As cities grow, the need for environmentally conscious design grows with them. More and more every day, sustainable landscape architecture is playing a central role in the design of the green spaces that define our communities.
Landscape architecture is a branch of architectural design that focuses on outdoor public areas like parks, campuses, and structures like landmarks. A landscape architect is tasked with investigating the ecological and geological aspects of a space and designing architectural concepts with an eye to cautious environmental stewardship.
According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the United States landscape architecture industry contributed roughly 2.7 billion dollars to the economy in 2015, and while the majority of that business is in the residential sector, the demand for sustainable landscape architecture in the modern urban centre is growing.
In the barrier reef off Staten Island, New York, a landscape architecture firm is working on a 60 million dollar restoration project to help the city deal with the results of storm surges. Storms have caused significant erosion to the Tottenville area shore of Staten Island. At one time, the region was protected by natural oyster reefs, but they have significantly diminished in recent years, leaving the coastline vulnerable. As the sea level continues to rise, that risk further increases.
To protect the area from even more erosion, the New York State Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, in collaboration with Scape Landscape Architecture, has proposed a development called ‘Living Breakwater.’ This project aims to build a necklace of offshore oyster reefs, wetlands, and strands that were once in Raritan Bay. These will substantially reduce the rate at which the Staten Island shore erodes by acting as breakwaters, reducing the wave action on the shore, and creating a vast habitat for the marine life native to the bay. This synergy between environment and innovation is at the core of sustainable landscape architecture.
On the west coast, a San Francisco-based landscape architect named Pamela Conrad has been doing her part in the fight against climate change and has a resume of innovative projects to prove it. Treasure Island, an artificial island situated in the San Francisco Bay, was originally constructed in the 1930s to host a second San Francisco airport but was used instead as a base of operations for the Navy.
Conrad was given the task to design a redevelopment project that would turn Treasure Island into a city with 8,000 homes; 290 acres of open space, retail shops, and a market; a new ferry terminal; and twenty-two miles of paths for walking and biking. This project came with a number of challenges, but the greatest was that the waters in the bay were rising.
Conrad and her team designed a strategy that would enable the island to adapt to the change. This included a multiphase plan for monitoring the water levels and triggering a permit acquisition process as soon as they reached a predetermined height. The plan further defines how to raise shoreline embankments, construct sea walls, and other measures when they are needed. Part of the architectural genius of Treasure Island is that the city is designed to protect itself against the rising sea.
Having to deal with rising seawater is a mounting concern in coastal regions, but inland areas also come with challenges. In New York City, the lake in Prospect Park blooms with florescent green clouds of toxic algae. It is a big problem for people who walk their dogs in the park because drinking the water can make dogs dangerously ill. Within the city, phosphorus is added to the water supply to prevent the lead from its older plumbing from leaching into the water. Unfortunately, phosphates are food for algae, and when the lake’s fragile ecosystem becomes unbalanced and overwhelmed with phosphorus, the algae blooms.
Algae blooms are not a new problem, and traditionally they have been dealt with using water filters. These require constant monitoring and upkeep, and when they break, they can be prohibitively expensive to replace. According to an article published on the Gothamist, the Prospect Park Alliance broke ground at the end of last year on a project with Brooklyn College to implement a nature-based solution called EcoWEIR. Justine Heilner, senior landscape architect for the alliance is working with her team and EcoWEIR inventor Brooklyn College Professor Jennifer Cherrier to implement this new technology.
EcoWEIR is a small swimming-pool sized container filled with sandy soil and native grasses that grow at the top. The container gets buried under the ground in a strategic location so that it can intercept water before it reaches the lake. The water will enter the container and saturate the soil at the bottom where the roots of the grasses can absorb the phosphates and other nutrients, effectively filtering the water so those nutrients no longer make their way into the lake to become food for the toxic algae.
The fragile ecosystem of the lake in Prospect Park is a microcosm of the earth and the environment at large. While the landscape architects at the Prospect Park Alliance use plants to remove problem chemicals from lakes and ponds, many urban centres are turning to plants to remove carbon from our atmosphere.
In Paris, France, public spaces have been turning green. In 2014, Mayor Anne Hidalgo launched a community-driven project to bring more green spaces into the city. Permis de Vegetaliser, often called the ‘Green Permit’ in English, provides permits that enable residents to beautify neighbourhoods and communities by creating their own public gardens. Through this project, every adult resident can request authorization to garden in the street, plant flowers around trees, hang planters from posts or anti parking barriers, and more. As private citizens do their part to turn urban spaces green, Parisian landscape architect Arnaud Casaus has developed a novel approach to urban gardening.
Casaus is creating spaces that are in sharp contrast to traditional rooftop gardens. Rather than uniform rows of square hedges and box planters, his gardens are sprawling chaotic jungles of exotic plants. According to an article in the New York Times, this shift is a growing movement among landscape architects. Casaus has designed terraces, balconies, and rooftops throughout Paris. Bringing green spaces to urban settings is one of the ways that landscape architecture is helping to create sustainable cities, but as important as the function is the form. Designers like Casaus bring a novel, floral charm to the urban jungle.
Back in North America, Toronto-based advocacy organization Green Roofs for Healthy Cities is leading the movement for more green spaces and rooftop gardens in Canada and the United States. A report released by the organization stated that more than three million square feet of rooftop gardens were installed in thirty-five states and three provinces in 2019. The available data is limited, but the trend indicates consistent growth in the industry since 2013.
Throughout the world, the demand for sustainable design with innovative solutions to environmental concerns is growing, and landscape architects are rising to the challenge. Minimizing resource input and waste output is becoming a central concern in every industry, but none more than those that are designing and building our cities and living spaces. As we go forward, landscape architects will play a major role in creating a sustainable future.