Rethinking the urban landscape

With no self-respecting project missing a landscape architect, the profession must grasp the opportunities

Can landscape architects seize the day? The Landscape Institute believes the time is right for its members to show how they are addressing hot topics such as flood management, green infrastructure, and landscapes for healthy living, as well as creating great spaces. And following its very high-profile success at the Olympic Park, which changed many peoples’ perceptions of the practice, the institute may just be pushing at an open door.

So says Paul Lincoln, LI director of policy and communications and co-curator of Rethinking the Urban Landscape, a new exhibition at the Building Centre. ‘We’re at a very interesting moment. There’s a lot of opportunity,’ he says, adding that landscape architects are best placed to orchestrate such complex environments.

He points to the current interest in green infrastructure – connections between parks, trees, riverbanks, green spaces that provide amenity and ecological and environmental value – as well as the urgent need to address sustainable drainage and flood management.  Certainly, leading developers now routinely have landscape and green strategies in a way that they didn’t 15 years ago, and are using them as selling points.

Multi-functional landscapes that address water management as well as providing attractive amenity are the way forward when local authority budgets are so squeezed, adds Lincoln.  A pocket park by Greysmith Associates at Derbyshire St in Bethnal Green, for example, turned former parking spaces into planting, gabion seating, bike shelter and paving, with run-off water draining into the new flower bed. This provides 12m3 of water storage, modest on its own but the exhibition claims that if replicated in similar contexts elsewhere in the capital it could provide up to 10 million m3 , or 10 times the capacity of the Thames Tideway Tunnel. 

The show’s 44 projects are a rather mixed bunch, from tiny pocket parks to the grandiosity of the Heatherwick–designed Garden Bridge. They convey landscape design’s huge range of activities – from tidal lagoons and flood management landscapes right through to community food growing spaces.  At Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, BDP’s landscape embeds the building in its park, which is conceived as a healing resource with terraces, gardens and ‘edible landscapes’. Erect Architecture with J&L Gibbons has joined green infrastructure and public realm in a walkway that would link Vauxhall with the South Bank, for Vauxhall One and the Missing Link.

LDA Design’s Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon will create an intriguing new public realm encompassing pools and rocks alongside the tidal energy power plant. At Barking Riverside, Gustafson Porter’s strategy makes the risk of flooding into a feature of the landscape, with planted swales and water storage ponds.

While this broad exhibition shows plenty of interesting work, should more emphasis have been given to the way landscape designers are creatively engaging with water and health issues? But perhaps that’s a whole other exhibition. 

Rethinking the Urban Landscape, until 10 February, The Building Centre, London WC1E 7BT