Hong Kong may rank as one of the world's most built-up urban environments, but it is still fertile ground for landscape designers and horticulturists dedicated to helping us keep in touch with nature. One such person is Ian Robinson, director of Oriental Landscapes Limited, a Swire Properties subsidiary, who is still unswervingly enthusiastic about the work, even after 30 years, and is keen to share his views on one of the less understood areas of the local job market.
As a trained horticulturist, Mr Robinson originally came to Hong Kong in the early eighties to work as a consultant landscape manager on the Sha Tin to Tai Po highway project. On leaving high school, his preference had been to find a job that allowed to him to work outdoors, and he therefore spent the next two years as a planter. This gave him an understanding of what it takes to make plants grow well and also provided a context for everything he learned subsequently when he took a higher national diploma in horticulture from Askham Bryan Horticultural College in York.
With this formal qualification, Mr Robinson secured a job as a landscape manager with Sussex-based Tillhill Forestry in 1977 and stayed with them until he felt the time was right to move to Hong Kong in 1982. He was then with Agribusiness Ltd for 15 years, latterly as general manager, before joining Oriental Landscapes and being appointed a director in 1998.
These days, he still spends around half his time managing projects, but a major responsibility is to develop new business and supervise the preparation of tenders. "It's an increasingly competitive market, since property developers realise that they must create greener environments and cede to the demands of residents," he explains. This has led to rapid expansion in the landscaping sector in terms of both competition and demand.
I regard this as a noble profession
The company focuses on private residential developments, but is equipped to tackle anything from landscaping for the Cyberport site to small backyard projects. Over 100 experienced gardeners are employed to do the actual planting, while Mr Robinson ensures each job is completed on time and within budget. He expects staff to respect the maxim that you should never make promises you can't keep and always keep the promises you make.
In the course of a normal week's work, he might come into contact with engineers, architects, developers and representatives of local councils to discuss how individual projects should be managed. Dealing with such a range of professionals naturally calls for people skills and a friendly disposition. Discussions may revolve around time constraints, monetary restrictions or alternative views on how to proceed, and call for a cool head and a measured approach.
Besides his day-to-day duties, Mr Robinson also finds time to pass on his expertise by lecturing part-time at tertiary level. "It's amazing that there are no degrees in horticulture here in Hong Kong, with the exception of places like HKU SPACE (School of Professional and Continuing Education)," he says.
The first stages in a career in horticulture should involve getting your hands dirty – literally. "I recommend that you approach any company and are prepared to start by working as a planter," Mr Robinson advises. This gives the chance to pick up practical knowledge about the names of plants, their characteristics, how they grow, their life cycle, and what type of soil and weather conditions suit them best.
Initial progress can be rapid, but becomes more difficult beyond middle management level because most landscaping companies are family-owned and operated. No matter how the company is run, enthusiasm and a real feel for the job count for a great deal. Qualifications in environmental science and biology are also becoming more respected and offer one possible route to more senior positions.
The great outdoors was Mr Robinson's first love and he has never had a moment's regret about his choice of career. On Sunday outings he likes to point out all the trees he's saved or planted, much to the amusement of his kids. "There is something rewarding about what I do, something tangible that you can see," he says. "I regard this as a noble profession because you'll rarely meet someone who doesn't appreciate trees, plants and parks."
Landscape architecture, as opposed to horticulture, is taught in Hong Kong and professionals with this qualification are much in demand in the booming mainland market. Employers often hire them for what is perceived as their westernised ideology and aesthetic. With ongoing investment in the property sector in China and a greater focus on creating more desirable residential developments, this demand is set to continue.
Property developers have recognised the added value that can come from a relatively small outlay on landscaping costs. This bodes well for landscape architects and horticulturists, as well as for property owners and members of the public.