A tale of two conferences

a wordle of the article (Credit: Author)

Late in June 2017, Manchester Metropolitan University saw two established landscape associations concern themselves with the state of UK landscapes. The Landscape Institute (LI) annual conference, themed ‘Landscape as Infrastructure’, looked at landscape work going on (in the UK and wider world) and how it meets the challenges of carbon creation, habitat destruction, and worsening public health. The very next week, ialeUK’s annual conference reflected on ’25 years of Landscape Ecology', looking at its history and the various deep dive approaches toward understanding landscape and how to enhance the connection between people and nature.

Landscape as Infrastructure: Landscape Institute

The LI conference took place in one day attended by nearly 300 people with a great variety of backgrounds; from large multi-national engineering firms and universities to local authorities and small consultancies. The conference was split between five streams punctuated by plenary talks that examined the connection between people and environment through the exploration of landscape as natural capital and social infrastructure.

Merrick Denton-Thompson, president of the LI, opened up the proceedings with a harsh but fair assessment of the UK’s attitude towards landscape, and its diminishing precedence in recent years. In terms of UK development, he discussed how the Green Belt “is dysfunctional by the government’s own behaviour and widespread public ignorance”, and with the ongoing degradation of soils admits that as a profession “we’re good at the fluffy stuff, not so good on the actual science of soils”.

The conference proceedings then continued to turn up all manner of incongruities within the UK. The UK is the 2nd least forested country in Europe yet the 3rd largest timber importer globally. UK park use has been exploding whilst investment in UK parks has been crashing, with councils treating parkland as depreciating assets. It wasn’t all nay-saying though. There were various talks showing progress towards sustainable infrastructure: how carbon sequestration had been a target during the construction of Abu Dhabi airport; how grey infrastructure can be made greener without losing the essential function of grey.  An academic delegation from China was present - showcasing landscape scale projects in China that connect manmade areas with their natural surroundings, from developing an old quarry into a tourist attraction to truly colossal ecological works (1.5x the size of Germany!).  In terms of direction, the stakes were made clear; in the words of M. Denton-Thompson: "the next 50 years will be dominated by our ability to harness natural systems".

25 Years of Landscape Ecology : ialeUK

The ialeUK conference, in contrast to the LI conference the previous week, was a more focussed conference attended by around 60 people primarily from the UK, with visitors from Estonia and Italy. The reflection on “25 years of Landscape Ecology” was in reference to ialeUK’s 25-year history, but with acknowledgment that iale and landscape ecology itself have histories that stretched farther back (a few decades and a half dozen centuries [!], respectively). The conference was a single stream over two days that first considered the long view of landscape ecology, and followed by sessions on landscape ecology in lowland, upland, and seascape contexts. Each session began with a keynote and concluded with a panel Q&A by the session speakers.

The smaller nature of the conference allowed for a more detailed look at the issues of landscape and a clearer understanding of the situation on the ground. The long view, as presented in the opening keynote by Roy Haines-Young, opened up with how the topics covered by landscape ecology has evolved very little in the past 25 years. However, the question of interface between landscape ecology and ecosystem services does reveal shortcomings: whilst characterization of landscapes is well developed, monitoring and management of landscape change need to be addressed further.

The talks themselves looked at both UK policy and practice, and covered detailed physical and statistical analyses of landscapes and seascapes, new analytical tools and methods, as well as policy-maker, land owner, & public participation processes. The need for green infrastructure was universally accepted at the conference; the lack of adoption of greener practices by the UK is seen as a challenge of engagement, and a number of ideas were shared during panel discussions about raising awareness and motivating non-specialists towards better environmental stewardship.

A United Concern for Landscapes…

There was a definite contrast between the conferences, not only in size and structure, but in the way they addressed the difficulties that face people and the environment in the years to come. The difference in approaches comes from the community-based call for “cleaner, safer, greener” environment on the LI side, whilst the ialeUK angle comes from the 2010 Lawton report for “bigger, better, more joined up” ecosystems. The LI conference revealed some of the drivers for changing towards green attitudes and challenges that would face the UK for not following through. ialeUK, as landscape ecologists, showcased what can be done with green attitudes in hand and stated the successes and challenges they encountered in their various projects.


I joined both conferences as something of a newcomer to their associations [full disclosure: I gave a talk at the ialeUK conference for Viridian Logic], but shared an appetite for nature-based solutions, where the case for adoption of green infrastructure was strongly made. Between them, there were open discussions about how to engage outside their respective disciplines. Even the term “green infrastructure” was discussed as something that is not language that engages people beyond landscape academics and professionals. There is a need to communicate not only to policy-makers and land managers, but to raise awareness at corporate executive level and to the wider public.

The realisation that landscape is a shared concern hasn’t led to any action plans, formative or otherwise. It would be valuable for landscape associations to share their lessons and successes and join efforts in some way. The sooner landscape professionals have a cohesive vision for the future of landscape, the easier it will be to share that vision with others.

About the author:

Dr Leon Baruah is a NERC/RSE Enterprise Fellow based at the University of Sussex, having earned his PhD in extragalactic astrophysics in 2015. He is also Founder-Director of Viridian Logic Ltd, a natural flood management consultancy that combines hydrology and GIS to calculate the optimal placement of new habitat to mitigate flooding downstream. Contact: leon@viridianlogic.com