Interview with Ludovic Pittie: innovation, sustainability, place and technology

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12 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

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Ludovic Pittie is Head of Landscape at multi-disciplinary professional services consultancy WSP, where he leads the company’s landscape strategy and design thinking and 75-strong UK team.

A champion of nature in the built environment, Ludo is currently driving WSP’s global ‘Future Ready Landscape’ project and co-led its ‘Biodiversity in the City’ initiative.

He has a masters in Urban Engineering and is particularly interested in developing strategic multi-discipline teams, urban design and regeneration, nature and community engagement.

In the latest from our Expert Interview Series focused on people, place, digital innovation and sustainability, Ludo shares how his early experiences shaped his passion for nature in cities, his views on sustainability and key critical aspects of urban living, and why ‘bold’ design makes him nervous.

Photos of Ludo and Jo Morrison with job titles

Can you describe WSP’s global Future Ready Landscape initiative and what the motivations were for initiating it?

The concept of the Future Ready Landscape was established around a decade ago and has become our global innovation programme – something that is not only relevant to our own DNA, but universally applicable to all of our over 500 landscape architects around the world. 

Fundamentally, the location-specific initiative strives to create sustainable and resilient societies through design. Each country has got a specific set of research to reflect different country trends – forest fires are more relevant to Australia than England, for example.

Once we had identified the global mega trends, we did a deep dive to understand how we can incorporate them into our work. Some were quite obvious, such as climate and biodiversity, but there were a broad range of trends encompassing technology, society, ageing and health and wellbeing. We developed a nine month research programme on the back of that, analysing how we are responding locally as landscape architects, the cause and effect behind the range of global engagements, and common design responses that can emerge from that.

This is where I had what I call my ‘Matrix moment’ – when Neo starts seeing the zeros and ones on the wall. Suddenly everything became connected and everything I’ve done since has been inspired by that moment.

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What were some of the outcomes of the programme?

We ended up with a set of design principles and a process we adopted, refined and piloted with a ‘Future Ready park project’, which is applied in practice on a park. This helps us to see what’s going on so we can come up with a design process.

It’s been really interesting to see how we all have different perspectives as landscape architects, but we are all trained to address similar issues. Sometimes countries have slightly different takes on what they consider good practice, so Future Ready Landscape is an interesting lens to dissect them all and see how we can start to collectively progress our global practice.

In my team at WSP, it’s helping us to amplify the impact of the design solutions we come up with, as well as guiding reflection and collaboration along the way.

Why are you so passionate about the role of nature in the built environment?

Growing up in the countryside surrounded by nature gave me a certain sensitivity for it, and I’ve always been curious about cities because I never grew up in them. I did a degree in urban design and had a sense that we needed to bring people back to the heart of cities, but it was only over the years working with landscape architects and doing more research that I started to join the dots and really understand the need to elevate nature in our cities.

We need nature in our cities. A lot of people have their hopes on technology, but nature is the answer to it all; there is no way we can address all our current crises without it, which is why I really champion it.

White papers and thought leadership have been a big part of being able to shape and frame a narrative, and influencing better outcomes, but I also champion better nature and social legacy around the business. It’s what we call nature-based placemaking, because it’s ultimately about putting nature first and starting from the point of natural systems to see how we can bring and optimise nature’s presence and role in people’s lives.

From your experience of working at the intersection of people, place and sustainability, have you seen a change of approach from governments, business and/or civil society in terms of their vision for places?

Thankfully, yes. The four crises we have – climate, nature and biodiversity, social and health – have translated into regulations and various incentives, and the impact of those commitments has been huge across the entire industry, with many businesses changing how they operate and reconsidering the impact and dependencies on climate and nature.

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There has probably been more action on climate than nature to-date due to social pressure, but there has been a good trickle of incentives coming through in the past couple of years. BNG (Biodiversity Net Gain) becoming mandatory in January 2024 will be an important first step in addressing climate and nature together.

At the heart of addressing all our crises – where we haven’t quite seen the tools or frameworks for yet – is nature in cities. It’s going to be an interesting time because we’re also seeing a rise in bioarchitecture, biomaterials and circularity. With 70% of the world’s population predicted to be living in cities by 2050, we have to start getting those mitigation and transition plans for climate and nature in place to make cities more resilient to the changes of tomorrow that are needed today.

What needs to change to ensure greater and faster sustainable development in the UK?

Definitely the twinning of nature and climate. We need to get engineers and architects to think of net zero and nature together. 

Improving education and literacy around carbon and nature, and shifting ways of working, is fundamental too. Construction has been set in the past for a long time, but net zero has started to accelerate a few decades of stagnation with electrical construction and new materials being researched more than ever before.

Adopting the Paris Agreement in everything we do would be another great start, and we as landscape architects can start to champion those changes going forward.

There’s always going to be an issue around capital and nature because funding green cities is hard. That is probably the biggest hurdle to overcome… It’s not so much a lack of vision but a lack of capital to realise how we bring nature back.

Which organisations are doing interesting work around environmental sustainability?

In the UK, there has been a lot of leadership from organisations or individuals in that space and I think there has been a bit of a watershed moment next to net zero in that sense. Islington Council, with their Greening the Public Realm and Pocket Park framework programmes, has been driving the agenda hard, as have some WSP clients ranging from local authorities like Westminster, Leeds, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole, to developers like Grosvenor and The Crown Estate.

In terms of nature and carbon leadership beyond net zero, there are far fewer in that space. We can take inspiration from what some of our US landscape architects like Sasaki are doing, and also SLA and Third Nature in Denmark and Snohetta in Norway. They are all doing some amazingly inspiring work.

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In partnership with Islington Council, Groundwork London will create opportunities for local residents to become IGT Champions for their Islington Greener Together site.

Who or what inspires you and why?

Nature, of course, and my nephews, who are not just environmentally aware but also have a very different emotional intelligence. I find those skills amazing in everything they do, say and how they behave. It helps to challenge me on my own assumptions, ways of working and my own curiosity. 

Intellectual curiosity is such a fundamental attribute in everything we do – it’s what drives innovation and passion – and it’s certainly something I’ve started looking for a lot more in interviews. If I can bring people who’ve got that curiosity with me, we can take inspiration from each other.

I was recently at the Healthy City Design Conference and there was a difference of opinion on what ‘bold design’ meant in terms of reshaping an existing part of a city. What factors would constitute a ‘bold design’ in your mind?

The phrase ‘bold design’ makes me a bit nervous… We’ve seen ‘bold’ design for hundreds of years and it hasn’t always been good design. It’s coming to a point where some developments are starting to look the same and that sense of character is eroding, so I get the idea of why we need to be bolder, but it has to be anchored first and foremost in good design principles and the local context. 

In addition, we can look to biophilic design to incorporate natural patterns in everything we do because that will create that shift in our environment – both in terms of the benefits of the users of the building, as well as the impact the building itself will have on the environment and surrounding communities.

So if there were key factors to attach to bold design, in terms of what can make the biggest difference in reshaping part of the city, it starts with the vision and leadership for what that part of the city should become. It doesn’t always have to be embedded in design; sometimes it’s simply a change of driving the focus on human experience and how we empower communities to reclaim their cities.

Similarly, there was a lack of consensus around scale and impact. Is it more effective to seek to create a larger scale project or start quickly with small interventions and grow them from the bottom up?

It all ties back to having the vision and ambition for what the place can become and whether it’s through bottom-up or top-down. If you’re looking at city-wide delivery of programmes, you’re going to need both because there are some quick wins you can do now, like cleaning a street, that don’t need huge expenditures and long constructed programmes to deliver change.

At a strategic level, it’s about where you want to take society and the values you want to start to reshape, the overall benefits to people and the environment, and the chance you want to give people to participate in that new future.

Sometimes the more organic way is better because we have the time to bring people on that journey with us, and it becomes as much of a social experiment as it is about the end product. It’s important to keep that holistic view to pull on all levers at the same time.

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When launching tech-enabled products into the public realm, how can we fast-track innovation in ways that do not cause negative disruption and harm to members of the public?

Personally, I think we need to stop being so obsessed with tech-products! The public realm is about the fundamentals that it serves for the cities, so it’s about mobility, people, culture and the economy. The social fabric of the cities comes through those public places.

Technology can be a great enabler, but there is always a risk that technology can be used and abused, so it is by no means the panacea in itself. Ultimately it will always come down to human behaviours, so bring anthropology and behavioural science in to how we embed technology to better our planning, design and management of our cities to the benefits of the citizens without impinging on privacy rights and personal data.

As a catalyst, it has a huge role to play – it’s changed how a lot of cities operate and how people live – and we shouldn’t stifle innovation. As we’ve seen with the debate around AI, we need to find ways to anticipate and put clear frameworks in place that balance both individual and community needs with policy requirements to allow tech to do what it does best!

I recently completed a research project for the NHS that explores digital placemaking to support health and wellbeing in London, as well as research for Edinburgh Council centred on active travel and equitable places. What do you see as the key critical aspects of urban living that can enhance people’s relationships with their neighbourhoods?

The social infrastructure and the natural infrastructure are key. The 15 Minute City is a brilliant idea – often confused with being about transport and low traffic neighbourhoods – about addressing the six fundamental social needs we need on a local level; that concept of living locally, having far less impact and dependencies, and helping align how you live to these planetary boundaries.

Whilst people might not want to relive those memories, most of us around the world lived in a 15 Minute City during lockdown, which demonstrated some of the principles of an effective 15 Minute City: supporting local jobs and the local economy, getting to know your neighbours, hearing the birds. That sense of belonging comes from those social anchors in your neighbourhood. That inclusivity, diversity and safety that we should have within the social infrastructure is fundamental and that should always be the focus because it underpins everything else.

For me, it is about how we enhance people’s relationship with their neighbourhood and their relationship to each other.

Thank you Ludo for sharing your experience and insight!

 

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