This Saturday 6 May, the Landscape Australia Conference will take over the Frank Gehry-designed Dr Chau Chak Wing Building at the University of Technology Sydney. With a focus on landscape architecture and its contribution to developing better cities and regions, this year’s program runs the full gamut of contemporary issues – from aesthetics and cultural narratives in garden design, to Indigenous management of Australian landscapes.

One of the important ideas to be discussed at this year’s conference – an idea that is increasingly gaining prominence on the world stage – is that of the ‘resilient landscapes’. In the last panel session of the day, landscape architect Claire Martin will chair a discussion with the Netherlands’ Sylvia Karres and Turkey’s Alexia Sanal on public projects and urban resiliency.

As an associate director of landscape architecture and urban design practice OCULUS, Claire Martin’s work deals with the complexity of the Australian city on a daily basis, from master planning urban ecologies to the design of infrastructure and public open spaces.

In the lead-up to her panel discussion on Saturday, A&D spoke to Martin about what resilient landscapes are, how they look, and why resiliency is crucial to the future of our cities.

What is a ‘resilient landscape’?

A resilient landscape is one that can accommodate change, is flexible and adaptive. They’re hybridised landscapes that combine environmental and programmatic benefit and use. This kind of approach is a way of looking at landscape infrastructure that can work as part of natural or landscape systems rather than in opposition to them. Landscape infrastructure supports social, economic and environmental functions. I guess, ultimately, a way of defining a resilient landscape would be a landscape that is designed to be high performance.

What does a resilient landscape look like? Would it be identifiable to someone who isn’t necessarily an expert?

If it was truly a resilient landscape, it might look different. It would look different to a natural landscape, and to what we have come to understand as constructed landscapes. A truly resilient landscape would be one that blurred the boundary between architecture and landscape; that expressed natural systems; that was able to mediate between increased urban densification and twenty first century landscape values. Typologically, it would look different – but the idea is not so much what it looks like, it’s more how it’s experienced; how it feels and what it does.

What are the kinds of issues that can be addressed by resilient landscapes? Are there distinct types of responses to address different concerns?

While it’s an extreme example, during the recent flooding in Queensland, much of the impact may have been exacerbated by land use and our reliance on engineering. The design of more resilient landscapes is not limited to mitigation, but [they] work with natural systems, requiring a re-prioritisation of land use; exploring [the] opportunities for controlled flooding. More integrated design responses are required. If we limit ourselves to multi-disciplinary and not transdisciplinary approaches to tackle complex problems, we will return the same results. We need to adapt to the exponential changes [taking place in our landscapes] to focus on maximising the positive benefits of our built environment [and] not simply mitigating the negative effect. It requires more strategic planning, design, management and implementation – a whole of government approach to deliver social, economic, and environmental benefits.

Why is this issue relevant to us now? Is it a new concern?

There is a twentieth century lineage to the notion of resilient landscapes [in western culture] from Ian McHarg’s 1969 book Design with Nature. And more recently with the introduction of eco-system services, when people actually started to develop landscape metrics [and put] a financial value on landscape. [It’s] an often criticised approach, because it’s quite an anthropocentric thing to do. Maybe there is a certain irony to utilising anthropocentric approaches to address the environmental impacts of the Anthropocene era.

What are some of the challenges of creating these resilient landscapes in and around already existing urban environments?

To make significant environmental change at the scale of cities or large urban renewal precincts will require significant investment, but there’s quite a lot of evidence to suggest that the cost of designing and implementing these more flexible and resilient landscapes is less over the life cycle of those urban landscapes. It requires a shift in thinking in terms of investment, but also a shift in strategic and cross-agency thinking; to achieve maximum public benefit over the long term.

For instance, instead of collecting water at the side of the road concealing it untreated underground where no one can see it, you start to express these ephemeral conditions of wetting and drying – of inundation – [and] you express these systems [by] heightening the experience of the landscape while improving its environmental performance through in-ground permeability, passive irrigation, bio-filtration and enhanced public open space. You allow the public to experience these environmental changes to help encourage behaviour change. This will lead to a broader recognition of the challenges that we face and the changes that collectively we need to make.

Are our cities doing enough to prepare against unexpected events?

Simply put, no. I think the City of Melbourne and the City of Sydney are to an extent leading the way in terms of urban forest strategies. I know Melbourne and Sydney are participating cities in the 100 Resilient Cities challenge. Certainly through initiatives like Participate Melbourne, [the former is] trying to work out and engage the public in what designing a resilient city means. But Australian cities have a long way to go, especially as we have one of the most urbanised populations in the world living in very low-lying cities; some of the on-average largest houses on the smallest blocks globally, of the sprawling suburbs and the significant increases in height and density in inner-urban areas.

What is the specific role of architects, landscape architects and builders in ensuring our urban environments are safe?

Adopting resilient city and resilient landscape approaches requires commissioning agents, designers and those approving developments and developing policy to take responsibility. We have a responsibility as members of a civil society. It’s our responsibility to push back on briefs to engage with our clients [and] to improve the quality of developments, whether public or private. We also need to use our advocacy skills to lobby, and to encourage the public to demand more and to get engaged in discussions around the design of their future cities.

How is Australia’s response to the problem in comparison to other global spaces?

Probably the initiatives I’ve just talked about are world leading in some respects. I think what’s probably interesting is that resiliency can operate at different scales. You might have people doing micro-erosion projects right through to cities in the Middle East and China that have been planned as zero carbon cities. You’ve got to work across scales because ecologies don’t respect boundaries. Australia’s problems are exaggerated because of population growth, extreme heat and potential water supply shortages. There’s an increased urgency [in Australia], and an increase in investment in resiliency strategies needs to be commensurate with those changes. I don’t think that’s happening here yet.

What are some of the leading examples of resilient landscapes around the world? Where should Australia be looking to for examples?

I think probably the de-poldering in the Netherlands is a good example. Because the Netherlands is at or below sea level, it’s a totally constructed environment built out of levees and polders. De-polderisation is a method of controlled flooding. That’s an interesting example of creating a landscape infrastructural response to [specific challenges] that works with not against natural systems. But again, it’s about scale. There are some very interesting things happening across the world on a very small scale that are probably just as innovative.

What are the details of this panel discussion? Why is it an important discussion to be having at the Landscape Australia Conference in particular?

Resilience will just be one aspect of the session. On a broader scale, it’s about the design of the urban landscape and trying to understand it from different socio-cultural perspectives. Resilience is a term that’s increasingly bandied around, [and] because it has an ecological basis landscape architects are well-placed to address the economic and social consequences of the design of our built environment – from local to regional scales. It’s critical now because we’re at a tipping point where we need urgently re-define our landscape values.