Australian Landscape Conference

The Australian Landscape Conference is an annual conference of the world’s finest landscape and garden designers. Held during March, the design team from Pepo flew down to Melbourne for four days of panels, networking, seminars and garden tours (pictured above touring a garden designed by Fiona Brockhoff).

Conferences like these are always an important opportunity to connect with our colleagues and learn from the most exciting minds in our industry. After the isolation of COVID-19, the conference felt like a breath of fresh air and we returned to Sydney reinvigorated and inspired.

These were our key takeaways…

Landscape Architect, Josh Arkey:

After the year that was 2020, I felt there was a lot of reflection from the conference speakers on what it is to be a garden designer. We have a significant responsibility to rehabilitate, reengage and restore. Throughout the world, planting design is integral to the way we inhabit spaces, communicating the true essence or sense of a place. As an Australian landscape architect, I feel a strong responsibility to listen to our First Nations peoples’ knowledge and learnings from their Country, and understand how I can respectfully incorporate these landscape management ideas and plant knowledge.

An important theme that resonated with me and my design approach was around the importance of land stewardship. Our native florae are so unique and we are yet to fully grasp their capabilities in a contemporary landscape. As Jon Hazelwood said ‘we [landscape designers and architects] need to put planting first’. He described a design process for the National Gallery of Victoria Contemporary gardens, whereby areas for green [plants] were put first, then working backwards to insert paths, paving and services second. It was inspiring to see that the mode of activation throughout the space was via seasonal planting, and not built forms as is standard throughout the industry.

Sue Stuart-Smith also said ‘beauty [through gardening] is a form of medicine’. She went on to add that gardening programs within prisons in the UK and USA have shown to greatly improve the rehabilitation of inmates as plants are not judgemental. The effect plant communities and gardens have on our wellbeing is paramount, yet this still isn’t fully understood by many.

Landscape Designer, Anouk Lee:

For me, the conference added fuel to my longstanding contemplation on the interdependent relationships between land, people, animals, water and plants. Caring for one of these means caring for all – it cannot be mutually exclusive.

How to practice that care was illuminated at many levels by the conference. At one level, is the example set by First Nations people for over 65,000 years of caring for Country and Country caring for them, acknowledging that Australia never has been wilderness, but rather has always been carefully tended to.

At another level is the care given by the individuals whose gardens we had the joy of experiencing in person or through their talks. Then there are the more structured, academic approaches to caring, an example of which is the care for public spaces through planting design based on plant communities, complexity and a tonne of research.

I was inspired, in particular, by the uniquely Australian gardens that aren’t so much about applying European design and horticultural trends here, but rather, are looking ‘simply’ at the place in which the garden resides and responding to that, and perhaps responding based on an ever-widening understanding of land in Australia and its inherent beauty and significant First Nations history, rather than trying to convert it into something else.

So where to next?

For us, the conference really drove home the responsibility we have to our land, while also raising many questions around the actions we need to take moving forward.

We are deeply passionate about these areas of thinking and land management approaches, and we have a strong desire apply these holistic principles to our urban garden projects, as well as engaging in more rural landscape projects.

This is a continuing conversation that we need to keep having as we reflect on what it means to be landscape architects, designers and gardeners in Australia, and our place within the existing ecology of this country.