Tag Archives: maintenance

The great divide … north/south? or capital/maintenance?

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 great hedge-trimmer massacre - can this really have been the designer's intention?

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.

A sad state of affairs.

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?

The whole life cost of a Citroën (or why to think twice about water features)

In a recent trip to Paris, I made a point of visiting Parc André Citroën to the western side of the city. Wikipedia describes this succinctly as “… a 14 hectares (35 acres) public park located on the left bank of the river Seine in the XVe arrondissement (district) of Paris.” It was designed and built in the early 1990s by Landscape Architect Giles Clément and Architect Alain Provost on the site of a former Citroën automobile manufacturing plant, and is named after company founder André Citroën.

The design is daring and the scale breath-taking. The central lawn alone is 275m long by 85m wide and refreshingly there are no restrictions on games (unlike most Paris parks). The design is a very strongly structured. Two vast pavilions overlook the park from the south east end. Between these is a paved terrace with a field of water spouts in which children splash around (similar to those at Somerset House and elsewhere). The central lawn is effectively sunk below the surrounding ground.


The upper level canal as it was when the park was first opened...

On the south-west side it is flanked at the higher level by a canal, punctuated by at regular intervals by monolithic stone pavilions, alternatively housing staircases and cascades. On the other are colossal blocks of pruned hornbeam backed by a raised walkway. It is cut beneath by routes through to a series of secret gardens and also by enormous water chutes echoing the cascades on the other side of the lawn. Or it would be. Because sadly, most of the water features no longer function. The monumental canal on

…And the canal as it is now.

 the south west side lies forlornly empty, with nothing but a ruckled butyl liner to remind you that it was a water feature, along with a slightly ironic sign in French saying ‘for your safety, please do not enter the basin’ fixed to the concrete upstand in place of a missing coping stone. None of the water chutes on the other side function either, although the field of water jets still delights the children. The basic maintenance – grass cutting, pruning etc. has been carried out carefully. However, there is little evidence of ‘gardening’ in the half dozen or so themed gardens and whenever something breaks or fails, there is either no will or resources to replace it. The net result is a gradual decline in the park.

This is hardly an unfamiliar story to English ears. We have countless public parks and open spaces that have suffered the same fate. What interests me about Parc Citroën though, is how much of a part the original design (and perhaps more interestingly the commissioning process) played in its eventual decline. An article in the Boston Herald had a very good line on this. It said that “Citroën — for better or for worse — represents high-concept triumphant over public participation.” The article postulated that a project such as this could never have happened in Boston (and by extension I would say in the UK). The combination of vision, funding and single-minded project management meant the French Government was able to drive this project through with great speed and force. The piece went on to point out that there were good and bad sides to this. Interestingly, it was written shortly after the park’s opening, but the central point becomes even more strongly reinforced as time passes.

The design relies heavily on vast water features for much of its impact and structure. As landscape professionals, we all know what the implications in maintenance terms are for such features. How could the designers be sure that the funds would always be there to maintain and refurbish these features? The running costs alone are significant, but when the annualised costs of pump replacement, relining, etc. are taken into account, the bill becomes pretty much unsustainable in the longer term. Parc Citroën remains a great achievement and an exciting space. It is a reminder of what can be achieved by single minded vision. But clearly there is another lesson here. Perhaps we should all take more care to consider both the cash and skill resources that are likely to be (realistically) available for the future maintenance and management of a project before we let our imaginations (or should that be our egos) run wild.