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Sarah Jones-Morris: A landscape architect on a mission to cure our cities through design

Sarah Jones-Morris: A landscape architect on a mission to cure our cities through design

10 September 2018

After years of experience in landscape architecture and urban design, ranging from rural to urban context, feasibility studies to implementation of master plans focusing in particular on public health, Sarah Jones-Morris set up her own Bristol-based consultancy last year.

For Sarah, nothing is natural about our outdoor spaces in the UK. From the moment you step outside your front door, whether it’s the pavement a commuter walks down or the field a farmer ploughs, it’s all painstakingly designed and managed over thousands of years.

Landscape architecture is an essential component of our everyday lives, and so the gardens of her mother’s home in Oxfordshire seem like a fitting space to reflect on the importance of outdoor and green spaces. Sarah discusses her passion for striving to create healthier cities, how street trees have a huge impact on our health, and muses on why Vitruvius is still relevant today.

When and why did you decide to go into design?

My mum used to run a garden design company – she was ahead of time – her designs were modern and different. My grandfather was an architectural technician, and he repaired the Natural History Museum’s zinc roof during the second world war. So growing up I guess I was surrounded by sculpture and the design world.

The whole idea of craft, skill, detail and design was an inherent part of my upbringing. When I was 16 I started doing some garden designs with my mum, but I realised pretty quickly that I liked the bigger scale projects, the commercial side, and I got more and more interested in the social side as well.

What does ‘design’ mean to you?

I wrote an essay for my Art History A Level about Vitruvius that I found really fascinating. He believed that there are three principles you need to fulfil to achieve good design: aesthetics, function and durability. I think that’s no less relevant today – if you ignore any one of those three one way or the other, your design will fail.

What do you think the role of design is today?

We’ve got some serious issues, like climate change, of which landscape architecture is a fundamental component in terms of problem solving. For example, the design of the network and outdoor spaces plays a crucial role. Street trees have a huge impact: they keep streets and homes cool in the summer, provide habitats for species and improve air quality. Design plays a really important role on our health and reducing the effects of climate change.

February 2018 marked the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, where some women over the age of 30 gained the right to vote for the first time – what does this anniversary mean to you?

If I’m honest, I was not taught much about the Suffragette movement at school. It wasn't until I started work and hit my 30’s that it started to have meaning. How could it be that I and my female colleagues were not progressing in the same way as our male counterparts? You start to notice that there are very few design directors that are women. We have come some way in the last 100 years, but we have a long way to go. I have seen a transition over the past five to ten years – I’m now not the only woman sitting in meetings. You look at each other and do that knowing nod.

We’ve obviously come a long way, but what has been the biggest challenge or difficulty you’ve faced as a woman in your career?

A friend of mine was recently talking about times of meetings. Don’t have them in the evening, don’t have them at school drop-off times, have them at times when you know anybody can attend. It’s these small details that make a massive difference and impact on the inclusion of all people.

Do you think there is genuine equality for women in the design industry today?

No. Let’s put it this way, it’s rare that you see women designers celebrated on a national or even local level. The further you climb, the more difficult it is to get support from others as a woman designer, including from other women.

We know that equality is not just a discussion about gender. What does true equality, including diversity and inclusion mean to you?

This is a slightly weird example but when I was at university my friends organised a conference and one of the speakers' presentations was on the impact of inbreeding of chicken species. The more you inbreed the weaker the species gets, if you don’t have diversity, you won't be able to adapt and survive as a species. And that's pure genetics.

If we didn't have such a culturally diverse set of people in Britain I don't think we’d be as economically successful as we are, and design wouldn't be as diverse as it is. My background is pretty mixed and so for me, that’s normal. I like dipping into parts of my heritage and getting different perspectives.  

Do you think that real ‘talent’ is being hindered from coming into the design industry because of a need to fit a certain box, or has design got it right, and the industry promotes and recruits based on talent and not the packaging the talent arrives in?

Some people suit university, some people don’t. It’s horses for courses. I think apprenticeship schemes have great potential. What's really interesting about landscape architecture is that you often get people who have done their first degree in totally different subjects like biology, agriculture, or estate management, who then do a conversion course. The difference they bring to the profession is really great. I worked with a guy who used to be a pig farmer and then a shop manager, and those experiences proved really useful in a number of projects in unexpected ways.

What can we do to promote equality, diversity and inclusion in design?

Better education. In Bristol, the Architecture Centre’s ‘Shape my City’ programme has been promoting built environment professions within inner city schools, focusing on design workshops and inspiring ways of thinking. Some of the questions I’ve been asked by these kids are better than questions I’ve been asked at conferences; one girl asked me ‘how do you deal with the failure of your design?’ Kids are not so constrained, they really are thinking way out of the box. If you’re going to resolve big issues like climate change, health, obesity, you need some pretty radical thinking!

If you were to start all over again, what would you tell your younger self when you started considering your career pathway?

I was a very reluctant writer. Writing skills are a really crucial part of your work and how you communicate with people.

What does the future of the creative industries look like to you?

Previously you had to have experience onsite and in construction, giving you an understanding of how something is built. Fewer and fewer people have that experience and I’m concerned about this in terms of how cities, buildings, or anything is built. If you don’t understand the processes involved and how it all works then you are going to struggle in getting your design right. It presents a future skills and experience challenge within industry.

Which woman leader or designer are you most inspired by and why?

This is really hard, there aren’t enough of us! It would have to be a really close friend of mine, Anouk Vogel. She’s an amazing designer and really inspiring. She pushes boundaries – sometimes she’ll do interiors, sometimes she’ll do architecture, sometimes book design. There’s massive variation in her work which is very much about using plants as their own artform. Particularly as a woman she's made design look limitless and she’s got such a passion in what she does.

My Top 3

1. Ceramic piece by Betty Blandino

As kids we used to blow into it to make funny noises – it makes a particular resonant sound. I love the large beautiful organic nature, it’s elegant but slightly asymmetrical.

2. Meridian by Barry Mason

It’s a sculptural piece. It was designed and created by a friend of my mum’s. It’s very formal and contemporary, but it held water and birds would come to drink from it. It uses natural and local materials.

3. San Zaccaria Alterpiece by Giovanni Bellini

It’s a Renaissance painting. It’s just so calm, with beautiful colours. It’s got a lot of depth and symbolism. Having meaning in things is such an important aspect of design and art.

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