How do you do Blue Sky Thinking if it’s raining all the time? (notes from FutureScape ’16)

daily-grindI am sure you recognise the classic bind for a small business – daily grind. You’re always on the treadmill. You don’t have time to do any marketing because you are always busy. Because you don’t do any marketing, soon you don’t have any work; so you have plenty of time to do marketing. You rush round madly trying to drum up work, then it’s back to the grindstone. But if you could step back from the switchback – the yo-yo – what would you actually do?  And why is any of this important? “Why can’t I just bumble on as I have for the last few years?” I hear you say.

Here are a few reasons.

  1. Digital revolution. This sounds so obvious, but most people constantly underestimate not only the impact that this will have on our lives, but more importantly, the way it will have an impact. If you look at the way markets are disrupted by those who use technology to their advantage, it is generally because something starts off as marginal then moves mainstream. Either it starts too expensive and then the technology improves and the delivery cost comes down, or it starts off crap but cheap and the producer works out a way to improve the quality. Now, I’m not exactly sure how technology (particularly digital technology) will affect our market in the future. If I did know, clearly I wouldn’t be here writing this, I’d be on my yacht in the Bahamas. But it will be disruptive. Look at Uber, AirBNB for just a couple of examples.
  2. Austerity. This is here for a while. It doesn’t mean that the government isn’t going to spend, but that money spent on say HS2 or Heathrow won’t be there to spend on say parks, schools facilities or smaller, more localised infrastructure projects.
  3. The graph on the left shows how the number of households with older people has changed in the last 15 years. Households are getting older. The graph on the right shows overall spending per household. This is falling, partly because of austerity and partly because older people spend less.
    The graph on the left shows how the number of households with older people has changed in the last 15 years. Households are getting older. The graph on the right shows overall spending per household. This is falling, partly because of austerity and partly because older people spend less. Source www.ft.com

     

    This Gantt chart shows how spending falls with age. Note the sharp reduction after the age of 64 and further still after the age of 74.
    This Gantt chart shows how spending falls with age. Note the sharp reduction after the age of 64 and further still after the age of 74. Source www.ft.com

     

    Baby boomers. (The baby-boom years are approximately between the years 1946 and 1964. This includes people who are between 52 and 70 years old in 2016.) If you look at a graph of how and when people spend, typically disposable income rises through their thirties forties and fifties when it peaks. It declines slowly through their sixties and more sharply thereafter.  What is more, the population is ageing. Not only are we all living longer, but over the next ten years, the ‘Baby boomer’ generation will be entering retirement age.

  4. This graph shows the ratio of average house price to average earnings. The red is London and the green UK as a whole. Given that the average advance is around 3.5x earnings, the unaffordability of houses is obvious.
    This graph shows the ratio of average house price to average earnings. The red is London and the green UK as a whole. Given that the average advance is around 3.5x earnings, the unaffordability of houses is obvious.

    Millennials. (defined as those ages 18-34 in 2015; they currently make up about 25% of the UK population) This is a generation centred on experience rather than possession. Most can’t afford to buy a house on flat, certainly not one with any substantial outside space.

What are the nett effects of these factors going to be? Well from our point of view it is difficult to predict, but one thing is clear – only the best organised, most fleet-footed firms and practitioners will benefit. You know how some firms or individuals always seem to get the plum jobs? Why is that? In this changing world, who will work go to? Simple:

  • People you can trust.
  • Firms you’ve heard of.
This diagram (courtesy of Dent Corporation) shows what you need to address to become a ‘Key Person of Influence’ in any industry. There are essentially 5 components: Pitch, Publish, Product, Profile, Partnerships. This process applies particularly to Individuals – sole traders – but would be equally relevant to business leaders.
This diagram (courtesy of Dent Corporation) shows what you need to address to become a ‘Key Person of Influence’ in any industry. There are essentially 5 components: Pitch, Publish, Product, Profile, Partnerships. This process applies particularly to Individuals – sole traders – but would be equally relevant to business leaders. www.keypersonofinfluence.com

I went to a lecture recently by Daniel Priestly of the Dent Corporation (www.dent.global). He said that there were certain people in all industries who were ‘Key People of Influence’. These people tend to clean up on many of the opportunities available. Everybody wants to work with them, for them, get them to speak at events and so on. They can charge more and they can select which projects they take forward. He put forward 5 key activities which these people tend to capitalise on Pitching, Publishing, Partnering, Productising (i.e. presenting their services in a clear unique product that appeals to consumers) and Profile. you can read more about this on his website www.keypersonofinfluence.com.

 

So, what is the most valuable thing in your business? Could someone buy it, assuming you wanted to sell?
Is it –

  • A brand?
  • Culture?
  • IP? Ideas, copyrights, etc.?
  • Your website?
  • A relationship?
  • A product or products?
  • You? – Your experience, qualifications, knowledge? (If so, see the 5 ‘P’s above!)

For most of us, it is probably a combination of several of these.

Let’s look at most of what we ‘do’ every day or week and sort it into columns. Now I don’t mean here ‘designing gardens’, ‘cutting grass’ or ‘building walls’. I am talking about generic tasks that are applicable to all businesses. We’ve been working with some business consultants recently (Contexis.com) and they helped us sort day to day activities into three groups.

First, there are the things that are necessary to run your business or add to your productivity, but don’t contribute directly to your turnover. Many of these will appear as costs or overheads on your profit and loss sheet, but that doesn’t mean that they are not important.
Examples would be:  I.T., Finance, Legal, Premises, H.R., Compliance, and Administration

Secondly, there are the things that add immediately to sales – to your turnover. So these are effectively better ways of delivering your product or service to the market, better channels, if you like. Examples would be:  Sales, Marketing (short term / tactical), Programming and Project Planning, Design, Site works, Client loyalty.

Lastly, there are the things that add to long term value. These are the interesting ones, the more ‘nebulous’ ones:  Culture (includes Intent and Values), Vision, Joint Ventures, Client Base Management, Channels, Brand Architecture & Positioning, New product / service development.

culturewordle
Is this the culture in your business? What words would staff and clients come up with if asked?

Let’s look a culture, vision and values first. If you think about it, there is probably a culture which defines your business (regular readers will remember me writing about this before in this blog). This should be something that you could ask anyone in the business about and you would get pretty much the same answer. It doesn’t happen by accident though, and needs nurturing. There is a lot of overlap between this and values. The latter is like a distillation of culture. At B&W, we narrow our values down to three words – Excellence, Creativity and Trust. These values underpin everything we do at the business both externally and internally. It should be evident to clients when they deal with you and when they look at any of your marketing material.

Developing a BrandNext Brand. Branding is more than a fancy logo, website or snappy slogan; effective branding captures the essence and values of a company. Tactical marketing generates sales; strategic branding generates loyalty. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Who are you trying to sell to?
  • Are you correctly positioned in the market?
  • Is it immediately clear to potential clients:
    • What you are selling?
    • How they will benefit?

go_to_market_large_sq-300x300Finally, let’s look at the market and how to get to it. One key thing to think about is to try and analyse why your clients buy from you, and no, I don’t just mean ‘because you are good’! For example, what problems are your customers trying to solve when they buy from you? Is it that they need a lower maintenance garden, or maybe they want to add something – a vegetable garden or a swimming pool? Perhaps there are complementary services or products that come before or after they join you – furniture? A glass house? also, think about what situation your clients are in just before they buy from you – what events are they likely to visit for example? Are they developing property – new extension or house, commercial building etc. Have their financial circumstances changed – got funding, sold a business, inherited? Or maybe they are going through some lifestyle changes – having children, kids leaving home, retirement, etc.

Where's all the time gone?One question you’re probably asking yourself right now is ‘But how can I find the time to do all this?’ The short answer of course is because you need to. Try to set aside a particular time each week to think about ‘conceptual stuff’. Perhaps arrange some time away from the business. I know that my best ideas often come while I am doing something else, often when I am away for a few days. A more practical tip is to use the time spent and lessons learnt from pitches to change the way you present the business. To take advantages of these opportunities (and because you never know when you might get a spare timeslot!), make sure you always have the right data and materials to hand – keep data on enquiries; photograph your work, preferably professionally; get testimonials.

But above all – have fun!

 

What top 5 things should you consider when designing a garden over a basement?

 

The first time I designed a garden over a basement (more than 25 years ago) it was unusual enough to be of significant interest (even bemusement) to colleagues. These days they are so common as to be almost ubiquitous in Central London. However, they pose considerable technical challenges which have the potential to really compromise the scheme if they are not dealt with. So what are the principal concerns to bear in mind?

  1. Drainage. This is the biggie (along with no. 2 below).
    Taken during construction. You can see the gullies as small black circles dropping through the slab.
    Taken during construction. You can see the gullies as small black circles dropping through the slab.

    If you don’t know the answer to the question ‘How is the basement slab being drained?’ then find out sharpish. It is really important to understand the drainage strategy and to design the landscape accordingly. There are two basic strategies: drain off the edge of the slab (often to land drains) or drain through the slab. The latter involves gullies in the concrete which drop through to suspended drainage in the space beneath. The former is more common these days, particularly as new basement guidelines form Central London planning authorities mean that there is generally 50% of the garden left undeveloped. However, it does raise issues: are there structures such as upstand beams which impede the drainage? Which direction do they run in? Another point to consider is whether there are any requirements for drainage attenuation by the local authority. These generally take the form of ‘drainage blankets’ which slow down the water so that it doesn’t all leave the slab and enter the public system at the same time. If the drainage is through the slab, then if possible, build in some form of inspection for the gullies from above.

  2. Build-up. It is really vital that you get the build-up right. If you do nothing else on a basement project, do this. Sixteen years ago, we were involved with a scheme for a 1,200m2 podium garden over a basement car park. We used a ‘drainage layer’ of about 150mm of clean gravel, geotextile and then topsoil. At its
    Another construction shot. Path with type 3 in the centre, black geotex over type 3 in the foreground, washed sand (buff) subsoil in the background and rootzone (brown) over on the right.
    Another construction shot. Path with type 3 in the centre, black geotex over type 3 in the foreground, washed sand (buff) subsoil in the background and top layer of rootzone (brown) over on the right.

    deepest this was 800mm, although much of the deeper zones were made up with expanded polystyrene (EPS) to reduce weight. Within three years the profile was showing signs of poor drainage and soon we saw water in evidence at the base of the inspection tubes we had built into the scheme. As a result of this, on deeper build-ups (intensive gardens) we now use layers of graded washed sharp sand followed by sand-dominated rootzone mixtures. This allows a robust, free-draining growing medium that remains well aerated and maintains its structure. It also encourages deeper rooting ensuring that plants are less reliant on irrigation and more on water stored in the deeper layers of the build-up. The use of EPS is also something we are careful about now. It acts as a block to drainage, so it is essential to build in sizeable drainage clefts between the blocks – around 100mm wide is normally sufficient.

  3. Interventions. This is the one that gets sprung on you when you least expect it. Just when you understand the drainage, you’ve got all your layouts sorted, someone announces that an intake vent (or worse an exhaust vent) from the swimming pool is needed, or a chiller cabinet enclosure, or an escape
    One solution for mechanical venting.
    One solution for mechanical venting. Plant containers sit atop a stone and timber clad cabinet.

    stair, or sometimes all of them! Big basements need a lot of plant and inevitably a lot of this will have a significant effect on the garden, so try and plan for it. Ask in advance what the likely requirements are and incorporate features into the design that they can be integrated into. Ventilation generally falls into two categories: mechanically aided and ‘natural’. The latter tends to only be used for car parking areas. The disadvantage is that you can end up with quite large areas of venting to hide, but there is no background noise and very little air movement, so they can easily be screened with plants. Mechanical venting is a different matter – particularly extract vents, which can desiccate foliage. With basement car parks, access needs to be considered. Except on the largest projects, ramps generally take up too much room so often the solution is car lifts, which can have quite an impact. These days regulations have changed and they frequently need an enclosure, so bear that in mind. Escape stairs are another thing that can sometimes make a late appearance; sometimes they can be incorporated into no 4:

  4. Lightwells. They can be irritating as they often tend to act as a division between the building and the garden. However, try and think of these as opportunities rather than intrusions. There is now a vast array
    Lightwells can be fun!
    Lightwells can be fun! Treat staircases as sculptural elements and be creative with different finishes.

    of wall finishes available to designers. Trellis or timber slats we are all familiar with. However, metal – patinated or acid etched zinc, copper, steel are all interesting options. Strip or textured stone are also available in a wide range of finishes. There are increasingly interesting polymer or GRP finishes – look at OltreMateria for example. Water features, mirrors, and green walls – both living and fake – (*gasp!*) all play a part here, but obviously you need to look carefully at lighting, both for effect and if you need to boost light levels for plant growth (Metal Halide lamps are far better for this – they emit more useable energy than LEDs in the blue and red wavelengths that plants need for photosynthesis). Try using different materials in combination and incorporate items like stairs as sculptural features.

  5. Rooflights. With big basements (particularly those for habitable space) these make frequent appearances.
    This scheme had circular rooflights as giant water lily water features.
    This scheme had circular rooflights as giant water lily water features.

    There are two approaches here: relegate to somewhere in the garden where they are a sideshow rather than centre stage, or alternatively make a feature of them. If you’re going for the ‘quiet’ option, try to agree long slots with the architect and engineer – these are easier to hide and can often be at the periphery of basement rooms casting light down a wall. Big square or rectangular roof lights are more difficult. If they are to one side of the scheme, they can look quite good. Alternatively, try using them as a water feature. Lots of technical issues to consider here, but we have done it a couple of times

There are plenty of other things to consider, but that is my top 5 list of things that you are most likely to come across. The earlier you can get involved in these sort of projects the better. If all the decisions are already taken by the time you are appointed, you will end up trying to sort out technical issues that may be les than ideal.

If you have had interesting experiences of your own you want to share, or if you have any questions, just add a comment below as normal.

 

Urban Bad: Rural Good? Notes from my presentation at the European Landscape Conference

Hongkong_central_kowloon-fullIf you play the word association game, and ask someone to come up with the first word that enters their head when you say ‘Urban’, surprisingly enough, the answer is not ‘Ecology’ in much the same way as if you say to someone ‘European’, they do not say ‘Landscape Conference’. If you put ‘Urban’ into Google, this is the image that comes up as number one.

 

In fact the first two hundred or so images are nearly all either glossy (shiny glass, steel, night shots) or gritty (traffic, graffiti, urban decay). People make brief appearances here and there. Urban parks make their first entrance – actually the first representation of a tree – at image number 46. At around number 240, a subtle shift occurs and ecology, water resources, and urban agriculture not only all make appearances but then feature strongly in the following returns. It is almost as if when you ask people to think of urban, they first think of the non-human aspects, then the human – side and finally natural features. So clearly, we tend to think of cities as dense, built environments, with people coming second and the natural world coming in somewhere way down the field. And yet despite this, as recent studies have shown – iTree amongst them – London is 52% green or blue with most other UK cities doing at least as well if not better.

aerial photograph of Belgravia London England UK
aerial photograph of Belgravia London England UK
an aerial view of London
an aerial view of London

The left hand photo of Central London show as much green as grey; this of course shows some of the more affluent parts of the city. Indeed the word ‘Leafy’ is synonymous with affluent. In fact, as the right hand picture shows, the green/grey ratio holds up pretty well across the urban grain.

street trees per km LondonLook at this map of London – it shows the density of street trees. The interesting thing about this is that apart from the obvious – fewer trees in the city of London for example – there is no clearly predictable pattern, which suggests it is more about policy than topography or other factors.

 

In fact, the relationship between gardens, ecology and landscape is not only very old; it is intrinsic. What is the oldest garden you can name, other than the Garden of Eden? The answer is of course the hanging gardens of Babylon. Cities came about with the development of organised agriculture, on a scale which allowed specialisation. This in turn led to spare time and resources for elites. Gardens, both public and private, were a natural and inevitable development. These are well documented in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cities, but also in China and South/Central America. Although medieval cities were often very dense, during the C18th and C19th, cities began to develop a more intentionally porous character. Garden squares, church yards and left over market gardens all became absorbed into the urban grain.

Everyone's dream house?
Everyone’s dream house?

During the C20th, the emergence of the Garden City movement in Hertfordshire, Merseyside, Birmingham and London added a new dimension to these public spaces.  For the first time, private gardens en masse became a feature of cities and laid the pattern for modern suburbia. It was everyone’s dream to have their own house, with their own front door and their own garden.  Of course, private gardens can be rich and diverse ecosystems.

The more we pack into a garden the richer the biodiversity.
The more we pack into a garden the richer the biodiversity.

Gardens are per se good, but the more diverse the environment, the richer the ecosystem. The less we intervene, the better: untidy is good. So, in many ways this suburban movement has brought advantages for ecosystems, but as the density of development has increased, all too frequently what we end up with is this: *. Tiny patches of grass and slabs with no shrubs or trees, and a sterile ecosystem. There is a strong argument in favour of creating even higher densities, and combining them semi-public communal spaces. This allows the creating of meaningful chunks of dense landscape for everyone to enjoy. Look at these examples from Darbourne and Darke’s work in the 1960s that I took on a recent visit to the Pimlico estate.

Lillington Gardens Pimlico, by Darbourne and Darke
Lillington Gardens Pimlico, by Darbourne and Darke

IMG_5420 IMG_5422

 

And yet recently, in city centres we seem to have lost the plot completely. When it comes to public space, we frequently end up with Sterile spaces. An endless recreated pastiche of about four elements that you will all be familiar with: box hedging, black granite or basalt, plane trees, sterilised water features. In London, a city driven by money and commercial power, the primary goals of restoration are twin (and linked) aesthetic, and return on investment.

I think this (From Niemann & Schadler; ‘Post Industrial Urban Strategies’, 2012) neatly sums it up: “It might be that the deficits in frequently criticized modern urban design practices are less related to the quality of individual buildings but rather in the neglect of gaps and the spaces in between them.” There is an interesting unintended double meaning from the word ‘neglect’ there, for it is indeed when we neglect spaces that the best results sometimes happen: just as we create better ecosystems in our gardens by intervening less, I am fascinated by what happens when we do nothing. Left to its own devices nature does a pretty good job. Transport corridors for example, left virtually untended have been shown to have a much higher value for wildlife (particularly pollinators) than surrounding land, even where that land is low intervention agriculture. Often, the most interesting urban landscapes have occurred spontaneously in post-industrial environments, and some of the best approaches celebrate this rather than seeking to wipe it out and replace it with sleek granite and water features. Perhaps the most celebrated in recent years has been the Hi-line, because the way that it threads through communities catches the imagination. But for me, the Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord by Pieter and Tilman Latz is really interesting.

1210_DU-Landschaftspark_DSCF0095_3007x1050

Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord - Garten im Bunker
Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord

 

Tim Collins (interventions in the rust belt: the art and ecology of post-industrial space, 2000 ) suggested some good guiding principles:

Post-industrial public space should:

  • Reveal the legacy of industrialism, not eradicate it or cloak it in nostalgia; create images and stories, which reveal both the effect and the cause of the legacy;
  • Unveil social conflicts in the city, not repress them; create works that illuminate and explicate conflict and points of dynamic change;
  • Reveal ecological processes at work in the city, not eradicate them; build infrastructure which embraces ecosystem processes and a philosophy of sustainability;
  • Enable an equitable community dialogue, which envisions a future; produce new forms of critical discourse, which provide access, voice and a context in which to speak.

permaculture-wordleWhich brings me on to permaculture. What is permaculture? It started from a principle first put forward by a New Zealand ecologist, Bill Mollison (and his student David Holmgren) who noticed that the greatest amount of useable biomass in terms of food was produced by multi-layered complex ecosystems such as forests. It has long since expanded to cover a whole philosophy of life and way of thinking. One of the interesting things about permaculture is its understanding of the importance of edges. Edge is king – the rougher the edge, the better. It is also worth looking at some of the more celebrated examples of brownfield site use along permaculture principles – Cuba.

Salad crops grown in a central Havana organic garden. Note the simple raised beds made of concrete channels.
Salad crops grown in a central Havana organic garden. Note the simple raised beds made of concrete channels.
these Aloe are grown for medicinal purposes in this Central Havana Organoponica. Plant based medicines are common in Cuba.
these Aloe are grown for medicinal purposes in this Central Havana Organoponica. Plant based medicines are common in Cuba.
These guys were really keen to show us around. Spot the tourist!
These guys were really keen to show us around. Spot the tourist!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cuba went through an almost complete socio-economic collapse in the early 1990s when the subsidised oil for sugar deals came to an end with the implosion of the Soviet Union. It lost 34% of its GDP over a fairly short period. Pesticides and artificial fertilisers were unavailable. All land was pressed into [organic] agricultural production, particularly in urban areas. Although many of these Organoponicas no longer survive, some still occupy the derelict spaces between buildings in meanwhile use. The benefits are huge. Apart from the obvious ecological and environmental ones, there are also community, education, food production, as well as health and well-being (you can read more about some of these Cuban Gardens in another post on this blog here). These principles can and are being applied throughout Europe and America. Anarchism and Community action have led to some exciting developments. Allotment 2014-10-23-14_30_10I am a trustee of a community Garden in my home town of Hitchin, near London. We simply took over a forgotten nettle-bound corner of the park: *, and after some initial suspicion from the local authority they are now enthusiastically behind the project. Fifteen years later, it now runs a community garden, two allotments and a resource building, employs several people, grows vegetables in several different projects with people with learning difficulties and runs sessions on wildlife, growing produce and other subjects. Community action should not be underestimated as a way of producing sustainable results. You can read much more about the Triangle community garden in another post on this blog here, or by visiting www.TriangleGarden.org)

IMG_5618So what of other edges? How can we ‘roughen up’ the edges of built structures? Well’ clearly ‘green cloaks’ are one option. Living walls, green roofs, etc. are all important and have a role to play. They cool buildings in the summer and insulate them in the winter. They reduce runoff, decrease CO2 both actually and in terms of emissions, have been shown to lower pollution levels, they provide food sources and increase biodiversity. A recent project at the south bank centre combines both – retrofitted ‘green roof’ on concrete terraces, run by a community garden and used by the public.

 

I was on Waterloo Bridge recently; as I walked across my pace slowed and I drew to a halt and gazed around. Of course it is virtually impossible to walk across that bridge without looking at the view, but what really struck me was not the undeniable grandeur and panorama of the city, or the sense of history laid out before me. It was instead the sense that the river is the forgotten part of all this. It is a truly wild thing flowing through the heart of a civilised city, which the bridges do no more than span. Jens Haendeler, a student working for me has come up with a novel solution for boosting diversity in river environments. Basically it is a system of crates containing a filling which can be populated (either directly or indirectly) with aquatic plants and fauna. This is the sort of creative thinking which we need to apply.

Picture-1-Living-Wall-Sketch Picture-1-Intertidal-Zones Picture-1-Graphic_Greened-River-Wall

 

Concluding, I have included some shots (taken on my mobile phone, so forgive the quality) on a 15 minute walk along a canal through NE London last week. In a short stretch, many of the principles that I have talked about are demonstrated.

It will require action by all of us as professionals not only to design the positive responses to urban situations, but to consciously create spaces in which spontaneous reaction by either nature or community can occur.

These are opportunities, not problems to be solved.

IMG_5641IMG_5653IMG_5642 IMG_5649 IMG_5650 IMG_5651 IMG_5655 IMG_5661 IMG_5664 IMG_5665

A tale of two cycle trips…

At noon on 15th September 1986, Vicky Stammers and I set off on our bikes from Westminster Bridge, cheered off by friends and relatives and a class of school children. Our destination was China and we had spent a year preparing for this trip. About nine months later, slightly battered and bedraggled as well as nearly three stone lighter, I cycled across the high Himalayan border between Nepal and Tibet and officially entered the Peoples’ Republic of China.

Part of the brochure that we produced for our 1986 ride.
Part of the brochure that we produced for our 1986 ride.

The journey was both more fulfilling and more taxing than either of us expected. After many adventures together, I had to leave Vicky in Kathmandu, resting after injuring her back – the road to Tibet becomes impassable following the monsoon, so we took a joint decision that I would press on ahead in order to fulfil our obligations. In fact, the route was very nearly impassable – there had been some severe storms and in places I had to carry my bike across landslides and rockfalls. I also began to lose weight alarmingly quickly. In fact I was suffering from a form of amoebic dysentery, although I didn’t know it at the time. Although I made it across the Tibetan border, I was stopped in side China by an Army patrol and prevented from cycling. Vicky and I met up again in Chengdu, in western China. We made our way back to the UK and were married the next year. The trip raised £14,000 for work in Eritrea and Tigray.

Thirty years later, almost to the day (September 18th 2016), I will be setting off on a slightly less ambitious trip, also for a very good cause. Hopefully it will also be less calamitous than my 1986 efforts! Some of you may remember that three years ago I joined colleagues in the industry to raise money for Perennial with our Three Peaks Extreme challenge. We climbed the three highest peaks in the UK, and cycled between them, in just 5 days raising over £26,000 for our industry charity. This time, two teams of cyclists will set off from Snowdon in September 2016, one team on road bikes, the other on mountain bikes, both aiming for Lands End. One team will stay on-road, the other will ride exclusively off-road. Needless to say, I am in the on-road team! It is no picnic – over the course of six days, I will climb over the height Everest by bike and more than the height of Ben Nevis each day! Total distance is a little shy of 500 miles.

Four happy faces after 107 miles and seven punctures!
Four happy faces after 107 miles and seven punctures!

Training is going well so far – I cycled 173km (107miles) yesterday and I am topping that up with two or three shorter rides during the week. Finding enough time during the working week can be difficult, but luckily at about 40km of hilly terrain, my journey to or from the office can be easily converted to a training run!

The main purpose of this is to raise funds for a great charity close to my heart, called Perennial.  This may not seem an obvious first choice, but for those in the landscape industry, it can be a lifesaver. There are 500,000 people working in or retired from horticulture in the UK. Many are not well paid and pension provision is poor. In addition, Horticulture has one of the worst rates of workplace injury – perhaps not surprising, given it often involves working at height, in cold and wet conditions and operating machinery. Horticulturists are completely dependent on their good health and physical fitness to be able to work, an accident can have severe consequences for the horticulturist and their family. Perennial exists to support them when the going gets tough, which can be as a result of illness, bereavement or workplace injury. For more information about who and how Perennial helps, visit: http://perennial.org.uk/home/ways-we-can-help/

To donate to the challenge visit https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/John-Wyer. There is also a team page here. I’ll post some pictures and an account of the ride here afterwards.

A case for greater democracy in the SGD

Voting handsCan the SGD truly claim to be a democratic organisation?

I am a member of the Society of Garden Designers (SGD), British Association of Landscape Industries (BALI) and the Landscape Institute (LI). Of the three, I had always considered the LI to be the stuffiest, the least likely to embrace real change. Which is why last night’s EGM for the Landscape Institute represents a remarkable sea change. At a landmark meeting, members voted to make a number of changes to rules governing the Institute, including the Royal Charter, its regulations and bylaws. In the words of Merrick Denton-Thompson (the incoming president, as of last week):

The results of the EGM now mean the LI is at the forefront of modern, progressive, inclusive and democratic professional bodies.
The changes mean those with a stake in the organisation’s future have a say in it. Licentiate and academic members will now have voting rights and a seat on the Board; experienced practitioners will now have a route to Chartership; those working in landscape and related fields will be able to join as non-chartered members; our disciplinary processes now represent best practice across the sector; the trigger for members calling an EGM is now in line with similar bodies; and our election and voting systems have been simplified to allow far greater online participation. All of the changes mean we can now focus on growing membership and representing the increasingly diverse range interests and practice that makes up the modern landscape world.”

As Merrick suggests there, the changes also include routes for experienced practitioners to full membership, which the SGD has long had. However, the rest of the proposals put the LI clearly at the front of the pack in terms of democracy – they include changes to allow online voting and a more democratic process as well as greater representation.

This is a huge achievement, but is not the work of one president. It builds on the progress made by a reform-minded group of members, as well as the last two presidents – Sue Illman and Noel Farrar, who were both hugely energetic and forward thinking and represents a major turnaround in mindset for the Institute.

I have long argued that the SGD should be more democratic in the way it is organised. The governing council is made up of nine people who are elected from roughly two hundred members who are eligible to vote, but represent the interests of around 1400 people in total. So only around 14% of the membership are allowed to vote. There has been some move to get this changed, principally coming from those that don’t currently have the vote, but the case has not yet been put sufficiently strongly to convince the registered members to change the status quo.

At the very least, there should be representatives on council of the interests of non-registered members, but I actually think there is a strong argument for much greater reform. Some of the reasoning I have heard put forward by registered members – that other grades of membership would dilute the standard needed for qualification once they had the vote – at best sound like restrictive practice and at worst like the sort of arguments used against the suffragettes.

The SGD is still a vibrant and influential organisation. However, if it doesn’t reform, it will find itself becoming increasingly detached from the real world and less relevant. A bit like the Landscape Institute was a few years ago.

Is that a whiff of revolution I smell?

Permaculture versus my lettuces.

For advocates of permaculture, this will probably make them bristle. Although secretly, they will admit (but only to themselves in the wee small hours) that sharing their lettuces with the pigeons, slugs, rabbits and anyone else that wants some is at best irritating and at worst – well let’s not go there. What is permaculture? It started from a principle first put forward by a New Zealand ecologist, Bill Mollison (and his student David Holmgren) who noticed that the greatest amount of useable biomass in terms of food was produced by multi-layered complex ecosystems such as forests. It has long since expanded to cover a whole philosophy of life and way of thinking.

The three core principles at the heart of permaculture are:

  1. Care for the earth: No disagreement here, right?
  2. Care for the people: Well, that sounds pretty sensible too.
  3. Return of surplus: Reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two ethics. Needs a bit of clarification perhaps? This is sometimes referred to as ‘Fair Share’ to reflect that each of us should take no more than what we need before we reinvest the surplus.
Plenty for all - come on down! Although if I am honest, these are not my lettuces. Mine didn't get quite this bad.
Plenty for all – come on down! Although if I am honest, these are not my lettuces. Mine didn’t get quite this bad.

The third ethic – fair share – is a great principle, and clearly life would be a lot better if we all lived like that. However, will somebody please tell the pigeons in my garden? They seem to think that ‘fair share’ means all my brassicas, lettuces and young pea shoots. This year, they have been kind enough to leave me the broad beans (although read my blog post from last year – ‘Badly balanced vegetables’ for other problems with broad beans). They have also pointed out to me on a number of occasions that I can also have the nettles and thistles. Negotiations are ongoing, you might say. Meanwhile, I have netted my lettuces to keep them off and also have some (totally ineffective) cloches over my kale and cavalo nero. This also seems to keep the other interlopers (rabbit and his friends & relations) out of the beds. However, this particular year slugs are taking their fair share. Unfortunately, they seem to take it rather unevenly – a bite here, a bite there – and also once they have eaten their fill, like to snuggle down for a little nap between the leaves. This does not go down well with offspring (or anyone else at the table, come to that).

These are my lettuces - complete with plastic slug collars.
These are my lettuces – complete with plastic slug collars.

My solution has been to use plastic soup containers (herein lies an admission that I sometimes don’t make all my own soup – but don’t tell anyone). I cut the bottoms off them and gently thread them over the lettuces. this seems to work, and it is even a bit permaculturey – I am recycling after all! You might notice in the picture mulching with grass clippings and my irrigation system, which runs off rainwater stored in an IBC (International bulk container). All a bit Bob Flowerdew, but it works! Ignore the weeds please.

Of course this acceptance of intervention is at the heart of gardening and of garden design. Indeed, it is what defines it (see my blog post from a couple of years ago – When is a garden designer a landscape designer?). By making interventions we clearly make conscious choices about what we will or won’t allow in our space. The natural world impinges upon that space; it is allowable if it works with or doesn’t directly undermine our choices. When it does, we define it as a pest. So I suppose what fascinates me about all this is that we are very keen as gardeners and garden designers to cater for ‘wildlife’. As long as it doesn’t eat our lettuces, that is. This same view pervades our view of plants as well. The difference between a wildflower and a weed? Well, the old adage is that a weed is just a plant in the wrong place. So by extension, is a pest just wildlife in the wrong place? Squirrels are OK when they eat nuts from your hand in the park, but not from your walnut tree? Rabbits are OK in a hutch but not (as with us this winter) when they cause several hundred pounds’ worth of damage to newly planted trees – all ring-barked. Do I sound bitter and twisted? Maybe a little, but as least with my soup container solution, the slugs and I can live happily side by side! Maybe they will even eat the weeds…

Wild about Chelsea?

Confident Design from Andy Sturgeon at this year's Chelsea Flower Show
Confident Design from Andy Sturgeon at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show

The gates have closed on this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. Actually, I thought that 2016 was quite a good year. True there were some ‘oddities’ – Diarmuid Gavin’s Great British Eccentrics Garden perhaps? Anyway, it was a pretty diverse bunch and a lot of really good gardens. One interesting theme which started in 2015 and gathered pace this year was the ‘reconstructed landscape versus designed garden’ debate. Last year’s best in show – Dan Pearson’s Chatsworth Garden – was a clear example of the former. It was a brilliantly skilful piece of design and construction, but there were mutterings amongst the garden design ranks that it was ‘not really design, but just a piece of landscape re-creation’. I think this undermines the skill and dexterity of the designer. How much of this was sour-grapes at not winning best in show themselves was not clear; nonetheless, there is a serious point here. The implication was that all other things being equal, original design should be valued more than re-creation.

James Basson's Provencal recreation at Chelsea 2016
James Basson’s Provencal recreation at Chelsea 2016

This year’s winner (Andy Sturgeon’s Jurassic garden for the Telegraph) was firmly in the ‘designed’ camp. It was a head and shoulders above the other serious contenders and was a supremely confident piece of design, down to the last detail. Interestingly, the other two clear contenders for the title (in my opinion) were Cleve West’s garden for M&G and James Basson’s recreation of a parched Provençal landscape for l’Occitaine. The three gardens together almost make up the spectrum from one end (James’) to the other (Andy’s), with Cleve’s garden occupying a deftly executed middle ground.

Subtle use of colour and form in Andy Sturgeon's garden
Subtle use of colour and form in Andy Sturgeon’s garden

There is of course a great deal of precedent for this in English Garden Design. In the C17th, garden design in this country had been largely pale versions of continental renaissance creations. The English landscape movement swept much of that away in favour of what was essentially the modernism of its time – based on simple natural forms and recreation of paintings of landscapes. However, what is more relevant to today’s ‘re-created landscapes’ is the picturesque movement that followed. This was based on an essentially romanticised appreciation of the savage side of nature – wild rock formations, twisted trees and magical woodland dells. To me, Dan Pearson’s 2015 garden speaks directly from this tradition. This is not surprising, partly because the garden was based on a piece of historical landscape design, but also because Dan has always had a great affinity with and appreciation with nature. This is evident in much of his work, but never in a cloying way. By contrast, Andy Sturgeon’s designs whilst rooted in the natural world are much more conscious design statements.

My own designs are also conscious statements of form where geometry plays a strong part, even if it is sometime distorted (Spokane) or curved (Pavilion Apartments). Recreations of natural landscapes can be subtle, beautiful and clever, but I wonder whether Chelsea Show Gardens shouldn’t be more about pushing the boundaries of design? Most of the great gardens that stick in my mind certainly fall into this category.

Or perhaps the two ends of the spectrum are equally valid, just different – what do other readers think?

The Lancasters – from genesis to realisation

 

View Looking east websize

As this project has recently received some press and won the UK Society of Garden Designers Award for Public and Commercial space, I wanted to share something of the design process, particularly as it is an unusual design.

We were approached by Northacre PLC in 2008 to advise them on proposals for a new property they had acquired near London’s Lancaster Gate. It was the surviving arm of what had originally been two identical terraces, and was divided from Bayswater Road by a garden approximately 120m long, but only 15m wide. The building had a fine stuccoed façade – said to be the longest continuous stucco façade in Europe – which lent a flamboyant feel. it reminded me straightaway of the grand promenade buildings in Brighton, where I had often stayed as a child. But here, instead of facing out to the sea, the stuccoed façade looks over Hyde Park.

One of the sea front hotels on the Corniche in Cannes that influenced the architect in the mid C19th.
One of the sea front hotels on the Corniche in Cannes that influenced the architect in the mid C19th.

When I began to research the history of the building, I discovered that the architect was a big fan of French architecture and had indeed been influenced by the grand hotels of the Corniche in Cannes. I discovered an early stereoscopic photo of the development, taken just after it was built and the street trees were planted in the 1850s. Before that, it had been pleasure gardens for a long time, so it seemed appropriate to recreate gardens there again. As well as this flamboyant character, the building had something of the self-assured solidity of the Victorian era: confidently decorated and built to last.

A couple of early sketches for the scheme showing the genesis of the patterns.
A couple of early sketches for the scheme showing the genesis of the patterns.

Pattern 2

An early sketch of the scheme.
An early sketch of the scheme.

A design started to emerge in my mind. I started leafing through books of late Victorian patterns – stylised leaf and flower forms in swirling motifs. We developed a design based on these motifs – cut up, blown up on the photocopier, twisted and repositioned so that they rippled down the length of the garden in an undisciplined, freeform parterre. to give a vertical link with the building, and as a nod to the Corniche at Cannes, I placed a series of 6-8m fan palms along the back of the garden, punctuating the façade of the building. The design was finished, now all I had to do was convince the client. I made an appointment and turned up at the developer’s office. I sat in the meeting room with the head of architecture, the chairman and the development director, and went through the presentation I had prepared, slowly telling the story before showing the final plan. A long silence. “Absolutely f@#*ing brilliant” the chairman said slowly in his strong Swedish accent. Then he called the whole office in (nearly 40 people) and made me go through the whole thing again. In the end, they based the marketing of the development around the landscape and used the palm trees as the logo for the development.

The final plan. The free form shapes of the Buxus hedge swirl down the length of the terrace.
The final plan. The free form shapes of the Buxus hedge swirl down the length of the terrace.
Preformed steel edges made it easier to form the shapes on site
Preformed steel edges made it easier to form the shapes on site

Getting it built was another matter. How on earth to translate a drawing like this into a scheme? Eventually after much discussion, we decided to pre-form all the complex shapes in steel, so that they could then be planted as a box parterre on site. This worked OK, particularly as there was some flexibility in actual positioning of them. The next problem was the build-up over the roof slab. To start with, we had a 300mm drainage blanket of gravel to act as attenuation. Then beneath the planting, following advice from Tim O’Hare, we had layers of graded washed sand topped with a layer of rootzone material. This was a sand-rich growing medium with good drainage properties and some added fertiliser and organic matter. The whole lot was free-draining, non-compacting and well aerated. We insisted on test certificates for everything. All the specimen plants were pre-tagged and we had a short-list of nurseries that contractors could buy the other material from.

The final result was just as we had envisaged it. It was a long wait to see it finished, but it was worth it. There was no doubt that the constant support of the client was a major factor in realising the scheme.

A view looking west down the garden
A view looking west down the garden
The lawn at the eastern end of the garden.
The lawn at the eastern end of the garden.

Has Cuba’s urban organic revolution stalled, and should that be a surprise?

Fruit and vegetable stalls are on almost every corner in Havana
Fruit and vegetable stalls are on almost every corner in Havana

We were over in Cuba a couple of weeks ago. This trip had been planned for years, but has only recently come to fruition. As it turned out the timing was interesting to say the least. We were there just before Obama’s ground-breaking visit (and that of the Stones). One might argue that Cuba is on the cusp of change, and I am sure the history books will mark Obama’s visit as the great change point, but the truth is that change has been happening at a remarkable rate for the last few years. The alterations brought about by Raoul Castro in 2010 onwards, such as deregulation of farmers markets and allowing home-run restaurants and guest houses to open are the most obvious manifestations of these changes to a visitor. The Cuban government is trying to pull off a difficult balancing act of maintaining ‘democratic socialism’ whilst allowing inward investment and motivating private enterprise by allowing individuals to keep profits. One can argue about the degree of democracy of course, but there is no doubt that broadly speaking the system has popular support.

Trinidad rural organoponico
These sort of out-of-town organic farms were established in Cuba during the special period and are still fairly common
Built from raised concrete beds and re-inforcement steel to support shading, they are a simple solution to a production problem.
Built from raised concrete beds and re-inforcement steel to support shading, they are a simple solution to a production problem.

Around twenty-five years ago, Cuba entered what is known as its ‘Special Period’. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the cheap oil for sugar deals that Cuba had benefitted from came to an end. At the same time, the world oil price rose sharply. The country lost approximately 80% of its imports, 80% of its exports and its Gross Domestic Product dropped by 34%. This caused major hardships for the population and a considerable rethink in the way Society operated, particularly with regards to energy policy and agriculture, as oil, pesticides and chemical fertilisers became unavailable. Australian and other permaculturists arriving in Cuba at the time began to distribute aid and taught their techniques to locals, who soon implemented them in Cuban fields, raised beds, and urban rooftops across the nation. Organic agriculture was soon after mandated by the Cuban government, supplanting the old industrialized form of agriculture Cubans had grown accustomed to. This is all well documented and probably well-known to many of the readers of this blog. And up until around 2008 or so, the system remained in place. One of the most interesting and unusual characteristics of the Cuban agricultural revolution was the widespread dispersed urban agriculture movement. Any free space became a food-growing resource – courtyards, rooftops, empty public and private plots were all turned over to communally cultivated fruit and vegetable plots. Check out this article from the Guardian almost exactly eight years ago for an interesting snap shot of where the country was in 2008. Oil and commodity prices were high and rising, the US blockade was still in full force (although the cracks were beginning to appear).

We went to Cuba expecting to see many ‘Organoponicas’ as they are known. However, over the last six years or so, a combination of lower oil prices and higher personal incomes has had some interesting side effects. The rise in roadside markets (on almost every other street corner in some areas) and the falling cost of growing food, coupled with more money in people’s pockets has meant that many of the smaller unorganised urban agriculture projects have foundered. Others are threatened by development although many of the larger ones survive. I guess this shouldn’t really be a surprise, although to many starry-eyed western permaculturists it may come as a bit of a shock. I suppose the real surprise is why they thought that Cubans were really any different from anyone else. After all, if you have spent ten hours at work, why would you want to stop by the community garden to tend the vegetables when you could buy them cheaply at the corner stall on your way home. Unless you wanted to that is. Because like anywhere else, there is a significant minority of the population that are motivated and interested growing things, but it is a minority. The legacy of the special period in Cuba has meant that unlike other countries there is an understanding of and skill-set in organic horticulture.

As well as Terrazas (a well known sustainable settlement dating from the late 1960s), we also visited a number of smaller local Organoponicas in Havana that have survived. Some of these visits were by arrangement and others just be looking over the fence!

So where does this leave Cuba and where does it leave permaculture? Well, the answer is certainly in a better place than it was before the agricultural revolution. But in the end it should be obvious that given the chance, people will specialise in what they do best and enjoy. That after all is how cities and indeed civilisation work.

As far as horticulture goes, our trip was exciting as we had expected as well as being interesting in unexpected ways. Plus we got to hear some really good music and drink a few knock-out mojitos.

Urban Havana School garden
Urban Havana School garden
These Aloe are grown for medicinal purposes in this Central Havana Organoponica. Plant based medicines are common in Cuba.
These Aloe are grown for medicinal purposes in this Central Havana Organoponica. Plant based medicines are common in Cuba.
Salad crops grown in a central Havana organic garden. Note the simple raised beds made of concrete channels.
Salad crops grown in a central Havana organic garden. Note the simple raised beds made of concrete channels.
These guys were really keen to show us around. Spot the tourist!
These guys were really keen to show us around. Spot the tourist!

 

Perchance to dream…

Copyright PollyWyer https://www.behance.net/PollyWyer
‘Beginnings’ by Polly Wyer – https://www.behance.net/PollyWyer

I was listening to Yann Martel (the Canadian author of ‘Life of Pi’) on the radio yesterday speaking about his project ‘What is Stephen Harper Reading’. Over a four year period form 2007-2011 he sent a book every two weeks with a written recommendation to the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. This started because Martel had heard that Harper had stopped reading fiction as he felt it was not relevant to daily life. Martel’s opening line was “I know you’re very busy, Mr. Harper. We’re all busy. But every person has a space next to where they sleep, whether a patch of pavement or a fine bedside table. In that space, at night, a book can glow…” Martel went on to say that he felt it important that leaders should be able to dream. If they are leading us into the unknown, they need to be able to dream a future, to be visionary. He could see no better way of strengthening this than by either reading fiction, or travelling.

Surely much the same is true of garden design? We are constantly dealing with abstract ideas and unrealised futures, the more so as uniquely in design, landscapes change hugely with time. Our ideas are elusive and the best ones often come to us from unexpected sources or at surprising times (read my earlier blog post ‘Where do ideas come from?’). Many of the core ideas for schemes I have worked on have come to me seemingly out of nowhere. Sometimes they arrive like a thunderbolt, leaving me wondering why I hadn’t thought about it before. Once you have had an idea like that, you can’t ‘unthink’ it. On other occasions great ideas just sort of sidle up to me. There I am playing around with a felt pen and paper, and it seems to kind of emerge, to seep out of the end of my pen in a quiet sort of way, like a flower opening from a tight unpromising bud. And, just like a flower from a bud, you can’t pack it up and put it back in again. I love that moment when the idea starts to take shape (literally sometimes). It really is the most magical part of the process and I get the same buzz from it now as I did when I designed my first project.

This process of disconnection from reality, this ability to dream is at the core of what we do. If we were entirely rooted in reality, our designs would be very mundane. Imagine visiting a client and trying to describe how you have reached the point you have, but doing it without visual language, without atmospheric terms. Difficult isn’t it? Our ability to verbally flesh a scheme out is what makes it ‘fly’. I always like to present a scheme in person to a client and these days I insist on it. In the past, occasionally this has not been possible, either because diaries did not allow, or because someone else wanted to control access to the client. It is always a disaster for a third party to present your design because they don’t know the story – designs are all about the stories we tell ourselves and others.

This week I’m going on holiday and I will fulfil both of Yann Martel’s conditions – travel (to Cuba) and reading – I always read loads when I am on holiday, and 80% of it is fiction. I also think loads. So while I am away I will be recharging my batteries, but I will also be in my own private dreamtime. Let’s see how it affects my work…