Landscape, unlike building, evolves but when is a landscape temporary?

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As an intermediate or transitional phase in the development of a site landscape can provide something quick and relatively cheap to fill vacant space. A huge diversity of design response may apply bringing a dynamic change to the character of a vacant urban site.

A derelict site can act as a hole in the urban realm, a negative space like a missing tooth. Landscape and art are a means of energising our urban public space through many different forms be it art installations, growing spaces, pop-up cafés or shops, festivals, markets or theatre spaces. Increasing the social dynamic of our outdoor space by placing interventions in them which act as a catalyst for interaction between strangers.

Short term schemes are a chance to enhance environmentally sparse landscapes. These can be cheap and quick solutions e.g. wildflower planting, and derelict or vacant land is particularly well suited to these habitats with poor soils generating biologically diverse habitats quickly colonised by plants and insects.

Temporary landscapes provide the possibility of experimenting with a site and testing out what activities or layouts are most popular or appropriate for the space. More permanent landscape designs could be seen as a risk if they are not tested on site before construction is completed. They are also an interesting insight into human appropriation – an alternate means of urban planning, often a bottom-up approach, drawing community participation into the project through a process-oriented methodology.

Temporary projects generally do not have large budgets and rely heavily on enthusiasm from a dedicated team. The key to success is using mainly what is already available, making the most of reused and recycled materials which in turn creates a very site-specific and unique space.

The temporary nature of these spaces also has potential to be considered as experimental – a way to get people to think about their surroundings and the potential interraction with the landscape making them inherently more interactive, frivolous and fun. Whether the public like the space or not they serve as a talking point to focus thoughts and discussion on what may be appropriate in the space. Temporary growing spaces provide potential for education and can foster interest and participation by visitors.

Urban space is in constant flux through the process of building, decay and rebuilding, layer upon layer of architecture remodelled as the needs of the population change. Are these temporary landscapes then the new future to urban design? Shorter term solutions to problems that will undoubtably alter and evolve in future?

Reference Projects

Christchurch NZ provides an interesting example of where large scale destruction of the city has resulted in over 200 temporary landscape projects on site for between a few days or a few years. Activities that used to take place inside have now spilled out into the city’s public space, creating a vibrant and active new dynamic to local neighbourhoods. These temporary landscapes have provided the opportunity of injecting fun and colour into a city left in ruins after a major earthquake. It remains to be seen whether this new style and character of development will be stitched into the more permanent fabric of the city.

Berlin Prinzessinnenngarten was a vacant plot for over half a century comprising just rubble and concrete. Over the past 5 years it has been transformed by members of the community, activists and growers who helped to clear the space of rubble and rubbish and make way for hundreds of organic, transportable, container grown plants. Now the food growing space has evolved to include a cafe, a plant nursery, over 20 self sown tree and an educational hut. This enterprising project has transformed the stagnant corner of a busy roundabout into amazingly cool oasis – a vibrant, socially dynamic hub that is educational as well as ecologically and financially sustainable.

Pressure from Berlin city government to remove the project for development of the site (which was always on the cards) has resulted in major local controversy as to whether the garden is more beneficial to the community than the proposed development. An example of temporary space evolving with potential for long term use.

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milfordWe’re working on a regeneration scheme in Milford Haven, in Pembrokeshire.   The harbour here has gone through many changes from fishing village, to whaling port, to large scale fishing industry, smokery and processing wharves and then to chandlery and marina, now with residential and leisure uses.  Not many of the building relics remain despite this checkered past.  And nowadays, as if waiting for its next incarnation, the harbour looks quietly out to the giant tankers berthed in the haven delivering their oil and gas cargos to the giant refineries which dominate the hills around this deep inland water.

Getting to grips with the character and form of the place and drawing out the design intentions has been a rewarding if lengthy collaboration with our colleagues at Turley Associates and Keep.  The town layout is derived from what can only be described as ‘the sea factor’[1] the curious one sided nature of a coastal town.  The built development opens out to embrace its junction with the water in a single line along which commercial and social interaction takes place.   This front line gives great views to the wider seascape but is curiously unconnected to it.

Above the harbour, fronting a terraced grid of streets lies Hamilton Terrace; arguably this street seeks to be ‘the line of life’ [2] of Milford Haven.  Gordon Cullen describes the line of life as being the essential function of a town, the element which makes a place intelligible and gives it a raison d’être.  The development of the terrace was pivotal in the development of the town and its harbour which it both literally and metaphorically oversees.  It is clear from the history of the place that the Milford gentry built their houses above the stink of the harbour which at that time handled fish and whaling imports, in a place where they could see any incoming ship and watch the industry of the docks whilst being in a more refined environment.   Yet despite this strong association with the harbour, Hamilton terrace is relatively poorly connected to its root, there being only one pedestrian link via a stairway against the (listed) wall which supports the terrace.

The commercial heart of the town is allegedly Charles Street which lies behind the gentrified front line of Hamilton Terrace, but this failing High Street is at the mercy of the disjoint between the harbour and the pretender line of life.  Whilst many towns front their ‘fore’ street with narrow burgage plots running back from the essential commercial frontage Charles Street is laid out within the core of the town but is a strange intervention in the local environment.  Its location is false historically, topographically and commercially.

Further compounding the mismatch and coherence of the place is the Havens Head commercial zone, which was built over the Huddleston Pill at the head of the harbour in the 1990s.  Essentially an ‘out of town’ shopping centre, car parking is free and shoppers can load up with ubiquitous chain store products to their hearts’ content.  Why bother to park and walk along Charles Street when one is certain of finding the weekly essentials in one easy hit?

What falls out of this is that the heart of the town is the harbour and the line of life is not the designed terrace of the gentry but the ghostly muck of the fish wharves where rude and vital commerce was people’s livelihood.  The very raison d’etre of the seaside town is the line along which land and water meet.  It is a futile struggle to make a high street viable when this has no connection with the focus of a town.  What is needed now is the reinforcement of the town’s coherence at the harbour and this requires  “possession”.  The ultimate public seafront interface is capable of colonisation for a wide range of informal social and business activities.  With its central focal point, the harbour has advantage over other contenders as essential commercial hub and to enable this to evolve connectivity should be enhanced, density intensified and the forum for outdoor rooms reinforced.  Fundamentally the association between  work place and play should be heightened along the street which is the waterfront, the promenade, the quay, this ‘street’ is a predominant urban element, a landmark which none can fail to locate.  It provides key legibility and orientation for strangers and locals alike.

“Immediacy is to be found in the directness of contact between water, sky and buildings in coastal towns:  Water sky and buildings are not affected by considerations of prudence.  They are there to be enjoyed in the here and now or not at all.   There is no bank of visual deposits.  The directness of visual contact between man and environment we term here Immediacy, a quality which is on nodding  terms with the Victorian practice of opening up ……….  The key to our modern concept of townscape lies in the fact, the simple but surprising fact, that the items of the environment cannot be dissociated the one from the other.  Further the effects of juxtaposition are in themselves as exciting as the objects juxtaposed – often more so.”

Watch this space for our emerging masterplan and the codes we use to develop it.




[1] The Sea Factor Urban Character in Coastal Towns  University of Westminster 1998 Caroline Lwin

[2] The Concise Townscape Gordon Cullen Architectural Press 1961 p111

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Shared space in the Netherlands

Shared space schemes need to be understood as tactics designed to improve quality of life, visual amenity, local economic performance and environmental quality. As they tend to be applied in the UK, they are not primarily intended as traffic schemes but are designed to assert the function of streets as places and reduce the social, environmental, psychological and severance effects of motorised traffic (1)

Shared space creates localised environmental improvements, to attract pedestrians to use streets, to create civic spaces and to support the reconnection of isolated districts within urban areas by reducing barriers to pedestrians.

Shared Space can maintain access for public transport, cyclists, disabled people reliant on motorised vehicles, passing trade and delivery vehicles that would otherwise be excluded. It can also reduce the network impacts of closing a link entirely to traffic.

Shared space reduces the emphasis on movement by minimising the use of traffic management measures and this requires that vehicle users share the space with pedestrians on a more equitable basis.

Shared space seeks to encourage drivers to slow down and give way to pedestrians (and each other) without being required to do so by signing or other highway features. The corollary of this is that the layout and its effects on the behaviour of drivers is intended to encourage pedestrians to move more freely within the space according to their own desire lines. In order to achieve these effects transition zones and gateway features may be required in order to signal to drivers that they are entering a different type of space and to give them opportunity to adjust their speed prior to encountering pedestrians.

Shared space schemes featuring a level surface seem to be most acceptable to people of all abilities when a clearly defined part of the space is free from motorised vehicles. There is some evidence that such schemes are considered safer and more readily navigable by disabled people than conventional streets although this is stated tentatively and the detailed design of schemes appears to be highly influential on user responses.

(1) DfT Shared Space Project – Stage 1: Appraisal of Shared Space. Report for Dept of Transport November 2009

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Timber setts

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– why don’t we do it in the road?

The road wasn’t always paved with tarmac.   Just as the road wasn’t always seen as the rightful domain of vehicles.   We are inured to the look of our roads, the ribbon of black tarmac which slices through every other fabric whether in town or country, ubiquitous, uniform and smooth.   A lot of time and effort has been spent on the quality of the surface, to reduce tyre noise and provide a smooth, tightly knit finish which promotes user comfort and speed.  Whilst tarmac usefully enables high speed and low surface noise on long distance routes these are not necessarily the criteria which are essential within towns and villages, where streets are a fundamental part of the urban realm, used not just by vehicles but shared by pedestrians and cyclists too.   And where the street is not simply a route to get from place to place but is itself somewhere that people dwell.

But it wasn’t always like that.  Much of Europe is still paved with granite and stone setts – 100mm3 blocks which are often set in ornate patterns, not only endlessly satisfying to look at but the tightly knit arrays also help to keep them bedded and locked together in the pavement.   As well as being a beautiful, natural material with inherent variation in colour and texture, stone setts are durable, wearing for generations, unlike tarmac, which wears out in a matter of years.  Their use is far more sustainable too bitumen is high in embodied energy whereas stone with its long use life is relatively low in embodied energy.  But stone setts take time and skill to lay and our maintenance crews are underfunded and underskilled, more up to boshing in the tarmac than painstakingly laying non-uniform blocks.

Stone however, is noisy and in some circumstances dangerous!  In the 19
th century horses’ shoes could strike sparks on stone and there was the potential to ignite flammable substances nearby.   In Dundee in 2011 road renovations in the city centre uncovered thousands of timber setts which had surfaced Whitehall Street and Whitehall Crescent.  These ‘cassies’ were made from Pine which was veneered with an expensive hardwood such as teak or mahogany.   Timber setts also deadened the noise from horses’ hooves and reduced the vibrations.  They were used around military dockyards and gunpowder factories, but also around hospitals and country houses to reduce the nuisance of noise.

Solid Oak and sustainably sourced, exotic hardwood setts are still available today but are seldom used either in the street, shared or public space as a paving material.  They are commonly thought to be slippery, but unlike the planked or decked surfaces which have been remarkably popular in garden make-overs they are laid end grain up.  This means that the rough fibre ends naturally form an abrasive surface rather than the long smooth grain of a plank.   

There is one drawback though, as they are laid loose on sand (and don’t require as much skill to lay them) they do float!


For comparison figures on building substances’ embodied energy see Bath University’s site  http://www.greenspec.co.uk/embodied-energy.php

Report on the discovery of timber setts in Dundee:


The Craftsman  Richard Sennett (2008) www.richardsennett.com

www.woodscape.co.uk supply timber setts

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Unveiling the Olympic Park

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We were recently treated to the most up-to-date images of the Olympic Park which shows the landscape work is very close to completion. It promises to be an influential piece of design both for its international impact during the Games and for its permanent legacy for London. Read more….

The 113-hectare site in the Lea Valley will be the biggest new park in Europe for a century, according to Neil Mattinson of LDA Design and Tom Armour of Arup*. They showed a sleek, curving, multi-level design which puts the River Lea at the heart of the park and provides an elegant setting for each event building. There is no remaining hint  of the polluted former industrial site after the removal of 52 pylons, more than 100 buildings and the cleansing and reuse of 150 million cubic metres of soil.

One of the main interventions of the designers has been to terrace the river banks to give views of the water from all over the site. They also challenged computer modelling of crowd numbers to reduce the scale and dominance of the concourses which would be oversized after the games. Instead they have woven paths through water and gardens and created temporary bridge extensions and platforms which can be removed.

The legacy of the games has influenced design at every stage, and once the temporary paraphenalia of the Games is stripped away, work will continue until 2014 to to extend the park out into the surrounding communities. The athletes’ canteen will become a school whose classes can decamp to the meadows, waterways and the great long curving timber benches for an extraordinary outdoor teaching experience.

The designers make no apology for the use of simple materials such as blacktop and cream-coloured bound gravel in response to a tight budget. They have applied them on paths in a bold ‘shard’ pattern influenced by the 2012 logo. It forms a strong backdrop for the 18 elegant bridges with gabion walls, and the crisp angled stone steps.

The gardens promise to be one of the great draws, both for the formal beds which pay homage to Britain’s plant-hunter past with a series of climate-zoned gardens, and for the annual meadows which are being tricked into a late flush of colour for July. Irrigation has been completely elimated (except for the 4000 trees) by the profiling of eight different soil types.

Beyond 2012,  the meadows will be replanted with low-maintenance perennials, and the young wet woodland will mature into the largest area of this rare habitat in the UK. Wildlife is already moving back into the site with kingfishers and otters now in evidence.

The park design shows how landscape architects can bring a holistic approach to engineering solutions to create parks that work for people and for wildlife, and which think about longevity and sustainability at every stage. We may not be lucky enough to have tickets to the games but for us the park is the real show.

*The Olympic Legacy lecture was part of the Sustainable Landscape lecture series at the University of Gloucestershire.

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