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Learning from the past for the landscapes of the future

Published on November 17, 2021

Nature has the answers” is a phrase we hear often. It is an idea that is now more relevant than ever as our disconnect from nature has reached a zenith unprecedented in our times. This is due in part to the ecological crisis and global climate emergency that are the legacies of the industrialised world. But my question here is, as well as learning from the mistakes of the past, can we learn from the best practices of the past to create the kind of resilient, adapted landscapes that we know we, and the planet, need?

I think we can.

We have known for a long time about the benefits of nature, whether physical, metaphysical or mental. Yet at the same time, we have critically undervalued it as a resource. It is only now, with the tipping point at which we find ourselves and the critical need to properly value nature, as set out in the Dasgupta Review and others, that nature-based planning, development and design is at last being talked about in step with growth and economic development. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), and more specifically, the targets within them concerning life on land and under water and goals for healthy and resilient cities and social justice, also provide a valuable framework for nature-based planning and design.

Landscapes, as the settings for the rich array of natural capital assets that we rely on, are clearly at the centre of this conversation on nature-based solutions, as should be properly context-informed landscape planning, design and management. Certainly as part of this, we should recast some of the thinking that landscape designers sometimes have about rejecting the old entirely in favour of the new. There is no reason why resilient and beautiful new landscapes should not be informed by the best practices of the past. We need to understand landscape as a dynamic medium that can and should change and need to get away from what George Monbiot calls a “shifting baseline”. This phenomenon relates to a generation’s perception that a landscape it knows and loves has always been that way, with an associated resistance to change. Yet there are optimistic counterpoints. Take rewilding for instance: how it has captured the popular imagination, whether through inspirational examples that breathe new life into historic estates or by bringing back aspects of mega-fauna, grazing and conservation land management. There is a real need to bring these ideas into the mainstream, so that everyone can enjoy and benefit from them. By doing so, we can begin to realise nature recovery networks at the scale the planet needs.

A lot of the thinking behind such bold landscape-scale projects relates closely to systems-based, or whole landscape, catchment-scale landscape planning. We increasingly need to make our cities and towns work sustainably and to look towards, and positively use, their hinterlands as part of this, restoring the contact with nature that we have lost.

With this in mind, I have observed five initial themes through project work with RSK that can be used to inform nature-based and landscape-scale planning and design to create resilient environments in the 21st century. The five themes are:

  1. Vision and scale

A vision is vitally important in building support for a project. Some special nature-based projects might be once-in-a-lifetime ones, but they are so significant that replicability doesn’t matter. This also leads to the idea of scale. Think big. It is often at scale that we see the greatest benefits or return on investment of nature-based solutions and rewilding. Projects by the team at Binnies, an RSK group company, illustrate this point. The 630-hectare wetland vision for the Burton Washlands is being realised through partnership working in the Trent Valley. Central to the project was natural capital valuation and demystifying this idea for project partners, to begin realising a beautiful, landscape-scale vision for the valley.

Part of the Burton Washlands Vision. Image: Binnies
  1. Setting and context

It is important to consider landscape fit in the context of what was – if it creates an opportunity for resilient, nature-based landscapes – not just what is, e.g., the current character and sensitivities of landscapes. Take river restoration schemes, for instance, and some of the projects the RSK group is actively involved in for ‘stage 0’ river restoration work to reconnect rivers to their floodplains. Rivers were never meant to be simple, single channels; in the past, they were often a far richer, interlinked network of tributaries and meanders. Restoring these aspects can make a far stronger contribution to aquatic biodiversity and water storage and the slowing of water in proximity to our towns and cities. With this in mind, setting and context can also clearly relate to creating new character and to using nature-based approaches to green architecture as part of closed-loop urban solutions to climate, air quality and water management.

  1. What is, versus what was, (and what could be again?)

Very much linked to the preceding principle is the challenge to the “shifting baseline”: in our landscapes, is what we have now any better than what was there before? Here, an example I know very well: my family’s old home in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The photograph below shows it in the days when my great-great-grandfather owned it. He was a corn merchant who also owned the watermill just downstream. This was a productive, working and thriving chalk stream with watercress beds. These have gone now and the mill is no longer operational, so the head of water is lost. The river is heavily over-abstracted and choked and the flood meadows have been lost to later ‘improvements’. So now it is a landscape without many of its functions, and one that is quite fragile too. An understanding of the natural capital assets, ecosystems functionality and potential for enhancement could and should be used to guide an area-scale or landscape-scale vision for conservation and restoration in a valley like this one.

Image: A Tempany
  1. Functionality: What you seek to achieve

Functionality relates directly to the previous principle and is concerned with thinking about the delivery of a linked series of outcomes that can contribute to a wider set of policy priorities and create a more powerful and compelling project. This is when nature-based solutions and rewilding projects can come to the fore. We also see a link to the fifth and final principle here.

  1. Additionality and connectivity

Additionality and connectivity link to the point about multifunctional approaches and thinking outside the box to identify extra things your project can deliver, in addition to the core benefit or aim you seek. Think back to the SDGs and the need to deliver strong, multiple layers of performance that respond to numerous drivers or policy aims. Additionality of benefit is one of the key arguments in favour of nature-based solutions. It also relates to the idea of character and context. For instance, RSK’s project at Protos went beyond the basics of essential mitigation planting to integrate new infrastructure that realised an extensive habitat network of designed ecosystems and plant communities, including wetlands and wild flower meadows.

One of the key things I have found with all successful nature-based solutions, and rewilding projects too, is that the greatest projects are always the ones that deliver outcomes for people and offer community involvement. They are those projects that strike a chord or win hearts and minds in some way. The people principle is really important and not to be underestimated.

Nature has the answers.

Andrew Tempany CMLI is a chartered landscape architect and Technical Director at Stephenson Halliday, providing planning, design and management services across a wide array of landscape projects at all scales.

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Andrew Tempany

Technical Director, Stephenson Halliday

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Andrew is a Chartered Landscape Architect and technical director at Stephenson Halliday, with over 21 years of experience in providing planning, design and management services across a wide array of landscape projects at all scales. He has worked across the UK and in Ireland on a wide variety of landscape projects.

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