Landscape Design through the Lens of Ecology
By Rick Huffman
Since the early 1900s, our society’s sense of landscape aesthetics has tended toward sterile mono-cultured landscapes. We have seen landscapes evolve from functionally agrarian to European models inspired by landscape designers such as Lancelot “Capability” Brown and Humphry Repton. These built landscapes featured vast expanses of lawns and overly pruned flora, ornate sculptures, and fanciful architectural elements.
Historically, these “idealistic” landscapes promoted our love affair with manicured lawns and evergreen foundation shrubs. Over the past two centuries that lens of perception has prevailed, resulting in the gradual replacement of much of our natural, native habitats.
The landscape industry today continues to direct consumers toward products geared to foster artificial landscapes — landscapes that put nature on the run. Plants from across the globe have replaced our native flora and fauna while artificial fertilizers and herbicides have been developed to keep these nonnative plants (and the resulting sterile soils) productive. As consumers, we have few options for native plants from the “green” industry which mostly promotes the sale of these nonnative plants (picture the garden center section at your local big-box hardware store). Not infrequently, these nonnative plants become invasive and/or carry pests and diseases that devastate our native species and natural areas.
Today’s landscapes are also huge consumers and polluters of water. Our current landscape practices treat rainwater as a waste product, then turn to potable water for irrigation. According to the EPA Water Sense web site, our landscapes consume 9 billion gallons per day with 50% wasted to evaporation or inefficient irrigation. Through stormwater runoff, pollutants contaminate soil and degrade water quality. And yet we continue to do the same things we’ve always done, simply because we have been trained to meet the expectations of the aesthetics of rigidly manicured landscapes, landscapes that exclude nature, and, in a vicious cycle, increase our biophobia (fear of nature).
The vast expanses of suburbia, with subdivision after subdivision and strip mall after strip mall, has created a sprawl of sterile landscapes that are a wildlife desert, excluding birds, animals, beneficial insects, and other pollinators. Fragmentation and loss of habitat have been accelerated by short-sighted planning and poor design practices. The proliferation of roads and other impervious surfaces has resulted in more intense stormwater runoff, increased erosion, and a rise in the volume pollutants entering our water.
As consumers of natural resources, our current landscape and development practices are not sustainable. We can do better.
Our challenge is to seek out a landscape paradigm that will promote change through education about sound design aesthetics that will work for people and our environment. Ecologically sound landscape design begins with considering and understanding soils, water, hydrology, light, shadow, and micro-climates.
We read the landscape as a successive process of time and space, where native plant communities can fill the niche environments within each landscape. By designing for people and for nature, the tapestry comes together as space, form, and function. Good sustainable design seeks to balance “people spaces” while promoting healthy soils and groundwater recharge.
Ultimately, good sustainable design challenges our aesthetic perceptions and places value on beautiful, indigenous, seasonal landscapes that feed both wildlife and our senses.
Sustainability in our landscape practices is defined as improving water quality by reducing storm water impacts, reducing our carbon and chemical inputs, supporting living soils and trophic habitats, and incorporating native plants. All these goals for sustainable landscapes sound like common sense, and they are. They should also be more common in practice.
Earth Design and the SCNPS believe that through the lens of science we can change perceptions and promote a deeper appreciation for nature’s processes, the seasons, and successional changes within our landscapes. We understand our role as part of the larger community of life as “biotic citizens,” placing our signatures upon the land with every landscape, and every backyard.
About the Author
Rick Huffman is today semi-retired from his role as the founder and principle of Earth Design, a landscape design firm based in Greenville, SC that specializes in water management projects and encourages the use of native plants. Rick was the principle founder of the SCNPS and served as its first President in 2008. Today, in addition to consulting and being a very busy grandfather, he continues to serve the SCNPS as our statewide Advocacy Chair, working with homeowners, corporations, municipalities, tribal leaders, and other stakeholders from across the state to implement sustainable landscapes that serve and support both humans and nature.