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November 2022   |   Volume 24 No. 1

From Landscape to Laptop

Field trips form an integral part of Mr Gavin Coates’ landscape architecture teaching. Since face-to-face teaching has been interrupted for some time because of the COVID-19 lockdown, he tried to run field trips remotely, primarily by means of videos.
Teaching landscape architecture when you can’t get out into the landscape could be something of a stumbling block. But solving that problem during COVID-19 lockdown has led to the creation of the Digital Arboretum, a new resource with long-term value.

The Digital Arboretum (DA) is the brainchild of Mr Gavin Coates, Senior Lecturer at HKU’s Division of Landscape Architecture. “Teaching planting design, landscape technology and landscape representation are my specialities and, for all of these, taking groups of students around the city and the countryside is key. On field trips, they’re not just seeing the plants, but learning to experience, understand and read the landscape,” he said.

With COVID-19 in 2020, that all shut down overnight. With students in quarantine lockdown at home, Mr Coates started doing field trips on his own, and recording them on his phone. Initially, he put the videos on Facebook Workplace sites.

“They proved very helpful as students could not only watch but rewatch and concentrate on parts they missed the first time,” said Mr Coates. “It really helped them with learning the botanical names. In fact, in some ways, it worked even better than a field trip because if you have a big group, the ones at the back may not be able to see the particular plant I’m referring to – with a video everyone gets a close-up!”

He made hundreds of short videos, spanning rural and urban Hong Kong, the outlying islands and the New Territories. They quickly became a useful teaching resource for which he was awarded an HKU Teaching Innovation Award in 2020. He then began to consider their longer-term value as a potential online database detailing Hong Kong’s rich diversity of trees and plants online so that they would be accessible and retrievable at any time for students and a wider audience.

Digital Arboretum

The Digital Arboretum is an online resource featuring hundreds of videos on trees and other plants which offers a wealth of information and engaging commentaries recorded out in the field, in Hong Kong’s disparate urban and rural landscapes.

IT knowhow

He applied for a Teaching Development Grant “to hire some younger people with IT knowhow”, including Mr Tim Pit Hok Yau, a recent graduate of HKU’s School of Journalism. Support also came from HKU’s Digital Literacy Lab, Technology-Enriched Learning Initiative and the Centre for Applied English Studies in advisory and technical capacities. “I designed it on paper, and they made it happen.”

Much of the content at the moment comprises Mr Coates’ original phone videos, but this term that will change. “We’re expanding and one of the assignments for students will be to make videos for the DA,” he said. “It’s an experiment – we will be careful to maintain quality control and the emphasis will be on making sure the videos are accurate, informative and interesting.”

The DA comprises three main sections – the Plant Database, with images and videos of more than 245 plant species, listed alphabetically by their botanical names. If you are not sure what you are looking for, there are multiple ways to search, ranging from ‘usual habitat’ and ‘foliage colour’ to the more landscape design-oriented ‘design function’ – such as ‘street tree’, ‘shade tolerant’, and ‘native’ or ‘exotic’. Click on a particular plant and up comes a list of its basic characteristics, plus a selection of videos relating to it and the date and location where each video was made.

The second section, Location, features maps of Hong Kong dotted with numbers which link to virtual field trips and the locations in which Mr Coates filmed. Click anywhere on the dots or the route indicated and up come related videos.

The third section, Special Features, includes a gallery for displaying and archiving student assignments, including drawings of tree sections, and ‘Tree Metaphors’, the fruit of Mr Coates’ ‘Nature in the City’ Common Core course.

Geographical expansion

The next developments are likely to involve both geographical and multidisciplinary expansion. “While in the United Kingdom in August, I put up videos of English oak trees at various stages of their life-cycle,” said Mr Coates, “and the potential for uploading information from around the world and turning the database into a global teaching resource is huge.”

He is looking into collaborating with other universities and plans to send the Digital Arboretum to institutions such as Kew, Harvard Arboretum etc, and to invite other related organisations to contribute their own videos. “The project could serve as a model reference and teaching approach for other disciplines with a significant field trip component such as biology, botany and geology,” he said.

But, at the same time as he discusses expanding the database, Mr Coates is also careful to emphasise the original aim behind the project. “The Digital Arboretum is not meant to be a botanical treatise, it’s not about how many stamens a plant has. This is a tool to help you achieve something in landscape design: How fast will this grow? How tall? What will grow next to it? Is it a good screening plant?

“As landscape architects, we focus on how plants are used functionally in a design sense, how they naturally populate the landscape and how they contribute to the local ecology.”

Learn more about the Digital Arboretum here.

The Digital Arboretum is not meant to be a botanical treatise, it’s not about how many stamens a plant has. As landscape architects, we focus on how plants are used functionally in a design sense, how they naturally populate the landscape and how they contribute to the local ecology.