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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Liberty Canyon Wildlife Crossing Promises Freedom for LA Mountain Lions

Proposed design for a wildlife overpass in Agoura Hills, CA / image: Clark Stevens, Architect, and Raymond Garcia, illustrator for Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains

In the modest town of Agoura Hills, CA, plans are underway to construct the largest wildlife overpass in the world. Crossing over 10 lanes of the 101 Freeway, the Liberty Canyon overpass will be approximately 165 feet wide and 200 feet long. The project aims to connect severely isolated wildlife populations within the Santa Monica Mountains to those in the nearby Santa Susana Mountains. Without such a connection, there is a significant risk that the local mountain lion population will go extinct in the next 50 years.

The design will include tunnels to accommodate more reclusive wildlife, a corridor of riparian vegetation, and sound walls to dampen the noise and headlights of the freeway. According to Clark Stevens, the architect and habitat restorationist behind the design of the overpass, a wildlife crossing is more successful when you provide multiple ways for wildlife to utilize it. For example, deer are more likely to cross over the top of the bridge, while predators such as bobcats are more likely to cross through the tunnels. The riparian corridor will restore familiar scent-paths for animals, helping to draw them through the crossing. In order to accommodate mountain lion behavior, the crossing will be sloped on both sides to provide high vantage points with a wide view.

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Mycoremediation: Your Landscape on Mushrooms

Turkey tail mushrooms in Washington, DC's Fort Slocum Park image: Kaitlyn Hay
Turkey tail mushrooms in Washington, DC’s Fort Slocum Park
image: Kaitlyn Hay

Since Paul Stamets’ TED talk “6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World” blew my mind back in 2008, I’ve watched the movement of using mushrooms for urban agriculture, pest control, medicine, soil remediation, and much more spread like mycelium through the green design community. So where has this long-deserved fungi renaissance taken us in the past few years since over 3 million views of Stamets’ propounding on the topic? Beyond the plentiful backyard mushroom farmers, mycoremediation—the use of fungi to break down or remove a range of pollutants from the environment—is being applied to contaminated sites to remediate a range of toxins, from typical stormwater runoff to industrial oil spills.

Some of the targeted pollutants which grass-roots guerillas and PhD academics alike have been experimenting with removing through mycoremediation include: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), heavy metals, and fecal coliform bacteria. Various research projects have shown high percentages of removal of these contaminants from soil and water using various fungal species.

Fungal mycelia use enzymes and acids to break down elements of plant fiber and apply the same process to break down chemicals, especially components of petroleum, often into carbon dioxide and water. Many studies show the fruiting mushroom bodies don’t retain the toxic pollutants, but as in phytoremediation, it’s typically not recommended to combine mushroom farming for edible consumption and pollutant remediation, especially if heavy metals are present. However, the mushrooms and especially their substrate media are very valuable as compost after pollutants are processed.

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Practicing at the Nexus of Science & Design

Landscape architects can help communicate the restoration potential of a site. A rendering depicts proposed improvements including native revegetation, constructed wetlands, and public access amenities at a former industrial site. image: Great Ecology
Landscape architects can help communicate the restoration potential of a site. A rendering depicts proposed improvements including native revegetation, constructed wetlands, and public access amenities at a former industrial site.
image: Great Ecology

An Ecological Approach to Landscape Architecture

What nature looks like, or is supposed to look like, appears to be our problem, a cultural matter; it has little to do with ecology.  – Laurie Olin, FASLA

Ethics and aesthetics are the same thing.  – Richard Haag, FASLA

We, as landscape architects practicing in the early twenty-first century, talk a lot about ecology and ecological design. A glance at the program from the 2014 ASLA Annual Meeting in Denver or the 2015 ASLA Professional Awards illustrates this point. As we hurdle ever rapidly toward greater imbalance between limited natural resources and a growing human population, this resurgence of ecological discourse could build much needed momentum toward widespread application of a truly ecological approach to built and managed environments.

Landscape architectural history is populated by ecologically-minded thinkers, from Jens Jensen and Ian McHarg to current practitioners and academics like Carol Franklin, Grant Jones, Bill Wenk, and Chris Reed. More and more landscape architecture firms are collaborating closely with ecologists, and some have added them to their rosters. It’s an exciting time to practice ecologically focused landscape architecture; we are on the leading edge of what may prove to be a philosophical sea change in design and planning.

So, what does it actually mean to practice “ecological design?” How are academic theories, lofty ideas, and benevolent leanings transmogrified onto the physical plane? It begins with science.

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Ruminations on the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting

image: Bob Oberdorfer
image: Bob Oberdorfer

…In which our two intrepid correspondents wander the shadowy conference center halls of Chicago on a not-so-blustery autumn weekend to bring you, our faithful readers, these incisive observations from the front lines of the national conclave of landscape architects!  

To that end, Ecology + Restoration PPN Communications Officer Devon Santy and yours truly (that’s me) attended a full slate of educational sessions—in between forays into the local speakeasies and blues clubs, of course. But before I venture further into that synopsis, allow me to digress slightly. As I sat at my paper-strewn desk and pecked out the introductory words you have just read, the first term that came to mind for our recent gathering was not “conclave,” but rather “confab.” Not wanting to alienate any aspiring etymologists in the crowd, though, I decided I’d better consult Messrs. Merriam and Webster to verify the applicability of the term. My gut feeling was right: “confab” refers to an intimate, informal, private conversation, which does not technically apply to the largest gathering of landscape architects in the world.

However, another “con-” word that popped up alongside was “confabulation,” which offered intriguing possibilities for various metaphors that could be applied to the situation at hand. It seems “confabulation” implies a form of mental manipulation, defined as the product of “distorted or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intent to deceive” (with additional thanks to Messrs. Wiki and Pedia for that particular interpretation of the word).

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Designing Habitats with Technology – Part II

Grading checking and as-built documentation conducted with handheld and 4-wheeler attached RTK gear image: Wildlands, Inc.
Grading checking and as-built documentation conducted with handheld and 4-wheeler attached RTK gear
image: Wildlands, Inc.

A collaborative effort between the Digital Technology PPN and Ecology and Restoration PPN.

Ecological restoration and habitat creation are benefiting tremendously from the variety of software available to help analyze, design, visualize and construct complex systems and subtle topographies. While landscape architecture is embracing 3D drafting and illustrative modeling, habitat restoration can especially benefit from the use of many of these software options.

In Denver, Mark, Dave, and Allegra presented an overview of a variety of software that are used in this facet of landscape architecture. In Part I, published on July 14, 2015, we summarized our presentation by including how technology is used in Site Analysis and Design Development within restoration design. Below, in Part II, we will summarize technology used for visualization, construction documentation, and construction.

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Designing Habitats with Technology – Part I

Real Time Kinematic (RTK) Construction Equipment to validate elevation during construction. image: Wildlands
Real Time Kinematic (RTK) Construction Equipment to validate elevation during construction.
image: Wildlands

A collaborative effort between the Digital Technology PPN and Ecology and Restoration PPN.

Ecological restoration and habitat creation are benefiting tremendously from the variety of software available to help analyze, design, visualize and construct complex systems and subtle topographies. While landscape architecture is embracing 3D drafting and illustrative modeling, habitat restoration can especially benefit from the use of many of these software options. In Denver, Mark, Dave, and Allegra presented an overview of a variety of software that are used in this facet of landscape architecture.

Why is this integration and diversity of software especially important for restoration design and construction? Many restoration sites have and need subtle topography and soil conditions to successfully understand and restore the habitats in a timely manner. For instance, many plant species associated with wetlands have very specific inundation limits, resulting in certain plants growing within limited elevation ranges – sometimes as narrow as centimeters or inches.  Therefore, having or creating adequate expanses of these elevations can be critical in the success of a wetland.

Throw sea level rise in the mix and the elevations for potential wetland migration or loss becomes critical. Being able to easily and accurately document and share existing conditions, concepts and alternatives, construction documentation, and construction precision is leading to a better understanding and success of ecological restoration projects.

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Ecology + Restoration Roundtable, Part 1

Woodland Stream image: Davie Biagi
Woodland Stream
image: Davie Biagi

For this post, we unveil our new Ecology + Restoration Roundtable series. We posed a hypothetical question to a diverse group of Ecology + Restoration PPN members and received some intriguing responses. Topics covered included eradication of invasive species, enforcement of urban growth boundaries, preservation of pristine wilderness, and the ecological implications of historical events in the Yosemite Valley.

Through this and future installments of the Ecology + Restoration Roundtable, we hope to initiate conversations that engage our members and spark further dialogue about the intersection of ecology, restoration, and landscape architecture.

Ecology + Restoration Roundtable question number one: If you could time travel and preserve one place in perpetuity or put one irrevocable regulation into place, when and where would you go and what would you do?

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Convergent Futures: Cities, Ecology, and Design

Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn, New York introduces ecological functionality into a highly urbanized environment. image: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates project team: Michael Van Valkenburg Associates, Great Ecology
Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn, New York introduces ecological functionality into a highly urbanized environment.
image: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
project team: Michael Van Valkenburg Associates, Great Ecology

By 2050, an estimated 66% of the world’s human population will reside in urban areas. That number reflects a steady increase in urbanites from 1950 onward.

As our world becomes increasingly populated and urbanized, how we as designers plan for that growth will affect the health of the planet and its ecosystems. Too often, our urban landscape design solutions oversimplify or ignore the importance of habitat quality, quantity, and connectivity. We grasp the costs and benefits of green roofs, bioswales, urban forests, greenways, and other components of urban green infrastructure. We now need to integrate those strategies into a larger, more connected urban ecological framework. Continue reading

Ecology & Restoration, A PPN Name Update

The Ningbo Eco-Corridor project transforms an uninhabitable brownfield into a 3.3km-long “living filter” designed to restore a rich and diverse ecosystem, and serve as a valuable teaching tool and model for sustainable urban development.  image: SWA - 2013 Analysis & Planning Honor Award Winner
The Ningbo Eco-Corridor project transforms an uninhabitable brownfield into a 3.3km-long “living filter” designed to restore a rich and diverse ecosystem, and serve as a valuable teaching tool and model for sustainable urban development.
image: SWA – 2013 Analysis & Planning Honor Award Winner

ASLA’s Professional Practice Networks (PPNs) are living things, and periodic adjustments are made based on member interest and changes in landscape architecture practice to improve how the PPNs function.

Earlier this year, members of ASLA’s Reclamation & Restoration PPN were asked to vote on a new name: Ecology & Restoration. Ninety members voted—88 were in favor of the new name, 2 were against.

After a discussion that began at the 2013 ASLA Annual Meeting in Boston, the PPN’s leadership agreed upon Ecology & Restoration to capture the broader scope of those working at the nexus of ecology, engineering, and landscape architecture. Having “ecology” and “restoration” linked in the PPN’s name will encourage more members to participate and enrich the conversation.

To reflect the new name, the PPN also has a refined mission statement:

ASLA’s Ecology & Restoration Professional Practice Network (E&R-PPN) is a group committed to ecologically based land planning, design restoration, and management, while creating functional and resilient landscapes that address landscape, ecosystem, and human community needs. The E&R-PPN serves as a forum for landscape architects interested in ecological restoration, landscape conservation, land reclamation, landscape ecology, ecological engineering, and other similar areas to exchange knowledge, ideas, and information. We seek to improve communication among professionals with similar interests and enrich the conversation among practitioners.

The new name officially went into effect after the 2014 ASLA Annual Meeting concluded last week.

All ASLA members may join one PPN for free and each additional PPN for only $15 per year. To join the Ecology & Restoration PPN, email membership@asla.org or call 888-999-ASLA.

Contact Professional Practice Coordinator Alexandra Hay for additional information about this PPN.

Ecosystem Restoration and Ecological Design

The prairie at Marlatt Park on the northwest side of Manhattan, Kansas is burn-managed by Kansas State University personnel and serves as an important place for teaching, research, and recreation.
image: Lee R. Skabelund.

At ASLA’s Annual Meeting in Chicago in September 2009, I discussed guiding principles related to ecological restoration in urban and suburban settings. I also highlighted indicators of “restoration success.” In this post I revisit ideas shared in a subsequent summary report of our education session.

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Balancing and integrating safe access and habitat protection – the Safe Trestle competition

The Wave Team Safe Trestles Phase Two
The Wave Team Safe Trestles Phase Two
image: Architecture for Humanity

Architecture for Humanity is a nonprofit organization with the mission of building a more sustainable future through the power of professional design. Often using competitions as a platform for innovative ideas and projects AFH launched its first landscape based competition earlier this year ‘ Safe Trestle’.

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