Spatial Arrangements: where gardeners and ecologists overlap

One of the prime things landscape designers concern themselves with is “spatial arrangements” (where stuff is), sometimes also called “adjacencies” (what’s next to what). Ecologists refer to corridors, patches, and matrixes, language that landscape designers have picked up and transferred to design.  Designers also say things like “center and edge”, “field and figure”, and “juxtaposition” a lot.  So let’s talk spatial arrangements and adjacencies a bit and see if I can decode these concepts for you.

Corridor & Patch

ecology corridor patch matrixA corridor is really just a thin linear patch unless it serves as a bridge, linking two places and providing safe passage between them.  The forest in this sketch is linked to the river by the line of trees someone has planted. These trees let mice and deer and whoever else sneak down to the river without risking the open field (which is, of course, filled with owls and hunters and what-not.)

In the strolling gardens of Capability Brown, copses of trees grew (and dsome still grow) in little clusters in the field and meadow dominated countryside.  These copses are patches.  So is my vegetable garden.  The crucial detail is that the patch is a radically different ecology from the adjacent landscape.


The matrix is the broad view: one can see corridors and patches all intermixing with each other.  The open patches are fields, linked by open corridors (roads); the woodlot patches are linked by corridors of overgrown hedges.  Eventually an abandoned field becomes overgrown, rejoins the forest, while patch of forest is cleared (by fire or tree fall or human axes, for example) and becomes a glen- a little patch of meadow in the middle of the woods.

Notice how that jumped into following a timeline?  Matrix, to me, embodies that time line a bit.  Beyond describing the helicopter’s view of the spatial arrangements at this exact moment, “matrix” acknowledges the interplay of the pieces over time.  This is something most ecologists are better at (for now) than most designers.

Center & Edge

deer in the city from

(My thanks to blackoaknaturalist at for this image.)

Ecologists talk about species that are ‘interior’ species- meaning they like a very monotonous matrix- lots and lots of forest, not much meadow, or vice versa.  There are also ‘edge’ species: white tail deer are proliferating everywhere that suburbia spreads because suburbia is so full of edges it’s dang near fractal.  We have a lot of deer because we built a lot of deer habitat.

When designers talk about center and edge, they mean somewhat the same thing as interior and edge, but with the lilt of design-speak, of course.  While ecologists can talk about interiors without getting into edges, and edges without really acknowledging interiors, it’ll be a rare day indeed if a garden designer refers to the center or the edge without having the other one in mind too.  In design, center and edge are paired: the right and left feet of a design’s dance step.

In part this is because designers sometimes treat as synonymous with center and edge the pairing of field and figure.

Field & Figure

At this point, I am no longer using field to mean an open space with grasses and forbs and little bunnies.  Field is the background of the painting.  Figure is the dude standing in the rain under the streetlamp.  Field is context, figure is attention.  Part of what is so interesting about looking at landscapes with an aesthetic eye is that the field literally becomes the figure.

Ever notice how few people are in the photos and paintings of glorious landscape vistas in Western art, especially in the past hundred years?  Huge panoramic expanses of wilderness and nary a body to tarnish them.  Part of this is historic: as we urbanized, nature left the neighborhood and became “out there”, wildlife was something you had to travel to see. And part of this might just be the overwhelming attention commanded by an awe-inspiring landscape: the vista itself is the figure, the thing in the picture that we’re supposed to watch.


Try to hold your mind in that focal range, where the landscape is the figure, the thing to pay attention to, only now, come back to the city.  That’s what we’ve been seeing:  the figure created by all those buildings, all that concrete and asphalt, brick and mortar.  It’s all very romantic, the metal fire escapes and the cracking parapets, romantic like a train passing in the distance is romantic, but it’s not hyper-useful when your interest is agriculture.

We have to switch our vision again: turn those buildings, all that glorious urbanity back into field and look for how we can re-assign the figure.  Literally, figure out where to grow.  That’s where adjacencies come in in landscape design and especially in landscape architecture.  If there is a building right next to a parking lot and there is (or could be) 2 or 3 feet of space stolen back from the parking lot to jack hammer out the pavement and / or build a raised bed, then the juxtaposition of a garden and building: the building becomes a prop, a wall up which to grow.

Gardening (including vertical gardening) is all about what’s next to what.  The more complex and intricate we can make urban adjacencies at the finer grain (one building, one block), then the livelier and healthier the ecosystem of the whole urban matrix. Of course, the value of intricacy holds in the rural landscape too, and I’ll come back to intricacy, complexity, and redundancy a lot in this blog.

Today, though, I just want to think about adjacencies: it’s not just about the plot of dirt that my client wants me to plant, it’s also about the tree to the south and the fence to the west, the alley entrance to the north, the sidewalk, verge, and street to the east.

Ecologically, those adjacencies have everything to do with what plants will thrive there, and what wildlife. Aesthetically, they have everything to do with how the space will be experienced (I can’t block the view of cars coming out of the alley, nobody is going to look through the slats of the fence at the garden, the site will largely be experienced from the sidewalk…) The spatial arrangement of the landscape is everything.

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