Feature Article - October 2012
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Sustainable Landscape Design

By Rick Dandes

Eric Hornig, a principal with Hitchcock Design Group in Chicago, agreed that encouraging outdoor activity is a trend. "At my firm," he said, "I work on a parks and recreation team. I would say there is definitely a trend following the 'No Child Left Inside' movement."

"One of our views of sustainability is that a sustainable landscape is like a three-legged stool: It has to be socially acceptable, good for the natural environment and cost-effective."
—Eric Hornig, Hitchcock Design Group

The movement began after Richard Louv's book, Last Child in the Woods, brought together a new and growing body of research indicating that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and adults.

"Louv's thinking," Hornig said, "is revolutionary. He writes that kids just don't have the opportunity to be outside in a free space as much as other generations did when they were younger, as opposed to playing soccer outside and then moving on to baseball, or more programmed, structured sports. I think that trend has definitely caught on, and there is a trend toward getting children and families outdoors in a less structured setting."

At the core of it all, at public schools, is the play environment, the playground, Hornig explained. "Here, we are starting to see less traditional play equipment, and more nature-themed activities. Being in natural environments can lead to more exploratory activities, which is good for students' minds. Physically, I think play equipment is evolving with available activities like rocks and rock climbers and rope climbers. Generally, elevation of some kind comes into play, getting kids up higher than they are used to. There is perceived, but not actual risk here, which improves the child's stamina and coordination, all good things."

One of the projects that Hornig's firm worked on a few years ago was Bowen Park in Waukegan, Ill. "This is a project where we had a heavy nature theme and we tried to represent different levels of the forest as landscape elements throughout the park. At one level, we have climber equipment that gets you up amongst some native oak trees, so you sort of get a squirrel's view of the world. We also had an owl overlook, which looks down over a valley. Kids can pretend they are an owl; they can compare their wingspan to that of an owl. And it was situated on a hillside."

Moving down the hillside at Bowen Park are log climbers and at the bottom, something representing the decomposition and regeneration of a forest floor. "We had a spider net climber, which was very high and gave that sense of adventure that is so appealing to kids and some adults. All of this was topped off by a mushroom-themed spray area," Hornig said.

Sustainable Landscaping

There is certainly a trend toward sustainable landscapes, Hornig explained, and that is obviously something important to the ongoing green movement. "One of our views of sustainability," he continued, "is that a sustainable landscape is like a three-legged stool: It has to be socially acceptable, good for the natural environment and cost-effective. And if one of those legs is missing, the stool falls over. There are still problems with the aesthetics of some sustainable systems, and I think that's still the biggest hurdle in design, in addition to setting educational expectations properly. Overall though, used in the right setting, this can truly be a cost saver."

Parks and schools can incorporate sustainable landscape design in many different ways. Initially, site selection is a crucial component of sustainable design. The selection of the site can affect construction costs, utility service and the operation of the buildings.

Geology, hydrology and ecology for the new project should be considered as part of the overall value of the site, Jones said. Preservation and conservation of existing ecosystems may directly affect the operating costs for the project. Some of the most popular examples of sustainable design are the incorporation of green roofs and rain gardens into projects, which help mitigate the urban heat island effect. Parks and schools have also recently been harvesting stormwater and utilizing greywater, which significantly reduces the amount of potable water used by these facilities.