Hindsight Is 2020

Landscape Trends That Are Making a Difference


Although we can officially mark 2020 off our calendar, the shockwaves of its many unprecedented challenges are still being felt in 2021. Moving forward, as we enter spring, many landscape trends for the new year are a direct result of the impact from COVID-19, the economic downturn and environmental extremes.

And yet there is good news. Necessity, the proverbial mother of invention, forced us to creatively adapt, adjust and address better ways of using landscaped spaces that ultimately save money, improve the health of society and the health of our environment. Landscaping done right can be so much more than a decorative flourish or routine afterthought. It can be a significant game-changer. It can make a real difference.

More Functional Space

One of the biggest trends—a demand for even more functional outdoor sites—is the result of newfound public appreciation for experiencing nature and all the benefits that come with it. The mental health benefits in particular as people looked to outdoor activities to escape the confines of their homes during phases of lockdown was an enormous catalyst for this increased demand.

"In general the use of outdoor environments has skyrocketed. After the initial months of COVID-19 and parks opened back up, we saw the numbers increasing," said Michelle Kelly, PLA with Upland Design Ltd. in Plainfield, Ill. "People weren't able to go on vacation or the movies or restaurants, but they could use a trail or park and sit under a picnic shelter to enjoy a homemade meal. Now they see how important these spaces are."

Similarly, reported increases nationwide in biking, hiking, trail walking, camping and birding are continued evidence of the public's expanded appreciation of the great outdoors.


Outdoor seating and eating areas also multiplied last year when social distancing requirements pushed people into landscaped space in an effort to keep businesses afloat and functioning. From university fitness facilities to municipal rec centers and everything in between, people who seldom had time or opportunity to exercise or take lunch or coffee breaks outside during an ordinary weekday suddenly found they could incorporate nature into their daily 9-to-5. And many decided they liked it.

To that end, landscape designers continue to answer the call to enhance existing outdoor social spaces and to repurpose purely decorative ones. With the addition of sensory elements like soothing water features, more fragrant, colorful plantings and overhead weather protection, landscape designers then and now continue to make the best of a very difficult situation.

But last year's indoor-to-outdoor challenges also created a whole new way of experiencing recreation. The requirement to social distance compelled us to appoint new uses for landscaped areas that had been little more than a patch of lawn or a floral afterthought.

More Flexible, Multipurpose Fitness Spaces


All across the country, universities and sports facilities moved traditionally indoor sports and classrooms outside. Outdoor Pilates and weightlifting, once the purview of more temperate states, started to show up in northern climes. Indoor classes traded linoleum floors for synthetic grass. And hybrid models that allowed indoor recreational space to flex outdoors when needed offered the best of both worlds.

"We just opened a facility at the beginning of the pandemic that's the first collegiate facility with activity space on the roof for basketball and pickleball and a jogging track," said Erik Kocher, AIA and principal with Hastings+Chivetta in St. Louis about one well-timed project. "The outdoor track is connected to an indoor jogging track so in nice weather it has sliding doors you can go out and come back in."

Add to the growing popularity of outdoor fitness the prevailing wisdom that last year may not be the last time we see a global outbreak, and this recent shift to more outdoor socialization and recreation may be more than a short-term fix. We may be looking at a new normal.

"Outdoor elements may become more important with regard to providing these types of flexible uses in the future," said Jason Blome, PLA with RDG Planning & Design in Des Moines, Iowa. "Many more are thinking, how can we be flexible enough to maintain some types of use like the flexibility for more cardio space if we need separation between equipment and have to move outside?"


Synthetic turf is one way many colleges, universities and fitness centers have been able to move free weights, yoga and Pilates classes outside. "One project we are doing with synthetic turf has allowed the athletic department at the University of Oregon to place a big tent over the turf and set up free weights," Blome explained. "They still required social distancing and masks, but being outside allowed them to be more flexible."

Touting the many benefits of synthetic turf, Blome points out that because it requires virtually no maintenance (compared with grass), it has an overall lower cost over time despite its initially higher upfront costs. It often uses a recycled infill made from recycled tires and athletic shoes, which ticks off another box in today's quest for more environmentally conscious products.

Low Cost & Sustainability


In addition to the impact that restrictions and social distancing created last year, COVID-19's resulting economic downturn plus the many weather extremes that fanned the flames of fear about climate change also paved the way for two more trends for 2021: cost savings and eco-friendly landscaping practices. Thankfully, these two goals often go hand-in-hand.

"The healthy aspect of parks, recreational and green spaces have taken on a new priority as a way to benefit health and well-being," said Marc Angarano, manager of Eastern Land Management in Stamford, Conn. "For landscaping, that means an opportunity to make sure those open spaces—the parks and bike paths and bocce ball courts—are all cared for in a way that minimizes exposure to unhealthy elements, which is an argument for sustainable practices."

While many sustainable practices are not new (think: bioswales for water retention and purification, native plantings and smart tech for water conservation), they are now front and center in the wake of a health and climate crisis that underscored the need to take our communal health and the environment more seriously.

Going Native


One of the most effective bang-for-the-buck practices is the use of native plantings of trees, bushes, grasses and flowers. Native plantings, which are perfectly adapted to a region's climate and soils, reduce irrigation costs and reduce maintenance costs (less fertilizer and mowing). Moreover, they invite native pollinators to the party and provide habitat for native species of wildlife.

"I recall meetings around 10 years ago when people didn't want those 'weedy areas,'" Kelly said in reference to more accepting attitudes. "And now they like the idea of a pollinator area or one that's good for monarchs. People are much more accepting now. There's still some maintenance, but there's less mowing and overall it's a big positive."

Reduction of turf is another big shift from traditional landscaping practices. Angarano, for example, has seen a trend toward greater replacement of underperforming turf (old and worn-out lawns) with perennial meadows. This can take the form of low-growing ground covers or ornamental grasses used as part of a revitalization strategy that attract birds, wildlife and pollinators. Plantings that help diversify the habitat, such as prairie meadows, butterfly gardens and bioswales-turned-constructed-wetland to name a few, are additional, terrific lawn alternatives that serve double duty as nature's classroom and wildlife attraction.

Carbon Emitters & Sequesters


Although plants and trees are known for their effective reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, lawns or turf are actually carbon emitters. That is, they actually put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Pamela Conrad, principal with CMG Landscape Architecture and founder of Climate Positive Design who advocates "plant more, pave less" as part of an overall strategy for carbon reduction, points out that lawns are the exception to the rule. "Lawns are a big offender we don't think about because of typical maintenance practices and fertilizer applications. Grass is actually not a carbon sequester, it's a carbon emitter. A no-mow meadow grass is a great replacement—you can still picnic on it but it takes less maintenance, less water and fertilizer and it sequesters carbon."

Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, often the go-to solution for a previously more conventional mindset in lawn care, can also wreak havoc with native wildlife species, pollute groundwater and damage the soil biome. Perhaps most importantly, nitrous oxide, a common ingredient in fertilizer that has been determined to be 300 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, has become a global problem. Eliminating its use wherever possible and replacing it with more eco-friendly and cost-effective methods has become a goal for many around the world.

The Big Picture—Integrated Systems


Ultimately, according to Angarano, taking a more holistic approach to landscape care that considers soil health and how all elements of the landscape interact and impact one another is a win-win. When striving to create healthier, less toxic soil, integrating smarter use of water applications and using biodiversity (think: utilizing the symbiotic lessons of permaculture), the result is a cost savings in time, effort and money.

"Our goal is to make sure that at every touchpoint, everything works together to be high-performing together. That's where the cost-saving sweet spot is," Angarano said. "Damage control's expensive, so the more proactive we are—across all seasons—to manage risk up front, the more cost-effective it is for the owner or manager."

Something as simple as incorporating trees can also make a big difference. As many studies now show, the global impact of trees to reduce carbon in the atmosphere is significant. Beautiful as well as beneficial, they add much appreciated shade and can be a windbreak for people to sit under and enjoy.


"Planting trees in response to climate change is the easiest thing," Kelly said, pointing to the Illinois Tollway, which is currently planting thousands of trees as part of a master plan to address global warming. "I actually hope that's the next trend. It's such an easy button. Think about it—at the edge of a basketball court it's where everyone goes to sit. It's wonderful for the environment but makes your experience in a park better."

If there's one word that captures the landscaping trends for this new year, however, it is "smart."

Smarter landscaping designs and practices in response to last year's challenges have, in some measure, been a silver lining. Improving and expanding the outdoor recreational experience, creating healthier and more eco-friendly green space while saving money in a recovering economy are pretty significant ways we can benefit from the hindsight lessons of 2020. RM