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Green roots, literally: the beneficial roots of sustainable landscapes are far-reaching, explains landscape architect David Tuch.


An interest in green and environmentally sensitive practices, from the regional scale all the way down to the scale of the individual homesite, has slowly and steadily risen over the last 10 years. In fact, over the past two years, there has been what I can only refer to as an "explosion of green," as witnessed by the advertising campaigns from large companies such as General Electric all the way to a local "green" body massage business. The awareness and interest has been remarkable, and it makes anyone in the design profession who has been focused on environmentally sensitive planning and design solutions excited about the times in which we are working, sluggish economy and all.

Recently, regional planning efforts have turned their attention to preserving natural resources and farmland, protecting water quality, addressing viewshed impacts, avoiding impacts from mountainside/ridgetop development, and respecting the character of the local landscape. While this large scale planning is going on, it is still necessary to design and plan our personal landscapes so they also address critical environmental, cultural and social issues at the local level. In fact, we can plan and design our local landscapes and developments to be sustainable on a larger scale and to connect with the neighborhood, community, city and region in which they can be found.

The small scale of an individual building site offers remarkable opportunities to implement environmentally sensitive landscape designs that can help reflect and maintain the character of the region. One of the first steps prior to starting any sustainable design project is to determine the existing conditions of a site through a site analysis. A site analysis includes mapping the existing conditions, like solar orientation, soils, drainage patterns, topography (to determine the slope of the landscape) and information regarding the natural resources (including flora and fauna), of a site. This is a basic step that should occur regardless of the scale of the project and regardless of the design intent.

Sustainable landscapes are landscapes that don't deplete resources or damage the environment, because they are self-renewing as well as regenerative. The design of sustainable landscapes should give people a chance to reconnect with nature and blend the science of ecology with the art of design. This can be accomplished by designing landscapes that improve water quality, lower energy and resource consumption, reduce waste, provide wildlife habitat and conservation of species, and produce food, while at the same time creating spaces that are beautiful and inspiring. To this end, there are five fundamental elements of sustainable landscapes:

1. Historic and cultural landscapes

The character of sustainable landscapes can be found in the components that allow them to maintain the integrity of their location and functionality. But landscapes also have individuality tied to the people who interact with them through time. The identity of a place is formed by people who help write its history through their actions and memories--whether it's George Vanderbilt and Frederick Law Olmsted's grand creations at the Biltmore Estate or your grandmother's well-tended backyard garden. Designing to reveal or preserve a landscape's identity through physical or ephemeral attributes is a tool that can sustain these treasured places for generations to come.

2. Plants

Plants seem like a basic component to any landscape. However, we often find that the same plants used in landscapes in the Coastal Plain and Piedmont Region are also used in the mountains. Sustainable landscape should include plants native to the area, drought-tolerant plants, and plants for an edible landscape. Native plants, for example, not only provide a sense of the regional context of the landscape but can help address ecological problems such as climate change. Some plants require enormous inputs of energy to maintain, such as water, fertilizer and pesticides. By far the biggest consumer of such inputs is turf grass, also known as the lawn.


3. Rainwater

Water is a resource that we don't often think about until there is a drought or contamination of a water source. Sustainable landscapes can treat contaminated rainwater and also harvest rainwater. Replenishing the water table is also a benefit because new construction often alters the natural hydrology of the landscape. Sustainable landscapes aim to maintain and mimic the natural hydrology of a landscape with tools like green roofs, rain gardens, bio-swales and other innovative stormwater treatment techniques.

4. Habitat

The natural landscape is often displaced when we build. Designs should provide opportunities to create or restore habitat. Using dues from the natural environment, sustainable landscape design can be modeled on the natural landscape in order to provide wildlife habitat, microclimates for people and wildlife and water quality protection, just to name a few. Existing habitat and plant and animal diversity should be preserved as well and can be protected through tools such as conservation easements. Preserving habitat and natural resources also allows for the continued ecological function of the landscape, such as the continued replenishment of the water table, carbon sequestering and flood control.

5. Energy conservation

It's possible to design the landscape to provide energy conservation measures for a building. Energy conscious design can reduce the consumption of potentially limited natural resources, reduce heating and cooling costs, and create comfortable environments that are buffered against harsh weather. Landscapes can be designed to allow the maximum amount of sunlight to enter a building in the winter and screen a building from the sun during the summer. It's also possible to modify the effects of wind by screening winter winds or funneling summer breezes towards a building.

These five fundamentals are the building blocks. There are many more principles and design concepts that can be implemented as part of sustainable landscape design; these can include aquaculture, landscapes that provide spaces for community gathering, sustainable agriculture, permaculture, and waste management. Over the next several Green Roots columns, these five fundamentals will be discussed in greater detail in an effort to share with you the potential eco-friendly landscape design has for the sustainability of your site and the area well beyond.

David Tuch is a landscape architect with Equinox Environmental, an Asheville-based design and planning firm focused on resource conservation and sustainable development throughout the Southeast. He can be reached at, or visit Equinox on the Web at www
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Title Annotation:new life journal's GREEN HOME RESOURCE: GREEN ROOTS
Author:Tuch, David
Publication:New Life Journal
Date:Oct 1, 2008
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