Guest Article--Sustainable Landscape Development

By Andrew J. White, CLP, APLD

The buzzword for the past few years regarding landscape development and development in general has been "sustainability." This is an old concept that lately has received renewed attention. What is sustainability, and why is it important?  The dictionary (American Heritage Dictionary) tells us that to sustain is, "To keep in existence; maintain. To supply with necessities or nourishment; provide for."

The above definition is clear enough, but what does sustainable landscape development really mean to a homeowner or developer? Imagine this:  One day, for whatever reason, you decide to lock your doors/gates and simply walk away from your home or development. At some indeterminate time in the future, you decide to return, and no human presence, intervention or maintenance of any kind took place while you were gone.  Given this scenario, what do you think you would find when you returned?  Obviously, the length of time you were gone makes some difference here, but let's say you were gone long enough for Mother Nature to have her way.

If, after sufficient time, say 2-5 years, the place you came back to was unrecognizable, then the landscape that was originally created was not very sustainable. On the other hand, if the place looked mostly the same, then the landscape would be considered sustainable.  Sustainability refers to the ability to maintain the status quo with little or no outside interference--it is relatively self-maintaining. Stating this on a more personal level, if your landscape is markedly changed after a brief two- or three-week vacation, then it is not very sustainable.  Change is an inevitable part of nature; barring a disaster, it succeeds in a predictable manner, at a predictable rate and towards a predictable climax.  Landscape designers, architects and contractors who realize and understand this predictability of nature have the most success developing sustainable landscapes.

Why is sustainability important?  Cost is certainly one of the most important reasons.  It takes considerably more time, money, materials and energy to maintain a landscape that lacks sustainability.  Historically, elaborate, non-sustainable gardens have been used as a show of wealth, but when the wealth goes (as it eventually always does), so does the garden.

Environmental and ecological preservation are other important reasons for sustainable landscape development.  There is a direct correlation between environmental degradation/destruction and non-sustainability. Hopefully, people are beginning to realize that it makes no sense to transform a perfectly good natural system that is self-maintaining into an artificial one that is maintenance intensive.

How do people achieve sustainability? Mainly by studying natural systems and working within its governing parameters; this is the science of ecology.  During the landscape design process, whether it is for a single residence or an entire development, the site is studied and thoroughly analyzed.  This effort identifies both the potential and limitations of the site. These are then compared with the stated needs and wants of the owner.  Sustainability of the landscape can only be achieved when the needs and wants of the owner are compatible with the natural site.  Incompatibility invariably results in a high-maintenance, artificial product that is problematic. It is always better to match personal needs and wants to a site that is naturally accommodating than to take the opposite approach, which is to force fit these desires onto a site that is distinctly non-accommodating.  Artificial, non-sustainable systems are constantly under tremendous pressure to revert back to sustainable, natural systems; the science of ecology refers to this as "natural succession."

Sustainable landscape development involves deliberately trying to work with natural systems instead of changing them to try to accommodate incompatible owner wants and needs.  The objective is to create a landscape that has better self-maintaining characteristics than its artificial counterpart. 



Andrew J. White is President of Wayside Landscape Services, Inc. of Asheville, NC. He is a certified member of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers and a Certified Landscape Professional.  You can learn more about him at http://www.waysidelandscape.com. This article first appeared in WNC Builder+Architect. Give the page a moment to load.
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