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Well-designed landscape, environment ensure economic growth, says Alao

By Victor Gbonegun
07 November 2022   |   3:56 am
Amos Alao is the president, of the Society of Landscape Architects of Nigeria (SLAN). He spoke to VICTOR GBONEGUN on how increased radiation from the sun has forced landscape architects to design, and construct gardens


Amos Alao is the president, of the Society of Landscape Architects of Nigeria (SLAN). He spoke to VICTOR GBONEGUN on how increased radiation from the sun has forced landscape architects to design, and construct gardens on roofs of buildings, as well as the urgency for green infrastructure to mitigate tidal flooding driven by climate change.

The Society of Landscape Architects of Nigeria (SLAN) was established in 2003, why is your society still largely unknown and what are the socially relevant issues influencing the development of landscapes in cities?
YOU are right. SLAN has been in existence since 2003. It has been involved in the promotion of education and practice of landscape architecture in Nigeria since then.

The Society is affiliated with the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA), which is the world body of landscape architects. IFLA currently represents 77 national associations from Africa, America, Europe, Asia Pacific and the Middle East. SLAN is one of the five registered associations on the African continent.

A landscape architect designs parks, gardens and other outdoor spaces, as well as collaborates in the design and development of neighbourhoods and residential layouts, towns, housing projects, shopping centres, schools, hospitals, highways, resorts, sports centers, airports, civic and community centres, industrial parks, botanical gardens, historic sites and monuments. Other endeavours are land reclamation, reclamation of erosional sites, environmental conservation, urban renewal/historical preservation and landscape master plans of river basins.

We are barely 100 registered landscape architects in the country, we have been trying to merge landscape architects that schooled abroad (the pioneers) and those that schooled at home in the past few years. But now with a large pool of home-trained landscape architects and technicians, we are set to make more noise and create awareness for inclusion.

Some footprints of landscape architectural works exist and are visible in cities like Port Harcourt, Lagos and the Federal Capital Territory, OAU-Ife, UCH and the University of Ibadan to name a few, in terms of beautification of public parks, campuses, historical sites, gardens, urban plazas, streets, neighbourhoods and communities.

As the profession is still very young in Nigeria and with very few educational tertiary institutions offering education of landscape architects, there is a serious shortage of trained individuals with expertise in landscape architecture and many projects that include professionally designed landscapes are limited to rich corporate and large real estate developments. It is encouraging that very recently, the private sector has started commissioning landscape professionals and it is our expectation the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPE) and other organs of government will toe the proper step of fitting the right pegs in the right holes.

Presently, landscape architecture attracts impression as a profession only certain class of people can afford due to its elegance and expression in some developmental projects. Only a few know that the profession also captures projects that benefit every stratum of the community to create sustainable and aesthetic environments.

Equally, there seems to be a lack of understanding as to what landscape architects do, as well as a lack of understanding about the importance of the environment and the adverse impact of climate change and its mitigation. This stereotype, along with several others, has caused divergent perceptions as to the services a landscape architect renders and their importance in the fight against climate change.

However, in dealing with man-environment relationships in the built environment, landscape architecture concerns itself with understanding the landscape/environment as the canvass for all human development along with physical problems and impacts of designing the outdoors and spaces between buildings to optimise functional and aesthetic effectiveness while protecting the environment.

Landscape architects often work closely with other professionals, including building architects, town planners and engineers. They can work in private firms, government agencies and parastatals and in the real estate sectors. There is yet no Act of parliament approved by the legislative arm for a regulatory council from the Federal Government, like other professional bodies in the country, although, the Architects Registration Council (ARCON) is currently helping to fill this role.

Currently, there is limited support for Society and landscape architecture generally from government organs. However, we have enjoyed support from the Federal Ministry of Environment and collaboration with the Department of Climate Change, especially with the severe rise of environmental challenges confronting us today. Like the recent flooding in several parts of Nigeria, the increasing desert encroachments in the far north. Climate change, silting up and drying up of water bodies.

Regarding the socially relevant issues influencing development of landscape in cities, the landscape of any locality or region is as a result of both natural forces and cultural/social disposition of the people in their interaction and preservation of the that landscape/environment. With the high urban migration rate coupled with our people’s perceived low social disposition towards care for the environment, it is not surprising how our urban landscapes have turned out, especially in crowded and slum areas.

The global population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050 and some 66 per cent will be living in urban areas, how do your members contribute to the economy of cities and build their sustainability?
Based on the growth of the population and economy, there are myriad opportunities for infrastructure development, as well as for regional planning. Landscape architects can provide these services in a variety of scales by developing and enhancing existing systems, whether in small villages or large megacities.

Things we can do to contribute to the economy are to transform existing facilities such as streets, parks, plazas, and public open spaces into safe, attractive, functional amenities for the benefit of the community. We encourage communities to promote buildings that are mixed with other land uses affording individuals the ability to live, learn, work, shop, play in a healthy and walk-able setting.

Our members protect and enhance natural, cultural, and scenic resources and avoid environmental land degradation by respecting ecological systems and landscape character. All of these points encourage and promote small-scale business owners to thrive, especially if these are well-designed and managed. There are endless possibilities for economic growth with a well-designed landscape and environment.

It is important to state here; every landscape design comes with a management plan. Landscape architects are trained to think about sustainability on any project and thereby contributing to the sustainable development of urban and rural areas. With urbanisation, rural areas are fast becoming urban areas, as a result, some agricultural practices that used to be alien to the cities have become a norm through urban farming, which is a concept that is providing fresh food for many cities of the world. It doesn’t only serve as a food bay but it beautifies the neighbourhood and also provides jobs for the population.

With the increased radiation from the sun, landscape architects have begun to design and construct gardens on roofs of buildings and also vertical gardens on façades of buildings to reduce the impact of sun radiation on buildings and roof surfaces. The United Nations trying to cut greenhouse gas emissions to almost net zero. Our members have been involved in tree planting campaigns and organising essay and sketch competitions on the impact of global warming in Nigeria.

We have also advocated for green infrastructure and less dependence of ‘grey infrastructure,’ which is predominantly concrete and very recently SLAN advocated for a fresh holistic “bottom-top” River Basin Landscape Master Plan that accommodates sustainable drainage strategies to mitigate fluvial and tidal flooding driven by climate change; adopt appropriate agricultural practices that will restore productive landscape; improve food productivity and creatively provide much-needed employment opportunities to stem rural-urban drift.

What are the challenges landscape architects in Nigeria face in their drive to create designs that are memorable?
A landscape architect designed the millennium park in Abuja. The skill and talent of landscape architects are visible all around the park. Abuja municipality is supposed to be a classic display of landscape architecture at its best in Nigeria having been planned and executed by the landscape architects/architectural firm of Mcharg, Todd and Wallace of Philadelphia and IPA of California. In the same vein, Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) Ife has deemed the most beautiful campus in Africa. Why? Simply because OAU’s master plan and landscape plan were done and supervised by the Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Wisconsin, Madison led by Ben Niemann, a landscape architect.

There is low patronage of the professionals. Finding a client can be challenging based on the above influence and factors earlier enumerated. Memorable landscape designs are masterpieces that convey originality and capture the imagination of the user of that space.

Indigenous landscape expression is relatively new and we will need some time with frequent engagements to get a general perception of users the same way architecture has evolved in the country. We were thought in school to be creative and to have a personal creative style in our designs, most times due to economic hardship or non-conformity of the client, creativity is skewed.

There have been concerns recently with the continuous reliance on foreign architects for building designs, as well as the rise in contracts being awarded to large multinational construction companies. Do landscape architects have a similar problem and how are you handling it?
Yes, the situation is pretty much the same in our industry. For now, we are trying to ensure our members are directors in such landscape architecture companies, like what the pharmacist have done with pharmacies all over the country. We are still advocating for an Act of parliament to give us such powers.

The fact remains that local gardeners and florists have hijacked some of your roles and assumed the responsibilities of the landscape architect. How are you remedying the situation?
I will like to correct the notion of ‘hijack’. The general notion is that landscape architecture is primarily about planting flowers, and from your first question, I have been able to explain what the profession is about. The scope of landscape architecture is beyond planting and nurturing flowers and trees. It involves the ‘hardscape’ and the ‘softscape’ and how to tie all these together for a pleasing outdoor environment.

Gardening is a microelement of landscape architecture, it forms a basis for the profession considering ‘greening’ is the bedrock of the profession as we know it. Gardeners and florists work to create the right conditions for plants to thrive, care for and maintain plants in addition to selling plants as a core feature of what they do.

The services of gardeners, nurseries, horticulturists and florists are complimentary to the services we render as professionals. The symbiotic relationship is similar to what masons are to architects in the building industry or what block-making industries are to the construction industry.

We have involved florists and gardeners in most of our workshops, advocacy and conferences and have allotted them exhibition stands at some of our conferences in the past. We have tried to partner with them also to let them know we are not rivalling in the industry and have not come to take them out of business, but to ensure they understand the tenets of landscape architecture as a profession. Because of the expansive nature of landscape architecture, architects have a great appreciation for a multidisciplinary approach to design challenges.

It needs reiterating that, the professional landscape architect is not one who plants flowers, but rather a professional that is trained to design and supervise the development of outdoor spaces using landscape/nature as a canvas of expression. In so doing, he acts as a physical liaison between man and nature, while improving relations between people and the environment.

Landscape architecture is relatively new and young in this clime, how are you promoting sustainable landscape education to address complex environmental issues driven by wanton consumption of finite earth resources?
The landscape Architecture programme has been running in two higher institutions in Nigeria at postgraduate levels since 2008. The University of Lagos offers the Masters in Landscape Architecture (MLA) Programme and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria offers the Master of Landscape Architecture (MLA) and Postgraduate Diploma in Landscape Architecture (PGDLA). And Bingham University, Keffi offers Landscape Architecture at the undergraduate level and awards Bachelor in Landscape Architecture (BLA). Hopefully, other universities will integrate the programme into their offered environmental courses and include landscape architecture in their academic curriculums.

We have a pool of graduates, registered with the society ready for employment in higher institutions to take up lecturing appointments. We have also been involved in regular conferences, advocacy, newsletter and handbills publications; career talks at some selected primary schools. Our members have published international papers on practice and academics, won regional and global competitions and exhibited landscape architecture projects even in the just concluded Kaduna Chapter, Nigeria Institute of Architects (NIA) at its 50th conference.

SLAN also recognises the importance of sustainable landscape architecture education in nation-building. We have been able to review our landscape architecture education curriculum to be people driven and locally tailored to solve problems that border on the Nigerian environment, but not limited to land degradation, deforestation, desert- encroachment, wrong agricultural practices, erosion, oil spill, insensitive road construction activities etc., salt water intrusion of underground aquifers and flood disaster.

Designing with community members encourages efficient environmental practices and inspires people to appreciate open spaces and landscape solutions. Recently, SLAN put out a press release on the recent flooding in parts of the country that has drawn a lot of attention to the profession.

Do you think the low emphasis on architecture in the country will affect you too?
Landscape architecture and architecture like in most parts of the world are two distinct professions and professional bodies, as you can see rudiments of practice are different. While architects’ core training is the design of structures, landscape architects training involves design with ecology. We do not have a rift with building architects as our academic curriculum and scopes of practice are parallel.

Kenya had a similar problem of breaking free from traditional architecture and only recently got her own association known as landscape architects chapter, this further buttresses the point that landscape architecture is a profession on its own. I must also state that landscape architecture is a studio-based discipline, but because of its heavy link with ecology, horticulturist, botanist, geographers, architects and urban planners are also allowed to enrol for the programme at post-graduate levels.