Sustainable landscapes…….are they?

Ciaran PowerLandscape

So. You go to great trouble, time and expense in securing a piece of land, agreeing your vision for the site, appointing the design team and supporting consultants, liaising with the local planning authority, finalising the design, submitting the application, waiting in breathless anticipation, getting frustrated at the planners, amending the scheme, waiting again in breathless anticipation and eventually securing the planning consent (if you’re lucky!). Which of course comes with conditions attached. Which means lots more work to be done, some of it up front of the development starting and some (including usually landscape) that has been agreed from early in the application process.

No huge problem there, it’s what happens and everyone is (or should be) used to it.

Move forward a couple of steps though when the development is approaching an end and you want the site to start looking presentable and saleable. Yes, its landscaping time.

The recent update to the NPPF (2021), the very essence of which is the promotion of sustainable development, uses phrases such as ‘beautiful and safe places’, ‘improving biodiversity’ and ‘appropriate and effective landscaping’, building on the need to make sufficient provision for conservation and enhancement of landscapes and green infrastructure. There is a clear focus on retaining trees (wherever possible), ensuring that new streets are now tree-lined and ‘ensuring that the right trees are planted in the right places’. Added to this is the continuing focus on conserving and enhancing the natural environment, providing net gains for biodiversity and taking a strategic approach to maintaining and enhancing networks of habitats and green infrastructure. The principle of sustainable landscapes has therefore surely never been clearer, yet it is perhaps understandable that there will be a continuing battle between the essence of the NPPF and reality. Of particular note is the paragraph (135) that states ‘Local planning authorities should seek to ensure that the quality of approved development is not materially diminished between permission and completion….’; a problem that often occurs between the initial landscape design (as mixed a bag of quality as that may be), to the oft watered-down scheme that gets delivered on sites.

The classic scenario is that the landscape drawing or planting plan gets presented to the landscape contractor, who screws up his face immediately muttering ‘Well I can’t get hold of that species, and as for that one, its going to cost you a fortune!’ This is when the landscape lottery kicks in, because whether the finished scheme looks anything like the agreed plan is anyone’s guess. While planning departments complain about lack of resources, and rightly so, and how landscape conditions are notoriously difficult to enforce, some of the recent work we’ve done in auditing landscape schemes following complaints would suggest that compliance with conditions is creeping higher up the LA agenda.

Irrespective of whether the finished landscape correlates with the agreed plan however, it strikes us that there’s an awful lack of joined-up-thinking out there. There are schemes where trees are planted worryingly close to new buildings and features. There are schemes where species choice takes little account of the surrounding landscape. There are schemes where with all the will in the world the trees and shrubs are just not available to the contractor. There are schemes where little or no thought has gone into the long-term viability of planted stock. There are schemes where little or no thought has been given to future maintenance.

Trees planted practically beneath the front door canopy are only going to be a problem.

Is this sustainable? No! But who’s to blame? The landscape architect for designing poorly thought out schemes? The local planning authority for agreeing the scheme? The local planning authority, whose planning policies drive designers to try and squeeze trees in to satisfy the 2 for 1 (or 3 for one, or 5 for one) replacement requirement? The contractor for not recognising a problem and questioning the logic of it? The site agent for not seeing such an obvious problem?

Sustainable development being the principle of the NPPF should be the driver for improvements in the quality and sustainability of designs. But what does ‘sustainable’ actually mean? We’ve had numerous discussions over the years with a variety of professionals and it does seem that aside from the high level interpretation from the UN General Assembly (meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs), most disciplines at a local / personal level have their own interpretation of the concept. For example, talk to builders and they will almost always refer to materials, their energy efficiency and source. Talk to planners and they’ll probably refer to site location, geography, transport links and so on. Talk to landscape architects and they’ll probably refer to the likes of BREEAM. Talk to Arboriculturist actually the arbs do tend to have quite a good handle on what at least constitutes a sustainable landscape. They understand how trees & shrubs grow, understand what they will be like at maturity, how long they will take to reach maturity, what problems might occur with certain landscapes in the future and ultimately what the site might look like in 20, 50, 100 years. You could certainly do a lot worse than having an Arboriculturist scrutinise the landscape design element of your project. What they lack in design flair and vision, they tend to more than make up for in the practicalities of sustainable landscapes. They also have a fairly good handle on what is likely to be a complete waste of money!

Sustainability is a massive subject, but at a local level does it have to be so complicated? We are always keen to ensure that the landscape element of projects is sustainable, i.e. that it meets the short term needs of the project and the long term needs of the landscape, without causing problems. In its simplest form, that means making sure that what is specified is a) in keeping with the wider landscape; b) available to buy locally; c) results in an improvement to biodiversity; d) the same as what gets planted; and e) that it has a good chance of being there 20, 50, 100 (or even more) years down the line. If you can tick all those boxes then there’s a good chance that at least the landscape element of your project is sustainable.

The principle of sustainable development isn’t a new concept, but with policy becoming clearer and more stringent, one wonders how the ‘landscape’ will look in 5-10 years’ time and how keen the development community will be to embrace the progress being made.

In a sort of ‘Dear Developer’ message……this is only going one way……if you get on the bus now you’ll save a lot of frustration in the long run.

So there you have it… retain what you can, plant the right thing in the right place for starters, design for biodiversity enhancements and you’ll be well on your way to achieving a sustainable landscape.

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