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What vegetation should be in the city - an interview with Joanna Rayss

06 of December '21

What should be the greenery in the city? What is the reason for the reluctance to have trees under windows and retention tanks. How to adapt cities to climate change, and which of these solutions are viable measures and which are greenwashing?

Landscape architect Joanna Rayss, founder of the Zieleniarum Rayss Group and also a board member of the Landscape Architecture Association, talks about greening in cities, greenwashing and planting.


Wiktor Bochenek: At the recent Open Eyes Economy Summit, you said that green is not an object, but an adjective. What does that mean?

Joanna Rayss: At the last congress I used the phrase that greenery is not even treated by people as an object, but actually as an adjective. This means that we treat greenery in terms of color and color - using the phrase "green areas" directly. In this case, its functionality is not important, only its color. By defining valuable urban nature with an adjective specifying only color, we shallow the actual value of green areas. I am afraid that this leads to the fact that greenery is always at the end of any investment, whether it is private or public. From small projects to big strategies, one can see a tendency to treat greenery adjectively.

Wiktor Bochenek: What and who should nature serve in cities?

Joanna Rayss: We are part of nature whether someone likes it or not, and since we are, we have to coexist in some way. The argument behind this is not that we should turn cities into forests and live like primitive man. The primary function of a city is to meet human needs. We need greenery in the city just as much as any other urban infrastructure. Hence the trend to call greenery infrastructure as well. By using engineering language and the term infrastructure, we emphasize that greenery offers us services that we can also convert into financial values. In addition, this "Green Infrastructure", just like an electrical or sewage network, needs connections - because from the perspective of the ecology of the city and the functionality of its ecosystems, this is a necessary condition.

Beaufort Estates in the Foothills - realized by Joanna Rayss

© Rayss Group

Wiktor Bochenek: Is there a chance to reconcile human needs and ecological functionality when designing parks and neighborhoods?

Joanna Rayss: Not only is there an opportunity for this - it is already being done today. I will refer to my experience. I try to prove that it can be done by designing green areas in residential areas. Biologically active area, often required by local zoning plans, should and can actually have the value of ecological greenery, creating local ecosystems. This can be seen in the Beaufort Estate in Pogórze, designed by our studio, even during autumn and winter, when natural life is mostly "dormant." We tried to create multi-species green areas there based on so-called Ecosystem Based Designing - design based on knowledge of the local environment and potential ecosystem functionality. This approach also helps emphasize the regional uniqueness of the space, so we know where we are.

Such design, of course, also translates into other ecosystem services, such as the well-being and health of residents, greater recreational potential, but also, crucially in today's climate change adaptation. I firmly believe that taking into account proper hydrological compensation of investments at the design stage is a prerequisite for proper natural compensation. What we seal and build must be balanced with the creation of space for sealed-increased water runoff - but also for maximum natural retention - that is, retention for prolonged periods of drought. However, it is worth relying on natural ways in these efforts - increasing and restoring the natural retention capacity of the soil and creating retention greenery, rather than expensive underground systems based on complex systems and designs. In the aforementioned Beaufort Estate, this can be seen precisely in the summer, especially if one walks on a hot day through neighboring estates based on classic underground retention systems and finally enters the space inside the quarters of the Beaufort Estate.... Not only that, retention greenery, managing runoff by gravitational forces also allows you to save money - the construction of large underground reservoirs is several times more expensive, and in drainless areas actually misses the point. In zero-runoff situations using dispersed retention greenery created in situ also reduces the need to create reservoirs accumulating excess overflow, based on water permits, sometimes even managing to dispense with them altogether. Meanwhile, the functionality and biodiversity of our greenery surprises me constantly! This year, for example, on Beaufort, there were grebes growing in the mulch - you could pick them for your scrambled eggs!

The solutions used on the Beauforta estate allow to improve water management

© Rayss Group

Wiktor Bochenek: This is where the issue of urban farms comes in.

Joanna Rayss: This is true. "Permaculture" greenery nowadays rather associated with rural landscapes can also be applied in cities. There is also an interesting movement related to the so-called Tiny Forest, started in Japan, involving the creation of pocket forests. Poznan boasts of creating one in the city, and there are voices about similar plans in Krakow being developed by the Board of Urban Greening. This is not greenwashing of the likes of a single bus stop with a green mat on the roof. Creating new ecosystems like multi-species forests, even on a small scale, is certainly a better direction.


Wiktor Bochenek: What other examples of greenwashing would you mention besides green bus stops?

Joanna Rayss: There is a very wrong understanding of rain gardens as boxes next to drainpipes, which do not have a certain predicted runoff retention capacity. This expensive solution is often used in cities. In general, creating solutions without a link to the problem they solve and no clear implementation goal always makes little sense, except for cost and possible PR benefits. To me, such "container" solutions that are not linked to a retention goal are a very bad example of rain gardens. There is no thinking about true hydrological compensation.

I would also put under greenwashing the obviously PR-oriented mass planting of trees-often without thinking about how they will be watered later, without proper preparation of the planting site, proper selection of plant material and proper planting technique. The result is often the use of fresh water, hauling it in barrels in the middle of summer, the need to redesign artificial irrigation systems with tap water, or massive desiccation. Every city manager wants a picture with trees planted in large numbers, trees in the city, quantity counts, not quality. In addition, planting a large tree is not easy at all! It is the right technique of materials, location and planting time that determine whether a tree will survive for years to come. Maybe instead of taking pictures of yourself, it's better to leave this topic to the professionals and take a picture with them?

An example of vegetation designed by Joanna Rayss

© Rayss Group

Wiktor Bochenek: What is the issue of greening cities as a tool to fight air pollution?

Joanna Rayss: The same as with water retention. The scale of the solution should be adjusted to the scale of the problem. If we talk about plantings being a solution to air pollution, we should estimate the real problem and the actual impact of different types of greenery. Solutions should be tailored to the specific local need, taking into account species selection, resilience or size of plant material on planting day and target, etc. As in any other case, cancer cannot be treated with herpes patches. We need to deeply understand the problem and possible solutions, analyze and adjust their adequacy. That's the only and so much. It is also crucial to monitor the effectiveness and modify the solutions to the expected results. Otherwise we are just condemning ourselves to greenwashing.

Wiktor Bochenek: When it comes to pushing green policies, you talk about trees. What plants are underestimated when it comes to greening?

Joanna Rayss: Absolutely shrubs and the entire middle tier of vegetation! At one time there was a big promotion of climbers in cities, the same should be done with shrubs. Very often people talk about trees, underestimating shrubs. What is missing in urban vegetation is a proper balance between the floors of vegetation. Shrubs are a habitat and a refuge for biodiversity, they are also a cover and a buffer for both trees and perennials and other cover plants.

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