urban realm have both a physical, spatial presence and at the same time act as indicators of environmental conditions – be it wind, draught or pollution. The aesthetic dimensions of urban plants are rich, complex and dynamic and these qualities can be activated and adapted. With plants fulfilling so many roles in the city how can a discussion address their complexity?