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The strength of knowledge

By Ruth Slavid

Photo ©: Agnese Sanvito

At the start of September, the Walkie Talkie office building in the City of London won the Carbuncle Cup, Building Design’s annual award for the worst new building. Jonathan Jones, art critic with The Guardian, then wrote a piece arguing that it should be demolished. And that shocked me. Not because I love the building, but because demolishing newly finished buildings is just wrong.

The amount of embodied energy that goes into making a building is significant and becoming more so, as energy in use is reduced. There are people in the architectural world who make it their business to measure embodied energy and so find ways of reducing it. But what about embodied energy in landscape? This is relatively easy to calculate for hard materials provided that you know where they were sourced and how they were treated and transported.

With soft materials it is more difficult. I suppose that you could say that the inputs during their lifetime are equivalent to the in-use inputs in a building, although in the case of a plant this energy goes to keeping the material alive and healthy, whereas in a building it is (at the extreme), keeping the occupants alive and healthy.

However the sums work, it is indisputable that throwing good material away is wasteful. That is why it is so useful to have Keith Sacre’s article explaining why trees need to be pruned differently once they have left the nursery, and how to set about that process (see Pruning in the landscape). If the pruning is not done correctly at an early stage, he explains, there will be problems later that will make drastic action necessary, possibly even replacing the tree. This is a huge waste of expenditure, effort and, crucially, embodied energy as well as resulting in a loss of amenity. Knowledge is the route to avoiding these problems.

It is knowledge of a different sort that Jenifer White of Natural England wants to share (see Celebrating our heritage). She believes both that greater understanding of historic landscapes will improve the practice of landscape professionals today and, cheeringly, that the skills that landscape architects can bring to interacting with the planning system are underrated. We can hardly expect that every tree and every piece of hard landscape from Victorian times will survive, but by engaging with the historic environment we should be able to make savings in landscape materials – and in embodied energy.

If we struggle to realise what we are wasting when we don’t look after our man-made environments, how much more difficult it can be to recognise the value of the natural environment, and the true cost of damaging it. The concept of natural capital is an attempt to bridge that gap by putting an economic value on what previously has not been measured. Landscape professionals are becoming increasingly aware that it is an important approach and one with direct relevance for them, but many struggle to grasp what it means in practice.

Fortunately Ece Ozdemiroglu does understand it, and explains it with admirable clarity and concrete examples within this article Working with natural capital. If knowledge is power, then I am feeling a little stronger after reading her piece. I hope that you are too. 

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