Focus on beauty could sideline landscape work

Landscape architecture is on the verge of a crisis and could soon be seen as irrelevant, according to a prominent practitioner.

Barbican Gardens: climate change adaptation scheme - image: John Park/City of London
Barbican Gardens: climate change adaptation scheme - image: John Park/City of London

University of Sheffield Professor Nigel Dunnett has warned colleagues that by focusing on creating beauty they "trivialise" the profession and risk it being sidelined by decision-makers who dismiss it as merely cosmetic.

He was speaking at the first Landscape Institute conference in many years, held at the University of Sheffield this month. A key theme of the conference was "beauty in an age of austerity", which Dunnett admitted left him "dismayed".

He said talking too much about creating beauty feeds into the stereotypes landscape has struggled to escape for the past century, of being "a decorative add-on". He added: "That is the perception from outside. It's this idea that landscape fills the space between buildings, softening the built environment. It comes last and it is most susceptible to value engineering and cutbacks."

The profession must ask serious questions about the role of landscape architecture, said Dunnett. "In 20, 30, 50 years, will it still exist? What will it be doing? What is its role now?"

The irony is that landscape architecture holds solutions to many of the problems facing society that come with climate change and increasing urban migration. Landscape addresses air quality, microclimate, climate change, flooding and biodiversity. "These hit top-level international and national policy priorities," he said. "They are on the right side of the balance sheet."

Beauty is "an absolutely essential by-product" of addressing these serious issues. "But I have found if you try and sell highly green schemes ... and say you should invest £100,000 in making this site beautiful then in this hard-edged world that's a very weak argument. But if you say it will solve your surface water management problem and, by the way, it will be beautiful and you will have more productive colleagues, that opens the door."

Dunnett pointed to his replanting of the Barbican Gardens in London as an example. "They are beautiful and there's high appreciation from the public, but it's actually a climate change adaptation scheme that is there to address future water use restrictions in London and the need to create non-irrigated public realm," he explained.

Worryingly, other professions - from architects to urban designers and planners - are very attuned to landscape's value and are "taking huge chunks of territory from the realm of landscape architecture", said Dunnett. "It seems like the only people not jumping up and down are the landscape architects."

He pointed out that spatial design is not landscape architecture's unique selling point because it is a speciality shared by many professions. "What we have tended to lose in this country, but not other countries - the unique thing we should be absolutely assertive with pride in our knowledge about - is soils and nature and vegetative ecological habitats, biodiversity and interaction with people and communities and being proud of it," he insisted. "But I sense it's almost an embarrassment to talk in those terms."

Landscape Institute president elect Merrick Thompson agreed, saying the title of landscape architect "in terms of the client is a real impediment because of the link to beauty". He added: "We as a profession sit at that massively exciting interface between natural systems, human needs and human behaviour, and one of the greatest challenges that we face as a profession is that we must mature."

Landscape architect Andrew Grant of Grant Associates argued that the creation of beauty and technical solutions should go hand in hand. "But I agree we need to up our game as a profession and find the language everybody's looking for," he said. "There's an amazing market out there for our services across the board, whether in ecology, environment or experience."

Landscape Institute president Noel Farrer said he is "an eternal optimist" that the overall message about the value of landscape is being heard. The Healthy New Towns initiative, where the NHS invited developers to put forward schemes that focused on health as a key outcome of their design, is yet another signal that landscape's importance is being recognised (HW, 4 March).

Farrer said he suspects developers who signed up to the initiative are probably thinking about the bottom line, seeing "healthy" towns are marketable as desirable and profitable. That suggests landscape is moving to the right side of the balance sheet in the minds of some developers.

Simon Ogden, Sheffield's head of city regeneration, brought town planning experience to the debate. In times of austerity, he said: "Even when projects are more functional and budgets are tight we have continued to promote, design and fund high-quality green and beautiful public spaces with beauty as part of their purpose. That said, I've never used the word 'beauty' in a design brief. We have always implied it in the words we do use."

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