Monthly Archives: March 2009

The landscape architecture of bicycling in China

526297738_e8cf7e2b9f_bThe BBC broadcast a programme on the Fall and Rise of the Bicycle in China which was actually about the Rise and Fall of the Bicycle in China. The main point was that the world’s greatest cycling country aims to become the world’s greatest motoring country. In Beijing the cycle lanes are being narrowed and cars are being allowed to obstruct them. I don’t know if the presenter has experience of cycling in Beijing but I can tell him about another problem: many of the cycle lanes are full of near-silent electric motor bikes. To people like me, who are in the habit of using their ears to discover when a motorbike is about to overtake, this can be very dangerous. I would not want any westerners to be in the position of appearing to say ‘you can’t live as we live’. But I am happy to pronounce that ‘most western countries made a terrible mistake when they switched from bikes to cars (eg from 1920-1960) so please think a thousand times before you make the same mistake. Beijing still has some of  the best cycle paths in any capital city (photo courtesy Rich & Cheryl)

A Chinese contributor to the programme explained that riding a bicycle is a working class and driving  a car shows that you are an important person. That is why the Chinese landscape architecture profession needs to become involved. Landscape architects can design such safe and beautiful cycle lanes that using them becomes a mark of what used to be the distinghishing characteristic of China’s scholar-officials: GOOD TASTE. Come my Chinese friends and colleagues: show the world what you can do and we should do.  Cycle planning should be incorporated with greenway planning and design, in China and everywhere.

Sustainable urban design and landscape architecture – definitions


The Bruntland Commission may have set back sustainable urban design by half a century with an idiotic definition: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” It gives anyone who wants it an excuse for doing nothing and claiming they are acting sustainability. What are my ‘needs’: one bicycle or two cars? And what are ‘needs’ of future generations: no bicycles and three cars?

The reason for Bruntland’s blunder is that sustainability is a relative concept, like ‘near’ and ‘far’, incapable of absolute definition. Is the moon near or far from the earth? It is very near for space travelers but very far for cyclists.   We should boast an inability to design ‘sustainable cities’ but assert a competence in making cities ‘more sustainable’. As urban designers and landscape architects we do this by planning for  fewer inputs and fewer outputs than the International Modern Cities which too many architects and engineers have designed, are designing and will design. Here are some examples:

1.  Cities will require less input of water because we are expert in sustainable urban drainage systems – and they will have less output of waste water because we know how to detain and infiltrate water within urban areas.

2. Cities will require less import of construction materials from distant lands because we believe in respecting the Genius Loci and using the local materials which he provides for our use.

3. City building will involve less transport of excavated subsoil to dumps because we will use it design new landforms.

4. Less energy will be required for heating and cooling because we will orientate buildings correctly and design with microclimate.
5. Planting schemes will require less irrigation, less maintenance and less input of chemicals because we  will make more use of native plant materials and will make lawns only when they have a social use.

6. People will walk more and cycle more because we will design beautiful and convenient paths – and we will do this before any roads or buildings are planned.

7. When people get more exercise they will have better health, so that the resource inputs for healthcare will also be reduced and we will have less medical waste to dispose of.

8. Buildings will be better insulated, because almost all of them will have vegetated roofs, and will therefore require less heating in winter and less cooling in summer.

9. Cities will be more compact because there will be less roadscape, fewer parking lots and  less need for greenspace at street level – because we are going to make such wonderful skyparks and skygardens.

The inputs and outputs exemplified above are all measureable, just as the distance from the earth to the moon is measurable.

See also: Eco-city plans and sustainable design

Landscape architecture as stewardship of the land

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) states that “Landscape architecture encompasses the analysis, planning, design, management, and stewardship of the natural and built environments.” For me, there are two problems with this as a definition of landscape architecture: (1) ‘encompasses’ is a weak term – I would prefer a definition of landscape architecture (2) I feel uneasy with the term ‘stewardship’, possibly because my peasant ancestors suffered at the hands of harsh stewards employed by bullying barons.

In an interesting article on Steward Leadership in the Public Sector, Marilyn J. Smith writes that “The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines stewardship as, “the conducting, supervising, or managing of something: Especially the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care” (Merriam-Webster, Inc. 1999). For Christians, stewardship began when God gave Adam dominion over the Garden of Eden. Even prior to the Bible, the ancient Greeks, Buddha, and Lao Tqu articulated the same concept (Spears, 1998: pp. 162-3).”   Her comment is well-intentioned but deepens my uneasiness (1) I do not see landscape architecture as an essentially public sector activity (2) I can’t help remembering Ian McHarg’s  comment on the Book of Genesis that ‘If you want to find one text which if believed and employed literally, or simply accepted implicitly, without the theological origins being known, will explain all of the destruction and all of the despoliation accomplished by Western man for at least these 2,000 years, then you do not have to look any further than this ghastly, calamitous text.’

See also: definitions of landscape architecture

French Impressionist painting and English planting design

monet_artist_gardenChristine’s question about the influence of French Impressionist painting on the art of garden design has set me thinking. Since writing an essay about Gertrude Jekyll, at college in 1969, I have argued that the painter who most influenced Gertrude Jekyll’s style of planting design was J M W Turner. I still think this is correct but the following comment from Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden has been extremely influential. Jekyll wrote that planting design  is ‘like having a box of paints from the best colourman, or, to go one step further, it is like having portions of these paints set out upon a palette.’ Once you start thinking about plants as ‘a palette’ of colours, you are on the high road to English Impressionist Planting Design. Monet’s own garden at Giverny was not planted impressionistically but his paintings of the garden are in an impressionist style and, curiously, photographs of the Water Lily Pond at Giverny also have an impressionist character.

Definition of a sustainable urban landscape

I  came across this definition today, from a large UK landscape practice: “a sustainable urban landscape achieves the correct balance between environmental, economic and social needs” and regret that it is not helpful. It does not tell us how to find a ‘balance’ and it implies that landscape architects, assuming they are to be involved, have some kind of knowledge, skill or training which lets them decide what is ‘correct’.  A much better definition is required if we are to have better designs for sustainable landscapes.

Sissinghurst garden farm news

As guessed, the rumpus was a publicity stunt exercise in TV dramatics. The BBC and the National Trust knew when they were planning the TV series on Sissinghurst that  Adam Nicholson and Sarah Raven’s ideas were going to be accepted.  So in Episode 8 of the longest-running docudrama in the first 5,000 years of garden history, we saw some of the farm land being used to grow vegetables and Sly Steve in the kitchen admitting that Sarah’s Moroccan Lamb had been popular with the guests. Adam shoehorned in a final attempt to make Sissinghurst into the World’s Lesbian Capital or, at least, the World’s Sexiest Garden (with the line “Harold Nicholson loved Morocco more than any place on earth. He often had an affair there”). Adam Nicholson also remarked that “Writing is the family business. Butchers chop up pigs. We write books.” Nicely put, but was he laying a foundation for a new family business: TV? Watch this space.

PS Why does the National Trust want publicity for Sissinghurst? To attract more visitors and to have more money to spend. But to conserve the garden’s character it needs less publicity and fewer visitors.