Place-Making in the New Wales

Landscape Architect and DCFW Hatch member, Mark Lawton reviews the Landscape Institute Wales’ Conference which took place on Wednesday 13th January 2016 in Cardiff Bay

The conference was organised and hosted by Dr Ruth Williams, Policy Consultant for Landscape Institute Wales (LIW).  The catalyst for the event was the opening of the LIW’s bi-lingual exhibition, ‘Re-thinking the Urban Landscape’ in the Senedd and launched by Jenny Rathbone AM and Noel Farrer, President of the LI.

Showcasing some of the UK’s most powerful, contemporary landscape projects, including the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon and the Olympic Park, alongside smaller community-led schemes, the inspiring exhibition highlights best practice, quality design and the importance of investing in landscape and green infrastructure in shaping our cities so they become better, healthier and safer places to live.

The conference aimed to highlight the role of landscape architects and to discuss the practical opportunities in implementing policy following the recent release of legislation in Wales, particularly the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act 2015.  The event featured speakers from the Landscape Institute, Natural Resources Wales and Welsh Government with attendance from a wide range of professionals and organisations which made for some interesting debate.  A thought provoking presentation was given by Wendy Richards, formerly of the Design Commission for Wales (DCFW), twice LIW Chair and now Design Director at The Urbanists. Workshops were held by landscape professionals from Monmouthshire and Torfaen Councils and Chris Jones Regeneration.

Some of the main points raised by speakers were:

  • Higher densities for new housing is needed to reduce the pressure to build on agricultural land
  • Politicians should more strongly promote the need for quality in new development. Often architects and landscape architects are not involved in the design of residential areas, leading to unsustainable, car dependent communities that do not respond to their locale.
  • Landscape is not contained within a red line – new development should consider the bigger picture
  • Landscapes should be multifunctional and should be designed around their required uses e.g. biodiversity & floodwater retention
  • An ecosystem services approach means analysing and working with the complex resources within the landscape to balance their value against the demands that we place upon them in new development
  • Get the fundamentals of policy and design right and the rest will follow
  • Policy needs to be clear with indicators as to what the outcome should be

Many of the issues raised overlapped with themes discussed in the DCFW’s LandMarks events and publication, particularly the need for a multidisciplinary approach to positively shaping and managing the landscapes of Wales to add value and avoid the need for mitigation.

The event was inspiring, whilst also raising a number of challenges for the industry. I was particularly inspired by:

  • The Wellbeing and Future Generations Act 2015 – improving the social, economic, environmental and cultural wellbeing of Wales through a “sustainable development principle” which places requirements on public bodies which relate to seven well-being goals
  • The simple but effective concept of One House, One Tree – a policy proposal for house builders to have a minimum tree planting requirement in new development
  • The achievement of the High Line project in New York – two local residents took the lead in saving the structure and repurposing it as a high quality park whose environmental and economic benefits have driven wider regeneration of the city
  • Monmouthshire Green Infrastructure Supplementary Planning Guidance – The SPG is a first for Wales, and provides guidance for developers and planners and helps encourage better quality and consideration in planning applications.

Some challenges we must address as design professionals and decision/policy makers are:

  • Policy is necessary to guide new development. However, too much policy to wade through can be counter-productive. Guidance should be concise with clear aspirations
  • Design professionals are rarely given sufficient time by clients to design and consult – something which is encouraged by DCFW which promotes early consultation and pre-application discussion involving and integrated design team
  • Local authority boundaries are not physically legible within the landscape, so collaborative working and cross-boundary policies should be encouraged

The intention expressed is to explore more ways to strengthen the agenda of landscape design and better place-making in Wales, so watch this space!

The LIW, as the professional body for landscape designers and practitioners, set out its pre-election suggestions for the development of a ‘Landscape Vision for Wales’, a Cabinet position on place-making, and maximisation of the benefits for society from every development through place-making and green infrastructure. These are all initiatives which would be supported by the Design Commission for Wales and could be explored by the Hatch network.

The LI exhibition ‘Rethinking the Urban Landscape’ is at the Senedd, Cardiff Bay from 11th-29th January 2016.

Mark Lawton is a Landscape Architect with HLM and a member of DCFW’s Hatch network for fresh-thinking shapers of the built environment in Wales.