Alister Kratt, a partner at LDA Design, challenged the profession at the latest Landscape Futures debate to talk more positively about infrastructure.
There is a danger, he told the audience at the debate in Cambridge, that talk of mitigation dominates debate, implying that all infrastructure development will have an adverse effect. Speaking on the subject ‘Infrastructure: what story will we tell in 50 years time?’ Kratt said, ‘At present we are dealing with the ‘least worse case’ mind-set – we must look towards positive design outcomes and a change in language presently driven by the methodology and language of Environmental Impact Assessment. Change is not necessarily a negative thing. We seem incapable of talking about new infrastructure as a positive thing – partially on the premise that change cannot be managed and is in effect a negative.’
Getting infrastructure right is, said Kratt, essential. ‘We are at/in a very important time refitting the UK’s infrastructure and creating the new infrastructure that will be a legacy for generations to come. Fifty years ago was a parallel following the post war boom. One hundred and fifty years ago even more significant – triggered by the industrial revolution Both periods left us a legacy which we treasure – or not.’
Although the regulatory framework is very different from that of the past, there is a similar need for bold thinking, Kratt said, citing for example the Embankment in London. Now seen by many as simply an enjoyable part of London’s heritage, it was largely constructed to house London’s new sewage system – and with additional provision for other uses, not all of which could at first be foreseen.
It was, said Kratt, an early example of ‘multifunctional infrastructure’. It was ‘not just solving a problem but creating opportunities, a legacy that was also pragmatic responding to urban potential and not just a sewer pipe.’
Ironically, one of the effects that Bazalgette certainly could not have foreseen, was how much more difficult his sewer would make construction work at the Olympic Park and, indeed, how it would add to the blight of the area where the Olympic Park would subsequently be built.
Selina Mason, now director of design integration at the London Legacy Development Corporation, and previously deputy director of design at the Olympic Delivery Authority, explained just how much of the work at the Olympic Park involved dealing with infrastructure, whether putting power lines under ground or building new power plants and a pumping station.
While the ODA spent money on exemplary design, it still didn’t entirely solve the infrastructure problem, Mason said. All the utilities put their services in separately, resulting in an enormous number of wayleaves so that ‘it was difficult to get the surface to look normal. I would like to have got the utilities to work together – I think the ODA thought about it but decided that it was too difficult.’
Ideally, said Mason, she would see the words mitigation and impact (both of which appear in current CABE guidance) disappear. ‘They are always negative,’ she said. ‘We are drifting into thinking of the countryside as somewhere where any change will be bad. Let’s talk instead about effects, not impacts.’
Barrister Tim Mould, who chaired the debate, said, ‘We need a recognition that we need to build infrastructure. There is too often a disconnect between the need and the effects.’It should be clearer, he said, what the equivalences are between, for example, a nuclear power station and the number of wind turbines that would be needed to generate the same amount of energy.’
Leadership in the area of infrastructure could, and should, believes Kratt, come from landscape professionals. ‘As a profession,’ he said, ‘we are well placed in an age where environmental response is key, as are awareness of context and history.’ In this light, he argued, ‘our training should be fit for purpose and education across the ages reviewed.’