Completing the Puzzle

As landscape architects get on board with sustainability, our hopes for a clean and healthy world grow.

The long line snakes then redoubles at San Francisco’s Moscone Center. At their annual meeting, appropriately titled “Designing with Nature: The Art of Balance,” landscape architects are eager to learn about a program that is sure to change the way they practice their profession. Walls are moved out of the way, and room is made for the overflow crowd. We settle in to learn about the Sustainable Sites Initiative, developed by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the United States Botanic Garden, and other organizations. The new metric will expand our growing knowledge of the built environment as put forth by USGBC’s LEED rating system, which on its own has begun to shift the methods of construction along with land use.

I’ve always thought of landscape architects as advocates for nature, proponents of healthy outdoor living who respect the local flora and fauna as well as human needs and cultures. But all too often I’ve been disappointed by their superficial knowledge of these things—or worse yet, their cavalier disregard for them. This new initiative has the potential to put landscape architects, though they come late to the discussion on sustainable design, at the very heart of our ongoing dialogue on ways to integrate the powers of nature with our equally powerful technologies. Its new guidelines for how sites are designed, built, and maintained will be backed up by serious research and analysis of regional conditions of climate, vegetation, water, and dirt—the basics for growing the trees, shrubs, and plants that help clean the air, provide shade, and bring nature in contact with every person. Each of us understands this kind of connectivity intuitively, yet we accept the most common and counterintuitive landscaping practice: water guzzling, chemically dependent lawns.

I have been trying to find an ecologically sensitive solution for my thirsty and fertilizer-hungry lawn in New Jersey, but landscapers there respond with incredulity to my requests. So my lawn is dead. I cannot in good conscience keep pouring toxic substances and clean water into the ground. But a lush green carpet of grass grows next door, as it does practically everywhere in our country, regardless of climate, soil, and water conditions. These vast swaths of clipped turf are seen as the major reason behind the serious water shortages projected over the next five years in 36 states.

“Lawns are the number one irrigated crop in the United States,” a speaker at the conference claimed. Sustainable Sites is bound to change the state of this unsustainable growth. The program ­encourages rainwater collection through green roofs and per­vious parking lots and driveways; planting community gardens for growing food; homeowners ­associations that monitor their vegetation; leaving existing trees on construction sites (or replanting them); challenging everyone to find ways to use zero-potable water for irrigation by 2010; and creating the kinds of landscapes where kids can dig in the dirt. (A German study shows that children who play in healthy soil have fewer allergies than those who don’t go outside.)

These changes will mean a dramatic shift in our culture, which “sees nature as a dirty place,” as Heather Venhaus, an environmental designer at the Wildflower Center, in Austin, Texas, pointed out at the meeting. She represented all the intelligence, energy, and commitment brought together by Sustainable Sites from the highly motivated member organizations that together embody the new spirit of collaboration. Its action-oriented program brings an African saying to mind: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

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