Feature Article - November 2003
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Ground Rules

From berms to xeriscape, landscaping ideas to please your patrons and your budget

By Kimberly Tobin


While choosing low-maintenance materials is important to fulfill the goal of beautifying the outdoors, you don't have to settle on landscaping that just looks good. Whether natural or man-made, landscaping elements also can help circulate pedestrian traffic, hide or enhance a view, or block the elements.

"When we think about aesthetics, I like to look at things like a building's orientation to the sun or pedestrian circulation patterns," says Michael Schmeltzer, president and registered landscape architect at Schmeltzer Design, Inc. in Oregon, Wis. "Addition of plants in a strategic location can help a building stay cooler and improve circulation and pedestrian flow."

Other strategies he mentions include planting hedges near activity areas like running tracks to help screen out wind or using plants and trees to keep unsightly elements, such as trash receptacles, out of view.

Like natural features, man-made materials can also provide beauty with a purpose.

"Linear space [such as sidewalks] can be broken up by installing courtyards or resting nodes," Alexander says. "Benches can be used to accent the verticality of trees."

While they're naturally visually appealing, one of the most obvious benefits of trees is to shade and cool. To maximize this function, it's important to position them in the right areas and choose the right types.

"In general, shade trees introduced into things like parking areas take sunlight off of the pavement, reducing ambient temperature," Alexander says. "You want to have larger canopy trees-those that develop both height and breadth—for more of a shading and cooling effect."

Whether they're chosen to cool, or just look cool, don't forget to keep in mind how colors will work together when selecting trees and other plant materials.

"You don't want a low, dark-green plant with a dark-green tall tree," Alexander adds. "You want plants and trees in different shades of green that would complement each other rather than compete with each other to be seen."

In addition to plant and synthetic materials, the land itself can also function as a dual-purpose landscape element. Don Campbell, a registered landscape architect at French & Associates, likes to use earthen berms to provide function and form. Berms, which are basically rounded earth forms covered with grass or native grass, can cut down on noise and provide shade and seating when combined with other natural materials.

Although not yet used by a majority of facilities, Campbell says the benefits of berms will be recognized on a wider basis soon.

"More people are realizing that if created and used between fields at an athletic facility, they [berms] can reduce the impact of noise and traffic," he says. "If you use lots of boulders tucked into berms, those hills can be used to watch games and get people off the ground. The rocks can double as benches. And the trees provide the shade."

Visually, berms also make the scene more attractive.

"By having changes in elevation, the hills along with the concrete can create art forms," Campbell says. "So as you walk, you have some interplay of shapes, which is much more interesting than looking at what would usually be a straight line."

Earth mounds are also beginning to be used in sites like playgrounds.

"Increasingly, children's play areas are not just equipment on a flat surface," Edsall says. "People are beginning to look at molding the character of a space, such as the more 3-D characteristics of earth mounds. You can do things like take tunnels through them, which adds to the visual interest."

Water, often a key piece of visual appeal in a landscape scheme, can do more than bubble and look pretty. It can also be entertainment.

"What we're finding with things like swimming complexes is integrating interactive water features with large-sized pools," says Ted Kempton, principal and registered landscape architect at Hardeman Kempton & Associates in Tampa, Fla. At a proposed regional park in Wesley Chapel, Fla., that Kempton is working on, water cannons will be installed in an area for smaller children so they don't interfere with the main part of the park's swimming pool.

"The interactive fountain is a nice way to get dual use out of a fountain," Kempton says. "As opposed to it just being a fountain, you get both the visual appeal of a fountain and the noise of water, but it also provides a play feature."