Green Horizons: Exploring the Future of the Landscape Sector

An interview with LI South West Chair Sarah Jones Morris

We caught up with Sarah Jones Morris, founder of Landsmith Associates and chair of the Landscape Institute South West, to launch our Green Horizons project (in conjunction with the LI’s 90th anniversary), and to talk about the future of the landscape design profession.

Is the landscape sector fit for purpose to meet the challenges of the future?

The government, following protests, has declared a climate emergency. We need to acknowledge and tackle climate change, through a comprehensive, collaborative approach by built and natural environment sector including developers, landscape architects, architects, planners, contractors, estate management and engineers. Creating, protecting and managing places for nature and people is beneficial for ecology and public health. For example, on a macro scale, increasing woodland cover to increase the area for carbon net sink and habitats;  in the UK we have 13% of woodland cover compared to Europe’s 44%.  On a micro scale, widening pavements encourages people to walk, segregated cycle paths safe for a 12-year-old to use, the design of front gardens and porches to include easily accessible cycle storage, biodiverse hedges instead of fences will all contribute to the broader environment and society.

What do you feel are the critical issues for the landscape and placemaking sector currently?

The critical issues are how we the profession will contribute positively in mitigating climate change and create healthy and biodiverse landscapes, cities and towns for existing and future generations.  This is particularly relevant as the UN has predicted that 68% of the population will live in urban areas by 2050.

To enable this to be realised and achieved, there is a need to challenge and develop current processes, communication skills and improve education.  There is a lack of early involvement of landscape architects at key stage of project development. Increasingly, landscape architects are not part of the on-site construction process; this links to poorly informed and current procurement routes and procedures.

We have a planning system that is building-led rather than community landscape-led; a building-led design does not create a successful masterplan. Our current education at university does not include learning skills and techniques for community engagement and yet a large proportion of enquiries from the public are related to landscape matters during planning application process and 70% to 80% of Section 106 and Community Infrastructure Levy (Planning Advisory Service, 2019) funding is allocated to landscape projects.

The next issue is that professionals use design guidance/ assessment to value whether development is of high quality. Currently, there is no mention of nature as part of key urban design guidance, for example, Building for Life 12.  The government announced that new development must achieve net biodiversity gain; if nature is not part of design and assessment process then how can the people and ecology thrive.

What do you think are the critical skills required by landscape/placemaking professionals to create successful places where people thrive?

The most important skills for landscape architects are verbal and visual communication; there must be an interest in people and nature.

Followed by imagination, multi-disciplinary and system/holistic/lateral thinking, and practical experience.

In May 2018, the Landscape Institute published a report ‘The Future State of Landscape: Embracing the Opportunity’ on skills and state of the landscape profession highlighting that 50% of members perform community engagement. Visual communication and imagination are encouraged and developed at university and in practice, what is lacking is taught skills on how to collaborate with others as well as methods and approaches to stakeholder and community engagement. A higher quality of community engagement is required and there is as a specific skills gap for design and planning professionals, despite it forming a significant element of their working practice.

The recent Raynsford Review (Town and Country Planning Association, 2018) identified that the planning system and processes must become more people centred with a new covenant for community participation. The Review also emphasised that participatory design would fundamentally change the planning process and assist in creating places that actually enhance people’s lives.

What do you feel are the essential ‘ingredients’ to making great places?

A great place is a healthy place for people and nature to connect, where the most vulnerable, for example, children, women, disabled feel happy and safe, and nature thrives. The wider community needs to feel included and part of the design process – designers alone do not make places successful, people and nature do – our duty as designers is to bring our knowledge and experience to projects, to inspire, facilitate and deliver.

Who/what/where inspires you in your career as a landscape architect, placemaker and professional?

My mother ran a pioneering contemporary garden design business.  At age 16 I designed my first private garden. I realised as much I enjoyed the process that I wanted to create designs for all to enjoy rather than the few. Growing up and living up in cities in the UK and abroad, increasingly I became aware that as a woman or when I was a child, the outdoor urban environment is not designed for all. I also became aware during my professional practice that methods and design process were not evolving and meeting the needs for future generations.

In the last ten years, there has been an emergence of exceptional women across the placemaking, academic, community, arts and culture and public health sectors who have influenced me and my work. They have encouraged me to inspire others from all ages and backgrounds to design landscapes to benefit people and nature linking with public health and climate change issue.

Does the landscape/placemaking sector currently reflect contemporary Britain? 

95% of landscape architects are white. Compared with the UK population 82%, we clearly do not have a diverse representation in the profession yet. The profession does attract equally women and men, but only 23% of female landscape architects are directors. The sector needs to diversify and become more inclusive to remain relevant. To do this, we must encourage and make people aware about the landscape profession and be more open to new ideas, in particular from younger generations – our future. We need to upskill and review how we work; is it inclusive? Are we designing for all? 


Inspired by this interview? 

Sign up to our trio of Green Horizons CPD workshops:

→ Green Horizons Workshop #1: People at the Heart of Place: Immersive Engagement Practices | 23 May

→ Green Horizons Workshop #2: Streets Ahead: Co-Design Techniques in Practice | 27 June

→ Green Horizons Workshop #3: Digital Technology for Participatory Place Design | 25 July

More information about these workshops: www.architecturecentre.org.uk/…/green-horizons-professiona…/

 

“The critical issues are how we the profession will contribute positively in mitigating climate change and create healthy and biodiverse landscapes, cities and towns for existing and future generations.” Sarah Jones Morris