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Working with the landscape to make liveable places

30th June 2014

By Rob Cowan

[This is the script for our new Plandemonium video, commissioned by the Landscape Institute. Watch it at ow.ly/yqFii]

People used to understand how to build in the landscape. They had learned the hard way. Traditions were established. Successful ways of building were handed down from one generation to the next. Each place shaped its distinctive forms of buildings and landscapes. But the accelerating processes of change have overtaken us. Today we live in a globalised world. Many developers offer standard solutions and standard products.

Sometimes a building or a space will be designed by someone who has never visited the site. Too often the designers of a development only look at the site within the red line, without thinking about the character of the neighbourhood. Increasingly, new development looks the same everywhere. No wonder people object to anything being built anywhere near them. They would be much more likely to welcome new building if they felt that places were designed with people in mind, and that the development respected the landscape.

Today great places – even half-decent ones – rarely happen by chance. Every day thousands of decisions are made that have an impact on the quality of places. Someone wants to add some numbers to the housebuilding statistics.  Someone else wants to keep the traffic moving. A developer wants to build something they can call an icon. But, in today’s world, great towns and cities are made by focusing on making places liveable. And it doesn’t happen by accident.

We can create hostile, car-dominated, pedestrian-unfriendly places and suburban sprawl with our eyes closed. But it takes a bit of thought to make real, liveable places. It takes people working together. It takes understanding how people live. Today more than half the world’s population lives in urban areas. We need to make our cities work. Our populations are expanding. And the population is rapidly aging.

Thinking about how to make good use of resources in making places starts with the landscape. We need to work with the landscape, not against it. The good news is that many of the changes that will make better use of resources will make places that are better to live in. Places that are sociable. Places that have more efficient economies. Places that offer healthier lifestyles – where people can enjoy meeting, walking, talking and taking exercise.

We are learning the value of green infrastructure – the networks of green spaces that connect towns and cities. Green infrastructure is essential for public health, energy security, food security and biodiversity. It helps us to mitigate climate-change, and to adapt to it. Increasingly, developers are getting the point.

Making the most of parks, green roofs and trees in the heart of our cities is a resilient and cost-effective way of helping to make places liveable.

More and more designers are making good use of water. Experts in water-sensitive urban design show us how to minimise the risk of flood and drought, and how to pollute our watercourses less. They know how to adapt natural drainage systems to handle storm water. These designers show us how to make the most of water for recreation and health – and how water can become the greatest asset in creating a place’s identity.

Understanding the landscape points us to natural ways of dealing with environmental and physical problems – and of dealing with them often at a much lower cost than conventional solutions. Working with the landscape, construction costs can be reduced. New income streams can be devised from such means as finding uses for spoil, and making the most of opportunities to generate energy from wind, waves and the sun.

Liveable places, liveable cities and liveable start with the people who live there. A liveable place is a place that works well, that is easy to get around on foot and that attracts people. It’s a place where we can enjoy the natural world; a place whose history and character are respected, and where development works with the landscape, not against it.  

Everywhere is designed and everywhere keeps changing. Every place needs to be cared for. As soon as the builders move out, every new building or space begins to be adapted by the people who use it. The planting and building materials will improve with time if they have been chosen carefully, or they will deteriorate if they were chosen only for their low cost.

Unsuccessful places are made by people with a short-term view of what they are doing. Successful places are made by people with a long-term view of how a place can be sustainable and liveable. People who know how to work with the landscape know that successful development depends on understanding the shape of the land, and the local microclimate, materials, flora and fauna, views and vistas, routes, public spaces, and daylight and sunshine.

Designers think about three dimensions. We need to think about time as well. It’s easy for highway engineers to lose interest once the road layout has been approved. It’s easy for planners to lose interest as soon as the development has been given planning permission. It’s easy for architects to lose interest once their work has been photographed for the architectural magazine. It’s easy for housebuilders to lose interest as soon as the last house has been sold.

We need to design for liveability and for change. The best highway engineers design roads that are also public spaces – places for people to walk and to cycle. Successful planners work with the people they are planning for. They take account of the need for buildings and spaces to adapt to a future that will be different in unexpected ways. These planners learn from seeing how development that they have planned and approved works out in reality. Imaginative architects design flexible buildings and spaces that will respond to changing. The best housebuilders take a long-term stake in the communities they are creating. And the best landscape architects show us how working with the landscape can be the key to making places that last.  

Good design focuses on liveability: on working with the landscape to create places that are great for people.

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