Designing With Sustainability In Mind

Each new year is full of good intentions although I hesitate to call them resolutions. I will be more punctual this year. I will exercise more and eat healthier foods. I will start all my favorite vegetable plants from seed. I will not let the weeds get ahead of me – both in my own home garden – now occupied by non-gardener renters — and in the vast landscape gardens that I tend in my job as a resident caretaker of a large estate. I will sustain my gardens and they in turn will sustain me.It’s a challenge to properly care for any garden. But especially middle-age gardens such as the ones I care for. The job requires understanding the vision of the designer and/or owner and performing tasks with the proper skills and timing. It is here that my intentions translate (hopefully) into well heeded resolutions. New gardens and landscapes have all their mistakes before them; middle-aged gardens display their mistakes for all to see. For instance, if I don’t control the rambling tendencies of AgastacheMonarda and Pennisetum alopecuroides then I’ll be forced to reclassify that area as a meadow. Of what use is that collection of lilacs screening the street if they barely bloom? That large grove of Pinus strobus has shaded them and needs thinning out to bring in more light. Designers and gardeners tend to think that gardens become picturesque and age gracefully over time. But the truth is that all landscapes need the intervening hand of a skilled practitioner who can reshape and rethink what was once implemented.Change is inevitable; trends come and go. For the past half century Americans fell in love with their pleasure vehicles as rural countryside was transformed from farmland into a landscape of suburban and urban sprawl crazy-quilted together with roadways and super highways. Along the way we’ve gotten lazy, fat, and now suddenly poorer. Goods and services once deemed essential — listen up landscapers — to our personal lifestyles and the economy are becoming unaffordable non-essentials for many. When W Bush took office a barrel of oil was $26.00; in July of 2008 the price for crude oil hit an all time high of $147.00/barrel before heading downward but heading who knows where?Clearly, from today forward, fossil fuels – and all the everyday essentials that depend upon them, such as transportation, housing, food – will grow increasingly more costly. Our current land pattern of living in single-family suburban homes, working in cities and getting to and fro via the private automobile has us in a real pickle: how can we transition away from our petroleum guzzling infrastructure and toward a more sustainable future? We’re not going to blow up our current suburban model, right? So let’s look at one issue we might all be able to actually influence – our designed landscapes.Many who employ sustainable thinking and practices are convinced that with diminishing oil supplies, climate change and economic irregularities, that it will not only be necessary but profitable for landscape professionals to embrace sustainable practices. What might the sustainable landscape of the near future look like…and how will they function? And just exactly what are sustainable landscape practices?“Sustainability” is such a buzz word today that it is in danger of being rendered meaningless, following in the footsteps of its predecessors, the vaguely defined “natural” and “going green.” Seemingly everyone is for “it,” yet few can really define what “it” is. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System defines object-oriented buildings as sustainable according to a standards ranking system (with a Plantinum rating being the best); ironically many of these highly rated sustainable buildings are built upon sites lacking in sustainable design practices, as are the majority of ordinary suburban homes.

The Sustainable Sites Initiative ( – introduced by a partnership of the United States Botanic Garden, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center – seeks to introduce guidelines for evaluating sustainable landscapes. The 179 page report includes a point system for rating a landscape as sustainable; much like the LEED system rates the sustainability of buildings. The Initiative seeks to address LEED-like requirements for landscapes by addressing issues such as water runoff from buildings and barring development within 100 feet of wetland areas. The report includes examples of successful restorative case studies where landscapes are created utilizing practices that protect and enhance soils, hydrology and vegetation, thereby protecting or improving the natural ecosystem. Locally, the Queens Botanical Garden, Flushing, New York, was applauded for designing systems where harvested rainwater supplies ornamental water gardens, and gray water – collected from sinks and showers – is purified by plants, and then utilized to flush toilets.

In its report, the Sustainable Sites Initiative defines sustainability as land practices “that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The Initiative “envisions that sustainable land practices will enable natural and built systems to work together to protect and enhance the ability of landscapes to provide services such as climate regulation, clean air and water, and improved quality of life. The report’s authors spent considerable time “identifying the specific and measurable criteria a site would need to meet in order to be considered ‘sustainable.’” Committee members “deemed it essential to acknowledge that different regions of the country will have different requirements, and to develop performance benchmarks that would shift the market toward sustainability while remaining practical and achievable. The subcommittees also took human health and well-being into account as they developed the measures of sustainability because healthy ecosystems are the source of the many less tangible benefits that humans derive from a relationship with nature. Throughout, the goal was to identify criteria based on performance outcomes rather than prescriptive measures, to encourage innovation, inspire a change in thinking, and provide flexibility.” The report goes on to say that “the intents and concepts underlying the guidelines…can be applied right away to support new sustainable practices wherever possible – with the understanding that the benchmarks today are still a work in progress. By 2012, the Initiative “expects to have three stand-alone documents that will also supplement existing green building standards and rating systems.” The US Green Building Council, a major stakeholder in the Initiative, anticipates incorporating the benchmarks into future versions of the LEED Green Building Rating System.

Unlike most of our current landscape practices, this Initiative views sustainability within the context of an ecosystem where a site addresses environmental, economic and social needs. A central message of the Sustainable Sites Initiative “is that any landscape – whether the site of a large subdivision, a shopping mall, a park, an abandoned rail yard, or even one home – holds the potential both to improve and to regenerate the natural benefits and services provided by ecosystems in their undeveloped state.”

Our challenge, as each generation must do, in the words of educator, author and landscape architect J. B. Jackson is “to redefine the beautiful and move beyond a narrow visual concept of landscape.” For Jackson, “the function of the artistry and beauty of a landscape was to provide a meaningful setting for social life and individual fulfillment.” In a down economy the challenge for any business is to maintain profitability and to identify new markets. One such market clearly is the sustainable landscape field. What trends will designers and contractors need to consider in creating truly sustainable landscapes beyond the current “green” practices of utilizing “the right plant for the right place,” incorporating native plants, integrated pest management practices, zeriscaping principles, etc.? Practitioners ahead of the curve will focus not on exotic eye candy trinkets but on truly emerging sustainable practices that: conserve, collect and utilize on-site resources — water, soils and energy; maximize local products — compost, building materials, locally grown plants; products that do not require vast amounts of energy to harvest, process or ship—ie, avoid tropical woods such as Ipe, exotic stone from South America, or landscapes with features that require vast amounts of imported soils, water, or chemical inputs for survival. Designers and landscapers can and have driven the market for goods and services. And we can continue to do so by educating ourselves and our customers about truly sustainable landscapes.

In my work with the Department of Ornamental Horticulture at Farmingdale State College, I am currently designing a Sustainable Garden component within their demonstration Teaching Gardens. The Department views this new garden area as the cornerstone of an expanded curriculum that will address contemporary issues central to the burgeoning sustainable landscape development movement, including:
· Resource Conservation – The garden should seek to minimize or eliminate the outside input of water, fertilizer, topsoil, toxic pest control tools, etc.
· Recycling Principles – The garden should pursue soil-building strategies that utilize composting and living mulches/cover crops while employing water retention techniques that collect and distribute rainwater.
· Proper Plant Selection – The garden should feature plant material that illustrates the “right plant for the right place” principle. Plant selections that demonstrate wind/salt tolerance – coastal/roadside conditions, windbreaks, etc.; heat/cold tolerance – testing the limits of USDA plant hardiness zones; various soil types- disturbed, urban/engineered soil, wet, sandy/thin, etc.; animal/pest-resistant – deer-proof, insect-disease resistant varieties; some plants selected would be recent introductions, — smaller in statute – and suitable for today’s smaller residential lot sizes and explore issues of native and introduced plants.
· Product Development – The garden will explore the myriad ways that plants can offer benefits aside from ornamental beauty. These may include edible landscaping (bamboo, fruit, herbs), useful plants (structural bamboo, dye and fiber plants) and, perhaps, plants that may provide fuel products.

Stay tune to these pages for continual updates about this garden, and others.

Critics of virtually every present human managed system – agriculture, our energy usage, medicine just to name a few – object to current mainstream practices and label them as unsustainable. Despite what the status quo thinkers promote (“there is no environmental crisis”) what this really means is that each particular process or practice can’t continue indefinitely, without some major breakdown destroying the conditions required to keep it working. With so much talk of change being discussed – nationally and globally — and welcomed by so many, seemingly the real test for us all will not be whether these systems will break down (in other words be unsustainable), but how can we enact the necessary changes to make sustainability real and more than just a buzz word.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.