THE JOURNAL FOR THE SOCIETY OF GARDEN DESIGNERS

The future of garden design

Illustration: Mike Mahon


John Wyer FSGD wonders what lies ahead for garden designers


I have been thinking a lot about what is ahead for our industry. For most of us, our plan for the future is to carry on doing what we do now, but perhaps a bit better and a bit more. But is that good enough? That was Blockbuster Video’s plan.

I am always suspicious when people say that we are living through a revolution – I have been told that for most of my life. But there is no doubt that we are being buffeted by real winds of change, some of which will lead to permanent alterations in how we work. I think there are three main socioeconomic changes that we face, along with a couple of further trends within our industry.

The first change is an obvious one: digital technology – though it is not always quite so obvious how it will affect us. Some of these changes have already taken hold, such as social media, digital design tools, Skype etc, and we ignore these at our peril. However, some of the biggest upsets in markets are related to delivery of service rather than the actual service. Look at Uber or Airbnb, for example. They were difficult to predict and took hold remarkably quickly. The key here is simply to be open to new ideas and quick to adapt.

The next two changes are to do with demographics, and are in many ways opposite sides of the same coin. Baby Boomers (that’s me and some of you; essentially people born between 1945 and 1965) have, as a group, distorted the economy from the 1950s onwards. The oldest of these people are already retired and virtually all will have stopped being economically active in terms of earning over the next 15-20 years. Research shows that people spend significantly less (particularly on capital items) after the age of 70, which includes things like garden design.

How many of your current clients are 52 or older – most? And what of that group, the Millennials – people born between 1982 and 2004. There are significant differences between how this generation and the previous group spend their money. In short, Baby Boomers spend on possessions, and Millennials on experiences. With the costs of education and housing rising sharply relative to earnings over the past 20 years, this group either cannot afford to buy a house, or cannot spare much to spend on one.


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What do these changes mean to us? I would argue that it probably won’t change the overall size of the landscape industry significantly, but it may change the focus. For example, there may be a drift away from private gardens toward communal spaces in long-term rental estates (as in parts of continental Europe). There is already a noticeable trend for the upper-end restaurants and hotels to spend more on gardens. And an aging population may mean more spending on life care and healthcare institutions.

With regard to coming trends within our industry, the most obvious of these is what I call the ‘blurring of boundaries’. Partly due to the pressures of change, there are no longer sharp boundaries between the professions, sources of work and how it is delivered. To give an example, 25 years ago, public space would have been paid for by some form of local government and designed by a landscape architect. These days it may be planned by an urban designer, paid for by a developer and detailed by a garden designer (who is probably employing a landscape architect). So an ability to be flexible and form partnerships is essential to survival.

The second industry trend is that of green infrastructure, again much of it paid for by development. Green roofs, living walls, High Line-type and even community gardens are all examples of the more granular end of this, but at all levels and scales there are opportunities for our profession here.

There may be many changes afoot, some of which will be negative in their impact. My view is that if we remain open to opportunity and collaboration, we can insulate ourselves from the worst elements of flux and take advantage of the most positive aspects.