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Architecture is not engaging with green infrastructure holistically

What will GI mean for small architectural practices? asks Sue Illman

There’s no doubt that James Corner Field Operations’ High Line has helped raise landscape’s profile since it opened in 2009. Its success as an urban park and a catalyst for regeneration can be seen in the thousands of visitors who flock to it each year and in the gentrification of New York’s West Chelsea.

But the reason for its iconic status - like Paris’ Promenade Plantée before it - is that Corner and Co breathed life into a space usually reserved for buildings; the city skyline. In reinventing a mile and a half of old freight railway, the High Line re-drew for our collective imagination the boundaries of what green infrastructure (GI) can do for cities.

Architects have tended to lead the way when it comes to engaging the imagination about the future cityscape and it’s time we flexed our muscles too. With our ‘High Line for London’ ideas competition, run in conjunction with the mayor’s office and the Garden Museum, we were looking for urban design projects that transcend the commonly accepted role of parks and engage communities with GI.

London’s brownfield sites offer plenty of candidates for innovative reuse, as do some existing examples of green infrastructure, and this competition has given people the chance to reinvent something that’s not doing a good job. We’ve been amazed by the response.

The winner will be announced on 8 October, but with entries from around the world and a range of disciplines, it’s clear that how we use GI in our cities is now an important topic. It has been a welcome salve to the lazy policy-making seen in the government’s recent attack on the green belt. Gone is the appetite for ingenuity we have witnessed in east London, where a significant brownfield site was developed for an Olympic Park and Athletes Village.

Writing in The Huffington Post in June, Charles Birnbaum, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, said ‘the ‘High Line effect should be viewed more broadly as a holistic approach to urban design that suggests how to transform existing urban landscapes to meet contemporary needs’. Few concepts are more holistic than GI. The Landscape Institute defines it as the networks of green spaces, rivers and woodlands that intersperse and connect our villages, towns and cities.

It promotes multifunctionality and connectivity, and can be integrated with our environment. While architecture is demonstrating its committment to the sustainability agenda, it is not engaging with it holistically because the way it is assessed has been reduced to a tick-box exercise. How to address flood attentuation, food shortages, sustainable transport and biodiversity are not part of the standard sustainability test.

In GI’s multifunctional approach, all these challenges can be taken into consideration, but it has to be planned and managed. And to be successful, GI needs to permeate every level of the design process. That doesn’t mean putting a stranglehold on creativity but it requires the whole team to drive GI principles through the chain from day one.

Peter Sheard noted in the AJ last month (AJ 30.08.12) that ‘there is momentum behind GI but there must be more success stories to make the process more credible and its benefits legible’. As with sustainable drainage systems, political awareness of GI has increased in recent years and landscape architects are seeing a growing appetite for it among clients, not least because it is about creating efficient landscapes by making the most of what’s already there. With the Olympic Park legacy, which can be credited with an approach that chose to heal - rather than steal from - the Lower Lea Valley, we have our most high-profile example of GI yet.

Sue Illman is president of the Landscape Institute. On 8 October the institute is hosting a day of events at the Garden Museum which will include talks on some of the most significant new GI projects happening in the capital.

Visit landscapeinstitute.org for more details

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