Shaping Ecological Futures

28 Sept 2022

Shaping Ecological Futures –Dr Neil Strong (Network Rail), Andrew Grant (Grant Associates), Usman Haque (Umbrellium), Sue Morgan (Landscape Institute) and Hattie Hartman (Architects' Journal) at the Victoria & Albert Museum

The lecture’s aim was to address the current climate emergency through a series of brief talks given by each of the key speakers. The underlining theme being the rapid loss of biodiversity and the need to fundamentally change the way we perceive our environment and landscape.

Hattie Hartman who has been writing on the topic of sustainability and our ecological futures for the last 15 years, began the discussion by highlighting that it has only been in the last three years that this topic has moved from the ‘margins to the mainstream’. She went on to explain that the discourse has changed in a tremendous way, and architecture schemes & projects that do not address sustainability are simply not acceptable.

“What does addressing climate emergency in design mean?”

The topic of addressing climate emergency through design is vast and complicated, for a long time climate lead design has been almost entirely about carbon and more specifically the operational carbon of buildings. The focus has only recently shifted to include the consideration of materials (sourcing and end of life) and construction energy.

Climate emergency is not only about carbon and we saw this brought into focus 3 years ago through the Architects Declare & the Architects Climate Action Network Movement. It is H. Hartman’s firm belief that landscape design is a fundamental part of the solution and that it is often “too late to the table” when it comes to design. Designers and architects are often too ‘respectful’ of the site boundaries and fail to look beyond the red line. When in reality we need to work with clients to reframe a brief, to really use the geography and ecology of a place to not only inform but shape our design.

Following H. Hartman’s introduction each panellist approached the topic of climate lead design through their own experiences and practices, all at very different scales and from different perspectives.

Dr. Neil Strong, an ecologist and forester who works for Network Rail looks at the sustainable enhancing, maintaining and enriching of the biodiversity of the line site (the area adjacent to the train tracks). His talk highlighted the need for infrastructure and sustainable (transport) connections to create green gateways (hubs) and new habitats as a means of addressing the climate emergency.

Usman Haque (the founder of Umbrellium) through the use of digital platforms harnesses collective intelligence to encourage low carbon design, the reduction of air and noise pollution as well as the re-wilding of urban environments. Typically working on large scale complex systems, designing physical spaces activated through technology, U. Haque’s primary focus is design that acts now i.e. Urban Wilding “the 21century equivalent of the space race”. The main point raised during his talk was that we all have to come together to figure out how to make urban wilding work, with nature instead of against it, as it is a vital strategy to responding to the climate crisis.
That being said, no solution is challenge free and in U. Haque points out two main problems/ issues that we are faced with when rewilding urban environments.
The first is that people especially those in urban areas have very different understandings of open green spaces and what they should look like. That is to say that not everyone likes the look of a wildflower meadow and to some these spaces look redundant and unkept.

“So you can’t just expect to wild a neighbourhood with the kind of biodiversity that is required and think that everyone is going to love & support it. Actually, all the evidence shows that if you don’t explicitly involve people in the design, implementation and governance of wilding schemes that they are bound to fail.” U. Haque

The second challenge is the need to reframe our relationships to “non-humans”. As we wild our cities, we need to be able to embrace the complexities and unexpectedness of how we share these green biodiverse spaces with other species. There is a crucial need to actively involve and cooperate with the “non-human” species in the decision making processes of urban wilding.

Andrew Grant founder of Grant Associates who has worked on monumental schemes internationally, one of which is the 54 hectares Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, spoke of landscape design and architecture as a series of interlinking systems that hold the key to our ecological future.

“Ecology is about the study of relationships between living organisms and their physical environment, so it is about humans and their relationship with other life.”

A. Grant explained that the fundamental principle of ecological design is to design for nature as if you are a part of it. Stressing the importance of how we regard natural systems (the way we think about water, wildlife, etc), to go beyond to create and communicate “joy & wonder” through the design of ecological & biodiverse spaces.
People respond to nature and the landscapes we create are not only to enhance existing wildlife and ecosystems but to also create new ones. Time is a crucial factor when thinking about ecological futures, it takes time to establish these ecosystems and create better environments for people to dwell in.

“Nature and Imagination are the key to our sustainable futures” A. Grant

Sue Morgan CEO of the Landscape Institute has been a great advocate of the multidisciplinary approach to placemaking and urban renewal. S. Morgan clearly states that the only way we will be able to address the issues and challenges of designing for our ecological futures is if we work collaboratively, share outcomes, learn and above all respect our professions and practices.

“Landscape design creates and enables life in between buildings” S. Morgan

The Shaping Ecological Future event is a great example of your industry’s awareness of the climate emergency and the professional responsibility we hold to be at the forefront of positive change.
But can we do it alone?
The short answer is no!

The mind set shift starts at schools and universities where ecology and sustainability need to be firmly embedded in the very core of our education system.

We are trying to embrace nature to change our ecological future, we want to have spaces that help with climate change, but currently in the UK we do not have the skills to achieve the strategic outcomes set by the government.

“the UK does not have the requisite skills to deliver nature-based solutions at scale.[…]there has been no formal assessment of the skills needed, nor a route to providing training in the timescale required for a transition over the next decade.” – House of Lords (Jan 2022).

Apart from our design work within the industry at BHPH we are actively collaborating with our community members of all ages to raise awareness and spread knowledge of how to better our ecological future.