When I first started thinking about a career, I wanted to be a town planner. There was something about the scale of it that appealed to the teenage me – the ability to plan whole towns with a sweep of your hand. Later I moved on to architecture, before finally settling on landscape design. These days I am also much involved with garden design. Of course there is much in common between these fields – indeed, all the various design disciplines have fuzzy edges – they overlap and merge one into another.
However, I have long been interested in what sets landscape apart from the others. Clearly, the unique element is plants, but the simplicity of this statement belies its huge implications. A building or any other designed object generally looks at its best on day one. It is closest to the designer’s intentions when it is newly finished. True, with the passing of time buildings (as with most things) develop a pleasant patina of age, but this is incidental to the designer’s intentions. However, landscape architects and garden designers work with a different medium. Planting design is complex enough as it is – a bit like working with an orchestra. Each plant has different shapes, colours textures and requirements. But of course, plants are living things; they change and grow. They do so at different rates and with differing habits. This means that a landscape is constantly changing; it will never look the same twice. Planning for this can be a complex task, made more difficult by the huge number of variables involved. But whilst this makes the task trickier, it also introduces serendipity into the process. I am often surprised in schemes that I have designed by unexpected combinations of plants at particular times of year. Sometimes it is because one has grown more quickly or slowly than I planned or possibly migrated within the planted areas to a different position.
The real joy though is not the long-term changes, but the way a landscape changes month to month, day to day, even minute to minute. Being living things plants react to their environment. Their leaves and branches move with the wind or sag with the weight of rainwater. And we have all had that sudden rush of emotion when walking through woodland or across fields when the sun suddenly comes out and transforms the landscape in a second, sunlight lancing trough foliage to pick out an area on the ground. Light is integral to how we perceive the world, not just in the obvious sense, but in all its subtlety. Landscape designers lay on this.
I often put tall grasses or lightly foliaged tall shrubs where I know they will catch the late low afternoon light. Early morning or late afternoon light can be very dramatic, but also lends a warmth and softness to a landscape because of its colour.
Good design with artificial light also makes use of this luminosity of foliage. It tends to accentuate both the high points and shadows, but it is the effect of light passing through leaves that gives glowing greens and yellows. This effect needs to be used sparingly, or the abundance of the jewelled colours dulls their impact. Artificial light can also bring a new perception and definition to form quite different to that of natural light. By doing so it adds drama, but the beauty of this is that it only works because it is such a contrast to the natural light we take for granted.
The ability of landscapes to change with time is what drew me to landscape design. And is that very seasonality and freshness that brings joy. We notice and react to change – bulbs bursting through the soil or leaves turning to autumn shades. And no matter how long I have been doing this, the capacity of landscapes to surprise me remains a constant source of delight.
‘Nobody likes a bad loser’. These words rung in my ears through my childhood. Being a bad loser was one of those cardinal sins like not sharing with your siblings, taking more than your share of cake or not writing thank you letters to elderly aunts. I can remember shouting matches at the end of games of monopoly, with the board upended and me (or one of my brothers or sisters) storming out of the room.
I learnt over the years to be a good loser, particularly when I was doing something for the pleasure of doing it – a game of table tennis for example. Winning is the motivation but the play is the pleasure. But not all competitions are like that. Industry awards for example – one does not enter these for the pleasure of filling in the forms. There are of course consolations (‘finalist’) but winning is the only real reason for entering. We all put a brave face on it at the awards ceremony, but that moment when someone else gets the prize – however well deserved – is a bitter edged one. Just look at how the camera always cuts to the fixed smiles on the losers’ faces at the Oscars.
When you look at sportsmen and women – in tennis for example – bad losers are everywhere. Not only that, but the bad losers are often the best players. The drive to win is so strong that anything that frustrates that attracts rage, whether it is the umpire, their opponent or themselves. That relentless drive to succeed, to overcome whatever obstacles are put in the way is what allows many successful people to reach the top in their field, whether it is business, sport, or something else.
Of course, this is all dependent on how success is defined. Many sports and business people complain in later life that their focus was too narrow – that in concentrating only on a narrow set of criteria (winning gold medals, grand slams, their first million) they missed enjoying the rest of life – relationships, family, holidays and so on. But if they hadn’t defined their success with such narrow criteria, would they have got to the top? Probably not; and of course very few of us are able (or indeed would want) to get to the very pinnacle in our field. In any case, once you get to the top, there is only one way – down.
But even with more realistically defined criteria for success – a closer alignment of life and work in other words – the drive to succeed is important. Settling for second or third best is something that we all have to get used to, but only if we still yearn to achieve number one.
So please, at the next awards ceremony, try not to look at my face – unless I am winning that is!
I was asked by a group in London to talk on how to pitch recently. This grabbed me – I spend most of my time in the business doing two things (other than answering emails like everyone else!) – having ideas and pitching them to other people. In this post, I put forward (mostly) my own ideas and views on this, but also borrowing some material from others I admire or who have helped me.
Why is a good pitch important? Like most jobs, ours is a lot about communication – ideas are only part of it. A landscape architect or garden designer is only as good as their schemes that get built. This is obviously founded on good ideas, but it is also about being able to convince people of the validity of those ideas – more than that – to excite them. Not just clients, but also those who will build, look after and ultimately use the project. The quality of your communication is at least as important as that of your vision.
The premise of a pitch is that there is a problem; one that needs to be solved. Sometimes clients are aware of the problem, sometimes not. We have an idea, a solution. The successful marrying of the two results in a satisfied client and money changing hands.
The quality of the ideas is obviously important – indeed vital – to the success of a business. If you look at a really successful business like Apple, it solves problems that people didn’t even know they had; nobody knew that they needed an iPad until Apple launched it. What’s more they found really innovative ways of multiplying and monetizing their ideas. They created a whole new market for Apps (written by others) which essentially enhanced the value of their products. And what’s more took a cut in the process.
This diagram (from Contexis) demonstrates the Waterfall of value that derives from good ideas. But without the link in the chain marked ‘sales’ (or indeed any of the links), the value will not flow. Indeed, it may even flow off into someone else’s waterfall.
What do you need to know before you start pitching? Clearly, given what I have said above, having a good understanding of the value you offer and the problems you solve is the first step. As Daniel Priestley (www.danielpriestley.com) says in his book ‘How to be a Key Person of Influence’, “You are already standing on a mountain of value”. If you are in say the Alps, surrounded by mountains, they all look very high. If you look down, all you can see is the ground. But, of course, you are also standing on a mountain. The key here is to understand what makes you unique, what special properties you bring. It may be something simple like geographical closeness, a special skill, or maybe to do with the size or scale of your business. As well as this, think about why and when clients come to you – what are they in the process of doing? Buying a house? Selling a business? Down-sizing? Spending a bonus? Understanding this will help you get a grip on what problems they are facing and how you might be able to help them solve those problems. Think of three good reasons why they should buy from you rather than your competitors. One of these should be a real killer.
Think about who you are pitching to, what their level of knowledge is and their likely level of spend. This last is critical. There is no point in getting in front of someone who will not spend the money on what you are offering. If they are after a Ford Focus, they will not buy a Porsche, however hard you sell it.
Knowing when to pitch.
Don’t pitch too early. You know how annoying it is when you walk into a shop and before you can do anything, an assistant comes up to you and says “Can I help you”. Mostly, you just want to look around for a bit first. Clients are just the same. Plant a seed, let it grow. Let them research you a bit, then pitch. And if it’s the wrong time or place, if they are distracted, too busy or don’t have enough time then reschedule to a slot when they are going to be more receptive to your ideas.
Structuring your pitch. Most of the time it works best if you have a structure to your pitch, although you should always be prepared to change with the circumstances – everybody hates sales patter. The first thing, before you start with a plan is to make sure your visual aids are professional and that you are practiced with them. Have decent photographs of your work (preferably professional) and make sure the software runs smoothly. Fumbling looks terrible. This is the structure I roughly follow:
Introduction as to who you are
An outline of the problem your product or service can solve
The solution you’re offering
A conclusion where you round up what’s been discussed so far and re-emphasise your key points
Delivering your pitch – 9 key points:
Establish a rapport. People are influenced more by people who they feel a sense of connection with. If you’ve shared a laugh, a story, or identified a common connection, your pitch is more likely to land with its audience.
Listen first. This is perhaps the most important thing to remember. Let them describe their problem and what the issues are. If you don’t do this, you won’t succeed.
Be enthusiastic. This is the biggest seller: deliver your pitch with passion, grounded enthusiasm and with unique flair. Share your beliefs and your story so that people can remember who you are and what you stand for. It’s not a great pitch if it’s easily forgotten
Be confident. If you’re not sure what you want, or sound unconfident, the client will pick up on this. You need to sound authoritative – learn the FAQs that people come up with and have the answers at your fingertips. You also need to believe in your product and your ability to deliver
Be credible. Although you need to believe in your ability to deliver, you also need to be credible. There’s no point telling people that you’re going to be the next market leader when you’re just starting out because they will switch off. Even if you do have something of great potential you must never leave people questioning your credibility to deliver the promised result. If what is being asked is outside you’re ability to deliver, say so or find a partner to work with.
Be clear. Ensure that your communication could be understood by anyone aged 12 and up. Don’t use jargon or acronyms and don’t try to impress people with your insider lingo; instead aim to reduce confusion.
Don’t waffle or be boring. You may well feel nervous and sometimes this leads to a tendency to waffle. Be aware of this and know when to stop talking. Once you have secured what you are looking for, this is your signal to conclude the pitch.
Close the deal. Decide in advance want you want out of the meeting, when you feel the time is right, close it up and get a commitment.
Follow up. The follow up is as important as the presentation. Record details of any questions which need answering. Get back to them promptly and comprehensively.
The best advice I can boil all this down to is that people buy from people they trust and like, and people who are enthusiastic. I tend to take a lot of time making sure that I am only in front of people who are really in the market to buy at the right level. Once you know this, it is better not to discuss price straightway. Show them what you can do, show them photos of finished projects, talk about how you can help them. Once they start to understand and get excited, they may well reassess what they are prepared to spend. In the end, much of our job is finding the ‘Sweet spot’ – what people want to spend is always less than what it would take for what they want. What we need to do to be successful is to find the point at which they are satisfied with what they have got without feeling that have overspent. That way, they’ll go and tell all their friends how wonderful you are!
It’s been a while since I last posted. Other things intervened; you know: life, the universe and everything.
I have always been fascinated between the balance between use of digital and hand media in both design process and presentation drawings. The process is influenced by the medium, and in turn influences the output. Some people are adamantly pro-digital and others insist that hand drawings are the only way. Sometimes these positions are held with an almost religious fervour. Although I am old enough to have been trained with only hand media, I have a fascination for digital tools as well. I am a firm believer (there we go again – religiosity!) in the simple connection between brain/eye and hand when designing. Nothing works quite as well as a fat felt pen or a soft pencil on white detail paper. The freedom of movement and thought that this brings is unrivalled; digital programs tend to make designers focus on detail too early in the process.
There is also the question of what clients relate best to, which varies with individuals. I well remember a morning a few years ago when I attended two client presentations one after the other, both with quite polished CGI-style renderings with sophisticated light and shade. At the first, the client was ecstatic about the design and presentation, remarking on easy it was to understand everything. At the second, the client was almost monosyllabic, and afterwards the architect (who had been biting his tongue in the meeting) tore me off a strip for the method of presentation – “they’re alright for people like us [i.e. design professionals] but clients like hand drawings”. We used to get into similar muddles with plans, although these days we have a protocol for design plans. For initial presentations we use CAD layouts to start with, but generally trace over by hand before rendering in a watercolour style in Photoshop. This is partly because people react well to hand drawn plans, but also because at sketch design stage we want to give the impression of flexibility, of not every detail having been resolved. The same applies to planning applications. At later stages (such as discharge of conditions) the reverse is true and we always use CAD drawings in black and white.
SketchUp is an enormously powerful tool. It has been revolutionary in design as an accessible method of exploring three dimensions, in garden design in particular. However, its influence has in some cases become somewhat insidious. I have written about this in two previous posts, both worth dipping into: I’ve been using it increasingly, but I never touch it, and Thinking Outside the [White Rendered] Box. Actually I think as a profession we are beginning to move away from this now. The last two ‘best in show’ gardens at Chelsea illustrate this: Dan Pearson’s 2015 Chatsworth Garden and in particular Andy Sturgeon’s 2016 garden, which demonstrates a move towards a more angular dynamic approach to geometry.
For perspectives, having veered between different poles, we have now developed a hybrid method which seems to work well. Schemes are initially designed by hand, as is mostly the way in this office, with CAD layouts following soon afterwards. But for areas for which we are producing perspectives – often those that need further exploration or explanation – we develop 3D digital models, usually in SketchUp (geo-located for accuracy).
In the past we have prepared fully rendered SketchUp models, but these days they are generally in plain white. Occasionally we show these to clients, but mostly we just use them to explore the space and elements. If you show clients fully rendered models, they tend to take them too literally. Once we are happy with the design, we output a view before using it as a base for a hand sketch.
These are simple unshaded line drawings, intended as a base for further rendering. We then scan the sketch and import a shadow layer directly from the 3D model, which adds greater depth and realism.
Finally, the drawing is rendered in Photoshop using watercolour brushes. Although the whole process sounds laborious, it is actually relatively quick. Even so, there are often two or three people working on it sometimes with input or advice from others; we tend to work very collaboratively here.
The final result is usually graceful and airy, capturing something of the mood of the space whilst giving a genuine feel for the scale and texture. It is not for every project, but for those when you get short, infrequent slots with the client in which you have to work hard, this method is ideal.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 –
IP? Ideas, copyrights, etc.?
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.
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.
Next 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?
Finally, 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.
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.
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?
Drainage. This is the biggie (along with no. 2 below).
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.
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
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.
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
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:
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
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.
Rooflights. With big basements (particularly those for habitable space) these make frequent appearances.
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.
If 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.
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.
Look 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Which 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.
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. I 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)
So 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.
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.
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.
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.
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/
Can 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.
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:
Care for the earth: No disagreement here, right?
Care for the people: Well, that sounds pretty sensible too.
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.
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).
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…