Landscape architects do a lot more than just 'prettying-up' civil engineering schemes. Their early involvement can smooth the planning process and improve environmental aspects of projects, says Sue Sutherland.
Mention landscape architecture and I am sure most engineers will give a mixed response.
Some will probably immediately think of Charlie Dimmock. Well she may well be a jolly good sport and a good gardener to boot, but she is certainly not a landscape architect.
Some, I hope, will have had good experiences of working in multidisciplinary teams with landscape architects and understand the benefits this can bring.
Capability Brown is one of the best known historical landscape architects, renowned for his sweeping redesigns of formal 18th century gardens into the now famous English landscape style.
Gardens such as Stowe and Stourhead are typical of his soft, naturalistic approach.
Unfortunately he has contributed to the popular misconception of landscape architects as landscape gardeners: few today have the opportunity to design on the scale of these late 18th century estates. But the same skills are being put to a wide range of uses.
The Capability Browns of the 21st century can be found designing the restoration of landfill sites. The role they play in this type of project is to design a new landform and landscape, often quite different from the original, but one that is in sympathy with its surroundings.
This involves a thorough knowledge and understanding of the existing landscape, coupled with design skills. The successful scheme is usually the result of a close working relationship between the landscape architect and the landfill engineers, each understanding and respecting the other's professional expertise.
So what is a landscape architect today and how can they help in civil engineering schemes? Basically they are concerned with the design of external space, which clearly overlaps with civil engineering. There are still some engineers who think that they are brought in at the end of a project 'to pretty it up'or in some unfortunate cases 'to hide the development' This is far from the truth. The main role of a landscape architect should be as part of the design team, right from the outset of the project, advising on potential environmental and visual impacts.
Their training gives them a fundamental understanding of the nature of the landscape and its physical and visual characteristics.
A landscape architect is often referred to as a jack of all trades and master of none. In some ways this is true. The wide variety of subjects studied by landscape students enables an overview of the whole project to be made, preventing any one factor predominating, and promoting a balanced approach.
The aim of their training is to provide them with enough knowledge about the many different subjects which are involved in complex site issues to know when a specialist needs to be brought in and to be able to converse with other members of the professional team and understand the constraints imposed by their expertise.
So why bring in landscape architects early? Well as we all know, cost constraints invariably control the final design package.
Involving them from the very beginning of a project can bring about substantial cost benefits.
Well designed developments and structures should not need screening.
They should be attractive, well sited features, which sit comfortably in the landscape, with only minimal soft landscaping needed to integrate them into the wider environment.
This not only saves money on extensive planting schemes but can affect other less easily quantifiable cost benefits - in terms of time and ease in progressing through the planning system, by good communication of scheme benefits to the public to minimise opposition and through the PR benefits of an attractive and welldesigned development sensitive to the landscape.
Few large-scale engineering projects today escape the Environmental Assessment Regulations. The environmental assessment process is an interactive one, involving good communication and listening skills. The ability of the landscape architect to present ideas in artistic, three-dimensional form can help allay fears and smooth tricky negotiations between team members and the public and planners.
Their wide training allows them to play a key role in the team, understanding the interaction between conflicting issues. As such they can often make good team co-ordinators.
This is all a far cry from the old-fashioned, ill-informed notion of landscaping being the planting of a few trees and shrubs to hide harsh, insensitive civil structures and designs.
Give the landscape architect in the project team a bit more scope and see what they can do for the project. I think you will be surprised.
lSue Sutherland is principal of Sue Sutherland Landscape Architects.