What is it that determines public space quality in development projects? I discussed this, and much more, with Štěpánka Endrle (Šmídová), whose studio has over twenty years of experience working on a wide range of projects on different scales. (ASB MAGAZINE #124, 2022)
The new issue of the ASB magazine focuses on public space and amenities in developers’ projects. You have years of experience with development projects. Sadly, it is still not the rule for those projects to create high-quality and functional public spaces, including plantings. Why is this the case?
Public space has long been neglected, not only when it comes to development projects. But this is the case of architecture in general, not only landscape architecture. Along the same lines, architecture competitions are a phenomenon that emerged just a couple of years ago – and, all of a sudden, we see that such things are possible and the results are worth the effort. I am talking not only about the aesthetic aspect, but also about the liveability of a particular public space all year round, and its role in the context of other urban spaces. Public spaces must also be inclusive, safe and interesting.
What do you think could help to improve the quality of those public spaces that are part of development projects? There are not enough good landscape architects, yet the demand is increasing.
Indeed, landscape architects are in high demand. It is actually quite a new profession in this country. This is why we need to showcase good projects and raise awareness.
Education also plays a key role. In Czechia, it is now possible to study landscape architecture at three universities, but the quality of the graduates varies dramatically. I am happy to see that first graduates from the Faculty of Architecture of the Czech Technical University are now entering the profession; quite paradoxically, this university has the shortest history of landscape architecture studies.
We certainly need enthusiastic and educated young people who will push our field forward. In practice, it is essential for landscape architecture graduates (and architects in general) to work in studios and pursue further professional development. Working on one’s own doesn’t usually help one to grow professionally.
In your opinion, has there been any development in terms of how developers understand the quality of public, semi-public, or even private space in housing projects?
Yes. Quite paradoxically, developers, and private investors in general, often place more emphasis on public space than public investors. Many private investors are also more open towards innovative approaches and new technologies.
How interested are municipalities in integrating blue-green infrastructure principles into their projects?
Municipalities are aware of the importance of this, also due to the droughts of recent years. Perhaps everyone has noticed that something is going wrong. But implementing blue-green infrastructure is not easy in our country because of complicated legislation. Last year, among other things, Prague’s Institute of Planning and Development created standards for the planning, planting, and maintenance of the city’s street trees as an important element of blue-green infrastructure contributing to climate change adaptation. We were part of the team which developed these standards. The Technical Road Administration is already using them as a standard document in public tenders. I am very happy to see this.
Municipalities are trying to set rules for their cooperation with developers, their participation in spatial development, and their investments in amenities and public space. To what extent are municipalities and developers able to communicate in order to achieve high quality of projects?
Where there is a will, there is a way. And the changes in recent years are proof of this. I think we still need to work on educating municipalities, including a sufficient offer of quality seminars and trainings for municipal officials. We have been working on this with the Union of Towns and Municipalities, as part of the Smart City project; the Union is well aware of how important education is for municipalities to function well.
Some developers and regional projects may even have the funds, but there is a lack of vision, knowledge of the area and its inhabitants’ needs, or willingness to invest in public space and amenities. So, there is investment, but not quality.
And this takes us back to education. What helps immensely in such cases is establishing the position of ‘City Architect’, who can serve as a guide in this field that many people find unfamiliar.
And again, it is important to promote our profession. For example, Prague’s CAMP has done a lot of work in this respect. It has attracted many people from outside the field and sparked their interest in architecture and related topics; these people then bridge the gaps between professionals and the general public.
So, what is it that makes for high-quality, functional public space in developers’ projects?
You need a good brief and a good design team. You need to see public space as a whole, with all the links, well beyond the project area. You must make sure that the space is liveable, and foresee how it will age and how functional it will be in many years.
Ultimately, it is the installation company and the landscape architect’s supervision that determine the quality of the project. It is now standard practice for architects to supervise construction works, but this is not the case for landscape architects.
They spend a lot of time working on the design, but the installation part tends to be a weak point. In addition, there are very few good installation companies.
Even fewer than landscape architects?
About the same number.
What is the role of maintenance in developers’ projects?
This can be a big problem. First, a problem in terms of guarantees, and also in terms of maintenance quality. In addition, our work is not over after installation; everything evolves, changes and matures. So, when the work is handed over and no checks follow, it actually means leaving it halfway done. The ideal situation is to be in touch with the owners (often they are associations of housing unit owners), and also have regular meetings with horticulturists, on a yearly basis for example, where you assess the situation and adapt the maintenance procedure. Moreover, maintenance is often not about intensity and therefore price, but about the right timing.
When maintenance works well, it adds a lot of value to the project in the long term.
Climate change is becoming an ever more pressing issue. As a landscape architect, what do you think are the areas where the need for solutions is the most urgent?
Spatial planning is key. Our settlements are encroaching on the landscape, we are building more and more. But this creates the need for new infrastructure, so in the end we are not only ruining the landscape, but also building at a very high cost. It is essential to support densification of cities and prevent urban sprawl. Many municipalities have already learned that they cannot invest in infrastructure for family houses on large land plots. The population density is so low that, economically, it doesn’t make sense.
Nature conservation and a responsible approach to the landscape are equally important. This includes responsible forest management, approach to water in the landscape, and farming practices. This has much more impact than planting a thousand trees. Of course, I don’t want to belittle tree planting – trees are extremely important for the quality of life in cities – but their impact on climate change is very limited compared to the other large-scale measures I have mentioned.
Do you also work on the large scale?
Yes, we do. We work on a wide range of projects. I think it enriches one professionally to work on different scales and different projects.
What projects are you working on now?
Together with William Mathews Associates, we have won the competition for a bridge over the Svratka River in Brno; this is something we are looking forward to very much. We have designed a succession landscape respecting natural processes, not only when it comes to vegetation, but also water management and ecology. For me, this is the future of landscape architecture: respecting natural processes and working with them. Speaking about developers’ projects, we are currently working on the Odkolek project in Vysočany, which is already in construction. We are preparing a revitalisation project for Žerotínova Street in Prague 3, which is based on the new standards, including blue-green infrastructure. Apart from design projects, we are working on the preparation of a design competition for Rohan Island, which is also something I am enjoying a lot, because it allows me to look at the process from the client’s perspective. The client, in this case, is Prague’s Institute of Planning and Development. In any case, we are grateful for all projects where good communication with clients leads to high quality, regardless of scale.
Text: Jolana Říhová