Supplement Feature - April 2013
Find a printable version here

Set Your Sights on Sites

Exploring a New Golden Age in Landscape Architecture

By Brian Summerfield

If you were to ask landscape architects when the "golden age" of their profession was, many of them would answer that it transpired in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was a time when cities across Europe and North America—assisted by period of relative peace and prosperity—sought to create huge, planned green spaces that would provide better quality of life for residents and attract tourists.

It was also when industry legends such as Frederick Law Olmsted, Calvert Vaux, Beatrix Farrand, T.H. Mawson and Jens Jensen gave rise to the idea of landscape architecture as a vocation with bold, visionary and elaborate designs for park land, colleges and preparatory schools, and private estates. In 1899, some of the leading practitioners in the United States established the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), further establishing it as a well-known, respected profession.

As important as those gains were, the advances taking place in landscape architecture right now are no less monumental. The past few years have brought changes that promise to reinvent planned outdoor spaces over the next few decades, in ways as transformative as the ones that took place more than a century ago. Here are a few important developments that herald a new golden age for landscape architects and the projects they're working on.


The concept of sustainability has been around for a long time, yet it's only recently become a priority for most public outdoor spaces. Eric Hornig, principal for the Hitchcock Design Group, who works in the company's recreation studio and has about two decades of professional experience, said the topic had been discussed for several years in academia.

"We all thought sustainability was mandatory coming out of college, but it wasn't as prevalent as we thought at the time," Hornig explained, and added that managers of parks and other outdoor areas "naturally evolved" to understand its importance over the past few years. Today, it's de rigueur.

However, "sustainability" is a decidedly amorphous term. What does it mean when discussing landscape architecture?

For starters, it refers to water. "There is a fundamental shift toward better water quality management," said Scott Crawford, senior partner and director of RDG Planning & Design's parks and recreation division. "Everything facilities managers and parks directors do impacts water. It doesn't matter if they're putting in a parking lot or a trail."

A big reason for the focus on water is the understanding that this natural resource needs to be cared for and preserved, Crawford added. "In the next 100 years, the greatest resource shortage isn't going to be oil or food. It's going to be water."

Because parks are a protected resource, more and more municipalities are claiming watersheds or land adjacent to bodies of water and converting it to park land in order to safeguard it. They're also turning to techniques such as rainwater harvesting and drip irrigation. "If there's land that needs to be protected, short of putting it into some permanent easement, the best way to do that is deed that land to entities that can preserve it," Crawford explained.

In addition to water preservation, sustainability refers to a general stewardship of the land, and creating highly efficient, low-maintenance facilities that either have a minimal impact on the surrounding ecological systems or restore them to their native state. "There's a focus in park development on preserving and working within existing and pre-existing environmental systems," Crawford said.