Mike Clough

Feeling Guilty?

Author: Mike Clough

Date Posted: Wednesday 21st September 2016

When I qualified as a landscape architect, one of the first jobs that I had was tidying up small areas of waste ground in Oldham. These areas were pretty straight forward in that anything you did would be an improvement – full of old prams, shopping trolleys and any other discarded rubbish that couldn’t find a home.

So as the office junior, I was allowed pretty much free reign in what I did – planting of trees and shrubs with associated seating areas was the order of the day. The work was done by the ‘job creation’ teams – basically this was taking unemployed kids and teaching them a skill whilst improving the local area…a ‘win win’ scenario.

The next job I had was working on the Stoke garden festival – again pretty much a ‘win win’ scenario – taking a god forsaken piece of land which nobody would ever do anything with …and create a ‘garden for the people’ – something that could be used by generations to come. The site had been an old steel works and also suffered badly at the hands of the pottery industry – slurry pits, slag heaps – you name it, this site had a problem….

This was transformed over a period of three years into parkland with a network of paths and planting with water features and sculpture – something that we could all be proud of.

However …in the longer term, the site did begin to nibble away at my conscience. The budget was in the millions – all funded from the public purse – yet huge plots of the ….’Garden for the People’ was being sold off for development??? Duuuuuh this wasn’t the reason for the Garden Festival movement??? Very little of the Garden now remains – with the bulk of the site taken up by business and housing units.

Following the job at the Garden Festival, I went to work for a playground company who sold their designs throughout the UK. Great company to work for, great learning experience and a few more valuable lessons in life. The mark up on the equipment sold was huge – made from locally sourced timber the ‘equipment’ was basic to say the least.

Foreign imported kit was machined and treated to the highest of standards with the highest of health and safety ratings that could be attained. The company I worked for milled a few posts bolted them together and called it ‘Tarzans adventure’ – if the bolts came loose they tightened them up – job done.

The parting of the ways came with this company when I worked with them to provide a play area for severely disabled children. The parents raised the funds with hours and hours of raffles/barbecues/bingo – they spent years getting a grand total of 30 thousand pounds together to create something special for their children.

But, did the company I worked for give them any discount – NO …did they get anything extra – NO ….I was told that this was… ‘how business works’ ….and that we weren’t  …’a charity’….

Sorry – couldn’t work there any more….200% mark up on equipment …maybe could have given a little of the margin to help create something special that they could have used as PR??

After this, I started my own practice, but the guilt at what I do just didn’t go away. I worked as a Landscape Architect – but – kept finding myself working on beautiful tree covered green field sites ….then turning them into housing estates….

I’m not stupid – and I know that if it wasn’t me doing these type of projects – then somebody else would be. I also know that as a nation – we have a housing shortage and that various people far cleverer than me have given planning permission for these places to be developed – but it still left me feeling that I was somehow party to destroying the very countryside that I loved.

Identifying the issues with invasive non-native plants was a real eye opener for me – and perhaps something I could do to benefit the environment – with no guilty feelings – I would be saving native vegetation and destroying the nasty ‘alien’ invaders.

We generally arrive on brownfield sites that are lying dormant – having passed their useful period generally about a hundred or so years ago when a lot of these sites were the scene of frantic industrial goings on – now left like dinosaurs to rot away. They have become overrun with every invasive species known to man and are in a pretty poor state.

The majority of the time I do come away with a feeling that we have improved the situation – but just recently one or two guilty feelings have begun to re-appear? Are these sites actually in such a ‘poor state’ or are they actually the beginnings of a ‘new landscape’…??

Plants and animals tend to thrive when left alone – and many of these sites have literally been locked and barred to prevent people from trespassing. So what we actually have here are biological and ecological marvels… where man has done nothing to stop and prevent the ‘new landscape’ from developing.

Now I’m not saying that these types of sites are a return to native ecology – they aren’t…

What I am saying is that maybe we should stop and hesitate a bit before we blaze in with chemicals and destroy what’s been developing untouched for years. Maybe these sites do have something to offer…?

It also strikes me with hind sight – that a lot of the ‘greenfield’ sites that we fight so hard to preserve are actually pretty barren pieces of land? Farmed to within an inch of their lives for years – many of our fields hold very little in the way of insect and plant life. Many of our hedgerows have disappeared altogether – so actually whilst these areas may be classed a ‘greenfield’ they actually have very little to offer in terms of bio -diversity.

OR…am I just a sucker for feeling guilty about everything I do…??

I blame my parents.


Mike C

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Mike Clough

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