May 16, 2017
By Paul Clinton, PLA – Landscape Architect
Every place is a community, whether urban, suburban, or rural. Soil, water, plants, people, and wildlife all have a place. What does this have to do with landscape architecture? Everything.
Construction techniques employed today emphasize speed and efficiency, and seek to contain costs. This approach often comes with a price though – an unattractive or unhealthy landscape that does little to protect the environment or serve the inhabitants of the surrounding community.
Landscape architecture is a discipline that blends science and art to deliver beautiful, durable solutions that benefit the built and natural environments.
The answer is a resounding yes. Plants, trees, and flowers definitely beautify project sites. But landscape architecture goes way beyond pretty: landscapes are important for their form and function.
If a project is done right, the built and natural environments are planned, designed, managed, and nurtured. Landscape architecture is more than grass, trees, and flowers planted after the other site infrastructure has been put in place. A sustainable landscape puts the finishing touches on the project in terms of both aesthetics and function.
Choosing plants is just part of the equation when designing a landscape. The plants are the most visible, but unless they’re installed in a quality landscape, they won’t thrive – and we all know that’s not pretty.
The beauty of a landscape that is well designed and implemented is in its ability to complement or enhance the site and surrounding area in a way that fits the site context. The needs of a building site in an urban area are very different from the needs of a wetland or streambed in a rural location. The landscape architect understands this and designs accordingly with the goal of creating a beautiful and sustainable landscape that contributes to health of the community, benefits the environment, protects water and natural resources, preserves wildlife habitat, and bolsters public health.
Think about all the varied types of landscapes you see in your daily life. Odds are a landscape architecture had a hand in their creation. Parks, boulevards, highway medians, wetlands, forests, prairies, rain gardens, golf courses, residential landscapes – all of these are things landscape architects design. Some of them also delineate wetlands. Some do master planning and urban design at a very grand scale. Some help homeowners decide which plants will work best in their foundation planting areas. Some design wayfinding signs and to photorealistic renderings.
The landscape architect understands physical form, solves problems, and has the technical wherewithal to translate a design into a built work.
A lot of it has to do with water and dirt. Seriously.
As development occurs, the amount of impervious surface often increases. Water flows over impervious surfaces, collecting pollutants along the way. When that water finally reaches dirt, it can overwhelm that dirt’s ability to absorb water and causes erosion. Then the pollutant-laden water continues on to area lakes and streams or enters a storm drain and heads to the wastewater treatment plant.
Stormwater infiltration is a big deal. It’s a major factor in the health of the landscape. You wouldn’t plant grass, trees, and flowers in a bathtub and expect them to survive, right? The same idea applies to landscape architecture, regardless of the site location and type.
In the interest of speed and cost savings, the clay soil on a project site is often compacted and a layer of four to six inches of topsoil is spread on top. That’s usually not enough to establish a healthy and sustainable landscape. Why? Water seeps through the topsoil, hits the compacted clay underneath, and oozes away. Because the water doesn’t really have any place to go (at least not in a timely fashion), the plants can drown. Adequate organic soil allows the water to infiltrate effectively so the plants can thrive. Plus, infiltration is a great way to passively filter stormwater before it enters stormwater infrastructure or public waters.
When thinking about stormwater infiltration, many of us think of rain gardens. What you see is the shape of the garden and the plants in it. What you don’t see is the science underneath. Some simply have a sandy base under the soil to filter water. Some have special drains that carry the water to an overflow area in the event of a heavy rainfall. Regardless of the type, the intent of rain gardens is to filter out pollutants in stormwater runoff before they can cause environmental harm.
We work with wetlands, native restoration, and infrastructure. When the needs of the owner and the needs of the environment appear to be at odds, we define the conflicts and work to transform what’s perceived as a negative into a positive that meets the needs of both sides. We strive for balance.
Projects come in all shapes and sizes, and a lot depends on the rules, regulations, and input from the owner and the public that factor into the implementation. Regulations, requirements, and owner desires are important factors in every project. Our job is to simplify the process and guide people through it.