Wild Designer Makes “Beautiful Places for People to Love” by Susan Harris

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Posted on: April 21, 2017

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Photo credit: Landscape Architecture Magazine.

Rant readers know that we love Thomas Rainer’s work and his book Planting in a Post-Wild World (here’s Evelyn’s describing the aha’s she got from it), but there’s another game-changing landscape architect I hadn’t heard of til recently, one who may be having an even greater impact through her ginormous public works projects around the globe. That’s Margie Ruddick shown here with Rainer doing a joint interview in the recent issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine.

Margie’s amazing projects and her philosophy of going “wild” make her book Wild by Design: Strategies for Creating Life-Enhancing Landscapes a fascinating read. That subtitle really grabbed me.

Readers of the New York Times may remember Anne Raver’s 2011 account of Margie’s own Philadelphia-area garden –  “A Garden in Philadelphia Grows Wild”  – which turned Ruddick into a guru for what’s now known as the “wild gardening movement.” As she told the audience at her recent talk in DC, “Wild is the zeitgeist now.”

Wild by Design begins with her account of being cited by local authorities for deviating from conventional suburban standards of neatness. The upshot was getting out of trouble by listing the botanical names for all the accused “weeds” in her garden, which convinced the authorities that she knew what she was doing.

But to avoid troubles in the first place, Ruddick now recommends giving gardens strong formal structure. “A landscape that has been let go or cultivated for habitat will receive more buy-in if the public edges are kept neat, framed by lawn, walkways, or other devices. I found that once I had mown clean edges, my neighbors calmed down considerably.”

Excellent advice! My experience with neighbors is similar: Make it look intentional and cared for, then go for it.

Photo credit: Margie Ruddick Landscape.

Busy with other projects, Ruddick’s low-maintenance method for wilding her garden was to just “See what would happen if I just let the landscape do what it wanted to do and then managed it, coppicing, pruning, occasionally weeding, adding plants here and there.”
Above, what Ruddick’s wild front yard looks like now.

Wild by Design also chronicles her huge make-overs of public spaces, turning environmental disasters into systems that heal, and that change the lives of people who live or work near them.

Above and below, Queens Plaza in New York City.

With this book she hopes to “bridge two realms that were traditionally held distant: the hyper-orderly and aestheticized world of designers, and the sometimes mucky but exquisitely beautiful world of ecologists.”

She does that by attention to the human experience, deliberately creating life-enhancing places for us to be in. Her defense of – nay, case for beauty – is the best I’ve ever read, so I’ll share my favorite quotes.

I hope to encourage readers to bring the art part – the joy of making something beautify… and of living with it – into every endeavor they undertake.

This is part of my own adventure in sustainability, discovering that beauty and joy not only are desirable but often are the secret ingredients in making projects truly sustainable.”

No matter how well you design a system, the most compelling factor in creating places that people will care for, tend, safeguard, and really live in is the way they feel and look, the way they function as places for living. So make bioswales, make pavement permeable, generate all of your energy off the grid, but ultimately make beautiful places for people to love.”

It’s not just about  making the planet better. It often makes us feel better; it makes our lives work better.

In the scientific agenda of ecological design, we can’t forget how great it feels just to make something beautiful, to dip our feet into cool water, to walk through a meadow.

This revolutionary ecological designer stands out from the crowd in another way I think readers will appreciate – by avoiding the holier-than-thou tone common in eco-friendly gardening advice today.

I myself was far from living a green life, driving too much, et cetera…I fly in airplanes, a lot of them, to go to work on projects around the world that are known for being ecologically oriented.

As evidenced by her love of beauty and nonjudgmental tone, Ruddick is clearly a designer who gets it. Probably a gardener at heart.

I loved her Wild by Design

Wild Designer Makes “Beautiful Places for People to Love” originally appeared on Garden Rant on August 5, 2016.

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