Environmental and social problems present huge creative openings, says Olympic Park planting design consultant

One of the main creative forces behind the Olympic Park turned the tables on designers last week by arguing the world's toughest challenges throw up the biggest creative openings.

University of Sheffield professor of planting design Nigel Dunnett, who worked with colleague James Hitchmough on the giant east London site, insisted that landscape and garden designers should not shy away from huge global environmental and social problems.

"Climate change, soaring energy costs, limited natural resources, diminishing biodiversity and an increasing disconnect between people and nature represent a huge opportunity for horticulture and planting design," he told a Society of Garden Designers (SGD) conference.

"Rainwater management and water-sensitive design, biodiversity, human health and well-being are all key features of the new environmental agenda," Dunnett added. "But they can only be fully delivered by integrating buildings and built development with the landscape.

"Design is paramount. Planting design must be seen as an art form with a strong ecological basis. But planting design and horticulture must also be seen as an essential element in creating healthy cities and liveable places.

"From the urban meadows around the buildings of the Olympic Park through to low-tech, low-irrigation living walls, green roofs, street-side rain gardens, an ecological aesthetic and an aesthetic ecology can be the basis of true fusion of architecture and landscape."

Sadly, many modern architects are not so well tuned in to "manipulating" external space, architect and lecturer Kate Baker told the conference, called A Perfect Union: The Marriage of Horticulture & Architecture. Yet it is a crucial mediator between built form and landscape.

"At best, architects talk of 'yielding to the landscape' and 'touching the ground lightly', which tends to disallow the garden," she said. "So often there has been a shortfall of thinking about how buildings themselves can work with the landscape and gardens."

Some designers, however, blend architecture and horticulture well, according to garden designer John Brookes. Charles Jencks, who won a the John Brookes lifetime achievement award at the SGD Awards recently, was praised by the award's namesake, who confessed to being in awe of the designer and amazed by his mounded earthworks such as the Northumberlandia scheme.

"There is something very fundamental about his work, which combines art and architecture with landscape. Teaching of landscape and garden philosophy is much too superficial, often seen through horticultural eyes alone and pandering to a not very discerning public taste. Jencks could lead us in caring for our landscapes with a far deeper meaning."

- Design champions Nurturing talent

The Society of Garden Designers has championed garden design for 30 years and is the only professional association for garden designers in the UK.

The organisation exists to nurture talent and support garden designers in their quest to deliver outstanding service to garden owners, according to society chair Juliet Sargeant.

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