Future forecasting: landscape architects might save the world

Landscape architects need to mediate between the soft and hard elements of the city. Forecast, photo by John Gollings

I predict we’re going to hear a lot more from landscape architects in the coming years. There has long been a misunderstanding about what they actually do – “something about gardens” being a common response.

But the diversity and scale of work in landscape architecture is huge, and the mix of skills and expertise required shows real promise for dealing with the pressing issues facing Australian cities. Whether climate change or urbanisation, population growth or densification, landscape architects have ideas for how to make our future cities liveable, workable and beautiful.

All this was under discussion in Brisbane earlier this month at Forecast: the Inaugural Festival of Landscape Architecture, presented by the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA) at the State Library of Queensland – where the winners were also announced for the AILA National Awards, pictured here.

Forecast was an inspiring event. As an outsider, albeit from the aligned field of architecture, I thought I knew exactly what landscape architects did. But I was wrong.

It turns out landscape architects are everywhere: working from the scale of a tiny green roof, to city-wide green infrastructure; from the remediation of a massive outback mine site, to the design of an inner urban “pocket park”.

Adelaide Airport Project: a collaboration between Taylor Cullity Lethlean, Woodhead Architects, Dryden Crute Design, Bluebottle. Forecast, photo by Ben Wrigley

Of course, they don’t just work on projects, they also work on policy, and they are key figures in community consultation and engagement. This was one of the main themes of the festival – that the diversity of work undertaken by landscape architects goes way beyond “capital D” design.

The festival was a deliberate turn away from conventional industry conference formats – creative directors Sharon Mackay and Di Snape, advised by Dr Catherin Bull AM, set out to “blow up the conference model”, abandoning keynote lectures in favour of “a series of conversations about the future of landscape architecture”.

Collaborating with the living world

Surprisingly, it can be controversial to talk to a landscape architect about plants. A few years ago, it seemed the profession was doing its best to abandon vegetation altogether – many of the universities stopped teaching plant knowledge, as they moved towards a largely design-based education. To this day horticulture remains a touchy subject.

Nevertheless, landscape architects have today re-embraced plants – in the context of a holistic approach to natural and artificial ecosystems. They engage not just with the plant, but the soil and water and air and climate and everything around that plant. This also includes the human, social and cultural context.

To my eye, the unique perspective of landscape architects comes from this ability to balance ecological and built systems – mediating between the soft and hard elements of the city, and the natural and constructed environment more broadly.

Landscape architecture is always already collaborative. It works with “materials” that have a life of their own, and designs with all the phenomena of the living world. When your design “collaborator” is a water table, or a soil ecology, then you will always need to allow for the inherent changeability of that.

Taylor Cullity Lethlean with Tonkin Zulaikha Greer won the 2014 Australian Medal for Landscape Architecture for the National Arboretum Canberra Masterplan. Forecast, photo by John Gollings

Your design will also be interdependent with other systems, and influenced by circumstance and sheer chance. You might know roughly how big that tree is going to grow, but its exact form is impossible to predict in advance, and only partly controllable with pruning or maintenance.

Working under these conditions mean that landscape architects are better placed than many other built environment professions to cope with uncertainty and change, and to renounce the expectation (or the fantasy) of the designer being able to exert total control over materials, places or people.

The call to green infrastructure

In the past, landscape architects have often not been part of large-scale urban decision making processes – they have been engaged down the line as consultants, designing specific, small parts of a much bigger urban picture. Think paving and bench seats or, as one participant dryly suggested, “arranging the parsley”.

But as Forecast made clear, landscape architects are agitating to take on a much greater strategic role, to push their way to the decision-making table and bring design expertise to bear at a city-wide or region-wide scale.

The Greater Curtin project. Andy Sharp, Director of Properties Facilities and Development at Curtin University who spoke at Forecast, is charged with bringing this to life.

This scale of work is often described as green infrastructure. We might all be familiar with older forms of “grey infrastructure” such as roads and railways, power grids and networks of garbage collection. But landscape architects are challenging traditional ways of dealing with water, waste, energy and transport – the circulatory systems of the city.

Instead of channelling rainwater runoff into a sewer system, for instance, landscape architects are looking to capture and reuse it on site in green rooves, or let it seep through permeable paving into the soil.

Likewise, a city that has a network of interlinked open spaces pleasant to walk in encourages “active transport” and reduces the need for car and public transport infrastructure.

Plants save lives

Increasingly, science-based research is revealing a connection between the work of landscape architects and larger public health imperatives.

Vegetation helps to reduce the effect of heat waves (saving lives), the shade of tree canopy ameliorates urban heat islands (saving power), access to vegetation, fresh air and daylight improves the speed of recovery of hospital patients (saving inpatient time), and the provision of quality public open space encourages active commuting (saving the need for car transport).

All of these things also, needless to say, save money.

Revitalising Central Dandenong: Lonsdale Street Redevelopment, by BKK Architects and Taylor Cullity Lethlean, won the 2014 Urban Design National Awards of Excellence. Forecast, image by John Gollings

Landscape architect Deiter Lim, who spoke at the festival, described the new Royal Adelaide Hospital project, which he predicts will be “Australia’s best hospital, by far”, where the model of care is based on patients’ access to fresh air, natural light, tactile surfaces, and plants.

Here landscape architecture becomes central to the project. This is not because of a rarefied idea about “design”, but because it is integral to the model of care. It will save time and money, and most importantly it is best for people.

So landscape architects are experts in certain design measures that can increase public health, productivity, wellbeing, and quality of life. Perhaps more importantly, they can increasingly argue this in terms that politicians and bureaucrats can understand – they can play the numbers game.

Landscape architect Penny Hall demonstrated this at the festival showing an aerial view of a park noting the dollar value of each tree – calculated in terms of carbon dioxide capture, temperature reduction, property values, and so on.

We might be dismayed at this empirical approach to something as unquantifiably beautiful as a tree. But Hall’s point is this: when seen as an environmental asset, a tree can be entered into the metrics and calculations – and especially the economic markers – that govern the management of the built environment.

Making more than just ‘adequate’ public spaces

There was a real sense of mobilisation at Forecast, of rallying to the cause of a more sustainable world through landscape architecture.

But within all this, the highlight for me was from Pamille Berg AO, the Canberra-based public art consultant, who had a call to action of a different kind – to make special places, “not just adequate places”, and to remember the “long now” of responsibility over centuries.

Berg argued that “we must remember that our public space projects are not mute”. They can give a message either about “thin-ness” and “mean-ness” and “a valueless approach”, or they can speak about “the essential public values of empathy, compassion, inclusion, and the sheer exhilaration of wonderful creative making”.

Berg’s eloquent contribution was a kind of still point in the midst of the festival’s swirling energies and passions. It was a reminder that looking to the future must be done with one eye on the past.

The festival ended with a well-deserved standing ovation for the creative directors.