Towards Sustainability essay series: Designed for life

Dongtan Eco City, China 2007
Dongtan Eco City, China 2007

Designed for life by Jamie Dean

Five years ago, the Landscape Institute Awards Design category winners were deemed to represent a step change in the scale and ambition of completed landscape projects in the UK. All were seeded by a decade of effort, foresight, economic growth and public sector largesse. The LI Awards have subsequently showcased and rewarded remarkable and, increasingly, varied practice, reflecting the health and ever-broadening scope of the profession. This year, a truly enchanting proposal for Dalston in east London hints at new patterns of practice.

Five years may seem like a short period to trace such an arc. At the beginning, the Eden Project and Piccadilly Gardens (Winner, Design Over 5ha, 2006) were marked out by judges for commencing 21st-century practice. Their ambition and sophistication challenged all that followed to participate in the forthcoming urban renaissance, and a more sustainable future.

Subsequent years, across the full spectrum of design categories, represent a vigorous response, at a range of scales, and confirm the profession’s belief in ecology, society and delight – from establishing a living roofscape above our heads, symbolised by the Lyric Theatre (Highly Commended, Design Under 1ha, 2010), to sketching out whole new eco cities, such as Dongtan (Winner, Urban Design, 2007). The promotion of environmentally functioning landscapes and a generous treatment of the places of social exchange have become increasingly evident, as landscape architects gain control of the processes of place production.

Flick through the Awards categories and you soon start to speculate on the unlikely existence of a city or town, particularly in the north of England, that hasn’t been remade in some way. Liverpool was recognised above others for the singularity and calmness of its new public realm in 2008, and then again for its showpiece, Pier Head (Winner, Design 1–5ha, 2010). The introduction of a straightforward and high-quality tableau now holds everything together to foster public life and throw into relief numerous, previously unsung, architectural, historical and cultural assets. In so doing, an entire city centre is recycled in a sustainable act.

One also speculates on whether there is a city that hasn’t considered greater equivalence between people and cars – as Ashford and Brighton have done – or a neighbourhood that hasn’t attempted to promote a more natural form of play; a seaside town that hasn’t refashioned its front, such as at Rhyl (Highly Commended, Design 1–5ha, 2008); or a university that hasn’t enhanced its campus to attract international visitors, as Northumbria University (Winner, Design 1–5ha, 2008) has done. Or is there a contaminated industrial wasteland that hasn’t been transformed into a ‘poetic vision’, as exemplified by Northala Fields’ new monumentalism (Winner, Design over 5ha, 2008) and Westergasfabriek’s elegant restructure and reuse (Winner, Design over 5ha, 2007).

Of the many schemes examined as part of this annual peer review process, those that have impressed the judges most have been those that went beyond distinctive design and the latest trends to embrace environmental, social and economic sustainability agendas. Designers have been at their most potent when offering up propositions residing within strategic frameworks, and where proposals derived from the particular needs of a place, based upon its inherent assets, are provided.

At the urban scale there is increasing propensity and there are greater opportunities for landscape architects to be involved in the design of whole new communities in places as diverse as Aberystwyth and Doha. Increasingly, broad-scale thinking is weaving in more sustainable approaches to city-making. Cambourne is a particularly recent victor in more than one category (Winner, Design over 5ha, 2010 and Highly Commended, Local Landscape Planning, 2010) and a proponent of the green infrastructure approach that has emerged to better manage landscape resources for the benefit of people and places alike.

The economic downturn and the shrinking of the public sector, including a worrying stripping out of design capacity, induce a less enjoyable reverie upon just what the best way forward in a future beset by uncertainty would be. The riots and disorder of August 2011 may well, by necessity, resuscitate inner city regeneration, but until the national debt is cleared, the large-scale city restructuring on the back of which so much of recent practice has depended, is on hold.

How will landscape practice maintain its burgeoning influence and push forward sustainable design solutions as part of the land development process against this backdrop? This year in different ways, at different scales, and in different modes of practice a number of entries have critically articulated new, or at least modified, modes of spatial thinking and design practice that respond to today’s social, economic, environmental and political realities.

There is evidence that the most innovative and adept practitioners have absorbed the territory of masterplanning, broad-scale spatial planning and urban design policies, have questioned them and recast them to establish a way of practising suited to the moment, but very ‘landscape’.

As part of this interim period ‘meanwhile’ activities are being generated on vacant sites by practitioners ready to test differing approaches to complex economic and urban contexts. Just as the terminology of natural play, shared space and green infrastructure of the past half-decade arrived to describe more sustainable processes, the lexicon has been revitalised again this year.

Conspicuous by virtue of its excellence, Making Space in Dalston by J&L Gibbons  / muf architects not only made space in Dalston, but fleshed out and found, for the first time, perhaps what the localism agenda could potentially be, in the right hands and given adequate support. Such considered social and cultural mapping has led to a language of propositions that include ‘interim-use strategies’, ‘release spaces’ and ‘host spaces’.

As the facilitator of healthy collaboration with multiple groups, new-found practice has fostered a closer than normal examination of the inherent assets of a place; while patient conversations, and testing on the ground, have propelled forward careful and meaningful placeshaping strategies.

Other practitioners are demonstrating the capacity to collaborate on projects of the highest calibre. Msheireb ‘Heart of Doha’ masterplan (Highly Commended, Urban Design & Masterplanning, 2011) is the latest example to be recognised for using these skills to sensitively slot new infrastructures into place to decarbonise energy supply.

Right now, landscape architects are, more vigorously than ever, arguing for expanded roles as part of the forward planning of big developments and infrastructure projects. There is already evidence of design thinking being used more critically as an interrogative process through which the broad parameters and the particulars of environmental and social sustainability are explored and tested. As a result new multi-layered approaches to the use of the landscape are beginning to emerge.

Available to download
Details of all the winning and commended schemes from this year’s Awards are in the 2011 LI Awards brochure Towards Sustainability

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