The capital has the great good fortune of being multiple cities within one, from the new constructs of Stratford’s International Quarter London to the Victorian warehouses of Limehouse. Depending on your tastes or the areas in which you’ve wandered, cycled or travelled by bus, you will find a multitude of buildings – some modern, some old and some frankly unsightly.
But whichever type of area you pass through, it will be the ground level that you remember and use to judge the character of a place. Stylish setbacks at the tenth floor of a building or nice detailing at its windows are great, but with more heads in phones and fewer looks upward, we need to make what’s on the ground worth an Instagram post, or at least a glance.
Trends come and go, but the relationships people have with the space outside buildings has always been important. From the thin streets surrounding Fleet Street to the wide boulevards of Chelsea and Kensington, the importance of landscape and its place within development in London has not changed.
Throughout the capital’s history, it has provided places to work, to chat with neighbours and for children to play. And we now understand better than before some of the links between health and wellbeing and the physical and mental benefits of having regular contact with green spaces. Together with infrastructure, landscaping turns a collection of buildings into a piece of a city.
It has a series of important roles within urban regeneration schemes. During the design process, the landscape architect can add a healthy tension, balancing the design aspirations of a building’s architect against the creation of a ground level that genuinely encourages people to move through, or dwell in, a space.
Today’s most successful places may not be built like St Paul’s or be as spectacular as the Shard, but those that are comfortable for the people who live or work in them and that visitors to London long to fill. Dismay has been expressed that the Rill at More London, a channel of water 260 metres long running along a busy pedestrian street linking the Scoop and City Hall to Tooley Street, has been filled in due to safety concerns. People enjoyed this thin river: kids played in it and adults probably wished they could. But that it was included by the developers in the first place is a testament to today’s efforts to facilitate and entertain.
No longer do we just create buildings. If a cyclist can’t lock their bike up close to the café they are going to, then will they bother coming back? If the walk through an area is cold and windswept, people will find a different route. We need to work hard to provide public spaces that, once established, will offer a range of different types of space, from small and intimate to open areas that can host events, but also provide those functional requirements, making it easy for people to be there.
In the early years of a project it is the landscaping that allows many of the critical placemaking events to happen. It may be in a temporary form at first but encouraging visitors and experiencing a regular series of activities in a new area is vital to the early sense of place, and can only be achieved through the design of a landscape that enables flexibility – a space that is a quiet to pass through one day but can host a market or an outside cinema the next. This is another way in which London is many cities in one.
A sympathetic approach to landscaping can preserve the character of a place in the same way that heritage buildings can. One of the key masterplan considerations at Elephant Park, the 28-acre, £2.3 billion regeneration programme Lendlease has undertaken with Southwark Council, was the retention of as many of the existing mature trees as possible, all of them protected through the construction process, and the planting of 1,200 more.
The landscape touches every building within a development, so its design is a key part of maintaining the continuity of vision, setting the layers of character that will contribute to the overall success of a place. Whilst one or two thousand people might work or live in a building, millions of people are likely to pass by it. Landscaping’s role is now is to enable every place to place to be like London as a whole – multiple things in one, whilst retaining character and quality.
Clare Hebbes is Director of Place and Urban Infrastructure at Lendlease Europe. Image from the Granary, King’s Cross.
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