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Thursday, May 26, 2022

Bradford’s award-winning landscape architect on how she made it, creating a sustainable city and working with charity

Saira Ali is a successful urban designer who is pushing Bradford into being a sustainable city of the future.

Bradford’s own Saira Ali is an award-winning landscape architect, with over two and a half decades worth of experience in developing and managing regeneration projects and partnership working.

Winner of RIBA Future Place Programme 2018 and recently crowned Susdrain SuDS Champion 2021, Ms Ali knows a thing or two about what it takes to make it in a career that is dominated by men.

Ms Ali has worked at Bradford Council for 16 years but has studied and worked in private practices in both the UK and in the Netherlands previously. She is currently the team leader of Landscape, Design and Conservation at the council and oversees many different projects such as Interreg BEGIN, ESIF an initiative funded by the European Regional Development Fund and the URBACT Healthy Cities Programme that aims to deepen the relationship between health and the urban environment and promote sustainable development.

At school, Ms Ali studied A-Level geography, art, and sociology, subjects that would form the basis of her illustrious career. Wanting to go into law, her mind changed on the off chance when flicking through a prospectus catalogue.

A Dementia-friendly garden at church green, Keighley.

She said: “I always had an interest in people, landscape and the environment. I was going to study law but decided to take a year off, and as I really had a passion for art, I decided to do a foundation course in art and design at Bradford College.

“It was purely by chance when I was going through the University of Leeds prospectus and came across landscape architecture.  Before that, I didn’t even know it existed!  I looked at the course and it was my lightbulb moment – ‘that’s perfect, that’s what I want to do’.  It sounded like an interesting, worthwhile and creative career with a job at the end of it.”

One of the reasons why Ms Ali is so successful in her career is because she is passionate about creating change, it is not just a job for her. She says: “It’s a career that can bring changes to everyday life and have a huge impact on the environment around us. It’s a profession that can shape our future world; when you see something you design getting built, you feel proud – you know you made a mark in the community, in your city, on the planet.

“It’s a profession that provides a platform for creativity and recognises and rewards hard work. It’s a profession for people with great ideas and originality. The best thing about it is that I get paid to do what I love.”

Being outdoor, playing with natural spaces, plants and animals is an added benefit to the job. Providing creative places for people and wildlife by creating good-quality outdoor spaces makes a positive impact on the community. “I like to think that my role in managing these spaces will preserve and shape the environment for the benefit of future generations”, says Ms Ali.

Ms Ali With Anita Rani on Countryfile discussing Bradford’s Tree for Every Child campaign.

She adds: “with architects, city planners, civil engineers and other professionals, landscape architects play an important role in environmental protection by designing and implementing projects that respect both the needs of people and of our environment.

I love working with creative people, and developing exciting design projects, and seeing my design and my work getting built and people enjoying it.”

lack of diversity within the field didn’t hold Ms Ali back. She mentions that: “When I started university, I was the only Asian on the course, but I didn’t feel it held me back. Over the years I have seen the numbers increase but still not enough though.

Ms Ali went to the University of Leeds to study landscape architecture. Image by Chemical Engineer.

“I was lucky to have a family that was really supportive and encouraged us all to follow careers that we wanted, as long as I went to university it was acceptable.”

One of the reasons why there is a lack of South Asian people going into the arts or the creative industry is because of the lack of role models. Ms Ali states: “I have found that Asian families want their children to go into a profession that has a guaranteed a job at the end of it.

“‘If you studied geography, what would you do with it?’ It is unlike medicine, law, engineering and architecture, which are perceived as established professions. However, unlike other members of the family who studied medicine and law, I still have to explain what a landscape architect is.”

Sustainability is important to Ms Ali not just because it is her job to care about the future development of Bradford, but because “It is fundamentally about leaving a positive legacy for future generations, our children and grandchildren.

“It is about being social, ecologically, culturally and critically economically responsible – caring for each other and our local and global environment. We are custodians and this ought to shape the way we live, work, have fun and develop our collective resilience for the future that lies ahead.”

Spencer Adventure Playground in Bradford.

Growing up in a place like Bradford, where nature can be difficult to access, spurred Ms Ali’s interest in the urban environment, one that is designed for cars and not people.

She said: “I became interested in understanding the reason behind this: how people moved, how they interacted with and inhabited spaces, and whether these spaces could contribute to a better quality of life. It was this that led me to work for the local authority where I was able to really make a difference.”

Giving advice to young women and girls in Bradford who want to go into a career such as landscape architecture, or other degrees such as art or geography, that is not traditionally taken up by South Asian women, Ms Ali says “Be brave.  It might seem like a vocation that is dominated by others, but only you have the power to change that.”

When not at her full-time job at the council, Ms Ali does a lot of work for charity where she is often asked to help with improving or creating spaces in neighbourhoods in Bradford where there are aspirations but not a lot of money, With an ambition to create a healthy city, an environment where residents have high quality urban green spaces, somewhere that is a great place to live, walk, and cycle, and for kids to play safely.

Saira Ali of Bradford Council received a medal for her work on the garden at Bradford Moor PASS.

Ms Ali said: There is always something we can do to help. Bradford’s an amazing place and I have made some great friends inside Bradford Council and outside who encourage and assist me. These are my go-to people! I also get great support from senior management and our portfolio holders, in particular Cllr Alex Ross Shaw and Cllr Sarah Ferriby.

“Access to green space is so important, especially for children. We want to make sure we do what we can to give them the best start in life, and one of the ways we can do that is by giving them access to good quality green spaces as close to where they live as possible. These pockets of green spaces will act as part of Bradford’s bigger green infrastructure network and help clean our air, reduce the risk of flooding and keep the city cool.”

One of the projects Ms Ali was asked to take on was helping to create a garden in the heart of the community in Bradford Moor, led by the volunteers at Bradford Moor Play and Support Service (PASS) team.

She said: “When I was asked to help create a garden in the heart of this community by the PASS team, how could I say no?  it was an opportunity to work on an extraordinary project and really make a difference. From my first visit, I was overwhelmed by the commitment, the passion, and the resilience of the community that I knew we had to make this happen.

“We wanted to make sure everyone, young and old were involved in the project and It’s really a great way to get everyone interested in nature.  More importantly, the garden will help people to lead healthier lives by growing their own fruit and vegetables. It’s become a great place for the local schools and groups to come to and be social and spend some time together talking.

We want to encourage our communities to demand more. So, we brought them in very early in the design stage to make sure they felt involved. It’s taken just 18 months, with a lot of effort and persistence to create and deliver this space, but it was worth every moment.

“I feel that out of this community garden was born an extended family of amazing people and I am honoured to be now part of the family.”

When asked about why these hyper-local projects are important, Ms Ali replied: “These types of initiatives are there to help build bridges between people, tackle issues of anti-social behaviour, get people interested in nature and its preservation and provide an urban green corridor for wildlife. We hope the garden will also help people to lead healthier lifestyles by growing their own fruit and vegetables.”

Ms Ali is currently working on several projects including the Bradford to Shipley Road Improvement Scheme that is going to reduce traffic congestion and promote the uptake in walking and cycling. She is also working on a project that is in collaboration with the Better Place and JU:MP, to help deliver environmental improvements which will help children and their families to be active. This scheme will improve access to quality green spaces and outdoor play facilities that are important to children’s health and wellbeing, such as parks, playgrounds and woodland which connect with nature.

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