Designing a Townhouse Garden

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Townhouse gardens present special challenges that require specific design responses. For all intents and purposes, the typical townhouse garden site is a rectangular box with an open top. Walls or fences commonly enclose the “box” on three sides while the house itself forms the fourth side. This creates a space that is inward and self-focused. Views and contact with the nearby environment are limited as is the size.

Moreover, townhouse gardens often lack privacy. Although it is enclosed with solid walls or fences, nearby neighbours can often see into the garden space from upper-story windows. Hence designing a townhouse garden is like no other residential project. It requires one to think more like an interior designer or architect, only with a different palette of materials. Here are some tips to help you go about it.

Subspaces

A townhouse garden site should be divided into subspaces to provide spatial and visual interest. This is typically a necessity to relieve the monotony created by the existing simplicity of the box-like space. Spatial subdivision can be created by a combination of techniques.

You can start by organizing the site for different outdoor uses. Functions such as entertaining, sitting, eating and reading that can fit within the garden area should each be given their own space.  Such spaces should than be defined by use of plant materials, walls/fences, or even low earth mounds,

On the ground, different pavement materials can be employed to give each space its own character and identity. Grade changes between individual spaces also help to subtly separate spaces. Collectively, these techniques create multiple subspaces within the framework of the perimeter garden walls, just as furniture, room dividers, house plants, rugs, and so on do in interior rooms.

Perception of Spatial Size

Every effort should be made to increase the perceived size of the townhouse garden site. One way to achieve this is through the use of forced perspective. This is done by progressively converging the edges of spaces as they extend farther away from the house. This will give a greater sense of depth and distance to the spaces as viewed from inside or near the house.  A similar approach is to make the spaces located near the house comparatively large while making other spaces progressively smaller farther away from the house.

Material colours and textures can likewise establish forced perspective by contrasting materials that are coarse textured and/or bright coloured near the house with materials that are fine textured and/or light hued at the back end of the garden area.

Overhead Planes

Overhead planes should be strategically located throughout a townhouse garden in coordination with the other elements of the design. This is critical especially where privacy is an issue.

A tree canopy, pergola, canvas awning, or other covering should be located over frequently used spaces in a townhouse garden to screen upper-story views and provide a ceiling. They also create shade and make the outdoor rooms more comfortable.

Perimeter Walls/Fences

The existing walls or fences that surround a townhouse garden should be utilized for various purposes. Like interior walls, these vertical planes should be taken advantage of to enhance the quality of the different garden spaces.

You can hang plants in shelves or hooks or plant climbers to grow over the walls. These approaches have the additional benefit of softening the surrounding vertical planes and making their presence less obvious.

The Author is a Landscape Architect

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The Paradox of the Cities’ Pedestrian Overpasses


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The fact that many Kenyans would rather risk their lives crossing a busy highway than use a pedestrian overpass that has been provided for their safety baffles the mind. It is easy to brush it aside as just another one of our peculiar habits and blame the pedestrians for utter negligence and disregard for their own safety. But a closer look at these bridges reveals more problems than just the public’s attitude.

The planning and design for pedestrian circulation in general and overpasses in particular, fail in many respects. If the same interventions were replicated elsewhere in the world, the reaction of the public would be the same: underutilisation or total disuse.  

Human Tendencies

By nature, human beings tend to take the most convenient path from one point to another. The placement and design of most of these bridges fail to respond to this basic human nature. While most have rightly been located around areas with high pedestrian traffic, they fail to dovetail into the existing pedestrian circulation patterns.

Most people will never use a crossing which takes them out of their way or does not deliver them to a point they wish to go to. Hence if a pedestrian overpass is even slightly ahead or behind the most obvious crossing point, people tend to ignore it.

This is exactly what happens at the overpass across mbagathi way at the Junction into Kenyatta market. The bridge is slightly before the junction and is almost never used for that simple reason.

Similarly a crossing that is perceived to be very lengthy and adds a lot of distance and effort to the route of travel is seldom utilized for its intended purpose. Pedestrians will instead opt for a more time saving, direct and easy route regardless of any hazard it potentially presents. The crossing across valley road at the Ralph Bunche road best illustrates this. While the overpass is not at all too long, the stairs are very steep even for an able bodied person.

Comfortable Use

Hence comfortable use is paramount for pedestrian overpasses to work. The structures must be of sufficient width to accommodate all the traffic which can include walkers, cyclists, baby strollers, wheel chairs and other non-motorized means.

The stairs and ramps must not be too steep as to exhaust users. Typically, ramps should stretch over 10m for every one meter rise. Stairs on the other hand must be of the correct dimensions and not more than 10 between intermediate platforms (landings).

The perceived security is also critical. The solid concrete structures are unattractive and have tended to provide hideouts for bandits, street families and uncouth citizens who want to use them for toilets. This drastically reduces their usability in the long run.

 

Provision for the Disabled

Then there is the matter of the disabled, the elderly, cyclists and mothers with children they have to carry or push on a pram. For this group, some of the overpasses have provided ramps. Whether these ramps can actually be used is another question. But many of the overpasses don’t have ramps at all. In such instances the less able pedestrians typically have to risk crossing the road at ground level.

This has two effects: the obvious effect of exposing them to danger and the less obvious effect of qualifying the able bodied people who wishes to cross at the ground level to do so.

Thika Superhighway bleeding the landscape

A good highway enables people to travel comfortably, conveniently and safely from one place to another. A great one does more.

 

Indeed the soon to be completed Thika superhighway has so far performed exceptionally well on some fronts. The journey to Thika town from Nairobi that typically stretched for over an hour has now been reduced to just about thirty minutes. For the motorists and commuters who use the highway, it has been a relief, a blessing and an answered prayer.

 

For the landscape however, the superhighway has not been as fair. The scar it has left on the land will never be fully restored. The pedestrians’ and the cyclists’ life just got a lot harder as their safety has been seriously compromised.  Businesses that have depended on the bus stops and snarl-ups around the major nodes on the highway have been adversely affected. Open views into the surrounding landscapes and landmarks that have traditionally provided interest and points of references are no more.

 

Clearly, the convenience has come with a huge long-term price tag that the public and the environment will forever bear. The question is: could these adverse effects have been avoided? Is it possible to undertake colossal projects like this one and still maintain the integrity of the landscape character and environment?

Better Planning

 

My answer to both questions is a resounding yes. In fact, with better planning, these new arterial ways may be made-not the unsightly and obstructive gashes that we have seen so far-but rather elongated parks bringing about a welcome addition of beauty, grace, and green open spaces to the city and its environs.

 

Landscape Character

 

It all starts with a proper understanding and appreciation of the existing landscape.  The key characteristics of distinct landscape types should be defined and should influence the design of the highway. Landscape character and designations should guide the choice of route, design standards and solutions.

 

Ecologically sensitive areas and areas of exceptional scenic beauty must be given special consideration. Besides wetlands, waterways, historic landmarks and parks that are protected by legislation, locally significant elements – pathways, architectural details, monuments, groves of trees and cultural features should be preserved and protected.

 

When impacts to the landscape are unavoidable, design should, to the extent feasible, seek to restore or repair landscapes damaged by construction. There is nothing attractive about six meter high retaining walls flanking half a kilometre of road. In fact, the intent of such restoration should not merely be to replace lost elements, but to replace specific lost functions as well.

 

Non-Motorized users

 

The highway design should also be sensitive to local residents and users in the surrounding areas. The priority should be to preserve major functions and not to alter them. The interests of non-motorised users and pedestrians should be an integral part of the scheme too. Proper crossing points and designated bicycle lanes should be provided especially near towns where these modes of transport are most common.

 

It is also important to retain as many views and vistas along the highway corridor as possible. Views of distinctive landmarks that have hitherto created a sense of orientation and place are irreplaceable.

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Bonsai Secrets for Beginners

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Imagine taking a tree that is meant to grow many feet tall, miniaturizing it to fit your balcony or interiors and still maintain its natural and mature look. This is the art of bonsai-a truly rewarding hobby to those who practice it.

Bonsai may not be widely practiced in this part of the world but it is an art that has been around for centuries. While its origins are deeply rooted in the Asian culture, bonsai has found a place in contemporary gardening. It adds not only a touch of class to a garden, but also a beautifully sedated focus for relaxation and meditation.

However bonsai is a hobby that requires a tremendous amount of patience. It is not an art of perfection but rather greatly depends on the artist’s individuality and personal preference. Here are a few secrets of the mystery of bonsai.

Style

No bonsai style is the “right” style. Like I said, it really depends on the perception of an individual. Bonsai is meant to be a representation of a tree in nature. Crafting a bonsai masterpiece is therefore tantamount to how the craftsman views the tree.

There are two general styles of bonsai. The first is the classic style called ‘koten’. It is the easier option and is generally recommended for first timers. The other style is the informal or ‘comic’ style. Traditionally referred to as the ‘bunjin’, it is a much more difficult style and is best left to the bonsai masters.

Start right

Although you can start your bonsai from seed, it is not always recommended. The problem with seed is that it takes such a long time to see results. Hence unless you start your bonsai hobby as a kid, you’ll probably have more time to enjoy the results if you go for established seedlings.

In general, select a hardy specimen that will be tolerant to the stress of being cut, wired and replanted. Although any type of tree or shrub will be suitable for bonsai, beginners are highly advised to select ones that are more “forgiving” to mistakes. For instance, instead of pines, you are probably safer with broadleaf species such as ficus and dwarf junipers.

Whichever tree you choose, remember that a bonsai tree should always be positioned off-centre in its container. This asymmetry is not only vital to the visual effect, but also bears a great deal of symbolism drawn from Asian cultures. The centre point was believed to be the spot where heaven and earth meet, and nothing else should occupy this place.

Pruning and Wiring

A great deal of pruning is often necessary whenever you start with a seedling off the nursery to remove excess foliage and undesirable limbs. All buds except those on the outside of the trunk should be removed to force growth outward and upward. Remember to leave stubs flush with the stems and avoid cutting back too much such that the main branches are weakened.

Do not shear bonsai as you would a hedge; the objective is to make the plant look like a replica of a mature tree. Keep the branches growing toward open space and away from one another.

This kind of heavy pruning need only be done once. Subsequent procedures would be more like nipping to control new growth, shape the tree and to help it develop lush foliage. Tiny spurs that appear on the trunk are removed before they are too large.

Wiring a bonsai may be a daunting technique to master at first. It is however important as it is the only way to get complete control over the growth of a plant. It enables you to easily manipulate the trunk and branches of your bonsai.

By coiling wires around the limbs of the bonsai, you are able to bend the tree into a desired position upon which it is held by the wire. After a while, the branch or trunk ‘learns’ to stay in that position even after the wire is removed.