The Role of Landscape Architecture in Sustainable Greening of Public Spaces


GREENinc Landscape Architecture + Urbanism

Our May issue is all about the urban setting, and with that in mind we wanted to chat to a firm that has a real understanding of “urban landscapes” and the value of these spaces. 

A good sit-down with Stuart Glen and PG Smit of GREENinc. Landscape Architecture + Urbanism.

DJI 0033
  1. What would you say are the fundamentals/ key considerations for design of public and urban spaces? 

PG: Ultimately, we are designing spaces for people, so when we think about approaching the design of a public space, we need to think about people first. So that touches on a number of issues, how do we use spaces? What do people need in order to feel comfortable in those spaces? How do we deal with different climatic conditions? If it rains or is too hot, how do we create spaces that are as open-ended as possible, but still have enough utility built into them so that people might use these spaces? For example -a public space is not the same as a building that has very definite roles like an office, a reception… It’s very clear as to how we use those spaces as opposed to how you use a public space.

 We typically design for everybody and anybody, and the space needs to be used for a whole host of different things. Someone may want to be there to just sit and read a book, or for someone’s birthday party, or a group of friends getting together. So, there are a lot of inspirations and considerations for this space. The other thing we need to bear in mind is that the landscape changes over time -you plant trees in a space which are inevitably going to grow over time. Most of these spaces take a decade to mature and so time is always something to bear in mind. 

Stuart: In our country, particularly, one of the important things is that people feel physically safe in a space, and that they feel psychologically comfortable. I suppose the important thing about feeling comfortable is that you don’t feel excluded, and you don’t feel like it’s been designed for someone else, and that you don’t quite fit in. It leads onto something PG was saying about how you could possibly use a public space in various ways, and often a successful space leaves it up to the user to choose. You don’t want a space that’s designed too closely to a specific use. 

Opportunities to come into contact with nature are important too, especially with Covid, and all of us having more screen-time, we’re probably all feeling like there’s a nature-deficit disorder, more than we had before the pandemic. One thing that sometimes designers don’t often do, is ask the users what they think? What their considerations might be? So, public participation is important for urban work, especially for public spaces.

PG: The aspect of maintenance is also quite important, we don’t often include maintenance on a particular project, so the long-term success is determined by how robust the interventions are that are planned, and if they are under strain, or conditions of low maintenance is something to take into consideration. Planting species that can actually survive even if there is low maintenance. Also using materials that aren’t necessarily prone to theft or vandalism. Often there needs to be public partnership, when it comes to maintenance. So, if there is some sort of function in that space that has a commercial aspect to it, they will furnish the space and help to keep it clean. Ultimately, that ensures success of a development.

  1. Let’s chat about the current situation of COVID-19 – and us coming out of the pandemic… How do you think the pandemic will affect urban spaces, and municipal response? 

PG: The pandemic has actually been really great in terms of creating the awareness of healthy urban environments. The issue of parks, and sort of ‘healthy’ urban spaces, has not always had a lot of traction with the general public. Particularly in South Africa, we are big on private public spaces versus public open spaces. With the need to have social distancing, and eat in spaces with good ventilation, suddenly there’s a bigger focus on the outdoor environment and being able to gather or eat in that space. The average person is now more aware of the need for ‘healthier’ buildings, we need better ventilation or more greening; better interaction between the building and the outdoor environment. The hold of, and what the pandemic has done to society has helped the landscape architect. Also, everyone is more socially deprived as they haven’t had that much opportunity to have face-to-face interaction has also become very important, so we need environments where people can meet and eat, spend time together but also incorporate social distancing.

scape greeninc goldfields 01
  1. We have seen a lot of emphasis moving towards greening these urban spaces…Public parks, and the likes over in Europe… How might SA adopt this concept on our limited budget and within our unique context? 

Stuart: PG mentioned public private partnerships earlier, and it seems to be the way forward for us. Unfortunately, our fiscus doesn’t seem to extend to public open space in a major way. I think there were exceptions to that, in the World Cup, for instance, we saw a lot of money being spent around the stadiums and things like the beachfront promenade in Durban, but generally, when people don’t have a roof over their heads the funding will go to helping that. So private public partnerships are the future, we actually have a new one in our neighbourhood, and I don’t think landscape architects built it unfortunately, but a local neighbourhood group took back an area of Parklands that had become derelict and unsafe, and they raised money, fenced it in and turned it into a dog park, which we now use everyday. So that may just be how we have to do it now in South Africa, have people be involved and hands-on.

What is the most interesting urban space you have seen -local or international… And why do yuo feel it is successful? 

PG: When I think about public spaces, my mind immediately goes to cities like New York, which in the past had very poor public spaces. It was very much car-oriented. Awhile back there was this movement, fairly similar to Better Block, where they started reclaiming areas that weren’t necessary for cars; parking lots, or areas where the intersections were too big, they started carving out areas that were reclaimed for public use and shrunk the intersections. They started using products, like street furniture, to demarcate these public spaces and what this eventually led to a rise in property backings. Ultimately, a lot of these spaces have now been formalised, some streets have been pedestrianised, and it has led to a revolution in terms of public spaces. 

When you think about it, you obviously think of Central Park, but there’s a whole host of smaller public spaces that have sprung up because of these tactical interventions, and I think that is something we can aspire to do. Small, low cost, higher impact interventions that lead to larger changes. 

If you were to historically look at Broadway, it’s such a long street running through New York, and if you go back 20 years (in terms of the photographs), you’ll see that it was actually a horrible environment – but now, because of these interventions, the whole of Broadway has been upgraded and large parts have been pedestrianised. Times Square is a great example of that, not because of the visual evolution, but if you look at the actual surface of the square- from asphalt to beautiful public (inaudible-?), which never would have happened had it not been for these interventions. If you look at the entire waterfront around New York, a lot of focus has been placed on taking back that area, after which, traditionally, the city had turned its back on the river because it was polluted and used for industrial purposes, but now there’s this huge focus on the value of what the waterfront space is. They are taking that which was never designed for public spaces and retrofitting them to really cater towards people. Particularly because cities all around the world, including South Africa, are becoming more and more dense, we need to think about incorporating public spaces into cities. The average person has less and less open space in their private capacity, and there are rising problems with that, so we need to create spaces to suit their needs.

scape greeninc kerk street west 01

Stuart: A couple of years ago, I visited Copenhagen, and I think the way they do things are different and particularly interesting. One place that stood out was the Bølgen Recreational Facility on the harbour, which has a series of multi-level floating decks on the harbour which give people access to the water. There are places to launch your kayak, you can dive off, people sunbathe, and I think it really fits all those prerequisites for a successful space because everyone feels safe and does whatever they feel like doing, and it gives you more access to water, which is an important part of nature. I recently read that ‘Blue space’ is even better than green space. 

PG: The local equivalent of that is a lot of the public spaces that they’re developing in Cape Town. We have The Promenade and Greenpoint Park, which are phenomenal examples of public open spaces and incredibly well-used, but if you look at The Waterfront and the development they’ve done with Battery Park, and the canal, where they’ve incorporated amenities such as skateparks and sports facilities. Those spaces are activated through private sector endeavours but ultimately its in public spaces, so it becomes commercially viable but also helps to maintain in the long run, and so now what used to be nothing of interest is a public space where people can paddle board or sit at a coffee shop. There’s a whole network of open space that connects to The Waterfront. That sort of thinking, of linking together a series of open spaces, to a larger network that ultimately becomes more powerful. The more connected the open spaces are, the more people use them in their day-to-day life, and its much better to walk through than down a few streets designed for cars. 

2. Umhlanga Gateway
  1. What has been your most successful urban project as a team?

Stuart: The first one we did was the Hollard Street upgrade, in Marshalltown, Johannesburg, and that was also in a way a private public partnership, as it was funded by SA Eagle (it was also called SA Eagle Square). It was a derelict space at the time, in the early days of Johannesburg’s revival and part of the downtown upliftment efforts. There were old, empty water features, and after we finished it, it still is a very successful space. We also worked on the Braamfontein Urban Improvement Project, which covered several streets. It involved planting trees along the sidewalks. More recently, we did The Umhlanga Gateway Public environment upgrade, which is at the entrance to the Gateway Mall. Again, there was a derelict water feature there, and the client really wanted one -so there is a new water feature. Those are just some of the urban projects we’ve done that I believe were successful. 

  1. We understand that urban/community type spaces need a contextual approach to have the members of this community ‘buy in’ and use the space. Is this truly achievable in our very ‘segregated’ South Africa?  … How difficult is this approach for you?  

PG: The latest riots in KZN is a good example ofinstances where the community stood up and protected things that belonged to them. They rallied around malls, and public assets and protected them. If you translate that to public spaces, when people have pride in those public spaces, and they feel it contributes to their well-being then they will be more inclined to protect it. If it is something that has been super-imposed upon them and is no engagement or it doesn’t really benefit their daily life, then they’re going to be less inclined to protect that. There’s this concept called NIMBY – ‘not in my backyard’. People are more inclined to protect things that belong to them. It’s important that people feel they are part of the process, so that they feel that they own the space and intervention.

Stuart: I think from a design point of view this comes back to making sure no one feels the space was designed for someone else. So, I think it means avoiding overt cultural references that might exclude another part of the population, and when we’re talking about context, maybe it’s about looking at a natural material palette references local context, and not have something look too slick, so that it doesn’t intimidate some people. The two important factors are that everyone feels like they belong and everyone feels that they can use the space as they choose to, and feel comfortable. From a design point of view, it’s about human scale, and varying the scale of spaces. Some people may be intimidated by a vast open plaza, and maybe having more intimate spaces may accommodate them and make them feel more comfortable. I know it’s possible to get that buy-in from everyone, because if we go down to the Durban Promenade it’s a hugely successful space. If we go down there, we see everyone sharing the space, using it the way they want to use it.

DBK 0414
  1. What types of materials do you consider in these settings, and what are you encouraged to work with currently?  

Stuart: We always try to incorporate Stormwater control and management systems, as it’s quite important, as well as BioSoil for great surface permeability. Other elements include paving, wood, we’re always looking for better street furniture, better lighting, which is great for safety.GREENinc has always tried to use local indigenous planting, as much as possible, and look at other ways to create wildlife habitats. Even in the city, if you share the city with wildlife, it’s just another way to get closer to nature, which is important. 

  1. Can you give us and our readers a sneak peek into what GREENinc currently has in the pipeline? 

PG: Something great that we are working on is the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport, in Botswana, in which we are looking at a whole mixed-use urban development centre around the airport. As landscape architects and urban designers, we were able to get involved quite early and planned this system of open spaces and save the urban fabric around the development space. It’s a slightly different way of looking at urban development because we look at the spaces in between first, then we place the buildings, and I think ultimately that’s going to lead to magnificent results. 

GREENInc. Landscape Architecture + Urbanism.

Stuart Glen – Founding Principal Landscape Architect and Director

PG Smit – Landscape Architect and Urban Designer

Latest issue

Sign up to our mailing list

Subscribe to our mailing list

Join our mailing list and keep up-to-date with our publications and news.