Quantifying the Benefits of Beauty

Barbara Deutsch, ASLA, Executive Director of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) hosted a panel on landscape performance, covering how to measure both the environmental benefits of sustainable sites and the cultural benefits of site aesthetics. Heather Withlow, LAF, Susan Olmsted, ASLA, Mithun, and Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, University of Virginia, discussed the connections between hard data and aesthetics.

LAF’s new Landscape Performance Series

LAF is a think tank founded in 1966 and is dedicated to increasing the capacity of landscape architects to achieve sustainable development goals. In its effort to promote next-generation best practices, LAF issued its new landscape performance series, which includes a set of case studies quantifying the environmental benefits of landscapes.

According to Heather Whitlow, the impetus for the project came from seeing all the readily-available green building performance data online, and realizing there wasn’t any equivalent set of information for landscapes. LAF saw a need to create a framework so landscape performance data could be easily gathered and disseminated. LAF’s first 15 case studies are the first step in creating a unified set of landscape performance data.

For firms seeking to quantify the benefits of their projects, LAF recommended thinking about performance data at the beginning of their projects, investing in collecting and obtaining actual measurements and monitoring data,estimating savings based on quotes and calculations, and using online tools / calculators.

Check out LAF’s series and additional resources. The LAF hopes to expand its series and invites firms to send in more case studies. Also, see ASLA’s sustainability toolkit series, which provides a range of tools for calculating the economic value of projects.

Mithun’s Focus on Math and Beauty

Mithun, a Seattle-based landscape architecture firm, is guided by a set of principles that form its integrated approach to sustainable design, says Susan Olmsted. One principle is “do the math”; another is “create beauty / spirt.” Olmsted said metrics and aesthetics were interdependent — it’s the mix that creates a “sense of purpose.”

As opposed to solely measuring maintenance, management, and monitoring data, Olmsted argued that there is a great opportunity to apply performance ideas in the beginning during the design and construction phases.

In an example of a high-performance landscape, Olmsted pointed to Mithun’s well-known High Point affordable community project in Seattle (see a case study). High Point features a range of sustainable landscape elements, including some 15,000 feet of bioswales, but Olmsted focused in on some benefits that had been quantified.

The overall “green” aspect of the project cost just three percent of the total, but yielded 20 of the annual utility savings for the residents, many of which have low-incomes. Additionally, the decentralized green infrastructure system used throughout the housing community enabled the designers to use a smaller detention pond, which freed up land that could be sold, expanding economic gains. In five years, the Seattle Housing Authority “broke even.”  Through their work, there had also been a 433 percent increase in density in the community and a 300 percent increase in trees.

Can we actually calculate the benefits of aesthetics?

Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, said aesthetics aren’t about visual appearances, but refer to the science of perception — the emotional and psychological impact of a place, form, or image on our mind and body. “Aesthetics perform on us.” Meyer added that aesthetics are not absolute — there is no preferred way. “Aesthetics can be messy or dissonant, not always pleasing.”

Recent Millennium Ecosystem Assessment definitions of ecosystem services also include the cultural services ecosystems provide to people, including spiritual or religious value. However, while data on provisioning and other types of ecosystem services is being collected, there is a dearth of collected aesthetics-related data. “We now know one of nature’s benefits is aesthetic, and nature contributes to our psychological well-being,” argues Meyer, so data collection on the aesthetic value of ecosystems also needs to increase.

Without landscape architects’ input, Meyer fears the definition of ecosystem services will evolve to value “found” or natural landscapes more than  designed ecosystems. In addition, she thinks the focus could evolve towards “positive aesthetics,” or ideal pastoral scenes, instead of “place-based aesthetic metrics.”

Image credit: High Point, Seattle / Mithun

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