of the landscape
There is growing recognition of the need to let nature lead. Ian Houlston and Rebecca Wrigley look at how the role of the landscape profession must change and put nature in the forefront, in order to address the climate and nature crises.
Rewilding sounds like simplicity itself. It allows nature and natural processes the chance to exert themselves, and healthier ecosystems to develop over time. But, as ever with burning issues of the day, the debate has at times become controversial. Rewilding was initially most often talked about in relation to uplands and introducing trophic species, all too easily translated into wolves stalking walkers. In fact, rewilding is the umbrella for a host of interventions that try to reverse biodiversity loss.
We see partnerships developing ambitious action plans, such as Natural Cambridgeshire’s vision for doubling the area of wildlife habitat and natural greenspace across the region. The largest private landowner in the UK, Anders Povlsen, is encouraging native woodland and species to regenerate across his estates in northern Scotland. But we also see significant moves at a local scale, such as at Wild Ken Hill farm in Norfolk where rewilding is set alongside minimum and zero tillage methods, with the use of natural fungicides and other techniques to farm productively but in ecologically sensitive ways. Local authorities are relaxing management of verges and parks, allowing wildflower areas to develop. Even when as individuals we decide to let flower heads over-winter in our gardens, we are giving nature more of a chance.
Removing or reducing human influence doesn’t mean losing human agency. But when it comes to new development, how far are natural processes allowed to direct how the landscape looks and functions? Are landscape architects and planners acting as confident advocates for changing attitudes to nature.
Good landscape starts with the way it is made, just like any good building does. Understanding of what ‘good’ and ‘beauty’ look like, though, are changing fast. Tidy landscapes are being understood for what they are for every other species: desolate and hostile, stripped of the natural abundance and vigour that our soils and climate naturally serve up.
The most potent agency and influence of the landscape profession now lies with doing less to do more. Landscape professionals have to actually rewild themselves, with ecology becoming more central to their lives and outlook.
Natural regeneration is every project’s trump card. The very definition of a successful landscape is how well it works in terms of ecosystem services, like habitats for pollinators, or flood management and carbon sequestration, and also how well the landscape entices people to engage with the natural processes all around them. This means talking to ecologists, so that habitat enhancement and creation are aligned to the opportunities of the site, and respond to the underlying geology, soils, microclimates, hydrology and existing land uses. It means understanding natural processes, like flooding regimes and grazing levels, and employing natural systems to do the jobs previously done by hard engineering or intensive land management. It also means looking at a site in its context, and identifying stepping-stones or connective habitats that allow species to move between isolated or fragmented refuges.
Designing in a looser way may allow bank erosion to create riparian habitats, regeneration around the edge of a woodland, or creating natural foraging areas for wild fruits and berries within community food growing, to benefit native species. Letting nature lead applies to development at every scale and over every timescale – so however long you can allow nature to exert itself, you are making good use of the time.
The aim of this new kind of landscape dynamism is complexity. While simplicity tends to be fragile, complexity tends to be resilient. By letting nature lead we can expect to enjoy a sudden flourishing, everywhere.
This article first appeared in the winter edition of The Journal, published by the Landscape Institute.