Landscape Architects: our next generation of political leaders?

If you’re one of the many who have been shocked about the recent election of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States and what it means, several questions arise.

Now seems like a good time to reflect on the qualities and real world professional experiences many of us wish our political leaders had.

While those of honesty, integrity, passion and leadership are self-evident, the increasing complexity of our urban areas – the site of residence for 65 per cent of the world’s population by mid-century – means professionals with a key understanding of how to negotiate these territories should become one of, if not the, essential characteristic to lead.

With that in mind, could landscape architects be those professionals who deliver this next suite of leaders to the world?

At the fantastic Festival of Landscape Architecture in Canberra, the vexatious issue of politics and landscape architecture boiled away as one of the festival’s key underlying themes.

Landscape architects design the world outside, the spaces of the city between and within the built environments. They design the public spaces for all people and successfully navigate the challenges and opportunities of complex systems.

While working to protect and sustain environments, they seek to creative positive experiences for all. Often seen as the collaborators that hold trans-disciplinary teams together, landscape architects are instrumental in negotiating with and between stakeholders regarding the built environment.

Further to this, the largest growth area for landscape architects within Australia is within the local and state government spheres. These roles complement and extend upon the traditional remit of landscape architectural practice by effectively positioning the complex natural, cultural, social, economic complexities about ‘the city’ at and within the forefront of government decision making.

Landscape architects become advocates and change makers for ecological and cultural systems operating at the local level, and affect broader regional changes to make real change on the ground for all people.

Landscape architects have the potential to shape a future that is sustainable, that encourages healthy and diverse natural and built landscapes, and that supports resilient communities. Political leadership needs the skill of the landscape architect in managing, planning and designing quality places. It needs our willingness and proven ability to collaborate with other professions and communities and our advocacy to drive reconciliation between human activities and the environment.

In line with the pressures of rapid urbnaisation, cities are having to deal with the increasingly complex problems of climate change, food security, loss of global biodiversity, loss of character and disparate social equity.

Politicians and national leaders of the future will have to be able to weave together these prevalent issues with the political, economic, environmental and social territories of our cities.

Within the (now) geological epoch of the Anthropocene, Donna Haraway’s quote ‘staying with the trouble’ provides perhaps one of the strongest indicators for how our global humanity might achieve a liveable future. The rhetoric our politicians need to aspire to is, a ‘making-with’ – that is, reconciling both a living and dying together within a damaged world as a collective, rather than the self-making of any one individual.

Landscape architects are collaborators, stewards of the world, and one of the essential creative intelligences vital in the (re)making of our cities and regions. If ecology in all its dimensions (environmental, social, cultural, digital and economic) has become the new platform for activism, then landscape architects must be at the forefront of being the carrier of this for future generations.

I vote staying with the trouble.

This article was first published on sourceable.net on 21 November 2016.

Image: Adelaide Design Manual, City of Adelaide

The Economic Value of Public Space

Cities hold the economic key to the future of the global economy.

Countries that cultivate livable cities that support vibrant communities and highly skilled adaptive work forces will be the sustainable growth cities of the future as well as successful.

But livability is a tricky thing. How many great cities build vibrant communities based on their exceptional sewer system? How many businesses and visitors do you attract to a city boasting a great rubbish collection system? How many cities promote themselves to new residents and investors on a comprehensive water supply network?

The reality is that these and many other public services are expected in a good city, but the most successful cities, the richest communities, the fastest growing cities are those that place a high priority on their public realm – their parks, open space and public plazas. Investing in well planned, meaningful public amenity makes good economic sense.

Intuitively, designers understand this, but how do we convince government, developers with investment dollars, policy makers and the decision makers that this is the case? With often very little measurable economic data to highlight the economic return on the capital investment in our parks and open space, it is increasingly difficult to influence investing more in our public realm.

However, as landscape architects know, its not just the economic benefits; it is the health, environmental and societal benefits of great public spaces in our cities that foster, encourage and demand smarter investments in great public open spaces.

There are some direct measurable outcomes:

  • Land directly adjacent or close to well designed, accessible and quality green space can generate increased property values.
  • Better quality open spaces provide can therefore lead to increased rates paid to local government.
  • Businesses are often attracted to locations that offer well-designed, well-managed public places, and these in turn attract customers, employees and services.
  • Good-quality and well-maintained public spaces increase the number of people visiting retail areas, leading to improved trading for local retailers.

The indirect economic benefits are also obvious:

  • Parks and open spaces reduce public health care costs by improving general physical/mental health and well-being.
  • Parks and open spaces increase natural cooling for our cities.
  • Popular parks and open spaces promote community pride, fostering more activation and in turn reducing crime.
  • Parks and open spaces provide important social and community connections.

Outlining these principles provides a clear and lucid argument for better parks and public spaces in our cities.

However, with the pressure on our increasingly urbanised populations, why is quality public open space in our cities too often seen as a “nice to have” rather than a valuable investment for which the return is high?

Our federal government recognises the importance of great public spaces and parks to our cities.

“To secure the ongoing prosperity and wellbeing of our communities, we must ensure that our cities meet the needs of current and future generations,” reads a passage in the government’s Our Cities, Our Future national urban policy. “We must ensure that economic growth can be sustained and increased without compromising the natural environment or our quality of life. This is the basis of a sustainable future.”

So whilst strategic government policies at the highest level advocate for an equal balance between social, environmental and economic initiatives for a more sustainable Australia, often the harsh reality is that it is still the economic drivers that most influence our decision makers – the cost of building better public spaces and parks.

Designers need to understand and communicate in the language of our decision makers. We need to quantify and qualify every positive aspect of our public spaces and park systems, where possible, into a value to make the business case.

We need more qualitative research into the opportunity cost of not pursuing better public spaces and parks, into language our political decision makers better understand.

A better, more productive conversation between government, universities, practice and industry is required to take a leading role in representing the best our cities can be.

In turn, we can more effectively argue and promote the immediate and long-term return value of our public parks and open space against their capital and ongoing management costs.

Only then will our parks, open spaces, streets, and the space between our city buildings be recognised as the priority amongst the list of essential public infrastructure (such as roads, pipes and conduits) that is currently prioritised over good quality, liveable and successful public spaces.

This article was first published on Sourceable.net in November 2016. 

Image: Forecourt, 45 Pirie Street, Adelaide. Image: Ben Wrigley.