Voices in the Landscape #2 Noel Farrer

Voices in the Landscape #2 Noel Farrer

Artform Urban Furniture caught up with the outgoing president of the Landscape Institute Noel Farrer, to discuss, amongst other things, public private partnerships for outdoor spaces, the success of landscape design in Barcelona and fighting the good fight on behalf of landscape architects.

BIO: As a Landscape Architect with over 30 years’ experience, Noel Farrer is the founder of the award winning design practice Farrer Huxley Associates. He also spent two years as President of the Landscape Institute, during which time he campaigned to raise the profile of the landscape profession and strive for a greater voice on key issues. Highlights of his tenure at the institute include being invited to give verbal evidence to the House of Lords environmental subcommittee. All of Noels work is founded on the belief that landscapes make an essential contribution to the generation of sociable and sustainable communities.

ARTFORM URBAN FURNITURE: Thanks for taking some time to chat with us Noel. I really enjoyed the talk that you’ve just done at the Landscape Show. It was very entertaining, very energetic and plenty of food for thought.

I was interested in the conversation you referenced when speaking to one of your clients. Particularly where you drew attention to often completely overlooked long term added value in the work you do as landscape architects. And as a result, your unwillingness to undervalue or undermine your profession when asking for the proper level of fees this work deserves.

I think as you put it for that particular project…

”We’re not just putting in some trees here and there, we are actually reviving and saving an entire community, saving the town by the work that we do”

Why do you think many landscape professionals and landscape architects lack the confidence to take the same approach and instead allow others to devalue what they’re doing and drive fees down?

NOEL FARRAR: Well there are two points to that aren’t there? I remember I wrote a piece in a landscape journal a few years ago which said one of the real problems that landscape architects have is that their ultimate dream is to open an organic restaurant on a beach! And I got into a little bit of hot water about this but I think there is still some truth, in that landscape architects and a lot of people in the general sector are nice people and therefore they understand quality, they understand the value of nature, because they get it. But they are not necessarily as pushy or as forthright as you might get from say an architect.

Architects are very “go getting” and they look towards control and they get what they want and I don’t think we, in the landscape profession, are necessarily that great at that side.

Going back to the point though, yes, I think looking up and going “Hang on a minute, what is my real value?” and then trying to demand your true worth, I think that is rare.

AUF: So you need to have a voice and speak up in order to make a difference?

NF: You do. And I think as we are brought up, we go through college and we become professionals and I think that it becomes apparent that the architects are already higher up. And I remember thinking, by the time we had got to the end of college they were already more important than we were and it doesn’t happen all at once, it’s very incrementally. Landscape architects think, “Well this is the bit that I do, just this”, and they realise perhaps they are the end of a long chain and they aren’t necessary an essential ingredient. It’s still in the “nice to happen” bracket. I think it’s very difficult, but you do have to react against that all the time.

A lot of people say to me, I don’t know how you retain the energy, I don’t know how you keep fighting the fight. But that’s why I accepted becoming president of the Landscape Institute, because ultimately I want all landscape architects to recognise the value they deliver.

AUF: Putting aside being marginalised or undervalued within the industry, from a personal perspective, I think if you were to ask anyone you meet, to close their eyes for a moment and ask them to visualise somewhere they would really like to be right now, not a single person would picture the inside of building. They would picture a beautiful natural scene or maybe a busy plaza with cafes or a riverbank. People enjoy and are naturally drawn to being outside, but it’s the one part of a new project that normally lacks any serious investment.

I was also really interested in what you had to say about Barcelona, the fact that if you get place making right, if you get the landscape and the urban design right, the actual commercial flipside is a runaway success, creating places people want to visit and stay and spend money in.

NF: Yes I mean it’s interesting. Ultimately we live in a world and we have to be able to talk in pounds and pence terms but the reality of Barcelona is, it does give a return in pounds and pence, and it’s landscape that gives the biggest returns on investment, The only problem with it, is it doesn’t work in political silos, it doesn’t work in five years time,, its going to take longer, and that’s the reality and a very difficult one.

AUF: The final point on that, Peter Murray was talking recently about maybe changing attitudes towards public places within London with its density, having to create more and more quality spaces, and connected spaces, not just by cycling but walking through London, and obviously there’s quite a large crossover now with public and private ownership of public spaces and the balance is shifting…Does it work? Does it not work? What are the struggles there between private and public partnership in public spaces?

NF: Right, two questions there, both really interesting. The first one is that are we starting to get it, is landscape starting to get in to the psyche? And I think it is. Peter is very close to the London picture and I suppose I work in London as well and I speak about this quite regularly. I did the launch of open cities and at that launch we had 250 people come along. It was free to attend but you had to apply and actually 4,000 people applied.

I think Londoners are actually starting to wake up to the fact that environment is really important. They are waking up to the fact that pollution, trees, landscapes, integrated landscapes, it’s a real essential part of retaining London’s desirability as a place to live and work. So I think London is ahead of the curve, with the environmental and the green agenda well embedded within London’s mind-set…So I remain optimistic!

In answer to your second question, the public / private partnership thing, the reality is the public sector cannot afford to maintain and certainly can’t afford to put in the capital, for the changes that are needed for the level of quality we need in our urban public spaces. The private sector must deliver that, and they want to deliver that. But then they own it and that delivers a whole set of concerns around liberty, around what is a public street, what is private.

For me the public private partnership needs to exist between local government and the private sector. It just needs to evolve and emerge, so that the public benefit absolutely takes priority.

AUF: Noel it’s been a pleasure. Thanks very much for your time


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