The Goal: Truly Sustaining Landscapes

The author of Principles of Ecological Landscape Design, Travis Beck, ASLA, landscape and gardens project manager, New York Botanical Garden, offers a daunting proposition in his introduction: “From now on, the ecological function of our planet can only come from a network of preserved, restored, managed and constructed landscapes.” This is based on the premise that human interventions have substantially altered the natural balance of our ecosystem to the point where their ability to function will not endure without our conscious assistance. He continues: “To maintain the function of this network and the quality of life that it offers, we will have to change the way we think about landscape design.”  This call to arms sets the platform upon which the book is based — to integrate ecology into landscape design and address the mounting environmental crisis.

Beck defines an ecological landscape as a “designed landscape based on the science of ecology.” He further quantifies them as “constructed landscapes,” which may incorporate the restoration of a degraded ecological system, but do not seek to “put things back the way they were.” Rather, the goal is to apply our knowledge of nature to create high performance landscapes in which our design goals and natural processes coexist symbiotically.  The author advocates a change in landscape design within the context of environmental change (or impending crisis). This requires assessing landscapes based on a set of ecological and performative criteria.

The book presents a well-researched and scientific explanation of ecological concepts. Beck suggests theoretical approaches to ecological landscapes and offers case studies. In chapters on biogeography, plant selection, microclimates, plant populations, and natural competition within plant communities, the author distills what could have been volumes of technical data into clear explanations of key botanical processes that are critical to establishing symbiotic plant communities, one of the basic elements of a sustainable landscape. Going a step further, he provides general suggestions and guidelines for integrating these concepts into actual designs.

However, this is not a landscape manual with step-by-step instructions. The information is intended for experienced landscape architects, designers, and ecologists who can interpret and apply this data to infuse complex landscape designs with increased ecological value and biodiversity. The wealth of information presented provides a deeper understanding of plant function and community, from which the designer is then expected to make more informed decisions appropriate to the specific conditions of a particular project and site.

The chapters on the design and management of ecosystems and biodiversity present these broader topics clearly, while illustrating the critical link between them. Beck emphasizes that biodiversity is essential if landscapes are to provide increased ecological function. The chapter on soils is particularly relevant to the landscape architecture profession as consulting with a soil scientist is commonplace, if not the norm. He presents an in-depth breakdown of soil formation, properties, and criteria relative to landscape performance. Since soils are the foundation of all landscapes, the information in this chapter should be mandatory reading for all designers.

The final chapters delve into applied landscape ecology and creating landscapes in an era of change. By integrating ecological principles within design, landscapes can be high-performance and adaptable, qualities critical to sustaining an ecological balance sufficient to support the planet’s growing needs.

Overall, Beck provides clearly-presented science, ecological concepts and processes, and suggested strategies for implementation. These are not ready-made solutions but provide a solid foundation for designers to broaden their understanding of the ecological principles in nature that can be factored into landscape design.

If landscape architects are to expand their role in the design process and attain truly sustaining landscapes, the ideas in Principles of Ecological Landscape Design provide an additional layer of technical information to help us achieve those goals.

Read the book.

This guest post is by James Royce, ASLA, LEED AP, Principal, Studio2112 Landscape Architecture.

Image credit: Island Press

One thought on “The Goal: Truly Sustaining Landscapes

  1. Pamela Hartford, Landscape Historian, Salem MA 02/13/2013 / 12:38 pm

    It sounds thorough enough, and yet: what about agriculture? It is understandable that productive landscapes are not within the purview of a botanical garden, a reasonable basis for Beck’s expertise, but the sustainable landscape MUST also include every possible way of integrating more food production into a variety of scales of landscape, and do it ecologically. Done correctly, agriculture is not the enemy of either biodiversity or sound ecology. Furthermore, redirection of massive amounts of fertilizer (ie human waste) back into the landscape would be the essence of sustainability. The landscape architecture profession is woefully irresponsible toward productive cultivation; few universities are bringing this curriculum back into play.

    Perhaps it would help if the ASLA mission statement underwent some revision in light of this reality:

    to lead, to educate, and to participate in the careful stewardship, wise planning, and artful design of our cultural and natural environments.

    Per Travis Beck, there really is no need to make a distinction between cultural and natural; we should be stewards of our environment.

    Productive landscapes can be artfully designed. The ferme orne was party to the birth of the profession in Europe and England, but unfortunately, not in the US. Early professional proselytization toward ‘tasteful and natural design’ had (and still has) enormous impact; it is time for the profession to take the lead in articulating a new value system for landscapes large and small, and an aesthetically pleasing one, at that. Lest we forget: “…Weren’t earlier gardens as often as not abstractions and pared down, refined forms of horticulture and agriculture?….In one way or another, we have worked with agricultural elements and references ever since.” Laurie Olin, Across the Open Field, 2000.

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