Consultant and writer Julia Thrift reflects on five years of award-winning heritage and conservation projects in the second essay of the award winning ‘Towards Sustainability’ series

Stevenage Town Centre Gardens, 2011
Stevenage Town Centre Gardens, 2011

Valuing the past by Julia Thrift

Any landscape, if left to its own devices, will achieve many things that can be loosely categorised as ‘sustainable’. Trees and plants will grow, absorbing carbon dioxide; soil and vegetation will absorb rainwater, reducing the effects of flooding; biodiversity will increase over time. However, when people become involved – as designers, users or funders of the landscape’s maintenance – sustainability becomes much trickier.

It is, therefore, not surprising that the one aspect of sustainability that seems to have been at the forefront of landscape architects’ thinking over the past five years – judging by those schemes that have been successful in the Heritage & Conservation category of the Landscape Institute’s awards – has been engaging people with landscape conservation.

If people do not appreciate the value of a landscape, then support for it will dwindle and its maintenance will become unsustainable. The key questions that landscape architects seem to have been trying to answer have been: do people understand why this historic landscape is special? Will they get involved in its restoration? And what can be done to encourage them to use the landscape once it has been restored?

Climate change adds a new complexity to the decisions about what to conserve and what to adapt. If the effects of global warming are as predicted, we will soon all be experiencing more extreme weather. Designed landscapes will have to cope with sudden deluges of rain, more extremely hot summer days and a generally warmer climate. Landscape structures and planting that were designed for the UK of 150 years ago may not cope with the climate in 150 years’ time. How are those working today to conserve historic landscapes responding?

An overview of the winners and runners-up of the past five years of heritage and conservation projects suggests that, at the time these projects were commissioned, climate change was not a priority. It seems unlikely that this will be the case in the next five years. While engaging public support will remain an important aspect of any landscape conservation project, deciding what to restore and what to adapt to meet new climate conditions will become an increasingly pressing problem.

One of this year’s highly commended schemes, Boundary Gardens at Arnold Circus in east London, epitomises this. A tiny space of just 2,500m², it was designed at the end of the 19th century as the central space in the Boundary Estate, the first publicly funded social housing in the UK. This circular space, crowned with a Grade II-listed bandstand, had become dilapidated and off-putting.

Nevertheless, it had an active ‘friends’ group with a strong desire to see the space restored. A key part of the brief given to LDA Design was to engage proactively with local people. The result is a meticulously restored bandstand, surrounded by gardens that are far more accessible and suited for contemporary uses than before. There is a new water recycling system, alongside a planting scheme that should help to improve biodiversity in this densely built-up inner city area – key requests of the ‘friends’ group.

A similar desire to improve biodiversity was an important part of the restoration of the historic squares of Bloomsbury, central London (Highly commended, Heritage & Conservation, 2007). For many members of the public, the value of restoring 19th-century parks and gardens such as this is now unarguable: the results of more than a decade of Heritage Lottery funded restorations of archetypal Victorian landscapes have been hugely popular. Barrow Park in Cumbria (Winner, Heritage & Conservation, 2007) is another impressive example.

In contrast, the winner of this year’s Heritage & Conservation award is particularly welcome, because it is the restoration of an important post-war public park – one that may not have been perceived by many members of the public to be of particular historical value.

Stevenage Town Centre Gardens (Winner, Heritage & Conservation, 2011) were the centrepiece of Stevenage New Town, the first ‘New Town’ in the UK. The 3.85ha gardens were built between 1959 and 1961 and designed by Gordon Patterson, landscape architect for Stevenage New Town. Like many public parks, by the end of the 20th century, town centre gardens had become run-down.

The restoration in Stevenage, by HTA Landscape Design, has involved many local people, including some original, residents who remember the gardens when they were first completed. The design aimed to capture some of the optimism and civic spirit of the original, while ensuring that the gardens remain relevant today. The structure and function of the landscape was restored by removing trees, which had been planted ad hoc, while the usability of the space was boosted by adding a pre-stressed granite bridge. Ecology was improved by planting wildflowers.

Deciding what to conserve and what to adapt is a key question when conserving any aspect of the physical environment. What can, and should, be preserved as it was in the past? What should be changed to meet the needs of today and tomorrow? This must have been a particularly sensitive issue in the restoration of Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol (Winner, Heritage & Conversation, 2010). Here, the lack of care given to the site had inadvertently created a rich ecology. For Nicholas Pearson Associates, the key to the project was conserving the site’s character while leaving the ecology intact.

In contrast, Great Lines Heritage Park (Highly Commended, Heritage & Conservation, 2011), located between Gillingham and Chatham in Kent, was full of historic features – many of which were not obvious to the casual visitor. The site, which is formed of 70ha of former military land, was originally designed to defend Chatham Dockyard from landward attack. Although it includes an 18th-century fortress, much of it looks like unremarkable open space.

In 2008, HTA Landscape Design was appointed to create a masterplan that would transform the disparate areas of the site into a park with a coherent identity. The aim is to implement the masterplan, stage by stage, over the next few decades. The first completed phase included opening up the historic Fort Amherst to the public, creating a pathway and new bridge, and installing interpretation and wayfinding signage. All of this should encourage people into – and through – the space.

The restoration and reinterpretation of Great Lines, and the restoration of Stevenage Town Centre Gardens, seem to signal a growing appreciation among members of the public that it is not just archtetypal Victorian landscapes that are worth preserving. Perhaps, after more than ten very successful years of Heritage Lottery Funding that has concentrated on restoring pre-20th-century landscapes, we are starting to see a growing appreciation of the value of mid-century landscape design too.

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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