Sector debates sustainable landscapes at University of Bristol event

The workshop event at the University of Bristol aimed to facilitate discussion to shape future research ideas and opportunities.

Sustainable Landscapes for the Future: delegates inspect wild flower meadow at University of Bristol
Sustainable Landscapes for the Future: delegates inspect wild flower meadow at University of Bristol

Movers and shakers from industry, councils and academia came together at a sustainable landscape conference to discuss a topic increasingly in the public eye, especially after the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park made the British public fall in love with wild flowers.

Sustainable Landscapes for the Future was held at the University of Bristol last month (18 July). Organisers environment and sustainability consultant Howard Wood and the University of Bristol's Dr Katherine Baldock sought to explore ways to design, create and maintain sustainable landscapes.

Olympic park wild flower planting designer Professor Nigel Dunnett said the Olympics proved that wild flowers are popular with the public and people are as important as wildlife when thinking about sustainable landscapes.

The University of Sheffield reader in urban horticulture added: "We have to encourage that public enthusiasm for nature. It makes them feel good and they are drawn to green areas. That is where garden designers and landscape consultants are so vital. Sustainable landscapes are natural, with man's help."

Landscape architect Kym Jones of Applied Landscape Design explained that in the past sustainability has been a buzzword defined to suit landscape architects' needs. But it is now "fundamental in almost every design decision we make".

She outlined the process behind the Olympic athletes' village and a series of "green lung" city parks. "Sustainability should be inherent in a scheme from design to detailing. It's not just about BREEAM green guide ratings, ticking assessments and counting species, but creating external landscapes and public realms that are useable, maintainable and sustainable for the future."

Soil scientist Tim O'Hare, who engineered seven types of soil for the Olympic park, said sustainability starts at a much earlier stage. Much of what builders use on brownfield sites as topsoil is recycled building site waste put through a sieve before being sold to developers, he added.

"It probably has about five per cent soil in it. There is no organic matter, no microbes but heavy metals like hydrocarbons and asbestos. We're trying to educate people that this is not the way to go."

O'Hare's solution is to mix such waste with organic products and to create the soil mix on site. This approach could also improve natural soil in some circumstances, he suggested.

Green Global Solutions director Rob Donald and Stephen Alderton of grass and flower seed producer Top Green also see an advantage to giving nature a helping hand with new grass varieties. The firms have been developing and installing seed that grows slower, needs less cutting and retains more carbon, allowing private firms and local authorities to offset their emissions or build up carbon credits.

Like many local authorities, Bristol City Council has been exploring planting natural flowers and leaving grass uncut to create meadow areas. Ecologist Becky Coffin and horticulturist Teija Ahjokoski showed how this has transformed roadside verges, central reservations and embankments, saving maintenance costs and eliciting complimentary letters from the public.

Despite having "no money whatsoever", the department successfully sought sponsorship from the Landscape Group and other companies. "There is less grass cutting, it is better for health and safety next to roads and ties in with our biodiversity action plan and council policy to encourage people to walk and cycle more," said Ahjokoski. "People do still expect their striped grass, but they are starting to change."

While British local authorities are experimenting, Lyon City Council in France has already made large savings by adopting a more sustainable approach. Former Lyon resident Howard Wood, now Top Green environmental and sustainability manager, said the city launched a sustainable economy drive in 2002.

It saved EUR366,000 by swapping 70 per cent of formal bedding with urban meadows, reducing maintenance, including by allowing sheep to graze.

"Establishing trial sites for urban meadows is the first stage, working out which flowers do best and a management plan," he said. "Keeping the public informed about everything happening in their environment is a major plus. Communication is the key to success."

University of Bristol expert on environmental change, biodiversity and pollinators Professor Jane Memmott outlined research going on at sites across the UK including Bristol, Reading, Leeds and Edinburgh. "Bristol is a typical example where we are looking at allotments, parks and wildlife areas, and identifying numerous species of pollination insects," she said.

"In one Leicestershire garden we have identified 2,673 species of pollinating insects. It is not just bees that do the pollinating and we have to encourage more use of weed patches or patches of wild flowers, within managed landscapes, to encourage these insects."

Green Infrastructure Partnership Demonstrating project benefits

Dr Sarah Webster brought the event up to date with Defra's work, particularly on the Green Infrastructure Partnership, which has 300 member organisations aiming to integrate green spaces, water and environmental features.

"Our project demonstrates the social, economic and environmental benefits of green infrastructure," she said. "Birmingham City Council's natural capital city model is a typical example, providing training and education to staff and the public in producing a better green environment."

She said Defra has defined sustainable landscapes as those that help natural cycles perpetuate without human influence, reducing fertiliser and pesticide use as well as the need to cut grass and to prune, weed or take away unwanted biomass.

"Everything should be recycled naturally, usually where it falls," she added. "Sustainable landscape management does not mean abandoning maintenance. It remains a challenge to achieve horticultural excellence by using less-intensive maintenance, involving local communities and using renewable local natural resources whenever possible."

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