Margie Ruddick’s Wild Landscapes

By  | 

WHILE STILL AN UNDERGRAD studying English literature and architecture at Bowdoin College in Maine, award-winning landscape designer Margie Ruddick was inspired by an unlikely strip of Route 1, just north of Boston. It was home to a beloved steakhouse frequented by students, a miniature golf course, garish neon signs, deteriorating roads, and big-box stores. After years of driving through the area, Ruddick decided to take a closer look at what the barren winter landscape revealed; she discovered wetlands and a river meandering toward the ocean less than a mile away, unnoticed because of the distractions along her route.

Years later, when asked to teach a seminar at Harvard Graduate School of Design, Ruddick proposed the Route 1 site as her subject, only to be met with silence. Not exactly a glamorous topic for luring prospective students—Florence or Paris would have been more attractive—it was a no-go. Fast-forward to 2007—an era when designers were considering sustainable design, community garden development, and urban wetlands—and the answer this time was a resounding “yes.” She was impressed with how her students took to the project.



In her new book Wild by Design: Strategies for Creating Life-Enhancing Landscapes, Ruddick explains her five-point philosophy about garden design, which is based on “reinvention, restoration, conservation, regeneration, and expression.” The book is handsomely illustrated with projects that show how she applies these concepts, and the work that goes into making her seemingly wild landscapes.

Ruddick experimented with her own garden and front yard in Philadelphia, planting woodland perennials and shrubs. The trees and herbaceous plants—New York asters, violets, pokeweed, and porcelainberry—all self-seeded. She was cited by the city for weed growth exceeding ten inches. Passersby would often peek into her windows to see if the house was vacant and possibly for sale. “In order to have a wild garden and not a seemingly abandoned lot,” she says, “you have to walk the thin line between order and chaos.” She believes that “a strong formal hand helps to bring out the wild.” The idea that a garden can be wild, yet carefully designed, was the inspiration for the title of her book.



Ruddick has completed some challenging projects. She redesigned Queens Plaza in Long Island City, New York, a site with harrowingly heavy traffic, dangerous crosswalks, and little greenery by providing the space with a new automobile and pedestrian flow, bicycle paths, safe walkways, seating areas, trees, grasses, and flowers, and a newly protected wetland. One of Ruddick’s most magical transformations is the Living Water Park in Chengdu, Sichuan, China. Her colleagues were shocked that she would take on such a monumental task in a country where she was unfamiliar with the regulations, codes, and restrictions. The goal of the project was to show how water could be restored biologically and the landscape returned to a healthier state. Ruddick’s principle of “expression” is clearly seen at work here—an environmental center used for community activities houses a snack bar and a teahouse, a traditional element. She believes it’s important that residents feel an emotional tie to the project to help sustain it and protect it for future generations.

Ruddick’s deliberate yet wild designs propose an intriguing prospect for the future humanity of our cities. Not only does she promote sustainable design, but also methods for making the landscape function more efficiently, reducing waste and energy, and contributing to the overall health of our communities, and by extension, of our planet.

Wild By Design: Strategies for Creating Life-Enhancing Landscapes
by Margie Ruddick • Island Press, $45.00