By Hannah McAleer

As landscape architects and planners, we are often implored to have a positive influence on the environment by incorporating sustainability throughout various stages of the development process. Sustainable initiatives incorporated into a project not only reduce environmental impacts, but can also enhance placemaking, provide recreational, cultural, and social opportunities, and heighten quality of life.

Sustainable principles start with land planning. The patterns we impose across the land have an impact on the environment. These patterns are cultivated through thoughtful regional, local, and site-specific planning, then are implemented in the design details.

It is now common for municipal codes to incorporate various levels of sustainability, sometimes through development incentives. Over the course of my 20-year career, I’ve seen a number of examples of techniques that encourage sustainable measures in landscape planning and design. These techniques include habitat preservation requirements, density bonuses, greywater guidelines, protection of pervious areas, parking reductions, mixing land uses, and planning for transit. It’s important that municipalities look at how these incentives impact not just each project, but the city and region overall. These are a few practices that I’ve found to be effective, beneficial, and important to incorporate into sustainable community design:

Preserving Ecological Systems

The preservation of important ecological systems plays a key role in sustainability. Planning to preserve these systems supports biodiversity, persistence of native flora and fauna communities, natural protection from shoreline conservation, reduction in heat-islands, preservation of natural drainage patterns, and conservation of healthy soils, all of which can be tied to ecological benefits. Adapting a site with sustainability at the forefront provides opportunities to build in natural protection from storms, reduce maintenance costs, lessen chemical landscape treatments, protect soils, promote healthier waterways, clean aquifers, and foster viable productive ecosystems.

Community Connection

Communities need to be connected on various levels. Successful pedestrian networks need to provide safety and comfort on routes that connect people to each other and to other places that fulfill their day-to-day necessities. A well-planned pedestrian network can include multiple routes, shade, gathering spaces, lighting, stopping points, and linkage to multi-modal choices. Desirable destinations should be reachable through the network, ultimately connecting a vibrant mix of uses. For a community to be sustainable and viable, it needs to be connected to public facilities and community resources that support the people living within it. Where a strong network of multi-modal pedestrian trails, streets, and transit connect social, cultural, recreational, and economic opportunities, healthy communities will flourish.

Mindful Selection of Products and Finishes

The products and finishes we recommend and select can play a huge role in environmental impact. Through design details and specifications, local and regionally produced materials can be selected. This helps reduce carbon emissions associated with long freight routes while supporting local and regional

jobs. Recycled and recyclable materials can be used in efforts to reduce waste and energy consumption. Other hardscape materials selections, such as pervious paving, will assist with stormwater runoff and reduction in stormwater pollution runoff. Selection of non-toxic material coatings can also contribute to improved environment and health during the production and end-use. Various materials selections exist to increase longevity and reduce maintenance which can specifically be catered for the type of environment, such as salt-exposure, freeze exposure, or extreme heat.

A sustainable approach to community design can offer a better user experience, while also enhancing the community perception for buy-in. While sustainable development is not a new idea, the importance of it has caught an increasing amount of attention as it has seeped out of the realm of design discussions and into the consciousness of the general public.

Aligning Business Goals with Sustainability

Sustainable community design has a growing marketing and sales value associated with it, which can elevate a community. I grew up in the 80s and 90s, a time when becoming more environmentally aware and practicing sustainability was still new, but being taught and encouraged. Now, people who were kids at that time are part of the growing pool of potential homebuyers, and sustainability has become an attractive selling tool that they can connect with. As younger generations who grew-up in an age of increased environmental awareness contribute to a growing percentage of potential home buyers, sustainability becomes an attractive selling tool.

Also, consumers tend to align their investment choices with their values and are much more savvy about understanding a brand’s values and stance on environmental preservation. Thus, having a landscape brand that encompasses sustainable principles is not only great for the environment and community, but for sales as well.

Holistic Approaches

Finally, I support the notion that projects with a holistic approach can lead to more sustainable development. This includes understanding currently available water resources, projected changes to the availability and quality of that resource, and the project’s direct impact on groundwater, aquifers, and natural water bodies. Many regions across America have experienced a reduction in water abundance and water quality as population growth and development has stressed the natural resources available. As landscape architects and planners, we have a responsibility to understand that impact and develop design principles that support growth, housing, community facilities, and transportation improvements while protecting and improving a community’s natural resources.

Our mission at RVi is to inspire people to enjoy the outdoors and engage the communities they belong in. Enhancing the environment through sustainable measures helps us share our appreciation of the environment and brings awareness to others. Our hope is that our projects will bring people closer to nature and to each other within the places they call home and the places they visit. We want this to create a genuine respect and appreciation of everything that makes a place unique, which in turn will create land stewardship from those who inhabit the community.