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HS2’s design ethics

Britain’s landscape is diverse, yet distinctive. Each region has its own unique qualities, whether they’re hills and forests, coastal cliffs or flat farmland and big skies. But whatever the view from our windows, we’re all proud of our country’s beauty, and protective of it when anything threatens to change it.

But change is inevitable when big infrastructure investment is planned. What isn’t inevitable is that the change has to have a negative impact; if enough thought is put into new infrastructure, it can blend seamlessly into its environment.

Plenty of rail projects have been developed in this way already - Crossrail stations are each designed in sympathy with their locations. Now, HS2 designers are thinking about the landscape too. In July, HS2 Ltd released a report on the Landscape Design Approach for the new railway, setting out its approach to integrating the new line into its environment, both aesthetically and sensitively. 

But what exactly does this mean? Is it merely about planting a few trees to replace the ones cut down to make way for the railway? Or is it about covering all the buildings in grass to make them ‘green’?

The report explains: “Understanding the diverse character, unique patterns and subtleties of the landscapes through which HS2 is planned is the starting point in developing an effective landscape design for the project. This will require an understanding of landscape in its widest context, including the natural, cultural, social, heritage, perceptual and aesthetic qualities of the landscape.” (See diagram, above right.)

This type of landscape character assessment is a common method of looking at both the broad similarities of large areas, before drilling down into the finer details that make an area distinctive. One of the benefits of this is an enhanced understanding of the effects of future changes to the landscape. HS2 designers will look at the physical characteristics of the areas that HS2 will pass through and then place this into context with things like the cultural and historical qualities of a particular area, also taking into account how this might change over time.

The whole point of the Landscape Design Approach (LDA) is to provide inspiration to the designers and builders of the new railway to go beyond the ‘call of duty’ and set new standards of design. It isn’t about winning awards, but about the belief that good design in infrastructure is integral to delivering growth and regeneration, and bad design can do long-term damage to a project.

HS2 already has a wider Design Vision, curated by the Design Panel, so it’s clear that the commitment is already there to create something worthwhile.

While protecting the landscape is clearly a part of this vision, developing the area in a positive way that creates a lasting legacy is what is most important. HS2 needs to have its own strong identity, and provide the communities it passes through with infrastructure that enhances the area and gives them new public spaces. And, of course, HS2 is a railway, and the design must certainly cater for that. 

The LDA is clear that this need is what makes landscape design so vital - it acts as the ‘glue’ to help merge and consolidate other areas of the project, such as engineering, architecture, ecology, noise, highways, recreation, agriculture and heritage. So, measures such as visual screening can be considered in the context of the local roads, noise mitigation and easy maintenance access of the railway itself.

Beyond that, HS2’s design ethic must also consider other forms of transport, for example integrating footpaths and cycling routes.

Considering the landscape that HS2 will pass through is necessary for the construction phase, as well as what it will look like once the railway opens. There will be a long period where areas will be disrupted by the building of the railway, so finding ways to improve the landscape or offer improvements for communities while that happens is just as important. Ideas such as wildflower seeding on temporary soil stockpiles, or making artistic features out of temporary earthworks all help to create a more positive environment for communities during construction. Hoardings which hide building sites from residents can be used as educational boards or art displays. Finding ways to make the construction phase of new infrastructure a positive experience can make a huge difference to affected communities.

It would be easy to imagine a new railway and see only tracks, trains and station buildings. But the things we love about our current railway were all products of good design - many of the buildings we applaud are masterpieces of Victorian innovation. Equally, the things we loathe were all the result of poor design. If HS2 can get the landscape design right, it will reap the benefits for decades to come. 



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