Landscape Architecture – How we use science in our approach

25th October 2021

‘The landscape’ is hard to define, it includes the whole of our external environment, from villages to cities and countryside, to buildings, streets, open spaces, and their interrelationships within the built and natural environment. One definition offered by Evans (2010), describes the landscape as ‘the everyday, the backdrop to our daily routine’.

Scientific analysis begins with a hypothesis; a proposed explanation for an observable phenomenon and for a biologist, a way to explain life (Jones, Reed, Weyers, 2007).  By assuming a reductionist approach, a scientist would not seek to examine the landscape in its entirety but would rather examine the individual components (and interactions between them) as a basis for statistical analysis. That said, if the landscape is simply striped back to individual, quantifiable elements, the overall character and design could be lost amidst statistical analysis, when all that is needed is an appreciation of the quality of the user experience.

When designing the landscape there needs to be a balance between providing abstract and subjective descriptions of landscape quality to ‘sell’ the scheme, whilst also getting to the nitty gritty of hard, fast data for developers and number crunchers.

This blog will discuss the range of tools used by Landscape Architects to merge the science and art of landscape design.

Describing the Landscape

Landscape and Visual Impact Assessments (LVIA) have been used internationally as a tool since 1970 and form a statutory part of the UK planning system (IEMA, 2002). The LVIA document forms part of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and aims to identify, predict and evaluate the key environmental effects of a development. Assessments are made by using a combination of techniques, often including the use of Geographic Information Systems to capture, store, analyze and present data.  Though intended to be scientific in its approach, descriptions of the landscape remain highly subjective. What is considered a ‘significant’ impact by one assessor may be reduced to ‘moderate’ by another. Though an attempt at industry standardisation has occurred there remains no one definitive methodology for evaluation and categorisation. The process must be both quantitative and qualitative, allowing the assessor to delve deeper into the social context of the landscape and providing a more reflective description of its qualities.

Quantifying the Landscape

BREEAM (BRE Environmental Assessment Method) is an assessment tool, which looks to define standards for sustainable design and the environmental performance of buildings. The sustainability rating represents the proposed developments overall performance across design categories, including; pollution, surface water run-off and ecology amongst others. In the case of ecological value, an ecologist is employed to assess the impact of the development (positive or negative) on the site-wide ecology. Change is assessed using an ‘Ecological Value Calculator’, which calculates the loss or gain through developing the land.

Whilst BREEAM provides a scientific approach to assessing environmental management and sustainability it is difficult to see how such tools can fully quantify landscape elements in a meaningful way. For example when assessing flora, it is possible to attain eco-credits simply by having a single specimen of a species onsite, so a wildflower mix consisting of 50 species seems like an easy ‘win’. Unscrupulous developers may simply use a complex wildflower mix over a relatively small area to achieve a high eco-credit rating whilst providing suboptimal landscape architecture and a limited spread of habitat types. If a developer is motivated purely by the kudos of eco-credits, it is difficult to see how this system may produce the best landscape design.

The London Approach: Urban Greening Factor

The Urban Greening Factor (UGF), as set out in Policy 5 of the New London Plan aims “to increase the quantity and functionality of green infrastructure in the built environment, by assessing development projects submitted for approval”.  In essence UGF is a toolbox that allows planners to evaluate the amount of urban greening that a new scheme will provide and help them make decisions around how much greening is required, which is so important for commercial and residential developments within Greater London. Though UGF can be seen as yet another ‘eco calculator’ to tick a green box, it can also be a valuable tool for landscape architects to encourage their clients to maximise urban greening, by setting a high bar for the absolute minimum amount of greenery. As London continues to develop at a rapid rate, pushing the landscapes further into the sky on the top of a skyscraper, the requirement to achieve a good UGF score to attain planning permission is helping to keep high density developments on the greener side.

Scientific analysis of user experience

Landscape is about the relationship between people and place, from a small patch of land to a large country park (Swanwick, 2002). Understanding how and why users interact with a space assists designers/managers in maximising a landscapes potential. For example, it has long been known that high quality landscape provide health benefits, so much so that Dr William Bird, at the time the Strategic Health Advisor for Natural England, expressed that Landscape Architects should be involved in all health facility developments from the start, so that nature is considered part of the healing process. As such, an informed understanding of the natural world helps to strengthen the design philosophy.  To read more about the relationship between design and health visit our blog here.

The Future of the Landscapes

With the ever-increasing threat of climate change, the need for the application of science in the development of landscapes may not yet be fully appreciated. It is not certain where the margins of sustainability are, however, a thorough appreciation of natural systems may provide justification for pushing beyond the current limits of environmental tolerances. Scientists need to be involved in the landscape to maximise resources and to push design creativity in order that a quality environment is sustainable in the long-term.

Drawing focus on the importance of green infrastructure also helps to highlight the skills and expertise of Landscape Architects. We have a wealth of knowledge which, when brought in early, can help building contractors, architects and project managers to develop successful schemes.

Written by Antony Geddes, Associate