Friday, August 12, 2016

Allowing for Landscape Dynamism

Landscape architects take immense pride in their sketches and the crafting of shining visions of what a project could be. These are beautifully rendered and often use freehand ink and marker drawings, Photoshop jpegs, 3d Sketchup models, and photo-realistic Lumion visualization software. Sometimes, these images are so lush and colorful that the clients will end up paying for a really nice sketch-- but in actuality is a dysfunctional design. But does the landscape ever really look like the image that they imagined? Does it ever take into account the droughts, the insect infestations, the eutrophic waterbodies, the reductions in maintenance budgets, or just plain decline of the entire system? Where is landscape process and the inclusion of ecosystem services in client presentations? Simple, it is intentionally and quietly not discussed for many projects. That magically falls to the realm of the client and the landscape manager.

Designers project their visions of what the landscape will look when it is semi-mature, usually 10 to 15 years out. The trees are large, the fountain is always flowing, and there are plenty of parking spaces available. Project sketches are an ideal of the project on a good day. The sun shines and has billowy clouds, there are happy children with kites and balloons in the air, and families out enjoying a Sunday stroll. Happy drawings (think Bob Ross) make for happy clients. But does this give clients a static view of their landscape that eventually guides their long term management? To account for this, do we expect the average person to have an advanced understanding of landscape succession and management? Do clients budget the landscape funding accordingly to keep that perpetual view? Landscapes are most often looked at as temporary gardens in a throw-away culture. If the old one doesn’t suffice, let’s get the dozers in and make a new one. New owners have new ideas and new image brands for their properties. And cities are ripe with areas for “redevelopment” (code for let’s take out the old and put in the new).

How can a design represent successional process?  A 2014 article in the journal Places discusses just that. Written by Chris Reed and Nina-Marie Lister, the article traces prior world-views of static ecological systems to today’s dynamic landscape processes.  Entitled Ecology and Design: Parallel Genealogies, the authors state “There is a growing recognition that what is needed are more flexible, adaptive approaches to managing human activities and designing within the systems that sustain us. What designers make of this has much to do with how change and dynamism are understood and interpreted in the humanities and within cultural production.”

 Lawrence Halprin waterfall sketch

There are landscape architects such as Michael Van Valkenburg, Michael Hargreaves, Richard Haag, and Ian McHarg that have incorporated some ecological process into their work; and are highlighted in the article. But this will happen only when designers realize that landscape is a living process, and not just a product. You can view the full article at

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Hybrid cities

"Why can we imagine smart technologies and not smart behaviors, smart institutions, and smart societies? Why think only of technology and not of humans and their societies that co-evolve with Earth?" --Marina Alberti, from

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Lights Out? Give us back our Dark Skies

 Moonlight Tower, Detroit, 1900

In the early 1900s there was perpetual daylight over the city of Detroit. The Motor City had erected an extensive system of early street lights called Moonlight Towers--which stood nearly 16 stories high. These towers lit 21 square miles of Detroit and effectively turned night into day. Austin, Texas still has a few of these massive towers but they are now mostly gone from the American landscape, and were replaced by the ubiquitous shorter, less expensive utility pole. But since then we found out that artificial light at night is instead blinding us with light pollution. Excessive light at night impacts our environment, safety, energy consumption, and health. The American Medical Association has released a report affirming the dangers of excessive amounts of blue LED lights, which affect the circadian rhythms of humans and urban wildlife (AMA report available online at

The U.S. at night, 2012, NASA

Recent studies have shown that night lights are impacting urban vegetation as well. A paper entitled "Ecological effects of artificial light at night on wild plants" was published in the February 2016 Journal of Ecology by Bennie, Davies, Cruse and Gaston. In it, they find that lights at night change some plant species leaf and flowering characteristics, and can have significant effects on the health, survival and reproduction of plants. Many urban designers are now selecting night and security lights that have shields to light just the ground, rather than the entire sky. An organization called the International Dark Sky Association creates public awareness and assists conservation organizations with lighting management. You can find out more at

Monday, June 13, 2016

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Suburban Habitats

“It is increasingly clear, as we shall see, that much of our wildlife will not be able to survive unless food, shelter, and nest sites can be found in  suburban habitats.”

Doug Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home

Green roof by Robert F. Poore, ASLA

Monday, May 23, 2016

Urban gardens are impacting winter bumblebee hibernation

Without food and resources, bee colonies typically die off in winter with just the queen in hibernation. But in Britain, that’s changing. A study that was published in 2010 has showed that bumblebees have plenty to eat in the winter in our gardens and parks. The study team, led by Ralph Stelzer, placed active hives into heated greenhouses in winter and allowed bees to forage (Stelzer, R.J., L. Chittka, M. Carlton, and T.C. Ings. 2010. Winter active bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) achieve high foraging rates in urban Britain. PLoS ONE 5: e9559). Only cultivated ornamental garden plants were blooming at that time. The researchers found that there was plenty of high quality nectar and pollen available to bees even though it was the dead of winter. There have been reports of bees feeding on plants in winter when they should be hibernating, providing evidence that bees are establishing winter generations in southern England. Our gardens are indeed changing the world. The Stelzer, et al, article is available online at