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Planning landscape architecture for the future with GAF Fellow Oliver Johnson


I’m a practising landscape architect, in Adelaide, South Australia. Based at a landscape architecture and urban design firm - Oxigen, I am involved in various scales of work. This varies from small residential gardens to large scale public parks and strategic master plans. All projects vary in location from central Adelaide to remote regional towns and national parks.


After working in the industry over the past eight years I’ve seen the awareness of climate change grow, with greater importance being put on future proofing our urban and natural environments. The landscape architecture industry is becoming more important and I saw this GAF Fellowship as a valuable opportunity to explore and compare select firms and landscapes that are demonstrating bold steps on the direction landscape architecture is heading internationally, particularly locations that are climatically similar to South Australia.


For my overseas research component, I set aside two months to travel across Europe and the

United States, with a focus on areas that were either a dry, arid or Mediterranean climate. The fellowship provided the opportunity to explore various private and public spaces from different countries at once and compare, gaining insight into different design methods and techniques.


Starting in Morocco I attended the annual international garden tour by the Mediterranean Garden Society. Over four days this involved visiting a series of private and public gardens around Marrakech that provided insight into various Mediterranean planting methods and techniques in a very dry climate. Highlights included The Anima Garden by Andre Heller and The Villa Oasis, the former home and gardens of Yves St. Laurent.


With a focus continued toward Mediterranean climates, I then travelled to Spain, Portugal and Italy reviewing a series of public spaces and gardens that demonstrated various methods and techniques that can be applied back in South Australia. Some of these sites began to focus towards larger scaled urban spaces, with a particular highlight being Rio Madrid by West 8; a large-scale linear corridor park that has become a highly valued piece of open space for the city of Madrid.


For the second leg of my trip, I travelled to the United States, starting in New York. I visited numerous sites that demonstrate how high-density cities are providing high quality public spaces in response to limited open space. Michael Van Valkenburg, a landscape architect based in New York has contributed a significant level of work, particularly on the Brooklyn waterfront. His work was of a key highlight on this trip, demonstrating the fine balance of creating high quality urban spaces that are considerate of the place and enduring through the selection of materials and acknowledging the site's history.



Finishing in California, I visited a mixture of sites that focus on how we can create functional and sustainable public and private spaces in dry and arid environments. I met with landscape architects in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, gaining a perspective on how the industry is progressing and its direction forward over the next 10 years. Travelling from north to south of California, provided insight into the various climates and diversity of natural landscapes. A key highlight was Palm Springs, that showcased techniques used to deliver both public and private spaces in such harsh, dry conditions.


As I return from two months away, I have an overload of information to digest and reflect on. However, the key takeaway learnings currently from my time overseas are:


  • There is a current approach with landscape architecture that we need to start with a clear site and invest significant funds into creating high-end glamorous photo worthy projects. This approach is slowly shifting, with greater importance and focus towards connection to land and responding to the natural climate, rather than competing with it.

  • Lots of landscapes are over designed and unable to be managed sustainably. There is a shift needed towards less is more.

  • We need further focus towards land stewardship and how we manage the land. In order to create resilient, enduring spaces, they need to be managed beyond the pretty architectural images and the opening ceremony.


From these learnings there is not one solution but a mixture of techniques and methods that can be applied. I have gained a valuable understanding of techniques applicable to: dry and arid planting palettes, adaptive reuse, and land stewardship / management.


Overall, I gained further appreciation and understanding on where landscape architecture can be pushed. There is great opportunity particularly for emerging professionals on how we approach designing private and public spaces. The tough part is finding the balance of meeting the needs of humans and the natural environment!


Oliver Johnson is a 2022 George Alexander Foundation Fellow. Applications for the 2023 George Alexander Foundation Fellowship are open until 30th of March.

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