Rethinking the urban landscape exhibition

by Rhiannon James

Ironically enough for an organisation known as The Building Centre, its latest exhibition argues that in cities, bricks and mortar should be secondary to something much more important – landscape. Too often, landscape is seen as the bits that are left when a development is finished when in fact, landscape is the big picture, and should be planned at what co-curator Lewis Blackwell, Executive Director of Strategy and Development at The Building Centre, calls “the life-changing level”. Landscape and particularly green space, is vital to making cities healthier, cleaner, more sustainable, more sociable and pleasanter places to live. “You can have beautiful, effective environments that people love being in without a single iconic building,” Lewis says.

The exhibition presents 43 projects, selected by The Building Centre in conjunction with the Landscape Institute, the Royal Chartered body for landscape architects, which show the potential for public green space to change lives. There are the iconic projects such as the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park but also smaller initiatives -Derbyshire Street Pocket Park for example – which are predominantly community-led. “These schemes where you knit together a number of interventions – a green roof here, a few trees there, an allotment there, a little play space with greenery there, woven through a somewhat grim urban environment suddenly start to make it a very enchanting place to be,” Lewis adds.

He argues though, that these projects should be standard rather than stand-out and this requires change at the highest level. “We need landscape thinking imbued through the planning process to see the potential use of areas,” he says. And if this seems too distant and difficult, remember the founders of Incredible Edible Todmorden, who, from a few small herb gardens in their home town started a global community food-growing movement.

Below are a selection of the exhibition’s featured themes and projects.


Urban communities and  green spaces are symbiotic. Landscapes have to be used to survive and if they are started or maintained by the community, they are more likely to prosper. The green spaces, in turn, foster a sense of community by providing somewhere that people will naturally spend time together, talking, sharing and learning.

Incredible Edible Todmorden


credit: The Incredible Edible Todmorden Team

A small market town in West Yorkshire, Todmorden has now achieved global fame as the birthplace of the Incredible Edible movement. Started by a small group of local Todmorden residents in 2007 who were keen to make fresh, local food accessible to all by turning small patches of neglected land in the town into community gardens, the Incredible Edible network now has members from Canada to New Zealand, with 300 groups in France alone. In Todmorden itself, 1,000 fruit trees have now been planted, every school in the town is involved in growing food and the high school has a fish farm. There’s a programme to make the town self-sufficient in eggs and also a market garden for young people to grow and sell their own produce.


Flooding is one of the biggest challenges for 21st century cities. At the same time that storms are becoming more intense and frequent as a result of climate change, more urban land is being covered with concrete which cannot absorb rainwater, meaning our Victorian drainage systems are being overwhelmed. The 21st century solution is literally a green one – creating swales, rain gardens, wetlands and other vegetated features that mimic nature’s way of dealing with flood water.

Derbyshire Street Pocket Park


credit: Greysmith Associates

This tiny pocket park in a dead-end road in Bethnal Green, London has not only transformed a hotspot for anti-social behaviour and fly-tipping into a vibrant community space, it is also making a surprisingly significant contribution to alleviating urban flooding. Planters connected to the roof of the adjacent arts centre and a green roof on the bike shelter capture water and prevent it running off into the road. Permeable paving in the cafe area allows rain to soak into the ground and any excess run-off is captured in a rain garden where plants also cleanse the water of pollutants. It is estimated that if similar measures were implemented across London, their capacity would be ten times that of the Thames Tideway Tunnel – a planned £4.2 billion ‘supersewer’ to deal with floodwater. “Had we been following this kind of approach long-term, we would certainly not need the Thames Tideway Tunnel and furthermore we would have much more attractive environments which are socially beneficial in terms of air quality and community benefits,” Lewis says.

Saving Lives

The health benefits of green spaces in cities are numerous and well-documented: they can reduce air pollution, offer opportunities to exercise, encourage healthy eating, increase social interaction and reduce stress and offer restorative and healing places for people with physical and mental health conditions.

Camden Active Spaces


credit: LUC

Which sounds more fun – a blank stretch of tarmac or living willow teepees, musical trampolines and parkour-style wooden platforms? An inner-city London borough with one of the worst obesity rates in the capital is ripping out its uninspiring school playgrounds and replacing them with natural play spaces to encourage children to get active.

One in three 10-year-olds in Camden is overweight or obese and the seven new playgrounds have been specifically designed to encourage children to run, jump, climb and play together. The spaces, some designed by Land Use Consultants, the landscape architects behind the Diana, Princess of Wales’ Memorial Playground and the Tumbling Bay Playground in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, also give the children access to nature with living willow sculptures and natural wood towers and bridges. Researchers from the Institute of Sport Exercise and Health and University College London will be monitoring the effect of the spaces on the children’s activity levels and health, helping to inform the design of play spaces in the future.

Growing Spaces Glasgow

Glasgow has areas where life expectancy and other measures of health are amongst the lowest in Europe. This is related to poor diet but also to a lack of access to the outdoors and green space. Meanwhile, the city is also plagued by dereliction with some figures suggesting that up to 15% of the city’s land is vacant, derelict or underused, with many of these spaces also being contaminated. Landscape architects erz set out to tackle both problems by creating community growing spaces on underused land. The gardens encourage food growing and better diet but they are also somewhere beautiful to spend time outdoors. They turn blots on the landscape into places of value whilst allowing contaminated land to come back into use – all the planting is done in sealed raised beds in these areas. “They are also centres for community interaction, communication and conviviality, in the true sense of the word – sharing life,” says Felicity Steers, director at erz. “Our growing spaces are designed with community huts, shelters, good spaces to sit and talk and learn. They are about wellbeing and happiness as much as they are about ‘health’.” There are now seven Growing Spaces in Glasgow with another planned for Drumchapel, a housing estate to the west of the city.

Economic Benefit

Unlike buildings, it is difficult to price landscape in cold, hard cash. It’s undoubtedly true though, that beautiful parks and gardens can raise the value of surrounding properties, thus rendering green space an investment worth making.

Valencia Parque Central


credit: Gustafson Porter

A new park is, unusually, to be the lynchpin of a major redevelopment project in the heart of Spain’s third-largest city and is intended to act as a catalyst for further investment in the area. The design of the park, created by landscape architects Gustafson Porter, will revolve around a series of bowls, inspired by the local ceramics tradition and created by sculptured landforms, plants and existing buildings.


The advantages of a landscape-first approach are typified by the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. “It’s an iconic project that really shows how landscape can transform environments and rejuvenate huge areas of cities,” says Lewis.

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park


Amongst all the triumphs of London 2012, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is still one of the most memorable, with its spectacular flower meadows and its wild riverside setting. “The Olympic Park was full of iconic buildings but what did people do when they wanted to take their selfies? They took them against the wildflower meadows,” says Lewis. Key to this success was the initial vision of the park as the heart of the project, a focus which was carried through the detailed design stage, in which a host of leading landscape architects and horticulturalists were involved, to the construction, where the teams of engineers responsible for delivering the build were led by landscape architects. The park was also crucial to London 2012’s mission to achieve the most sustainable games of modern times. Not only did it transform 560 acres of contaminated industrial wasteland into the largest new urban parkland in Europe for 150 years, it also created a range of, sometimes rare, habitats for wildlife including wet woodland and reed-beds and incorporated sustainable measures for dealing with flood risk including swales, rain gardens and wetland. Its success now continues in its new incarnation as a public park, with the addition of a natural playground and cafe at the northern end and a 21st century ‘pleasure garden’ in the south. “In ten years’ time, it’s going to be a wonderful place, a destination place, but also for all the people living around there, moving through the area, it will have absolutely transformed their lives,” adds Lewis.


Beauty may be an intangible quality but its benefits are more concrete, especially when it comes to urban gardens. Looking out on and experiencing green spaces, with all their sensory pleasures, makes us all happier and healthier.

Gardens by the Bay


A botanic garden for the CGI generation, technology meets horticulture with spectacular effect in this public park in Singapore, opened in 2012. A grove of eighteen metal ‘supertrees’ covered with tropical epiphytes and climbing plants produce light and sound shows when darkness falls, while the traditional glasshouse is transformed into an immersive mountain rainforest experience, complete with mist and dizzying elevated walkways. There is also a children’s garden, lakes, gardens exploring Singapore’s cultural and historical links with plants and a second glasshouse dedicated to Mediterranean and subtropical plants.

Rethinking the Urban Landscape is open until 10th February at The Building Centre, Store Street, London, WC1E 7BT,

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