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Public Practice: Impact of the Collective

Public Practice is a new way of bringing built environment back skills into the public sector – a member of the collective explains the approach

© Timothy Chase

Landscape architects in local government may be scarce, but they are needed now more than ever. Local authorities have seen their spending on planning and development cut by 55% over the last decade and landscape architecture has been one of the hardest hit disciplines. A recent GLA survey found that over a quarter of London boroughs have no in-house landscape expertise.

Many authorities are taking bold steps to bring built environment experts back in-house. Public Practice, a not-for-profit social enterprise with a mission for proactive planning, is supporting this movement by placing experts in 12-month contracts within these authorities.

We are a collective of these individuals who have formed the Climate Response Working Group. Our common cause is tackling the climate crisis through planning, placemaking and policy. As Public Practice associates, 10% of our time is dedicated to collective research and development and 90% is spent in our day jobs in local authorities across London and the South East.

Our roles range from an urban designer in a planning department, a landscape architect for a garden community, a sustainability and environmental advisor in corporate policy to a design manager in councilled housing delivery. We are asked to tackle the big issues of the housing crisis, delivering sustainable growth and shaping healthier placemaking. But the question is, over the short period of one year, what impact can we actually make as individuals?

We know the housing crisis cannot be separated from environmental issues: air pollution and extreme weather events are all fundamental threats to healthy placemaking. These challenges cannot be addressed in isolation. As members of teams and as associates within a wider network, we can build momentum towards collective action.

Our working group is producing an action plan for local authorities to achieve tangible carbon reduction targets in response to climate declarations or carbon pledges. This explores political challenges, what ‘carbon neutrality’ means and how to achieve it. The action plan will inform a public practice panel discussion at the Design Museum on how local authorities are taking action in response to the climate crisis in October 2019.

We are working to counter the deficit of natural environment expertise in the public sector and to rebalance strategies in favour of environmental and social sustainability. Within six months we’ve already made real progress: One associate has championed their authority produce a Climate Declaration; an associate in an outer London borough has engaged landscape architects in training development management officers to secure high quality public realm through the planning process and multiple associates are promoting a landscapeled approach to master planning.

There are opportunities for landscape architects today, but to find them we need to sift through the baffling array of public sector job descriptions and look beyond the dwindling traditional roles. If we do this, landscape architects can embrace roles to strategically shape future development and contribute to a more sustainable public sector, from within.

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