Valuing neglected and unregulated landscapes part 3

The value I want to describe in this post (in a very preliminary fashion), is that associated with the quality or effect of visual ‘density’. I oppose this value to that of clarity or transparency, which is often an orienting one in public landscapes–not only for the sake of facilitating different aspects of its use, but also for security reasons (since a fully ‘legible’ landscape makes people who are using it in ways other than its ‘intended’ use easy to identify… and monitor or apprehend).

Birch tree and other plants growing out of a trailer in Kilmahew Woods, Cardross
Birch tree and other plants growing out of a trailer in Kilmahew Woods, Cardross

These are landscapes wherein ‘the more you look, the more you see’. They tend to contain a relative abundance–or at least, a more complicated layering–of vegetative material, and also to be relatively free of external control (though not necessarily intervention). This does not however, presume diversity or complexity: a well-designed garden can present a diverse range of species, and produce complex visual effects, while also making everything clearly available to view. It is rather the number of plants, their form and growth habit, as well as the style of their juxtaposition with other elements, that produce effects of visual density. 

The Getty Garden, Los Angeles: a garden with maximum diversity (of species and visual effect) and maximum visibility
The Getty Garden, Los Angeles: a garden with maximum diversity (of species and visual effect) and maximum visibility

As a value, visual density is associated with specific circumstances, practices of appreciation and experiences. I treat each of these in turn (briefly, in broad brush strokes) as a way of elaborating its importance more clearly.

Processes and circumstances producing visual density. Although I can’t claim any scientific authority in this regard, it would seem to me that, in circumstances where conditions are conducive (i.e., most importantly, adequate rainfall) all that is required to produce multiple layers of vegetative growth and an attendant density, is the passage of time, and the lack of external control over those processes. Of course some plants produce such effects much more quickly than others (e.g., the twisted, horizontal growth habits of Rhododendron), but growth in general tends to obstruct vision the more it proceeds unchecked.


Appreciating visual density. In order to really see a landscape that has overgrown, you have to look more closely and more actively. Not only is a comprehensive survey from any combination of vantage points impossible, the visual quality of density stands in opposition to the model of vision implied in the survey (that everything can be made available to sight, more or less instantaneously): it foregrounds the impossibility of ever seeing everything, let alone at once, and in so doing, exposes the artificiality of any landscape that offers as much. In an overgrown landscape, where the foreground seems a tangled, disorganized mess, the question of interest is not, ‘how does it look?’ but ‘what did you find?’ In other words, things have to be noticed in order to be seen, which implies an active engagement as opposed to a more passive reception of views.

Experiences of density. A landscape that is visually dense or deep is one whose contents cannot be quickly assessed. Such landscapes frequently make people uncomfortable, especially in urban settings, where, as research in environmental psychology has shown, people often fear that excessive growth conceals persons or activities that are in some way dangerous. However, to the extent that such fears can be allayed–e.g., by visiting the landscape in the company of others–a visually dense landscape can feel wild or mysterious in a positive way, producing an experience of heightened awareness, which can be invigorating and is certainly rare, especially in cities. At the same time, by inviting different practices of looking, it provides an opportunity to experience the pleasures of discovery, and to practice noticing and identifying different plant and animal species, or the traces of natural processes and human intervention. As will be appreciated by anyone who has attempted to weed an overgrown garden, or locate particular species of plant in the wild, these activities require a perceptual attunement which it takes time and sustained effort to develop.

Kilmahew woods, Cardross: a landscape where the lost and forgotten are found over and over again, but never returned

Ultimately the question that remains unanswered here, is how we might elevate such values–which suggest gentler, more inclusive and more enchanted ways of relating to urban landscapes–to a greater social and cultural prominence? Aestheticization of visually dense landscapes, via photography, urban nature writing and so on, is one avenue. But in the highly mediatized city, where communication seems to be more and more event-based–whether as ‘news’ in a conventional or social media sense–I wonder if it there is a need to develop more direct, performative strategies. I am just at the beginning of thinking about what those might be; in the meantime, you can see/follow my little Instagram experiment…


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