Special report - landscape In the first of a monthly series of special reports, we look at current issues and work in progress, plus resources
uk landscape design is in flux. Lottery funding has given rise to all sorts of public landscape and urban design projects, from the Earth Centre near Doncaster to 215 public parks (the Urban Parks Programme). But the long-term problem of how to finance management and maintenance of parks and open spaces in the uk has not been faced. Local authority parks management has been de-skilled by compulsory competitive tendering, and capital injections from the Lottery don't always work long term.
This problem of how to care for our public spaces extends throughout the public realm. For instance, the former lddc's new Thames Barrier Park (aj 28.1.99) will be handed over to the London Borough of Newham in 2002 without any long-term financial provision for its maintenance. It will be a charge on a poor London borough, turning a public asset into a public burden.
The hope is that the government's emphasis on best value and the existence of the Urban Parks Programme may assist long-term management of public open space. A sixth Lottery-distribution agency, the New Opportunities Fund, is starting a green spaces initiative aimed at this problem. Meanwhile, the Landscape Heritage Trust will report to the government in May 1999 on the matter. And the upf - consisting of representatives of many Heritage Lottery Fund projects - has been established. Behind much of this new uk reconsideration of parks and the public realm has been the work of the think-tank Comedia/Demos.
It is central government constraints on local-authority expenditure which are behind all this. Devolution in Scotland, London, Wales and English regions may give us federal and regional government as in Germany, Spain or France. There, regional authorities can spend more in the long term on landscape. But to do that in the uk, parks and landscape issues will have to have as high a political priority as elsewhere in Europe. In the meantime, non-governmental bodies such as the Groundworks Trusts have been set up to fulfil the traditional local-authority role.
Local government constantly looks to the private sector and gets bogged down in environmentally controversial projects like Ian Ritchie's £58 million proposed multiplex for Crystal Palace. In this case it is helping fund the restoration and recreation of Joseph Paxton's Park, which Kathryn Gustafson is designing. The first phase includes work on the dinosaurs and starts at the end of this year.
Curiously, although the uk Landscape Institute achieved chartered staus only in 1977, it has a reputation of being rather staid. It lacks the design stars of architecture. Which may help explain why many of the most interesting recent projects are by landscape architects based in the rest of Europe. Adriaan Geuze of West 8 in Rotterdam has been commissioned by the South Bank Board to redesign London's Jubilee Gardens with an opening in 2002. Alain Provost from the Versailles school is landscape architect for the Thames Barrier Park to be completed in November. Michel Desvigne, responsible for the Greenwich Millennium landscape design, is also ex- Versailles. A third graduate from that school working on uk projects is Kathryn Gustafson ( an American), who as well as working on Crystal Palace is designing the interior landscape of the National Botanic Garden of Wales which opens in spring 2000. In Manchester the Californian Martha Schwartz's design for Exchange Square is part of edaw's masterplan for redevelopment following the 1996 bombing.
Some of the most interesting British-designed projects are those by multi- disciplinary teams. Engineer Battle McCarthy is designing the new campus on the old Raleigh cycle factory in Nottingham for the university. Like many of its schemes, this involves land reclamation, water management and urban ecology. Rainwater run-off from roofs, roads and paved areas will be chanelled into a new 1.2ha linear lake which will be 30-40 per cent vegetated. Such a large lake will allow it to be used for storm-water balancing without too great a fluctuation in water levels. Wind pumps will circulate the water in the lake via a channel with weirs, oxygenating the water to avoid stagnation.
Often there is a problem with public perceptions of tidiness in landscape. British motorway management practices indicate that tastes are turning with the use of agricultural and forestry techniques such as hedge layering along the M1, biannual grass cuts and the use of tree seeding, rather than planting saplings. This shows how appropriate landscape management can transform public places.
In Switzerland and Germany, non-irrigated roof gardens are common, often planted with grasses which turn golden in summer droughts. Too many English developers see this as unkempt and untidy. These ideas about what is aesthetically acceptable are behind the Cardiff Bay Barrage, where an ecologically-rich inter-tidal area, ie mudflats, is being flooded in order to produce something like a new town. By contrast, the Environment Agency's work on the Greenwich Millennium tidal river frontage involves using gabions to restore something like the natural tidal river frontage.
Perhaps the largest example of such an ecologically-based project is the Earth Centre near Doncaster, which opens tomorrow. Here you find 160ha of derelict land transformed into gardens and forests. Like the Greenwich Dome, this is a Millennium Project. But here the point is that the year 2000 is just a beginning.
Robert Holden is a landscape architect and teaches at the University of Greenwich