Inspiring talks at exhibition, which has been extended until 26 February

Landscape offers rich variety of ways to tackle poverty

The talks taking place at The Building Centre during the run of the exhibition ‘Rethinking the Urban Landscape’ (which has now been extended until 26 February), do not shy away from the big issues.

On 26 January, speakers tackled the question ‘Can we design out poverty by designing great landscapes?’. The issue may be serious, but the talks were entertaining as well as inspiring and thought-provoking.

How could they be otherwise when the first speaker was Pam Warhurst, the founder of Incredible Edible Todmorden, the movement to grow food within a town that started locally and sprouted imitators across the globe? Pam explained that the idea was a response to the fact that while talk about climate change had been going on for years, very little seemed to change.

She explained that the movement began with the question ‘What could we do as individuals to see if we could create differences and give them to our children’s future? What if we all individually started to think about living our lives differently?’

Having hatched the idea on a train journey, she started to put it into practice – to turn Todmorden into a place where public spaces became sites of food growing. Whether a neglected park, a space in front of a police station or a the courtyard of a job centre, these places were rapidly colonised, sometimes with and sometimes without permission. The aim was not for Todmorden to become self-sufficient in food, but for the local community to become involved, to enjoy growing plants and learning about them. There have been cookery classes in the marketplace, people learning to graft trees and a general brightening of both the visual and the emotional landscape. ‘One hundred odd communities are doing this in the UK,’ Pam Warhurst said. ‘You can tackle poverty from the bottom up. You just do it one plot at a time.’

Julia Thrift, head of projects and events at the TCPA, talked about the origins of the planning system. While some see it as an impediment rather than a benefit now, it started as a way to improve people’s living conditions. Since Ebenezer Howard set up the organisation, she said, ‘the focus on social justice has been whittled away’. So the National Planning Policy Framework refers to wellbeing rather than equality. The problem is, Julia said, that equality is measurable while wellbeing is not.

‘We think it is time to rethink the social purpose of planning,’ she said. ‘The planning system can’t solve poverty but without thinking about planning and design we won’t get very far.’

While Julia Thrift’s perspective addresses the whole country, the next speaker, Bob Bagley, returned to a local focus. He is one of the two originators of the Sayes Court Garden project in Deptford, southeast London. An area rich in history but with considerable poverty, Deptford is the planned site for Convoys Wharf, a high-rise luxury residential development planned on the site of the old Naval Dockyard.

While the site looks pretty featureless, in fact part of it was the home of John Evelyn’s garden, and efforts to preserve it and restore it in the nineteenth century were precursors to the concept of the National Trust. Bob Bagley showed that, by well-considered badgering, a large degree of community engagement and work with an architect, a solution has been found that will not only respect the site’s history but will also provide green space and a larger degree of permeability to the development.

Rolf Roscher of Erz described a project called Glasgow Growing Spaces, that identified places in the city where there was potential for productive gardens. His practice came up with a variety of types of spaces, from the temporary to the permanent and offered appropriate solutions, always working with the same kits of parts to provide a modular growing kit. So far the project has delivered seven growing spaces, mostly in poorer parts of the city, harvesting 3000 kg of fruit and vegetables in a year. But, said Rolf Roscher, ‘the vegetables aren’t the outcome. It is the urban and social change that is the outcome.’

LI president Noel Farrer talked about the work that his practice, Farrer Huxley, is doing in Barrow-in-Furness. He explained the challenge of creating a better landscape for listed but run-down tenement buildings where the value is so low that there is no impetus to invest. ‘We have to preserve and recognise the importance of the public realm,’ he said. ‘It’s all about social interaction,’ he said, explaining how the practice intends not only to plant trees but also to create paths linking the blocks and position bin stores as key meeting places.

Booking is open for the next event in the 'Rethinking the Urban Landscape' series at The Building Centre. 'How do you pay for green infrastructure in an age of austerity?' will take place on Monday 9 February.

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