According to the American Society of Landscape Architects, the profession of landscape architecture is defined as “the science and art of design, planning, management, and stewardship of the land.” This succinct thirteen-word definition carries a broad interpretation that many of us, as practitioners, attribute to our jack-of-all-trades approach to land development in our daily work lives. While some of us may lean toward certain aspects of that charter and tiptoe around others, the binding element is the “stewardship of land.” A design philosophy may be weighted or balanced between science and art, but the execution will unavoidably and directly impact land and its inhabitants. Therefore, our calling is to make decisions that balance our human needs with the best management of the environmental resources we depend on.
Among those vital resources is water. Our manipulation of a site always considers the flow, infiltration, access, consumption, distribution, and/or removal of water. Water can be both abundant and scarce, life-giving and taking, and aesthetic and utilitarian. In essence, water is as integral to land as the minerals and organics that combine to create the soil we stand on.
In reaction to the relationship between land and water resources, landscape architects, engineers, environmental scientists, politicians, and lobbyists have developed low-impact development alternatives to ease the strain on water resources during land development. For decades, stormwater harvesting and greywater reclaim have become inconsistently incentivized in many areas and required in others. Bio-retention strategies such as rain gardens, green roofs, and bio-swales have become sustainable buzzwords in the land development industry – mostly attributed to infeasibility or relegated to a “greenwashing” marketing gimmick.
The itch you can’t scratch.
With little effort in research, it’s easy to find data and case studies that support real-life, built examples of green infrastructure. For example, the City of Portland, Oregon, set a bold goal to manage 50% of their stormwater through a decrease of impervious surfaces alone by 2030. Portland surpassed their goal by achieving 51% in 2019. The primary practices for achieving the goal were through green streets, green roofs, and tree planting – which are standard low-impact development approaches.
While Portland is a good example of a paradigm shift in stormwater management and engineering, the real success started with policy. While cost is often considered the culprit of low-impact development avoidance, it’s rarely the case. In Florida, for example, many water management districts do not recognize small-scale stormwater infrastructure, such as rain gardens or bio-swales along green streets, within their regulatory process. In this case, the cost of green infrastructure would be in addition to those typically accepted pipe-to-retention pond hard infrastructure designs. Redundancy drives up development costs, and “pie-in-the-sky” low-impact development schemes carry blame in place of antiquated policy.
Do policies blocking your green infrastructure system have you down? Do it anyway… Well, sort of.
A proactive approach to promoting best management practices in landscape architecture involves encouraging professionals to become more involved in local government and industry interest groups. This can help to educate leaders and influence policy change. However, it’s also important to justify the use of a sound landscape architectural approach to finding space for implementing these practices in projects. For example, choosing to place an inlet within an adjacent landscape bed instead of a sea of hardscape can have a significant impact. Similarly, taking the opportunity to use pervious pavement in a parking lot can make a difference.
It’s crucial to remove ego from the equation and avoid forcing low impact development where it’s not being received on its environmental benefits alone. Instead, opt for value-engineering and remove standard curbs from a roadway, allowing sheet flow into a vegetative swale, which is typically cheaper. When it comes to green infrastructure, stay on the science side of design, even if the impact isn’t accepted by policy. One of the biggest mistakes that landscape architects can make is over-relying on qualifying their work rather than quantifying it. It’s essential to aim to understand how much water a rain garden will process, for example.
Did you know that the typical parallel parking space-sized streetside bio-retention cell can infiltrate 1,200 gallons of water per hour on average? This is an impressive data point to consider. Moreover, within the first hour of rainfall, the first flush of stormwater carries most pollutants and suspended solids from roadway surfaces. A reasonable accommodation of multiple streetside bio-retention cells can capture the first inch of rainfall, scrub pollutants, and infiltrate point-source runoff.
Shoot your shot when given the chance.
In 2015, I was fortunate enough to be part of a team of landscape architects, planners, and civil engineers tasked with developing a Downtown Redevelopment Plan for the City of Clermont, Florida. Our goal was to identify sites for redevelopment opportunities in the downtown area, but there were few traditional infill sites available.
We came up with an innovative solution that involved removing many of the city’s typical stormwater retention ponds from downtown areas and redirecting the hard stormwater infrastructure to an engineered three-stage wetland stormwater treatment system. Not only did this approach meet the downtown area’s stormwater needs while freeing up infill sites, but it also created a 10-acre home for countless wildlife species, citywide events, and passive parkland.
Don’t be afraid to take risks and propose new ideas. Sometimes, the most unconventional solutions can lead to the greatest successes.
Ending with the beginning in mind.
Never stop being a landscape architect in the fullest sense of the definition. As stewards of the land, we are the original greenwashers. Low impact development and green infrastructure flow through our processes like a stormwater outfall through Pickerel Weed. Our understanding of natural systems and how we can intertwine our lives throughout is the value we bring to land development projects.
Policy will catch up, pipes will daylight, and water resources will reinvigorate our land. In the meantime, throw down some trash paper and give ‘em hell. We’re already there.