Landscape as Infrastructure

LI Conference 2017

Tim Johns, TEP’s principal landscape and urban designer reflects on the Landscape Institute’s annual conference held for the first time in Manchester in June 2017.

As part of our 20th birthday celebrations TEP was proud to sponsor the conference by providing 20 free places for young landscape professionals.

The conference had a rich and diverse agenda.  We heard from China where the challenges of rapid urbanisation in a culture that deeply values its attachment to nature were explored.  One interesting idea was the use of water in the form of a moat to give a sense of enclosure to urban areas whilst also providing connections with nature.  The Chinese speakers also brought a reminder of the power of sketches and watercolour as a way of communicating the relationship between towns, people and the environment.

Another big feature of the day was the term ‘natural capital’.  Several speakers helped us make sense of this term.  Put simply it is the resource of clean air, clean water, soil, biodiversity and landscape itself; all of which sustain urban lives.  We were encouraged to use our influence in urban environments to build natural capital wherever possible.  For example, to conserve and enhance soil resources, to increase pollen-rich landscapes and to take steps to protect and restore water quality.

Advocacy of the financial benefits of natural capital was illustrated by examples of ‘ecosystem services accounting’.  Speakers from Mott MacDonald and the Environment Agency showed how flood defence works, which in themselves deliver public benefit, could be further enhanced through creative landscape treatment to provide multiple benefits, e.g. biodiversity, new cycling opportunities, greater healthy lifestyle opportunities, etc.

These additional benefits can be monetised and cost-benefit analysis can be carried out to justify the need for additional investment over and above the basic engineering works.

But perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of the value of landscape was given by Peter Neal and Jon Sheaff who looked at parks and greenspaces in Barking and in Barnet and demonstrated the monetary value that the parks provided to their surrounding communities in the form of better public health, economic activity within and around the park and community cohesion.  These monetary values outweighed the cost of maintaining the parks multiple times.  The challenge for us as landscape architects is to jump up and down and shout about the huge need for quality greenspaces and parks in our rapidly changing cities and to ensure the new settlements and urban extensions incorporate significant and well managed parklands.

Another important talk was from Larissa Naylor of Glasgow University about greening grey infrastructure.  Larissa drew a distinction between:

• Grey infrastructure, i.e. features which must permanently remain as hard built structures.
• Grey infrastructure which can be greened in parts.
• Pure green infrastructure, i.e. open countryside, rivers, parks, i.e. infrastructure that will remain green.

Her talk focussed on the second category i.e. how to green up urban grey infrastructure.  This often involves micro interventions in the cityscape, for example rain gardens, swales, pollen-rich verges, soft capping of heritage assets using vegetation and ivy trellising on urban walls.  Larissa demonstrated that many of these grey to green interventions have measurable financial advantages which outweigh the cost of the capital works needed to create them.

We should like to thank the Landscape Institute for giving us the opportunity to sponsor this conference which we were proud to be a part of.  We trust the 20 young landscape professionals whom we sponsored came away from the day as enthused as we were.

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