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Landscape architects against the Blah Blah Blah

October 27th, 2021

In 1971, when I was a baby, Ian McHarg, a Scottish landscape architect trained in Edinburgh and at Pennsylvania University, published Design with Nature, a seminal work which stated that

The most important issue of the 21st century will be the condition of the global environment.

Landscape architects who studied under McHarg in Scotland or at Penn, or under his successor David Skinner at Edinburgh College of Art, come from a bloodline of climate activism, biodiversity enhancement and understanding of complex landscape systems. Today’s graduating classes from Edinburgh are featured in this month’s Landscape Design journal in celebration of COP26 and their work demonstrates both the continuation of this ethos – and the power of new thinking. Their work overwhelms the timidity of the official discourse in Glasgow. Hurrah for the students at ESALA and their tutors Anna Rhodes, Lisa Mackenzie and Chris Rankin for challenging the Blah Blah Blah.

Meanwhile, Scotland’s landscape architects are quietly getting on with their life-on-earth-supporting jobs whilst other professions shout loudly about COP26. Every single strand of work at erz, and at all but the most highly commercial landscape architects, is about the relationship between humanity and environment.

A few years ago I attended a Scottish Landscape Institute cross disciplinary event at Holyrood where road engineers, energy consultants, foresters, politicians et al shouted it out, and where I was informed by one pale, stale male from another sector that landscape is just one of many silos. Our landscape is not a silo. In time honoured fashion I have spent several years thinking about what I should have replied:

Landscape is the air we breathe, the food we eat, the energy we use, the earth beneath our feet and the stars above us. It is what sustains all life on earth.

Landscape architects know this and in the autonomous work that many of us do, we produce designs and strategies for freeing rivers, creating wetlands, greening cities, generating green energy, empowering people to get outside and be healthy. The grist of a landscape architect’s work is not undertaken with developers and architects and does not get many awards or much press. 

So a big COP26 plug for my dearest Glasgow green places by landscape architects old and new:

  • Glasgow Necropolis 1831 – one of the earliest planned and most spectacular cemeteries in the UK designed by David Bryce.
  • Rouken Glen Park with its waterfalls, rills, lades and channels - part grandiose estate, part post industrial ruin, part Scottish glen - and 100% unique sense of place.
  • The Molendinar Burn Park in Royston by Loci Design, a playful 1990s rescue of the burn from a deep culvert bringing a derelict site back to life and life back to a community.
  • Rottenrow Gardens by Gross Max 2001 – contemporary green space in the heart of the Strathclyde University campus – with recycled elements from the old maternity hospital, in the manner of Duisburg Nord. This space was so richly designed and sensory when it opened, but is largely lost already and already under refurbishment. 
  • Buchanan Street and Royal Exchange Square by Gillespies 2002 – still going strong after twenty years. I worked with Fosters on a rival competition entry at the time and I am glad that the Gillespie's team won.
  • City Design’s Hidden Gardens 2004 – a welcoming sanctuary in the midst of multicultural Govanhill with a shout out to Rolf Roscher my co director at Erz. The Hidden Gardens uses landscape design to celebrate diversity and ethnicity in unexpected and subtle ways.
  • The exhilarating steps at City of Glasgow College by Rankin Fraser, 2019, by far the most exciting bit of the campus, and who would have thought of putting in those crazy pine trees! Brilliant.
  • The newly opened Claypits regeneration by LUC 2021 at the canal – sensitive and timely, ecological and delightful.

And at our office we are especially proud of a few very green projects:

  • The therapeutic grounds of the Prince and Princess of Wales Hospice – palliative care by designed erz with nature, in the manner of Ian McHarg.
  • The UK’s first natural school playground – the Urban Jungle at Merrylee Primary School - full of trees, children, owls, bats, foxes, hedgehogs and - green parakeets.
  • The integrated green infrastructure strategies that we have developed across the city from Maryhill to Darnley, Easterhouse to Cardonald, exploring how water management and biodiversity enhancement can be a catalyst for improving population health, social inequity and wellbeing – climate change adaption as a positive force for community regeneration.

And lastly hurrah to Ian McHarg – one of Scotland’s visionaries and one of the world’s most influential landscape architects – I met him twice and he scared the life out of me. I’ll leave him with the last words:

Clearly the problem of man and nature is not one of providing a decorative background for the human play, or even ameliorating the grim city: it is the necessity of sustaining nature as a source of life, milieu, teacher, sanctum, challenge and, most of all, of rediscovering nature’s corollary of the unknown in the self, the source of meaning

(McHarg, Design With Nature, 1971, p.19).


by Ian L. McHarg

ISBN 13: 9780385055093

ISBN 10: 0385055099

Paperback; Garden City, Ny: Natural History Press, 1971-08; ISBN-13: 978-0385055093



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