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40 years to reflect

This summer will mark 40 years since I graduated in Landscape Architecture and apart from a part-time spell for childcare I have worked full time as a Landscape Architect for all that time. In the late 1960s I was drawn to the arguments of the environmental movement and was lucky to meet a careers advisor who suggested landscape architecture. Not only would I be saving the whale, I would be healing the planet too. It took about a month of working to realise that if nothing was built there would be no job for me. Coming to terms with this concept took some time but now it is clear that I can only ‘do my bit’. Development will take place anyway and I might as well join in to help make it better.

The three things that have significantly changed my working life are the sex discrimination legislation (more later in the kiss-and-tell memoirs), environmental laws from the European Union (EU) which have increased workload, and the advent of computers. Alongside this has been the evolving nature of the projects.

In the 1970s we were still rebuilding after World War 2, replacing bombed sites and slums with homes, increasing infrastructure and indulging our love affair with the motor car. The eighties was dominated by the roads programme but intriguingly the Department of Transport led the way with environmental impact assessment before EU legislation arrived; imagine — a government department ahead of the game.

Liz Lake planting a tree at wanstead

By 1985 I had formed the practice and the loss of so many mature trees in the two great storms made the nation more appreciative of our designed historic landscapes; for me this has been the opportunity to work in some stunning landscapes. The obsession with golf came next. The governing body of golf, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club (now the R&A) decreed that hundreds of new golf courses should be built to meet the increasing demand for golf. It seemed every farmer in Essex was hoping to replicate Augusta, home of the US Open. It is just as well that the planning authorities take a measured view to these fads because the prediction was unjustified; golf has declined not increased.

The 90s also saw the rise of the motorway service area. As progressive as they were, the road planners forgot we needed to pee every few hours. The water treatment companies provided work in the late 90s; EU legislation required higher quality standards of water purity and treatment works were expanded.

The first decade of the 21st century saw the introduction of renewable energy and the rise of the wind turbine. A steady flow of housing has usually been there but now we face the need to build homes on an extensive scale to catch up and meet the growth of population; the easy sites have gone and we face difficult challenges with extensive changes in the landscape.

With each new type of project, landscape architects have to evaluate the characteristics of the landscape and visual effects of the development and then find positive ways to mitigate detrimental consequences. The challenges continue and landscape architecture has given me such a fulfilling working life. OK, my part in saving the whale was zero but in my small part of the planet I have contributed ‘my bit’. I owe that careers advisor.

Chelsea Alternatives

Two young friends have been to the Chelsea Flower Show. Oh dear! They are low-paid so the price of the tickets was very hard to find but the excitement was palpable; they could not wait. I kept silent as I knew disappointment was coming and sure enough it was described as ‘a complete rip-off’. ‘£55 to see the backs of people’s heads, ten deep at a show garden and everyone holding up phones and ipads to try to salvage something from the visit’. Elbowing to the front allowed a glimpse of a garden and the wry observation that some ‘were designed to be seen by the judges and the television, not the visitor’.

When will the RHS wake up to the monster they have created? Who cares which celebrities go? Why is it so unsustainable? Hundreds of thousands of pounds are spent on a show that lasts six days and delivers a very poor visitor experience unless you are one of the elite or privileged few. As for the gnomes this year — well what can I say?

I’d like to suggest the current International Garden Show in Hamburg but cost is an issue for my friends ( The last one I was lucky enough to see was the Federal Garden Show in Koblenz in 2011; for 25€ each we had a day in three different parks and space to see it all. Koblenz is by the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle and the Show was centred on the river. The Castle Park and Empress Augusta Gardens had been restored with some stunning planting. A riverside stroll to an aerial tramway takes you up over the river to the restored Fortress Ehrenbreitstein and a magnificent park overlooking both the Rhine and Moselle. The Show runs from spring to late summer and whilst there are temporary exhibitions and show gardens to see the emphasis is on innovative design for the long term.

 International Garden Show in Hamburg

Look at the website and you will see that the linked parks still thrive today. This is a serious economic driver for the chosen city; when the Show is on, the floral theme runs all through the central area. When leaving on an early morning train I saw hundreds of people pouring out from the station through the city centre to the Show.

UK Garden Festivals helped a generation of landscape architects to hone their professional skills but the finance for the follow-through was just not there. Is there another alternative? The RHS is taking small steps forward — what a shame it has to hang on to the old ways of doing things as far as Chelsea is concerned. My young friends have told everyone they can not to bother with the Chelsea Flower Show; it looks like the Chelsea Fringe next year.