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Nature in our cities. If you’re paying attention you’ll notice the effect it’s having on you. 

A slowed heart rate, a flickering leaf, buzzing insects and bird song are designed-for natural moments in our cities. They’re constantly shifting and spontaneous, changing how we move through our cities and how our urban environment gives back to us. 

This episode explores a topic that’s just as relevant as ever: the significance of our emotional connections to nature in cities — and the power it has to bring people together. 

In earlier seasons, Hassell Talks has explored why we value wild, natural planting in our cities as well as the importance of scale, ecology and sustainability when creating landscapes that appear natural and organic.

In this episode, originally recorded in 2020, Principal Jon Hazelwood explores the significance of our emotional connections to nature in cities. He is joined by writer, garden designer and TV presenter Michael McCoy as well as Professor Nigel Dunnett, who is responsible for some of the UK’s most spectacular planted environments like the Barbican, Buckingham Palace’s Diamond Garden and the planting designs for the London Olympic park (with his colleague James Hitchmough). 

Jon, Nigel and Michael discuss the link between the emotional response to green space, like New York City’s High Line, and tangible increases in property prices and rental values.

I think it’s a really important topic, and it can be a bit distasteful to start talking about money and economics in these terms,” says Nigel.

But I think this is where there is that direct connection between the emotional response and then more tangible measures.”

Listen to the podcast via the player below. Find + follow Hassell Talks on Apple, Spotify, iHeart, PodBean or on your favourite podcast app.


Season 4, Episode 5 (Encore)


Jon Hazelwood


Professor Nigel Dunnett, University of Sheffield
Michael McCoy, garden designer, writer and host of ABC TV series Dream Gardens


Jon Hazelwood

One of the most profound things that struck me (is) that when we make gardens…we unlock these feelings in people, it’s an incredible thing, isn’t it?”

Nigel Dunnett Professor of Planting Design and Urban Horticulture in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Sheffield

Jon Hazelwood (00:02):

I’m John Hazelwood. A landscape architect and this is Hassell talks, a podcast series, exploring the diverse perspectives, open-minded collaborations and creative insights that we know will be the key to navigating the increasing complexities of our world. I’m exploring a world of dynamic planting design, diverse and beautiful planting that we engage with in our cities. Planting that causes to stop, take a breath, and connect with nature in our busy lives. And luckily the obsession crosses into the design work that I’ve been working on and has introduced me to leading proponents of a growing movement, a movement with many names. It’s naturalistic planting or enhanced nature, but the name doesn’t really matter. It all comes with a desire to improve urban environments to a connection to nature. In this conversation, I’m particularly interested in our emotional connection to planting in our cities. How does it affect us both physically and emotionally? Hasler have been working closely with Professor Nigel Dunnett from the University of Sheffield. Nigel has been responsible for some of the UK’s most spectacular planted environments, projects such as the Barb in London and the Diamond Garden at Buckingham Palace, and with his colleague James Hitchmough, the planting designs for the London Olympic Park back in 2012. In addition, he’s recently published the book Naturalistic Planting Design, which I’ve got set right next to me so I can refer to that. Hi Nigel, how are you?

Nigel Dunnett (01:24):

Hi. Good, thank you.

Jon Hazelwood (01:26):

Is there a point or a particular landscape or a memory that’s contributed to you taking this particular journey you’ve taken in planting design?

Nigel Dunnett (01:35):

Well I think it’s difficult to pinpoint one particular place. I think it’s more of a feel a feeling <affirmative>, and I can remember it quite strongly from when I was a teenager, like an early teenager I guess, of being out in places like a wonderful woodland with our spring wild flowers like blue bells or in the middle of a meadow. And I can remember distinctly feeling of being part of something bigger, but also hugely uplifting and joyful feelings.

Jon Hazelwood (02:07):

I remember when we met you you’d just come back from California, I think it was the super bloom. I mean they’re obviously not quiet moments. That’s <laugh> a spectacular.

Nigel Dunnett (02:18):

That’s true. But

Jon Hazelwood (02:20):

Almost event, isn’t it?

Nigel Dunnett (02:21):

It’s an event where whole mountain ranges change colour and you can see them from hundreds of miles away, but when you get up close, it’s full of detail and full of fascination. I think you are an actor, you know are participant and you are part of it. And you’re not just an observer with a low energy approach. You are high energy participant. And I think what struck me about the super bloom and other similar things is the hundreds of thousands of people who quite clearly have the same experience. And it’s not just an experience, it’s a need. I think it’s a fundamental need to have this joyful, uplifting, natural experience.

Jon Hazelwood (03:05):

I was wondering if I could play devil’s advocate and suggest that all planting should be approached from an ecological perspective and not the emotional or aesthetic concern. What do you have to say to that <laughs>?

Nigel Dunnett (03:23):

I would say that attitude has been the biggest mistake in the urban greening world over the past 50 years at least, where people have been putting these sorts of attitudes and it’s still an inherent approach within naturalistic plug to design and anything ecological. I take the opposite view. I say we should be working with the people first agenda that it should be all about engaging people and creating magical experiences and memorable experiences and experiences people want to repeat. And then of course, you work ecologically and environmentally positively and sustainably.

Jon Hazelwood (04:11):

Speaking of emotional responses to planting, last year I had the opportunity to visit a garden near Melbourne. In fact, Nigel, you were with me. It was late March, I think it was coming to the end of over three months of sky high temperatures and no rain since Christmas. Yet this garden particularly had a profound effect on me. It was full of interest, colour, texture, and importantly felt of its place and of its environment. The planting was the step garden by our second guest, Michael McCoy. Michael seems to live and breathe and work gardens and plants. He’s a writer, a TV presenter, and of course a garden designer. Hi Michael.

Michael McCoy (04:47):

Hey John. Hey Nigel.

Jon Hazelwood (04:48):


Michael McCoy (04:49):

Thank you.

Jon Hazelwood (04:51):

Well Michael, I’m gonna start with the same question as Nigel. Is there a particular personal memory or personal landscape that’s taking you on this journey?

Michael McCoy (05:03):

There’s look, there’s lots and there’s some really obvious ones with some time that I spent at Great Dixter in England up nearly 30 years ago. But what I do remember stepping into this garden a back kind of forgotten corner of this garden somewhere in Scotland. But I just remember stepping into this sort of woodland space and kind of gasping with how engaged and gripped and perfectly and magically surrounded that I was by this space. And I remember of going through my senses trying to work out what is it that’s gripping me? What is exits something? There was nothing of great visual or botanical interest there at all. And really what I put it down to was just the way there was a perfect match between me and the space that I was in dwelling. And at that point it absolutely nailed for me that no matter how decorative or ornamental or wonderful my planting is that ultimately it is about the kind of conversation between me physically and the spaces around me, which is probably always going to elude my total control and could possibly thank goodness for that.

Jon Hazelwood (06:18):

You’ll be asked to design all sorts of different gardens or even present them whether they’re formal or clipped or native or ese. Even the work that I’m aware of yours is that this loose term of naturalistic and dynamic is that again, is that because of that emotional response or is it just how you’ve been trained? Is it something specific about that?

Michael McCoy (06:41):

It is absolutely something specific about that. And I think the two things go back to one that you’ve already touched on is that the notion of the fleeting moment that I’ve come become so addicted to the idea that gardens are, that one of their superpowers is to grab and harvest the joy in a single moment. And that we’ve made the mistake with public planting in the past of thinking this needs to be as stable and as static as possible. And in fact, what Nigel and James have been looking at for decades is planting that does exactly the opposite and that creates a series of unforgettable moments. And I love that idea of that. If I don’t go and look at this garden now, I’m gonna miss something really important. And I think to me it’s exactly the same between listening to live music and listening to it on a cd. But there’s also the sense for me personally as a gardener as a keen home gardener is I don’t want to be fully in control. I want there to be other forces at play. I want this to be a partnership. And so for me to be doing planting that starts to respond in its own way and surprises me and delights me is a really important part of using kind of naturalism.

Jon Hazelwood (07:59):

Nigel, you kind of summed that up in one of your Instagram posts a few weeks ago, I think it was you made the comment that last year you’d given it a Chelsea chop and it didn’t have anywhere near of the character of this year where you’ve just let everything do what it wants to do.

Nigel Dunnett (08:16):

Exactly. I tried it, but it robbed the plans of all personality. And that’s one of the really nice things about this as well that you know, always have the chance to learn and to try and to change. I mean, I just pick up on what Michael was saying there because one of my kind of influences I guess was a guy called Rob Leopold who was one of the leaders of the new perennial movement in Holland. And he came to this with the viewpoint of a poet and described these things in poetic terms. And one of the best metaphors that he ever talked to me about was thinking about these sort of plantings, like a dance that the plants in the mix, they’re all dancing with each other and they’re ebbing and flowing and they’re all kind of, some are going up, some down in and out, and it’s not just at one particular moment from year to year to year, and it’s all about cycles.

Michael McCoy (09:12):

I think that that is one of the really great challenges of this is kind of this planting is getting to the place of a command of your grammar and your syntax in terms of plants and the way they respond and the way they ebb and flow through the seasons in order to then start writing poetry with them.

Nigel Dunnett (09:35):

We have to always remember why are we doing this? And of course there are very sound, ecological, environmental reasons for doing it, but the human reasons are equally important. And I think it’s interesting, particularly in the last few months, how so much new realism is being put on the health and the wellbeing aspects of green.

Michael McCoy (09:59):

Who do you think sums that up best? What weapons, arrows can we have in our quiver against those that would try and force it down the line of ecological purity?

Nigel Dunnett (10:13):

Somebody I admire a lot and who I work with a lot is Sarah Price who brings the sensitivity of a fine artist to this understanding of how natural systems work

Jon Hazelwood (10:26):

Gardens. Apparently they make up 20 to 40% of the surface area of most world cities. I they’re just as important to a city’s ecology is as well to some extent more so than some of the public planting. Do you think there’s lessons from the world of the garden that should be listened to in the world of public planting?

Michael McCoy (10:51):

Most certainly. I think that what people like Nigel and James are demonstrating to us time and time again is that the best solutions the elegance of the solutions that we’re hunting for is not found in a kind of simplistic world and that we have in so many ways in the past gone for the most bulletproof static planting thinking that was the solution. When Christopher Lloyd was here in 1992, he’s the only gardener who’s ever been asked to speak to the Canberra Press Club and he’d visited the new Parliament House the day before. So he said to the National Press Club obviously the landscape architect involved new four plants and managed to use all four of them in his design, <laugh>, <laugh>, and <laugh>. The point being that our solutions have been simplistic so far, whereas to get to a place of genuinely beautifully elegant, simple solutions that’s gonna be on the other side of a huge amount of knowledge and a huge amount of research.

Nigel Dunnett (12:13):

One of our guy called Chris Packham, a really well known tv, TV naturalist in the UK tweeted a little movie a month ago of one of my pictorial meadows in a little Scottish town on a roundabout in the middle of a traffic island in the city. And he says something like really gentle, isn’t this beautiful? Shouldn’t all cities aspire to this? People love it. It’s a really productive use of the space. And he just had this bar of negativity saying, this has no value to wildlife, this is just gardening. And it made me think this sense of gardening as a derogatory term is something that kind of belittles something because you’re doing something that gives pleasure or that it’s for the visual as much as for anything else, it’s not seen as valid. And again, it’s something I’ve come across a lot that if you are making something that claims to be ecological but you’re doing it primarily for the visual senses, the aesthetic and for the enjoyment, then somehow it can’t be working, it can’t be doing its job because it’s all about aesthetics and it’s part of a puritan streak. We have that unless it’s hurting, unless it causes pain, it can’t really be the achieving its endpoint and it is causing pleasure, then somehow that’s pleasure and function can’t go together. So again, this is why the mindset needs to shift

Michael McCoy (13:46):

Is the root of the question really whether or not we recognise ourselves as humans as being a part of nature or set apart from nature. Is that fundamentally where it comes down to that? Because we assume we’re somehow outside of nature that our interactions with nature are essentially destructive and essentially invalid? Is that, is that the assumption that these people are applying?

Nigel Dunnett (14:12):

Well, I think it is, and I think the most ironic thing about all of this is that certainly in the European context, most of our most diverse and beautiful and valuable semi-natural habitats, let’s say meadows are totally artificial. Of course they are. They’re the result of agricultural management and now they had to be maintained through nature conservation techniques. So in effect, some of our most valuable habitats are gardened, but that people wouldn’t recognise that as gardening. And the bigger picture, it’s gardening. You’re manipulating a natural system.

Jon Hazelwood (14:50):

And I know in your book you talked about or you suggested that how we respond to nature in our cities is sort of innately tied to an evolutionary history.

Nigel Dunnett (15:00):

I suppose one of the most striking things that I I’ve seen is when I’ve been in China exploring beautiful hay meadows, which are kind of remnants there and fast disappearing. But I remember very distinctly being in a big valley and little fragments of hay meadows in a largely improved just green agricultural landscape of pasture and just seeing where the local, for want of a better term peasant farmers were going and groups of women with their children at lunch times or whatever, big landscapes full of fields. But it was just amazing how everybody congregated on a tiny patch of remnant meadow and the children were running through the flowers and the women were sitting around the edge and everything. And these are people who clearly have not had a university education or have their own wonderful kind of private gardens. And yet of all the places within this wide expansive choice, this is the one place that they were all going to.


When we make gardens and we do the sort of work we do and we kind of unlock these feelings in people, it’s an incredible thing, isn’t it, to think that through manipulation of space and the way we arrange space and plants within that space, we have the power to reach deep, deep into side people’s is and release these powerful emotions which are in there. They’re instinctive and a lot of the problems we have mentally and socially are because we are in an unnatural place most of the time. So I do think it’s the gardens and plants at one sense seem such a simple thing, but when you really delve into it, it’s, it’s a profound thing that we can do.

Michael McCoy (17:02):

And when you perceive that from an architectural as an architect, the talk about controlling people’s emotional response within a building has been long established. And of course what we are dealing with in that case is it every element is perfectly in control it perfectly in man’s control and perfectly in control of the creator of that building. And whereas the moment you start talking about landscape architecture or gardening and you’re talk and all of those emotive responses, you’ve got to have such a loose hold on this because that there’s such a beautiful humility associate that you must carry with it because you just know that you can’t control every aspect of

Nigel Dunnett (17:48):

It. In our professional world, in landscape architecture and garden design with clients, I guess you kind of produce something which is static. And of course in the wider sustainability argument, we then have to put so much energy, literally energy into maintaining these natural systems in a static form when now when everything they’re trying to do is to break out from that and it’s a hugely unsustainable way of working. So we need to kind of liberate natural systems to behave much more like they would for real with our guidance rather than trying to put them in cages, which is largely what we do in our public landscapes and keep them under captivity.

Michael McCoy (18:34):

I have been really moved and challenged by reading twice in quick succession Isabella trees book wilding about the wilding of net and net castle in Sussex. I really love in there is that understanding the disruption and disturbance has proven itself to be a critical part of the maintenance of biomass, mean, sorry, biodiversity. And that a lot of Flores has suffered from the loss of the mega fauna 40, 50,000 years ago that used to pull down trees and make a great big mess in certain zones and then you would get all the opportunistic species flowing in, et cetera. So there’s this incredibly dynamic mosaic of biodiversity in Australia. We have this enormous sense of remorse. We carry this huge sense of remorse of the damage that we have caused and continue to cause and therefore have this kind of restoration mentality about attempting to try and to restore things to back to the way they were and minimise the amount of disruption and disturbance to that. And yet it really seems like historically and going back maybe tens of thousands of years, constant disturbance was an absolute critical part of it. And certainly within the whole thing of the burning of the burning of the forest by pre-European settlement here, we have some understanding of that. But before any human set put on Australia, there would have been this constant disturbance. It’s never ever a static stable system. That ecology has always been a state of war, really

Nigel Dunnett (20:22):

<laugh>, but we still have a romantic view of what’s natural and what isn’t natural. And that romantic view takes us back to the agricultural landscape of preindustrial times and that’s the romantic view of what nature is beautiful ly mets and then that’s pinned to particular plant communities that we have to kind of restore. When James and I did made the Olympic Park in London, which was Europe’s largest new urban park at the time on a Postindustrial site, completely contaminated in the middle of the city surrounded by heavy industry we had to argue that this was a site for people and not a nature restoration site for restoration ecology. And the ironic thing about that is that in the uk, the sale of wildflower seeds, native wildfire, meadow seeds peaked in 2013 and it was a direct response to people seeing the designed meadows in the Olympic Park.

Jon Hazelwood (21:28):

Is there a link between that emotional response that you’ve talked about? Is there a direct link to measures that are of interest to our clients and the developers and the investors? Is there increased footfall? Is there increased dwell time? And in the case the highline, is there increase in property prices and rental values?

Nigel Dunnett (21:47):

I think it’s really important topic and it’s one that’s a bit distasteful to start talking about money and economics in these terms. But I think this is where there is that direct connection between the emotional response and then more tangible measures. And the reason it’s becoming really interesting is for exactly what you said, that I guess what I would like to see is this transformational infiltration of beautiful green into our cities. How do we do that if it’s not in a prestige project where everybody’s going that same direction, there’s loads of money and funding and political will and so on. But certainly people I speak to on projects that I’m either involved in or when people wanna get me involved, they say, Well, you can make the arguments and say how wonderful it is for flooding or urban cooling or biodiversity or for human wellbeing and health, but that doesn’t really mean very much to us who had to invest in a place or who have to take the risk of putting a lot of that into green. So I think one of the things that we really need to move onto is generating evidence that de-risks investment in transformational greening. And part of that is kind of the work that James and I do to develop techniques that make it kind of fail safe or reasonably fail safe. But I think the other part of it is to generate evidence for direct measures that have some sort of economic benefit as well as human benefit.

Jon Hazelwood (23:16):

Well, I wonder again, Michael, is there something we can learn from the world of the garden?

Michael McCoy (23:20):

Gardening and gardeners are the only place where these discussions can be drawn from in the future. Certainly in Australia so far, the discussion is so much in its infancy here, and so I am very aware of how completely powerless I would feel to defend its potential economic benefits. I’m just so pleased that Hassell etal have made a commitment to start exploring this idea in public spaces in Australia because it is really in its infancy.

Nigel Dunnett (23:59):

Yeah, one of the big projects I’ve been involved with is called Rather Unimaginatively, the Greater Green Project in Sheffield, which is a massive street greening scheme, bringing dynamic planting right into the city centre. And despite the images that you might have that everywhere in Sheffield is full of this sort of stuff it’s still very new for us. And our public planting and our garden planting is very traditional. And I was really concerned in a way that bringing this wild, wild skate into the urban core would be seen as not appropriate. So we’ve done quite a lot of people surveys as well, and one of the questions I asked, I’ve done this through students, is does this type of planting fit well with the surroundings? I think just off the top of my head, I’ve got the figures, something 88% of people said yes it does.

Michael McCoy (24:56):

I then come around to think, well then essentially, what is it about this kind of planting, this naturalistic planting that tugs on my heartstrings in a unique way? And for me, I feel like it is primarily a deep sense of its ephemerality of passing moments. And I also feel like there is that thing of a sense that nature has got a strong hand here and that I can only imagine that it would be a great sense of relief for people in cities to kind of think, Oh, I can really see nature starting to have a bit of a playground

Nigel Dunnett (25:31):

I really do think you’ve hit on it. I think all of our experiences that actually to fit best with contemporary architecture and naturalistic landscape works partly because it heights the boldness of the architecture and the architecture strengthens the natural, It strengthens the naturalism, but also people absolutely love to be in this natural feeling space in a contemporary context.

Jon Hazelwood (25:59):

Nigel Michael, sounds like a good place to stop. Thanks so much for joining us. I mean, you’ve both had a great influence on me over the past few years, whether it’s in my public work or whether it’s in my private garden, Michael <laugh>. But thank you. Thank you for joining us.

Michael McCoy (26:13):

Thank you. It’s been great. Thank you so much.

Jon Hazelwood (26:16):

I’m John Haselwood. You’ve been listening to an episode of Has Talks. If you enjoyed this conversation and would like to hear more, please subscribe and check out our other episodes. And thank you for listening.

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