Positive thinking and the power of data

Delegates at one of the morning presentations

Speakers at this year’s Landscape Institute conference demonstrated the ability of professionals to make a positive difference, in projects as diverse as a flood relief strategy for the North East, a series of massive interventions in China and ways of thinking about parks to ensure that they provide as much benefit as possible to refugees.

The conference, titled Landscape as Infrastructure, was held at Manchester Metropolitan University on 22 June. LI President Merrick Denton-Thompson introduced the conference with a rallying cry to the profession: ‘We need to think very carefully about how we connect with the public. What we really are after is a cultural shift. We are in a unique position at the interface between people and natural systems.’

While the concept of natural capital accounting was an exciting one, he said, he was concerned that the idea did not appear in the last Conservative manifesto.

Rural issues

Merrick also talked about the fact that ‘we have tended to box ourselves in to being urban’, whereas many of the largest problems were in rural areas, with loss of water and air quality and, in particular, problems with soils.

‘The biodiversity and mineralised content and restoration of our soils is of top importance,’ he said. ‘We are dealing with soils every day, but do we deal with the science and biodiversity of soils? We are very good at fluffy feathery things, but not so good at doing something about actual science. Every commission for transforming landscape must ask, what is the biological quality and what can I do to improve it?’

The way for the profession to have influence is, Merrick argued, to show how it can influence the issues of today – ‘the state of childhood’, including obesity where ‘we in this room can do more than any other profession’, and the health and care of the elderly where ‘we can do so much for dementia’.

The speakers who followed demonstrated, through their projects and research, just how much of a difference the profession can make. Kate Collins, director at Sheils Flynn, talked about the new flood strategy for the area around Hull, where local strategies have been written to be easily understandable and to point up opportunities. ‘The main message is about stakeholder engagement,’ she said, ‘and about the value of a landscape-led approach.’

Chinese traditions

Professor Xiangrong Wang, leading professor and vice dean of the School of Landscape Architecture at Beijing Forestry University, talked about restoring and improving historic towns such as Suzhou in the Taiha Lake basin by reconnecting the towns with surrounding countryside in a manner that was traditional. Again, the holistic vision of the landscape disciplines was vital for the success. This approach is vital, he said, if the quality of life is not to be further degraded in a country where ‘230 million rural residents will move to cities in the next 15 years’.

Professor Binyi Liu, from Tongji University in Shanghai, showed some massive projects centredround water – and a sense of time with tree planting that is perhaps unique to the profession. ‘We will realise this beautiful scenery in 50-100 years,’ he said.

AECOM’s Eric Hallquist also spoke about water, through an insight into the practice’s projects around the world. At the North West Cambridge development, which is effectively creating a new city quarter, he talked about how hard the western edge of the project has to work, buffering noise from the M11 but also preserving and enhancing an existing brook and creating a space for leisure and an engagement with nature. He also explained how different planting regimens in the Middle East could have a massive effect on CO2 emissions by reducing demand for desalinated water.

Measurement matters

While the benefits of good landscape may seem obvious to professionals, demonstrating their value to the wider world is difficult without hard data; so the fact that a number of speakers dealt with measurables and data was most welcome.

Independent consultant Jonathan Buckley helped to develop the Envision sustainability ratings system that aims ‘to demonstrate that landscape is a good investment’. He argued that ‘the most liveable cities are also the most competitive and landscape is a significant contributor to liveability’. Based largely on hard-nosed business analyses, such as the Economist Intelligence Unit’s liveability rankings, Envision measures seven systems, one of which is landscape.

Krista Patrick, Natural Capital Coordinator with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, explained the city’s role as an Urban Pioneer. Its objectives include ‘developing a demonstration project that shows the benefits of a natural capital accounting approach to project funding’.

Natural capital accounting was also the subject of a talk by consultants Peter Neal and John Sheaff, who described their work in the London boroughs of Barnet and Barking. The scope of public spaces included in the two boroughs was very different, but both showed that the natural capital benefits of maintaining these spaces were significant multiples of the costs of doing so.

Shopping stats

Steve Millington, senior lecturer in geography at Manchester Metropolitan University, showed a detailed analysis of the data contributing to the success of town centres. This homed in on the factors that made a significant difference and that town centres were able to influence. Several of these factors were within the remit of landscape architects, including recreational space, walkability and the general appearance of the area.

On a softer but equally important note, Clare Rishbeth, lecturer in landscape architecture at the University of Sheffield, described her research into the factors that make parks attractive to refugees. Suffering frequently from anxiety, isolation and a lack of money, they could benefit from the ‘green therapy’ that parks offer. In general, Clare said, they want places that are not too quiet, that make it clear who is welcome and that offer activities.

Making the case

LI Chief Executive Dan Cook closed formal proceedings, enjoining delegates to ‘help us make the case for landscape and infrastructure’. The issues the profession needed to address, he said, were:

  • changing planning mindsets
  • health and wellbeing
  • education and children’s needs
  • resilience
  • biodiversity and soil quality
  • food and water security
  • economic growth
  • intangibles such as tranquillity and beauty

This would have been a fitting end to the day, but there were more pleasures to come, as delegates were bused to an evening reception in Salford’s Media City, supported by street furniture specialist Vestre. This included an inspirational talk by urbanist and maker Lin Skaufel who discussed both her own work in Denmark and the ways that Copenhagen has embraced change and empowered its citizens.

As the hubbub of conversation continued to rise over dinner and drinks, the members of the profession clearly had plenty of ideas to digest, as well as making new contacts and finding inspiration among their fellow professionals.

Exploring infrastructure

On the second day, delegates had the opportunity to stretch their legs outside the conference venue. Site visits, hosted by developers, suppliers, local representatives and landscape practitioners, gave attendees a first-hand glimpse of current and future developments in one of the infrastructure capitals of the UK.

Conference sponsor Hardscape hosted three of the eight visits. Having provided hard landscaping for Salford University’s Peel Park Campus, Altrincham Town Centre and Sadler’s Yard, the heart of Manchester’s £800m NOMA redevelopment, the paving specialist was on hand to provide visitors with fascinating technical details on the materials and processes used.

It was a great way to get in touch with a city I’ve not visited for many years

Visitors also had a chance to see the site of the future flood basin at Castle Irwell; find out about the retrofitting of over 5,000 street trees throughout Greater Manchester; explore the impressive Media City at Salford Quays; and discover the site of the future RHS Garden Bridgewater, the largest horticultural project in Europe, before works begin. And even the rain (and the Vestre reception the night before!) could not deter some of the more active delegates from joining IBI Group for a Jographies guided jog and run tour of Manchester, which Hampshire County Council’s Annabelle O’Connell described as ‘a fantastic, fun way to discover the city of Manchester.’

‘I feel like I’ve visited the city now!’ Annabelle said. ‘I’ve experienced the place and its developments in a way I wouldn’t otherwise have at an event like this. It was also great to have a knowledgeable runner, Leon at IBI group, a local who knows the place: anything I pointed at, Leon explained the history and transformations.’

‘It was a great way to get in touch with a city I’ve not visited for many years.’

Next year’s LI conference will take place in London on Thursday 6 and Friday 7 September. It will focus on the value of landscape transformation, including the concept of natural capital – an emerging agenda that is likely to inform both future legislation and technical standards for LI members. The conference will form part of the IFLA Europe General Assembly and Conference 2018, also taking place in London.

The LI would like to thank the conference sponsors for their contribution to this years’ event: Hardscape, Vestre, The Environment Partnership (TEP), Timberplay and Streetlife.

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