Rural landscapes will have to work much harder in the future, argued Lyndis Cole of LUC at the fourth Landscape Futures event, held in Bristol.

Lyndis Cole at the Landscape Futures Debate
Landscape Futures debate addresses rural issues

With climate change threatening the landscape, the need for greater food production and far less energy input into agriculture, we will need, she said, to think very differently about the countryside. Landscape planning, increasingly ignored by government, will become crucial, Cole argued.

The good news, she said, is that the landscape that we need is actually the kind of landscape that we want – diverse, small scale, biodiverse and of strong local character. And, she argued, it is not true that people don’t know what kind of landscape they want. They may not have the words to describe it, but research for Natural England shows they are very clear that what they want is:
• Strong landscape character, a recognisable sense of place
• Variety
• Accessibility
• Tranquillity and
• Wildlife-richness.

The problem is, Cole argued, that rural landscapes have fallen off the government agenda. ‘Under current policy emphasis, actively conserving this landscape fabric is seen as just too constraining on economic development.  But this is to misunderstand the role of landscape planning, that of enabling the landscape to adapt to and accommodate change in ways that maintain and enhance sense of place and landscape character and quality. The landscape profession along with other environmental professions has much to do to help politicians see the environment, including the landscape, as a vital resource for living, not a cost.’

Landscapes, she said, are ceasing to function properly, becoming instead ‘factory floors’ for food production. We need to think differently, she argued. ‘In rural areas we now need to refocus on function and consider the range of functions that a defined geographical area needs to provide, as much as we do in urban design.’ It will require an understanding of the different functions that different landscapes can offer in various parts of the country. It will not be easy, and will require a different approach to planning, probably focusing on landscape character areas. ‘The argument may be that we cannot afford to look after our rural landscapes,’ Cole concluded.  ‘But perhaps more to the point, we cannot afford to allow landscapes to evolve such that they are unsustainable, dysfunctional and ill adapted to the natural and human induced hazards that await us.’

Naomi Oakley, head of the landscape profession at Natural England, described the forthcoming changes to agri-environment funding. They will involve funding being more targeted she said, which to many was a cause for concern. It would however be administratively simpler, with extra funding available for priority areas, and the money would be easier to apply for.

Merrick Denton-Thompson, who chaired the event, said in his introduction, ‘I was despondent about the changes in agri-environment funding, but Naomi has reassured me that it is not as bad as I thought it was.’

Carys Swanwick, emeritus professor of landscape at Sheffield University and author of the recent GLVIA3, was the final speaker. She focused on three key areas – history, politics and education. Looking back over her career (and before it) she examined the range of proposals that had been put forward for improving our management of the countryside. Many of the same ideas have been proposed by different people over decades, she said. ‘They all dwell on the same sort of things – the values that we hold, the range of drivers of change, the range of possible ways to a better future.’

The problem, she said, is that ‘there has been some progress but too often it is two steps forward and two back.’

She was involved  in writing the Land Use Futures report for the government’s Foresight office in 2010, which concluded that there should be a more strategic approach to land use. The problem, she said, was that interest from politicians was minimal – at present this does not seem a priority and few pay attention.

In terms of education, Swanwick argued that education in landscape architecture rarely turns out graduates who are competent in landscape planning. ‘Do we need new courses,’ she asked, ‘to create professionals who can lead the way in “landscape services”?’

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