The State of Landscape

A recent review of architectural practice highlighted some of the challenges that people who design things to be made and lived in face: we study for the same amount of time as other tightly controlled professions, and certainly longer than those that aren’t tightly controlled, and yet we earn substantially less, whilst at the same time, we also see the work that we trained to do being done by people without the same training and education. Whilst this is causing a buzz amongst architects, it’s not news at all to landscape architects- we’ve always known that we don’t do this work for the early retirement.

But the report comes at an interesting time – the boundaries of our professional disciplines are being stretched and I sometimes wonder how much longer the umbrella name of ‘landscape architect’ will be viable. As specialist knowledge becomes ever more accessible, professionals will have to work harder to demonstrate their expertise and the value they bring to a project. Returning to the theme of a previous post, the Landscape Institute’s Royal Charter defines a landscape architecture as “all aspects of the science, planning, design, implementation and management of landscapes” – and I wonder how much longer this will be the case: there’s only so much that one person (or one profession) can specialise in. Thomas Rainer made an interesting observation at the University of Sheffield’s ‘Landscape 50’ conference, suggesting that perhaps our future as a profession lies in specialising in horticultural and ecological design- is that something we’re ready to talk about?

Whilst these issues and conversations grow, the LI is publishing its ‘State of Landscape’ report for consultation. There’s lots to chew over in it but one graph stood out, showing the ages of landscape architects; I remember a more detailed graph from a previous survey a few years ago showing that after the age of 40, there’s a significant drop off in the demographic, raising the question – where do landscape architects go when they turn 40?

We know that in the face of all the challenges the world is facing, the skills that landscape architects have and expertise in the subjects in we which specialise are going to become more and more useful. But in the light of the demographics of our members and the ways in which our professions are being stretched, how do we learn from our experiences and where does a sustainable future of our professions lie?

To my mind, the answer lies in three areas: the professional boundaries need to be redrawn and protected, the ways in which we train and accredit new members needs to be re-thought, and the ways we work with and for clients needs to be revised. It’s great to see the LI getting behind the apprenticeship scheme and starting initiatives like #chooselandscape but two big questions remain. Referring back to Thomas Rainer’s observation, I would go one further: broadly, the disciplines which landscape architects work in tend to fall into four categories: designed ecology (planting, conservation and landscape character), applied geography (master planning, place making, research and strategic assessments), landscape engineering (hard landscape design and SuDS) and arts and making. There are others disciplines of course, but broadly, our work tends to fall into either the making or assessment of work within these four groups: we then use these specialisms in different sectors and at different work stages.

So is it time for each of these four groups to go their own way? The new LI branding of ‘People, Place and Nature’ makes sense and is a step in the right direction but I’m less comfortable with the trend of ‘landscape architecture’ as meaning ‘design’ and the increasing use of the term ‘landscape professionals’. That said, the term ‘landscape architecture’ has never been properly accepted or established in the public consciousness and whilst we tell ourselves that there is great value in being able to mediate between different professions, I sometimes wonder if this is really the case- what tends to be valued most around a design table is expertise and insight. These centripetal forces on our profession raise challenging questions for us and the Landscape Institute, and whilst I remain optimistic about the future, I wonder whether these changes are necessary, or if they do happen, will they happen as entrepreneurial responses to the challenges of practice… or whether we need to be more engaged in shaping it. As a starting point, I’d urge CMLIs to read the LI’s State of Landscape report and respond – there’s lots in there that needs our attention.