Data + Design: Measuring a Landscape’s Value

Little Sugar Creek Greenway extends over 15 miles and traverses 17 neighborhoods, passing through urban, suburban, and rural areas. This development is projected to spur substantial growth in the surrounding community of Charlotte, North Carolina. / image: LandDesign

Today’s landscapes are asked to perform much more than functional or aesthetic services: they filter and reduce stormwater runoff, provide wildlife habitat, reduce energy consumption, improve human health, and more. As projects become more complex, and clients aim higher to meet today’s climate challenges, the use of performance metrics is becoming increasingly prevalent.

Why use data?

While the design of green space and lush plantings seems inherently ecologically beneficial, quantifying the actual value of those benefits is a little more complex. This barrier makes it challenging as we advocate for high-performing landscapes. Meanwhile, the drawbacks of initial cost and maintenance are seen as barriers to the development of more green space. This is where landscape performance metrics are valuable; using data to estimate the positive benefits of design elements and ensuring a landscape performs to the anticipated standards. Data allows us to quantify the benefits of a designed landscape, and provides hard evidence for a client trying to balance a project’s budget, schedule, and demands.

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The Evolving Practice of Ecological Landscape Design

View of the roof gardens and courtyards at the US Coast Guard Headquarters, Washington, DC. / image: Kelly Fleming

A trend is emerging within the profession that expands our approach to planting design and the role of vegetation. Designers are backing away from the role of curator of gardens where plant species are selected and placed according to a theme in a created setting, without regard to how that species may be predisposed to behave in the setting. Instead, they are adopting the role of steward to a set of naturally occurring processes that govern the development of plant communities. An understanding of ecological principles to guide the design, planting and maintenance of landscapes, and reliance on an adaptive management process based on observation and recalibration will result in landscapes that will take less energy and resources to maintain and provide the greatest environmental benefits.

The study of landscape ecology has had a significant impact on the way landscape designers and planners think about open space and connectivity at the regional scale, and has led to the promotion and implementation of green infrastructure to provide cost-effective systems that protect and restore natural resources. Green infrastructure is crucial to combating climate change, creating healthy built environments, and improving our quality of life. The shift towards green infrastructure in the design and implementation of the built environment has opened a window through which landscape designers can employ ecologically-based strategies. It will be necessary for landscape designers to build a body of knowledge based on the principles of ecology. The revelatory book by Travis Beck, The Principles of Ecological Landscape Design, is one of the foundations of this expanding body of knowledge.

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