For renowned Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf, the most effective urban greening projects grow out of long-term thinking.
Not all green spaces are created equal. “In most cities, you’ll find lots of lawns and trees,” says Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf. “But in a good park, you’ll find different elements working together: plants and creatures that you don’t usually see in a city. It benefits not only human beings but everything around us, from bees to birds.”
Few gardeners are household names. But Oudolf, who is best known for helping to transform an abandoned railwayin New York into the High Line and designing landscapes for the likes of Vitra and Hauser & Wirth, has exported his gardening model to cities around the globe.
Working mainly with perennial plants, the garden designer’s approach to planting prioritises structure and stability over colour. He believes that seeing plants respond to seasonal changes helps people in urban environments to forge better connections with the natural world. “The city won’t change but everything around it will,” he says. “People know the difference between spring and autumn – that experience is magnified in a green space. And the more diverse the planting, the better it is to walk through.”
Oudolf, now 78, rose to prominence after he and his wife, Anja, founded a plant nursery in the Dutch rural community of Hummelo in 1982. “We grew plants that we thought were interesting; ones that weren’t available in nurseries anywhere else,” he says. “And we started gaining a reputation for that.” Then, in the early 2000s, after Oudolf had made a name for himself in Europe, Chicago tasked him with designing the Lurie Garden in the Millennium Park.
So what’s Oudolf’s advice for younger garden designers looking to get into the field? “Work with your hands and work in a practice rather than in an office,” he says. “It’s important that people learn what can go wrong. Make mistakes and don’t be afraid to do things wrong; it’s all a learning experience. I still make little errors and they help me to innovate.” These days, Oudolf spends his time supervising the installation of gardens, sketching plans for future designs and collaborating with a wider network of landscape architects and planting experts. He’s now working with James Corner, who designed New York’s High Line, London practice vppr Architects, community-engagement specialists Street Space and the London Wildlife Trust to bring an urban regeneration project to the British capital. The Camden Highline will transform a strip of land alongside a railway track into an elevated park and walking route, breathing new life into a previously disused area that weaves through some of the borough’s most densely populated areas. The project will include play areas for children, volunteer-run allotments and an outdoor classroom.
“We need green,” says Oudolf. “There’s a reason why people have plants in their houses. Experiencing the beauty of a good park is a great escape.”
1944: Born in Haarlem in the Netherlands.
1982: Opens a plant nursery with his wife, Anja, in Hummelo.
2001: Designs Chicago’s Lurie Garden with landscape architects Kathryn Gustafson, Jennifer Guthrie and Shannon Nichol.
2009: The High Line in New York opens to the public.
2011: Works on an interior garden for the Serpentine Gallery in London alongside Swiss architect Peter Zumthor.
2017: Thomas Piper directs Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf, a documentary following Oudolf’s landscapes as they change throughout the year.
2023: Phaidon releases Piet Oudolf At Work, a book chronicling the designer’s creative process.