Learning from Beijing

Good ideas need to be translated into action if the UK Olympic Park is to be successful, says Magda Ibrahim.

Pressure is mounting on the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) to deliver a world-class park in time for 2012 - and after the spectacular plans for Beijing 2008 were unveiled at an industry event earlier this month, the question remains whether London can hit the mark.

Not only must the ODA live up to what looks set to be a landmark scheme in China this year, but also, with a contractor not yet appointed for either the north or south sides of London's Olympic Park, the clock is ticking.

Professor Hu Jie - landscape architect at the Urban Planning & Design Institute at Tsinghua University, and behind the stunning design for the Beijing Olympic Forest Park - left delegates feeling inspired after his presentation on 16 January revealed an enormous level of sophistication and consideration of culture, tradition and native planting.

From the embedded cultural references, such as the dragon-shaped lake, carefully thought-out rockery, and creation of a green axis running from Beijing's Forbidden City northwards to the park, to the use of new technology to supply the water systems and deal with sewage discharge, the general impression was that London could learn from the project.

ODA project sponsor for the Olympic Park John Hopkins is clearly impressed with what he has seen and seems to take on board the need to use local plants, get soft contracting out as soon as possible and attempt to be environmentally cutting-edge.

"We are on target for the north park contract, and the first contract let will be for the trees," he stresses.

But with the ODA's official line being that the shortlist for the managing contractor will not be drawn up until spring, followed by an appointment in the summer, there are murmurs that it could all just be too late.

And although optimistic Hopkins assures everyone that the UK is on to a winner with its park, the question of whether this country's cultural traditions can be translated into the landscape design remains to be seen.

Hopkins says: "We have a fantastic tradition of garden design and landscape design in the UK. I'd like to think we can bring that together in the Olympic Park."

One of the bigger problems that could be faced by landscapers is whether the UK's cultural traditions can match the strength of the Chinese traditions in their recognition by park users.

Glendale Environmental's principal consultant Will Reed says: "Landscape architects are artists and we need to make links with other artists; it would be interesting to have cultural references to Shakespeare, perhaps."

Other suggestions included references to Chaucer or Capability Brown.

Boningale managing director Tim Edwards points out: "The ideas are very important, but it's actually making them happen that's the main thing."

The sheer scale of what has been achieved in Beijing should be enough to send tremors through the ODA ranks.

In addition to the park's 23ha showpiece lake, there is the mountain - which was built using five million tonnes of earth and planted with pine trees.

The combination of the water and the mountain is supposed to reflect traditional Chinese paintings in its design.

And while Professor Hu complained in his presentation of the lack of variety in Beijing's forest park - 200 different tree species - delegates applauded the Chinese team's dedication to buying locally.

Hu explained: "Nurseries' stocks are too simple and, compared to the UK, there's a big difference, but we're trying to use as many local materials as possible. We don't want it to be full of exotic planting materials but to look like a Beijing park."

Eco-friendly features

When the park opens in May, it will be a chance for the design, and its technological underpinnings, to be showcased.

Hu said that some of the main focus points are energy savings and green architecture; recycled water is used throughout the 80ha water system, and the winter heating is being produced using a geothermal pump mechanism.

"The Olympic Forest Park has been a testing ground for us to develop our ideas of sustainability and we'll be evaluating the park's evolution over the next few years," he adds.

"We've been trying to build a large team of experts to work on the project together because we wanted to bring in new ideas so we could use cutting-edge technology."

That approach has a positive impact for Institute of Groundsmanship chief executive Geoff Webb. "The UK has the problem that in different areas of the profession people don't really sit around the table and talk that often," he says.

It is a method that the Beijing team have taken on board, however, and the resulting relationship between the Bird's Nest Olympic stadium, the forest park with its wetland flower terraces and the city itself has a strong bond.

Wildlife experts and other consultants from around the world were brought in to consult on attracting animals to the park, and green bridges were developed to connect the green spaces to one another.

But it has not all been plain sailing, despite the ease with which the project appears to have been carried out.

Hu says it had taken some work to persuade the Chinese government of the viability of the planned scheme. "The government has supported these new ideas but we had to make them believe this was a good idea," he says.

"The last part is the hardest - to realise good ideas rather than just bring them to the table. London can learn from Beijing that, instead of focusing on brownfields, technology can be used to add more people and cultural elements to landscape design."

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