How Green is the Grass?' An Open City debate with Louis, our Projects Officer

Our Project Officer Louis recently participated in a panel discussion - The Grass Isn’t Always Greener, debating the failings of landscape and whether it is a posh indulgence and importance of landscape design and how there is a critical struggle. The debate was hosted at Rich Mix London by the Accelerate programme (established by Open City), which aims to increase the diversity of people entering built environment professions.

The Grass Isn’t Always Greener debate that I attended at the end of May consisted of three segments. The failings of landscape, the importance of landscape and then an open discussion. Contrary to the typical question and answer or back-and-forth style of debates, Accelerate provided a space that allowed my fellow speakers and I to plead our cases during the first two segments one after the other without the fear of interruption or instant questioning.

three people sit on a dark stage lit with pink, with a projected screen behind them. Louis sits on the right holding the mic and talking expressively
My opening section of the debate.

The failings of landscape design

There is an intersectionality issue within the landscape design industry. Intersectionality, is the interconnected categorisations such as age, race and gender and how they relate to groups or individuals and those individuals experiences of discrimination or oppression.

The land itself is intersectional - it does not discriminate against age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or class. So why does the profession that deals with it?

I noticed this during my first entrance into the working world after I finished my urban design course. I began working at a greenspace charity in a building that housed architects, landscape architects, town planners and other built environment professionals. Admittedly, on my first day, I was shocked to see a fellow Black person on my floor because I was so used to applying for jobs in the built environment sector and not seeing any people of colour.  

Now, this was in late 2019. As a response to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, there is a google doc called BIPOC studios (Black and Indigenous People of Colour), which lists all of the BIPOC owned design studios such as architects, landscape architects, planners, graphic designers etc. Only a few are UK based, with an even smaller number having landscape architecture/design functions. Furthermore, this relates to the research undertaken by the Landscape Institute (LI), where only 5% of LI members identify as non-white compared to a city such as London, where 40% of people identify as non-white. Historically, Black and Brown people have had a close relationship with the land. Thus, why in the 21st century is this not replicated in a profession dealing with such? 

If this is the reality, then is landscape design really answering the needs of those it is designing for? 

The industry needs to do something to prevent the cycle from continuing. If people cannot see themselves in a profession, then why would they want to join it? And if you do not have the lived experiences of the demographics you are designing for, how successful can a design really be? 

The importance of landscape

During the second half of the debate I spoke about the importance of landscape and why I believe parks are the most important asset in the built environment. Not only do they provide a space for communities to come together. They also promote increased mental, physical and social wellbeing. Two recent projects I have worked on at Shared Assets. Larkhall Park in the London Borough of Lambeth, South London and Grant Thorold Park in Grimsby, North East Lincolnshire. 

A large green park is shown on a wintry day with an expansive open space and sights of the London skyline behind
Larkhall Park, South London
On a summery day, a bright purple-leaved tree is seen in the middle of Grant Thorold Park.
Grant Thorold Park, Grimsby

Both are in inner-city areas. Larkhall Park is situated adjacent to the heavily redeveloped area of Nine Elms and has a high number of park users, a successful friends group and a partnership board of parks officers, local councillors, friends groups and residents associations. Whereas Grant Thorold Park is in the most deprived area of Grimsby, a town that has suffered post-industrial decline and only gained a Friends of the Park group as of 2021.  

For what may look like very different parks, there are two things the parks have in common. Firstly, a negative - they both suffer from antisocial behaviour such as drug use and weapons being hidden in shrubbery. Although, the second thing they have in common is community! 

In Larkhall Park, I held workshops with members of the community, such as local residents and young people. With Grant Thorold Park a park day was organised for the local community of Grant Thorold Park to reintroduce them to the park. A common theme  that continuously came up during these visioning exercises was - "hub for the community". If the COVID-19 pandemic taught us one thing, it is the importance of the local. Therefore, landscape design that incorporates local people will provide a solution to responding to the failures of landscape design. 

What change do I believe needs to happen?

Something that stuck out to me was during the importance of landscape section of the debate, examples of good landscape design were exhibited. Although, during the open discussion section, questions included how can the prosperity of locales be ensured and how landscape professionals can answer for the design of places such as the Queen Elizabeth Park and Thamesmead estate and whether it works for those who live in those spaces. From these discussions, I questioned the aesthetically pleasing landscape design examples that had just been presented. It is nice to look at manicured lawns and redesigned pocket parks in areas experiencing regeneration. But does this benefit the communities living there? 

All in all, the landscape design industry does assist in strengthening the built and natural environments; however, elitism, self-promotion and the notion that as experts they know best have prevailed. The debate demonstrated that local communities do not feel represented by the landscape design industry because of this exclusionary behaviour. It is not to say there are not landscape professionals wanting to address the issue; however, more meaningful connections when designing with communities and allowing grassroots ideas to come into fruition can begin to address the issue. At the beginning of this blog, I stated that the land accepts everyone, so as those working with the land, we should be able to ensure that landscape design achieves that. 

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