Defending the realm is no walk in the park

Ian J. Vincent

It’s been said many times before that our own worst enemy is complacency. To quote the fable teller Aesop, complacency chews and swallows up our special character and values, “the secret we know and no one else does”. Because I have a fear of complacency I’ve been doing some soul searching recently about the things I choose not to accept about my chosen profession – Landscape Architecture.

 Some people say landscape architecture is a dying profession. While I don’t accept that, it is undeniable there are some fundamental issues to confront around asserting a much clearer and stronger definition of what is landscape architecture and where it stands as a profession.

 

Problems of definition

Definitions are hugely important in helping to form reality-shaping perceptions.

 We know we have some stark problems when some people so easily misinterpret the very word and what landscape architecture actually means, or when it’s substituted with garden design, the green fluff in our cities and towns or worst of all described as landscaping! really is there such a word??

Let’s face it, being spoken of as the “trees and plants guys” isn’t uncommon. Nor is being in meetings where the attitudes to landscape architecture see it referred to more as an aside or afterthought, a tag on to the buzz word "Urban Design", than a central element that provides multiple value-adding strands to any project. 

These perceptions just serve to marginalise a profession that is perhaps guilty of being missing in action. So where has it gone and where is it going?

 For a start being aligned to the word Architecture, a reasonable assumption is that the majority of people known as Landscape Architects would hold degree level qualifications. My own research in the Auckland region would indicate that less than 10% do.

 

You might also assume that an institute like the NZILA could protect and promote the usage of the title Landscape Architect, but it doesn’t.

In Europe and America if you don’t have your qualification no insurance company will insure you! no institute will back you! no council will employ you!

Instead we’re prone to taking part – at least in terms of chasing fees and budgets – in what can turn into a race to the bottom, climbing over each other for scraps from the table. I believe that failing to set our expectations for Landscape Architecture much, much higher is a form of complacency that damages the profession. Sure we could look for an answer in branding, or try to swing more to the urban design end of the spectrum, or other similar answers – but first of all we should reclaim the key areas and ground our profession, starting with the public realm.

 

Our understanding of the public realm

 Public realm has to be cared for and nurtured, and more importantly understood, given that occupiers generally understand more about a building and how it functions, than the landscape with which it forms an integral part. Public realm develops and matures over a period of time, the complete opposite to other elements of the built environment that generally fade and deteriorate over time. We all know this but it is very easy to forget.

 The architectural press, replete with the sparkly bling of pristine new buildings, holds sway, drowning out what appear to be the rather sparse and naked landscapes in between. As the masters of the ‘in between’ our secret is the knowledge that the design of public realm should not be carried out in isolation. We endeavour to consult with all relevant bodies from residential communities, local businesses, user groups, town planners and developers to secure a solution supported by all parties. It’s a process of collaboration and reconciling conflicting interests and demands on any space.

 

Any urban environment needs to be designed with a thorough understanding of a city or town's component parts. Landscape Architecture responds to the character and quality of the public realm, how accessible and connected the site is, whether there are clear boundaries and whether the area is legible. 

 We use this approach to inform a design strategy that responds to the aspirations of the client and those who will use the space and reflects the best practice in contemporary landscape architecture. This isn’t about client presentations of design strategies that wax lyrical about the use of colour, texture and form and how they change through the seasons. It’s about responding to real questions like: 'That's all very well but what will I see in January/February when I want to let the building?'

 At what point in the cycle of a ‘public realm’ life should one design for?  Do you design for day one and over-provide in terms of planting density and rely on management to thin out at a later date? Do you set the horizon for say two or three years, or before a scheme flourishes and try to persuade a client who has to let a building to be patient?

 Public realm is very difficult to control if vegetation is present, being dependent on management and maintenance that doesn't happen on its own.  Often a management plan will be produced to give instructions as to how the planting is to maintained; again this success is dependent on interpretation and how the vegetation develops over the ensuing years.


Clarity of definition

 Which brings me back to the need for clarity of definition. To my mind a primary purpose of Landscape Architecture is to ground our social and cultural foundations by bringing people and places together. Good Landscape Architecture is concerned with creating, conserving and enhancing a ‘sense of place’ – that hard-to-define but palpable and satisfying sense of quality and uniqueness that all successful built environments possess.

Because we recognise towns and cities as richly diverse, eclectic environments in a continual cycle of adaptation to social, economic and environmental change, Landscape Architecture needs to respond by integrating climate, topography, art and science. It needs to do this in order to create meaningful and enduring places and restore a healthy measure of unity between people and nature. The skills of the Landscape Architect encompass not just engineering and design but also human psychology and ecology. They can be applied at every stage of the planning and design process and at every scale, be it the setting of a major development, the creation of public realm or the design of private interior spaces.

 

Sense of mission

 Last but not least, Landscape Architecture is founded on the belief that design integrity and social relevance are paramount. We believe the creative potential is realised through sincere intent and communication throughout the design process, and by providing leadership in the shaping of our environment.

 The mission, as I see it is to unveil the extraordinary in the environment, to create places and spaces that are unique to their context, memorable and that touch the human spirit.

 

Ian J Vincent -  Director of Urbanlogic

 

Urbanlogic:

Refers to a logical and technical approach to understanding our environment from existing cities, waterfronts, new urban development's to creating spaces and places, resolving the issues that we all face, as a collaborative approach.

 

 

Images for the article are from  The Kingsland Shared Space Concept