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The future of landscape

By Susannah Charlton
The Landscape Futures series of lectures, held in a variety of locations in England, pinpointed issues the profession needs to address – and reaffirmed its importance for the future.

Remarkably consistent themes    emerged from speakers during the   series of six Landscape Futures lectures that took place around the country earlier this year, discussing the challenges ahead for the landscape profession. They highlighted the new, interdisciplinary skills needed by the profession, the importance of the language we use, the need for strategic planning for housing, energy and transport infrastructure, how multi-functional approaches  can enhance, conserve and protect the countryside, the impact of digital developments on our work and the imperative for landscape architects to raise our public profile.

Educating the professionals of the future 
Perhaps the strongest theme was ensuring that landscape architects of the future have the range of skills they need.

Environmentalist Jonathan Porritt asked ‘how well prepared we are to make … holistic, integrated, optimising decisions about land use’ and whether we are ‘still equipping those coming into the profession with skills fit for yesterday and largely unfit for the complicated decisions they’ll have to make for tomorrow’. The skills to plan and manage landscapes for the long term, advise local communities effectively, and design creatively to mitigate the impacts of climate change are urgently needed in the light of competing pressures on land, globally and in our own small island.

Recruitment to UK undergraduate landscape architecture courses is falling, yet there is a burgeoning need for professionals able to lead inter-disciplinary teams delivering sustainable, landscape-scale developments, from new energy and transport infrastructure to entire new districts like Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm. Carys Swanwick, academic, former practitioner and author of GLVIA3, argued that education in landscape architecture rarely turns out graduates who are competent in landscape planning. ‘Do we need new courses,’ she asked, ‘to create professionals who can lead the way in landscape services?’ The idea  of a common foundation year for built-environment students, proposed in the recent Farrell Review, has already been well-received by universities, according to Sue Illman, President of the Landscape Institute until this summer.

Planning for infrastructure
The necessity for bold, visionary planning to create inspirational landscapes was a strong theme. Frazer Osment, a partner at LDA Design, referred to the vision of garden city planners, and Alister Kratt, also an LDA partner, to the confidence of the Victorian engineers responsible for so much of our infrastructure. They were proud of what they built; as Selina Mason, then with the London Legacy Development Corporation, said, ‘Brunel would have been dismissive of the idea of hiding the Great Western Railway’.  Kratt argued that we need a national vision for infrastructure, not least to help local communities see how proposals affecting their immediate environment are justified by the bigger picture.

Not all local authorities have strategic infrastructure plans, and expecting individual developers to pay for essential services can, as Osment pointed out, make housing schemes financially unviable.

Whoever pays for it, Mary Parsons of Places for People stressed the importance of ‘I before E, infrastructure before expansion.’ Her organisation’s investment in infrastructure and long-term commitment to maintenance has added a 20–25% premium to sales values. Joined-up planning is vital for our rural landscapes too: Lyndis Cole of LUC cited the Living Wales Programme as a possible template for a national resource plan. These issues are
all about taking a long-term view of change, rather than going for the quick win Our current planning system, is hampered by ‘pretty crude trade-off dynamics’ (Porritt) and a front-loaded consultation process. Barrister Tim Mould, veteran of planning enquiries for projects like Crossrail, regards it as a well-intentioned system that nevertheless results in expensive delays,
and can still leave communities feeling disregarded.

Talking the right language
One of the barriers to the success of planning consultations, in Mould’s view, is the use of legal language or jargon. Pam Warhurst, chair of Incredible Edible, also believes that professionals often employ language that most people don’t understand. Using the language of food had helped her engage and empower the local community to ‘take back the spaces of the public realm’ in Todmorden.

Several speakers stressed the need to change our language to be understood by people who aren’t landscape architects, and to be more positive. At the moment we talk a lot about mitigation – which Selina Mason thought ‘a corrosive concept’ – rather than starting from the premise that what we are doing is a good thing. Digital technology may also help us communicate more effectively. Alan Thompson of Hayes Davidson described the exciting potential of tools that will enable a group of people to manipulate 3D objects together in real time.

According to Mary Parsons, when asked why they want to live somewhere, people say things like it makes them feel safe, included, proud, relaxed and secure and gives them a sense of belonging. These things matter more to them than the design of the houses. Using language that the community understands, listening to what they really value and encouraging everyone to talk about the experience of actually living in the proposed development are crucial.

Multi-functional landscapes
Recent flooding has been a wake-up call about the impact of climate change on today’s often single-use landscapes, though government has been slow to react. The radically simplified landscapes of agribusiness or intensive development are dysfunctional: gains in productivity or housing have come at the expense of pollution, degradation of soils, increased flooding and other ills that are expensive and difficult to fix.

The good news is that the qualities that people want in rural landscapes – strong landscape character, variety, accessibility, tranquility and wildlife and richness – are those that can also provide the ecosystem services we need: water regulation, carbon sequestration and protection of biodiversity. The functional approach to landscape planning has been more evident in urban design, from the Thames embankment being created as part of Bazalgette’s sewerage scheme, to new housing developments in the Netherlands incorporating innovative water-management features.

Lyndis Cole felt that the rural landscape has fallen off the government’s agenda, and the forthcoming changes to agri-environment funding, explained by Naomi Oakley of Natural England, are a cause of concern.
As Cole said, ‘the landscape profession has much to do to help politicians see the environment, including the landscape,
as a vital resource for living, not a cost’.

Digital working
The exponential increase in the role of digital media in our lives is throwing up particular opportunities for landscape professionals. Intelligent space mapping (measuring the performance of the environment) provides vastly increased data on how people use the spaces we design. The wide availability of wi-fi has turned public spaces into extensions of our homes and offices: research comparing our use of them now and in the 1970s found that people actually use public spaces more today –
with obvious implications for design.

Many people are skeptical about whether smarter city technology is delivering real benefits. But Rick Robinson of IBM cited cases like the ‘sophisticated road charging scheme in Stockholm which managed to reduce journey times and increase life expectancy by cutting congestion and the resultant pollution’ as showing their potential.

Digital tools also facilitate remote working, and more sophisticated design, visualisation and prototyping. For example, Sophie Thompson described an LDA project to design a complex seat for a park in Mumbai. The budget did not stretch to site visits but the team was able to prototype the design in the UK and then send the digital files to a fabricator in the city, who made it to the exact specification. Advanced simulation packages allow visualisers like Thompson to provide extremely sophisticated and highly manipulable modelling of designs.

Promoting the profession
Tom Armour of Arup and Sue Illman issued a call to arms: the time for landscape architects is now! Landscape architects often lead the delivery of high-profile projects
yet our public profile doesn’t reflect that. We have the skills to do what is needed,
said Phil Askew of the London Legacy Development Corporation, and a project like the Olympic Park is evidence that involving landscape architects from the start gives an integrated holistic result. What
we do is essential, not an optional extra.

We need to promote what we do not only to ensure our work is valued for its economic, health and environmental benefits, but also to ensure that talented young people are aware of landscape architecture as a career. Members in the audience talked about the reward of seeing the light go on in a student’s eyes at a school open day, when they saw what the profession could offer.

What happens next
This lecture series was part of a wider conversation instigated by the LI Policy and Communications Committee about the future of the profession. Issues raised by members are already having an impact on LI strategy. The Conversation is intended
as an ongoing forum; Kate Bailey and Ian Houlston are keen to hear your views – the best way to do this is on Talking Landscapes (http://bit.ly/1j8cTF0).

Further lectures are already planned in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast, followed by a meeting early next year to present the output of all nine lectures to educators. It is hoped that this will be the start of a closer dialogue between practitioners and academics.

While action to address some of the challenges ahead – the landscape architecture curriculum, thinking about the language we use, designing multi-functional landscapes, raising the profile of the profession – can be instigated by the Institute and individual practitioners, others need action by government, local authorities and developers. The profession now needs to communicate more effectively with the public and with policy makers. And it will not achieve that by being quiet and self-effacing.

Further information
See the Landscape Futures conversation on Talking Landscapes (www.talkinglandscape.org)
Dates for further lectures: Edinburgh, 15 October; Cardiff, 26 November;   Belfast, TBC.
Watch videos of some of the Landscape Futures lectures on the LI’s YouTube channel.


Susannah Charlton is a consultant to the Landscape Institute. She organized the Landscape Futures series of lectures.

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