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Education for all

With an unusually close relationship between teaching, research and practice, Sheffield is an ideal place to consider how these elements can work together for mutual benefit.

There could not be a more appropriate place than the University of Sheffield to discuss the relationship between academia and practice. Every practitioner must be aware of the university’s teaching – it was rated top in the National Student Survey of 2015, with 100% of students agreeing that ‘overall I am satisfied with the quality of the course’. It also came top in the government’s 2014 Research Excellence Framework.

James Hitchmough, the head of department, said that Sheffield is one of few (and perhaps the only) landscape departments in the world where every member of academic staff is required by contract to be a publishing, grant-writing researcher, as well as a teacher, and, in some cases, a practitioner. ‘This research focus ensures,’ he said, ‘that what we are teaching students is always fresh, and focused on improving and developing the discipline and practice.’

More than 2000 students have graduated from the various courses since the department was set up in 1969. It has two high-profile visiting professors, Andrew Grant and Piet Oudolf as well as a number of academic visitors. It divides its research into four key areas (see box). And much of its work is outward facing, with the highest profile being the work done by James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett, professor of planting design and vegetation technology. They have applied their theoretical findings to live projects, most notably the planting at the Olympic Park for the 2012 Olympics, and through this and other work have had an impact on planting throughout the country.

There is ideally a three-way relationship between research, teaching and practice. Students should benefit from being taught by both researchers and practitioners. Their education should fit them for their future working lives, whether in practice or research or ideally both. And there should be an enriching exchange between researchers and practitioners.

Asked whether education should prepare students for practice, James Hitchmough answered, ‘I cannot imagine a landscape architecture department that does not try to do this. We do however need to recognise that some skills required in practice are difficult to replicate in university contexts, and that we also need to teach skills, and inculcate values that may not always be seen as central to practice at that moment in time.’

In terms of the tools that he believes universities should give their students, he said, ‘Clearly there are a whole range of understandings and technical skills such as how to use design software etc., that everyone teaches. In addition to these I think it’s really important to encourage students to challenge orthodoxy, be iconoclastic, and able to think outside the box rather than just be accepting of how landscape architecture is. We all know that the world places limitations on what is possible in practice but understanding of this needs to co-exist with high levels of ambition. Understanding the bigger picture, being able to interrogate and assess information and value positions, and then evaluate these understandings is key.’

He added, ‘Practitioners currently make a huge contribution to both staff and students on our courses, through sharing their experiences of what they do and in particular providing insight into the practice zeitgeist. This happens on our courses through the large number of studio tutors, over and above our permanent team, that we employ from practice, our relationships with practices who run events with us, and also through our visiting professors from practice, for example Andrew Grant of Grant Associates. We also have a constant stream of practitioners giving lectures on issues of import from practice. An example of this is the Arup/HS2 team that will be visiting soon.’

Research, he says, ‘is important because it facilitates a deeper understanding of phenomena relevant to landscape architecture, be they social, ecological or cultural. This allows landscape architects to make better decisions by understanding more, or in many cases taking more risks with design because of greater clarity about what is most likely to happen. As an example, current environmental psychology research in the department of landscape by Dr Helen Hoyle is advancing our understanding about how people respond to different plant communities in public landscapes and the different types of psychological benefit they provide. These detailed understandings are invaluable in public space design where it is largely impossible to know the values and meanings held by your clients.’

There are other more worldly advantages as well, in terms of the standing of the profession and of organisations within it. ‘There is no doubt,’ James said, ‘that having a research core gives credibility to a discipline, to clients, the political-policy world and other disciplines. Research can give you a critical competitive edge in some situations.’

It is easier now than ever before for practitioners (in fact for anybody) to access the findings of research, because open access rules mean that published academic research can be downloaded for free, although evidently this does require a certain amount of application. But this is far better than the situation in the past, when academic publishing was scarcely accessible outside universities.

Of course the outside world has an important input into research. This is partly by necessity since research has to be funded, whether through research councils or other bodies. This makes academic life more difficult, not least in the number and complexity of grant applications, but it also has advantages, James believes.

‘Working with stakeholders and end users also ensures that research is fine tuned to address social, environmental and cultural issues,’ he said, ‘and enables co-production – the sharing of research tasks and understandings with them – to improve the research findings and outcomes.’

Sometimes the university collaborates directly with commercial organisations but these are not, James said, landscape architecture practices, although he would like them to be. The door is open at Sheffield and is swinging in both directions, to allow the outside world in and to send its information and students out to them. Sheffield is one of the Victorian redbrick universities and although the landscape department is housed in a more recent tower, there is not a hint of ivory about it.

Working together

A student collaboration with practice

If you lived in the picturesque Yorkshire town of Hathersage you might have been surprised one autumn day last year to see a trainload of young people arrive, all go to the church hall and then spend time poking around some of the less prepossessing parts of the town, taking photos. On the other hand you may have become used to that sort of attention, so subtly different from the behaviour of tourists, because you would previously have had landscape architects in the town.

Those original practitioners were from Ares Landscape Architects, a Sheffield practice that in 2011 produced A Heart for Hathersage, a strategy for the town’s public realm. Because they knew the place so well, it was an obvious choice when they decided to run a three-day exercise across the three undergraduate years and the first year of the masters course during the students’ study week. Although participation was voluntary, take-up was fantastic, with 120 out of a potential 200 taking part.

Ares had around 10 people working on the exercise which sounds an incredible commitment for a practice of only 15 but Ricardo Ares, one half of the husband and wife team that set up the practice four years ago, said that in fact this is easier to schedule and manage than ad hoc lecturing which means that work has to be made up afterwards on pressurised schedules. ‘We find it very frustrating,’ he said, ‘as we would like to support the university more. But they typically need a long-term commitment. Then this opportunity came up.’

Hathersage was a good subject for study, Ricardo said, because although it attracts tourists it lacks a true centre. ‘You drive through it before you realise you are there,’ he said. Ares Landscape Architects’ work is addressing this problem, in particular creating a new town square, and the student exercise was to study the area of the masterplan and adjacent areas.

The students were all given a briefing together, and then allocated to one of four projects. On each project they were divided into groups of five or six, coming from different years so that people who did not usually work together would cooperate. International students were also mixed up with students from the UK. They carried out investigations by walking around Hathersage, then went back to the university on the second day and worked together on a proposal. Ares carried out surgery sessions with the students on that day. On the third and final day, all the groups presented their ideas.

The exercise was, said Andy Clayden, senior lecturer in the department, a huge success. ‘It was really positive for them to be mixed up with people from other years and to work in such a short time frame to produce a concept and a series of ideas. This showed just what the students can generate so quickly and communicate to people outside. And once the students know each other, they are more likely to support each other.’

As a reward, the best group on each project is going to be given some time (up to a day) at the Ares practice to become involved with some real work. This is a big commitment on the part of the practice but it is not entirely disinterested. ‘There is a clear commercial benefit here for us,’ Ricardo Ares said. ‘We are half a mile from the university and 90 per cent of our staff are graduates from there. Before the recession and again now practices have had a huge problem recruiting strong staff. This way we can look at the graduates who are coming out – many practices are competing to attract the best staff.’

This then is a virtuous circle – practice giving back to students and students learning about a practice where they may like to work in the future. If that sounds too pious, it is evident from the work that came out and the photos of the activity that everybody had tremendous fun.

Main research areas in landscape at Sheffield

Urban ecological landscape design and management
This group is concerned with the application of ecological theory to landscape practice to improve sustainability whilst meeting human aesthetic and functional needs. Aspects include: the role and nature of sustainable planting design in urban environments; green roof ecology and technology, especially the integration of aesthetic and cultural needs with the ecological function of green roofs at a variety of scales; landscapes of mortality, especially natural burial and grave re-use; the application of sustainability to urban design.
(Core group members: Andy Clayden, Nigel Dunnett, James Hitchmough)

Planning and management of rural and peri-urban landscapes
The use of advanced virtual landscape visualisations and modelling to explore human reaction to ways in which landscape and environmental planning can influence and direct anthropogenic landscape change; environmental impact assessments (landscape and visual impacts); participatory methods and planning and design communication; rural cultural landscapes and landscape regeneration; landscape character assessment; sustainable landscape planning and management; drivers of future landscape change; role of urban green infrastructure in urban regeneration.
(Core group members: Eckart Lange, Paul Selman, Carys Swanwick)

Human interaction with landscapes
Landscape perspectives and experience in relation to cultural background and personal circumstance; holistic and environmentally friendly approaches to planning and designing urban space green structure; urban `wildscapes´ and their acceptability; landscape expectations and experiences of migrants in multicultural urban communities; designing urban landscapes to meet the needs of young people; social factors in strategic approaches to the design and management of open spaces.
(Core group members: Anna Jorgensen, Clare Rishbeth, Helen Woolley)

Landscape architecture design theory
Interface between fine art and visual practice; philosophy, culture and pedagogy of environmentally oriented landscape architecture; application of contemporary design theory to designed landscapes from the Medieval to the present; restoration of historic landscapes; experiential landscape analysis and design; philosophical and theoretical context of people-place-space relations.
(Core group members: Catherine Dee, Kevin Thwaites, Jan Woudstra)

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