UK Student Travel Award-winner, Rebecca Mcdonald-Balfour (University of Greenwich) looks into the power of landscape transformation on the front-line of London’s Extinction Rebellion march.

In April this year, I studied five sites across London as they were shut down in an act of ‘civil disobedience’ by environmental movement, Extinction Rebellion. The movement came with three demands for the UK Government; declare a climate emergency, reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero by 2025 and create a Citizen’s Assembly to oversee this.

Over the duration of the protests, the sites (Parliament Square, Waterloo Bridge, Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Circus and Marble Arch) were transformed from places of infrastructure, to places where people slept, skateboarded, shared food and talked passionately about the future of our planet.

By the time Extinction Rebellion had moved out of these sites, either voluntarily or by force, the impact they had made was huge. The protests were front page news, climate change related web traffic had soared, thousands were now talking about concepts like ‘system change’ and the UK Parliament had officially declared a climate emergency.

As I reflected on my experience of the protests, and the legacy Extinction Rebellion had established over that short period of time, I was inspired to think more deeply about the role public space can play as a tool for environmental and socio-political transformation.

So with the April protests in mind, I began to explore five ways in which landscape architecture might play a part in inspiring change and transforming the future of the planet…

1. Greening

Much like the way Extinction Rebellion transformed Waterloo Bridge into a garden bridge with their installation of trees and plants, I’m reminded of the work of London-based Landscape Architecture and Design Consultancy, Edible Bus Stop, which illustrates the many opportunities available to increase instances of green in urban environments.

Their pop-up gardens for Lambeth’s car-free day, for example, suggest new uses for parking bays and how they might be put to more environmentally (and people) friendly uses.

Perhaps the most convincing argument that greener is better, is to go ahead and demonstrate it. And if Waterloo Bridge can be transformed into a garden then maybe all public spaces hold some capacity to increase the inclusion of nature.

2. Politics

The mooring of Extinction Rebellion’s pink boat bearing the words “Tell the Truth” could have been a public art installation and reminded me of works by politically-minded artists like Olafur Eliasson.

Eliasson’s transportation of icebergs to the space outside the Tate Modern in December 2018 was a thought-provoking and confrontational use of public art to raise awareness of climate change.

Similarly, the work of land artist and environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy highlights the temporality of nature and calls on us to examine our relationship with the land.

These offer a reminder that landscape projects that include installations of political or land art can serve as powerful metaphors for some of the world’s most pressing issues.

3. Information

Landscape architecture is often employed in urban areas as a way of mitigating some of the damage caused by the built environment and city infrastructures. But I wonder how the effects of mitigation are measured? How substantial is the impact and how much of a difference does it make?

One thing that stood out at the Extinction Rebellion protests was the amount of information on offer. From signs, banners and speeches to flags and flyers, information was presented everywhere. It was hard to pass through the sites without an increased awareness and knowledge of climate change.

I wonder if a similar approach could be applied to landscape projects specifically designed for environmental mitigation and what impact this might have?

4. Purpose

Extinction Rebellion’s public assembly stage in Parliament Square reminded me of the historical link between public space and democracy.

The Ancient Greeks established the first known democracy in the world in 507 BC on Pnyx Hill, in a public space set aside for the use of democratic assemblies.

Could future public spaces be designed for contemporary democratic purposes? And what would this look like?

5. Programme

Extinction Rebellion made great use of programme during the protests. This made involvement in the protests engaging – it kept children (and adults!) entertained as well as serving to educate.

One of my favourite ways in which they did this was ‘silent disco’ style dance on Waterloo Bridge which aimed to help the dancers feel more consciously aware of our relationship to the earth.

It reminded me of Bernard Tschumi’s Parc de la Villette, which introduced a new form of culture to landscape design. Tschumi designed the park to inspire and instigate activity, as a place to actively engage with rather than passively experience.

When public spaces such as parks are designed with programme in mind, this widens the scope of what landscape could achieve for environmental and other causes.

Through programme, opportunities are created to include political or social activities into public space. For example, a soap box from which to inspire others to a cause, an outdoor theatre to act out policy changes, or a seed exchange where people can experiment in more sustainable ways of shopping.

The Landscape Institute have officially declared a climate emergency. Find out more.

Learn more about the LI Student Travel Award here.