Landscape Architects scrape, mold, scale back, and realign spaces. We make adjustments to the land, fulfilling client requests, choosing materials based on prescribed programs, and we create the functional and the aesthetic. Even when the client informs us of budget constraints, we adapt our designs, and we present them with workable solutions. But after all of this, it’s still possible to miss a larger purpose:
Creating spaces not only for people, but for every species crossing our paths.
This special opportunity suggests that we become stewards of the land, identifying and recreating vibrant, viable ecosystems, ones in which life can be nurtured and allowed to flourish. Like Hippocrates in his philosophy of treating patients, we know that our interventions can have either beneficial or deleterious effects, so when we approach a habitat, we should make it our goal to either preserve and protect what exists, or account for the effects of what we change. In the ideal situation, we should endeavor to create something new and dynamic, something sustainable.
Many would argue that increased attention to ecosystems on our part would take a heroic effort, that when it comes down to it, there’s no time and even less money, to address such concerns. It’s true. Landscape Architects do have to juggle a hundred-and-one issues, and to every project, our clients bring a new set of requests. We are engaged to design, draft, detail, and oversee construction, not to set policy or further complicate the RFP.
Yet every day we watch as habitats decrease, and we know that we could be doing more. Since 1960, the world’s population of animals has been cut in half. And from 1970, when Congress passed the Environmental Protection Act, to 2010, populations along the eastern coastal states have increased by 40%. That translates into increased development with fewer farmlands, wetlands, freshwater, and coastal ecosystems. Specifically, it means:
Less showy goldenrod, less southern mountain mint, fewer white fringed orchids. It means fewer bog turtles, fewer monarch butterflies, and fewer pollinator bees.
Not many professions require an intimate knowledge of both people and the natural world. Landscape architects need to take advantage of this knowledge and apply it to a larger purpose. We need to become leaders and educators, constantly searching for innovative ways to make projects more ecologically sound, and advising our clients that constructing sustainable landscapes just makes good business sense. After all, what end-user doesn’t want to live where the air and water are cleaner, where they can enjoy warmer winter interiors and shadier summers?
“Going green,” “sustainability,” “eco-friendly,” these are nice buzzwords. They do signal the beginning of a new era, but the ideas these words signify are taking time to grab hold. In a report by ecoAmerica, an environmental non-profit, we learn that participation on the first Earth Day in 1970 was 20 million people; more recently that number has dwindled to about 1 million. Additionally, only 44% of U.S. citizens would even be willing to identify themselves as “environmentalists.” Clearly, ideas about smart land use and sustainability could use a booster. As landscape architects, we are well positioned to reinvigorate those ideas and to remind people that the world we live in isn’t simply the result of a thousand random decisions. Instead, the world we live in is the one we choose to create.