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Time to embrace a new type of gardening

by Ruth Slavid

Photo ©: Agnese Sanvito

As an outsider to the profession, I have struggled to understand the uncomfortable relationship that many of its members have with garden design. I do realise, of course, that landscape architects and other landscape professionals are more highly trained and skilled than garden designers – that asking a landscape architect about their favourite plant is a bit like asking an architect what their favourite chair is. They will have one but it is rather missing the point.

Yet the discomfort seems to go further. And the reason it worries me is that landscape professionals do, after all, have a close relationship with gardens. Almost every portrait photo I am sent shows its subject standing in front of some fairly manicured planting. Landscape architects do design gardens. The Olympic Park was certainly a triumph of gardening, even if it was also so much more than that. Public parks would be very odd if they didn’t incorporate gardens. The Landscape Institute has built a fruitful relationship with the Garden Museum. Some landscape architects even (hushed whisper) exhibited at the Chelsea Flower Show.

So what is the problem? I think this edition of the journal highlights the issue. Gardening just isn’t seen as serious. It fits in the lifestyle category with frocks and food and films – things which many of us enjoy, but don’t see as at the heart of existence. And what landscape can do is of course much more important. In this issue we look at two of the ways in which landscape can make people’s lives so much better, through tackling the issues of health and water.

The role that landscape professionals can play in preventing health problems by creating environments in which people can lead healthier lives and enhance their mental wellbeing, is understood by many involved in the work. What the Landscape Institute is now doing is making that knowledge more widely available, which is particularly important since the responsibility for public health devolved to local authorities in England in April.

Our other major topic, water, is rather analogous. One could see traditional drainage solutions as the hospitalised, critical-care side of medicine. Working with water, through SuDS and WSUD, is more like preventive medicine – a public health service for our ecosystems. Which,
if it can help make our cities more liveable places, will also improve public health. This will be brought into sharper focus when the Flood and Water Management Act is implemented next year.

Among other things, the proponents of designing for water and for health are keen, respectively, on rain gardens to absorb storm water and on allotments to promote exercise, healthy eating and social interaction. Both are, in their own ways, gardens. Is it time to embrace the trowel?

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