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On the larger scale

The contribution of the landscape architect at catchment level can mean the difference between visual intrusion and enhancement of the landscape.

The flood prevention work in Banbury involved construction of a major embankment. - Photo ©: Suave Air Photos

In contrast to SUDs and WSUDs, where it is possible to design the landscape so that it does much of the work that would previously have been performed by hard engineering structures, at the catchment level, if flooding is a concern, there are bound to be physical barriers. The landscape architect will therefore often be working to ameliorate the effects of hard engineering structures, rather than to replace them.

The importance of the work should not be underestimated. Stuart Ryder, of Ryder Landscape Consultants, says, ‘We deal with the cataclysmic end of the scale. We work with sites where there is an extreme flood risk.’

The problem with severe flooding is that it is not all that frequent – many designs are for one in 200 year floods – but that when the floods do occur the results can be terrible. And it is a huge problem. The Environment Agency believes that more than five million people in England and Wales live and work in properties that are at risk of flooding from rivers or the sea. In 1953, the UK’s worst peacetime disaster occurred when the East Coast flood killed 326 people. Even without loss of life, the cost in financial and psychological terms of flooding can be enormous.

Defences in Shrewsbury are attractive but need dedicated maintenance. - Photo ©: Ryder Landscape Consultants

The Environment Agency is, rightly, taking the risks seriously, and has recently appointed a framework of consultants and contractors to work with it over the next 10 years to deliver a £2.5 billion programme of works. Ryder describes his practice’s work on such projects as falling into three main areas: planning which can range from initial site assessment through to submissions for planning permission; design, which may include public liaison during the construction process; and management which may be anything from long-term land use planning through to habitat management.

Put simply, one vital role of a landscape architect is to ensure that the protection measures that are put in for those occasional and exceptional circumstances do not blight people’s lives during the majority of time when those circumstances do not apply. ‘Our work is collaborative with civil and structural engineering, to ameliorate the potential harm from large and intrusive engineering elements,’ Ryder said. ‘If that sounds rather negative, a way of not doing harm rather than of doing good, then look no further than the Cleveleys coast protection scheme which won a British Construction Industry Award in 2008.

In this traditional seaside town which is just north of Blackpool, the design team managed to incorporate elements in the defences that made them into an enhancement rather than an interruption. Crucially, it managed to avoid visually separating the town from the sea, and so removing much of its charm.

Community engagement discovered that protection of the Bakehouse Steps was the major concern in Morpeth.- Photo ©: Ryder Landscape Consultants

In Banbury, Oxfordshire, the flood risk comes from the River Cherwell where it spills into the adjacent Oxford Canal and floods Banbury from there as well as from  its own watercourse. The project was to build a large upstream flood storage reservoir that required a 3km embankment to be built  between the river and the canal.

At three places the River Cherwell had to be moved to allow space for the construction of the flood embankment. Ryder designed the landform to ameliorate the effect of the large earth embankments, protected habitats and looked at future agricultural usages. It carried out an extensive public consultation programme, since it is vital for people that will live near the defences to have an input, and to understand why the work is necessary.

In Morpeth Northumberland and in Lancashire, consultation found that the single most important element for local people was the preservation and continued use of the Bakehouse Steps, a series of stepping stones across the river. They have historic significance, since they were once the only means of crossing, but are still widely used today.

On a scheme like this, which is in a mix of rural and urban areas, such understanding – as well as an appreciation of the need to preserve the local crayfish population – can be vital.

Award-winning coastal defences at Cleveleys. - Photo ©: Ryder Landscape Consultants

A scheme in Shrewsbury was tested in earnest with flooding just two weeks after completion in 2004. It was the first time that demountable defences were used in England to minimise visual impact. One of the lessons that the practice drew from the project was that ‘If you want to create a quality scheme that fits into its setting, then time and money have to be invested in the design of cladding, the quality of materials and site supervision.’

While this may seem an obvious point on the design of a high- quality office block, it may be less apparent on what is essentially a civil engineering project. Another lesson drawn from that project was that, however high-profile the scheme may be, planting will not be looked after unless it is specifically written into the maintenance contract.

Coastal protection schemes need to preserve special environments, such as this salt marsh at Donna Nook in Lincolnshire. - Photo ©: Ryder Landscape Consultants

No two flood prevention schemes are the same, yet there are lessons that can be applied widely. If landscape architects are employed at an early stage, they can make the difference between degrading and enhancing a neighbourhood when introducing vital measures to protect from flooding.

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