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Conference with climate change at its core

The SGD Autumn Conference is set to bring sustainability back to the forefront of our minds. Chair Mark Laurence tells us what we can expect from the event and why we need to act now

Last year was arguably a turning point in the fight against climate change. Amongst a raft of protests and consumer uproar, it seemed as though the government and businesses across the UK were starting look at ways of lowering their carbon footprint (and some even acting on these, too). Come this March, though, sustainability was replaced with talk of Zoom meetings, social bubbles and quarantines. The environment had been somewhat overshadowed by a global pandemic. But now it’s time to put climate change back to the top of the agenda, something which the Society of Garden Designers intends to do with its autumn conference.

Mark Laurence

Focusing on ‘garden design in an era of climate crisis’, the SGD’s one-day, online event will feature a host of industry experts discussing the ways in which gardens can help tackle a changing climate. Chairing the conference is garden designer and SGD council member for sustainability, Mark Laurence, who has long been an advocate of environmentally friendly gardens. Mark has worked in various aspects of the industry, from design and build to arboriculture to urban greening. For just over a decade, Mark turned his attention to living walls, but has now returned to designing domestic gardens. Last year, he joined the SGD council to share his passion for sustainability and to make a difference amongst its members.

“I’ve been talking about sustainability for a long time, but it’s only really become mainstream in the last few years – and I think that’s true in all walks of life, not just garden design,” says Mark. “We’re now rabbits staring at headlights, it’s getting a bit late, but I see gardens as pieces of a very large jigsaw; if enough people put the pieces together, we can start to build a picture. Garden design is interesting because, when it comes down to individuals, a garden is the little bit of earth that a garden designer can control, and they can do something.”

For Mark, his golden rule with garden design is: “Don’t beautify one environment at the expense of another.” “If we only look at the good we’re doing in one space but ignoring the damage that’s caused elsewhere in achieving this, we’re exporting our pollution. We have to join the dots.”

The conference this month offers garden designers the opportunity to consider how they can join these dots. “We think big changes have come from COVID – and they have – but it’s nothing compared to the changes climate change is going to bring if we don’t cohesively act, and garden designers are people who can be at the forefront of this. We can show people how they can create spaces with a positive impact, such as increasing biodiversity.”

To get this message across, the SGD has pulled together an impressive line-up of speakers. But Mark says this will be different to most conferences in the sense that there is a narrative that will run throughout each of the seminars “I’m chair but also speaker. I’m the storyteller – I’ll be telling the story of a journey, if you like, through different aspects of sustainability.”

Following an introduction from Mark, the first speaker to kickstart this journey is multi-award-wining garden designer Sarah Eberle, who will talk about materials in relation to sustainability. Landscape architect Robert Bray will then discuss water – how we manage it, and the issues of climate change either bringing about too much or too little water. Soil scientist Tim O’Hare will take over, discussing soil and its importance to the landscape. This will lead into Dave Goulson, a specialist in bee ecology, focusing on biodiversity and the “false narrative” around native and non-native plants. The conference’s final speaker is James Hitchmough, professor of horticultural ecology, who will share his thoughts on regenerative design before Mark closes the event.

“We’ll probably be raising more questions than answers,” says Mark. “I don’t think anyone is a specialist in this – we all have knowledge in different areas, and everyone is imparting their knowledge, but we don’t yet know the answers. People may go away with more questions in their head than answers, and I’m fine with that – that’s the idea, to stir up and challenge everyone’s thinking.”

If you’re interested in attending the SGD Autumn Conference, which will be livestreamed on 21 November, you can book your place on the SGD website. The conference will also be available to watch on-demand at any time over the coming year.

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