Working as a landscape architect within the context of a global climate crisis can often feel frustrating. The buzzwords flying around at COP26 – green recovery, nature-based solutions, climate action and so on – all link to responses which are fundamental to a landscape architect’s role. We design with nature. We work at multiple scales, balancing competing demands on the landscape. We factor time, seasonality and natural systems into our work. We’ve been doing this for a long time – but without systemic changes in policy and economics, our efforts can only go so far.
When I arrived in Glasgow for COP26, I was immediately struck by how quiet it felt. It’s possible that Covid-19 is playing a part in this, with many people still reluctant to be in a busy place. But there’s also the cost of getting to Glasgow, combined with a lack of affordable accommodation in the city – both factors which make the conference less accessible to the very people most likely to be affected by the issues at stake. I felt a twinge of disappointment.
Once I refocused on who and what was in Glasgow, I found more to be positive about. The Royal Town Planning Institute was leading the UK’s response to World Town Planning Day, and it was at this event that I found my first inspiration. It centred on an in-person panel of four women, led by Victoria Hills – the Chief Executive of the RTPI – alongside other representatives from the Commonwealth and the USA who joined the panel virtually. The executive head of the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), Maimunah Mohd Sharif, kicked things off with a speech that provided some clarity on the sometimes overwhelming nexus of issues at play. It’s fair to say that I often find the “bigger picture” of climate change to be nebulous at best, so this was a welcome perspective.
This event connected with me in a number of ways. For one thing, it was inspiring to hear from these women who are leading town planning as a field around the world. At the same time, every single person I listened to recognised how important landscape architecture is in creating healthier, greener and more sustainable places. There was a general consensus that each profession within the built environment can provide the expertise to find solutions, but that collaboration is the thread that ties these professions together. We are part of a global, built environment network. Meeting these people reinforced that fact in my mind, and melted away that feeling of being overwhelmed. I felt part of something – part of a network I could take pride in.
During my time in Glasgow, I took advantage of the city’s free bike hire scheme to get around. This gave me a new appreciation for the quiet streets as we made our way to BDP’s Science Centre on the bank of the Clyde. This extraordinarily photogenic building was hosting the public “Green Zone” exhibition, which I first engaged with on a giant bouncy castle developed by EcoLogicStudio. A bubble in the castle draws air from outside, and uses the energy created by bouncing to pump it through chambers of algae. This filters the air, delivering clean air to the bouncers.
Developed in Poland – which, I learned, has one of the worst air pollution issues in the world – the concept was created to allow children to play in an environment with clean air. It’s clearly an emergency response to an existing issue, and I can’t advocate wrapping our children up in plastic bubbles to allow them to play safely. But I did find the technology itself interesting, and it could perhaps serve as a short-term response to a lack of access to clean air around the world. It’s sad to consider how many people that covers: creating opportunities for children to play in a natural environment with trees, clean air and water is one of our main design drivers as landscape architects.
Overall, my time at COP26 reinforced what so many of us already know to be true. We are at a tipping point. In fact, it’s more accurate to say that we’re at several, simultaneous tipping points – points of no return that threaten the world as we know it. The way we design our surroundings has a crucial role to play in how we respond to this crisis, and COP26 carried a strong sense of anticipation for the built environment professions. This puts us in a position of great privilege and responsibility – but it can also remind us that we can find solutions by working together, and that we’re in the right place with the right perspective to envisage a better future.