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The power of positive thinking

By Ruth Slavid
This year’s LI conference was buzzing with ideas, both on the platform and among the delegates. It demonstrated the skills and energy of the profession.

Chairing one of the sessions at this year’s Landscape Institute conference, Sue Evans of Central Scotland Green Network praised the inspirational nature of the speeches. It contrasted, she said, with the days spent in an office fretting over details and, inevitably, not seeing the bigger picture.

This year’s conference definitely addressed the ‘bigger picture’ but in a way that was grounded in reality, in projects and even in details. Speakers demonstrated the ability of professionals to make a positive difference, in projects as diverse as a flood relief strategy for the north-east, a series of massive interventions in China and ways of thinking about parks to ensure that they provide as much benefit as possible to refugees.

The conference, entitled ‘Landscape as Infrastructure’ was held at Manchester Metropolitan University on 22 June. LI President Merrick Denton-Thompson introduced the conference with a rallying cry to the profession. ‘We need to think very carefully,’ he said, ‘about how we connect with the public. What we really are after is a cultural shift. We are in a unique position at the interface between people and natural systems.’ Merrick also talked about the fact that ‘we have tended to box ourselves into being urban’, whereas many of the largest problems were in rural areas, with loss of water and air quality and, in particular, problems with soils. 

He gave the example of the River Itchen in Hampshire, a chalk stream that is one of the best fly-fishing rivers in the country. Although it still looks clear, it is, Merrick said, ‘dead – the level of phosphates is so high that the viscosity has been affected and fly eggs can no longer stick to the plants’.

‘The biodiversity and mineralised content and restoration of our soils is of top importance,’ he said. ‘We are dealing with soils every day, but do we deal with the science and biodiversity of soils? We are very good at fluffy feathery things, but not so good at doing something about actual science. Every commission for transforming landscape must ask, what is the biological quality and what can I do to improve it?’ Industrial farming, he warned, has a huge impact on air quality as well as water quality. Typically, he said, 50% of nitrate fertilisers go into the soil, 25% into aquifers, and 25% into the air, where they form nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than CO2. 

The way for the profession to have influence is, Merrick argued, to show how it can influence the issues of today – ‘the state of childhood’, including obesity where ‘we in this room can do more than any other profession’, and the health and care of the elderly where ‘we can do so much for dementia’.

The speakers who followed demonstrated, through their projects and research, just how much of a difference the profession can make. Kate Collins, director at Sheils Flynn, talked about the new flood strategy for the area around Hull, where local strategies have been written to be easily understandable and to point up opportunities. ‘The main message is about stakeholder engagement,’ she said, ‘and about the value of a landscape-led approach.’

Professor Xiangrong Wang, leading professor and vice dean of the School of Landscape Architecture at Beijing Forestry University, talked about restoring and improving historic towns such as Suzhou in the Taiha Lake basin by reconnecting the towns with surrounding countryside in a manner that was traditional. Again, the holistic vision of the landscape disciplines was vital for the success. This approach is vital, he said if the quality of life is not to be further degraded in a country where ‘230 million rural residents will move to cities in the next 15 years’.

Professor Binyi Liu, from Tongji University in Shanghai, showed some massive projects centred round water – and a sense of time with tree planting that is perhaps unique to the profession. ‘We will realise this beautiful scenery in 50–100 years,’ he said. 

Eric Hallquist, of Aecom, also spoke about water, through an insight into the practice’s projects around the world. At the North West Cambridge development, which is effectively creating a new city quarter, he talked about how hard the western edge of the project has to work, buffering noise from the M11 but also preserving and enhancing an existing brook and creating a space for leisure and an engagement with nature. He also explained how different planting regimens in the Middle East could have a massive effect on CO2 emissions by reducing demand for desalinated water.

Larissa Naylor, a geomorphologist at the University of Glasgow, talked about research into the greening of grey infrastructure – of the non-building elements such as civil enegineering structures. In addition to enhancing biodiversity (and, of course, looking nicer), this work can have positive impacts in terms of durability, she said. Barnacles, for example, slow the attack of salt on concrete, and capping sea defences with living materials enhances their longevity. Even ivy, often excoriated as an attack agent, can in the right circumstances actually protect walls. 

Richard Hellier, the Forestry Commission’s landscape advisor, talked about the way that careful design can improve the appearance and biodiversity of the new productive forests that are needed and planned for England. A lot of his work involves communicating these points. ‘We are trying to highlight the essential ingredients to landowners and forestry experts,’ he said. ‘They just don’t get it.’

While the benefits of good landscape may seem obvious to professionals, demonstrating their value to the wider world is difficult without hard data. So the fact that a number of speakers dealt with measur­ables and data was most welcome.   

Independent consultant Jonathan Buckley helped to develop the Envision sustainability ratings system which aimed ‘to demonstrate that landscape is a good investment’. He argued that ‘the most liveable cities are also the most competitive and landscape is a significant contributor to liveability’. Based largely on hard-nosed business analyses, such as the Economist Intelligence Unit’s liveability rankings, Envision measures seven systems, one of which is landscape.
Krista Patrick, who is natural capital coordinator with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, explained the city’s role as an Urban Pioneer. Its objectives include ‘developing a demonstration project that shows the benefits of a natural capital accounting approach to project funding’.

Natural capital accounting was also the subject of a talk by consultants Peter Neal and John Sheaff, who described their work in the London boroughs of Barnet and Barking. The scope of public spaces included in the two boroughs was very different, but both showed that the natural capital benefits of maintaining these spaces were significant multiples of the costs of doing so.

Steve Millington, senior lecturer in geography at Manchester Metropolitan University, showed a detailed analysis of the data contributing to the success of town centres. This homed in on the factors that made a significant difference and that town centres were able to influence. Several of these factors were within the remit of landscape architects, including recreational space, walkability and the general appearance of the area.

On a softer but equally important note, Clare Rishbeth, lecturer in landscape architecture at the University of Sheffield, described her research into the factors that make parks attractive to refugees. Suffering frequently from anxiety, isolation and a lack of money, they could benefit from the ‘green therapy’ that parks offer. In general, Clare said, they want places that are not too quiet, that make it clear who is welcome and that offer activities.

At the end of the formal proceedings, LI chief executive Dan Cook wound up, enjoining delegates to ‘help us make the case for landscape and infrastructure’. The issues the profession needed to address, he said, were:
• Change planning mindsets;
• Health and wellbeing
• Education and children’s needs
• Resilience
• Biodiversity and soil quality
• Food and water security
• Economic growth
• Intangibles such as tranquillity and beauty.

This would have been a fitting end to the day, but there were more pleasures to come, as delegates were bused to an evening reception in Salford’s Media City, hosted by street furniture specialist Vestre. This included an inspirational talk by urbanist and maker Lin Skaufel who discussed both her own work in Denmark and the ways that Copenhagen has embraced change and empowered its citizens.
As the hubbub of conversation continued to rise over dinner and drinks, the members of the profession clearly had plenty of ideas to digest as well as making new contacts and finding inspiration among their fellow professionals. 

The following morning there was a series of visits to see some of the fascinating ways in which Manchester is dealing with its urban fabric – and of course to have further discussions with new and old friends. There were representatives from small practices and people in large organisations who were the sole landscape specialists and rarely had time to talk to fellow professionals. There were academics and students and representatives of larger practices, all of whom had more opportunity to debate landscape but perhaps too many responsibilities to take a step back. This was an immensely valuable occasion and, despite the difficult times, an uplifting one. 

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