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breath of fresh air

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'Architects have been a struggle,' says a miffed Karen Sims-Neighbour, who wrote to 10 'prominent practices' on the importance of urban landscape and came up against a brick wall. Only one of them, Chapman Taylor Partners, replied.

Which is nine brush-offs too many, insists Sims-Neighbour, the director of Landscape Solutions. Her year-old firm handles the UK interests of some of the world's finest 'greenscape' designers. It has visions of town spaces brimful of wild grass swaying in the wind, native perennials - and even weeds. But not even such naturalistic luminaries as James van Sweden, a US-based pioneer of the New American Garden Style, seems to hold much sway with the big names of architecture.

'What disappoints me most is that the British have such a reputation for genius in garden design,' Sims-Neighbour says. 'Lutyens, Paxton and Jekyll had a head-on approach to gardens, created masterpieces and are now legends. All we can offer today is the stultifying monotony of turf, cotoneaster and 'no ball games'. It is a sad way for architects to treat their buildings, and the urban task force to view the towns

of tomorrow.'

Yet when she wrote to Lord Rogers saying just that, and explaining how a voice such as hers could be used by the task force, she says she went unanswered. Only after she fired off another letter of disappointment did she receive an acknowledgement postcard 'sent by somebody else from the practice'. She fared little better with Terry Farrell's Urban Design Alliance, but vows to go the full 15 rounds with allies, including Prince Charles and Alan Meale, under-secretary at the detr. Both support her vision and, what's more, took the time to rsvp.

Sims-Neighbour may yet find a slot at this year's uda conference in October to spread her message. Though it echoes a London Wildlife Trust gripe that the task force is dominated by house-builders, developers and planners, the messenger stops short of knocking architects - unlike hrh perhaps. Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright are never far from her thoughts on the subject of good, or at least well-intentioned, town planning. However, with tens of thousands of acres designated important natural sites on London's brownfields, the concrete should not gobble up the lot, she argues.

But the trouble may lie closer to home. 'Landscape architects do not understand horticulture,' she says. Too much of their work over-emphasises hard landscaping, with benches and slabs. You end up with little squares cut out of paving for plane trees which then fight for space and lift carefully laid concrete. 'Landscape architects train for five years, but horticulture is of little consequence, and they end up with very little knowledge of plants.'

This may stem from the lack of a cohesive landscape policy on items like green planning applications, Sims-Neighbour reckons. Such an idea is growing in popularity in Europe and the United States. This is the area in which the Lichfield firm could make the running, regardless of a sluggish detr or urban task force. Landscape Solutions is hoping to add continental spice to the welter of urban spaces that have seasoned into litter-strewn 'city vacuums' mined with dog muck.

It also explains why she prefers to call the two other designers she is promoting, Dutch Piet Oudolf and Britain's Noel Kingsbury, greenscape and not landscape designers: 'The traditional manipulative approach to cultivation and maintenance is no longer appropriate. The study of ecology, plant sociology and years of hands-on experience are needed to create the frame to surround the architectural masterpiece,' she says.

Much of Oudolf and Kingsbury's work for industrial parks, war memorials and cemeteries has been featured in the glossiest of design magazines, such as Process Architecture. If their agenda is translated into our urban parks it will mean fewer neat hedges and less clipped grass to guzzle pesticides. Instead, outlandishness of the kind Oprah Winfrey plumped for could be the norm. (Van Sweden turned the arid landscape around Winfrey's ranch into a swatch of purple flowers in celebration of her role in the film The Color Purple.)

This is a far cry from Sims-Neighbour's beginnings, when she received the kind of media attention she could do with now. Tamworth parks division originally took her on part-time to give her extra money while she did an art-and-teaching degree. The 19-year-old scored a direct hit with the local press when they realised she was the first woman in the country to be taken on as a council garden labourer. Tamworth, she says, chose her for her art skills: 'They thought I would be good at mowing the stripes on the bowling green.'

Sims-Neighbour then quit college and moved into renovation of parks, winning the kind of attention she would dearly like from architects. By 1995 she had landed the top job of directing the restoration of the eighteenth- century Midlands garden den at Castle Bromwich. Just a few years later the idea of launching Landscape Solutions gained momentum: the three Castle Bromwich garden designers were so impressed with her achievements she was asked to launch their concept of urban greening in the UK. She didn't think twice - although she does so now when asked for a progress report.

Now aged 41, she has two or three big contracts in the offing, and negotiations are ongoing. One of these is an 80ha garden and country-park restoration. Landscape Solutions is also eyeing up a few London sites. Sims-Neighbour's image of tomorrow's gardens may be wild and ragged, but her soundbites are neat, polished, and rounded off with a crisp panache: 'All the oxygen in the air is created by plants, and even the urban task force needs to breathe,' she says.

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