Monthly Archives: August 2008

London's Olympic cycling routes

When London cycle routes are safe, beautiful and direct, they will be very popular. Motor vehicles can then be confined to indirect backstreets.

Doubtless, the 2012 athletes will be provided with excellent tracks. But will the cycle paths used to reach the Olympic path be of a decent standard? Maybe.

London had a ‘Cycle to Work Week’ c1974 and I decided to take part. Since then, I have been a regular London cyclist. It felt like pioneering to begin with but cycle usage in the capital has been increasing steadily. Official policy on cycling has also changed and now appears to be as follows:

  1. Appoint platoons of cycle planning officers to commission regiments of consultants on cycle planning.
  2. Include cyclist-friendly policies in local plans (UDPs)
  3. Proliferate signs to mark the London Cycle Network (LCN)
  4. Paint any unwanted patches of roadspace green and call them cycle routes
  5. Ignore routes which are popular with cyclists
  6. Spend as little money as possible on cycle routes
  7. Use traffic calming devices, known as chicanes, to kill and maim as many cyclists as possible.
  8. Introduce bendy busses, described as ‘public transport’, to mop up survirors and make London safe, once again, for vehicles powered by the infernal combustion engine.

So, on the whole, I am lack optimism about the legacy of the London Olympics including a single high-quality cycle route. There are only two reasons for optimism: London’s Mayor (Boris Johnson) and the present leader of the Tory Party (David Cameron) are both keen cyclists. But so was a former Minister of Transport (Sir George Younger) and he managed to achieve nothing of value.

In order to make cycle routes useful and beautiful, cycle route planning and design should be taken out of the hands of transport engineers. The job should be done by landscape architects – but only those who are themselves cyclists.

The Olympic landscape architecture of firework displays

With the hatred of competitive sport one learns best in a boys school, the only parts of the 2008 Olympics I watched on TV were the opening fireworks and the closing ceremony. China’s ancient prowess in fineworks and landscape painting were much in evidence.

Edinburgh: fireworks with landscape and architecture

My home town, Edinburgh, ushers in each new year with brilliant use of its castle as a stage and Princess Street as the front stalls (photo Jenni Douglas). Beijing had fireworks running around the Bird’s Nest and dashing into the city (photo Kathy Zhuang). London had a great display on The Mall in 2002 to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. In 2012, it should have a display which bursts out of the Olympic Park, tears up Thames and visits each of the Royal Parks. Such a show, would be a small thank-you to all those unfortunate Londoners, like me, who are forced to contribute hard-earned cash to an otherwise hateful sporting event. Obviously, landscape architects must be involved in planning the landscape fireworkitecture.

See notes on London’s 2012 Olympic Park Development Project.

Roofscapes as citywide landscape architecture

The Dirt (ASLA) blog has a post on “living buildings”. It reviews the idea that in future a building ‘won’t just use less water; it will collect and treat it. It won’t just force air; it will filter it’. This reminds me of the excellent example ASLA set the world by putting a green roof on its own office building – and suggests a possible future for the profession. ‘Landscape architecture’ is, I believe, one of the world’s most important professions, but the general public has never come to terms with its name. We could and should give it a new slant by taking the lead in ‘the landscaping of architecture’. As the photo of the ASLA building shows, a focus on the landscape treatment of individual buildings in not enough. We should develop citywide landscape strategies for buildings with useful exterior surfaces. They can be used for recreation, carbon sequestration, food production, rainwater harvesting and much else. The diagram from a 1996 City as landscape essay on Eco-cities, suggests a citywide approach to the landscape treatment of roofscapes – and has a slight visual kinship with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associate’s design for the ASLA green roof.

Garden graduates from the University of Greenwich

Sarah Eberle, garden designer, receives a Doctorate in Design from the University of Greenwich

We congratulate Toby Buckland on his new role as presenter of BBC Gardener’s World and Sarah Eberle on receiving a Doctorate in Design from the University of Greenwich. Sarah was the second University of Greenwich graduate, after Bunny Guinness, to receive a doctorate in garden design. They confirm our view that education in garden design and landscape architecture can lay the foundations for exciting, rewarding and glamorous careers.

The Garden Rant blog, which I like, questions whether the BBC should have appointed a woman instead of a man to the post. It is a very fair question but not one to be decided on the sex of the presenter. What matters is who will attract the most viewers. Gertrude Jekyll is popular because of the quality of her work: nothing else. I lay claim to the distinction of being a third generation feminist, because my grandfather was a keen supporter of the suffragette movement, but all he, my mother and I ever wanted was equality.

Landscape architects, including Martha Schwartz, covered in mud

Kevin McCleod on Channel 4 looked at three landscape projects in Castleford on TV last night. Martha Schwartz did worst. Tempted into describing herself as one of the ‘Two Queens of Landscape Architecture’, she forced a celebrity design for a park amphitheater down the reluctant throats of a mining community in the North of England. There was a community ‘consultation’ exercise in which she was told they did not want it. So English Partnerships paid the £1m project cost. It was built. The community do not like it and do not use it. Sic transit gloria mundis.

Parklife, a London landscape firm, also did a community ‘consultation’, and then provided the adventure playground which was requested. Very sensible. It cost £200,000. But the landscape architects refused to provide a fence and so the vandals are pulling the park to pieces and ripping out the plants, night after night. Very stupid. Sic transit gloria hortus.

A local community leader said the first step in making a public open space was to build a high fence. She did this and then forced the designers to make what is now called the Cutsyke Play Forest. It is popular and remains in excellent condition. Very sensible. I congratulate her. See our essay on Parks and boundless space for a discussion of the role of boundaries in the planning and design of public open space.

Beth Chatto as a garden designer

Beth Chatto's Dry Garden is well planted but spatially boring

BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour was broadcast from Beth Chatto’s garden today. You can find the Podcast at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/womanshour/01/2008_34_mon.shtml. Beth Chatto was introduced as ‘one of England’s best-loved and most influential gardeners’. She explained that the two main influences on her garden had been her husband, who studied how plants grow in their natural habitats, and Sir Cederic Morris, an artist and gardener who lived at Benton End. Beth Chatto said she did not give much thought to colour harmonies and that her interest in plant groupings derived from an earlier love of flower arranging. She then made friends with, and was influenced by, Christopher Lloyd and Graham Stuart Thomas. Her correspondence with Christopher Lloyd, who became her friend, began when he told her off for being ‘cruel’ to her Dry Garden – by not watering the plants. I guess history will judge Christo wrong on this issue. Beth Chatto also remarked that ‘I didn’t read Gertrude Jekyll for, oh, years. But when I did, I felt a real warmth for her’.

She came over as a plain-speaking gardener. On the layout of her garden, the most telling remark was that ‘A path needs to go somewhere’. While full of admiration for her plants, I find the design of Beth Chatto’s Garden disappointing. It is flower arranging on the scale of a garden. There is little imagination and the spatial composition is weak. Indeed, one has to wonder if Christopher Lloyd’s approach to garden design was similar. It could well be that it was the work of his father, and of Lutyens, which give Great Dixter its charm. A dress can be made out of the most beautiful fabric without being well-cut or stylish.

Context-sensitive landscape architecture in China

Tange River Park

Having criticized the lack of context-sensitive landscape architecture in China, it was a pleasure to find a contrary example: the Tanghe River Park Red Ribbon project:

  1. it is beautiful
  2. it is undeniably of its own time
  3. it is in sync with a long tradition of Chinese landscape architecture: the red colour, the dragon curves, the composition of walks with planting and water

So: well done to Professor Kongjian Yu of Turenscape 俞孔坚教授土人!

Old China had elegant concubines with bound feet strolling in lang corridors. New China can have fleet-of-foot girls bursting with energy as they race through the urban landscape.

Context-sensitive design is a problem for every country – or rather, one should say, for every region. Samuel Johnson remarked, on April 7th 1775, that patriotism is “the last refuge of a scoundrel”. Little did he know how nationalism was going to ravage civilization in the next two centuries. For landscape architecture, it is not so much that it should be “Chinese” in China as that it should be regional: there should be different approaches in Jiangsu, Guangdong and Xinjiang, relating to culture, climate, history, vegetation, geology, hydrology and habits concerning the social life of outdoor space. There can be no part of the world with such a severe shortage of landscape architects as China.

See also: landscape architecture competition for Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China 2009-2010

Bog garden design at Wakehurst Place ('Kew in the country')

The bog garden at Wakehurst PlaceWakehurst Place in West Sussex, England, is managed by the Kew Royal Botanic Garden. The valley is a beautiful rhododendron garden and the lake at end of the valley is very beautiful. But the horticultural section of the garden is amateurish. The horticultural standard is fine but the design standard is, well, too horticultural. The bog garden is a case in point. It was made by the Horticultural Team between 2001 and 2003. The planting is OK but the construction design is a disgrace to the name Kew. As the photograph shows, there is a lumpen retaining wall with ‘crawling snail’ cement pointing. As my granny would have said ‘Its horrid’. And look at the bottom edge of the photograph. There is a cheap gray plastic pipe which is used as a ‘water feature’. Even toilets don’t have water features like this. They employ plumbers. Wakehurst place should employ an expert garden designer to make occasional visits and give a professional opinion, much as Dame Sylvia Crowe used to do for the UK Forestry Commission.

Long grass and mown grass

Long grass and unmown grass at Bramham Park

The English summer of 2008 has had an unusually good mix of sun and rain. Perhaps a bit too much rain actually, but it has been very good for grass and it is a pleasure to see how many more gardens make a feature of the contrast between long grass and mown grass. Twenty years ago one only saw this effect at Great Dixter and in gardens which made a feature of daffodils or bluebells or another favoured flower. Today you can even find patterns of mown and unmown grass in London’s parks – the impetus to this came from David Goode at the Greater London Council and from the Urban Wildlife Group which Chris Baines co-founded. The popularity of grass in gardens has also been influenced by Piet Oudolf and a general enthusiasm for planting ornamental grasses in gardens.