Beauty and Sustainability

According to a 2008 article by University of Virginia landscape architecture professor Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, published in the Journal of Landscape Architecture, the guiding principles of sustainable landscape design are “ecological health, social justice, and economic prosperity.” While these are important, unfortunately, designers can overlook the “beauty of place and the importance of aesthetics” in these sustainable works, to everyone’s detriment.

This idea served as the basis of a session at the 2013 ASLA Annual Meeting in Boston, moderated by Thomas Woltz, FASLA, Nelson Byrd Woltz, with Bill Madden, ASLA, Mikyoung Kim Design and Christine Ten Eyck, FASLA, Ten Eyck Landscape Architects.

Each presented projects that not only upheld the fundamental principles of ecologically-sound design, but were also simply beautiful places. As Woltz said, the designers were there to “re-introduce the idea of beauty into the discussion of sustainability.” The firms shared similar design philosophies, which were defined by Woltz as the “link between the hand of making, the mind, and the heart.” But he added that “beauty often comes from the heart.”

Designing with an eye to the beautiful and the sustainable can only serve to strengthen the sense of place and promote a sense of stewardship of a landscape. But that means that the static beauty of the objectified landscape must be replaced with an embrace of dynamic beauty, one that celebrates all aspects of landscape, including 100-year storms and climate change.

Madden explored how Mikyoung Kim Design integrates beauty into how they design landscapes. Whether revitalizing the ChonGae Canal in Seoul, Korea, which embraces rainwater as a dynamic design element and draws crowds of all ages every day, or designing a fence in Massachusetts that sits lightly on the land but was inspired by photography and natural form, ecological principles blend seamlessly with beauty.

The ChonGae Canal (see image above) is an “artistic, expressive means to support the idea of water being brought back to Seoul,” said Madden.

Woltz presented projects by Nelson Byrd Woltz, all of which were conceived with a blending of beauty and collaboration with scientists, “revealing hidden ecologies.”

From a small townhouse’s backyard in New York City — which was designed around the narrative of the home as refuge and a nest, creating habitat for local birds — to the very large scale Orongo Station Ecological Restoration in New Zealand, sustainability is in action. But he added that the hand of the designer is evident. He believes this intentionally-artificial aspect of the project will ensure Orongo’s wetland isn’t drained again.


Ten Eyck spoke of her work, stating that she is “profoundly impacted by the absence and presence of water” in the southwest, where she both lives and practices.

Her design for the Belo Center for New Media at the University of Texas at Auston cleans and conserves water and creates wildlife habitat within a beautiful place of refuge on a busy campus.


Her Steele Indian School Park in Phoenix, Arizona, integrates beautiful and sustainable design within the historical context of the site.

Designing only to meet the metrics of sustainability will only get us so far. Beauty “reinforces our commonality,” said Woltz. With this commonality, we can achieve the ultimate goal, which is a deeper, more responsible stewardship of our beautiful and sustainable landscapes.

This guest post is by Heidi Petersen, ASLA 2013 intern and Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT).

Image credits: (1) ASLA Professional General Design Award. ChonGae Canal Source Point Park: Sunken Stone Garden, Seoul, Korea. Mikyoung Kim Design / Taeoh Kim, (2) ASLA 2010 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Orongo Station Conservation Master Plan. New Zealand / Nelson Byrd Woltz, (3) University of Texas at Austin landscape / Ten Eyck Landscape Architects.

3 thoughts on “Beauty and Sustainability

  1. 11/18/2013 / 12:21 pm

    Dear Sir: Can you define the word beauty. What is beautiful to one person may not be beautiful to another, do we judge beauty based on our own up bringing and does it change with various cultures. Is the person of 25 thinking of beauty differently than when this person turns 50 or 75? Are we really improving our gardens, our parks our cities; have people 100 years ago done a better shop or for that matter 200 ot 500 years ago? What have we learned from history in our profession? Are we really creating landscapes that will last or should we think that our designs are only good for a certain number of years and then we change like we change generations? Thank you for listening. Ernest Wertheim Landscape Architect _wvk@aol.com_ ( practicing for over 70 years

  2. Nick Tufaro 11/20/2013 / 2:41 pm

    Since 2011, the James Rose Center for Landscape Architectural Research annually stages a “Suburbia Transformed” works recognition program that addresses the integration of the aesthetic in sustainable design. Last year’s honored projects can be seen on the Center website.

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