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Greening our cities
Planning – 26 February 2010

A lack of political commitment and a shortage of green skills are pushing urban landscaping down the pecking order despite the potential benefits it offers for improving local quality of life, Mark Smulian reports

Every so often, a profession with links to planning feels that it gets insufficient attention and campaigns for more recognition of the benefits it can bring. Last year was the turn of landscape architecture, a normally low-profile field.

November saw the launch of CABE's Grey to Green landscape campaign, which calls for a switch in spending from asphalt and concrete to green infrastructure. The government's design adviser recognises that an overall increase in infrastructure spending is unlikely in the present climate. Earlier in the year, a separate CABE report called for action on an emerging skills shortage in landscaping. Meanwhile, the Landscape Institute published a policy statement on "connected and multifunctional landscapes" while the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) weighed in with a view on local authorities' commitment to planting in urban areas. Plenty of people think that landscape architects need to shout louder to secure a larger share of reduced infrastructure and regeneration budgets. But another big motivation is that landscape architects feel their work is not well understood among planners, never mind anyone else. "Landscape architects and planners work together well and there is a natural affinity between us, but the main problem is that some people see us as gardeners," says Landscape Institute president Neil Williamson, head of environmental design at New Forest District Council. "This is a common misconception. "I have only done one garden in my career. We are more like urban designers. What we do is part of the work of creating places." CABE's green infrastructure campaign is based on the assumption that investment in the environment pays for itself many times over. It points to cities in Europe and North America that "are taking the idea of green infrastructure from something that is nice to have to something that is fundamental to the way we prosper". CABE argues that in many towns and cities, green infrastructure is often neglected and poorly connected and says green spaces are "more often seen as a liability and burden on the public purse than the way to deliver critical environmental services". Well-planned green infrastructure can deliver not just more pleasant environments but also ones in which people may be readier to shun their cars, it insists.

But CABE also recognises that it needs to make a stronger case than simply saying landscaping is attractive. It points to the possibility of a working landscape with living roofs, large trees and soft landscape areas to absorb heavy rainfall, unculverted rivers that can safely manage large volumes of water and green spaces that can offer flood protection.

"Local authority planners need to join up the planning, design and management of open spaces. Landscape architects are the people who can pull it all together in a strategic way, so there is an open space plan in the local development framework written by people who understand the local landscape," says CABE head of public space management and best practice Nicole Collomb.

Collomb argues that landscape architects directly employed by councils are best placed to accomplish this. "There are a lot in the public sector but they may not be doing a landscape architect's job. They may be part of the general management or are not used as we would like to see them used," she argues. "The privatisation of local authority services in the 1980s meant that a lot of professionals were lost to the public sector."

She recognises that councils can buy in expertise from the private sector, but points out that consultants may lack a detailed knowledge of the place. "You can get a landscape architect from a big city who doesn't know the local context. "The best solution is locally employed landscape architects," she advises. But where can they be found? With just 5,000 to 6,000 qualified personnel in the UK, the need to fill current and future skill gaps in the profession is pressing.

CABE's survey of 54 councils last year found that more than two-thirds feel that a lack of horticultural skills is affecting overall service delivery. It also cites a Homes and Communities Agency survey - admittedly conducted before the recession - which found labour shortages of more than 90 per cent in some places in landscape architecture and urban design.

Even where professionals are in place, the position is not ideal. "In reality, green space managers are rarely in sufficiently senior positions to provide the comprehensive management needed to deliver an integrated network of green infrastructure across an area. In essence, we don't have the practical or leadership skills to deliver our ambitions for green infrastructure or to maximise its potential," says CABE.

Like planning, landscape architecture has never really recovered from the 1990s recession. People left the profession or chose not to enter it, leaving a gap in experience. CABE fears a repeat in this recession and say a minimum of 550 new entrants a year are needed on landscape courses. The Landscape Institute has put a lot of effort into marketing the profession to students.

According to Williamson, the sector attracts a good number of adults changing career to something that "offers a satisfying mix of art and science". Collomb concludes: "Green infrastructure is the lifeblood of cities, yet it gets overlooked in strategic plans and there is a lack of skills. Our campaign will focus on these skills to get chief executives and councillors to respond to the need to invest in them."

There is plenty of need. A survey conducted for CABE by PricewaterhouseCoopers in a sample of councils shows that green spending accounted at best for 4.3 per cent of budgets (see panel). Yet climate change, health, waste disposal and local distinctiveness would all benefit from an increase in investment in green infrastructure, the Landscape Institute argues.

Its policy statement calls for a fundamental shift in land-use planning that would see "the embedding of green infrastructure policy at the national, regional, sub-regional and local level". If this happens, it insists, councils might be more ready to take action where developers ignore planning conditions related to landscaping.

Last year, an HTA survey which secured answers from 121 English councils showed that 71 per cent could point to occasions in the previous year when developers failed to implement planting commitments required as part of planning permission. A quarter of councils reported that this occurred frequently. Only 29 per cent thought that standards of planting on private sector developments were good or excellent, whereas 47 per cent acknowledged that few or no trees adorned their urban streets.

The HTA says the results show that councils are "consistently allowing developers to neglect their responsibilities" and are complacent about indifferent standards of planting. This ties in with CABE's argument that green infrastructure can help deliver a number of local objectives, as long as planners are aware of the problems and the "green" professions can muster enough qualified people to do the job.

Landscape architects Whitelaw Turkington director Lindsey Whitelaw says there has been a positive change in planners' attitudes. "Our profession gets involved in all stages of plans, masterplanning and environmental impact assessments right through to inquiries," she says. "There has definitely been a change in recent years in the way our work is seen. It used to be that you put up some buildings with grass round them. Now landscaping is seen as an integral part of a project and is required by planning briefs."

Whitelaw notes that projects have often fallen foul of CABE's design reviews because of deficiencies in the appearance of public realm space. "There is a tradition in this country dating back to Capability Brown in which we associate landscapes with gardens. But it is more about designing the environment in which a building or buildings will sit," she says.

As the recession has hit property development, landscape architecture has acquired a new role. "If a group of buildings is built, but only some have been completed and the others cannot be started, we can go in and for quite a low cost create a landscape that will make the area look good and not leave the completed buildings isolated. Once development starts again that can be incorporated into the project," Whitelaw explains.

Latz & Partners senior landscape architect Mischa Ickstadt is working for the London Development Agency on a park that will run the length of the River Lee from the 2012 Olympics site to the Thames. "The idea is that the park goes in first as a spur to regeneration of the area," he says. "But on most projects, the landscape budget is the first thing to go."

It's obvious that the landscaping industry has its own interests at heart in pressing for a switch in funding from grey infrastructure to green. Yet this is in line with the drift of public policy on climate change and could get more of a political wind behind it than it currently enjoys. Planners who want high-quality landscaping will have to hope that the industry can overcome its skills shortage to help them with this task.