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."

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.

One of the easiest ways to advocate for a sustainable landscape is to approach the early planning discussions from the perspective of integrating the natural outdoors with the sciences and environmental education opportunities. "Build this integration right into the design of the site," Crawford said. "Talk about it. Explain how this really won't have a cost impact on the project, but can have a huge educational benefits for students and the community."

In the urban environment, Walters said, parks are often the only "nature" people have the opportunity to experience.

An added value to sustainability is funding opportunities, Crawford said. "Many times, some of the things that would be comprised of innovative stormwater practices or the restoration of prairie areas make a jurisdiction eligible for funding from various local organizations, state Department of Natural Resources grants, or county conservation grant money."

These funding entities can provide much-needed money that will allow parks and recreation officials to do some of the things they want to do, when there isn't much money available in their budgets. After all, no one wants to raise taxes these days. So sustainability can be a win-win for everybody because not only does it lead to additional funding for the project and get it done, but they also are able to utilize those things as educational components after they are built—and more often than not, those elements are actually less costly to maintain over the long term.

Best Practices, Wise Planning

Experts agree that the trend toward environmental stewardship is a best practice. "This reconnection with nature doesn't mean just a restored prairie," Crawford said. "We're taking some high-intensity and very active parks, such as sports complexes, and integrating them with the environmental components within that space."

A good example might be a sports complex with 12 or 16 baseball and softball fields. Crawford's team might design a park so that within its boundaries, they are taking surface water from those fields and filtering them through a series of bio retention cells and restored prairie areas. The result is that most of the water is managed on site and very little runoff actually leaves the property.

"In this example," Crawford noted, "we are able to mitigate the groundwater contamination from any of the chemicals that might be used to treat the turf grass. It's not a new concept, but with the economy the way it's been over the last five years, a lot of parks departments are starting to remember and sort of reconnect with the benefits of ecologically based design versus engineering things; almost imposing human solutions on the environment rather than working with the environment. That's a big trend."

Always ask the architect and designers for a thorough site assessment and analysis, suggested Fred Walters, a principal and landscape architect with Mesa Design. "This, overlaid with the site program, will give you a successful site design."

Understanding the project program and space requirements allows the designer to properly locate various program elements on site. Integration with valuable site amenities such as tree groves, creeks and interesting topographical features gives parks their unique identity and fosters appreciation of these places by their users.

In the urban environment, Walters said, parks are often the only "nature" people have the opportunity to experience, so any interaction or immersive experience is extremely valuable, especially for children.

Family also matters. "When we design a space," Hornig said, "we're proponents of keeping the family and generations together, and we design in ways to set the family up for success. Where Johnny can go play soccer and Susie, who is five years younger, can be at another space in the playground. Meanwhile, the parent or caregiver can see both of them and engage both of them, sharing stories and passing along parental coaching tips. The point is that wherever members of the family go in the recreation space or park, they should have something to do."

Hornig and his colleagues continue to wrestle with the teen age group, ages 11 to 16. "How do we engage them?" he asked. "They need to interact socially, because that is an important aspect of their development at that age group, but how do you reach kids who spend all their time texting on their smart phones? We've toyed with and discussed the concept of bringing technology out to the park—reaching kids in that teen group in a language they can understand. Their world seems to be surrounded by smart phones, and we here go back and forth of the value of that, whether that is the right way to do it? Or maybe the whole point is to shut up the smart phone, turn it off and soak up some nature."

Maintaining the Space

Always interact with the maintenance staff early on in the planning stages of project development, if you want the space to be properly cared for in the future.

"Make sure the guy who is going to mow the 40 acres has a chance to look at the design, or the guy who is charged with maintaining the ball fields, play equipment or surfacing has a chance to take part in the shaping of it," Hornig said. "People would be surprised at how much great information and knowledge maintenance personnel have about their internal systems and operations, and the little tweaks that they can suggest along the way can really help sustain the space efficiently. We make sure those people are involved early on, and this is really important."

Understanding the budget is important as well. Often, a new park development can significantly increase the maintenance requirements, such as the amount of staff required to keep it functional. The elected officials and the public might have a vision of a grand space that has annual flowers, high-detail masonry, sculpture and things like that. But unless you have a handle on expectations, Hornig warned, "you could be asking for trouble, and budget overruns."

Crawford agreed. "One of the things we do for the majority of our clients is that when we are designing any project, we sit down not only with the decision makers and talk about what gets designed and what gets built, but also with maintenance staff. We understand what the challenges are with their existing facilities and how we can avoid those challenges. So the goal is always to make new spaces easier to maintain, because that obviously translates to less hours in the field and less cost for the department."

Many times Hornig and his colleagues will put together an operations budget based on a certain design concept. "If we are doing a 40-acre park," he noted, "we might have three different design concepts, each one with a different level of maintenance and operation requirements over the life of the project."

This is something, he suggested, to keep in mind at the front end of a project. First, what is the capital cost of this to build, but also in the long term, what is the department going to have to budget annually to maintain it?

Walters had practical advice. In order to minimize future maintenance in a project, he said, it is important to reduce turf areas, which will then reduce the amount of mowing, irrigation and use of fossil fuels for maintenance. Incorporating native flora back into a site will create a more sustainable design with less revenue loss due to plant replacement. Natives require less fertilization, disease prevention and pest control as they are naturally adapted to the local environment.

"A general understanding of the natural process of a site and encouraging preservation and conservation in the design program will help to decrease maintenance over a period of time," Walters said.

Keeping Costs Down

Careful planning and design can help to mitigate the costs of maintenance, while still maintaining a high standard of quality for a project.

"Prioritizing areas of a project that receive a higher maintenance versus lower maintenance may be another way to cut costs," Walters said. "This must be anticipated early in the design process as the client may envision a neatly clipped and manicured project rather than the character of a less manicured design."

Ultimately education and training play a part as well. It is sometimes difficult for maintenance managers to "let things go" and reduce the overall maintenance hours spent on a project. When looking at a native approach, commitment is considered key by all stakeholders, as the benefits of a native landscape are often realized two to three years after installation because these landscapes are more difficult to establish.

"Community volunteering may help supplement work of a contractor," Walters said, "which then helps reduce costs of maintenance for a project." Educating the contractor and client of different maintenance schedules and procedures may help to cut costs but still maintain quality.

Hornig said we all know budgets are very tight, so he advises park officials and government operatives to set expectations appropriately. Use durable, tried-and-true materials—that can help control costs. And, as Walters suggested, using in-house labor or grass-roots community volunteers can help.

Use durable, tried-and-true materials—that can help control costs

"Certainly, as we have seen, using some of the sustainable landscape pieces in the design can help," he said. "One of the least expensive design elements can be the earth itself. Sculpted or shaped in the right way, being respectful of the natural systems can have an impact on how the space feels, just by raising ground a little here, lowering it a little there, framing views can be an important element on site, and can really have an impact."

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