About a week ago, I was in London for a day of appointments. With about 45mins to spare between meetings I took a stroll through Bunhill Fields. For those of you that don’t know it, this ancient Graveyard just outside the old City of London walls has been a burial site for at least a thousand years. Amongst the 123,000 people known to have been buried there before it was closed for interment in 1854 were many famous literary and non-conformist figures from the nineteenth century including Daniel Defoe, William Blake and Susanna Wesley.
Anyway, so much for history. I had scurried though this space on a number of occasions before – indeed our office used to be located close by when we first started up. This time however, I tarried a little and discovered something that fascinated me. After the Second World War, Bridgewater and Shepheard were engaged to carry out improvements to the graveyard. Peter Shepheard, who was one of the leading young landscape architects of his generation, re-planned the memorial gardens to the north part of the site. The work is unmistakeably English and of the post war modern movement. Peter Shepheard’s great strength was the effortless simplicity of his designs. Like many of his peers, he was completely comfortable with the Edwardian arts and crafts heritage, and did not see it as a millstone in the way that later generations did. The smooth lines of the Yorkstone path, edged with brick sweeps confidently through the grass beneath the huge plane trees that define the space. In contrast the [relatively] small orthogonal beds with evergreen shrubs, Liriope, Vinca and other plants typical of the period are a pleasantly restrained contrast. The use of fallen gravestones is both practical and I would argue reverential whilst giving a nod to the history of the site.
I have fond memories of Peter (as he liked to be known) or Professor Sir Peter Shepheard PPRIBA, PPILA, as he was when I knew him (there were probably a few other letters that I have forgotten.) He was an modest man, full of stories of his colourful career. I was lucky enough (with Chris Bowles) to work on the restoration of Charlston Farmhouse. We also worked on Winfield House (in Regents Park) and a few smaller projects. I particularly remember Peter’s wonderful pencil sketches and his plans, all in pencil and filling the sheet completely to the very edge with a sort of evenness of texture and graphic. As well as having a keen understanding of space, he was also a master of herbaceous planting (unusual for someone who had trained initially as an architect).
Perhaps we have something to learn from the gentle and unselfconcious blending of style shown here. Have we really learnt so much in 65 years?
Let’s for a moment envisage a beautifully designed garden; a modern garden for a young couple: white rendered walls, limestone paving in a crisply set out grid, a slick water feature, perhaps a fire pit or some chunky charcoal-coloured rattan furniture. We’ve all done it. Where would this garden be? London? LA? Cape Town? Tallinn? Beirut? The truth is it could be anywhere. Not only that, it could be for anyone. And it could be by anyone.
A decade or two ago Britain rubbed its eyes and awoke from the 75 year dream of Edwardian garden design, where every afternoon was sunny and everybody had a gardener. As other ideas began to be explored modernist design became more mainstream. In fact, the whole garden design industry became more mainstream, finding a new market in consumers accustomed to branded goods of reassuring uniformity. A side effect of this consumerist, lifestyle-led market was an expectation of ‘toys’ in the garden – hot-tubs, heaters, water features, speakers and even television screens. Over a period of ten years or so, urban gardens in particular began to move towards a standard style with which we have become familiar. Of course, this is not universal, but it is very prevalent.
A glance through previous years’ ‘Review of the Year’ published by the Garden Design Journal is enough to confirm this. The almost universal use of 3D design software such as ‘SketchUp’ has reinforced it, as schemes which rely on an orthogonal geometry of extruded planes and rectangles, tend to dominate. Curves and eccentric geometry are altogether trickier. The choice of plants has to fit the style – defined architectural shapes, clipped forms, bold foliage are common currency, their shapes emphasised at night by well-placed lighting.
We are in a privileged position as garden designers. First and foremost, we are able to design for an individual. The irony is that we often design as though it is for a mass market. And despite what I have said about their uniform expectations, every client is different. True, sometimes they might need a bit of coaxing to broaden their design horizons but the potential is there. Sometimes we just have to work a bit harder to break through pre-conceived ideas about what they want. And as designers we are all different too – we are all individuals with our own ideas. Perhaps we follow the pack a bit too closely but the real crux of this is that every site is unique. The genius loci, the sense of place, is as diverse as the location. Good design will reflect this, will celebrate it. I am not against modernism, far from it, but I am against uniformity. So come on, think outside the box!
This post first appeared in a slightly different form as an article in BALI news, the magazine of the British Association of Landscape Industries.
In most people’s minds in the UK, concrete is synonymous with the 1960s and 70s. These days, the word is normally used in negative connotations, such as ‘concrete jungle’, ‘concrete monstrosity’ or ‘concrete over [the countryside]’. This despite the fact that concrete not only has a long and noble history in twentieth century design, but also in current work of designers like Calatrava; whose work I have touched on before in this blog (see www.bowleswyer.co.uk/blog/?p=666).
When I was recently in France, in a small historic town in the south-west of the country, I was taken by the widespread use of exposed aggregate concrete paving; laid in situ in some of the oldest historic parts of the town. Somehow I couldn’t imagine this happening in the UK. Concrete (and particularly in situ concrete) has really fallen out of use. Part of the problem is that because designers have stopped using it, the skill have largely been lost form the workforce. This is not the case in the USA. When I did a garden in the north-western US a couple of years ago – in NE Washington State – I was able to specify an in-situ concrete path with a smooth finish safe in the knowledge that any decent local contractor would have the skills to construct this to a pretty good standard. Can you imagine the same thing applying in a similar location in the UK – say, Central Wales or the Lake District?
Concrete has started to creep back into civil schemes in England. I recently cycled through Blackpool (see www.bowleswyer.co.uk/blog/?p=1230) where a new £100m scheme runs for 3.3km along the famous Golden Mile. The design incorporates large areas of banked in-situ concrete in flowing sweeps, as well as precast ‘pebbles’ weighing between 2T and 10T. Cycling through this lot turned me (and fifteen others) back into a fourteen year old boy again, sweeping up and down the ramps.
In retrospect, concrete seemed like the obvious choice for this scheme (designed largely by engineers rather than landscape architects). However, too many schemes end up being carpeted in the evermore ubiquitous resin-bound gravel. A great material without doubt, but one that I am becoming a teensy bit tired of.
Until we see concrete used more in award-winning schemes and at Chelsea and Hampton Court flower shows (there have been some), it seems unlikely that it will make any sort of resurgence in the UK anytime soon. Although in any case, without the construction skills being widely available, this is likely to be a slow process.
Quite a few people have asked me to upload a blog of how the trip went, so here goes…
After a stomach-churning night of nerves, I get on the train to London to meet up with the rest of the team. We stand around at Euston nervously joking and laughing as though we are on the bench for a big cup-tie. A quick coffee and a team photo and then we’re on the train.
However, it doesn’t go well – an accident near Lancaster means that the train will terminate at Preston, less than halfway to our eventual destination. After a journey on a replacement bus, another train to Lockerbie in the Scottish lowlands (where we do a spot of ‘carb-loading’ – see left), we get on a minibus taking us north. After about an hour, as we switch to a second minibus, one wag pipes up “Have we lost them yet?” We finally arrive, five hours late at the hostel in Fort William.
Because of our late arrival the previous night, we rise a little later than originally planned. A quick breakfast of tea and porridge follows and then we are off to Ben Nevis. Suddenly it is all real. As always with mountains, the views slowly uncoil as you climb, each more amazing than the last. By curious coincidence, a friend of mine is climbing Ben Nevis the same day, leading a party on a three peaks experience (all three peaks in twenty-four hours) and we meet up for a quick chat and a photo halfway up.
Our mountain guide, Davey (who is a trained mountain leader) takes us off the main trail and across to the north face where we get spectacular views down into the gorges on the north side of the mountain. We are incredibly lucky with the weather, which (unusually) stays clear right to the summit. A celebratory photo follows and then we are off down the slopes. This was the part I had been dreading. All the other team members I had spoken to had been fearful of the cycling. For me it was the mountains, and especially the descents. By the time we finally reach the base of the mountain a few hours later, my toes are killing me and muscles I didn’t even know I had are aching. It is therefore a relief to get on the bikes and cycle 18 pleasant miles to Loch Leven. Finally I feel as though I am in my element, although we ride as a somewhat ragged and uncontrolled group. We are a pretty mixed lot – one racing cyclist, two or three ‘roadies’ like me and the rest mostly experiencing their first seroius stretch on a road bike. With a broad range of fitness, and ages varying from 38-57 we are hardly a practised group. One rider (who we shall call ‘Jim’ for the sake of argument) insists on riding on his wife’s bike in old trainers, with a borrowed too-small helmet in purple with an attractive floral pattern perched on the top of his head. He stops for a cigarette several times a day, but still manages to outpace many of the other riders. It just shows that you don’t need all the latest flash kit!
The first big day’s cycling (125 miles) breaks with rain. We set off nervously in groups of around five people, with me in the first group. Cycling uphill toward Glencoe in the morning rain has an ominous feel. Scottish drivers are not friendly to us and there is some hooting and abuse. By the first food stop, I am ravenous and eat as many sweets, energy bars and other quick calories as I can cram in my mouth. We have to eat around 8000 calories a day to keep up with what our bodies are burning. This is equivalent to roughly 32 McDonald’s hamburgers, although we have to eat most of it as carbohydrates and sugars which are easy to digest. At the end of each day we have a protein shake to aid muscle damage recovery – not exactly something to look forward to, although it is usually followed up with a good pub meal (but no beer!). The rain slowly abates and we cycle through grand highland valleys under what can only been described as brooding skies. After a fantastic 35 mile stretch along the banks of Loch Lomond and a slightly less pleasant ride through the suburbs of Glasgow, we finally end in the delicious dry comfort of a Premier Inn near Ayr, where we collapse gratefully into bed.
For many of us this is the toughest day so far. The late start and bad weather the previous day meant we did not quite do the miles, so we have to backtrack by minibus and pick up where we left off. We are starting to ride as a more ordered group now; after a brief stop for best mates Darren and Matt to get married at Gretna Green and south of the Scottish border, we have a delightful ride south towards the lakes on an old Roman road through rolling countryside. By now, we are riding as a tight group in a peloton of eight pairs. I get great satisfaction from the occasional silent periods when all that can be heard is the swish of the wheels and the whir of the cranks rotating, periodically punctuated by the light clatter of sixteen bikes changing gear at the same time. We finally stop at Glaramara House nestled in the beautiful Borrowdale.
After the by now legendary porridge at 06:45 as usual, we set off up Scafell Pike. This is the highest point in a ridge (Pike being the local name for a ridge of hills). The Lake District has a complex radial pattern of hills and valleys resulting from the geology and glacial action. As we climb Scafell, the weather closes in, but through occasional tantalising breaks in the cloud, more and more of these hills and U-shaped valleys become visible in the sunshine. We reach the summit around lunchtime and the clouds part to give us some amazing views before our descent.On our return to Borrowdale, we have an exhilarating 25 mile cycle past Derwent Water, through Keswick and along Thirlmere to Grasmere. In the pub after a good dinner, a brisk discussion about route follows. Our three cycling guides are unwilling to take us through Liverpool and the Mersey Tunnel; we are unwilling to cut the mileage. We eventually compromise – we would keep the mileage the same, but divert to the coast, taking in stretches of shoreline through Blackpool and Southport before picking up the minibus through the Mersey to North Wales.
Another tough day’s cycling starts with the group being split up into three. In the end this doesn’t work as the contact between the groups is lost. Some press on and others stop. Eventually we all reconvene near lunchtime. The first part of the journey is switchback riding through Lakeland lanes, followed by a couple of long climbs. Eventually we wind down on to the Lancashire Plain and with a tail wind head for the delights (?) of Blackpool. After and exhausting 127 miles, we finish near Formby Beach.
We beat the forecast once again, and cycle in dry weather. The climbs start almost immediately and a tough 35 miles of climbing on the bikes follows, culminating in an into-wind grind up the final pass towards Snowdon. A small reception party are awaiting us at Snowdon, but no time is lost as the thirteen of us stand in a line in the car park changing into our mountain gear, much to the amusement of a coachload of middle-aged ladies parked nearby. After the six days of continuous riding and climbing our legs feel like lead as we begin the ascent of Snowdon. The weather deteriorates, and we were soon in rain and low cloud. Just before the summit, we emerge into strong rain-bearing winds along the final ridge. At the summit of Snowdon, as many of you will know, is a café and visitor centre, served by a Victorian funicular railway. The cup of steaming tea and warm pasty that I have there will remain as one of the best things I have ever tasted! The descent is pretty exhausting, particularly as my feet are beginning to suffer from constantly being rammed to the front of my boots. After a celebratory photo at the base, we retreat to a log fire and a beer. Later in the hotel, we have a final dinner followed by speeches reminiscing and celebrating what we have achieved. It is with some reluctance that we finally retire to bed.
Writing this diary three days later, my muscles have finally stopped aching, although it looks like Snowdon will have claimed both my big toenails! I was surprised to see that as well as having lost about an inch from my waist, I have put on about ten pounds (4kg), which mostly appears to be on my legs!
We never forgot the main reason that we were undertaking this – to raise funds for Perennial (the Gardeners Royal Benevolent Society) and its work with the less fortunate in the horticulture industry. We checked the total daily and it spurred us on. Please donate if you haven’t already done so – it is easy through the JustGiving website dedicated to 3 Peaks Extreme – www.justgiving.com/3PeaksExtreme. The page will remain open for donations until early December 2013.
Perhaps I have finally flipped. I was always rather dismissive of those middle-aged men going on mid-life crisis quests to regain their fading youth (although my youth indisputably faded a while ago). In fact I am not quite sure how I came to agree to do this. I just started get the emails that counted me in. I didn’t recall agreeing. A few people suggested that it had happened while I had had a bit too much to drink at the BALI awards. Once I finally did opt in officially, I discovered I never had agreed beforehand…
Anyway, the ‘Quest’ is to climb the three peaks – Ben Nevis, Snowdon and Scafell Pike (I know, we’ve all done that) but also to cycle between them at the rate of around 100-120miles a day – ha, that got you didn’t it! In the six days it takes to complete the challenge, we will have climbed or cycled over 35,000 feet in height – 20% higher than Everest – and cycled over 440miles. I start next week on Friday 6th September until 11th September. The main purpose of this is to raise funds for a charity called Perennial (formerly the Gardeners Royal Benevolent Society). This may not seem an obvious charity at first thought. However, regular readers of this blog will know that the status of the horticulture sector in general is a pet rant of mine. 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.
To donate to the challenge visit www.justgiving.com/3PeaksExtreme. I really hope you can do this. Most people go into gardening as a career because they love it (certainly not for the money). Some fall on really hard times and could do with help as a stop- gap.
As for the caper, you should be able to follow our progress on the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/3Peaksextreme You can also and follow the team on Twitter @peaksextreme.
I recently went to see ‘Worlds End’, the final part of Edgar Wright’s ‘Cornetto Trilogy’. For those who don’t know it, the film is a science fiction comedy, the third in a short series of action films starring Nick Frost and Simon Pegg. I saw it in Letchworth, in the Broadway cinema. Why is this relevant? Well, Letchworth forms the backdrop to most of the movie; it was filmed there and indeed the Broadway Cinema was one of the locations in the film (‘The Mermaid’).
The first Garden City has long been held up as the apex of good urban planning, including by the current government, so it was interesting to see it used a somewhat sarcastic comment on Britain today. As Peter Bradshaw put it in his review of the film for the Guardian: “It is different from the locations that usually show up in movies: London or the leafy countryside. This is New Town Britain, Visitor Centre Britain, the suburban commuterlands and hinterlands: bland and agreeable.” The film is multi-layered, but one of the underlying themes is that living in the suburbs turns you into a robot. Hardly a new message, but ironic that they chose to illustrate this by using the crucible of the garden city movement, whose principle aim was to counter the way that industrialisation had de-humanised people.
Regular readers of this blog may remember my post from last year – “Where have all the trees gone?” (http://www.bowleswyer.co.uk/blog/?p=132). In this, I began to explore why many developers don’t really plant trees and how this might be addressed. I followed it up with a lecture at a conference in Devon (staged by the excellent Barcham Trees) in which I postulated that the garden city movement was indeed a turning point in modern planning, but it was also where it all started to go wrong. I pondered on what it was that made particular housing estates ‘successful’. For the moment, let’s ignore esoteric or academic definitions of success and instead look at market or colloquial definitions. The most expensive, the most sought after areas of housing are dominated by something larger than the houses – trees. And not just any trees; large, mature, forest species – horse chestnuts, oaks, planes trees, limes, even sycamores. So clearly, green leafy suburbs are what we aspire to. In fact estate agents and the media frequently use the word ‘leafy’ as a synonym for affluent when they are talking about neighbourhoods.
If we trace the roots of housing development back 100 years or so ago, we come to the genesis of large scale housing development the garden city movement. Before that, during the Victorian era, most development had been urban. At both ends of the social scale, mass housing as a concept had really only come into being at the beginning of the C19th, with developments such as Bath and the Nash terraces in London for the wealthy and mass terraced housing for the working class. But the rise of a middle class in late 19th century England meant that a different demand started to emerge. The landed gentry wanted their town houses to be elegant and urban – gardens were not a part of that. The working classes could only afford back to backs. Whilst the middle classes could pay more for housing, they could only afford one house. What they hankered after was mini version of the country estate. Both the architecture and the gardens point towards this – half-timbered houses evoking an idealised view of Elizabethan country houses; lawns, which had previously only been the reserve of the very wealthy, became available to all with the invention of the lawnmower in the C19th.
The garden city movement pulled many of these threads together. It distilled elements from the arts and crafts movement (with which it was closely allied), social reform (particularly of the Quakers), town planning, and mixed all this with a heady dose of social idealism with which all great reform movements are imbued. For me this is
where it all started to go wrong. The fork in the road where it all seemed so nice led us after sixty years ago from Letchworth – pleasant enough, to some of the more horrible modern housing estates. One of the reasons that the Garden City idea was so popular was that it plugged into the
English Dream. But continual watering down of that dream has made it into something of a nightmare.
In city centres, one clear way forward is to go back to a landscape-dominated high density development model. There have always been versions of this around – look at Darbourne and Darke’s Lillington Street for example (a social housing project for Westminster City Council c1961-62, and a beacon in early 60s architecture-landscape partnership), or Janet Jack’s landscape around the Alexandra Road development in Camden – one of the last great social housing schemes. I would argue that both these developments are relevant today, although Alexandra Road has suffered from poor maintenance. I first went to Lillington Street in 1977 – it was one of the things that caused me to choose to train as a landscape architect. I revisited the scheme more recently and it has fared
very well. It feels as fresh and relevant now as when it was first designed 50 years ago, although the trees are bigger! There is no vandalism, and although people do have small areas of defensible space, the overall quality of and scale of the landscaped spaces is such that the estate is really leafy (there it is again!) despite being very high density. The overall feel is (not by accident I am sure) similar to traditional London squares. These principles are applicable to smaller scale developments.
We have tried to use similar principles ourselves in design of dense urban housing developments. Admittedly, these were privately funded; I suspect that the days of well-funded grand (or even modest) social housing are over, at least for the moment.
Both the Collection and Tercelet Terrace developments adopt this approach of public landscape at the expense of private space. Actually, in both projects the cost of the landscape was a very small percentage of the total.
What this shows is that the truth here is somewhat counter-intuitive: that in urban development at least, up to a point, higher density is actually a pre-requisite of good landscape and greater biodiversity, rather than acting as a restriction, as one might expect. It creates the opportunities for more meaningful spaces and often provides the funding to address those opportunities. The counter to this is that suburban development does not create good quality spaces, particularly at the densities mostly being built in recent years. Perhaps the government should apply more joined up thinking in this respect.
Rural development is another story – another post on that coming soon (or perhaps another movie?)
I don’t know about you, but I get a lot more emails than I used to. What with that and phone calls, like everyone else, I frequently find myself typing or sketching something at the dining room table at 10pm in order to meet a deadline. It is even worse now that I am trying to train for this damn three peaks malarky – now I have to fit in 150 miles a week on the bike, as well! I say to myself how much more I could get done if I just had another hour or so… Just imagine what I could achieve if I didn’t have to sleep! And like other people I see on the tube and the train (where I am sitting right now) I use all those little bits of time to check emails, go on twitter, write a blog etc.
Which is why you may find it strange that I am arguing that we should make some space in our busy lives to do nothing. Some of you might remember my previous piece entitled ‘Where do ideas come from?’ (10 May 2012) In this, I argued the importance of the right-hand half of the brain in creative activities, such as design. In the article, I quoted Mattias Konradsson – “Creativity and ideas don’t come on command, they seem to spring up when we least expect it”. For me that is often when I am staring into space. Or sitting on a train. Or driving. Or (this one is the most frequent) standing in the shower in the morning. Perhaps this last is the most revealing: the fact that the brain has been completely disengaged from everyday tasks for a few hours may leave it free to chew away at some problem that it hasn’t been able to address during the waking hours. A bit like when my laptop runs short of RAM, except that it doesn’t seem to go on working when I turn it off! Perhaps we all need to make a bit more space in our lives for doing nothing? Shift into neutral and idle for a while. We might be surprised at the results.
So, if you see me on the train, gazing out of the window; or nursing a cup of coffee and staring into space, just remember that I might be working on my next project…
Well for those of you who have been asking for updated photos of the swimming pond, here they are. I did have a few complaints about the plastic chairs in the final photos. In my defence, I have to say that we had 40 people coming for a party, seating for only 10 outside and a ready supply of chairs at the community garden – what is a man to do? the weather has delivered in spades in the last few weeks, we could hardly have expected such wonders. After one or two (minor) wobbles, the water has been crystal clear.
There has been nothing better after a hot day in the office/on site/in the car to come home to a cooling dip.
My youngest has been transformed from doing not a lot in front of the television to 40 lengths a day. And today, after spending most of the day in a seminar on building information model software followed by a stint on emails, I came back to a calm flat body of water at a soothing 23 degrees. Better still, as I swam, a swift dipped down in front of me and scooped up some water, a dragon fly scooted past and a profound sense of calm settled over me. For me, other than the reflections in the water (which I go on about ad nauseum), sharing the pool with everything else is a joy. I am sure that to some people, the odd newt or insect is one too many, but I love it.
The marginals have really taken off. The Butomus is starting to flower, as are the water lillies; the water forget-me-nots have been a delight. The only downside has been the lawn, which has really struggled in the hot weather, although the mole-mesh has worked a treat – although the borders are filled with moles hills, not a murmur on the lawn – truce! Best of all is the sense of calm and delight every time I look at it. Although I have to admit, this is a very expensive sense of calm.
I met up with some old friends a couple of weekends ago. Not just any old friends, but a 30th reunion of graduating from Manchester with our postgraduate diplomas in landscape architecture. As you can imagine, there was a lot of catching up to do. Lunch merged into dinner followed by a couple of beers as we put the world to rights. As we compared our working experiences over the last couple of decades, differences began to emerge and crystallise.
There was something of a north south divide – no real surprise there. Actually, this was more of a local authority/private practice divide than a north south, but it just so happened that most of the people working for local government were based in the north of England. Many of these people were disillusioned. My experiences of working for a local authority were exhilarating, but were thirty years ago. Not surprisingly, things have changed since then.
The overwhelming theme seemed to be one of lack of funds and skills completely driving the agenda. Even when there was money available for capital projects, the complete dearth of maintenance/management funding meant that the design of projects was severely clipped to meet the skills and funds available. One colleague told me that she had been told to do only schemes with ‘trees and grass’ as ‘trees needed no maintenance and we can cope with the mowing’. Another told me of a flagship city-centre garden restoration scheme in the north of England that received funding. He spent some time working on the restoration – it was the best project he’d had in a long time – and it was installed complete with planting by a competent contractor. When he revisited it a year or so later, he described it as ‘The great hedge-trimmer massacre’. I’m sure I don’t have to explain what this means – I witnessed a similar thing on my way to work this morning. He has just taken ‘early retirement’ at the age of 56 and is going to work in the private sector.
The final irony was that we were having the last part of the conversation in a coffee bar in Piccadilly Square – which looked pretty sad. Most of you will know this as the recipient of a highly prestigious landscape scheme a few years ago as a result of a design by Tadao Ando and EDAW. It all had a rather tired unloved look. Some of the seeds of this were undoubtedly in the design – like the timber benches (see left), and of course all city centre spaces get well used and show the signs of wear, but given that this is Manchester’s ‘mantelpiece’ I had expected a bit more. This is a sad state of affairs indeed. You might recall that this is a bit of a pet subject of mine; I wrote a previous blog about it – ‘The whole life cost of a Citroën’ and also spoke at a recent conference on the subject – SGD spring 2013 conference.
There are a number of lessons that emerge. The first is an obvious one – there seems little point in spending money on capital projects which are then not going to be maintained adequately. This is a downward spiral, because if future capital works funding is sought, but the evidence of previous schemes is unconvincing (because of poor maintenance) then bids are unlikely to be successful, or least that should be the case.
The second is a broader though parallel one on the design community. Why will practices invest time and care in projects that they know are not going to be looked after? This applies to commissioners as well – the effect is pervasive.
Finally, the whole process exerts a downward spiral on wages and profits in the landscape industry. Excessive profits at the expense of public bodies is clearly bad for all of us, as taxpayers. Nonetheless, profits are essential for re-investment in companies, for resilience, innovation, training and all the other things that make our industry great. Take this away and you end up with a sector made up of under-resourced, demotivated companies staffed by under-paid demotivated people. Hardly a good omen for the future.
The sad result of all this is that the industry is just reinforcing stereotypes and preconceptions that outsiders hold about it. Maybe some of the direct works departments of the 70’s and early 80’s were lazy, bloated and inefficient. But they were also great training grounds, fantastic centres of horticulture and beacons of local character. Has the pendulum perhaps swung too far the other way?
Recently (as every year for the last three) I was at Greenwich University in my role as an external examiner. I find this a stimulating and rewarding experience. The work on display is always interesting and I find it useful to see the presentation techniques being used by students. The two courses which I examine (which are both excellent) are degree courses, one in garden design and the other in landscape architecture. In previous years, I have been amazed by the percentage of students for which this is a second career. In some years the proportion has been as high as 85 or 90%, although this year, those coming straight from school or almost so made up the majority of the students.
I have long been fascinated by just why it is that landscape design and garden design should be such a popular choice for second careerists. I suspect that many people are drawn to (or fall into) more profitable lines of work early on their careers, but become bored and want to search for something more rewarding. Others come from related fields (architecture, interior design, landscape contracting, etc.) and have perhaps come across garden/landscape design in the course of their work. At Greenwich, the two degree courses run alongside each other and there seems to be a reasonable degree of porosity, with students choosing (or transferring to) the course that suits them better. Some of the garden design graduates go on to do a masters in landscape architecture, but many go straight into practice.
As is well known, the education system has been going through some major upheavals in recent years. The first has been the transference of funding from direct government funding of teaching to the universities, to funding via increased tuition fees from students. The net effect of this has been that most universities have increased fees to almost the maximum (£9,000 per year). This means that a degree course will now cost students at least £25,000 for a degree, or much more if living and accommodation costs have to be taken into account. This has had an almost immediate impact on the level of applications. The second change is the extra visa restrictions that Central Government has introduced to combat the abuse by some bogus colleges of educational visas. This catch-all measure has involved many bona-fide institutions in a considerable amount of extra work. It coincides with a diminishing capacity amongst universities to commit fully to the overseas marketing needed to fill these places because of budget cuts, particularly the legwork and paperwork needed to follow-up the initial marketing campaigns with actual places filled. All this sends a message to overseas students that they are not particularly welcome. Australia introduced similar measures a few years ago and additionally restricted the number of hours that students could work. Following dwindling applications from abroad and an AUS$3bn dollar gap in the education budget as a result, the Australian Government effectively did a U-turn in March 2012 and has (anecdotally) seen applications rising again.
For landscape architecture courses in this country the situation is in free-fall. One member of staff told me that according to the Landscape Institute, there were only 580 applications to landscape architecture degree courses from UK students last year. As he pointed out, if one takes out the multiple applications by students to different courses, this drops to around 120 unique applicants. Hardly enough to sustain a design industry, let alone the degree courses to train them. When I trained 30 years or more ago, there were over 300 applicants for 30 places on the landscape architecture degree course at Manchester Poly (Manchester Met as it is now). We started with 30 and finished with 15. The course was one of about six in the UK at that time, with a much smaller profession than now. If the figures of 120 are right (and I have not checked them) then there is a real crisis brewing. The course at Greenwich is excellent, amongst the best. We can little afford to lose any of the courses in the UK, but I suspect that many will struggle over the next few years.