Interview - Juliet Sargeant, chairwoman, Society of Garden Designers

Juliet Sargeant was elected to lead the Society of Garden Designers (SGD) after her predecessor's surprise departure and in a busy build-up to the SGD's conference and inaugural awards. The doctor turned designer is prescribing for members -- struggling with a challenges from recession to water -- a stronger political voice, more education, a better website and closer ties with allies.

Juliet Sargeant, chairwoman, Society of Garden Designers - image: SGD
Juliet Sargeant, chairwoman, Society of Garden Designers - image: SGD

Q What do the society’s members really want?

A They said they wanted an awards ceremony and we have just done that. They also want a great website and that is something we are working on. The current one is good but lagging behind and doesn’t have a buzzy feel. It must be more interactive, with more comprehensive news and advice on issues such as ash dieback and green infrastructure, and it must really appeal to potential clients.

Q How tough is it for your members right now?

A It’s a mixed picture. Several members in the South East say the worst of the economy hasn’t hit them yet and they are doing quite well, which seems a slightly false bubble, especially with those on high-end jobs. Further afield, our members are really struggling, which is hard because design is something people are passionate about and some are having to do less or something entirely different for a while.

Q What can the society do to help them?

A What we’re doing — and intend to do more — is argue the case of the importance to society of good design in gardens and landscape. If we can press home the message to politicians and policy makers that having a well-designed external environment is not a luxury but fundamental to health, that will be an important step to helping designers stand firmer in a marketplace of competing priorities.

Q How can you achieve that ambition?

A By talking to politicians and joining forces with other groups to give us a louder voice. There’s very much a feeling that the best way for us all to survive is to pull together to find common ground. There are enough issues we all agree on to influence policy makers. Each organisation in itself is small but we represent a significant slice of the pie in terms of people and revenue. We have good relationships with BALI, the Association of Professional Landscapers and the RHS, but could forge new relationships with the Landscape Institute and Design Council CABE.

Q What are your biggest concerns right now?

A One of them is what our cities will look like in 50-100 years’ time if we don’t realise we were given this fantastic legacy by our forefathers who created great parks and planted magnificent trees that are now mature and ageing. We need a plan for what we are going to do and it’s getting late in the day. Our spaces need proper care while small lollipop trees are no replacement for the specimens of posterity we need.

Q You were elected on short notice — how come?

A We are a small but incredibly ambitious organisation and the council is a real powerhouse. But for people who also run their own practices it is exhausting work and Charles [Rutherfoord, former chair] felt he had given as much as he could. I was already on the council and it made sense to stand.

Q What is the latest news on the water companies?

A It’s developing and we are in talks with the companies on exemptions and pulling together an education package. The utilities have responded positively but we await their formal response. Education is key — without evidence, the whole message of sustainable urban drainage is not getting out there to the public and driveway contractors who are too busy concreting and whacking down acres upon acres of paving with no idea of the damage. If they did, they might change their ways.

Q How have things changed since you switched careers?

A I was a junior doctor and taught one-to-one before becoming a garden designer, where I now teach at the KLC School of Design. I love it but have noticed in the past 20 years more young people coming into a profession that used to be a big pull for career changers. This is great but they need support. This career is not just about design — many people will become sole traders and they need business training. But there is still a shortage of skills across horticulture and without new people the sector won’t keep afloat. It’s not good enough going into design schools and preaching to the converted. We need to get into schools and that’s another goal of mine. The RHS is active with careers fairs and I’d like the SGD to have some form of involvement.

CV

1990-96 Doctor of medicine

1996-99 BA (Hons) in garden design, Middlesex University

1996 to date Freelance garden design business

2002 to date Lecturer, KLC School of Design, Plumpton College and West Dean College

2012 to date Chairwoman, Society of Garden Designers


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