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Debate: Should landscape architects be activists?

Photography: Robert Taylor (all except Angela Brady image)
Work is in short supply, funding is tight and environmental issues are ever more pressing. What should landscape professionals, or any construction professionals do in these circumstances? Sit tight and get on with any work that comes their way? Or go out and try to reshape the world — or at least a part of the world — in the form that they believe is appropriate? Should they be activists? This is the question that we posed to four key members of the landscape profession, and also to the president of the RIBA.
Sue Illman

SUE ILLMAN

Sue Illman, President of the Landscape Institute
I was inspired years ago by the stance that Merrick Denton-Thompson, then chief landscape architect for Hampshire County Council (and now an eminently respectable member of Advisory Council), took over the proposals that would destroy Twyford Down to create a new bypass around Winchester. Not many risk their career to start a High Court action against the Department of Transport in opposition to their employer. Did it effect change? No, in that the proposals went ahead, but yes, in that the whole affair was a public-relations disaster for the government, and it learned that it should never try and force a controversial decision against such vociferous opposition again (who remembers Swampy?).

However time moves on, but the lesson has recently been relearned, albeit rather more peacefully but no less forcibly over the proposed sale of English forests, and this time the public won.

So where could activism take us? What might it achieve? These are difficult questions to answer and require a good cause that will engage not just with government, but more importantly with the public from the grass roots level upwards. Is the promotion of our profession, and our desire to deliver sustainable, liveable spaces enough? Unfortunately, I don’t think so within the current political climate. So what can we do?

In the first instance, I believe that we must ally our arguments for good design, better places, and a better quality of life for people with the current obligations of government. Previous governments have signed up to a range of European and international agreements that require them to deliver significant improvements to the environment. We are now approaching a point when radical action is required on water quality, carbon emissions and a range of other environmental indicators if we are to meet our targets. The campaign flag of being ‘the greenest government ever’ is becoming increasingly tattered when hesitantly waved in the relentless battle of promoting economic growth. Its own White Paper on the Natural Environment promoted the economic benefits of the ‘green economy’, but the government doesn’t appear to believe it own words. Quite what ‘sustainability’ now means in the eyes of the government is an interesting question to ask. So ask it we must.

Secondly, most local authorities now have policies within their regional or local plans that promote the European Landscape Convention, sustainability and green infrastructure. Local officers and more particularly members must not be afraid to use those policies to promote and support good local decision-making.

Thirdly, we must engage much more widely with the public to show how their best interests are served by improvements to their own local environment. Finding the right issue or approach that will engage the public’s concern is challenging, and often occurs only when disaster happens. Hosepipe bans and flooding were a small starting point this summer, particularly when they happened together, with the public suitably confused by the apparent contradiction.

There is a need for revolution within the profession, as just doing what we do, and hoping people realise its value, isn’t good enough. We have to believe in what we do, and be prepared to stand up, and shout about it, articulately, effectively and with passion and most importantly in a way that clearly shows how we can solve some of today’s real environmental problems in an economically effective way. We have to be sure of our ground, well versed in policy, abreast of new technologies, and prepared to speak out and lead.

So, is that activism, revolution or just political expediency? Is it possible? Watch this space, as we have no choice but to try.

VAL KIRBY

VAL KIRBY

Val Kirby, Landscape and heritage consultant
I don’t use the term ‘activist’ to describe what I do. So my first reaction on being asked to contribute to this edition, was  to think that the label didn’t fit. Then I thought. Am I an activist without knowing it? Do I want to be labelled an activist, and if not, why not?

Of course, I thought, being an activist landscape architect may simply mean being an active landscape architect — doing a good job for the landscape and for clients and employers. I’ve done that for more than 40 years. I’ve worked in landscape conservation and management, lectured, undertaken research, worked as a sole principal and as an employee, advised the UK government and been a volunteer with the Landscape Institute. I’ve been very active and achieved a lot: perhaps I am an activist after all. But on reflection that’s not enough.

An activist, I think, is someone who does all that, but is also seen and heard: not just that, she is listened to, understood, and can change the way people have previously thought about the landscape — a single site or the whole country; a design, a plan, a policy or a piece of research. Writing that makes me wonder why the label ‘activist’ bothers me? Because it sounds brilliant. I think it is because I’ve associated activism with being strident, argumentative, even a bit of a bully. An activist is someone who will stand up and be counted, take part in street protests, even man the barricades. I don’t do that.

My way through this puzzle has two sources. The first is a reflection on bits of my career, especially my influence on the advice that Natural England has been giving to Defra since late 2006 on how to implement the European Landscape Convention (ELC) in England.

When the UK government, after years of reluctance, ratified the ELC, Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) asked Natural England for advice about what needed to be done. That advice had to be clear and articulate, but definitely not strident. It had to touch a nerve that already existed. The guidance, networks and events that followed would not have happened if bullying tactics had been used.

Two events in 2010, the tenth anniversary of the ELC in action, are excellent examples of what can be achieved through a subtle approach to activism. The UK Landscape Conference in Liverpool that November not only brought together landscape professionals and community groups from across the UK and overseas, but also saw the announcement of the winner of the first UK Landscape Award, Durham Heritage Coast, which went on to be runner up in the ELC Landscape Award early in 2011. The people who made all that happen had to be activists, but in a subtle, sensitive sense, not a strident one.

The second source of help is a bit of word play, taken from another part of my personal world, as a Quaker. ‘Speaking truth to power’ is a saying that underlines what goes on when people stand up to governments, or big business, or any powerful group that appears to be misusing their power. But ‘speaking truth to power’ can be done in a confrontational way — we’re back in strident, bullying territory, where I am not comfortable. Recently I heard a variant that I greatly prefer: it is ‘seeking truth with power’. It sums up so much. It supports what landscape architects do as activists in a subtle, persuasive way. We need to engage with power, seeking solutions to problems that are so large they are terrifying — including farming and food, health and wellbeing, energy and environmental sustainability in their widest senses — of course we already are; and long may we continue.

All that is very positive, but a more negative story is emerging. There are signs that the government is rethinking its support for landscapes everywhere. A lack of funds and of qualified and experienced people in the right places in government, is putting the work of recent years at risk.As I retire from public service, I am suddenly challenged with the prospect of finding ways of seeking truth with power from the outside. I may be forced to adopt a more strident voice. We shall see!

MERRICK DENTON-THOMPSON

MERRICK DENTON-THOMPSON

Merrick Denton-Thompson, Independent landscape professional
Today the landscape profession has a particular responsibility to society to be an effective, critical friend to the Government, even though striking the right balance is never easy. It must continue with the excellent collaborative work it is doing, such as transforming the Government’s policy on Green Infrastructure, but it has to take risks in being an activist on developing new policies on sustainability. We are in a period of evolution and cultural change where we do not have all the answers and professional judgement is as important as having all the facts.

As a profession we sit in a unique position, managing the interface between change, driven by humanity, and natural systems. That interface will become an increasingly volatile place as more and more pressure is put on the world’s ecosystems. However to survive we have to reposition the profession and we have to make changes to the way we operate.

We are making two fundamental errors in the way we market our services, the first is the prominence we give to ‘good design’ which is fraught with problems of variations in taste and subjectivity. Design is a process not a product and the link with subjectivity immediately banishes us to a ‘nice to have service’ making our services immediately vulnerable in a recession, across both the private and public sectors.

The second failing is the prominence we give to the word Architect because of the common perception of architects by the general public but also because of the narrow scope of influence the word implies. Whether we like it or not we are all too often locked in to the same box — an esoteric profession building monuments to themselves. We really ought to know how the public perceive us but the probable answer — ‘oh! They do the gardens don’t they? ’— would make most of us cringe. As damaging is the perception that as Landscape Architects we are confined to working around buildings and follow the architect.

There is evidence of a deteriorating image of the profession in a recent survey by the Landscape Institute into the state of employment of the landscape profession in the public sector. The survey recorded the loss of 22% of all posts nationally, over the last four years. But this is only half the story because the 157 positions lost came from a 13% return rate, so the true figure is almost certainly much higher. This will have a major impact on the private sector as the symbiotic relationship between public and private is disrupted. We should however be as worried by the reasons given for removing the positions from the establishment — simply that Landscape Architects do not provide a priority service. So ‘Where do we want to be in 2032?’ seems a very crucial question posed by Kate Bailey and Ian Houlston in opening the debate on the future of the profession in the summer issue of Landscape.

We are at yet another crossroad. Do we as a profession want to confine our prospects to working in the main around architects and engineers with a minority working to a wider brief or are we prepared to work outside of our comfort zone, using our skills and knowledge to embrace fully the sustainability imperative? If we choose to engage with the wider brief there will always be plenty of work for the landscape architect within the landscape profession, working alongside landscape researchers, landscape scientists, landscape planners, landscape ecologists and landscape managers.
KATE BAILEY

KATE BAILEY

Kate Bailey, Planning and landscape consultant
In my view, landscape architects are members of a pragmatic and creative profession that is actively involved in the promotion of sustainable forms of development. Look at the issues we concern ourselves with: surface water management, sustainable energy, health and wellbeing, climate change, habitat creation, SuDS, green infrastructure planning, air quality, biodiversity, water quality. Our schemes contribute to economic and social progress whilst safeguarding landscape character and environmental quality.

So is it enough to do a creative job well, to make landscapes that people appreciate and enjoy using? Landscape architects often seem to be modest individuals, content to think of themselves as bringing abouta quiet revolution, head down in the office, designing award winning schemes and stunning projects such as the Olympic Park. The disadvantage of this approach, as I see it, is that we are a tiny profession compared with others such as architects and urban designers. Unless we learn to speak out, few people will ever understand the broad range of our skills and experience.

Personally my form of activism (low key but often effective) is to try to raise public awareness of landscape, encouraging ordinary people to look around, to see their surroundings and think how their area could be improved. I started in the 1970s with Housing Improvement Areas, moved into environmental strategies for Development Corporations, worked for Groundworkwith schools and youth groups andhave been active for many years asa Planning Aid volunteer, supporting local community groups.

Now the government has adopted ‘localism’ as its mantra, giving communities the opportunity to make decisions about their own neighbourhoods, I feel justified, as a landscape consultant, in persuading both public- and private-sector clients that involving local people is the key to success for any plan or project. Residents know their own areas better than any consultant. They want change to bring positive benefits for themselves and their families and they will live every day with the results. In such situations we have to become activists, informing, influencing, motivating and encouraging local people, school pupils and college students to expect better-quality public spaces and lively, attractive community landscapes in their neighbourhoods.

It is much more difficult for the landscape architects who find themselves working with mineral-extraction companies, with developers of energy and waste-treatment schemes, of major infrastructure projects such as wind farms, power lines and rail routes, or engineering projects such as transport routes, coastal defences and high-capacity pipelines. Their commissions may bring them into opposition with local residents, activists and campaigners such as CPRE and the National Trust, who tend to consider major infrastructure schemes in the countryside to be unacceptably damaging. This is when landscape architects really do need to become activists, by demonstrating that our part in any major development project is to achieve damage limitation, mitigation and compensation, and the creation of high-quality landscapes.

Case studies prove that where we have been successful in persuading developers and investors to focus on the landscape, we have contributed to the transformation of waterfronts, dockland areas, derelict land, former coalfields, quarries and industrial sites. The Olympic Park is the most persuasive example of all. Why would landscape architects not be activists when we have such inspiring achievements to tell people about?

ANGELA BRADY

Angela Brady, President RIBA
I strongly believe that architects must be activists and campaigners for a better- designed built environment. As architects we have the vision to create and lead and a responsibility to people who live in, work in and visit our buildings, places and spaces. We have a responsibility to society to bring value to our environmentin implementing a sustainable integrated design in an holistic way. We have to be activists in order to help create the conditions in which we can fulfill these responsibilities.

I have established three pillars to my RIBA presidency which are: to improve procurement practice, starting with local authorities and government; to internationalise the RIBA, both for members overseas and for those seeking work there and to ‘bring architecture to the public’ so that people will realise the value of what a quality built environment can do for society. All these involve outreach work and campaigning across our professions.

I have been working hard to promote the very best of British architects in fast- developing nations such as China, Russia and Vietnam where RIBA has great respect and admiration, while the economy remains slow at home. In terms of procurement, I have been working cross-professionally with a large team of dedicated people to ensure that architects have a voice in the ongoing public procurement debate. We are working closely with stakeholders to reform the procurement process throughout the construction industry.

In terms of bringing architecture to the public, we need more media coverage to reach a wider and more diverse audience. I believe it is vital to champion the importance of architecture to the wider public, to schools and in the media-TV and radio, including social media via Twitter and Facebook.

With London celebrating the great architectural and engineering achievements of the London 2012 games, I have championed the roles of professions in directing a film called ‘Designing for Champions’ which will celebrate the achievements of architects, engineers and designers in delivering the Olympic Games. A fast-acting campaign was needed to enable us to film and record these magnificent achievements before the venues were dismantled. We held an official ‘name drop’ campaign at the RIBA to draw attention to all the architects and engineers involved in the games and note the fact that they were unable publicly to mention their involvement.

I have also spent many years campaigning for diversity and for more women and BAME representation in architecture. I chaired Women in Architecture for five years, and personally curated an exhibition called ‘DiverseCity’ which travelled to 34 cities over six years. I have encouraged and helped set up Women in Architecture groups across the world. My mantra is ‘Women and men together make better architecture’.

The RIBA Equality group, Architects For Change, has been active in setting up mentoring programmes, return-to work-courses and role models that adopt a school and promote careers in architecture.

I have encouraged active campaigning within the RIBA which has, like all similar bodies, suffered from a reputation for being slow to react. I have been working to create a ‘light touch, fast acting’ RIBA, which is able to represent, champion and promote the best of British architecture in UK and around the world.

It is also so important to support our next generation of architects who will find higher fees difficult to manage. The RIBA is supporting architecture students through fund-raising events like the president’s auction and dinner held annually. Equally, we are insisting that all architecture internships are paid posts and we do not approve of those practices who do not pay students. We need to support our profession by bringing value to what we do and to show that we can add value to society.

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