In recent years, the terrain adjacent to Het Nieuwe Instituut has gradually been transformed into a wild city garden. Visual artist Frank Bruggeman and ecological gardener Hans Engelbrecht, responsible for the construction and maintenance of The New Garden, discuss their way of working. ‘When the weather is fine, there’s almost always someone sitting on the bench near the pond,’ says Bruggeman. ‘It really has become a city garden that people enjoy. I think it’s fantastic that places like this can be created in the middle of the city.’ In the spring of 2015, Bruggeman and Engelbrecht started transforming the site next to Het Nieuwe Instituut into an ecologically diverse garden. In just under four years’ time, a rich biodiversity has developed in the area and in the ponds that are in it. All the elements you could hope for when starting up an ecological, green layout are now clearly visible,’ says Engelbrecht. ‘There is nutrient-poor and nutrient-rich soil, there are sunny and shaded spots, you can experience what the presence of trees means for biodiversity, what the quality of an open field is and what effects result from breaking new ground: all these elements are present in the small plot next to Het Nieuwe Instituut. All these have contributed to the success of the garden.’
The New Garden balances between nature and culture. It is mainly Bruggeman who, as an artist, seeks out the tension between the two. ‘In the garden a conscious choice was made for a mix of urban garden plants and indigenous plants. This has created a new kind of urban nature, rougher and much wilder than usual at such expensive central locations. I introduced the concrete elements to emphasise the contrast between the urban and the natural in the garden.’ ‘With The New Garden we make a statement about a new approach to green spaces in the city,’ says Engelbrecht. ‘I come by about six times a year to maintain it. I explore the boundary between wild and ‘gone wild.’ I want this area of urban nature to express a certain freedom. At the same time, despite its roughness, the garden must have a friendly, scenic character.’
The New Garden is also a social place, emphasises Bruggeman, where people can relax in pleasant surroundings. ‘The wildness of the garden must be inviting. The more urban our surroundings become, the more we need ‘free nature.’ He’s aware that the fact that The New Garden is located in the middle of a large city does make a difference. ‘Not everyone expects such a wild garden in the centre of the city.’ The rugged character of the vegetation means that some people think the terrain is poorly maintained. I do understand that people experience something as beautiful or ugly, but the indifference with which some visitors to the garden leave their waste really distresses me.’ He thinks it would be a good idea if the government were to introduce deposits on cans and small bottles, as is done in Germany. ‘I was recently in Berlin, and there you hardly see any mess in public spaces.
The area around Museumpark will be given a new layout. In the design by landscape architects Gustafson Porter, the outdoor space will be much greener than it is now. But this green space will have a completely different character than De Nieuwe Tuin. ‘I miss the Rotterdam rawness in the plan,’ says Bruggeman. ‘It’s a rather homogeneous design that could be projected on almost any city. You would expect more guts here. I can understand why they make a conservative design for Coolsingel, but the museum quarter could benefit from some experimentation. I came up with a nice solution: give each of the institutions in Museumpark its own green character: three or four green ‘rooms,’ each with its own personality and atmosphere, but which together form a whole. A bit in line with heemtuinen or botanical gardens.’ Bruggeman and Engelbrecht are delighted that the plans for the new layout include greening the ponds for Het Nieuwe Instituut.
‘I don’t have a problem if the garden merges into a larger whole and is overlaid with a different design,’ says Engelbrecht. ‘But it would be nice if some of the principles we have demonstrated here could be adopted.’ Bruggeman adds: ‘More attention should be paid to the various elements that influence the natural vegetation of a place, such as the quality of the soil, the light and the surrounding buildings. A green layer shouldn’t simply be placed over the area from behind a computer screen; the characteristics of the plot must be taken into account and incorporated.’
‘Ecological management reacts to what is there,’ agrees Engelbrecht. ‘Nature is constantly in motion. As a caretaker, you ensure that plants can grow, that one type makes room for another, but does not disappear, so that an increasingly diverse system is created. I think it is important that the natural uniqueness of a place is given space to develop.’
Through the collaboration with visual artist Bruggeman, horticulturalist Engelbrecht has become even more aware of the design side of his profession. ‘The process of somewhere becoming overgrown and wild has an aesthetic aspect, which can be emphasised by mowing and pruning at specific places. I’m currently doing my best to highlight the beauty of a dead bush.’ He studied for a year at the Warmonderhof biodynamic agricultural college. ‘Because of the attention paid to phenomenology there, I am now much more aware of the coherence in nature. I look at how plants react to each other and their environment, and try to anticipate that.’ He knows from experience that passing on this way of working to others isn’t easy. ‘Often, people working in urban green space management have a limited knowledge of plants; they’re well informed about the plants that are traditionally found in public gardens, but they’re usually under-informed about the alternatives’.
‘Managing the outdoor space in an ecological way is essentially different from regularly maintaining a design once it has been laid out,’ stresses Bruggeman. But Engelbrecht thinks that something is changing in green management. ‘I am increasingly asked to explain my motivations. And the MBO Urban Green Development course was recently launched in Amsterdam, aimed at the sustainable management of green space in the city.’
‘Public opinion is also changing,’ says Bruggeman, ‘fortunately, more and more people are aware of the need for a sustainable and future-proof living environment.’
Lotte Haagsma, December, 2018