The four components of ancient Hellenic physics—earth, air, fire, and water—are fundamental tools of modern landscape architects. They sculpt the land and harness the sun with chlorophyll. But it is water that may be most critical, as both a tool and an outcome, in landscape architecture.
As with the sun, nature supplies water capriciously, even more so under conditions of climate change. We get too much in some places and too little in others. When water arrives it is often in momentary oversupply, and throughout it insistently finds its own level. Add to that the misguided concepts of water management from the past century, which are the root cause of innumerable problems today.
Because water is so fundamental to life, all players in built environments—architects, landscape architects, builders, owners, occupants, communities, flora, and fauna—have an interest in finding better ways to work with this essential component. The American Society of Landscape Architects, the ASLA, is on the case, as it always has been.
“Landscape architects have been green since 1899,” says Susan Hatchell, FASLA, current president of the organization and herself a practitioner in North Carolina where she largely works in public planning. That was the year the ASLA was founded by, among others, two sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous designer of New York City’s Central Park and other iconic urban park systems in Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Detroit, Louisville, and others.
“Landscape architects are at the table from the beginning of all high-profile projects,” says Hatchell, whose fellow ASLA members number nearly 16,000 across 48 chapters. About a quarter of all landscape architects work in the public sector, while 70 percent privately contract with homeowners, architects, and municipalities. “Particularly with LEED projects, there is a coming together of developers, architects, landscape architects, and general contractors.”Olmsted’s approach to planning created the landscape architecture profession in America and served as a model that recognized the importance of landscape in built environments. Which suggests a classic conflict: man versus nature. Hardscapes such as buildings and pavement are notorious displacers of natural earth and water, and this is why landscape planners and designers are now, more than ever before, a part of development from its most nascent stages.
Though the USGBC awards LEED certifications for both buildings and interior environments, there is no such certification solely for the outside spaces surrounding those buildings (the LEED system recognizes landscape as part of the building’s evaluation). For this reason, the ASLA was a key driver in creating the Sustainable Sites Initiative, or SITES, which established voluntary national guidelines and performance benchmarks for sustainable practices within land design, construction, and maintenance. “LEED certainly recognizes the importance of the landscape,” Hatchell says, “but SITES goes further and deeper, . . . evaluating habitat and pollination. It also rates places that have no buildings.”
The SITES program was developed with assistance from the USGBC, Haskell adds. ASLA’s primary partners in developing the program, an interdisciplinary effort, were the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin and the United States Botanic Garden. Three projects were certified under the SITES program in a beta test this year: Woodland Discovery Playground at Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, Tennessee (see p. 16); The Green at College Park in Arlington, Texas; and the Novus International Campus in St. Charles, Missouri, a planned corporate site that allows employees to interact with natural habitat. Scores of projects in 33 states and the District of Columbia, Canada, Iceland, and Spain also are participating in the early stages of SITES.
“We expect that [SITES] will help illustrate how there is never a need to argue for budget when smart design can ultimately save money,” Hatchell says. Indeed, the City of New York recently determined that a green storm-water-management system would cost $2.5 billion, as compared to maintenance of its “grey” infrastructure (pipes and pavement) that would cost $2.9 billion, according to Hatchell. ASLA’s federal advocacy programs currently focus the EPA’s proposed national rulemaking on storm-water discharges—which would encourage a natural-water infiltration and recharging processes—and on the US Congress, where the Green Infrastructure for Clean Water Act and the Safe Treatment of Polluted Stormwater Runoff Act have been introduced. In all such efforts, the economic case for smart water management is made alongside the arguments for environmental sustainability.
The human experience is not lost amidst environmental and economic objectives. Hatchell stresses that while it’s hard to monetize the sensory value of landscape, the results are clearly evident. “It’s about communities, walkability, people spending more time outdoors, cooler air, and better public health,” she says. “A whole generation has caught on to the societal benefits. Look at dining al fresco. We didn’t do that nearly as often 30 years ago as we do today. Even factories are offering their employees outdoor break rooms. People are drawn to the outdoors, to sunlight, to chirping birds.”
The specter of climate change is intrinsic to the discipline. “Particularly in urban areas, we work to reduce the costs of air-conditioning,” Hatchell says. “But we have been doing this all along. Public sentiment is catching up to us.” That public, or much of it, now prefers “sustainable” to “pretty,” with greater acceptance of rain gardens, less frequent mowing of grass along highways, and the use of native grasses. “‘Pretty’ is not a bad thing,” she adds, “but instead of trying to tame nature, we are allowing nature to work as it does. The mainstream aesthetic is catching up to that.”
Hatchell believes the green movement is good for the profession, both for placing greater value on what landscape architects do and in drawing young people to work in the field. “We really exist in the mix of environment and culture,” she says. “Landscape architecture needs people who can think and collaborate and write as well as design. It’s about historical preservation, community development, health and healthcare, public art, and reclamation.” In other words, all the things that flow upon a landscape.