The Professional Voices blog allows people within the industry to share their thoughts on a particular topic. Today, we hear from Alex Pettitt, from Topoforma Landscape, who is sharing his thoughts on ecology within a designed landscape. I have added a few useful links in here and there so that you can find out more!

A question I often considered prior to commencing my undergraduate course in Landscape Design was, ‘What is Landscape Architecture?’ Is it garden design, but on a bigger scale; or is it closer to architecture and therefore less about plants and soft landscape materials? What I have now come to understand, as a young professional completing a master’s in landscape architecture and with prior industry experience, is that:

Landscape Architecture is everything conceivable when considering landscape. Furthermore, it encapsulates the intangible relationships between disciplines, such as architecture and horticulture or landscape design and ecology.

Personally, planning ecology into my landscape schemes is a fundamental part to the design process of our public green spaces, there is no experience more satisfying than visiting an implemented design and simply listening and absorbing the natural sounds of a living landscape, hearing birdsong or the low-level buzzing of invertebrates and pollinators in a space where it was previously devoid of natural sound. This pleasure is derived from more than phenomenal experiences, but also from the confirmation of successful design objectives. Improving biodiversity in a Landscape Architect’s scheme should be a given in the future; thankfully, the days of self-serving planting schemes designed purely for an aesthetic are consigned to landscape history.

I have had the pleasure of working with and studying under the tutelage at Writtle University College of some of the leaders in biophilic design: housing schemes focussed on overall biodiversity net gain, which provide homes for young families and our native wildlife species; and green-veining projects within the urban environment to reduce the urban heat island and bring beneficial flora and fauna back into town and city centres (e.g. a project in Woodbridge, Suffolk, I am currently involved in). These activities play a vital role and involve a number of stakeholders to achieve a certain ecological objective.

At Topoforma Landscape, there are many ways we try to incorporate the opportunity for increased biodiversity; there is a global trend towards Piet Oudolf’s prairie planting style - herbaceous perennials, grasses and wildflowers are making a strong comeback into the industry’s material palette. These plants provide food and foraging for a wide range of wildlife species, the main targets, however, are of course the pollinating insects; restoring a degraded ecosystem must start with the smallest building blocks, without these small but vital creatures, such a scheme or ecosystem would not be viable or sustainable in the long term. Riparian woodlands can be implemented to great effect to restore a waterway’s natural processes, which can benefit more than just the ecosystems found within and along our rivers and streams; a river allowed to function as one naturally would, without emasculation by humans in the form of canalisation, bank management, and riverbed dredging, protects urban areas from flash flooding through the ability of that riverine landscape to manage the evermore extreme weather events. Ecosystem services, one of which is flood management, is a new field of study in both ecology and landscape architecture which allows professionals to calculate and define the value of the landscape and ecosystem, a way to convey the monetary value to stakeholders who may be more troubled by the financial bottom-line of a new or existing landscape. The Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park in Stratford is one of the landscapes that perfectly encapsulates these design philosophies, the planting strategy was undertaken by some of the premier plantspeople in the world, Piet Oudolf and Nigel Dunnett. Their planting philosophies for that site are truly inspirational to me, and it will forever be the inspiration to a generation of landscape students and young professionals.

I am optimistic that landscape architecture and ecology are yet to have their finest day when it comes to public landscapes. Landscape has often been the end-of-the-line discipline when working on huge schemes, but this is set to change.

Landscape Architects should be making high-level planning decisions in the future alongside architects and engineers, especially incorporating strong ecological values from the inception of schemes.

The Covid-19 lockdowns have shown the desire and need of the public to have easy walking access to green space; coupled with the underlying issue habitat encroachment, which has surely exacerbated the initial rise of the disease, we should be designing those open spaces with the provision for wildlife. Former brownfield and industrial sites are now becoming grounds for new urban green spaces, restoration of these degraded landscapes generally follow natural processes such as successionary planting, Landschaft Duisburg-Nord is a wonderful example of this approach, particularly as it maintains and celebrates the historical, cultural, and industrial heritage through the preservation of the industrial buildings and forms onsite. Urban rewilding is also an area of study in landscape architecture which is gathering momentum, the reintroduction of beavers into the UK is just the tip of the iceberg. Green-veining, particularly in urban landscapes has been shown to be an effective method for providing green corridors for wildlife in previously abiotic landscapes, as well as reducing the urban heat island and street-level air and noise pollution.

On a personal level, I cannot see a design process happening without the ecological considerations forming a key part of the design objectives. The importance of designing with ecology forms the core tenets of my own landscape design consultancy, Topoforma Landscape Ltd. It may be that my hometown of Northampton’s relationship with the Modernist movement of the early 20th century, from Charles Rennie Mackintosh & Peter Behrens through to the 80’s post-punk band named after the most famous modernist schools, Bauhaus.

The principles of modernism, namely that of rejecting ornament and realigning form and function, I feel can be retooled for the 21st century and the need for designing with ecological function.

We, as designers and therefore arbiters of change in the landscape, must therefore design with the needs of the human stakeholders and the function of natural ecosystem processes in perfect alignment. The future must be one of human and natural harmony, if this does not happen, we may not have a future at all.

Ed. Here at Wildcare, we believe in the integration of ecosystem services in the urban environment and the enhancement, restoration, and creation of habitats. We supply high quality coir for riverine improvement, hedgerow and woodland planting products, and nest boxes, which are widely used in the ecology profession to provide additional habitat or mitigate for habitat losses due to development work.

About the Author

Alex Pettitt is a Landscape Architect at Topoforma Landscape, his newly established landscape and garden design consultancy in Northamptonshire. You can find him on Instagram and Facebook, or email him to continue the conversation.