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Interview: John Hopkins

RUTH SLAVID, Photography John Hopkins, Images by Barrett Doherty


John Hopkins can take much of the credit for the success of the Olympic Park — now he wants to sort out the world.

Few practitioners become clients and have the opportunity to view the challenges from an opposite viewpoint, but John Hopkins is one of the few. After leading LDA Design’s unsuccessful bid to carry out the original Olympic masterplan, he ended up working for the Olympic Delivery Authority, effectively as client for the Olympic Park. It was, he says, ‘the chance of a lifetime. It was fantastic to bring my experience of being a consultant to this role. It is absolutely crucial that a client is informed — and not all clients are.’

Hopkins ended up in a new relationship with his old firm, when LDA.Hargreaves was appointed to masterplan the overlay of the park itself — a decision from which he deliberately removed himself. The Park, said Hopkins, ‘is a demonstration that the power of good design solves so many problems. It’s a multi-functional landscape. There is the ability through great design to weave together the needs of wildlife with the needs of people.’

One of the first things that he did when appointed to his role was to give talks to all groups from senior designers to subcontractors about the importance of the role of the landscape. This didactic approach reflects the fact that Hopkins has taught for much of his life, and he now has a full-time teaching position, having moved to the US a year ago, as visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

‘I have always had a fascination with the States,’ he said, having previously taken a research masters at Louisiana State University and freelanced briefly in Boston. ‘The practice of landscape architecture here is far ahead of the UK,’ he said, speaking from the States. ‘I have always tried to bring that US excellence to the UK.’

And, crucially, it gives him time to write. With Peter Neal, former head of public space at CABE and seconded to the ODA, he has written The Making of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, described as ‘the only authoritative account of the planning, design and construction of the Park’. More ambitious in scope although not in length, will be his next book, a solo production called The Global Garden — Ecological Economics and Infrastructure. It is intended to be a polemic and therefore will be only 30-40,000 words long, aimed at both the general public and at decision makers.

Despite its brevity, it has been a long time in gestation. ‘I have been working on these ideas throughout my career,’ he said. It argues that we need a new economic model that is not predicated on growth, because the pursuit of growth is at odds with the finite resources of our planet – and their inequitable distribution. Hopkins treats the earth as a ‘global green garden’ into which only sunlight enters. And landscape architects, he believes, have a vital role to play in achieving this.

His book will, he says, ‘describe how we can achieve beautiful, multi-functional landscapes for water, food, energy, biodiversity, materials, transport, waste, equity, human health and happiness based on natural and cultural resources, and ecosystem services capacity.’

He said, ‘It’s “the economy, stupid” that is driving us all in the wrong direction. One of the problems with the economy is that it is being driven by big business. The majority of agriculture in the UK is being bought up by big business. The National Farmers Union is arguing for US-style big agriculture, which goes against the grain of the landscape.’

Fundamentally nothing will work, Hopkins believes, until we all give up our obsession with growth. ‘We measure GDP,’ he says, ‘by the amount of physical stuff put through the system. It doesn’t put a cost on the resources, on the pollution. Nor does it measure well-being. Every politician and every economist says that we have to have growth. But that is exactly what we don’t want. I hope my book will broaden the knowledge of people so that they will understand and will work for change. We have to concentrate on health and well-being rather than on increasing salaries.’

Why should this be of particular interest to landscape architects? ‘They have the skills,’ says Hopkins, ‘to do some national scale environmental planning and resource planning. They need to do that, but they need clients. The client at the national scale has to be government.’ The lesson from the Olympic Park is that ‘no project can move forward and not address sustainability. Landscape architects need to be at the core of every project, and increasingly so. Biodiversity and vegetation need to work more closely at the core of the design team. We need to move to a benign infrastructure.’

Hopkins’ book will, he believes, be the first that specifically addresses ecological economics and the planning, design, delivery, management and monitoring of ecological infrastructure. ‘I have always been a deep thinker,’ he said. ‘I always wanted to understand why. It was the inspiration for travelling, for learning about cultures, civilisations and history.’ He describes himself as a Taoist which, he says, means ‘being part of the flow but you can also affect the flow,’ and this is what he hopes the book will do.

Since studying landscape architecture at Thames Polytechnic, Hopkins has worked in the public and private sectors, in large and small practices in the UK, Hong Kong, Australia and Malaysia, with teaching running in parallel for much of the time. Moving to the Olympic Delivery Authority was a step away from practice, and the US placement is a further move in that direction. It will be fascinating to see what Hopkins decides to do next and where he does it. I suspect that even he does not know — but that the answer, when it comes, may well be surprising and will certainly be interesting. He will be making the flow, as well as going with it.

Wiley is offering readers of Landscape a 25% discount on the rrp of The Making of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. To order call Freephone 0800 243407 or visit and quote promo code VBA41 when prompted.

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