So what’s this book all about?

“People ignore the design that ignores them”-Frank Chimero.

This image which does the rounds on social media from time to time explains where my book is coming from.

desire-line

Elephant tracks, fox paths, pedestrian’s revenge, desire lines… Those human-made paths where people reject the formal routes laid out for them and take the quickest way from A to B instead. Desire lines, my preferred term, symbolise the endemic lack of thought by designers and planners given to how actual humans navigate their environment, and a lack of care in making environments as human-friendly as possible.

Why is this? One the main reasons is that is that architects and landscape designers aren’t normally taught how to find out what people want as part of their professional training. So they often don’t. Instead they design places that they hope people will like, or that they think are appropriate, but still working more or less in the dark. My book is intended to get designers of public space to actually find out what people want and need, and to design with them, not for them. So I’m calling it ‘Desire lines’.

My academic background is in social research, and I aim to inspire designers to think more like researchers. People-centred design needs to actually involve people – yes, really – and that requires meaningful processes to understand their needs and wants and behaviour, and to capture their knowledge and ideas. So here’s a Bumper Book of Meaningful Processes for them – how to collect useful information, and what to do with it, in order to create better designs and happier users. Simple.

It’s well established that the quality of public space can have a significant impact on community and personal well-being. Well-designed popular spaces create a feel-good factor in an area; poorly-designed unpopular spaces create a feel-bad factor and can blight an area socially and economically. Reading about usability testing and user experience in the tech and consumer research fields, it strikes me as extraordinary that something as ephemeral as an app or a website can be subjected to prolonged, rigorous user testing, until maximum appeal and ease of use have been achieved, and then and only is it released. Whereas a public space, with a lifespan of decades, that can significantly affect the fortunes of a local area, is built without any kind of testing or input from those who will use it, or insight as to whether it will succeed.

Does this seem right to you? No, me neither.

Patterns of permanence

Permaculture is an approach to creative design thinking, based on working with nature and natural processes. Although originating in farming, it’s now applied in diverse areas from water management, energy and forestry to finance, building design and even managing life itself. Born in the Seventies, permaculture design has taken on a new lease of life in recent times –thanks largely to the growing awareness of the impossibility of infinite growth with finite and dwindling resources, and the urgent need to use what we have more effectively.

Permaculture design principles express a fundamental ethical basis of care for the earth, care for fellow humans, and a commitment to ‘fair shares’ using only what we need, so there’s enough of everything for everyone. The essential design principles flow from this philosophy, which I can only list here briefly. Firstly, observe and gather information – take time to understand the natural processes you’re working with. Gather and store energy and resources to reduce consumption. Obtain a yield; in other words, everything should be a productive part of the whole. Create self-regulating, closed systems. Use renewable resources, and waste nothing. Design from patterns to detail; the same patterns appear in nature in many forms, whether waves, spirals, branches, tessellation or networks, and the application of these natural patterns at a broad or small scale is key to permaculture design. Integrate, don’t segregate; plants (and people) do best in diverse and mutually supportive groups, not disconnected monocultures. Look for small and slow solutions that require minimal energy. Value diversity. Value margins and edges – the interfaces between different groups and processes can be where the really interesting stuff happens. And finally, respond creatively to change. Just as the natural world is in constant transition, be adaptable and go with the flow.

Some of these principles will seem obvious to anyone working with living and natural resources. They represent a whole-system way of thinking about the natural world and our place in it, not a set of twelve commandments to be obeyed. While methods and applications will differ widely, these underlying principles provide a constant frame of reference. At the heart of permaculture is the management of natural systems for the long term. It’s no surprise that more and more landscape practitioners are looking to
permaculture for a solution focused, future-facing approach to maximising land use
and natural resources.

As suggested by the phrase ‘permanent agriculture’, from whence ‘permaculture’ derives, it’s the ultimate in sustainability. The benefits are too numerous to mention: reducing
consumption, building skills and resilience, developing social capital and community
capacity, and restoring depleted land to name but a few. Most significantly perhaps, it actually changes the way you think – the more immersed in permaculture you become, the more you see opportunities rather than obstacles. Many permaculturists believe it’s our best hope for saving the planet. I think they could have a point.

For more information and examples of permaculture, visit the Permaculture Association, Permaculture Design Principles and Permaculture Magazine.

A version of this article appeared in the October 2016 edition of Pro Landscaper magazine.

Working together

I saw a notice by the entrance to my local park the other day, announcing, slightly ominously, ‘Your park is changing’. Reading on, I learnt that the car park, children’s play area and some other facilities were to be relocated. I wanted to know more – the park is important to me – but could I find any details of these changes and the impact they might have? I could not. Nothing on the council website, or on the websites of any of the consultants whose logos appeared on the notice. The only opportunity to see the plans was a little exhibition in the play area one afternoon; unfortunately the drawings were displayed at an illegible scale, and the solitary member of the design team on hand to answer questions was swamped. So I didn’t get to speak to her and I still know nothing.

‘Your park is changing’. I’m itching to take a marker pen to the sign and add, ‘Whether you like it or not’. This is not the right tone for a consultation. It prohibits dialogue and shuts out local input and ideas. It has ‘decision made’ stamped across it. Why should park users bother to find out more or respond, when it’s clear they can have no influence? In a survey of thirteen recent public realm projects in London, not a single one had involved any meaningful community engagement (1). What little contact the researchers found was described as ‘minimal and tokenistic’: tick box exercises, in other words. This isn’t consulting local communities – it’s insulting them. Is it any wonder that people
become disengaged and cynical?

There are designers who feel that the ordinary people who will be the end users lack
the knowledge to be worthy participants in the design process. Their tastes are too
conservative, they don’t understand design, their vision is narrow and parochial. Another
school of thought aims to generate support for a project from the start to reduce the likelihood of planning objections and delays. Again, no scope for community input – just sell the idea to the locals early so they don’t complain later.

I’m writing a book for landscape designers about consultation and engagement on public
realm projects, and I’m researching how people are consulted in other fields – especially usability testing in product design, and user experience (UX) research for online and technological products and services. The art and science of designing for maximum user happiness has evolved to a highly advanced degree in these areas and the landscape sector could learn a lot. New products are subjected to lengthy and rigorous processes of focus groups, market research, prototyping, testing, refining designs, more testing and more refining until all possible improvements have been made. Then, and only then, is the product launched.

Such serious attention is paid to user satisfaction with something as ephemeral as a
website or app, yet a design for a public space, with the long term capacity to enrich or blight the lives of countless people and surrounding environs, can be implemented without any contact with the people who will use it. Is it conceivable to move closer to the UX model of refining and re-testing designs until both designers and end users are completely happy?

1. M Carmona and F. Wunderlich, Capital spaces.

A version of this article appeared in the September 2016 edition of Pro Landscaper magazine.

Before the flood

Complaining about the weather is a traditional national pastime. Summer in Britain is now synonymous with damp disappointment: rainy bank holidays, washed out Wimbledon and mudbath music festivals. And of course we grimly joke about the inevitability of it all, now that wet summers are the new normal. This year’s great British summer has seen more record-breakingly bad weather: June 2016 gained the dubious honour of being the wettest June on record, well before it was even over. Not long before, December 2015 became the wettest month ever recorded (and the warmest December ever) seeing double the average rainfall, and leading to devastating floods across northern England.

Flooding doesn’t happen just because of a spell of heavy rain, of course, nor is it inevitable – much as it currently feels that way. And we can’t control the weather, although it’s a near certainty that human activity and man-made global warming have helped create the climate conditions that make alarming weather so much more common now. We can however increase or decrease the likelihood of flooding, and we can control what happens to rainwater. Now that extreme weather is no longer extreme, and catastrophic flooding is becoming commonplace, experience should have taught us how to prevent the worst, and minimise the damage. But we don’t seem to be learning anything. In fact we seem to be going backwards.

Here’s a case in point. Residents of Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire have campaigned for several years for a ban on the burning of moorland heather and draining of the moors on the Walshaw Moor grouse shooting estate, a SSSI, upstream from the town. (Burning
encourages new roots, which grouse feed on, and more grouse to shoot means more profit for the estate owner.) Backed by scientific evidence, they argued that repeated burning and draining has made the peat bogs less able to hold water, increasing the risk of the town being flooded. And sure enough, after torrential rain last December, Hebden Bridge was indeed flooded. If the upstream peat bogs had not been damaged and were able to act as a 6,500 acre sponge, would this have still happened? Who knows. But a single landowner and their profit from bloodsports seems to have been given a higher priority than the safety and best interests of the town.

The government seems to be going backwards at a national level too, as shown in
the failure to implement the Flood and Water Management Act of 2010, which mandates the use of SuDS. More recently, an amendment proposed by the House of Lords that would have encouraged SuDS and compelled developers to reduce flood risk to new housing was rejected in the Commons. We treat each new extreme weather event as a one-off; they aren’t. We know how to increase resilience and minimise the impact of prolonged heavy rain, but we fail to act. We talk about climate change as though it’s something that will happen in the future; it’s happening now. The landscape sector needs to lead on demanding planning, management and design to prevent flooding. Neither time nor the weather are on our side.

A version of this article appeared in the August 2016 edition of Pro Landscaper magazine.

A bridge too far

Greenwash, nepotism, misuse of public funds, loss of iconic views and privatisation of public space – yes, the Garden Bridge is now going ahead, barring a miracle, after London’s new mayor Sadiq Khan failed to seize the final opportunity to consign this monstrous vanity project to the dustbin of history where it belongs and instead has now given it his formal approval.

Outside the capital, there’s a certain amount of bemusement as to why this project has provoked such fierce opposition. After all, it looks nice in the promotional images, doesn’t it? A new bridge with trees and shrubberies and no traffic – what’s not to love? Well, there’s plenty actually.

Even Mayor Khan expressed concern about the highly dubious procurement process. Thomas Heatherwick was suggested as the designer by Joanna Lumley, the driving force behind the bridge, back in 2004. The former London mayor met with Heatherwick several times to discuss a bridge before tendering had begun, and vastly experienced bridge engineers were then rejected in favour of a trendy young design studio.

The project has seen a dizzying escalation in costs, currently at £175m, including £60m capital and £3.5m annual maintenance from the public purse. How many real parks could this pay for? Notably, the maintenance charge will mainly cover security, rather than upkeep. Adding insult to injury, the entrances will have card readers ready to accept visitors’ donations.

Still, it’s a new park – that’s good, isn’t it? Well not exactly. It will be privately owned, and although open to the public (except at night) it’s not a public space. The draconian rules governing permitted activities on the bridge include no games, no cycling, no exercise except jogging, no gatherings and no music. Visitors will be monitored by CCTV, their mobile phone signals will be tracked, and security staff can search bags and confiscate anything they feel is unsuitable. Not quite a normal park, then.

And it’s not really a bridge, either. There will be queues to enter during peak times, estimated to be thousands. As a route from one side of the river to the other, it will be useless – too crowded to walk across easily, and off limits to cyclists. In any case, this stretch of the Thames is well served by river crossings already; four within a mile, the nearest just 500 metres away. Essential transport infrastructure, it is not.

So in my opinion neither use nor ornament, not needed or wanted; a tourist attraction at best, greenwashed to conceal the local environmental destruction it demands. Just 2,700 square metres of the bridge will be planted: less than half the size of a football pitch. For this, a beautiful avenue of 32 mature London planes will be felled, and existing planted borders concreted over to create a commercial area at the southside entrance where visitors can buy snacks and souvenirs while they queue to get in. For anyone who wants to stroll by the water, or sit and enjoy the wonderful river view surrounded by trees and plants, all the things the Garden Bridge is supposed to provide – well, you can already, day or night, without queues or intrusive security. But not for much longer.

A version of this article appeared in the July 2016 edition of Pro Landscaper magazine.

Facing the future

“The dirty man of Europe” – so Britain was dubbed on joining the EU in 1973. Our beaches were blighted with sewage, our rivers were dying from the chemical waste freely discharged into them, and our air was filthy from uncontrolled industrial pollution. It’s quite possible that we would still be living like this without European obligations forcing us to raise our standards; the political will to tackle national or global environmental problems has not been a notable feature of any successive administrations, after all.

If you’re sick of fact-free scaremongering, hyperbole and supposition about Britain’s future membership of the EU, I don’t blame you. Economic forecasts, national sovereignty, cultural identity, impacts on business and industry – you’ve heard it all already. However there is one over-riding consideration that transcends all these relatively ephemeral issues for me, and that is the future of our environment, a matter that surpasses all short-term considerations of impacts on trade, jobs, and political power battles at home. The environmental turmoil we need to face now know no national boundaries, and global warming is reaching the point of no return. These are the issues that need to be at the forefront of discussion of Britain’s long term future.

Britain’s membership of the EU has vastly improved the quality of our beaches, rivers, and air as well as protecting much of our biodiversity, rare birds, plants and animals and their habitats. We have accepted the need to limit greenhouse gas emissions, control industrial pollution, recycle, and mitigate the environmental impact of major new developments. Does anyone really want to turn the clock back and abandon these measures which have done so much to improve the quality of life that we now take for granted in Britain?

EU funds support huge amounts of regeneration and infrastructure projects around the UK, from local and regional environmental improvements, upgrading transport networks and supporting renewable energy research and development, to supporting leisure, cultural, and heritage projects, town centres, employment programmes and apprenticeships. The funding mechanisms consider real need and measurable long term benefit, rather than pandering to local powers and populist instant wins, and specifically target areas of greatest deprivation. We know that any post-Brexit scenario will involve yet more local government funding cuts, as investment dries up, trade shrinks and the economy dips. The loss of EU finding for regeneration will be a double blow for Britain’s poorest areas and communities – who are also those most vulnerable to the effects of environmental crisis.

Leaving the EU will give Britain the freedom to regress to the polluted, blighted, isolated little island it was before 1973. We are yet to see a government in this country with the political will to bring in the radical measures that are needed to address climate change seriously, and we are even less likely to do so without the EU driving us.  We already fall short of European targets for clean air and water – how much dirtier will our air and water become if those targets are no longer in place? Climate change is without a doubt the single biggest issue facing us at the moment: a global issue, eclipsing all other national economic and political considerations. Do we really want to bury our heads in the sand and become the “dirty man of Europe” again?

A version of this article appeared in the June 2016 edition of Pro Landscaper magazine.

Diversity defecit

I watched a thought-provoking debate unfold online recently in response to a post pronouncing that the media paints an unrealistic picture of the industry, in which only big name designers and white middle-aged gardening hobbyists are visible to the public, contributing to a lack of diversity and an unpleasant whiff of elitism within the sector. Furthermore, as anything relating to gardens and landscape tends to be portrayed as a leisure activity for the affluent, it was argued, it’s unsurprising that landscape professionals can also be seen as semi-hobbyists, with years of training and hard-won qualifications unappreciated.

Making a living out of something that people usually do for fun comes with a unique set of problems. Ask any performing musician (me, for instance). The instant fame factory of X-Factor, Pop Idol et al does nothing to portray how a musician’s craft is developed over years, or to show the realities of the music industry – and it certainly doesn’t represent all the other skilled specialists from other disciplines on whom the performer depends: the sound engineers, lighting technicians, stage crew and many others. Any parallels with the landscape and horticulture sectors here? TV gardening programmes are as likely to attract young people to areas like arboriculture and ecology as the X-Factor is to inspire someone to train as a sound technician. Interconnected specialisms and little-known but vital roles are ignored – because in the current celebrity-obsessed age, it’s all about the star.

The lack of diversity in media representations of the industry is an issue not only because it fails to reflect reality but also because the preponderance of ‘pale, male and stale’ garden celebrities makes sparking a connection with anyone outside that demographic much less likely. Given the recruitment difficulties the industry faces, it’s essential to look at ways of attracting young people, and positive media representation can be a game-changer.

According to garden designer Charlie Bloom (@bloomsblogs), who kicked off this
discussion: “Whole sections of a diverse industry are either wholly ignored and
therefore sidelined into obscurity, or portrayed in a manner that makes them undesirable
career propositions. When a career is perceived by the general public as either elitist
or a hobby, this filters down into perceptions of the professional’s worth.” Community schemes and urban greening initiatives – perhaps more engaging and relevant for younger people and those who don’t live in affluent suburbs – are similarly marginalised and invisible in the media. These kinds of projects could do much to showcase the worthwhile career options available and to highlight the value of green jobs, but they rarely get the exposure.

I like the adage that rather than asking children what they want to be when they grow
up, we should ask what problems they want to help solve. When children now have a greater understanding of environmental issues and threats than previous generations ever had, isn’t this sector’s potential to sustain and support the environment the greatest recruiting tool it has?

A version of this article appeared in the May 2016 edition of Pro Landscaper magazine.

Pay to play?

Imagine a brand new tree-top adventure play area in an urban park, with state of the art climbing features, rope bridges, dizzying aerial challenges and super-long ziplines high above the ground. Imagine beneath it a conventional children’s playground – swings, slides, a little climbing frame. Up in the trees, children whose parents can afford the ticket price whizz through the air and clamber across precarious bridges; down below, those who can’t are stuck with the public swings and slides on the ground. This two-tier pay-to-play area has the ‘haves’ looking down on the ‘have-nots’ – literally.

This is Battersea Park in south London, and the aerial adventure experience is run by
Go Ape, a private company that has leased a corner of the park to run this new play
‘destination’. An existing adventure playground was demolished to make way for it, and the new free playground, half the size of its predecessor, was paid for the by council.Go Ape argues that the revenue they bring in will help enhance and revitalise the park, while the council states that “We have a duty to maximise our income wherever we can.”

Councils have certain statutory duties – providing social care, child protection services and libraries, for instance. Maximising income is not one of them. Some have pointed
out the irony of London councils effectively selling off their public green space, while
£60m of public money is being spent – just a little further along the Thames from riverside Battersea Park in fact – on the Garden Bridge. A space that will be neither public nor green, it is argued.

This is not just a London issue. The privatisation of public space is happening everywhere, not just in the capital – and especially in urban areas. A recent Heritage Lottery Fund report estimated that 45% of local authorities were considering disposing of some green spaces and one-fifth were specifically considering disposing of parks.(1) This would be an irreversible and tragic loss.

While few will object to local authorities seeking to attract greater numbers of visitors to parks and providing more attractive green places for relaxation and leisure activities, the increasing commercialisation of what was intended to be space that was free for everyone to enjoy must be a source of concern. The ends do not justify the means, even less so when the financial drivers – namely, cuts in funding from central government – that are forcing these decisions are needless and arbitrary.

Play is about children developing physical and social skills, enjoying a sense of freedom and using their imaginations – and it also provides formative learning experiences. A play area in a public park should be somewhere where children from all backgrounds get to mix. So what do the kids here learn? That if you don’t have money, you get second best. That, contrary to what you’re told, the best things in life aren’t free. That you are excluded and looked down on, in every sense, on because your parents aren’t rich. Great life lessons there.

In an age where ‘free’ and ‘public’ are increasingly equated with devalued and worthless and only things that cost money are considered worth having, this tale of two play schemes looks to reinforce that toxic message.

(1) State of UK public parks 2014: research report to the Heritage Lottery Fund.

A version of this article appeared in the April 2016 edition of Pro Landscaper magazine.

For good measure

Last month, I wrote about ways of approaching consultation and community engagement on landscape schemes in order to find out what people want and to involve them meaningfully in the design process. But what about when the scheme is completed and in use? How do we measure what a landscape is achieving and assess the extent to which it is fulfilling its intended objectives? Do we continue to engage with users or hand over and move on?

Landscape design blends art and science. Creating a landscape that provides experiential
pleasure is an art, underpinned by the science of designing a place that performs vital functions and provides numerous benefits to humans, wildlife and ecosystems. While beauty and aesthetic quality are not easily quantifiable, a completed landscape project can be measured and analysed for sustainability, social, ecological and economic indicators to assess its effectiveness. This kind of data is vital to promoting landscape, showing that good design, construction and maintenance pays dividends in many ways.

The Landscape Architecture Foundation in the US has launched a website designed to do
just that (http://landscapeperformance.org). It provides ‘a set of resources to help designers, agencies and advocates evaluate performance, show value and make the case for sustainable landscape solutions’. A database of case studies, a ‘fast facts’ library and a collection of performance measuring toolkits and calculators, all fully tagged, categorised and searchable, offers a knowledge base for anyone needing to backup arguments with facts and figures.

The fast facts section consists of a great collection of published research evidence
showing the proven positive impacts of a wealth of landscape interventions, from natural play areas to street trees, sustainable drainage systems and green roofs. There is useful data on flood reduction techniques, natural noise barriers, traffic management, planting choices and more. References to articles and real world case studies are included wherever possible. The case studies are currently all projects in the US, but the evidence for the demonstrable social and environmental benefits of landscape is universal.

According to the Landscape Performance Series website: “By embracing performance
measures and evaluating the performance of built projects, we can elevate the quality of
designed and planned landscapes. “As we continue to study the connections between landscape and the health of ecosystems, people and economies, we increase our understanding and our collective capacity to achieve environmental, social and economic sustainability. As the body of knowledge related to landscape performance grows, it will inform public policy, reduce investor risk and improve return on investment.”

The Landscape Architecture Foundation’s aim is clearly not only to raise design standards
and advance the functional effectiveness of landscapes, but also to improve the status of
the landscape profession in the eyes of clients and decision makers. Landscape practitioners know that landscape design is about more than making a place look
nice. Good landscape can have significant positive effects on mental wellbeing, physical
health, children’s development and a sense of community, not to mention improving biodiversity and air quality, reducing flood risk and the list goes on. Such claims carry little weight without credible evidence to back them up, however. This new website will help practitioners provide exactly that.

A version of this article appeared in the March 2016 edition of Pro Landscaper magazine.

Question time

Consultation, community engagement, stakeholder participation, surveys, workshops, meetings… How can designers discover what people actually want when designing a scheme? These skills don’t usually form part of professional training, and this sensitive and complex area is easily mishandled – to the potential detriment of design, or worse, planning objections and local opposition. Avoiding delays and negative PR is good; fostering community buy-in, and drawing on local expertise, knowledge and insight is even better. So, here are nine common consultation mistakes that designers, and how to avoid them.

1. Asking the wrong questions
Leading questions, ambiguously worded questions, irrelevant questions asked ‘just out of interest’ – avoid them all. Only start working out questions once you’ve decided exactly what it is that you actually want to know.

2. Asking the wrong people
Whose feedback do you really need? Current and potential users of a space, and those affected by its development are usually the must-haves. It’s essential that diversity issues and demographics are factored in. But there’s a balance to be struck between quantity and quality of feedback; more is not necessarily better, or more representative.

3. Great expectations
Be realistic with participants about the possible outcomes from a consultation. If this exercise is one of many gathering information to inform a decision, make that clear. Be honest about how much weight their views and the results of the consultation carry.

4. Language barriers
Industry jargon, acronyms, technical idiom and design-speak have no place in communications with the public. Unfamiliar terminology can create ‘us and them’ situations, and hamper meaningful co-operative dialogue. No need to dumb down – just discuss things in everyday language that anyone can understand.

5. Thankless tasks
All sorts of motivating factors and agendas spur people to get involved in local consultations. But make it worth their while anyway, and give them something in return for their time and input. If a consultation can be enjoyable, and include some humour or fun without being inappropriate, then go ahead – people will be more responsive. Aim to make everyone feel glad they came.

6. Not listening to the answers
So you’ve run a consultation event, and have generated a mass of Post-Its, flipcharts, notes, sketches and diagrams. Now what? Now you methodically sort, categorise and code all this stuff, so it can be treated as data and analysed: to gather information on the issues that you want to assess, and to identify areas you hadn’t considered. Structure is key here. Qualitative material is inherently messy; order needs to be brought to this informational chaos for it to be useful. Don’t gather it if you won’t analyse and use it.

7. Consultation fatigue
People participate in consultations in their own time; there are undoubtedly more enjoyable things they could be doing. Without cutting corners, take up as little of their time as possible and use it well. Over-long or too-frequent meetings, lengthy surveys, and being asked about the same things again and again are great methods for driving people away.

8. Foregone conclusions
Sometimes, apparently, a consultation is undertaken for the sake of appearances; decisions have already been made, and the exercise is a formality so the consultation box can be ticked. Don’t let this be you.

9. Not following up
Last but certainly not least, consultees’ greatest frustration – not hearing anything afterwards. Don’t leave people in the dark; they feel used. Ask for addresses and emails, send a thankyou message and a contact for further feedback or questions, and ideally inform them of the consultation outcomes and decisions made.

Agree? Disagree? As part of a new project, I’d like to hear about consultation successes, flops, lessons learned and innovative approaches. Please get in touch if you have experiences to share: lesley@lesleymalone.com

A version of this article appeared in Pro Landscaper magazine February 2016