The Intrinsic Value of Landscape Architecture

As we’ve all learned as a child in our early science classes, that the green landscape including trees, shrubs and flowering plants are vital to human and wildlife survival. But it didn’t just come from “thin air” – no pun intendedThe landscape you may think of as “natural” may not be natural at all. When you see a pasture, a woodland, or a meadow, you are looking at land that has been altered by people. In fact, on a grand scale, there are very few original forests, or landscapes. Almost every environment we see today has been altered for one reason or another. Some have been planned and designed by planners, architects, engineers and, landscape architects.  Well-planned environments can bring tremendous value in multiple ways to the communities that surround them and the people that enjoy them.

Fredrick Law Olmsted is considered the father of American Landscape Architecture. He was an idealistic social reformer who brought large-scale green parks and open spaces to people living in crowded, unsanitary, urban conditions. His designs include the well-known Central Park in New York, and Franklin Park in Boston. Today, it is hard to separate the idealized version of landscape that we see in Olmsted’s parks from our concept of nature.

Many of Fredrick Law Olmsted’s projects were sustainable in a way that we strive for our projects to be today. Olmsted’s Muddy River in Boston provided open space that also functioned as infrastructure, providing stormwater management, moderating flood waters, improving water quality, and providing wildlife habitat. Without these spaces, residents would not have a natural setting to go for a walk, a picnic, or to sit and read a book. Although people are aware of the beauty and sense of well-being, they get from visiting these landscapes, they may not be equally aware of the environmental functions they provide.

Landscape architectural design can also make built environments such as streetscapes and plazas more inviting, pleasant, and comfortable. Attracting and encouraging people to visit and spend time in commercial areas can translate into economic development for many town and city centers. The design of these places makes a difference. Carefully orchestrated material choices, specialty pavements, lighting design, amenities, and plantings can create a specific sense of place. Sustainable design principles and the value that plantings provide can be incorporated in a variety of styles and at a variety of scales.

That’s where landscape architecture comes in. 

Planting the Seeds Towards a Green Future 

Plantings are an investment in the future. The ecological benefits they provide increase as they mature. One mature tree can absorb as much as 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year and can sequester 1 ton of carbon by the time it reaches 40 years old. The shade it provides can reduce air temperatures by 9 to 10 degrees (F) , compared to an open unshaded area.  Now, imagine the benefits of a treelined street, a grove or a wooded park. These same benefits make places cooler and shadier in the summer, and provide human scale and beauty to what otherwise would be less hospitable places. Although trees do require maintenance, it is important to consider them an investment in an ecologically and economically sustainable future.

More Than Just Aesthetics – Stormwater Management

Trees and other plantings are not the only benefit that landscape architecture can bring to a project. Landscape architects can integrate best management practices for stormwater management to not only ensure that new development doesn’t pollute but also to add beauty and diversity to the landscape. Today, low impact development (LID) treatments such as raingardens and drainage basins or swales are integrated into designs to alleviate contamination of water bodies and make ground water more plentiful. Through grading that blends with surrounding landforms and planting design, these stormwater practices can be implemented in a manner that looks appealing and provides local flora and fauna. The LID treatments can also offer substantial cost savings compared to the structure solutions.

Transformative Examples

At the Yentile Farm Recreational Facility in Wilmington, MA, Green designed a popular community park using a sustainable design approach. Yentile Farm was originally a farm that was slated to become a housing development. During construction, the project was abandoned, leaving piles of debris. The Town of Wilmington purchased the site and had the vision to construct a park using innovative Low Impact Development (LID) practices and a natural aesthetic to mirror them. Yentile Farm now features a large multipurpose green field, a nature-based playground for different age groups, an athletic field with spectator seating, basketball courts, walking trails , a picnic pavilion, concession stand and restroom building, and parking. These facilities were clustered in approximately 9 acres of the 20-acre site. The balance was left in its natural state preserving woodland and wetland resources. Yentile Farm has become a treasured destination for community members of all age groups, but the underlying beauty of the project is that it integrates LID principals in a manner that enhances the project on multiple levels. Green and the Town of Wilmington’s efforts were rewarded with the 2017 Sustainability Award from the Boston Society of Civil Engineers Section (BSCES) and a 2019 Engineering Excellence Silver Award from the American Council of Engineering Companies of Massachusetts (ACEC/MA). 

The Belle Island Marsh Marine Ecology Park in Winthrop, MA, designed and permitted by Green, is another project that was enhanced by the collaboration of engineering and landscape architecture. The project’s location is part of one of the last remaining salt marshes in the Boston area, provided great opportunities and challenges.

Prior to this project, this portion of Belle Isle Marsh in Winthrop was inaccessible to the public. This project, funded through a grant from the Seaport Economic Council, gives residents and visitors the opportunity to experience this unique site. The project consists of raised boardwalks, a pavilion designed to be used as an outdoor classroom, and a series of accessible walkways that connect to surrounding open space areas. The project has become a destination to enjoy the marsh, dramatic views of Boston and learn about the important ecological function of salt marshes. Bringing visitors in for education and experience will also provide economic benefits to Winthrop.

Designing for access to such an important and sensitive resource without impacting it, was challenging. To flourish, the salt marsh grasses need specific amounts and elevations of tidal flow and sunlight. They also produce and thrive in a thick layer of peat and mud. Details such as the height of the boardwalk and how it was anchored were carefully devised to avoid harm to the salt marsh grass and the many creatures that depend on it. The height of the boardwalk factored in projected sea level rise. The design considered visitors of differing physical abilities, through compliance with ADA standards and providing places to sit and rest. Today people can observe, learn and be part of this incredible, productive, thriving natural resource The Belle Island Marsh Marine Ecology Park also received a Silver Engineering Excellence Award from ACEC/MA in 2019.

Part of the Whole

Yentile Farm and Belle Isle are two public open space projects where public access to landscapes was the primary intention. Other types of projects, including streetscape, “pocket parks”, highway, bikeway, bridge, water resource infrastructure and site design for buildings also present opportunities for an integrated design approach that combines sound engineering practices with the ecological and social benefits that landscape architecture can provide. These may include grading that blends with the existing landforms; layout, plantings, and amenities like seating areas and lighting that enhance the user experience; and the protection and enhancement of existing natural systems.

Streetscapes are a popular example of landscape architecture in an urban context. Streetscapes are typically initiated to address vehicular traffic, pedestrian safety, and promote economic development. To encourage pedestrian activity, streets need to be not only safe and convenient, but also desirable. Amenities such as specialty pavements, places to sit, places to dine, and bicycle racks, together with integrated lighting design, encourage people to visit and spend time. Street trees are another important means of making streets more inviting. Their canopies help define spaces and provide human scale. They can help moderate the climate, making the street more comfortable in hot weather and improve air quality by filtering particulates. Street trees provide traffic calming by defining the street edge. With the illusion of a narrow street, drivers are likely to drive slower and more carefully. Healthy street trees introduce life and beauty to streetscapes.

Getting trees to grow and flourish in urban conditions that lack soil, water and nutrients is a challenge. Studies have indicated the average life span of a street tree is 10-15 years. Fortunately, there are numerous strategies to increase viability of trees planted in urban areas. Along Peabody’s Main Street and in Peabody Square, Green used structural soils and permeable pavers to sustain the new and existing trees. Incorporating such methods needs to be prioritized and budgeted for early in the design process to ensure long term success of the trees.

The Key to our Future 

As our population grows, our impact on the world increases, and we need to incorporate sustainable features and ecological functions into projects of all types and all scales. Landscape Architects can thoughtfully and cost-effectively integrate the functions of landscapes in ways that have positive environmental impacts while also making them appealing and accessible to people. While doing this on a grand scale is admirable, change can also happen one tree at a time. Just as the collective effort of individuals have made a difference in reducing waste through recycling, each street, park, or bikeway can be designed to integrate sustainable features.

At Green we combine quality engineering solutions, a commitment to sustainability, attention to budgetary considerations, and landscape architecture to design solutions that improve current environmental conditions and the user experience in a worthwhile manner. Together, we can create meaningful change in the landscape of our future.

Let us help you transform your site or project and bring it to life. For more information or to have your questions answered, please contact us at info@greenintl.com.

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