Urban planning, coupled with urban greening initiatives, aims to transform cities into sustainable and vibrant spaces. This integrated approach emphasises green spaces, tree-lined streets, and parks to combat pollution, enhance biodiversity, and improve residents' quality of life. It fosters resilient, healthy, and attractive urban environments for generations to come.
And in Singapore, I learned so much about how ambition for greening cities can become a reality, reality relatively easily. I think the projects that they've done there are so exemplry so incredible, so inspirational.
I think it's very difficult not to fall in love with Singapore as a city. You can say whatever you about its governance or all sorts of, things like that. But really as an urban experiment, it is the best place on on on the planet
Welcome to Rethink What Matters the podcast dedicated to aligning the economy and ecology with everyone for improved business performance, stronger families, and a greener cooler planet. And today I'm joined by John Goldwyn landscape architect, and master planner, and founder of Wild fifteen.
And we're gonna be discussing greening cities.
Thank you very much, Paul. It's very nice to be here.
So, yeah, it's great to, it's great to be able to catch up with you, and it's great to be able to speak with you on this podcast, because, we've had some the podcasts that we've done so far have been biophilic cities, and we're going to be doing biophilic design green roofs, living walls, rain gardens, urban biodiversity, integrated solar green roofs, by mimicry. Actually, that's coming.
Permaculture as well as indoor vertical farming and even sustainable development.
I'm thinking that on this podcast, we'll be able to bring a lot of subjects together perhaps if we could start off though with wildfifteen, if you could tell us a little bit about that first.
Sure. Yeah, having worked in, commercial practice, for the majority of my career, I spent about the last twenty years before I set my company up working, for a large international, American architecture and design firm and I really decided to go alone to try and focus on what I really care about and to try and, really hone in on on important to me as a landscape architect and planner and as a professional, that being a far greater drive towards working very closely with nature on my projects and trying to bring, ecological thinking and landscape thinking into every single project that I do be it large or small. My experiences often has often been with with resorts and so I'm now focusing really on on eco resorts and obviously other elements of of urban planning. So very focused and very, very ecologically focused now.
We can, be great to talk about your projects and some of the case studies that you have, in the podcast, but, just having, you know, read out that list of items there. So, you know, Biophilic cities and, Biomimicry, for example, is urban planning and and if, you know, is urban planning even the right term to be using, but his urban has a urban planning really changed a lot over the last few years or decades.
Yeah. That's a it's an excellent question because urban planning means something different to to to to each different person who worked in the in the field of, of the built environment.
And with a with a focus on international work, which is, I guess, where I've been in the lot for the last twenty or twenty five years, urban planning really has, evolved a lot and it has changed a lot. I think, there was a moment when people felt that urban planning was was a snapshot of a of a of a city or of a and creating that snapshot as a as a as a commission. Whereas now, I think there's more of an understanding that it's a it's a manipulation of systems and understanding how landscape and the built environment are woven together. And I think that's, reflected in both policy but also the kind of projects that, private companies are creating as well.
Okay. And it's and and is it a recognition that the the the the the cities that we live in affect our well-being as well?
Yeah. There's been this huge, I suppose, you know, to mention the the c word, if we're gonna talk about COVID, then, I think that, it really did give us a chance to, to reflect on what was important to us as we as we sat at home as particularly in this country in the United Kingdom in my city in London, there was a there was a sense of reflection, and I think that people realized how much they were affected by their environment, not city wide, but really locally.
And so urban planning really started to understand the notion that your neighborhood, where you live, who you interact with, not only affects the way that the city around you works, but affects your yourself, your own mental health, your own mental well-being and, obviously, you know, happy cities and all of these kinds of things are buzzwords that emerge from this kind of thinking. So, yes, very tied in.
Right. And it seems also that, you know, cities are having to play a much larger role in sustainability in urban cooling and in stormwater management. I mean, I'm new to the subject, but that seems to come up quite a bit.
Yes. I would I would argue that all of these strands that you talk about are tied in together. So the the health of the city and the mental health of the city and the biodiversity of the city and the cooling, you know, green spaces stop the urban heat island effect, which is what what heats are are in the cities, increased biodiversity is good, for, air quality as well as the biodiesel, you know, we're an animal as well.
It's not only the the the birds and the the insects that we're helping. So There's also, the notion of food in cities and how we grow urban orchards and urban farming. And so you can actually speak very much into the the way that the city is functioning as an organism itself, and then all of these other strands from green roofs to green walls to biodiversity to reducing, urban heat island effect or improving drainage in cities. All of these things are very, very tied in together. Through the through the lens of the landscape.
So are we really trying to turn the cities in into the countryside?
No. I think that we need to learn from the best of the countryside and bring some of those incredible, ideas that the because again, the cult the the countryside is also cultivated. It's not, something, you know, it's not wilderness. We don't live surrounded by wilderness. Our countryside is highly managed, highly farmed, highly maintained.
But I think that it's about understanding what we love about the countryside and what we love about the cities and there being this beautiful blend between green space in cities and, the countryside, again, being being the way that it is. I mean, there's certain elements like the density of population that means that the countryside is a is a is a bit of anathema to to to cities, but there's certainly a, an interesting parallel, I think, that we're, we're drawing as as designers between the two.
I'd like to get your opinion with all your experience on, let's start off with biophilic cities or biophilic design.
Sure. I think that I I think I was only made aware of the term by biophilic, probably six, five or six years ago. So it's something that's relatively new in my own vocabulary, but I think it's something that I've always felt for as long as I've been alive, that mankind has this, inherent affinity with nature that actually boosts us when we when we feel it. I mean, I I I think that it's something that, the soft shapes of nature, the sounds, and the tech of nature are something that obviously, people feel comfortable with as we've only industrialized relatively recently in our history as a as a species.
We have a lot of affinity with nature, and I think that that is absolutely relevant in cities. I think that you can fill it our favorite spaces.
In cities are often parks. I'm lucky enough to live in London. I'm surrounded by some of the best open spaces, in the world, world class parks and the beautiful river that breathes life through the city as well. So I think that Biophilia in cities is, as I said, it's something that's always as long as, you know, we've since certainly, since we've industrialized it's been there, and it's also been used to raise the value of property.
If you think about region park in London that was laid out to to raise the the value of adjacent property, there was a study by the Royal Institute of Chartered surveyors that each street tree raises about a million pounds worth of uplift on the surrounding property that, that are close to it. So you do see that that the economics and the the sort of biophilic, factors can work very nicely together. And I don't think there's anything wrong with a city being based on on solid economics and positive economics, and the sort of biofilia fits very strongly into that.
And can I ask you then about biomimicry?
Yeah. Again, I mean, some of the, some of the best, design has often taken its its cue from nature. You think about everything from from fibonacci series that appear in nature through to the, you know, the hive of a bee, which is created from very strong hexagonal structures, which have an incredible structural integrity similar to the, you know, the the core of bones, which have again this very, very, structural, system to them that that architects and designers have have used through, different designs. To me, it's not something that should almost be pulled out as some thing, specific.
It's it's part of a bigger design story. And so I think that's, it's it's it's one of these buzz words. Again, like by Filia, I think, it's it's something that of course it's very relevant and of course it's it's part of what we do, but again, I think in in the same ways as people tend to to, react well to soft shade and gentle voluptuous curves in landscapes and in nature.
There's something there that it's almost beyond the words that we use to describe it. It's just it just feels nice to us as people. Has the role of the landscape architect changed over the years then so that you'd be working a lot more closely now with the architect I think the role of the landscape architect has evolved enormously over the, the last few years over the last couple of decades.
There, I think was a time that people understood that landscape architecture was garden designs big, big sister, or big brother, the the idea that it was, more public space than, than garden space and landscape architects worked with teams of, of built environment specialists to create the landscape element I think now especially with, looming, climate catastrophe and all sorts of sort of do mongering around the future of humanity, the role of the landscape architect couldn't be more relevant than it is now because it's about two things. Firstly, mitigating and working with, the the world that we've now created for self.
So in terms of resilient landscapes and, working to make sure that we can still, exist in the in the present. But also planning towards making some inroads against the kind of damage that that mankind has made, against nature and against the climate. So I think the stakes are much higher, and I think that the the the industry that the profession really is starting to see that. I think because I've been lucky enough to work globally, I managed to use my landscape architectural knowledge far more in urban planning and resort planning on a larger scale often in the absence of architects or with architects working on specific building projects within, the structure.
So I I don't think it's, necessarily quite as in lockstep with architecture as you might think it it was.
And on your website here, I'm very interested in your principles.I'd like to touch on those if we may just briefly. So don't worship at the altar of scale.
Again, thinking about your question about, biophilia. I think biophilia is also connected to scale, people feel much more comfortable in spaces that relate to to their own self and their own personal space. For example, canopies of trees bring down a space so that when you're sitting under a tree canopy, you feel naturally cooled and shaded by the the trees and the the transpiration that the plant gives you, but also you feel a comfort that you're almost being embraced enveloped by the tree itself.
And so I think that the architectural notion of, you know, standing next to a hundred and fifty story building and thinking that's a a good thing for your for yourself is something that I I don't agree with. I I think that tall iconic buildings have a place but certainly not in livable, comfortable, cities that that that we want to relate to. So I think this notion of scale is very important to what I do and and creating places where people feel comfortable and relaxed and creative or, you know, whatever they need to be, people sometimes just need a a place to sit outside and just be. They don't need to, you know, necessarily do anything. And again, with with with small, units that people live in. If you can have exterior space where people can extend their they're being outside. I think that really speaks to this question of scale.
And something which really hasn't been discussed in any of the any of the other podcasts So it comes up here under urban planning is having to think about time the history of an area.
Yeah. I mean, if you think about this notion of what place is, it really is just a number of layers of history over time. That create associations and memories and, ideas that we share. So if you think about something very specific like the thames and the way it flows through London, the layers of history from prehistory through Roman through industrial years through, more and times, the river and how it relates to the city around it has kind of changed from a a vital artery that fed life into the city through to now something that really is a leisure and, you know, an activity.
It's a tourism generator but it's the same river, right? It's the same geography, it's the same geology, but just with different influence of mankind on the top of that. And I think when I'm looking at a project, it's these layers of history, some of them very recent and some of them very ancient that when synthesized, can help to to really describe what a place needs to be. And you referred to green roofs as the fifth facade So often, I've worked on rocky sites, fragile delicate sites around the Mediterranean, which tend to be very steep And you kind of imagine if you're sitting in one of these structures looking out over your, you know, your your Mediterranean view, often you're looking down at at the roof of the of the building in front of you.
And so this idea of creating beautiful vegetated roofs or extensive roof gardens or rain gardens or whatever on roofs, it really does start to to make you think about, you know, how we can maximize the, ecological footprint or, or minimize the, the destruction through, through development of a, of a project through using roofs to, to generate exciting landscapes.
And would your role involve thinking about the animals that get attracted, you know, by the trees and the flora and the fauna of it and the green roofs that you're planting and and the green landscape that you're creating. Would you be thinking about is going to attract certain types of birds, for example?
Absolutely. It's absolutely essential. I think, again, so many people think that landscape architects look at green fluff around interesting buildings. And I'll give you an example. I worked on a a study for a a historic landscape many years ago, more than twenty years ago, and one of the most fascinating elements of this project was that there were it was that the avenues on in in ham, in in London, close to close to the river thames. And interestingly, there were some historic lime tree avenues and the lime trees, attract a lot of aphids, and the aphids attract a lot of bats.
And so these historic avenues from, the the sort of classical landscape that it represented had these incredible commuting lines of bats because bats like to fly up along above line trees with their mouths open, essentially, eating all of these aphids. So if you plant a long line of of lime trees, you create these incredible commuting lines for bats And so something that's laid out obviously as a design statement like that can have huge, ecological implications good and bad in that situation good, for for the ways that, the ways that places work.
So I'm curious now, do you return to places that you've designed and implemented, you know, a few years later just to see how they're being used, and do you watch people move around the spaces that you've designed afterwards?
Yeah. Definitely. That's the biggest. I think that's the biggest pleasure about working on any project is going back there and seeing people enjoying it.
And often seeing things that you've got right or wrong and understanding and learning, you're constantly learning. It's, a profession in which you You pick up so many ideas along the way from your own work and from other people's work. And, yeah, seeing seeing how things have worked out is always fascinating.
Could you maybe tell us about one or two of the projects that you've been involved with?
So on your website here, you've got the Nafsika Golf and Wellness Resort, for example, Sure.
Yeah. This is a project in in Corfu, and, on-site is an existing golf course and and club house.
And, the client who is a family, essentially a family dynasty of hoteliers, contacted us to try and, get for us to try and help them to unlock, what the next chapter of their project looks like. So the golf course at the moment, it's the only one in corfu, and, it's fine. It's it's okay. It's, well liked and well played. But we worked with, world class Gulf architects, and a team of other consultants to actually turn this project into essentially an eco resort, a boutique, luxury eco resort.
And currently every year, there are huge seasonal floods huge seasonal rains and they wash through the site, cause damage and create lots of problems and the idea with the new, master plan is that we capture the seasonal water, create beautiful lakes and water bodies swimming lagoons, and essentially canals that can run through the project, and we sort of celebrate this water through the dry season as well.
With that in mind, we can use the water for irrigation on the golf course. We can use the water as frontage for hotel rooms to create beautiful spaces with little lodges looking out over these, fantastic wetlands.
We can improve biodiversity by having marginal areas with plants and, obviously invertebrates and all sorts of incredible things that will happen as a result of the ecology of the water. So really by re, interpreting the story of the land, we're able to use it as a base to build a beautiful, luxurious, boutique Hotel and resort. And so it's breathing new life, a new chapter into this kind of illustrious place that, obviously needs a bit of a reset.
And did the client give you an open brief for that then? You know, or were they quite specific and what what it is that they wanted and you had to work around them?
We worked very, very closely, in collaboration with the with the client. I don't consider myself to be a sort of egotistical designer that that schools clients on what they have to do. But similarly, I can't work with, egomaniac clients that tell me exactly what I have to do. I always enjoy the collaboration and the, the discourse that goes on around the project. So they had some certain ideas, and we had some certain ideas think that really the project is a meeting of minds.
And the Green Block, rethinking central London, high streets, Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Sure. Yeah. This takes me back to, 2016, when we started, in, as a group in my, in my last company where I was previously working as, we had a competition for, interesting and radical innovation ideas.
And one of the teams thought about a product, if you like, a sort of green construction product where the building block itself was living. So whether it be a combination of interior and exterior space, but essentially each part of this landscape was a was a product. But I work with the the the the team in, in the office, and we very quickly realized that the the products of this ilk already exist. I'm sure you're having podcasts with people who work exclusively with green walls and green roofs and green interiors, etcetera, etcetera.
So we started to almost treat it as a as a manifesto for the city as an ideology, for the city of London, or indeed any city whereby people, can start to actually reclaim some of, the the land that's been taken for roads and for car parking.
And essentially hard spaces and turn them into something far more ecological, something far more, verdant and something that that lives. And so using a kit of parts of all the existing other products that exist, we came up with a an ideology and some visuals which people can spot on online by looking up a WATG green block, and they can essentially see these ideas in in in execution. The idea being that as we have more, autonomous cars in the city and more ride sharing, we need essentially less car parking in our city centers. It's controversial.
But, it's, it's a fact that we are, going to become less reliant on personal cars and more reliant on shared transport systems, giving us the ability claw back some of this space. And so, really, these ideas synthesize with giving kids somewhere, in in in the center of cities, green spaces to learn about nature, the, places for mindfulness and relaxation and yoga in cities, places for urban farming and, urban agriculture, places to reabsorb surface water. All of these ideas were then tied back into this sort of manifesto when we used, Sadik Khan, the mayor's, National Park City, making London a national park city as this vehicle to create, all of these visuals and all of this buzz and all of this idea, and it really has, permeated so much through some of my recent work as well now.
People see these visuals and they love them and they catch on to them and, they want a piece of it.
So what was the final outcome of that, of that work?
Yeah. I mean, to be clear, it was done. It was an initiative I led because it was the right thing to do. I remember one of my university lectures always said to me, if you can't find a client for an idea, then, you know, create a great idea, and then clients will will follow you. And it really was an example of that. And, we we we ring fence budget and, brainstorming time for the product itself.
And we used it really just as a thought leadership piece. And It's extremely powerful, in marketing my understanding and my ideas for cities, and people often see it and say, we want to have some of this in our project. So it's kind of spread from being a thought leadership piece to being resident now in lots of my projects.
Can you tell us which cities inspire you the most?
Wow. That's, that's a very good question. I would say really two places.
Obviously, London, where I was born and raised, never ceases to amaze me. This cellular collection of villages that we call London is is brilliant, and I love cycle through it, and I love to walk through it, and I love to follow the river. I was lucky enough to be brought up in a house that was looking at the river. So I have a a connection with the river that that runs through the city.
So London inspires me. It's it's constantly changing, but not at the pace of Shanghai or, Hanoi or something like that. So that's my first my my first, suggestion for that. But my second would be Singapore where I lived when I first graduated there was very little work.
It was, quite a long time ago now in the, in the, in the late nineties, and was very little work here. So I jumped on a plane and went to live in in Bangkok first and then in Singapore.
And in Singapore, I learned so much about how ambition for greening cities can become a reality reality relatively easily. I think the projects that they've done there are so exemplary so incredible, so inspirational.
I think it's very difficult not to fall in love with Singapore as a city. You can say whatever you like about its governance or all sorts of things like that. But really as an urban experiment, it is the best place on on on the planet.
And what about those that inspire you least?
Well, it's gotta be said anywhere that's been designed around the automobile and, hasn't really moved away from that.
I I have a problem with. So I do struggle a lot with a lot of North American cities, I've traveled to a lot of them. I was a a board member on an American company for many, many years, and I've been to many of the iconic North American cities, and I really do struggle with, the the the systems that are, A put in place when cars are are in charge, elements like parking garages straight above the street where you drive into a building and the first few stories of a building or a parking garage that takes away everything from the from the public realm and I'm not going to name any cities specifically, but there are some terrible examples of this in in North America.
That said, there are also some fabulous examples. I was very lucky when I was in New York many times for work to to walk the high line, which is a a really great example of something that that physically and quite literally lifts the citizens off the the ground plane into a into a higher level with with beautiful green spaces and views out over the ocean and the and the city itself.
Yeah. I'm I'm I'm often, most in love with cities that have the medieval grain to them, so places that have a walkable street system that was laid out long before cars were on the, on the agenda.
Are there any cities that have grown organically and have really benefited from that? I mean, I suppose London is a bit like that maybe, but I I just don't know.
Yeah. I think I think the notion of designing a city from scratch, there's plenty of of really bad examples. You know, you look at the most in aspiring cities, and they're generally not places that have been designed from scratch.
Canberra, or Brasilia are not the best cities of Australia or or Brazil.
When you have an architect that lays out big formal lines just because, I'm generally, I believe that that's not the that's not the best way to go about things. Again, you look at, Let's take the example of Barcelona where you have the combination of the two. You have the the which is the grid system, which is obviously architect laid out, right next to the medieval old city, which weaves through along next to the Rambler and has these kind of incredible hidden streets that disappear around corners. And when you put the two together like that, that can be pretty inspirational and pretty interesting, but yeah, most of the best places have grown, organically.
I mean, think about places like Istanbul, which is this incredible amalgamation of many, many years of of history on two continents where Asia and Europe meet across this incredible straight of of water, the Bosporus . And I think again, you know, the organic nature of it gives us this incredible character this incredible cohesion that you couldn't do with a a computer mouse and some some bold lines with with with a with a ruler
And do you have an opinion on Paris?
Yeah. I mean, again, Paris is a very interesting in terms of what they tried to do recently with with with walkable communities and and smaller neighborhoods to try and take some of the to try and take some of the the the sort of more bolder moves away from the city, which I think is very interesting.
When you look at Paris next to London, Paris has these incredible nodes that connect with Grand Boulevard, you know, the Champs Elysees being the most famous, and then you look at London, Nothing is straight. Nothing quite lines up. Everything is very ad hoc. You know, you think about the connection from Buckingham Palace down to Hyde Park corner and then offer, you know, Constitution Hill.
Nothing is in a straight line. Whereas in Paris, obviously, these things are very, very deliberately laid out.
I'm just thinking about the way things are changing. The way things have changed in the last decade or so, you know, in terms of technology, in terms of materials, Is that is that having an impact on your work at all?
Yeah. I'm, I'm a strong believer that we have to take technology and and own it and be at the center of it. So I'll use the example of of AI of artificial intelligence.
I believe that artificial intelligence puts the designer at center of a far bigger brain. So by using AI, I'm able to layer on ideas that helped me to do things far better than I could have done without the AI.
So, for example, if it's creating or generating a visual, I will still control the AI software, but it will do a lot of the grunt work for me. I'm I'm getting the getting the AI to do a lot of the of the of the very repetitive work to allow me to get on with fun stuff and the interesting stuff and the innovative stuff. And I embrace AI and automated workflows at every possible juncture and I'm very happy to to talk about that one all day because I think that the future of of humanity and the future of design within humanity lies with our understanding of this slightly difficult relationship that we have with technology.
And I think if used correctly, it's going to be our saviour, not our destructor.
Could you tell us a little bit about your own place, maybe, a little bit where you live? I mean, do you live in a modern building? Do you live in a historic building? What, what sort of presses your buttons a little bit in terms of your own space?
Yeah. That's a interesting thought. I, I live in a Victorian semi detached house in South London that has been very, very modified.
My wife is a interior designer and she used to work for a a very famous London architect. So we have some interesting discussions about interior space, and we we have a very modern fit out within our Victorian house, where I'm speaking to you from now is a small cedar clad garden room that I built, some years ago, which is my office, It's also full of plants, absolutely packed full of plants, and it has underfloor heating and large bi fold doors to open out onto my garden. It's my own little piece of modern paradise. It has a seeding roof, and is beautifully insulated so the heating is actually never wrong.
The glass face is north, so I don't get any solar gain. So it's, I live in a sort of old meets new combination in in South London and in Peckham.
And if we can leave the listener with a thought about what they could do with their own space in terms of, perhaps new ideas for improving that space, for their own well-being or in terms of, being more sustainable.
You can have any sort of, takeaways we believe people Y
Have you got like an hour for that? No. I think, I think interior plants, are a huge benefit to, to physical and mental health, and the ones behind me don't need any, particular daylight. So choose the right plant for your interior space would be, one, one thing. And if you have even the smallest window box or garden plants and flowers as a place that pollinators, butterflies, and and bees can tuck down and drinks and nectar. Flowers are also beautiful to to look at, and they can smell great as well. And if everyone planted just a few flowers in their back garden, then we wouldn't be facing the same collapse of, of of of habitat that we are. So we really do have the ability as a populist regardless of what our government and big business are doing at the at the personal level, we can plant flowering plants and improve the situation for for pollinators and and invertebrates.
John, thanks very much for your time on this podcast in helping us to better understand what urban planning is today. And and how it can help to bring together so many different important ideas that relate to our well-being and sustainability and looking after the planet. So thanks very much. I really appreciate it.
Absolutely pleasure. Thank you very much, Paul.