Water and the landscape profession


    The landscape profession and water: a long history of positive intervention

    “The English park, perfected in the designs of Capability Brown, was a deliberate composition in complete keeping with its context, shaped by the presence of water features on a major scale.  Although often contrived, the whole effect was designed to recreate nature as faithfully as possible and so the sinuous, unpredictable line of lake and stream replaced the geometry of canals and water parterres as the ideal form of water in the garden” (Plumptre, 1993)

    The start of the involvement of the landscape profession with water in the UK is perhaps most famously linked to improving the estates of the 18th century elite, where even Capability Brown could be said to be an early exponent of multifunctionality, since his lakes were designed to allow not just fishing but also boating and visual amenity – and of all things, otter hunting. (Mayer, 2011). But it has evolved well beyond this.


    Drivers for this evolution include the demands for fresh water and sewers from an increasingly industrialised and urbanised environment. These major civil engineering projects have spurred the profession to speak up for the landscape, sometimes against the forces of change and sometimes for new approaches. The associated growth in the public realm and in the public’s right to relate to its landscape, most recently best expressed in the European Landscape Convention, have also developed a desire to seek wider benefits.

    As long as sixty years ago landscape architects, inspired by the Netherlands, raised concern at the way streams were being turned into sewers rather than providing “wonderful opportunities for interesting treatment of the town” (Colvin, 1947). A similar point was echoed by Tom Turner: “a major reclamation programme is necessary to reclaim our channels, water-courses, culverts and coastal defences” (Turner, 1998). Some good examples can now be found, such as at Mayesbrook Park, but many streams remain lost.

    The creation of reservoirs has also prompted concern (Hackett, 1971) partly because they sometimes went against a principle that the proper place for large water bodies is ‘at the bottom’ and also due to the visual impact of the dam wall and the drawdown zone. The profession, however, has long recognised and promoted the value of “wet solutions” to the restoration of low-level mineral workings. Suitably naturalistically designed (Bell, 1999), the legacy of sand and gravel extraction can be opportunities for wildlife and recreation.

    A recent thrust is for water sensitive urban design that integrates with green infrastructure and “a comprehensive range of water management techniques” to help deal with flooding (Illman, 2014). In a similar vein the LI has also published an information note to raise awareness of the value of catchment management.


    Underpinning both campaigns and moments of vision, landscape professionals have developed real expertise relating to water in the environment. At the turn of the 20th century Gertrude Jekyll worked with Edwin Lutyens to develop formal water features which still inspire today. That this was then an area of professional strength is evidenced by early textbook coverage of formal ponds, natural water features and roof gardens (Sudell, 1933).

    Many skills were acquired by learning from others: architects, engineers and other organisations operating in the environment. As a result, a shared understanding has developed of the potentially damaging effect of water in the wrong place during building construction. Landscape architects have also learnt how to design structures, such as bridges, pontoons or drainage systems. A particular landmark was the publication by the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers of Waterways and Wetlands (BTCV, 1976) which equipped landscape managers with a wealth of soft engineering and maintenance techniques.

    Skills have also been developed in dealing with problems linked to a lack of water. Landscape architects working in the Middle East developed and brought back expertise with irrigation and water conservation (Cochrane &  Brown, 1978). A number of very dry summers coupled with hosepipe bans encouraged the development of capabilities relating to water detention, irrigation and drought-tolerant species. Landscape professionals are now well placed to contribute as part of a multidiscipinary approach.


    As well as responding to the needs of clients, the Government and its agencies have influenced the work of the landscape professional. The expansion of landscape character assessment in the late nineties, linked to its recognition in planning policy guidance, has grown the profession’s understanding of the importance of water to the wider landscape, including through history.  It has provided a landscape-based frame of reference for action that previously might have been limited to arbitrary “corridors” or fragmented patches of wetland habitat. The Environment Agency’s imperatives to manage water bodies, coastal erosion and surface water flooding have also drawn on and honed relevant landscape skills. As Government agencies have opened up their strategic planning processes to external contributions through the catchment based approach so this has provided opportunities for external landscape professionals to engage.


    There have always been landscape designers who could excel in the construction of large water features, hence the water gardens in Harlow New Town designed by Frederick Gibberd and Geoffrey Jellicoe’s Water Gardens in Hemel Hempstead. But with the inspiration given to clients and the confidence given by the Water Park designed by Derek Lovejoy and Partners at the Liverpool International Garden Festival, the body of practitioners developing water-related construction skills has grown.

    One indicator of this is that over a hundred case studies were submitted for consideration for inclusion on this website many of which have already won national recognition, such as the Olympic Park.

    Another is the substantial resources being made available for the landscape by the Heritage Lottery Fund.  In many cases this only follows intensive study by landscape practices and competition between the schemes they are supporting. This competitive process has resulted in a resurgence of landscape skills and understanding related to the restoration of some of these older but iconic water features in parks such as Howard Gardens in Letchworth Garden City, and the Town Centre Gardens in Stevenage.

    Bell, S. (1999)  Landscape: Pattern, perception and process: E&FN Spon ISBN 0419203400
    BTCV (1976 ) Waterways & Wetlands: BTCV (Now TCV) ISBN 0950164380
    Cochrane &  Brown (1978)  Landscape Design for the Middle East RIBA ISBN 090063068X
    Hackett, B. (1971) Landscape Planning. Oriel Press  ISBN 0853621209
    Illman, S. (2014a) Open Letter from a coalition of professional bodies to the prime minister
    Mayer, (2011) Capability Brown and the English Landscape Garden Shire ISBN 0747810494
    Plumptre, G. (1993) The Water Garden: Thames & Hudson ISBN 0500282005
    Sudell, R. (1933) Landscape Gardening Planning Construction Planting: Ward Lock & Co Ltd
    Turner,T. (1998) Landscape Planning and Environmental Impact Design 2nd Ed. UCL Press ISBN 1857283228


    The LI in 2020 published a Technical Information Note to inform landscape practitioners and others of the context for landscape practice in relation to water and flooding and signpost to other resources that are available:

    20-3 Water flooding landscape