Communication Concerning Green Structure - a discussion on the interpretation of concepts

"We have between us the barrier of a common language" (Oscar Wilde)

 

Introduction

In Swedish policy documents the biotic parts of a city have been included under the heading of "the green structure" as directed by state authorities. 1 The reason is clear enough: it is to make the biotic parts a more obvious resource in the minds of those responsible for physical change in the city, and it is at the same time a way of ensuring that the facts and qualities of urban green areas are covered. The motive is mainly political. The concept is similar to the concepts of "built structure" and "infrastructure", opening up possibilities of discussion on the green parts of the city, not only as separate objects at a detailed level, but at the comprehensive planning level as well. The background is an increased awareness of the benefits of vegetation and the green parts of the city and an overall assumption that these parts of the urban structure are of significance for "the sustainability" of the city, associated with social, cultural and ecological values.

What is discussed in this paper is mainly the possible consequences that the introduction of a new concept (in this case "green structure"), can have in connection with the development of "a communicative planning process". It is assumed that such a development includes a change of language from a specialised professional language - which presupposes a shared education, profession, experiences etc., and which is developed through an internal discourse - into a language compatible with the language used in a variety of groups and individuals, including "the man on the street", as well as those with a different academic expertise. It is suggested that such compatibility requires certain properties of the language, one of which is transparency.

 

Two aspects are discussed here. One is the linguistic context in which the new concept is used, with its expressed and intrinsic meanings, values and intentions. The other is the process-related context in which the new concept is used, the documents and pictures as well as its influence on the procedure.

 

Green structure?

 

Officially the concept "green structure" was introduced within the work preceding the new plan-and-building-law in 1994. The immediate effect was that the importance of urban green areas was stated in the law texts. Another effect has been that every Swedish municipality with towns over a certain size has started to work with "green structure programmes" (this work is most often carried out by landscape architects, in co-operation with ecologists). As yet few of these programmes has been completed, so it is not meaningful to analyse their language or common values in a general way. However, there is a new official policy document, out only within the last couple of months, written by the Swedish Board of Housing, Building and Planning, which is likely to serve as a pattern for future green structure programmes. That document is presented and discussed in this paper, which aims to understand its possible effects, from the communicative point of view.

 

"Green structure" is an example of concepts with an overall meaning, which is meaningful for professionals involved in comprehensive planning but not for others. If the planning process is intended to be enriched by input from laymen and disciplines other than planning professions, then there has to be an awareness of how to interpret experiences and knowledge expressed in a language other than that used by the professionals themselves. Furthermore there has to be an awareness of the more or less hidden values loaded within the professional concepts.

 

At a Swedish seminar held in April this year (attended by practitioners and researchers working with green structure issues) it was stated that "green structure" can mean a lot of different things and that it needed to be explained in each situation. It was not made clear whether this was a problem or not. A guess is that researchers find the ambiguity in meaning more difficult to handle than the practitioners, for whom verbal expressions within a planning situation may have little significance, as long as it is possible to negotiate and come to terms with,within the group of "actors".

 

Is it possible to use the term "green structure" in a communicative process, with other than planning professionals involved, even when it is not understood to have the same meaning by the professionals themselves? Or could it possibly be the other way around - that it is exactly this kind of word and concept that is useful for compatibility between professionals, other experts and laymen? At least, this is a theoretical problem which could be worth exploring within the aim of achieving compatibility between planners and non-planners.

 

Unifying and separating aspects

 

There are good reasons for using a new rather than old word. These reasons - the hidden values and meanings - are not easily identifiable. These hidden values and meanings play a unifying role for users of the new word and thereby also play a separating role, against those who not use this word. This is a common problem with new words, but there are always specific circumstances associated with each of them.

 

As for "green structure", this concept appears to have been easily and rather quickly accepted and adopted among landscape architects and landscape planners in Sweden. Other related professions, such as architects, urban planners and ecologists seem to prefer other concepts, but they are likely to accept the use of the word in a planning situation when it is explained and understood in a certain physical context and a certain planning problem situation.2 The man on the street probably does not understand the word at all, unaware of the context in professional language and unaware of the political planning context. This does not mean that, for example, the landscape architect and the layman cannot share visions, goals and ideas for the development of green structure issues, but it means that of the two parties supposed to be communicating, one acts as teacher and the other as pupil, which is not self evident as a practicable way to fulfil the vision of "communicative planning".

 

Another aspect is the role of different mother tongues. Apparently "green structure" means something to the members of this network. It could be queried whether this implies a common understanding of the concept, or whether there are other reasons for choosing this concept to unify the members of the network. Is the concept "green structure" connected with values in a way that other similar concepts are not? Do we mean the same thing in talking about "green structure" when we come from different countries? In Scandinavian countries "green structure" has been more or less accepted within the planning process. On a European level concepts such as "urban greening" or "urban forestry" are often used as synonyms to "green structure", but at the same time they also have connotations for planting and management respectively.3 In American literature on urban planning and design I have not found "green structure" used. The nearest concept used is "greenways". Ironically this concept is associated with planning and design tasks where "greenways" are used for structuring urban open space. Areas, objects and places are connected to each other in "greenways" i. e. green elements are used to structure urban space in a certain way, with parts connected to a whole by means of vegetation. So even if "green structure" is not used, this seems to be a way of understanding this concept that fits the lexical explanation. "Green structure", when understood as "greenway", refers to a verb, an activity with the purpose of structuring, even if the "greenway", when built, is a noun, a physical result of the structuring activity.

 

I discovered a third unifying/separating aspect of the new concept "green structure" in an educational situation with landscape architect students. In Alnarp the second year of studies includes the planning and design of a new housing area. In their presentations students were told to show simplified diagrams of "built structure, traffic structure and green structure" for their proposals. Interestingly enough, "green structure" was defined in two distinctly different ways. One group had used "green structure" to mean dividing the whole residential area into smaller parts, connected in certain ways, at the same time providing recreational space for these parts. The other group had not carried out any explicit structuring activity, laying out vegetation and green space in the area. Certainly these elements were connected, one way or another, to houses or roads, but the students did not seem to have consciously structured the area by using green elements. Neither was this feature described as a principle of the site planning process, but it seemed to be just an unconscious consequence of the design process. The students who presented the first set of proposals focused on the structuring function of green areas in their presentations, while those who had made the second proposals were more preoccupied with describing the character of the vegetation and the function and thought-out use of different green areas, when seen as objects. Nonetheless there was no difference in the students' use of the term "green structure", understanding the green elements as a whole. Even more interesting is the fact that the contradictory use of the concept "green structure" was not noticed, or at least not heeded, by the teachers. All the students and teachers evidently shared a certainty in their understanding of "green structure", which did not correspond with an actual unambiguous use of this concept.

 

This example highlights a significant difference in understanding and use of the concept "green structure". Some students made use of the word "structure", while others just focused on the word "green". " Green" was taken to mean "green structure" by the latter, overlooking that they had not used vegetation and green space with a structural intention, and as a result could hardly have proposed any green structure, just a pattern of green patches, whether connected or not. This was just a coincidental discovery, but it casts some light on the difference in understanding the concept "green structure" that could lead to serious problems in communication.

 

Let us for the time being explain the accepted difference in understanding by using an analogue to compare the difference between "structure" and "pattern". Without going into discussion about the psychological, perceptive or cognitive aspects, we could recognise these two words as just one pair of words with a similar interrelationship which affects the use of each word separately and clarifies them. In Italian, for example, there are two words meaning landscape - "territorio" and "paisaggio".4 With both these words in the vocabulary, there is little risk that one of these words will be misused for the other. With just one of these words in use, the risk is obvious that its use is not limited to the original meaning (in this case there are several "original" meanings), but that it is used whenever there is need for the word for landscape. Another example is the Aristotelian words for the city - urbs and civitas.5 Currently the discourse on urbanity claims to have moved from a standpoint of physical situations (urbs) to that of peoples' activities and movements (civitas). Ironically this shift in direction has started an intensified discussion about urban design and physical settings.6 The reason for this can partly be found in the confusion created by the use of "urban" and "city", as if there were no difference between the "urbs" and "civitas" perspectives.

 

Leading and misleading interpretation

 

As mentioned above the term "green structure" was invented to "match" the concepts of "built structure" and "infrastructure". This choice has value-laden hidden meanings and is interesting because of its strategically misleading meaning. Using this word means that you accept the three collaborative urban structures, one for the buildings, one for the technical communicative systems and one for the "green". At the same time you repress the thought that the "green" may not be structured, but is just a coincidental pattern.

structure: the way in which a whole is made up of its parts (Websters Dictionary)

You could use this meaning of structure (from the dictionary) about buildings and roads, but not immediately about vegetation and green areas. A structure needs to exist as a thought before you can build it. When it is built, a pattern is evident, but this is not the only possible pattern that can emerge from a thought process. A pattern is visual, a structure is not necessarily so. One structure could result in several patterns. In fact a structure describes a process ( to structure=to make a whole of the parts) while a pattern describes a result, but not necessarily a result of a structuring process; it could also be the result of a sequence of structures (in a spatial or temporal sense), or it could even be the pattern of trash, the left over rather than structured elements.

 

 Note: This diagram is being re-drawn at present

built-up structure built-up pattern

 

houses built-up areas

(parts) (whole)

 

 

infra structure roads pattern

 

roads road systems

(parts) (whole)

 

 

green structure urban green pattern

 

green areas urban green

(parts) (whole)

 

 

When we use the word "structure" in everyday speech we usually mean not the structure but the pattern, the visual result of a structure used in building. What we have done is a synecdoche7, we have let one concept take the role of another concept. We have let the verb "to structure" play the role of the noun "structure". Instead of talking about the structuring activity we refer to the result of this activity. This is of very little practical importance as long as a structuring activity has taken place. It is when we use the word "structure" in spite of the fact that no structuring activity has taken place, that the use of this word becomes dubious, at least as long as we are not aware of the substitution of one meaning for another.

 

There seems to be something basically wrong with using "green structure" to mean the vegetation and green space for a town or city. Small parts could be structured, mostly without connections to each other, other parts could be solitary objects, coincidental or planned, but not structured. Does this matter? I think it could.

 

At the city level: If we argue that "green structure" is a concept for describing urban green at a city level, then we argue that there is a structure in which every part has a special clear relationship to the whole. This is not true for most parts of the urban green.

 

At the district level: If we argue that "green structure" is a concept for describing urban green at a district level, then we argue that urban green is structured with specific relationships between the parts and the whole. This is not true for most parts of the urban green. The usual situation is that "green parts" have their structural relationships, not with other green parts, but with buildings or roads. In a housing area, for example, there could be a row of street trees which are physically connected to the hedges surrounding gardens. This connection does not have a structural character though, since the street trees are structurally connected to the street, whereas the hedges are connected to the garden and the house in the garden. The size and location of the gardens is decided from a structure which has the road as the spine and a certain amount of houses with gardens along it. The urban structure, at a district level, mostly includes built-up elements such as roads and buildings, and biological elements such as trees and gardens. To separate a "green structure" seems pointless.

 

At the object level: Certainly it is possible to use "structure" to describe the inner organisation of an urban element or object. A section of a road shows how the visible linear character is built from a three-dimensional body of different materials in a certain order. A plan or section of a house shows the design and spatial structure in a similar way. But these inner structures are not called the "built structure" or "infrastructure", but rather the "spatial structure" or "material structure". Correspondingly you could describe the organisation of elements in a park or woodland as the "vegetation structure", while "green structure" will lead you in a different direction.

 

It seems that there is no level of understanding of "green structure" that corresponds to a physical level in the urban environment. Either it is to small or to wide, or refers to non-structural features.

 

Marketing of the concept

 

To make the benefits of urban green visible and to encourage increased attention to urban green space in the planning process, "green structure programmes" are now being carried out in Swedish municipalities. It is probable that these projects will be carried out following the guidelines of the Board of Housing, Building and Planning.

 

Figure 1. The scheme for making "green structure programmes", suggested by the Swedish Board of Housing, Building and Planning. (author's translation)

 

 

1. Visions and goals

The initial part of the work includes:

"setting goals for the programme and decisions about what functions the programme should include......Standpoints are needed as to what values in the green structure are significant to the citizens and, therefore, in need of protection".

2. Registration and analyses of existing values

"On a map of convenient scale the green structure for each function is registered. On the different theme maps an evaluation of the significance of different areas is made: where the specially valuable areas are, where the areas of scarcity are, where the areas needing further investigation are, where the barriers that limit use are located, etc."

3. Possibilities and threats

"The programme needs to clarify what possibilities and threats exist for the green values, so that these can be put into this context in the comprehensive plan."

4. Adjusted map of analyses - priorities

"The final part involves making an integrated statement of how the green values are meant to work as a basis of the comprehensive plan. Such an account should include, for the most part, priorities and other points of view of a political nature, and for this reason it should be dealt with by a due committee".

Note: Citations are from the instructions relating to Figure 1, from "Green Areas in Planning", the Swedish Board of Housing, Building and Planning, 1999 (author's translation).

 

The motive for "green structure programmes" (as described in the document cited above) has been:

  • to propose ways in which to draw conclusions
  • to portray existing knowledge
  • to demonstrate competence in the municipalities
  • to define the strategic intention whereby actions can be proposed to conserve and increase the social, ecological and cultural functions of green areas.

These programmes should not be regarded as official planning documents but as a basis for continued work. As such they are not exposed to judgements within the political organisations or evident within the ordinary Swedish planning procedure. This is likely to mean that the language about and within these programmes will develop and be established in the corridors of civil servants, long before their values and aims will be confronted by either ordinary people or experts within areas other than landscape and urban planning and design.

 

Contradictions

 

The municipal documents preceding the "green structure programme" were called "green plans" and were used by quite a lot of Swedish municipalities in the 1980s. The values and aims were to a large extent the same as for the "green structure programmes", with one notable exception. The difference is mainly that the "green plans" (which were not plans either, from a legal point of view) related only to the areas owned and managed by the municipalities, while the aim of the "green structure programmes" has been to take all ground, vegetation and water into consideration, independent of ownership. This development has widened the vocabulary about urban green elements in the planning process, from being concerned solely about ground owned by the municipality (Lundgren calls this "formal green structure"),8 to include everything which for qualitative reasons could be regarded as a component of a "green structure" (Lundgren calls this "actual green structure").9

 

By changing perspectives from "formal" to "actual", the use of the concept "green structure" really has changed the conditions for using urban green parts as a resource. Even when it has been claimed that the phrase is misleading, in every possible use the concept has been effective to a certain degree. It has developed urban planning to include the morphological aspects of the urban landscape. No maps existed previously which could identify, for example, private gardens, so no planning document could handle areas with garden qualities. Natural areas, if owned by the municipality, have been included in "park areas", so no planning document could handle the nature qualities of these areas. Left over spaces such as protection zones near roads, noise and wind shelters or areas with free growth (for example, abandoned industrial sites) have failed to be mentioned for their properties as "green space" but described instead as "road areas" or "industrial areas", i. e. dependent on its recent or earlier development classification. With a shift in language from "formal" to morphological, urban ground could be more easily understood as a resource, regardless of the current market interests.

 

To describe the urban landscape in morphological terms is a means of widening the concept "urban green", to make vegetation visible as a resource, as area, volume, biomass and diversity. The latter has been concerned above all with biological diversity, but this is evidently far from the only kind of diversity which has significance in urban settings. Other categories, more connected with activities and use, are the scales of open-closed (sun-shade), dense-thin (possibilities to stay within), private-public (shut or allowed to non-owners), isolated-connected, etc. These morphological categories parallel the traditional language of urban design and town planning, pointing at possibilities for including living elements in the language of structural and building activities, instead of these living elements being associated with a negative language, "the second", "the non-built". It has to be realised though that these supposed effects of language do not stem from choosing "green structure" as a resulting concept. They stem from the action to conclude and the action to name. Here again we can see the result of synecdoche. When actions turn into results the visible fills out the panorama and the meanings implicit in the actions tend to be overlooked.

 

What have been discussed are some contradictions implicit in the introduction of the concept "green structure". The obvious advantages are connected with the name for the resultant urban green parts as "a whole". On the other hand this very name is misleading, diffusing the difference between contents and structure, pattern and structure, and between structure (the verb) and structure (the noun).

 

Threats?

 

Another aspect of "green structure" should be mentioned at this stage - or rather, an aspect of green structure (as put forward by the Swedish Board of Housing, Building and Planning) is the associated values called "green values", so-called without further explanation. This leads the reader to understand that "green values" are strongly connected with "green structure" to begin with, and furthermore, this loads the concept "green structure" with conservation interest. If the phrase "green values" is not explained it must imply that this is something which cannot be created, but only discovered or perceived, i.e. it is only relevant for already existing features.

 

Parallel to the nature conservation issues in rural areas, there are now recognised threats against the urban green areas, threats identified as built structures, houses and roads, i.e the elements that make a city. Beside the discussion on the confusion created by the concept of "green structure", the concept of "green values" is worse from the communication point of view. While the word "structure" is likely to convey issues about green urban areas in the language of urban design, the phrase "green values" is likely to work in the opposite direction, arguing against new "built structures" instead of integrating the green urban parts into structural thinking.

 

Certainly professionals arguing for the protection of green areas in cities do not do this with the intention of preventing the city from being a city. Their aim is rather the opposite, to make the city sustainable through creating a more pleasant human environment and to make cities' attractions able to compete with rural attractions when people chose their living environment.

 

These are partly the same old ideas which were the basis for "the garden city"10 a hundred years ago. The difference is a question of the spirit of the times - of life style and the society/individual dimension. While the "garden-city-model" of living was associated with the "modern project" of society, "the sustainable city" is associated with "post-modern actions", projects not associated with society but with individuals and groups. "The sustainable city" is not a question of designing the ideal housing area, multiplying it to be a city. If earlier Utopias have contained beautiful model areas, ordered in a harmonious way in a sketch-book, the new Utopias are not defined by objects. Symmetry and hierarchy will no longer be relevant to success. Instead of the structure itself, the interaction of structures will be of great importance, not for their resulting visual patterns, but as a means of easing urban life in a number of ways. The pedestrian life of urban citizens is slowly gaining more interest after several decades of planning dedicated mainly to car traffic. This affects urban design: as an example, the human scale and the visual expressions (including or not including green elements) become more financially interesting at a pedestrian level. This in one of the reasons, for the time being, for arguing that "green structure", if it is used, should be understood as an activity, a verb.

 

"The structuring activity", connected with the urban environment and including green elements, has far more layers than have been discussed here. To structure for an enhanced quality of life in the cities (including meeting places and recreational qualities as well as conditions for "biological diversity") is also relevant to economic aspects for sustainable reasons. For example, the maintenance of public green areas and elements could benefit from a more effective management structure, or new energy saving techniques for water use in cities could benefit from green areas structured more effectively. Within ten years the motives for structuring green elements are likely to change in increasing new directions, which in turn include more and different aspects of "green values". In this context I find it even more important to succeed in making clear what we are talking about now.

 

In my view communication is not about walking in the same direction, but about creating space (both in the physical and theoretical sense) and possibilities for everyone concerned to participate. To "identify threats" and "save the green values" sound like extremely important actions, but as long as we do not know exactly what we are talking about or are talking about different things, there is likely to be some collective "tilting at windmills" - and without much communication either.

 

References

 

Boverket, 1999, Gröna områden i planeringen (the Swedish Board of Housing, Building and Planning, Green areas in planning).

 

Hall, P., 1999, interviewed in the Swedish newspaper Sydsvenska dagbladet, 20 September 1999, Malmö.

 

Howard, E., 1898, Garden Cities of To-Morrow, in Osborn, F. J. (ed) Garden Cities of To-Morrow, 1977 (1st ed.1946), London.

 

Lundgren, E., 1998, Grˆnstrukturplaneringen i Tidaholm och Trollh‰ttan, SACTH 1997:2, Goteborg (Green structure planning in Tidaholm and Trollhattan).

 

Marcus, L., 1998, Staden - k‰rt namn med mÂnga barn, Tidskrift fˆr Nordisk Arkitekturforskning, vol 13, nr 4, Stockholm.

 

Ramirez, J. L., 1997 Synekdoke - Om begreppsfenomenologi och om retorik som praktikens kunskapsteori" (Synecdoche - On concept phenomenology and on rhetoric as a knowledge theory of practice.) Conference paper to "Kunskap och handling II" (Knowledge and action II), Lund 6-8 October 1997.

 

Randrup, T. B. (ed.), 1999, Proceedings from the Urban Greening and Landscape Architecture Research Symposium, The Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University, Copenhagen, Denmark, 23-24 June 1999. Holte.

 

Seddon, G., 1994 Words and weeds, in Proceedings from the LOLA conference (Language of Landscape Architecture), Wellington, New Zealand, 1994.

 

SOU 1994:36, Milj och fyisk planering, delbet‰nkande av Plan- och bygglagutredningen (Environment and physical planning).

 

1. SOU 1994:36.

2. This is a remark based on "reconstructed experience" which has not been systematically verified.

3. Among 72 contributions to Proceedings from the Urban Greening and Landscape Architecture Research Symposium in Copenhagen, 1999, two titles contain the word "Urban Greening", one "Urban Greenery", one "Green Structure", six "Urban Forestry" and two "Urban Green Space", referring to a "whole"; the rest focus on specific parts of the presumed whole.

4. Seddon, G., 1994.

5. Marcus, L., 1998.

6 Hall, P., 1999.

7. Ramirez, J. L., 1997.

8. Lundgren, E., 1998, p 22

9. Ibid.

10. Howard, E., 1898, Garden Cities of To-Morrow.

 

Communication Concerning Green Structure

Gunilla Lindholm, Department of Landscape Planning, Alnarp, Sweden (Institutionen för landskapsplanering, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences Box 58, 230 53 Alnarp)

 

Introduction

Green structure
Unifying and separating aspects
Leading and misleading interpretation
Marketing of the concept
Contradictions
Threats?

References

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Communication in
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Göteborg Conference Papers - Oct 1999
 

Workshops for Environmental Innovations (Eijk et al)

Communication and Urban Green (Lindholm)

Integrating Biodiversity (Gyllin)

User participation in Public Park Administration (Delshammer)

Making Outdoor Places for Children (Kylin)

The Home Street (Staffans)

Identification of ecological potentials (Guldager et al)

Evaluation and Dialogue (Sager)

A Communicative Planning Methodology (Stromberg)

Rationality Revisited (Lapintie)

Planning deconstructed and rebuilt as discourse analyses
(Orrskog)

 

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent"
(Birgersson)

 

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