Speaking at the UK Landscape Conference, Rene Bihan says the profession needs to build a better public understanding of how a landscape performs if it is to grow political capital

Rene Bihan
Rene Bihan

Leading thinkers from across the landscape profession gathered in Liverpool this week for the first ever UK Landscape Conference. Hot topics included the realities of implementing the European Landscape Convention, whether landscape has political capital and the challenges we face in articulating the economics of landscape.

Keynote speaker Rene Bihan of SWA Group in San Francisco threw down the gauntlet to the landscape profession when he said that, in order for landscape to grow its political capital, landscape architects needed to clearly articulate for government, and the public, what it is in a landscape that they are asking them to support.

“Good design is often when the design itself disappears, so the challenge is to get support for something that is not always visible, that has no clear boundaries, but is in fact a constructed landscape,” Bihan said. “We need to build a better narrative for general practice in understanding the performance of landscapes. Landscape is a design instrument and we shouldn’t be shy about articulating it.”

He also raised the question of how to raise the profile of landscape architecture among young people, calling for stronger communication and better publications when it comes to articulating landscape architecture to the outside world.

“Political capital isn’t just about money. It’s about getting landscape to the forefront of contemporary thinking. Landscape does have political capital as long as the ideas are good and they are well articulated. We need to be courageous,” said Bihan.

Inconsistent on localism?
Robin Mortimer, Director for Climate Change Adaptation, Air Quality, Landscape and Rural Affairs (CALR), Defra, appeared to contradict some of the recent DCLG statements in his opening presentation, when he said that Defra sees “national-level thinking when it comes to sustainability”. This followed comments that Defra were working on how localism could be realistically applied in relation to the environment, and that it acknowledged that some landscape management, such as coastal erosion and renewable energy, goes beyond local authority boundaries.

European Landscape Convention (ELC)
Maguelone Dejeant-Pons, Head of Cultural Heritage, Landscape and Spatial Planning Division, Council of Europe, together with Maggie Roe, Editor of Landscape Research at University of Newcastle upon Tyne, and Kevin Bishop, Chair ICOMOS-UK/IUCN-UK Landscape Working Group, looked at the realities of implementing the ELC.

Bishop said that the ELC was a driving force for government, but for those at the coalface, it was vital to get it embedded in government policy in order to give access to funding streams. While this could not be ignored, he acknowledged that the ELC had so far “enabled us to open doors and push landscape issues up the policy agenda”.

Planning in the new political landscape
Questioned about the future of the IPC following the CSR, Chair Sir Michael Pitt said that under new proposals the IPC would no longer be a non-governmental body and would instead become an arms-length government body. At which point, Pitt explained it could no longer be described as “independent” and that this shift was “significant”.

Pitt opened his speech with an acknowlegement that changes to the landscape “are going to be huge and that there are a huge number of interests and conflicts of interest”. The number of planned infrastructure projects is set to rise to 120 over the next 18 months, 80% of which will be energy projects.

Economics of landscape
In a session called ‘Putting a Price on Landscape’, LI CEO Alastair McCapr, said that traditionally there has been a dichotomy between business and environment, however, “we have now adopted a convention in the ELC that thinks about both landscape and the economy”. He referred to two publications to be released shortly by the LI that will explore this relationship: the economic beneifts of landscape architecture and a good client’s guide.

The discussion inspired debate on what it is about a landscape that conveys value: do we need sharper tools to beable to better articulate a landscape’s assets?

Other speakers included Dr Mechtild Rossler, Chief European and North America Section, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, on the challenges in conservationa and transmission, and there in-depth discussions with the six UKLA shortlisted landscape project leaders.

Simon Schama brought proceedings to a triumphant close in a before-dinner speech, imploring delegates not to forget the power of language to persuade when talking about landscape, aptly finishing on a quote from poet John Clare.


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