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Round Table

Resilient Chaos: How messiness can save our landscapes

Moderated by Glyn Bowerman 

Dylan Reid, is a co-founder and now executive editor of Spacing magazine. With other Spacing editors, he was a co-winner of the 2010 Jane Jacobs Award. He is also the author of the Toronto Public Etiquette Guide and co-editor of other books about Toronto. In 2010, he wrote “Bless this Mess” in Spacing about the idea of messy urbanism. Since then, he has been exploring aspects of this concept in his writing, and is currently co-editing a collection of essays about messy urbanism for Coach House Books.

Nina-Marie Lister is Professor in the School of Urban Planning at Toronto Metropolitan University where she founded and directs the Ecological Design Lab. Winner of the 2021 Margolese National Prize for design, Lister is a planner and ecological designer whose work connects people to nature in our cities. Her research is published widely, focused on green infrastructure design for climate resilience, biodiversity, and human wellbeing. She is currently Visiting Professor Landscape Architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

Glyn Bowerman is the Editor of Ground, and hosts the monthly Spacing Radio podcast, the official podcast of Spacing Magazine.

Desire lines. IMAGE/ Dylan Reid

Desire lines. IMAGE/ Dylan Reid

Glyn Bowerman: What does the term “messy” evoke for you? What kind of feelings, what do you think about?

Nina-Marie Lister: Messy is generally understood to be unordered, unstructured and can also imply diverse. Most simply it means “not neat,” and neat is a valued concept in Canadian society. We do tend to like order and cleanliness, and messy implies the opposite of that: something that breaks out of its boundaries or container. And that generally makes people uncomfortable. 

GB: Dylan, you specifically think about “messy urbanism.” What does that mean to you?

Dylan Reid: It means everything that’s not structured, ordered, or intentional in the city. It can mean grassroots, maybe a bit disruptive, or things growing up where they’re not supposed to be or expected. One great encapsulation of the idea is what people call “desire lines,” which are those muddy paths multiple people have treaded over the years, through the grass or shrubbery or some neglected space, because that’s actually the way people want to go.

Desire lines capture messy urbanism, especially from a landscape point of view, in a couple of different ways. First of all because they are created by many people unintentionally. No one cut that path. One person wanted to go that way, and then someone else, and, over time, multiple people created it, but it reflects what people want and desire, (hence the name desire lines). But they’re also messy physically. They’re kind of ugly and they don’t have defined borders. They’re a bit offensive to a lot of people because they’re not ordered or constrained, and because they weren’t determined by someone, they just evolved. But, at the same time, they show people creating their spaces for themselves.

Plants growing up through a former pole hole. IMAGE/ Dylan Reid

GB: I’ve heard a lot of praise over the years for this concept of messiness in landscapes, public spaces, urban design, and I have to wonder if this a reaction to something? Do we tend to oversanitize spaces in Ontario, Canada, North America?

NML: That’s an interesting word choice: “oversanitize.” We value order principally because it keeps society from ostensibly devolving into chaos, and we value “cleanliness” as a sign of order. We also particularly like to keep certain types of people “in order” and, by extension, their landscapes, places of employment, or homes. If you think of the way the domestic home fronts onto the street, this is the “public face” of the home: we like a neat, ordered front yard. We don’t like the laundry hanging out front, the car parts—the messiness is intended for the back. There’s a long tradition in our society—one that grew from British colonization and settlement—in which order and control of the “wilderness” was paramount. These ideas of order, neatness (often equated with good behaviour) extend from the yard, to the land, to bodies (women’s bodies in particular), to the way we keep our homes and places in the city.

In my own work, which is centred on landscape and particularly native plants, they’re generally viewed as messy, untidy, overgrown or wild, and even “promiscuous”—a word that has sexual overtones and implies being out of control. Plants that don’t fit the ordered garden, grow “too big” or become “unruly, or bust out between cracks, we don’t like these because they don’t reflect order. Worse, they suggest disorder, being out of control.

A thriving plant bed. IMAGE/ Dylan Reid

The intersection of order and conformity in Ontario right now is relevant. People are afraid of change, and perceived unrest, and they are nostalgic for a time when things seemed simpler, orderly, predictable, and therefore manageable. When you see a native meadow rather than a neatly clipped front lawn, spontaneous pathways through a park (desire lines), or people behaving in an unexpected or non-conformist way, that makes some people uncomfortable. There is a nostalgia for order, whereas messiness can be seen as threatening the foundations of society. What some people might perceive as messy (or by extension chaotic) is deeply disturbing to a culture that’s founded on conformity.

DR: People definitely oversanitize front yards and gardens. We also discard or reject spaces that aren’t sanitized. A great example is the Don Valley, which is a bit of a wild, feral landscape. It was once industrial, controlled, and managed, but was messy in a different way: it was extremely polluted. That industry is now gone and it’s being reclaimed by nature, but in a very randomized way. It has a lot of invasive species, it’s not structured.

We’re always seeking a balance. We can oversanitize, we undersanitize. There’s reasons why we like a certain amount of order in our cities. The trick is finding that balance. And we’ve definitely gone too far in the oversanitizing direction. The push now is to find out how much we need to let things grow on their own? How much do we need to let people shape their city, as opposed to overplanning and trying to control it?

A desire line path along a hydro corridor. IMAGE/ Dylan Reid

GB: We know landscapes are dynamic and change over time through natural processes and human use. Do we have trouble accepting that, and is there a hubristic need to overrule it?

NML: Sure. Complexity is also part of messiness, in a more technical way. Complexity is essential for the emergence of life on earth. In ecology, complexity from the cellular, organismal level, to species, to whole ecosystems, is the essence of life. It’s what gives us diversity, but we don’t like it. In general, we like predictability and simplicity even when we know it’s an illusion.

It’s very hard to find the balance Dylan mentioned. We all know that sweet spot before a city gentrifies. If we could hold onto that in planning, we’d have the million-dollar solution to place keeping and city making. It’s elusive and ephemeral. We don’t understand the need for diversity until we have either oversanitized it out and homogenized a place, or we have devolved into a place that has no character at all. For the most part, modern human societies exhibit this creative tension between order and chaos, complexity and simplicity, diversity and homogeneity.

In our yards and gardens as much as our parks which are integral to cityscapes, this is an important phenomenon to understand—particularly now, while we’re sitting at the intersection of rapidly accelerating climate change, cataclysmic biodiversity loss, and social chaos that ensues from the loss of healthy ecology and its protective, life-sustaining ecosystem services. It really is a crisis on multiple levels, and unless we can embrace complexity, diversty, and the uncertainty that comes along with it, we’re in big trouble. So, it’s not just about being messy, but embracing those aspects of life itself that make us uncomfortable—and the balance that’s lost.

A wild, bushy plant bed on a sidewalk. IMAGE/ Dylan Reid

DR: Hubristic, yes. Everything from pesticides, to lawn mowing, all of these things are examples of humans trying to absolutely control nature and constantly having nature fight back. And as soon as we stop paying attention, it comes back again. So we definitely have this hubristic feel that we can control nature and we’re constantly trying to do so.

And, in many ways, we’re harming ourselves. A great example is all the plants we brought to North America, intentionally or unintentionally, for our gardens that then escape into the wild and are now messing up our natural environment. Now we realize we need to control them. But they’re there because we brought them over without thinking what they were going to do. Nature is constantly reminding us of our hubris.

Plants growing up through sidewalk cracks. IMAGE/ Dylan Reid

GB: Given that, how do we teach people to embrace messiness? What are its aesthetic virtues and ecological advantages?

NML: The ecological advantages are that diversity and structured, layered complexity are the building blocks of a functioning, healthy ecology. Our yards and gardens can’t purely be ornamental, particularly when the ornament of the lawn and non-native, sterile cultivars for plants are very costly in terms of homogenizing or breaking down diversity. If all we have are sterile plants and relatively few species that can no longer provide the ecosystems services of pollination, decomposition, nutrient cycling, water infiltration, soil building etc. we are doing a huge disservice to future generation of city dwellers. Our yards, gardens and parks, must have value beyond the way they look. With the current biodiversity and climate crises, we know this is a growing problem.

It’s no small irony that we have good public policies supporting biodiversity and ecological health in public spaces, and yet we punish people who try do the same thing in their private yards. The City of Toronto now plants native trees and encourages native perennial flowering plants over annual ornamental plants in public parks, yet bylaw officers can fine and even legally destroy native gardens if neighbours complain about how these gardens look. Appearance is somehow legitimized over performance. That doesn’t make any sense, given that most of the land in the city is private space. It’s wonderful that we have big public landscapes, and particularly water and ravine systems, but the majority of lands in the City of Toronto are under private ownership. We need to encourage people, not punish them, for growing biodiverse yards and providing habitat for other species as well as ecosystem services. More importantly, we need to support and incentivize that.

Desire lines in Berczy Park. IMAGE/ Dylan Reid

One of the ways we have been working to do this is to change outdated bylaws—bylaws that effectively punish people for not conforming to an orderly aesthetic, and which constitute an anti-ecological approach to yards and gardens. There are very simple and important ways to encourage people to grow biodiverse and “messy” yards, some of which actually address issues of social vulnerability too. For example, we can support food gardens and encourage people to grow natural, healthy, and regenerative gardens that aren’t hooked on chemical applications and dependent on nutrient inputs and water. These are not highly technical efforts. They’re just forgotten arts.

DR: We talk about how orderliness is enforced from above, but it’s also something enforced horizontally from other people, from the grassroots. A lot of the front yard garden controversies come from a neighbour complaining because they don’t like it. They think it looks ugly, and they also feel it reflects on them somehow. That if there’s an “ugly” garden in their neighbourhood, people look down on the neighbourhood and think it’s somehow poor. That’s actually really tough to work on. It’s easier to change a bylaw than it is to change people’s instinctive opinions of what’s good or bad, ugly or beautiful.

But the way do it is to show it. If you have a garden that’s thriving and beautiful, and full of pollinators, butterflies and bees, then more people start to appreciate that beauty. The same thing with other landscapes: if you can start to show that a park that hasn’t had weed control is still a functional park—you can still play sports on it, run around on it, and it’s healthier and stays green during the middle of a drought instead of going brown like all grass lawns do—people start to realize there are actually advantages to that.

Part of that is demonstration, part of that is education. It’s a process we need to do. It’s not easy, but it is possible. People’s aesthetic choices can change, and have changed in history, when you assert that there’s value in a different aesthetic.

Ravine remnants. IMAGE/ Dylan Reid

NML: To say it’s a long-term change is an understatement. Social attitudes are effectively enshrined in our policies—and the behaviours that stem from these attitudes are regulated through our bylaws. There’s no more powerful stigma than being judged and policed by your neighbours. This social policing extends to value judgments that often have no basis in law or science, and that’s really hard to change.

For the record, bylaws that enforce value judgments and aesthethics are actually illegal. The Ontario Superior Court ruled in 1996 that a person has the right to express their values through their yard. And yet, somehow, such value judgements are still embedded in bylaws mainly because they are a reflection of cultural norms—norms that need to change to reflect both the diversity of our cities and the climate and biodiversity crises upon us. Think about it: we live in cities defined by cultural diversity. That diversity is what makes a city humane, interesting, exciting, and sometimes, uncomfortable. It’s the same for biodiversity, for plants: they don’t all look and behave the same, and their diversity is in fact the key to their health and vitality, adaptability, and resilience in the face of change.

Desire lines. IMAGE/ Dylan Reid

Desire lines. IMAGE/ Dylan Reid

If you think about the way we treat our gardens, “weeding out diversity”, supressing difference is actually xenophobic. We only allow a limited palette of “well-behaved” plants that look “neat and tidy.” In a culturally diverse and cosmopolitan city like Toronto, shouldn’t our gardens and yards reflect this too? They ought to be diverse and healthy to flourish too?

GB: You have a captive audience of landscape architects with Ground: how can landscape architects, specifically, use the messiness of natural systems to their advantage and find new ways of designing and sustainable best practices?

NML: Landscape architects have the skills needed to encourage and support biodiversity. But perhaps their employers and clients may not be providing the scope and context for this work or deployment of the full range of landscape architectural skills.

We have made progress in some areas. In public park design, the days of the annual flower bed planting are waning (if not gone entirely), not least because it’s more economical to plant longer-lasting perennials and shade trees that provide a number of the ecosystem services we’re trying to quantify for climate resilience. 

I do think the profession needs to look closely at its code of ethics. There’s a strong social and ecological responsibility not only to “do no harm”, but to provide for a biodiverse, resilient future. There are many practical things we could do in this respect: we can refuse to specify poorly-adapted, chemically-dependent nursery plant stock that comes from a very limited plant palette, that includes mostly non-native and some invasive species. It would be a major step forward to reduce the profession’s reliance on ornamental and horticultural cultivars and increase affordable, locally grown sources of native plants, including pollinators, bird-friendly, shade-providers, and drought-tolerant species. These should be locally sourced and cultivated, widely available, and of course can be mixed in with the horticultural cultivars we have invested in over centuries. To be clear this isn’t a binary choice: No one is advocating that we eliminate ornamental planting designs, but rather we need both to balance the mix of native and non-native species and increase the availability of genetically and climate adapted local species that do triple duty as food, forage and landscape performance species.

A desire line where stairs should arguably be. IMAGE/ Dylan Reid

DR: In terms of public projects, we need to think about community as part of the messiness: incorporating spaces where members of the community can manage them. Even if you’re planning messy, you’re still planning in a sense. But, if you create spaces where the community can do stuff outside even the landscape architect’s control, that’s interesting, and creates an extra layer of messiness. Which may be challenging for landscape architects, because the community might manage it in a way they don’t really think works well. But, in creating those spaces, whether it’s for planting vegetables or flowers, or people shaping the use of that space in their own way, like having an open space they can use for their own purposes, like birthday parties or farmers’ markets, these are things that add an extra layer of community messiness to a landscape, where you can’t predict or control how people are going to use it, but they become involved with the landscape. That’s the way people are going to protect that landscape. If people are involved with it, engaged with it, shaping it themselves, they’ll have a sense of ownership and will value that landscape significantly.

An example I love is the Pumpkin Parade that started in the early 2000s at Sorauren Park. Someone in the community said, “We have all these beautifully carved pumpkins after Halloween and then they just get thrown away,” and had the idea of bringing them all to the park so people could walk among them. They didn’t ask the City for permission, they just told the City this was going to happen. But, within a couple of years, the City agreed to clean it up after. People loved it. And now it’s spread all over the city and you get Pumpkin Parades in all kinds of local parks. It’s people doing ephemeral landscaping on their own initiative.

It’s a good example of the necessary tension between a grassroots, messy event, and order: they didn’t tell the City, but the City had to play a role because otherwise you’d have rotting pumpkins polluting the park, which is no good for anyone. So the City comes and cleans them up. It says, “Yes, you can do this. We’re not really going to control it, but we’ll clean it up afterwards. And we’ve accepted this is something beneficial for the community the people really like.” It doesn’t go too far towards messiness, which would be having rotting pumpkins all winter, but it also doesn’t go too far towards order.

A plant grows up through a former pole hole. IMAGE/ Dylan Reid

GB: Messy could also describe the deterioration of a design feature. Not just natural features like plants, but, say, a park bench, a washroom, all kinds of amenities, hardscape or softscape. Many of these design aspects require maintenance, and we notice when they’re not given proper love and care. Let’s talk about the downside of messiness. Toronto’s public spaces, in particular, have a big problem maintaining the state of good repair.

NML: Certainly, one perception and an extension of the idea of messiness is disrepair, which goes beyond merely ‘colouring outside the lines.’ Certainly, maintenance and care challenges are a big part of designers’ work and advocacy for high quality public spaces. When you budget for a project, you also must budget for maintenance and care, ensuring the client owner or operating agency understands the investment necessary for ongoing care. I would offer the perspective that care is a human value. When we care for something, it shows we value it, and when we value it, we invest in it, whether through community efforts or political will and dollars. Care is part of landscape cultivation. Respect, nurturing, empathy: these values reflect how we relate to, steward and care for land. Somewhere between order and chaos, care keeps messiness from devolving into anarchy.

Hillcrest Meadow. IMAGE/ Nina-Marie Lister

We can all point to landscape projects that don’t reflect care, perhaps because City budgets and institutional policies have not allowed us to express care. Community residents have had to pick that care up in many places. The Pumpkin Parade is one example of community investment, but so are beach cleanups, litter cleanups, or foodbanks and shelters staffed by volunteers. These are aspects of what I would call “landscapes of care” that are necessarily part of the spectrum of, and conversation about, messiness.

DR: There’s an interesting phenomenon where overdetermining a landscape—putting in too much stuff, trying to make it too controlled—actually means it’s more likely to be neglected and fall apart. Because you’ve got so much stuff, so much maintenance required to keep it up, eventually it becomes too expensive. People lose interest and it starts to decay. So, incorporating some messiness can actually reduce the amount of maintenance required. That’s a really interesting balance. If you overdetermine a landscape, you can actually make it harder to maintain, and more likely to be abandoned. Whereas, if you incorporate a certain amount of messiness, allow a certain amount of variation and natural processes, the actual maintenance is less expensive, less onerous, and more feasible.

Some ravine messiness. IMAGE/ Dylan Reid

GB: There are concerns such as accessibility and safety of a landscape or public place that sometimes necessitate an intervention in the natural messiness of a place. We’ve talked a lot about balance: how do we identify what that balance feels like for everyone? Most of us understand the need for accessibility. Safety calls to mind things like wood ticks or falling tree branches. How do we know when to intervene for accessibility and safety’s sake?

NML: That’s a politically challenging question because, to be inclusive, by definition, we try to make everything accessible. But another way to think about it is not everything has to be accessible to everyone, all at once, all the time. We can use creative methods of thinking about accessibility: think about time-based zoning where parks are accessible to certain people with interests in particular kinds of sports or gathering at specific times. This is different than physical accessibility, but rather access to a public landscape in terms of use. There are ways we do that already by overlaying sports fields for different kinds of activities.

Plants growing through sidewalk cracks. IMAGE/ Dylan Reid

There are different types of surfaces that are accessible for different types of bodies, whether they’re wheeled, walking, or assisted and they don’t all have to be in the same place in the same way. Although equity of access should always be consideration in design it must also be in planning and space allocation. We have many people needing access to public landscapes, particularly parks, which are not equitably distributed across neighbourhoods and the city. There is mounting evidence (and certainly more still since the COVID pandemic) that we all need access for our mental and physical health to nature. We need to be creative in how we deliver access to these benefits, and probably not only through traditional parks. Think about ways we can stratify access, by requiring accessible roof gardens, healing gardens, food gardens and more creative use of the landscapes between buildings. Parks can no longer be limited to neighbourhood playgrounds and sports fields, or a destination park you go to by transit or in a private vehicle. We need parks, trails, roofs, bioswales, and green streets to serve as connective tissue in every city, as a network of nature – including wilder and “messier” places like urban meadows, hydro corridors and so on. 

Re-thinking accessibility from a scaled perspective may help us to advocate for a diversity of ways to connect to a healthy, functioning ecology in the city. Evidence shows that (re)establishing connections to natural, sometimes messy, wilder landscapes are as important for our mental health and wellbeing as they are for our children’s intellectual and emotional development. In these ways, accessibility is not only about physical access or getting to an outdoor place but seeing it and having it within reach of your home. It’s a different kind of accessibility than, say, a paved walkway or a ramp at a particular percentage grade. Those are all important, they’re just different aspects of the accessibility conversation.

The Sorauren Park annual Pumpkin Parade. IMAGE/Donna MacMullin, Friends of Sorauren Park

DR: The point about there being multiple accessibilities is really significant. Messy doesn’t just mean the lack of a paved path, it can also mean a more feral landscape that may be intimidating for some people. They might be more vulnerable in that space and unwilling to go into it. These are important factors.

A lot of times, people focus on things that actually aren’t that significant, in terms of what they find messy or unpleasant—a semi-wild garden or something. They’ll focus on that instead of important things like poorly maintained spaces, or a lack of accessibility. We need to distinguish between what offends our aesthetic sensibilities, but isn’t significant and doesn’t propose a barrier to people or cause danger, versus what is actually causing a barrier or creating danger, which may not be as aesthetically obvious, but is actually much more significant.

A broken path may actually be a big problem. It may be dangerous, people might trip, it might be a problem for accessibility. That’s something we should focus on. A field of goldenrod isn’t causing anyone harm. We need to focus on what’s messy in a way that causes harm, versus what’s considered messy purely because it doesn’t fit our aesthetic expectations.

The Sorauren Park annual Pumpkin Parade. IMAGE/Donna MacMullin, Friends of Sorauren Park

Thanks to Helene Iardas for coordinating this round table.