Remember when you played connect-the-dots as a child? On a page was a set of numbered dots that formed a picture when the lines were correctly drawn between them. As interest in environmental sustainability, and all of its associated issues, grows, it becomes increasingly important to connect the landscaping dots. The many dots are labeled with terms like xeriscaping, native plants, stormwater management, soil erosion prevention, reducing heat island effect, shading for reduced energy usage, and so on. The picture that emerges is not just a nice landscaping project eliciting “oohs and aahs”. It is a synergistic landscape that promotes environmental sustainability in multiple ways, and the synergism is only possible when the dots are properly connected.
Most neighborhoods have one or two houses where the landscaping is impeccable. There are beautiful trees, lush bushes, colorful flowers, and a manicured yard so green it looks like it was imported from the Emerald Isle itself. What is missing from this picture? It is the homeowner watering the flowers morning and night; the automatic sprinkler system that won’t stay off as it tries to keep the grass green despite the weather; and water running down the driveway into the storm drains. Frankly speaking, most residential landscapes are environmental nightmares. The same can be said about older urban and industrial environments where the natural land cover is replaced with large amounts of concrete, impervious surfaces, and humming HVAC units or pollution emitting production processes, creating the heat island effect.
New commercial landscaping projects are usually more in tune with the environment because of government regulations, building codes, and a greater awareness of LEED principles (even if the building is not rated or certified). However, most buildings are existing buildings so even in this category there are plenty of dots that need connecting.
Does That Tree Really Belong There?
Landscaping is not a process that should take place in a vacuum. It needs to conserve natural resources, find balance with nature, reduce water and energy usage, reduce stormwater runoff, and minimize the risk of contributing to the heat island effect or any type of climate change. Achieving balance with nature is possible when concepts like xeriscaping and stormwater management are blended with landscaping aesthetics.
Tuten Park in Lake Charles, Louisiana was severely damaged by Hurricane Rita in 2005, losing 80 percent of its trees. The city developed a Master Plan to restore the park, but this time the design incorporated much more than replacing natural habitat like the lost trees. The Tuten Park Green Initiative also addressed urban/storm water runoff by designing bioswales to collect stormwater runoff from the parking lot and to serve as biofilters. Rain gardens were added to control rainwater runoff from buildings, walking paths, and other areas. The project connected the dots of bioswales, native tree planting, and rain gardens.
In neighborhoods, around commercial buildings, and in parks, there is a trend taking place. Landscaping is becoming an important participant in sustainability efforts by integrating a variety of concepts. For example, to reduce water use and stormwater runoff, urban landscapers are planting native plants, minimizing impervious surfaces, taking advantage of natural landscape contours, and mulching. At the same time, an attractive and functional area is created. Xeriscaping mimics nature to promote environmental balance, while creating the aesthetically pleasing landscapes that people want.
Synergistic landscaping considers how one element interacts with other elements, and each decision is viewed holistically. For example, how does tree placement integrate with land contouring to promote building cooling, and reduced rainwater runoff? How can tree shading and cool paving work together to reduce the heat island effect? Can open space in a commercial or industrial landscaping project be combined with shade trees, native plants, and pervious walkways to create benefits like zero stormwater runoff, reduced heat island effect, reduced water and energy usage, and so on?
Watering While Raining?
Xeriscaping, stormwater management, and reduced heat island effect are ideas whose time has come. In July 2013, Texas passed a law that prevents homeowner associations from prohibiting xeriscaping. The question is: Why would the associations want to stop xeriscaping in the first place? It harkens back to the fact that xeriscaping and storm water management is still not well understood by the general population. Visions of dull highway median and embankment type landscaping come to mind.
In addition, past landscaping practices have primarily focused on aesthetics only, without regard for drought conditions or even practicality. That’s why the neighbor seems to spend a lot of free time watering flower beds. It’s also why the sprinkler system never seems to turn off – even when it’s raining. Homeowners and commercial landscapers focused on what looked nice, as opposed to what benefited aesthetics AND the environment.
Green Building Research Institute prepared an interesting course devoted to the topic of synergistic, sustainable landscaping. It’s a
course for those ready to connect the dots of aesthetics, water conservation, energy use reduction, stormwater management, and reduced heat island effect. Chicken Soup for the Soil: Sustainable Landscapes and Stormwater Management begins April 2, 2014 and offers an interesting look at the principles and practices that keep outdoor areas in tune with nature.
Do you have any examples of sustainable landscaping that showcase manmade areas that remain in harmony with nature?
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