My passion for landscapes started at a young age growing up in Guernsey. For a small island, the variety and complexity in the landscape is astounding, with sandy bays and rugged cliffs punctuated by fortifications associated with the historic defence, and wartime occupation of the island.
Since then, I have been lucky enough to visit many extraordinary landscapes and have found myself in a profession that takes a central role in protecting the natural and built environment and promoting its positive use for the benefit of the public.
Landscape and Visual Impact Assessment (LVIA) is an area of practice I have worked in extensively during my career. As an evidence based approach to identifying and quantifying the effects of a development on landscape character and visual amenity, it requires comprehensive analysis and understanding of a site’s context, and how this is experienced by people.
Whether urban or rural in context, or a landscape/townscape with designated sensitivities (World Heritage Sites, National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, National Scenic Areas etc.), each project context has been unique, as have the visual receptors to whom it is experienced.
All landscape professionals have a responsibility to the character and quality of the environment, and must consider the impacts on people, place, and nature in all aspects of their work. I have written this blog to illustrate the approach we at the Paul Hogarth Company take, which is informed by our experience of undertaking LVIA work with people and the environment at its heart.
“Landscape is an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors”
European Landscape Convention, Council of Europe 2000
Our design approach
‘Landscape’ and ‘townscape’ are conceptual terms that reflect people’s perception and experience of a location. Central to the approach is identifying the natural components, human influences and cultural perceptions, that combine to generate a unique sense of place, and then understanding how and where this is experienced by us.
When looking at a development proposal, my attention would turn almost immediately to the wider setting of a site. Within an appropriate area of focus, I would study ordnance survey mapping, aerial photography, historic mapping, published descriptions of character and other professional studies, to understand the physical, cultural and social makeup of the site and its wider context.
Development Plan policies, supplementary guidance, citations, and other studies are an important part of this in order to understand designated sensitivities, how the site’s landscape context is planned for more widely, and the policy ‘tests’ that will be applied to a proposal.
Through baseline studies, I also try to identify the visual receptors that are likely to be present in the landscape, whether residing, working or travelling through the landscape, or using it for recreation. In terms of the latter, public footpaths, cycle routes, scenic viewpoints, visitor attractions, and cultural heritage sites, are clues that may indicate the presence of visual receptors.
Following this desk-based stage, it is important to validate what has been learnt by visiting the site and its wider context. Experiencing a landscape allows a better understanding of its scale, shape, diversity, variety, and sensory qualities (such as sounds, smells and feel), as well as aesthetic and perceptual qualities such as a sense of wildness or tranquility. Together, these are human experiences, reflecting the way people respond to a place and are not possible to understand through desk-based work alone.
Within a written LVIA, the effects of a proposed development are identified and communicated formally, by combining judgements on the sensitivity of a receptor (both landscape and visual), and the magnitude of change. Whilst more complex than described and requiring a systematic transparency over how judgements have been made (laid down in a methodology), the process of understanding a landscape/townscape and the human experience of it, allows sensitivities and potential impacts to be identified and responded to appropriately.
Formal assessment work and its role in the decision making process can often focus on the identification of harm. Importantly however, impacts can be positive, and the process allows design opportunities to be identified.
“…It should also be remembered that well-designed new developments can make a positive contribution to the landscape and need not always be hidden or screened.”
Guidelines to Landscape and Visual Assessment (third edition) – Paragraph 4.26
Dame Sylvia Crowe is a professional role model. Her modest maxim that “things must look right in the landscape” may seem straight forward, but in reality, is a complex and challenging benchmark. Achieving something that “looks right,” requires not only creativity, but a rigorous attention to detail, evidence based justification, and a commitment to the landscape from those involved. Dame Sylvia Crowe’s success as a landscape architect came from a deep rooted understanding of the landscapes involved, and tenacity in persuading design teams to recognise the importance of views, landform and landscape character.
Across several projects, the structure of the LVIA process has helped inform the location, siting, scale and orientation of built form, as well as decisions regarding architectural character, materiality and colour. It has also helped to steer phasing and management strategies, as well as appropriate groundworks and planting treatments. In its application, the process can help shape commercial opportunities and contribute to planning approval.
When embedded early in the design process, understanding where a development will be seen from, how it will be approached, how it will relate to the landscape etc, can help to spotlight potential impacts, and inspire contextual design. The process generates an evidence base that allows robust decisions to be made on what approach is appropriate, whether bold and confident, or discrete and congruous, so that adverse impacts are limited, and so that a development makes as positive a change as possible.
I thought on this recently whilst visiting Thomas Telford’s Craigellachie Bridge in Scotland’s Moray region, a fascinating landscape of enormous diversity and recreational potential. Known globally as “Malt Whisky Country,” the rich supply of pure water has long supported the production of malt whisky, an industry that by its form and character contrasts a landscape that has been shaped by Scotland’s fastest flowing river, the River Spey, whilst being synonymous with it.
Built in 1814, the bridge spans the river near to the village of Craigellachie and was a vital piece of infrastructure for the region at the time. Traditional stone bridge design was found to be problematic here due to the regular periods of violent flooding, and so Telford had to design a bridge that crossed the river in a single span. The response was to use lighter cast ironwork in a high, single arch form, and the result is widely regarded as an engineering triumph.
Despite strongly contrasting the dynamic, natural character of this steeply incised part of the river valley, its slender, elegant character, and Georgian grandeur, enhances the dramatic, natural qualities of the landscape, and generates a unique sense of place. Whilst the bridge was designed to perform a specific function, and overcome physical constraints, the depth of consideration given by Telford to the scale, appearance and character of the bridge within its landscape setting is evident. It has become a tourist destination for those visiting the area or walking the Speyside Way.
Telford’s work regularly involved overcoming immense engineering challenges, but his commitment to elegant, imaginative design, and to realising the opportunities of a structure’s landscape and visual setting, has led to many of his iconic projects being described as spectacular, majestic and inspiring.
“It should be the aim of each of us to leave our chosen corner not more vulgar … but lovelier and more dignified, after we have gone.”
Dame Sylvia Crowe (1901-97) Landscape Architect
The importance and role that landscapes and townscapes play in our lives cannot be understated, and managing change appropriately is a responsibility shared by all. The Paul Hogarth Company are committed to designing places and spaces with people and the environment at their heart and I advocate the LVIA process as a way to deliver on this commitment.
Mark Salisbury is an Associate and heads up our LVIA/TVIA team.