Bringing Nature Home

Mark Simmons sets fires. He uses prescribed fires as a technique for land management to improve the ecological health of a system. These fires are carefully plotted and designed to self-extinguish. They are employed to control brush, which could feed wildfires, and selectively remove invasive species and restore native ones. Simmons is the director of the ecosystem design group at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas. His team engages in scientific research, sustainable design, and environmental consulting.

American Indians on the plains also set fires. They used controlled burning to both attract and drive game, get rid of ticks, and harvest lizards and insects. Simmons says this practice demonstrates that they had a mutually influential relationship with nature. They melded the landscape and in turn were melded by it.

Americans today are found in different landscapes. We primarily occupy landscapes like suburban strip mall parking lots, which Simmons believes are dysfunctional and polluting. If these landscapes are melding us, then they may be adversely affecting our health and behavior. He believes that providing more green spaces could control epidemics like childhood obesity and ADHD.

In order to combat environmental and social hazards, Simmons wants to bring nature back into the built environment using ecological design. He envisions an “eco-metropolis” in which we keep, fix, and build using “nature’s technologies.” Simmons believes these approaches can inform techniques for land management and restoration, as well as the research and design of greenroofs and walls, rain gardens, sustainable lawns, and ecological roadsides.

Our current situation is about maintaing an “industrial, not ecological, system on life support,” Turf grass covers 40 million acres of land in the U.S., with 20 million acres just residential lawns. This landscape requires 580 million gallons of gasoline and up to 60 percent of urban fresh water to maintain. Desert communities have begun banning lawns out of necessity. Simmons finds gravel lots and other available alternatives lacking in both functionality and aesthetic quality. He is promoting alternatives that are sustainable, useful, and desirable.

Simmons grew up mowing his family’s lawn in England with a push mower. His dad no longer needs to mow because the lawn is now a multi-species landscape that has evolved into a stable ecological system that maintains itself. Inspired by this discovery, Simmons and his team created a biodiverse lawn made up of five native species that only has to be mowed two to three times a year and does not require pesticides or herbicides. There are eight acres planted at the George W. Bush Presidential Library. Simmons calls this “ecology 101 applied to landscape architecture.”

Landscapes like Simmons’s lawn that deploy nature’s technologies can perform critical functions like carbon sequestration, low level ozone absorption, and stormwater management.

Grasslands in fact provide the most efficient means of carbon sequestration. They absorb less carbon dioxide than boreal forests, but because they have evolved with fire and grazing, they store 95 percent of it below ground as insurance. In contrast, trees store carbon dioxide above ground in their trunks, branches, and leaves and release it back into the atmosphere when they die. In grasslands, when the roots die, the carbon melds with the physical and chemical structure of the soil and can be held there for hundreds of thousands of years.

These landscapes are also desirable. Simmons shares several examples of their success and growing popularity. Residents of a suburban tract in Austin, Texas liked the prairie that was planted along the perimeter so much that they requested it be continued through their yards. A homeowner who wanted a meadow constructed on his roof is so pleased with the result that he supports the idea of creating a preserve of the Texas blackland prairie ecosystem on roofs and along roadsides.

Simmons demonstrates that we can use nature differently. He encourages us to preserve nature but also feel liberated and empowered to use it more like we would engineering. “Nature’s technology is free and it’s waiting. All we have to do is bring nature home.”

This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, Master’s of Landscape Architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania, and former ASLA summer intern.

3 thoughts on “Bringing Nature Home

  1. landscapereflections 02/19/2014 / 10:11 am

    Reblogged this on landscape reflections and commented:
    Really interesting discussion on ecological soundness in the design of landscapes- specifically how silly lawns are in the common context of a yard. According to this article
    “Turf grass covers 40 million acres of land in the U.S., with 20 million acres just residential lawns. This landscape requires 580 million gallons of gasoline and up to 60 percent of urban fresh water to maintain.”

    When I was working for Texas Campaign for the Environment, and canvassing in neighborhoods around Austin, it was fascinating to see how people would maintain their landscapes. In the TCE office we actually had a discussion on the paradoxical situation where the homeowners association would fine community members on not “maintaining” their lawns in draught, and the city would fine them for the amount of water they would use to keep their turf lawns green and thriving.

    Getting neighborhoods on board with using native or novel ecosystems to create more dynamic (aesthetically and ecologically) landscapes!

  2. Cindy 04/20/2014 / 10:05 pm

    What an interesting way to control the growth on land. Some of the people in our local area do this, but for the most part, they just burn brush and waste. Using nature in the same way that we would use engineering is a brilliant way to think about it. Now, we just need to get more people to recognize such an idea.

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