A talk by two ecologists highlighted a new and fascinating approach to designing landscape

How to take ecology really seriously

It’s always salutary to be instructed in one’s own arts by a practitioner from a different field, writes Simon Watkins.

Last month, speaking to the Landscape Institute Midlands at Birmingham City University, ecologist  Dr. Phil Fermor gave an object lesson in how landscape design can be generated from deep study of a site, inspired interpretation of its potentia,l and rigorous application of a simple concept – in this case habitat creation taken to a fine degree of detail.

Fermor and his partner Dr. Katy Read, also director at Middlemarch Environmental, have developed their ‘Creative Ecological Solutions’ (CES) process over the last 20 years, pioneering an approach to site planning that might be dubbed ‘landscape deep design’: the practice of defining land use, pattern and design by a full and deep appreciation of the way in which the landscape functions from its geology upwards.

The six stages of the CES process are familiar enough: feasibility is considered through in-depth site surveys including geology, soils, topography, hydrogeology, ecology, arboriculture, utilities and other physical constraints. Design synthesises these with the aspirations of the client and the expert knowledge of the designer.

Different outcomes
However, the difference in the outcome generated by an ecological expert compared with a landscape expert is of palpable interest: the emphasis on ecological function results in designs offering no-less aesthetic interest than might be expected within a pure landscape design. The final four stages centre on implementation and end with monitoring – a ‘must have’ where habitat creation is concerned.

The several projects showcased had a relatively flat topography in common – a design challenge in its own right, particularly where surface and groundwater management are concerned. It is clear that being led by hydrological and ecological function has freed Middlemarch’s designers from the shackles of traditional aesthetic expectations is clear: the winding routes of drainage channels following grille-like patterns across otherwise open fields are striking to say the least, even visually unique. The birds like them anyway, which is after all why we’re here – at North Cave, Yorkshire (ostensibly an aggregate extraction site, but dubbed ‘habitat creation with a by-product of aggregate extraction’ by Fermor), extraordinarily high breeding rates were recorded for a number of rare species during the first season after construction.

Could landscape architects do this?
Asked rhetorically at various points in the talk whether this was something landscape architects would do, perhaps like me the rest of the audience found itself having to reach into reserves of memory to find any remotely similar opportunities. Essentially, Fermor and Read’s team are given the task of thoroughly examining a site with the aim of constructing a rationale for land use entirely driven by the landscape.

This is a key difference between their art and ours: at best, in masterplanning terms landscape is permitted to ‘lead’ insofar as the development aims will accommodate. Creative Ecological Solutions seem to have the whip hand on land use: a fact not lost on Fermor, whose client base is sufficiently committed to their approach to be supportive of the level of rigorous analysis and detailed specification which emerge.

A new understanding
CES’ designs need not remain a landscape curiosity however, confined to the realm of ‘nice to haves’. If, as often heard in the corridors of landscape offices, we want to project-manage, masterplan and lead design teams, we need to have something particular and valuable to offer clients which they can only get from professionals with an holistic understanding of landscape, environment, society and economy. That something is, I think, hinted at by the landscape-deep CES approach; a fresh example, if we needed one, of practitioners outside our profession pointing to new and different understandings of the logic of landscape.

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