Tim Waterman

Landscape, Urban, and Food Studies

Joined-up Thinking

by Tim-Waterman on September 16, 2014, no comments

This is an article that appeared in last month’s Garden Design Journal in their ‘Talking Point’ opinion section. 

I love to travel by train, because of certain negatives – because I hate car traffic and airports and because I’m too tall to fit into the aeroplane seats that I can afford. There are also distinct positives, such as the ability to watch the gradual changes in the landscape between cities, to have the luxury of time to contemplate those changes, and also to peer into so many back gardens. The orderly world of the surveyor’s geometry is often quite obscured, and all of the different scales at which the landscape professions operate are possible to easily comprehend from the train, nested into one another. Buildings, too, are viewed differently from the train, as their frontages rarely face the rails. All of the lumpy structures that accommodate the lives we actually live, rather than the face we show the world, are in evidence in the view from the train.

These higgledy-piggledy back alley perspectives, seen through murky windows, also serve as an allegory for the interrelationship of the landscape professions. Connections are haphazard, boundaries are unclear, some areas are derelict because no one can figure out how to put them to profitable use, but still the whole messy ensemble somehow manages to form a coherent setting in which people are able to operate more or less effectively.

Garden designers, landscape architects, planners, and architects all manage to get on with their jobs despite the disputes at the boundaries and the prejudices and misconceptions that we hold regarding each other’s work. Our relations could be so much better, though, and perhaps the way to this is to ask what the landscape needs rather than what our professions need – and what we need to know to work with it. This requires framing our knowledge carefully so that we help each other to understand all the various elements of landscape work. Some of these elements are obviously shared and fun to talk about, like plants, but other issues are more convoluted and difficult – issues of society and communities, class, the construction of green infrastructure, public and private space, and so on.

I had hoped, when I began to write this piece, that I could demonstrate that what divides landscape architects and garden designers is not scale, or plants, or any particular, but rather that garden designers work largely for private, often wealthy clients, whereas landscape architects tend to be employed on public projects. Simple. Garden designers are right wing, landscape architects are left wing, and never the twain shall meet. The desire, however, to make a simplistic and provocative point that might raise a few hackles and start a few conversations, is thwarted by the fact that this simply isn’t the case.

I have come to realise that the greatest divides between professions of all sorts (the divide between landscape architecture and garden design is merely typical) are caused by the fact that all we understand how to do what we do, but few are able to put their work in context in the broadest terms of geography, history, politics, and sociology alongside the scientific aspects of our work.

Neither landscape architects nor garden designers have historically been very good at thinking and writing critically and contextually about their work, but landscape architecture in Britain has been getting much better in recent years at doing so. Architects are good at criticism, but often hostile to context – and context is what they most need to come to terms with, especially in our cities.

A lack of context is what leads to assumptions such as that landscape architecture is a subset of architecture, and that garden design is a subset of landscape architecture. Certainly the areas of practice overlap, but the realms of knowledge required for each role are vast, and vastly different.

The cure for the prejudices that plague our professions and hamper our work lives would begin in education. Architects need to be taught not just by architects, but by garden designers, landscape architects, civil engineers, planners, and so on. And the same is true in any other combination. We can’t hope to understand each other without teaching each other. Garden design has a unique situation amongst these professions in that it is most often taught on short diploma courses. We need far fewer of these very short courses and far more full degrees in garden design, and all the way to Master’s level. We must take garden design as seriously as we take landscape architecture and expect practitioners to be as highly qualified.

Finally we need far better communication and collaboration between our institutions in order to protect and promote all land-based work because it is all under threat. Landscape management has all but disappeared, for example, and it needs the combined might of  the whole sector to rectify this problem. Highly skilled horticulturists are often treated – and paid like – unskilled labour, which again is a tragedy, but also a problem for all of us and for the landscape. We must put our collective energies to solving this problem.

Those of us who work on the land are all part of the same murky picture, and we must begin working towards bringing that picture into focus in education, in our institutions, in our collaborations, and in government policy.

Through landscape our professions have immense power to re-envision the practice of everyday life to effect more sustainable human behaviour and habits of occupation and land use. This is why it is powerfully important that garden design is treated as both an intellectual and an instrumental profession, and one that operates alongside architecture and landscape architecture as a natural equal – and all of these professions has considerable work to do to make that happen.