Interview, Neil Williamson, Landscape Institute president

With climate change at the top of the agenda, a potential three million new homes to be built and the Government's eco-town ambitions, this would seem to be the year of the landscape architect.

It is certainly the time for the profession to be promoting the benefits it can bring to designing communities, and new Landscape Institute president Neil Williamson has plenty to get his teeth into.

Williamson took over the role from Nigel Thorne on 1 July and will be pursuing the institute's campaign to attract more young people to the sector.

Also on the cards is the organisation's climate-change position statement, due to be published in autumn.

"The Landscape Institute has been going through a lot of changes in recent years and the pace of change has been accelerating," says Williamson, who will continue to meet his commitments as head of environmental design at the New Forest District Council.

"Sustainability has always been part and parcel of what landscape architects are trained to deal with and climate change is part of that.

"A lot of the skills and philosophy are already there."

Having studied psychology and physiology at university before following a career in landscape architecture, Williamson admits he has a particular interest in the social and community side of landscape architecture.

Some of the issues to be developed through the Landscape Institute policy over the coming year include green infrastructure, health and housing.

Indeed, its annual conference to be held on 9 and 10 October, called Housing, Land Use and Community, will focus on some of these issues.

"It is no coincidence that we'll be looking at health, as I've been making noise about it," adds Williamson, who lives in Southampton.

"With the focus on housing, we'll be looking at the quality of what is being built. The Government is saying three million new homes but, however many are built, we need to ensure they are built in a way that is going to last and, at the moment, there is a way to go in achieving social as well as environmental sustainability."

For Williamson, a founding director of the Solent Centre for Architecture & Design - advocating good design among decision-makers and the community - the ethos of landscape architecture can help tackle social problems.

He explains: "Well-designed public space enables people to mix socially and there is evidence that this impacts positively on the mental health of people who have somewhere to go, whether it is green space or hard space.

"If you are living on a harsh estate and have no access to public space it is not creating sustainable communities."

This can lead to anti-social behaviour and crime, and Williamson is a keen proponent of the role landscape architects can have on these issues in collaboration with other bodies, such as the police, CABE, the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Royal Town Planning Institute.

As a member of the UK Designing Out Crime Association since its launch in 1999, Williamson is adamant that good design can have far-reaching effects.

"There is a relationship between the design of a physical environment and crime and anti-social behaviour, but it would be a bit naive to say you could stop all the kids carrying knives if you redesigned a park," he says.

"The way public spaces are designed does have an impact and investment in the public realm brings benefits in terms of reduced anti-social behaviour.

This social focus is likely to become more significant for landscape architects as the Government pushes through with its plans to meet housing demand, while attempting to manage crime.

"I believe landscape architects should have a valuable contribution to make, along with other professions," adds Williamson.

"If you design an environment and expect people to live there, but the design is so poor you end up with social breakdown, then it is a failure.

"There are so many popular misconceptions about design; people think it is all about what things look like, but it is about making spaces that work and are durable."

CV

1976: Graduated from Oxford University with a BA in psychology and physiology

1979: Graduated from the University of Sheffield with an MA in landscape design

1979-84: Worked as a landscape architect for local authorities in Lancashire

1984-91: Landscape architect at West Midlands County Council, Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council and Southampton City Council

1991-present: Joined New Forest District Council; later promoted to head of environmental design

1999: Joined Designing out Crime Association

2002: Achieved Advanced Certificate in environmental design and crime prevention at Oxford Brookes University

2006-08: Vice-president of Landscape Institute

1 July 2008: Became president of Landscape Institute.


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