The Changing Roles of Landscape Design in Nature-Based Solutions

by Lee Parks, International ASLA, and LIAO Jingjing

Landscape practice of Nature-based Solutions (NbS) in the Scottish Highlands: The Howard Doris Centre in Lochcarron is a care center for adults with supported accommodation, social facilities, and day care. The landscape was designed to enjoy views to nature, native planting, and to encourage community gardening for social interaction. / image: © Lee Parks

Exploring of the Changing Roles of Landscape Design in Nature-Based Solutions: A Reflection on Professional Practice over the Last Two Decades

Part 1: Greening Grey Infrastructure

Nature-based Solutions (NbS) are actions designed to work with and enhance natural habitats to take advantage of the ability of healthy natural and managed ecosystems to sequester carbon and support biodiversity recovery. Informed by a career dedicated to working with nature, this article explores the evolution of a landscape planning and design approach from single-purpose solutions to systemic thinking and holistic design, together with a change from experiential/qualitative decision making to quantified solutions. This evolution is presented in three phases of professional practice:

  1. greening grey infrastructure,
  2. incorporating naturalistic landscape into the public realm, and
  3. a nature positive future.

Over the next three weeks, each section will explore how NbS can be pushed into the realms of social awareness and everyday recognition by policy makers and the public at large and in turn, support wider and longer term international environmental successes.

1 Introduction

1.1 Nature-based Solutions

Cities are facing an increasing frequency of disruptive events and many sustainable development challenges, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, drought, extreme heat, wildfires, and water security. Our cities need more pioneering approaches to meet sustainability and carbon neutral goals and address biodiversity loss while also benefiting people’s health and well-being.

Following the 2008 report Biodiversity, Climate Change, and Adaptation: Nature-based Solutions from the World Bank Portfolio, the concept of Nature-based Solutions (NbS) has attracted much attention in dealing with the inter-related crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. NbS reconsiders the relationship between humans and nature. It is a change in attitude towards nature from resource utilization to functional thinking, and a revolution in the field of nature protection and city resilience (LUAN B, DING R, WANG X, et al. Exploration of Resilient Design Paradigm of Urban Green Infrastructure. Landscape Architecture Frontiers, 2020, 8(6): 94-105).

NbS complement China’s Ecological Civilization Construction, which respects nature, conforms to nature, and protects nature to achieve sustainable development. In terms of core concepts and governance methods, it emphasizes the use of ecosystem services provided by nature and effectively responds to complex challenges by protecting, repairing, managing, or building new ecosystems. This also helps comply with increasing expectations of governments and the private sector to meet environmental, social, and governance outcomes (ESG is an investment philosophy and evaluation standard that focuses on corporate environmental, social, and governance performance rather than financial performance) for the public, investors, and shareholders.

Landscape architects are uniquely positioned to bring about positive systemic change, and support advocacy for the reversal of biodiversity loss and protection and restoration of habitats, ecological corridors, and ecosystems.

This article is a reflection of professional practice over the last two decades and illustrates NbS at different scales with three clear stages, transitioning from single-purpose solutions to systematic thinking and holistic design, together with a change from experiential decision making to quantified solutions. The authors then question if NbS alone will be enough to tackle the inter-related crisis of climate change and biodiversity loss without significant contribution from individual lifestyle changes together with political changes.

1.2 Learning from Nature

Lee Parks’ journey in NbS practices began in the Highlands of Scotland. Mountains, lochs (lakes), forests, streams, rivers, and rugged coastlines were scenes of everyday working life for local government. Additionally, public sector work included social and civil infrastructure such as roads and bridge projects, public realm improvements for pedestrian-oriented streets, and the design of schools and senior living healthcare facilities.

Landscape practice of NbS in the Scottish Highlands: views of the Scottish Highlands landscape from the Howard Doris Centre / image: © Lee Parks

In the late 1990s, the Scottish Office published Landscape Design and Management Policy to encourage sustainable development for roads, bridges, and traffic in the countryside (the Scottish Office was a department of the United Kingdom Government from 1885 until 1999, exercising a wide range of government functions in relation to Scotland under the control of the Secretary of State for Scotland). The publication Cost Effective Landscape: Learning from Nature (1998) encouraged environmentally progressive attitudes and aimed to harness the efficiency, power, and beauty of nature with considerations for value for money, aesthetics, and biodiversity. It inspired professional humility, to understand ecological processes and to appreciate that landscapes which are relatively self-sustaining, requiring minimal long-term intervention, can only be developed if the design works with nature rather than fights against it. The publication was mainly aimed at landscape designers working on infrastructure projects but also applied to any landscape task—large or small scale, urban or rural, and whether planning, design, or management.

In 2001, Lee moved to China. Passionate to explore the relationship between humans and nature, his two decades of work have been driven by the goal of learning from nature, bolstered and inspired by some notable international precedents which opened the door to convincing clients that nature-based solutions could be delivered with significantly positive impacts. These inspiring projects included:

  • Shanghai Houtan Park, created for the 2010 Expo by Turenscape. The project successfully demonstrated a regenerative living system to treat polluted river water, mitigate urban flooding, and increase habitat and biodiversity, while celebrating the regional culture and beautifying the riverfront for public use. The project was an important precedent to support the advocacy of NbS in cities and gained incredible exposure during the 2010 Expo. It was an innovative demonstration of ecological water treatment, reclamation,  and re-use of materials and native planting.
  • The 2012 London Olympic Park (Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park) Meadow, designed by Professors James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett from the University of Sheffield and garden designer Sarah Price. The plantings created high impact, balanced perennial communities, with extensive meadows to demonstrate a whole new approach to the design and management of public landscapes. Placing ecology with sustainability at the forefront, the plantings combined strong aesthetic to create drama and excitement during the Olympic Games. Research on the planting style confirmed color as having the greatest impact on the visitor’s emotional response to a garden. Public perceptions of naturalistic planting concluded that, in the context of the UK, increasing public exposure to naturalistic meadow-style planting and its pollinator benefits may be the key to increasing acceptability of naturalistic urban planting schemes.
  • The planting design for the High Line in New York by Piet Oudolf, inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew wild for 25 years after the trains stopped running. The design aesthetic reflects natural cycles of life and death and evokes feelings of being in a wild space. The project outcome has strongly advocated sustainable practices for operations and maintenance, including integrated pest management, composting on-site, and pollinator-friendly practices by leaving displays of dried leaves, stalks, and seedheads standing through the winter, providing both beauty for visitors and habitat for birds and other animals.

2 Phase 1: Greening Grey Infrastructure

2.1 Ning-Hang Expressway Landscape Design

As a young landscape architect moving to China in 2001, in the middle of an era of a massive boom in transport infrastructure and urbanization, the scale and magnitude of change was awe inspiring. However, the environmental, landscape, and visual impacts of roads traversing the agricultural and natural landscape were a significant concern. Insights gleaned from the Scottish Office publication Cost Effective Landscape: Learning from Nature became a valuable source of inspiration to advance ecological landscape along the Ning-Hang Expressway.

The project extended some 115 km through Jiangsu Province countryside, including twelve intersections, toll plazas, tunnels, and three service areas. Inspired by natural vegetation patterns and landscape character, recommendations included:

  • reclaiming natural stone from mountain cuts as materials for local walling or culvert details, utilizing boulders as landscape features;
  • advocating ecological green slopes using hydroseeding with seeds of local provenance, wide scale application of bioswales to treat road run-off and stormwater retention ponds to hold stormwater and provide habitat (see images below);
  • the protection of forest groves and planting of native fruit trees at community connections where village roads passed under the new expressway intended to create social benefits to villages from free windfalls from persimmon and plum trees;
  • wildflower grasslands and wetlands were created at intersections to enhance the scenic, rural character and for self-sustaining planting to reduce maintenance and provide a wider range of habitat.

The expressway opened in 2004 and was hailed as a new era for the Jiangsu Provincial Expressway network to include ecological, environmental, tourism, and landscape design strategies to enhance the sustainability of their road networks [Parks, L. Ning Hang Expressway Ecology, Landscape and Tourism for Road Design. International New Landscape, 2007: 20-31].

Despite strong advocacy and the relative success of environmental strategies for transport-related infrastructure, the focus of local leaders was largely on single-purpose solutions for mitigating highway engineering structures and drainage. Reduced costs and greener solutions to slope treatments, highway drainage, and stormwater management were key highlights from a political standpoint but were not yet enabling the landscape architect to apply holistic solutions.

Native forest regeneration was promoted through designed matrices and guidelines for creating new native woodlands using young trees (matrix planting is a form of self-sustaining gardening with mixed plants, and a modular planting unit that can be replicated). However, the immediate impact of “ready landscapes” were of greater concern to local leaders. Additionally, methods of working drawings and the skills of workers employed to undertake landscape construction were not prepared to implement more complex ecological planting techniques in the use of young trees or the management/maintenance required. The result was a higher cost and reduced long-term ecological results.

Conventional concrete channel drains were substituted with below-ground drainage (top left) and covered with grass to form swales (top right), which convey stormwater run-off to detention ponds located at expressway intersections where land areas are suitably large (bottom). / images: © Lee Parks

Continue on to Part 2, about incorporating naturalistic landscape into the public realm.

Lee Parks, International ASLA, is a British landscape architect and landscape director of AECOM. His research focuses on ecological landscape planning, green infrastructure, Nature-based Solutions, and ecological planting design.

LIAO Jingjing, Master, is an assistant landscape designer of AECOM. Her research focuses on green infrastructure, Nature-based Solutions, and community renewal and empowerment.

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