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‘The Conversation’ - Looking ahead

‘The Conversation’ was initiated to find out how members felt the profession should position itself for the future. Here are the results.
When initiating ‘The Conversation’ between Landscape Institute members, the Policy Committee welcomed ‘ambitious and radical ideas for the long term future of the profession’. It prompted many varied, interesting and thoughtful responses from individuals, practices and Branches, providing invaluable insight into the thoughts and aspirations of the membership. A summary of themes and key words that have been generated by the conversation to-date is available on the LI website members section.

This initial review of contributions focuses on the key themes of identity, roles and influence. Amongst the very many positive and constructive views expressed by members, there are concerns that the landscape profession is under-valued, giving rise to a strong desire that landscape professionals should be seen as part of the solution to a range of social, environmental and economic drivers.

There was quite a lot of looking back to what was remembered as a glorious past, ranging from city parks in the 1840s, to the garden cities of the 1900s, the new towns of the 1960s and the garden festivals of the 1980s. Unlike the situation observed today, landscape professionals were employed at senior grades in public authorities and Government departments, and held influential positions in major organisations, as well as establishing high profile companies of their own.

One contributor found it amazing that landscape now has such a low profile in the planning process and that there are so few protests about the degraded landscapes around places where people live, work, go to school and visit. Another commented poetically that today, people seem to be surrounded by a grey umbrella that prevents them from seeing the colourful sky. But on a more optimistic note, one contributor suggested that our profession’s awareness of natural systems could make us more successful in recruiting a new ‘Spring Watch’ generation to landscape architecture courses.

Maybe because other professions working in the development industry have more members and are more publicly visible than our own, there is a perception that they are regarded more highly by clients, other professionals and the general public. There certainly seems to be a lack of confidence amongst the membership and a feeling that as a group landscape professionals are not as assertive as architects, planners and urban designers.

However, the Landscape Institute’s Royal Charter means that Government organisations are required to consult us on matters relating to landscape. Indeed the Landscape Institute’s policy officers have said that they would be delighted to hear from members who are willing to contribute to consultation responses on behalf of the Institute and wider membership. If the Landscape Institute can exert more influence at all levels of policy making on behalf of the membership, then the skills and knowledge of landscape professionals will be valued more highly by potential clients, Government officials, policy makers and other professions.

Partnerships with leading organisations such as Ecobuild, and other professional institutes such as RIBA, RTPI and influential bodies such as TCPA, and appearances by the President at a multitude of public and professional events, ensure that landscape issues are debated in public forums. Contributors suggested that the Landscape Institute should take every opportunity to identify enlightened politicians, and lobby effectively to ensure that a wider appreciation of landscape values is placed high on the political agenda at both local and national levels. 

And at a local level, several members suggest that the profession should identify ways to engage the public, and especially young people, and involve itself more with environmental education, the voluntary sectors, politics and economics. As a profession that is concerned not just with landscape, but also with people, and their health and wellbeing, landscape professionals are ideally placed to mediate between natural and human systems.  Members should be encouraged to help everyone to value the landscape, to recognise its importance in their daily lives, and perhaps to become involved in landscape related activities by joining
or working with neighbourhood and community groups.

Landscape professionals are trained to be practical, technical and creative and most of all to adopt an impartial professional approach to problem-solving, decision-making and policy formulation. There was a feeling that, if landscape is the starting point for all forms of development and change, and the context within which all other issues sit, then we as a profession are best placed to understand the relationships between people and places, and between communities and landowners and their aspirations. 

Some regretted that landscape professionals are approached at a late stage of project development, often merely to add planting to pre-designated areas, or to discharge planning conditions. Others observed that they are more frequently being engaged from the start, to inform or even to lead development or infrastructure projects.  Several members reported there is a growing understanding that a collaborative, as opposed to a competitive, way of working is being encountered and this is regarded as a positive step forward. 

There were several suggestions that landscape professionals must learn to sell themselves better, and seek out opportunities to justify a place in major development and construction teams. In order to achieve this, employers could encourage and mentor staff to develop tactful but effective leadership skills. 

Landscape professionals generally seem to need more confidence to challenge the ideas and approaches of other professionals, and to promote their own skills, in order to help the team and the client achieve appropriate and well-rounded solutions. There was a suggestion that the profession should be ‘ambushing’ the conferences of other organisations, for example, as speakers at development industry or housebuilders’ conferences, to demonstrate what landscape professionals can achieve and how good landscape can add value. Actively creating ‘pop-up’ landscape design events in urban spaces was offered as a way of encouraging people to take part in shaping the places in which they live. 

Some responses urged the membership to remember that the Landscape Institute has been granted a Royal Charter that states that ‘the objects and purposes for which the Institute is hereby constituted are to protect, conserve and enhance the natural and built environment for the benefit of the public...’ No other professionals have been given the right to call themselves Landscape Architects and, whatever some may say to the contrary, no other professional body can claim to encompass ‘all aspects of the science, planning, design, implementation and management of landscapes and their environment in urban and rural areas’.

Having read all the many contributions to The Conversation, it is evident that the over-riding challenge for our profession in the coming years is to raise awareness and understanding of landscape and the landscape profession. As members of the Landscape Institute, we know that we are expert in many fields related to landscape, but unless others become more aware of our expertise and the skills and services we offer, there is a danger that we are merely talking to ourselves. 
 
Many positive ways were suggested for landscape professionals to raise awareness of landscape and to promote our profession.  Many have already been taken up by Landscape Institute staff and members of committees, and particularly by the president, Sue Illman. Some of the themes and topics raised by The Conversation responses could become subjects for future articles in this journal, or for lectures, debates or presentations for Landscape Institute training events, briefings or CPD workshops. Some may be developed into more general publications, particularly when they challenge ill-informed views, or provide case studies to promote the achievements of landscape professionals to a wider audience. 

So what’s next for The Conversation?
The Conversation has shown that there is clear support for the idea of an on-going dialogue between members. The Landscape Institute Board of Trustees, Council, both the current and incoming presidents and the Policy and Communications Committee are in ‘listening’ mode. We have successfully demonstrated that providing a structured forum for debate and discussion is a successful way of engaging members in a conversation about the future of the profession.

The Conversation will continue to run throughout 2014, and members of the Policy and Communications Committee welcome your contributions at any time, via the dedicated email address: [email protected] or via Talking Landscapes at www.talkinglandscape.org

Keep talking!

Kate Bailey and Ian Houlston are members of the Policy and Communications Committee and were the instigators of The Conversation.

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