Olympic fields of dreams

Olympic field of dreams

Two professors from the University of Sheffield created the UK's largest ever man-made wildflower meadows after two years of trials and research.

A worldwide television audience of billions witnessed the flowering of the Olympic Park during London 2012. The five million visitors to the Olympic Games and the Paralympics shared in the magical experience of 80,000 square metres of colourful meadows, designed by two professors from the University of Sheffield's Department of Landscape. James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett are the leading exponents of perennial meadows in the UK, following a decade of research and experimentation.

Created from former industrial land in East London, the 250-acre Olympic Park is the largest new urban park to be developed in the UK for 150 years. The master plan for the park was developed by a consortium of LDA Design and Hargreaves Associates, and Professors Hitchmough and Dunnett were appointed as the principal horticultural and planting design consultants in 2008.

We wanted this to be a demonstration of a whole new approach to the design and management of public landscapes: where ecology and sustainability is at the forefront, combined with a very strong aesthetic.

Professor Nigel Dunnett

They produced a whole-site planting strategy, and developed concepts and detailed proposals for the herbaceous (non-woody) vegetation. Innovative thinking was required to ensure the display was colourful and vibrant throughout the duration of the Games, using irrigation and pruning to control flowering times.

Professor Dunnett said, "We wanted this to be a demonstration of a whole new approach to the design and management of public landscapes: where ecology and sustainability is at the forefront, combined with a very strong aesthetic."

The Olympic Park comprises two different character areas. Plantings in the North Park largely represent designed versions of native UK habitats and celebrate native biodiversity. They include species-rich meadows of different types, wetland plantings, woodland plantings and dramatic perennial plantings. The South Park focuses on visual drama – including a ribbon of golden meadows around the Olympic Stadium, buzzing with bees and butterflies.

Their work at the Olympic Park has become an integral part of Professors Hitchmough's and Dunnett's teaching, and is proving to be an important element in student recruitment. Some postgraduate students worked directly on the planting schemes, including the programme of trialling plant combinations. The park itself will now be transformed into a green space for the local communities in East London. The resulting Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park will maintain, and develop, much of the existing plantings.

The legacy of the Olympic Park will be far-reaching, raising the profile of the importance of good landscape architecture, demonstrating the great value of urban parks and 'city greening', as well as introducing a worldwide audience to the approaches to urban planting developed at Sheffield.