Last November's urban white paper promises to expand the market for landscaping schemes in Britain's towns and cities. Here's how consultants and contractors can enter the public space race.
Landscape has so often been the neglected piece of the development jigsaw – the last to be considered, and the first to suffer when cut-backs have to be made. But at last it seems that its prospects are on the up. The government's attempts to create an urban renaissance are throwing up new opportunities and challenges for an industry that, while lately enjoying an expanding market, is beset by tight margins and poor salaries.
For the first time, there is a minister with direct responsibility for urban parks and green spaces, appointed in the slip-stream of last November's urban white paper. Regeneration minister Beverley Hughes has been given the role of overseeing the development of parks, play areas and open spaces. She plans to set up an advisory committee to help develop demonstration projects and to promote innovative approaches to creating, managing and maintaining green spaces.
There is also the prospect of work from the Green Spaces and Sustainable Communities programme, which was launched last January with some £125m of National Lottery money channelled through the New Opportunities Fund. Last September, the programme announced a £100m plan to transform children's playing fields and upgrade green spaces. Schemes will be selected for funding through 12 award partners, which E E include Sport England and children's charity Barnardo's.
Landscape professionals have welcomed this continued government interest in improving the urban realm in the wake of the 1999 urban taskforce report. "Landscape is moving up the agenda. I feel the political will is there," says Professor Michael Ellison, chairman of the Landscape Foundation, which was set up to promote the art form. "There's never been a better time to be in landscape," adds Stuart Royston, director-general of the Landscape Institute, landscape architects' professional association. "The government has the right intentions but it's a question of when and how it translates." At English Partnerships, landscape manager Chris Beard is optimistic that the white paper's references to urban parks and open spaces will encourage government agencies, local authorities and stakeholders in the public realm to put more energy into achieving sustainable, quality landscaping. "It's interesting that government has realised the importance of the public realm as a catalyst for urban regeneration. It should give EP the opportunity to focus on these issues and help clients deliver them." An "optimism barometer" conducted by the Landscape Institute among its 4500 members and 506 registered practices found that they anticipate specifying 5-10% more this year than last. Last year, the 25 largest landscape architecture practices specified contract work worth £150m. The total project value of the sites for which the same 25 practices carried out environmental impact assessments last year amounted to £7bn, although that also includes land reclamation, infrastructure and building.
It follows that much of the current growth in the market is urban – in particular parks such as east London's Thames Barrier Park, new and revamped squares, and major inner-city regenerations such as Bristol's harbourside.
"It's a very exciting time," says Martin Kelly, managing director of land planner and designer Derek Lovejoy Partnership. "Quite a lot more money is being spent on the urban side by both the public and private sector. More often than not our task is to weave together the whole of the public realm and ensure the quality of usable public space." Many landscape architects have already detected a growing client appreciation of the value of good landscaping – whether from developers of luxury flats or from businesses aware that quality of environment is important for attracting and retaining staff.
"Clients are more aware of the value that can be added to their project by having a good landscape solution," says Mike Gibbs, managing director of Broadway Malyan Landscape. Some 80% of the practice's landscape workload is private, the bulk of it urban regeneration, including six riverside projects in London.
But while the landscape market is experiencing growth, it is also facing intense competition. As well as the big practices, such as Gillespies and Derek Lovejoy, the profession comprises a large number of medium-sized and very small firms. In addition, several substantial landscape divisions operate within multidisciplinary groups such as Broadway Malyan, Arup and Building Design Partnership. These are able to reap the benefit of their sister companies' contacts – 70% of landscape design work carried out by Broadway Malyan Landscape is related to the practice's architectural projects.
Practices are also facing pressure from clients to keep costs down, says the Landscape Institute's Royston. The Landscape Foundation's Ellison says practices are lucky to get a 6% fee on a £250 000 project and even Gustafson Porter, internationally renowned designer of several projects such as the regeneration of Sir Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace park, complains of tight margins.
Another growing problem is a shortage of skilled staff, not helped by starting salaries for qualified landscape architects advertised at as little as £12 000. Lovejoy has used freelance landscape architects from New Zealand and Australia, and both Arup and Gustafson Porter report difficulties finding the staff they want.
On the contracting side, the British Association of Landscape Industries reports similar experiences on behalf of its 550 members. It sees recruitment, along with low margins, as their main challenges.
As ever, landscape firms are winning their work through a mix of open competition, competitive tender and referrals, with clients looking for track record, company stability plus technical and design skills and value for money. What's new is that practices have noticed increased interest in a more sustainable approach to landscape in terms of materials and strategy.
"The move towards sustainability is being generated by all the regeneration agencies plus government and is finding its way through to clients who are realising the benefits of it," says Broadway Malyan's Gibbs. Robert Rummey Associates recently set up an environmental company while Studio Engleback specialises in "eco-urbanism" and sustainable environmental design.
Even more important for landscape architects will be the ability to work collaboratively within the construction team and "see the bigger picture" in urban regeneration, according to Robert Rummey, who positions his company as an urban designer first and landscape architect second. "There's a healthy market for urban regeneration. If we thought, acted and promoted ourselves purely as landscape architects without a wider view, we wouldn't be able to meet that market," he says.
"In five years' time, the companies who get the big jobs will be those who can communicate more easily with other members of the team," agrees the Landscape Institute's Royston. This is especially important in the light of the rising prominence of urban designers, with companies such as Tibbalds TM2 and EDAW offering landscaping services as part of a holistic approach to urban design.
For both consultants and contractors looking to break into landscape, it's a particularly good time, according to Michael Callahan. He should know, as last year his Tunbridge Wells-based landscape design-and-build firm, Linden Landscapes, won the BALI award for best newcomer. Government policy and lottery grants have had little or no impact on the well-heeled homeowners that make up his client base. Instead, he cites the strong economy and the increasing media interest in homes and gardens as factors that have helped his firm grow since its birth in 1996. He attributes his successful first few years to a fruitful collaboration with an independent landscape designer, enquiries to a Yellow Pages advert and client recommendations.
<B>From Ghost Town to disco in Coventry</b>
Mirrored balls and a chequered marble and granite floor are being used to liven up one of the main squares in Coventry's city centre. London-based Derek Lovejoy Partnership is working with American landscape star Martha Schwartz to turn Broadgate Square into a fun outdoor room – a magnet to draw people into the historical city.
Lovejoy and Schwartz have been involved in the project since an international design competition in 1999 invited landscape architects to breathe life into the city once described by The Specials as a Ghost Town.
Lovejoy director Kevin Underwood describes the problems Coventry faced. "It had gone off the map and lost its identity and brand. It was a mish-mash and there were very different designs in different parts of the area. The local authority was asking itself why Coventry was lagging behind other cities."
Underwood believes that his plans for two of the main squares – Council House and Broadgate – will put Coventry back on the map, kick-starting economic growth and stimulating tourism. The designs celebrate the city's history, while maintaining continuity between the two squares, he says. So the three elements of Council House – a ceremonial square, a large lawn area and a tree-lined promenade – are united by reference to Coventry's coloured ribbon manufacturing industry. Stainless steel ribbon sculptures extend across the area, while the fabric variety hangs from a series of poles. Common paving material, street furniture and signage will lend it a running theme.
The project is out to tender and due to start on site by summer.
<b>ExCeL's watery gateway</b>
The new Royal Victoria Square sits on the doorstep of London's newest and largest exhibition centre, ExCeL, at the heart of Docklands' urban regeneration drive. Multidisciplinary practice EDAW was lead consultant on the project that was opened by London mayor Ken Livingstone at the end of last year.
The 1.6 ha waterfront square is a public space for residents to enjoy as well as the gateway to ExCeL. It features a large sunken lawn, sandwiched between two cantilevered steel canopies resting on 4.5 m high black concrete fins. Graphics in the canopies recall the names of ships and ports associated with the dock, which opened in 1855 and became dormant in the 1980s. Thirty-eight computer-controlled foam jet fountains, lit by fibre optics, line the base of the lawn.
EDAW won an English Partnerships competition for the project in 1996, working with Patel Taylor Architects and structural engineer and planning supervisor Aspen Burrow Crocker. Tweed was QS. Fitzpatrick was the contractor.
The most significant problem faced by the team was excavation. Care had to be taken not to sink tree roots too deep in the ground, exposing them to the cold salty water of the dock. Underground archways from finger docks that used to run off the Royal Victoria were also a constraint.
<b>The park that regenerates Newham</b>
"One need only look at Booth's 1890 Poverty Map of London to see the beneficial impact of green space." So says architect Andrew Taylor, partner
at Patel Taylor Architects, which
co-designed the 8.8 ha new Thames Barrier Park in London Docklands at a cost of £13m. Charles Booth's map showed that residential areas located next to parks were as a rule better off.
The Victorian social investigator may have been impressed not only with the scale of Thames Barrier Park, but also with its social and economic objectives. "At the start, the project was rather more than a landscape programme. It was always much wider in its sphere of influence and was more about regeneration," says Taylor, whose practice worked alongside French landscape architect Groupe Signes and engineer Arup. "When we designed it, we considered the wider surroundings and the possibility of future developments. Our scheme was about creating value and seeing how we could upgrade the area."
The result is a park with cascading levels, reminiscent of the gardens at Versailles. Framed by the Thames Flood Barrier and a new complex of Barratt Homes flats, the area is a combination of luxuriant vegetation and clean architectural design. It is not a park in a traditional sense – acres of grass and trees – but an area that has several features for residents and visitors to enjoy. Thames Barrier Park boasts a
400 m long sunken landscaped garden, a play area complete with climbing frames, a river promenade and a remembrance pavilion commemorating war victims.
When the London Docklands Development Corporation launched the design competition back in 1995, the site was a former industrial area where manufacturing ceased in 1969. The land was derelict, the soil and groundwater contaminated.
Contractor May Gurney built the park in two phases. From January 1997, for nine months, the team reconstructed the ground and built a new river wall. The 18 months from August 1998 were spent adding topsoil, building structures and constructing the hard pavings. "It was a very complex project," Taylor admits.
How to work the land
- Larger design commissions and contract tenders can be found in the European Union’s Official Journal eur-op.eu.int
- The Landscape Institute has details of design competitions and commissions 020-7738 9166, www.l-i.org.uk
- The RIBA’s list of competitions often includes landscape schemes www.riba-competitions.freeserve.co.uk
- Information on the Green Spaces and Sustainable Communities programme can be found at the New Opportunities Fund website www.nof.org.uk
- The British Association of Landscape Industries provides lists of contractors and, over the next year, aims to set up a job leads site 02476-690333, www.bali.co.uk
- Advertising in the local Yellow Pages is a sure way of hooking local private clients www.yell.com