Landscape professionals must make their voices heard

10 April 2014

landscape futures Tom Armour Phil Askew Sue Illman Arup Olympic Park Education

The profession understands the value of landscape but it needs to get its message across and learn to lead

Tom Armour
Tom Armour of Arup gave the main talk and discussed his practice's Cities Alive research
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The sixth and last in the current series of Landscape Futures debates acted as a rallying cry for the profession, with both the main speaker and the two respondents calling for the profession to make its voice heard and spread the message of the importance of landscape and the difference that landscape professionals can make.

Tom Armour, the global leader of landscape architecture at Arup, said, ‘We have to make it clear that what we do is essential. There are new techniques to measure and evaluate what we do. We need to understand what we have got. Our time is now.’

Cities Alive
The landscape professions are really important, he said, because they can address the big issues facing cities. He referred to the recent report by the Arup Foresight team called Cities Alive which looks at how GI-led design can contribute to solutions to some of the most pressing issues facing today’s urban landscapes. He cited examples at all scales, from the smallest intervention to Madrid’s bold decision to put its ring road underground and Hamburg’s proposal of a car-free city.

Armour produced a slew of statistics that showed how intelligently designed landscape could improve well-being and the environment in ways that were reflected in hard commercial figures. For instance, Copenhagen estimates that a 10 per cent growth in cycling has saved its health service £12 million because people have become healthier. And mapping of green spaces against hot spots in London showed how green infrastructure can mitigate the urban heat island effect.

Team leaders
It is arguments like these, coupled with the fact that the public likes green spaces, that should help landscape professionals promote their cause – provided they are willing and able to do so. Armour led the team of landscape engineers on one half of the Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park where, said Phil Askew, project leader for parklands and public realm, the changes to the water regime had prevented flooding to 4,500 homes on nine separate occasions in the past wet spring.

Equally important, he said, was the demonstration that landscape architects can lead large teams, with successful results. ‘A strength of the profession is the enormous toolkit that we have,’ he said. ‘We are and should be very good at organising large teams of people.'

But, he warned, ‘Landscape architects are not natural leaders. We often complain that we are being ignored. This is daft – it is because we don’t sell our wares strongly enough. We need to be at the top. The Olympic park demonstrated that.’

Askew criticised a weakness in the education system which was not, he said, ‘teaching students how to talk to people who aren’t landscape architects. If we get it right we can say that we can also save vast amounts of money.’

A call to arms
Sue Illman, president of the Landscape Institute, started her talk by describing it as ‘a call to arms’. She said, ‘If we are to grow in the future and take up challenges, we have to learn how to speak. I have found that there is an audience that is very willing to listen. We have to demonstrate the value of what we do. We have to be prepared to stand up and shout about what we have achieved. Creating places that are environmentally responsible and sustainable is at the heart of what we do. We should be prepared to stand up and shout about what we have achieved.'

Starting in schools
Illman also talked about education, particularly in the light of the Farrell review, which recommended a common first foundation year for all built-environment students before they decide in which way they want to specialise. ‘I haven’t heard a single voice disagree,’ she said.  ‘A number of universities have already said that they interested in setting up courses.’ She also talked about the importance of taking the message to schools, to encourage bright children to pursue a career in landscape.

The public instinctively loves much of what the landscape professions can do, and professionals know just how much they can achieve. The great need is to get that information out there – to show that places can be more pleasant, healthier and, in all senses, greener. And that investment in landscape is not a cost but actually a way of saving money. The profession needs to communicate to the public and to public policy makers. And it will not do this, as the speakers showed, by being quiet and self-effacing.
Posted by Tom Lonsdale - April 22, 2014
I agree about getting ourselves heard but we should also be careful not to exacerbate the compartmentalisation that results from promoting ourselves for 'the green bits'. Our domain is the entire outdoor environment and how people inhabit and move around it, so we have an essential voice in every action of all built environment professionals. With that as a guiding principle and motivation I find it surprising and disappointing that so few top Landscape Architects are operating on design review panels and as enablers: those who have not tried it will be surprised how seriously we are taken when speaking from that advisory platform rather than competing for fees on a job. We should also ALL challenge forcibly anyone and everyone who uses the word 'landscaping' or the verb 'to landscape': this vocabulary has no place in modern planning, yet it proliferates and does more to perpetuate our tail-end marginalisation - IF WE LET IT!
Posted by Will Williams - April 22, 2014
Spot on again Tom, as usual. I would recommend everyone looks up 'landscape architecture in Webter's Dictionary, that sums it up nicely! I gave up calling myself a landscape architect long before I left Lovejoy's in the late 90s, I'm a master planner.
Posted by Graham Marshall - April 22, 2014
Hello Tom There would probably be more top draw landscape architects on design review panels if they were not so architecturally biased in their selection and operation. Perhaps the 'concept' of place in the Farrell report might change this. In the article I find a lot to disagree with. We are all human, so the notion that landscape architects are not natural leaders might say something of the calibre of landscape architects. However, there are very many qualified landscape architect leaders out there, although they may not be practising in the manner that some would like. Perhaps what we are not recognising is the wide leadership roles these professionals operate under. In 1999 I was the founding director of the first regeneration company in Liverpool, moving from consultant to client role. However, I was a new kind of client - a design literate one that championed quality, exercising directorial leadership, not soft money project management. Whilst in this role I contacted the Landscape Institute several times with the intention of 'favouring' my own institute in this exciting urban renaissance. Their constant suspicion at my contacts led me to wash my hands of them in the end. My point is that I do not believe that we as a profession know what we are doing or what our role is in a contemporary society. The above article is full of unsubstantiated assertions - "...the fact that the public likes green spaces...". This is not a fact - the wrong green space can have a devastating impact on individuals and communities. We need to see beyond the green and stop acting like a trade organisation seeking parasitic opportunities. We need to undertake and sponsor real research into what makes a good place and stop reciting the unsubstantiated 'design' dogma we have been spoon fed. We need authenticity, not branding.
Posted by penny beckett - April 23, 2014
What ever happened to 'the light touch' ? All this talk of 'enormous toolkits'; 'master' planner and bestriding 'domains'! I agree with the sentiment about not limiting ourselves to 'green bits' though, but then 'we' don't, and 'we' didn't, ever (unless referring to the 1920s perhaps) - did 'we'?
Posted by John Dejardin - April 24, 2014
From my experience as a profession we fail too often to adequately understand architecture. Indeed the majority of landscape architects I have met or interviewed appear to have very little appreciation or interest in buildings. Ask them to name their favourite architect or building they are at a lost to the relevance of the question. Man inhabits the landscape by building homes and buildings in which to work and recreate its fundamental to our existence on this planet. I have been a panel member with the East Midlands design review panel OPUN since its inception in 2006 I have never experienced the panel imbalance expressed by Graham Marshall. My experience has been an excellent dialogue and debate and while I’m there to ensure landscape matters are adequately covered I certainly go on to discuss and question the architecture and engineering; the buildings inter relationships; sequence of arrival; identity of purpose; views from within etc. all the things that go to make quality of place. Tom Lonsdale is right, we have an essential voice but it has to come from a real and intelligent appreciation of our partners in the built environment right through to the commercial agenda. As the Farrell report rightly points out the planning system has become largely reactive and rarely proactive. Sadly, encouraged by environmental legislation we as a profession have slipped into the same mould. Richard Rogers said in a LI annual lecture a number of years ago he had not met a landscape architect that didn’t keep saying no! From my experience the majority of landscape architects in local authorities fall into this category and fail to see that an environmental problem can very readily be turned into and environmental opportunity. On the majority of multi-disciplinary panels I have served the panel has unanimously pleaded with the design team to be more adventurous and seize the opportunities the development opens up. Sadly far too often the green elements are used to hide away the development rather than assist in giving it an identity and sense of place. As a profession we need to move away from the reactive to the proactive and be always looking for the positive in any development opportunity. Only then will we move to become a stronger and truly effective participant in the environmental design team. We might even be invited to be a panel member of the next Farrell Review.

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