Susannah Charlton finds Matthew Gandy’s discussion of Derborence Island the highlight of last week’s ‘Landscape and Critical Agency’ symposium at UCL.

Derborence Island, a refuge for urban biodiversity created by Gilles Clément in Lille’s Parc Henri Matisse. Image credit: Matthew Gandy
Derborence Island, a refuge for urban biodiversity created by Gilles Clément in Lille’s Parc Henri Matisse. Image credit: Matthew Gandy

Never mind how it was described, this stimulating day delivered a powerful call to engage with the wider social and political meanings of the landscape. The debate unpicked our concepts of landscape – unsullied ‘nature’, an expression of political power, land controlled for agriculture or leisure – and argued for it as an agent for social change.

For me, the most powerful paper was Matthew Gandy’s discussion of Derborence Island, a refuge for urban biodiversity created by Gilles Clément in Lille’s Parc Henri Matisse. This 7m-high concrete bunker-for-nature exposes the tensions between our desire to shape and use the landscape, and our awareness of the ecological value of ‘wasteland’. In creating this paradoxical space, which is inaccessible but not truly wild, Clément questions the capitalist use-values of the surrounding urbanisation. Public response to wild spaces is ambivalent, yet new ones are now being created by default: as Matthew observed, council cuts mean they’ve stopped cutting the grass in Dagenham!

Jill Desimini’s work on strategies to manage the decline of city populations felt immediately relevant, notably the ‘pixelated’ model of incremental development in Dessau, and a Detroit project where housing lots were aggregated to create larger gardens. Both seem more sustainable approaches than our Pathfinder initiatives.

Two papers exposed the gap between glossy image and compromised reality: Ed Wall juxtaposed developers images of Paternoster Square as public with its re-privatisation after the Occupy protest, while Jane Hutton, exploring the source of materials used in three New York landscape projects, highlighted the surprising use of Brazilian hardwood in urban-greening icon the Highline. How can landscape architecture maintain its sustainability credentials when even a project like this seems to be realised at the expense of the global environment?

Other talks ranged from Jonathan Hill’s thought-provoking reflections on ruins, the picturesque, and the effect of weather on the landscape to Jane Wolff’s beautifully presented Californian project Delta Primer, which facilitated debate with a broad audience using a deck of cards. Doug Spencer, Jon Goodbun and Tim Waterman raised suggestive theoretical issues about our relationship with nature, the need for a more democratic conception of planning, and the physical and emotional impact of landscape.

Susannah Charlton is a writer and consultant with a particular interest in urban public space

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