Landscape architect: Greek state must see value in open space

Landscaping of public space in Greece, apart from the summary attention it received ahead of the 2004 Olympics, is not much in evidence compared to the situation in the private sector, as British landscape architect Simon Rackham has found since moving here to work a year and a half ago. «The threats to the Greek landscape from uncontrolled development are making people realize that the landscape is the basic resource, and that we can no longer take it for granted,» he told Kathimerini English Edition. «So the demand for landscape architects to understand, design and manage landscapes is already developing strongly in the private sector, where the economic value of a healthy, beautiful and sustainable landscape directly affects people’s wallets.» Rackham had been coming here frequently for both work and pleasure for just over two years before he settled here. During a talk he recently gave for the Mediterranean Garden Society, he discussed some of the changes he has observed. «Things are very different. The political climate is quite different, the way the public works are funded and carried out – or not carried out, as the case may be. However, it is the private sector that seems to have completely caught on to the importance of the landscape,» he said. In Greece, Rackham has been working on a variety of projects, from designs for public spaces such as open-air theaters and reclaimed waste sites to hotel grounds and private gardens. Abroad he has had wide-ranging experience designing landscapes in Britain and New Zealand, where he spent four years doing public realm projects, including the remodeling of streets in five city centers, as well as the historic centers of Stirling and Edinburgh in Scotland. One of his most important projects in Britain was the reconstruction of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s courtyard. «The landscape is our basic resource, it’s what everything depends on – it is where we live, where we work, it comes before any of the other things which the politicians or decision makers think are important. If you don’t have landscape you don’t have places where you want to live or want to build houses, create jobs and encourage tourism,» he said in his lecture. «That really hasn’t come through in the public sector yet. In the private sector, where people invest their own money, nobody would think about spending -10 million on a beautiful hotel and not think about what the land around it looked like.» Rackham told Kathimerini English Edition he finds working in Greece very interesting for a variety of reasons. «The opportunities for landscape architecture in Greece are breathtaking; I love the landscapes of Greece – from alpine mountains to virgin forests to dry canyons to olive terraces to sun-baked islands to the streets and squares buzzing with activity. And I have always liked a challenge.» During the lecture, he explained that «the biodiversity means you have a fantastic palette of plants to work with if you understand and know how to. They are very often adapted to specific, and difficult to replicate, conditions. You really have to think carefully about it. As a landscape architect you have to know that and find people – and they are out there – who know about these things. It is always important to ask. «There is no such thing as a stupid question.» Rackham also talked about some of the things people should bear in mind when thinking about their own outdoor space. «You need to think about the life of what you’re making, how its going to be managed and who is going to manage it. How are you going to pay for it, and how long you want it to last, the quality of the materials – these issues are all linked,» he explained. «The quality of the materials ties into usability and maintenance and management. Durability is important. If you lay a 5-centimeter paving slab your grandchildren will still be lifting and relaying it when they come to redesign it. If you lay a 2- or 3-centimeter slab, when they try and lift it will break. «You may love gardens but how much time do you have to spend gardening, how much do you like it? Make sure you have a robust framework, but which is low maintenance and which looks a standard that you are happy with. It doesn’t always have to look the same all year. Within that, make areas where you play and so on, expand and contrast them as your circumstances suit. But don’t start out by making yourself a very elaborate garden. Start out with a framework and grow the garden as you feel comfortable.» Rackham’s view on lawns is that they don’t need to be ruled out but should be treated «like a precious thing.» He advised one homeowner with a house right on a windy shoreline who wanted a lawn near a pool to «make a little square of it and treat it like a little jewel – don’t make it big but make the most of it.» For larger areas further from the house he is in favor of grass – not lawns. «People gasp when you say grass but I don’t mean lawn. Wild grasses in Greece that go brown in summer and produce seedheads are beautiful. On lots of sites there is still a huge amount of seed. You don’t need to do anything. Be vigilant about what does come up and take out what you don’t want.» Opportunities As for the future of the sector in Greece, Rackham believes there is tremendous scope for professionals to show what is possible. «When the European landscape convention is ratified by Greece, local authorities will be required to consider the landscape as a whole in all decision making. I believe that this, in conjunction with rising public expectations, will expand the role of the landscape architect in Greece enormously,» he said. «There are amazing opportunities out there for the taking. Public realm improvements are an effective and highly visible way for politicians to show that they are doing something for the communities they represent, and the skills and expertise of landscape architects in delivering these projects have been demonstrated in towns and cities around the world. «I believe that the economic and social value of public open space is being recognized in the public sector, but we as landscape architects in Greece still have to do more to show officials what we can offer.»

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