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.

Heightened public awareness of sustainability has played a role in driving this development, said Fred Walters, principal at MESA Design Group. Walters has been designing public and private recreation facilities and parks for two decades. "Parks aren't just for recreation and leisure anymore," he said. "They play a sustainable role in this environmentally conscious era. The definition of sustainability is becoming better understood and carried out on all projects, whether they are seeking LEED certification or not."

The high costs and environmental strain associated with land stewardship and maintenance—mowing, mulching and watering—are reduced by irrigation technology, efficient planting, and strategic placement of gravel and other inert materials, Walters said.

"'Mow, blow and go' are not the way they're doing things anymore," Hornig added. "They're stewarding the landscape and trying to understand the needs, as opposed to get in, get out."


In addition to sustainability, managers of parks and recreational facilities are also increasingly interested in technology as a means for both improving efficiency and enhancing the user experience. In particular, the rise of mobile technology has brought social and digital media into parks and recreation spaces.

"There's a movement toward technology in the landscape," Hornig said. "Maybe you don't read a sign anymore. Maybe you scan a QR Code."

Quick Response (QR) Codes are pixelated, usually small squares that can be scanned by the camera of a smartphone or tablet in order to bring up relevant information about a particular feature or service. And they're proliferating in parks.

"The integration of lots of different technologies in trail systems specifically is growing," Crawford said. "Everyone wants one. And they want a QR Code on everything. We've integrated them with trail markers, educational signs on plants, and so forth."

Light-emitting diode (LEDs) bulbs have also contributed to user experience while at the same time lowering long-term costs. The lighting systems powered by LEDs allow outdoor spaces to be better lit—particularly in the nighttime hours—at a lower cost, Walters said. He added that technology enhancements to LED systems also allow for creative lighting that's projected, programmable and interactive.

Best of all, the front-end costs of LED lighting are beginning to come down too, Crawford said. "Within a few years, after you've paid for those lights, you're saving a lot of money," he added.


In 2005, Richard Louv, an American journalist, published a book titled Last Child in the Woods, in which he argued that children around the world (especially in the developed countries of the West) are spending less time outside than ever before. The consequence of this has been the development of what Louv believes is a "nature deficit disorder," which has in turn led to greater levels of childhood obesity and mental issues.

Since the publication of this book, a movement spearheaded by the No Child Left Inside coalition has developed around promoting outdoor activities and environmental awareness among youth.

This has also spurred parks and recreation spaces to offer more nature-based play, Hornig said. He added that this often "looks somewhere between the real thing and Disney" — that is, it's either a natural environment that has been manipulated or it's a combination of synthetic and natural materials that mimic a particular ecological system.

This move toward natural "playscapes" that incorporate native materials such as stones, logs and water helps children use their capacity for creativity, said Crawford.

"Manufactured and prefab playground equipment serves a purpose and there's a need for it, but children learn more if they're playing in natural environments," he explained. "When a child walks up to a prefabricated piece of play equipment, the behavior for that is very prescribed. With a natural feature, the exploration is left to the children."

Along these lines, aquatic features such splashpads and spray fountains have been brought to park landscape design. "These are generally smaller elements that support an overall play environment," Hornig said.

Another important aspect of outdoor recreational spaces for the public today is adaptation. "One of the overriding factors is flexibility—being able to use these spaces for multiple purposes and easily adapt to other uses in the future, for sports like field hockey, soccer, lacrosse, rugby, Aussie rules football," Crawford said.

This is especially critical in more populated, urbanized areas, Walters added. "Multipurpose programming is instrumental for city parks," he said. "Flexible outdoor spaces allow for opportunities for the community to utilize these areas."

The need to accommodate more organized sports has led to more implementations of artificial turf fields over the past few years, Hornig said. These fields can take more abuse than natural fields, and can be used in all kinds of weather as well. And for parks that decide to go the natural route, there are smarter irrigation techniques, often supported by technology. "From a sports field perspective, there are lots of systems out there that will reduce the amount of native water that has to be used for irrigation," Crawford said.

Working Together

Of course, landscape architects continue to deal with the traditional concerns of their vocation. For example, public art is still very important, with the added wrinkle that more U.S. cities are starting to establish arts commissions, which often include parks and recreation decision makers. "It's a very intuitive and natural thing," Crawford said of this development. (However, as Walters pointed out, "Public art is a desire but, unfortunately, is the last thing on the list to be added.")

New requirements with regard to sustainability, technology and activities have mixed in with more traditional functions of landscape architecture, though, making it a much more complex endeavor.

For instance, Walters said he's seen a rise in interest for historic restorations, particularly for urban parks. Yet this once-straightforward activity has been influenced by newer developments, so that it becomes an opportunity to impart some additional information about the space. "Parks that fall into disrepair and have a historical background allow the opportunity to reintegrate and re-expose significant layers of historical, cultural and ecological influences," he explained.

Walters also said he's seeing more parks looking for master plan commitments from their landscape architects, with a phased build-out plan to include mixed-use, shared use and educational opportunities. "Trends toward greener buildings and lower-impact development are moving the role of the landscape architect to the beginning of the design process," he added.

Also, when it comes to major landscape projects for parks and other outdoor spaces, there is a great deal more scrutiny. This results in more public and stakeholder meetings, and a lengthier and more robust input-gathering process, Hornig said. "The effects of the recession have brought about a higher level of public involvement and expectations, with the public demanding more accountability," he explained. "It impacts the way we present things. We use more 3-D visualizations and charts with information to support the project."

Today, projects work best when all of the principals and stakeholders hold discussions early on to build a consensus, then move forward united in their objectives, Hornig said. He experienced this when he worked on a children's garden in the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill. This four-acre themed space was designed with the intention of getting children to appreciate nature and natural landscapes in the area.

"It was one of those projects everyone knew was special," Hornig explained. "Everyone was invested in making sure it came out special. It's always better to work on a collaborative team."

When a group can come together around a common philosophy of creating spaces that are stimulating, edifying and environmentally sound, magic things can happen, Crawford said.

"We want to improve the condition of whatever we're trying to enhance not only in terms of the human experience, but also the environmental impact," he said. "This produces an economic benefit.

"Parks have too often in the past been considered a quality-of-life amenity. More people are starting to understand that parks play a critical role in the health of people and their surroundings, not only in physical terms, but also spiritual and mental."

© Copyright 2022 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.