On the 22-23rd June the Landscape Institute hosted its annual conference at the Manchester Metropolitan University. ‘Landscape as Infrastructure’ covered an extensive range of topics exploring social, technology and environmental infrastructure. 

A motivational welcome by the Landscape Institute’s (LI) President Merrick Denton-Thompson began the conference calling for Landscape Architects to take advantage of the exciting opportunities nature-based solutions present as well as maximising landscape infrastructure as a framework for investment. Denton-Thompson’s talk really inspired confidence on the future of the industry and the direction it should take. It’s good to see the Landscape Institute embracing trends that have been emerging over the last couple of years and highlight the importance on the role of designers in our public realm.

There were a wide variety of talks so sadly there was only so much we could take in, but during the conference there were several prevailing themes that were evident and gave an indication on the way in which the industry is progressing:

  1. Landscape Architects have always had a symbiotic relationship between urban and countryside but are encouraged to work closer with the environment to create a resilient future. 

  2. Building Evidence to argue the case for Green Infrastructure.

  3. It’s all about people. 

 

 

1. Working with the Environment:

The first theme is probably an obvious one to feature at a Landscape Institute event, however, a closer relationship  to the environment is needed to reconnect with the environment, and its natural cycles, with our urban areas. Chris Bolton from Natural England (@NaturalEngland) stressed the need for landscape to be considered as a holistic concept, and not just one that aligns to governmental boundaries. 

An issue that was highlighted by Denton-Thompson was the need for Landscape Architects to consider soil within designs with the LI President admitting, ‘"We’re good at the fluffy stuff, but not so good at the actual science of soils"’. The complexity of soil microbiology is still not truly understood, but limiting the used of fertilisers, pesticides and chemicals, as well as destruction of soil structure, within landscaping schemes is a key step in improving the natural balances within soil.

Laura Rhodes from the Environmental Agency (@EnvAgency) pointed out that with good communication and consultation new possibilities can be created. Rhodes’ talk focused on the recent flooding along the River Humber and the ways in which the environmental agency are trying to prevent future flood events. By allowing certain areas to flood ecotourism and new farming potential, can be achieved, turning a negative event into exciting unrealised possibilities. 

One of the most thrilling speeches from the whole conference was by Professor Xiangrong Wang from Beijing Forestry University, who ran through some projects in China. One slide was partially captivating which addressed what he thought of as the reasons for the separation and fragmentation of natural systems and the urban environment:

  • Larger cities now occupy surrounding natural and semi-natural spaces, so there is less space.
  • Cities today are no longer connected to agricultural systems that governed them in the past.
  • The attitude toward nature has changed from relying to modifying and intervening randomly.
  • More and more man-made systems have replace the natural and semi-natural systems. 

 

2. Building Evidence

The second theme was building evidence and increasing collaboration, on the benefits of landscape as infrastructure. Much was written in the 1970s about the mental benefits of exposure to nature (Kaplan and Kaplan, E O Wilson, etc) but physical evidence is still relative limited.  All business opportunities require a firm basis for investment, increasingly one of the major factors holding up the implementation of Green Infrastructure is a lack of strong evidence. There is a need for Landscape infrastructure to become a framework for investment, and there was much discussion about how this information could be collected and the conference, and more importantly, how it should be shared to maximise the opportunities within the landscape profession. We need to collect and share evidence of benefits to prove that nature is not just a luxury and something nice to have, but something that is essential for us all, and then articulate the value of this to a larger audience.

 

 

3. It’s all about People:

As much as we love plants, the last theme is the most important, and one we always prioritise. People make spaces, people need to be consulted throughout, and people must enjoy the spaces we design. This was nicely summed up by Maisie Rowe (@accordiongirl40) who in her talk about the importance of play landscapes said, ‘“It’s easy to overlook the social nature of play”’. Landscape should support all ages, especially children, Rowe pointed out that in her childhood children were given independence, and gained terrific sense of ownership over the park where she used to play.

It was clear from the conference that one of the big issues of the next few decades is the housing crisis which Landscape Institute and Landscape Architects will have play a vital role in. Creating ‘Homes, not Houses’ will rely on the external areas of our built environment, especially as they will need to work alongside other issues such as flooding, climate change, and pollinator decline. We  must remember Eric Hallquist (@erichallquist) words about the importance of people ‘“Green Infrastructure does not create a scheme, people do, people are attached to people, and not infrastructure, no matter how many plants, or how nice it looks.”’

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The ‘Landscape as Infrastructure’ Conference was a pleasure to attend, it was great to see the Landscape Institute putting its weight behind Green Infrastructure and nature-based systems, and  sincerely hope that other will industries follow to make the future green place for all of us and the planet itself.