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By Sue Illman
Put a dozen members of the profession in a room, and the place is quickly abuzz, as ‘talking landscapes’ is something we all like to do. Conversely, participating in public debate, or even worse provoking it, couldn’t be further from most people’s comfort zone. 

Why is that, when serious public debate is exactly what we need? The subject of how we plan for the future of people, and the environment to support them, has never been more important.  So why are we so cautious, when we not only have the skills necessary to join the debate, but also to shape it? 

While the awards are a celebration of the work of the profession, they are also a strong indicator of the direction in which it is moving; and this year landscape is starting to show how it can take the lead.  Leadership goes to the heart of the issue, as it demonstrates how new approaches to our future and the liveability of our towns and cities can derive from a landscape-led approach, and is the fundamental debate in which we must engage. 

Big thinking and the big picture, on both a national and international level, are challenging us to address those difficult issues of an increasing population, climate change and sustainability, and to take a lead in delivering exciting but people-centred solutions.  Whilst a number of practices are seeking to do so, it has been exemplified in this year’s awards by the work of AECOM through its Global Cities programme in a number of major cities, and by Grant Associates.  Gardens by the Bay  has been much publicised, and ably demonstrates how innovation, sustainability, beauty and fun can come together, and set new standards for design.  But not all projects can be so sexy; simple practical problems equally require well-formulated solutions although they may not catch the headlines in the same way. Big thinking on a more day to day level underpins LDA’s work for the national rail network , bringing together issues of local landscape character, ecosystem services and vegetation management in a coherent and deliverable way.  We need such comprehensive approaches, if we are to achieve multiple benefits from the work that we do.

Big thinking also has to deliver locally, as ultimately that is where it is judged by the people who live, work and play there. Understanding people, place and how that can be reconciled within the environment underpins the work of Harrogate Borough Council’s GI Design Guide , while at Accordia  the landscape-led solution does exactly that for the people who live there, with thoughtful, well-designed and planted public and private spaces. At Stewart Park, that same understanding has reinvigorated an important public space, returning it as a key focal point for the community, in a way that satisfies not only modern needs but also historic sensitivities; its success demonstrated by the hugely increased number of visitors.

Designing for large numbers of users is always a challenge.  Having to deal with half a million visitors almost daily in a small urban space is exceptional, but is a condition that Burns + Nice has addressed with great elegance and creativity at Leicester Square, reconciling traditional and modern influences seamlessly, while helping to boost local business and return this space to the top of the tourist map. 

Delight is also a word that should spring to mind, to save us from the functional approaches to problem solving, and it does so readily in the delicacy of approach taken by Churchman  and ERZ. Historically, landscape has often been a vehicle for both political and social comment, through allegory or symbolism but such thinking is rarely expressed today. Finding echoes of such thoughts reflected at Greenwich and the David Livingstone Centre is therefore a real pleasure.  While a site with strong historic associations demands a careful and sensitive approach, finding design solutions that evoke the spirit of a place or person is particularly challenging, but ultimately essential in creating the right ambience and setting.

Collectively, this year’s entries show a marked shift from projects that just solve the problems they were originally given. They have all looked well beyond the brief and found exceptional solutions that respond on many levels, challenging the way we think about landscape and what it can offer. In raising the game for us all they demonstrate why and how the profession is ever more important in delivering the landscapes that society and the environment needs.

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