Landscape architecture is more than just planting trees – it’s a driver of real positive change

09 June, 2021

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Landscape and public realm spaces are not just leftover bits of land between buildings and roads, but they are also not just there to be aesthetically pleasing either. Well-designed outdoor spaces draw people into a scheme, set the scene, complement built elements, and provide structure and context to an overall scheme – as well as offering a place for biodiversity enhancement. Zsofia Tarnai, Director – Head of Landscape Architecture, investigates the true power of public realm and the considerations and opportunities that come with it.

Parks, public gardens, and other open spaces have enormous value to communities, whether it’s providing spaces for mental respite, exercise, or learning opportunities for children.

2020 highlighted the importance of access to quality green spaces – especially for those living in flats or very urban areas – and how it can improve people’s mental and physical health, and overall quality of life. These spaces have been used more than ever before, with millions of people using parks, streets, and various other external spaces to exercise and safely socialise throughout the pandemic.

The benefits of these spaces have been backed up by the NHS, which has been offering gardening as part of its social prescribing to connect people with nature, improve their health, and to help to reduce isolation and anxiety. Research has also given evidence that people living near green spaces report less mental distress, and people in hospital rooms overlooking nature recover faster than those who overlook buildings – so the power of nature and our outdoor spaces cannot be underestimated.

However, there are many more things to consider when it comes to landscape design and exterior spaces as part of an overall built environment scheme and creating excellent green spaces around them is certainly more than just planting some trees.

There needs to be consideration of what types of plants are included in the landscape design of a scheme from an aesthetic point of view, but also from an environmental, sustainability and maintenance standpoint.

For example, we need to address how we select, source, and maintain plants to increase resilience to threats and will be able to cope with and ideally thrive in the face of challenges from the changing climate.

Importing plants from abroad happens quite frequently, particularly when they are specified in sizes or quantities that are not available in UK nurseries. These nurseries often have established relationships with overseas nurseries that are able to supply a vast variety of plants very cost effectively and respond to the demand.

However, we should try and avoid the need to import plants altogether to reduce the environmental impact of the importing process and to eliminate the risks of pests and diseases being brought into the country and spread. We can do this by changing our species or size specification to ensure we use UK grown stock – this is something we are actively and successfully implementing on our current projects.

Naturally, landscape architects also play an essential role in creating and maintaining a sustainable world, particularly as we are more focussed than ever on climate change. It is the most pressing environmental, social, and economic issue we are facing, with long-term consequences – some of which are already irreversible.

A sensitive and respectful approach is crucial and existing landscape features of high value and habitat areas need to be retained, protected, and reinforced. Ecological and arboricultural features are not just constraints on a site in the way of the new road or building, they are also opportunities for biodiversity and habitat creation.

Exterior spaces can elevate and enhance any development, making a new building more attractive. However, uninspiring externals can let down the highest quality buildings, so landscape architects should be a part of the design process of a scheme from the very beginning, allowing them to shape, reinforce and promote the client’s vision, while driving sustainability through innovation, design, and materials.

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