S&P Landscape Architecture has been a longstanding partner of LEVS in Russia. We share a concern for creating more comfortable, healthy, social and therefore green public spaces. We spoke to Mirek Sztuka, founder of S&P, about our recent collaboration on the Ufa masterplan and about landscape design in Russian cities:
“Twelve years ago, when we started talking about planting trees in the streets, everyone was worried about birds pooping on their cars. Nowadays they all understand how important trees are.”
What strikes you about Ufa as a landscape architect?
Because it is a peninsula with such an extensive zone where land meets water, the existing biodiversity on the site is some of the richest you will find in this area. There is an abundance of plant species, insects, freshwater fish and amphibians that live in this zone. One of the primary concerns we have in a plan like this is to make sure that we protect and support this natural zone as much as possible when positioning the built environment and planning the construction work.
And what is your second biggest concern?
To remove as many square meters of parking space from the streets as possible and turn them into green public squares, promenades, bicycle lanes and parks. Luckily, LEVS projects often make that possible, like in Forum City, and now clients are beginning to see the importance of investing in underground parking and high quality green landscapes. Not an easy thing to do in dense urban districts.
We often speak about how to improve courtyards, what have you learned over the years?
That a lot can be achieved by reinterpreting the norms. For example, playgrounds are very important in Russian residential blocks. Typically they are made entirely out of non-natural materials. We try to convince clients that playgrounds made in large part of natural materials, like wood and wood-chips, and surrounded by grass and trees, are better for everyone: a more interesting environment for children, heat absorption and water infiltration into the soil, and hence an allround healthier place for everyone. We now create courtyards that on average have 70% green surface area.
A practical question: how do you determine what to plant?
Working with plants is not easy in Russia, because the further east and north you go the narrower the planting palette becomes. In Ufa, there are about 5-6 species of trees that we can choose from. Prior to working in Russia, I worked for many years in northern China, so I’m fairly used to having a relatively narrow planting palette to work with. The other thing we do is using a mass planting system, meaning that we plant shrubs and perennials in high density. It not only gives an instant effect – rich coverage of the soils – it also means that when one plant dies its direct neighbours can take over and you don’t end up with barren patches.
The notion of ‘nature-inclusivity’ has become very important in The Netherlands. How is that in Russia?
I don’t hear that word as such there, but the desire for green and sustainable design is growing. In part the development is market driven, and developers are seeing that people want parks, gardens, green roofs and trees around them. Personally and professionally, I feel a moral obligation to push for this kind of development. Sequestering CO2 in trees, protecting people from heat island effects and stimulating a connection with the natural environment are all things we need to strive for, I find.