Feature Article - October 2012
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Sustainable Landscape Design

By Rick Dandes

With municipalities and school districts still running on very tight, highly scrutinized budgets, landscape architects, in consultation with government officials, environmentalists and park enthusiasts, have had to figure out ways to cut costs and still maintain quality outdoor spaces.

"The good news is our clients as a whole—and that includes universities and parks and recreation departments—have become more cognizant of the economic benefits if they focus more on designing with the environment in mind, rather than trying to impose a hard solution or an engineering solution," said Scott Crawford, senior partner, RDG Planning and Design, of Des Moines, Iowa. More often than not, he said, "such decisions will reduce long-term operation and maintenance expenditures over the lifecycle of the facility. Even more important is that it provides for a more natural habitat for existing wildlife, and better stormwater practices. It's just a better overall design solution."

Without question, a strong trend among landscape designers and their clients calls for an emphasis on environmental factors during the design process—whether designing for municipal park spaces, college or public school open areas, or trails and greenways in nature preserves.

"And then we carry it through the construction process," Crawford continued. "Ecological factors are always key to our design strategies."

Agreeing with Crawford is Will Jones, an associate and landscape designer with Mesa Design in Dallas. Jones explained that "with the environment in mind, some of the current trends in landscape design are incorporating sustainable design by utilizing water-wise plants and modern irrigation technologies, and reducing maintenance.

"Landscape designers are also creating educational opportunities for kids and adults," he said, "and transferring economic value back into the project to benefit the municipality and end-user." And stormwater management is becoming more integrated into the site design by using the water on site for groundwater recharge and irrigation rather than putting it into a culvert to be lost off site.

Mesa's "campus studio" approach is quite instructive. Architects design to complement and enhance surrounding architecture and nature, rather than enforcing a particular style. Working with sound, light, water, building materials and plants, designs aspire to evoke emotion and create a memory of the site in the project user. Designers study the context of project sites and are influenced by natural systems, urban patterns, current and projected cultural events, and economics.

Happy Trails to You

Another trend in certain areas of the country has been a huge push for regional and even national connectivity of trail networks to provide alternative transportation corridors. Such trail connectivity can also parallel a lot of the greenways and drainage courses that traverse the landscape. A greenway is defined as a long corridor of protected open space, usually following natural geographic features, planned for environmental or scenic protection. They can take the form of anything from a simple buffer along a creek to an agricultural drainage canal.

Trails and greenways provide many tangible and intangible benefits to an area, Crawford said. And while those benefits could include environmental preservation of natural beauty and protection of the overall drainage system of an area, it might also provide recreational availability, alternative transportation options and the ability to display cultural resources.

Some examples of that, Crawford and others suggested, are having a riparian buffer between a body of water and a road, a viable green space protected by ordinance from development, a pedestrian, bicycle or snowmobile trail, a confined path connecting parks and towns, a bicycle path that connects residents with schools or places of employment, or a linear route commemorating a historic route.

One further thing, Crawford said, "With all the emphasis on wellness these days, trails can be a relatively low-impact way to get people out into nature and encourage physical activity. We are actually working with local partners, local hospitals and health insurance providers to help fund trail projects. It is all part of wellness programs."