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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