The recent Green Infrastructure and Design conference in Birmingham was stimulating and enlightening. Paul Lincoln reports.

John Box, president of CIEEM, and Sue Illman, president of the Landscape Institute
John Box, president of CIEEM, and Sue Illman, president of the Landscape Institute

The unexplained death of Indian vultures set the scene for the opening session of the Green Infrastructure and Design conference organised by the LI and CIEEM.

Opening speaker, Tony Juniper, former director of Friends of the Earth, charted the progress of the environmental movement over the past 30 years, expressing optimism that topics like green infrastructure were now moving into the mainstream but also painting an alarming picture of the way in which natural systems which had protected food supplies and health were being casually destroyed.

The mystery of the Indian vultures can be explained in the pages of his new book What has nature done for us?. His greatest pessimism was reserved for the way in which arguments on the environment which had, he thought, been won, over the past five years, were now going into reverse with the current Environment Secretary described as ‘a climate change denier’. Juniper challenged the capacity audience of planners, ecologists and landscape architects to campaign vigorously to change government policy, arguing that 1% of the  NHS budget should be allocated to restore nature.

Ecologist Gary Grant argued that many people still think cities are a collection of buildings. ‘If buildings do not deal with water or biodiversity’, he said, ‘they are not green’. Cities will be better places if full of nature. Multifunctional design is essential. Grant wants all cities to be permeable to wild life. And he argued for the creation of water sensitive cities. ‘Put rain gardens in streets’, he said, ‘People love them. Put landscape architects in charge of drainage. When engineers do it, it always requires concrete.’

For Grant, ‘a silver roof is a roof. A green roof is a park’. The old way of designing buildings was to build first, then dress with ornamental planting. The new way is to make nature, as the engineer, work for us.

Francis Hesketh of landscape architect TEP had a simple motto for working with water: ‘Slow it down, spread it out and sink in’. He argued for the wilding of existing green space, the ultimate example of this being the wilderness created in the Olympic Park.

Pam Warhurst spoke about the Incredible Edible Todmorden project that she set up with her neighbours in the Pennine town of Todmorden. They were a bunch of volunteers who decided enough was enough. She said: ‘If we’re going to change the world, we might as well start where we live.’

For her the ingredients of a sustainable town are:

– learning

– community

– business.

The project, which is now being replicated throughout the world. enables people to walk through edible landscapes. ‘We’re growing people. We’re growing hope,’ she said.

She illustrated the approach with a health centre surrounded by prickly plants. ‘We wanted to plant edibles. Now people going to health centre enjoy an apothecary garden,’ she said.

‘The incredible green route helps vegetable tourists have a good time. It doesn’t cost a lot more money but it does make a lot of people happy. They’re building the landscapes of their lives.’

Keynote speakers were followed by a presentation from Emily Barker on Worcestershire GI partnership and Kathryn Deeney from Plymouth GI project.

Copies of the presentations will be made available shortly.

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