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Green is not garnish: We need a radical public-space revolution with landscape at its heart

To the industry, I ask: where are the fresh thinkers, the playful provocateurs, the forward-looking policymakers and the public realm protagonists? Will Sandy calls for a public space revolution

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The Olympics should have been a defining moment for landscape-led design. Getty Images
The Olympics should have been a defining moment for landscape-led design. Getty Images

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to acknowledge the challenges facing the future of our public spaces. We know now that it is not the buildings themselves, but the spaces between them, and the people using and enjoying these spaces, that demonstrate if a city is healthy and flourishing.

 

We have seen that unhealthy streets make for unhealthy people. The death toll from inequity and inequality has reflected the impact of air pollution and a choking climate. The way we plan and design our built environment is disconnected: outside and inside are on the whole treated as separate entities.

 

But the Covid-19 lockdown has helped the public to re-evaluate their relationship with their local environment and nature. Across social media, I have witnessed collective thinking and a palpable appetite for change. Private spaces, public spaces and even privately owned public spaces now play vital roles in our daily lives. Let’s just say post-lockdown you wouldn’t buy a nice house in a crap neighbourhood – not if you had the choice.

 

Private spaces, public spaces and even privately owned public spaces now play vital roles in our daily lives

 

We need to act on this change and look at the built environment with a fresh perspective. Now is the time to disrupt the status quo – to reform and rectify old ways and achieve real impact. There is space for more: to make the hostile hospitable, real estate resilient, and streets inclusive and accessible for all. In this new world, landscape architecture can deliver much-needed climate and environmental solutions, embedding green and blue infrastructure, natural capital, and environmental systems.

 

That’s why it is time for landscape architects to take the lead. For too long, we have been constrained by an attachment to the picturesque. Landscaping is the green garnish to the main meal, brought into the project too late. As much as it pains me to say this, as soon as you put the word ‘landscape’ in front of the word ‘architect’, gravitas and understanding are lost. Independently the words have clarity, but together, they illustrate the press and public’s lack of understanding in the profession’s role.

 

What happened? Just eight years ago, the success of London’s Olympic Park changed the perception of landscape architecture. With landscape firmly at its heart, from the landscape-led masterplan to its design, development, engineering and on-site implementation, the Olympic Park became globally significant, inspiring future projects, promoting learning and enabling innovative design approaches. It opened the door, presenting a unique regeneration opportunity. All of this was accomplished in just six years, with an immovable deadline.

 

The success of the design, from the Games through to its legacy, was primarily due to the landscaping of the park itself: holding the vision, carrying the design subtleties throughout the process, enabled buildings, stadiums and infrastructure to interface cohesively, catalysing future developments.

 

For too long, we have been constrained by an attachment to the picturesque. Landscaping is the green garnish to the main meal, brought into the project too late

 

The Olympics also presented a great example of inter-studio collaboration and co-ordination. No firm could ever have delivered something at that scale and complexity by itself. No single studio knows everything. But eight years on, have we forgotten about our success and what we’ve gained?

 

The Olympic Park may no longer be new and exciting, but emphasis should be placed on its impact and the benefits and the resilience of the spaces created. Landscape architects have known the value of external spaces for some time. We all recognise the positives in our subconscious relationship with nature and open space.

 

The best cities are remembered as much for their iconic streets, squares and urban green spaces as they are for their iconic buildings. Yet, in the standard project process, the landscape architecture is often the first thing to get value engineered out. Sure, buildings are also cut back, but they are rarely excised completely.

 

We often see tenders and competitions for high-street revitalisations, public realm improvements or neighbourhood masterplans that demand an architecture-led team – the safe and siloed approach.

 

The developer and the whole project team needs to see the value of the landscape, public open spaces and, in effect, anything that isn’t a building

 

How do we get landscape architects in the room? Why have we not been heard? Perhaps we have lingered too long on the periphery – we have accepted our place in the development process and lost the conviction to stand up for the design elements that we know are crucial.

 

This is not a slight against architects. We are ultimately in this together. But the developer and the whole project team needs to see the value of the landscape, public open spaces and, in effect, anything that isn’t a building. This is happening, but it is happening slowly.

 

We need to open it up, and allow the team to define the lead and the response, and to create collaborative opportunities. And if the opportunities aren’t there, we must self-initiate, kick-start collaborations and drive change ourselves.

 

Being radical – that’s scary. Reclamation? A revolution? These words may sound threatening to some. Sure, we can stick to plant pots and pergolas, but what if? What if landscape architects had a critical eye? What if we had conviction?

 

To the industry, I ask: where are the fresh thinkers, the playful provocateurs, the forward-looking policymakers and the public realm protagonists? With lessons learned during lockdown and wider climatic challenges ahead, now is the time for collaboration and creating meaningful change.

 

Ultimately, it is about striking a balance, so let’s lose the egos and have some fun, doing what we’re here – and love – to do.

 


 

Radical Rethink: Call for ideas


The Developer with Will Sandy and supported by Vestre is seeking radical thinking for public space from policy-makers, planners, designers, academics and thinkers.

 

We’re seeking to disseminate and promote radical thinking in the design and development of public space – or indeed any open space – to influence and ultimately improve the way we make places.

 

If you’ve got an idea, whether a radical design or policy shift, that will improve our parks, roads, pavements, squares, rooftops, alleyways, back gardens, markets, high streets, etc. that will make them more resilient and productive, ecological, promote health and wellbeing, increase a sense of agency or belonging, become educational, increase access or promote inclusivity, we want to hear from you.

 

We’ll be selecting ideas to present live online to a panel of industry leaders and a wider audience who will question, challenge and feedback. We’ll also publish the ideas and share them with our audience. We’ll seek to feature the best ideas at the Festival of Place on 13 November.

 

What next for places and spaces?
Submit your idea for policy, design, process or procurement (we’re open minded!) via email to editorial@thedeveloper.live, it can be a raw idea, to be further developed later, and it should be described in a maximum 2 pages of A4 (preferably less than 1 page, or even a few sentences that can be elaborated later).

 

Deadline: 22 August

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