Education & training: landscape architecture

London's spectacular Olympic Park is fuelling rising interest in careers in landscape architecture.

Award-winning landscapes at the Olympic Park have created more interest in landscape architecture among young people - image: ODA
Award-winning landscapes at the Olympic Park have created more interest in landscape architecture among young people - image: ODA

During the London Olympics, around two million people visited the Olympic Park and its award-winning landscape. The project, which saw two million tonnes of soil cleaned and 5km of riverbank refurbished, transformed an urban wasteland into an exciting public space.

It also shone a light on the landscape architecture profession, says landscape consultant and university lecturer Peter Neal. Like many in the sector, he is seeing evidence of young people who previously had no interest in the industry starting to think seriously about a career in landscape architecture.

Landscape architecture is primarily a profession for graduates. Training usually starts with a degree and then, after a period of workplace experience, often progresses to a postgraduate course. Those wanting to reach the top of the profession will be expected to become chartered landscape architects and will do a period of training, covering all areas of the profession. This process, known as "Pathway to Chartership", is run by the Landscape Institute.

It is a long process with significant rewards. Paul Lincoln, director of policy at the Landscape Institute, explains: "Very few people will pick it up as they go along. Some people will train in horticulture or will have worked as architects, but you need some academic training."

He argues that 2012 has seen a great deal of interest in landscape architecture. "The Olympic masterplan was led by a landscape architect and visitors loved the landscaping. The park was part of the overall success. Landscapers are now working on the masterplan for Rio." He suggests that public parks are "now back in fashion", adding: "The Olympics will change views of landscaping and allied professions."

New pressures

Landscape architects have always needed to be able to produce views and spaces that are aesthetically pleasing. But they are now facing a series of new pressures. Lincoln says: "One major issue is green infrastructure. We have to help clients make the most of the landscape, enabling it to be multifunctional." These days, with climate change and increased flooding, water management is a serious consideration. "Water should look beautiful but it should also create a functioning environment," Lincoln adds. "At the Olympic site, for example, we opened culverted rivers and turned them into water meadows."

Neal, who was previously head of public space at CABE Space, points out that landscapers are now expected to consider the economic aspects of a site and might be expected to consider such issues as potential food production and the production of biomass (fuel for burning), as well as the effect on regeneration, when designing a site.

Modern landscape architects are expected to grapple with all aspects of computer-aided design. A large amount of work is currently done online and animation skills are increasingly coming into play. However, landscape architects have to be able to communicate readily with clients and members of the public to sell their vision. "They have to visually represent the job to the employer and the eventual users," says Neal. "They have to be able to show how the site will function and what it will look like in 20 years' time."

Over the next few years, students will also be expected to understand a new method of working. Building information modelling builds up a database of information and is designed to cut costs and integrate the processes involved in a building project. Lincoln explains: "It's a way of modelling land. It will be incorporated into any major plan and employees will have to show that they understand it." Anyone doing a landscape course at college will be expected to pick up these skills in the various modules.

A variety of organisations employ landscape architects, with many working for large consultancies such as Capita Symonds. Many more work in private practice for small landscape architecture firms and many local authorities or regional bodies will have in-house experts.

Employers look for a good range of skills and they also want people at various stages of their careers. Churchman Landscape Architects partner Chris Churchman says: "This year, we've taken two graduates straight out of college as well as people with three-to-five years' experience." As far as employment goes, there is currently a buyer's market. "We can pick and choose from a wide number of applicants," adds Churchman. "We get a lot of EU applicants offering to work for nothing. Ideally, we'll take people with a final degree and diploma. We only take people who have studied landscape architecture to degree level."

Landscape architects will be expected to work closely with other professionals. Ian Houlston is an associate at LDA Design, which in 2008 was appointed to lead the masterplanning and detailed design of the parklands and public realm of the Olympic Park. He says: "We employ an energy team to look at energy issues, a graphics team, experts in computer-aided design as well as model makers producing traditional physical models as well as virtual computer models. We really value the input from new people. We want graduates who can bring fresh ideas to the practice."

The challenges will differ slightly from firm to firm. A large company will offer more cooperative working and give trainees more opportunity for in-house training as well as offering a greater diversity of work. However, in a small company an employee will have the chance to take more responsibility for individual projects.

Landscape architects are expected to continue their education throughout their career. Houlston mentors candidates who are doing Pathway to Chartership courses. "I usually meet up once a week and I'm available for informal consultation," he says. Even after chartership, the Landscape Institute insists that its members undergo regular continuing professional development.

In previous periods of recession, developers and contractors often regarded landscaping as an easy area to cut. However, says Neal, this has now changed. "Cutting landscaping is a false economy," Neal maintains. "For example, water management is now seen as an integral part of any development. It's not just something that can be added on at the end. People are putting landscape at the heart of any development. It's moved from an amenity to a necessity."

Neal is now being asked to give landscape architecture talks to schools.

"A couple of days ago, I was asked to speak to a group of sixth-formers. The Olympics has shone a light on our profession. It shows that this is an area of growth and that we're world-class. It resonates with young people. I'd be very surprised if there isn't an influx of youngsters wanting to train over the next few years."

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