Designing Sustainable Landscapes


Nicole Hersch is a recent Masters of Natural Resources (MNR) graduate who combined her studies in sustainability with the Masters of Landscape Architecture (MLA) program at Virginia Tech. She aims to pair her skills in landscape design with an advanced sense of ecology through a cultural perspective.

Wedding these two areas of study has already been recognized by the town of Blacksburg. Nicole was one of four artists granted the opportunity to paint a storm drain art installation. Hers, located downtown just behind Sharkey’s and The Cellar, features a cool-toned geometric pattern that draws attention to the drain and makes passersby think about its environmental impact.

“I actually did the drawing digitally, because as a landscape architecture student my comfort is digital graphics,” she explains. “But this is my first foray into painting public art. When I heard the town was holding a contest, I wanted to create something that drew attention to water runoff and how rainwater is connected to water sources around the area. This runoff is another person’s swimming hole water, and that person’s water is fed into the New River.”

But rather than concealing environmental networks, Nicole wants to bring them to light. As an undergraduate studying horticulture, she knew she wanted to create landscapes that build on plants chosen with a purpose. Now, as she completes her MLA degree, she’s using new competencies in environmental sustainability in her partnership with the Stroubles Creek Restoration Initiative.

“Helping alleviate the environmental stressors from the creek makes me think of how I can bring helpful horticulture to design,” Nicole says. “From my experience in the Master of Natural Resources program, I now have a new, more global outlook on these issues. My conversations with other MNR students and professors throughout the program have made me think of who the stakeholders are and which ways I can provide ecosystem services through my design.”

Nicole also learned firsthand how individuals with diverse backgrounds come together for environmental innovation during her International Field Experience (IFE) to Croatia. The IFE is an integral and required component of the MNR degree. Her experience studying a hydroelectric dam on the Sava River opened her mind to the collaborative possibilities of sustainable design.

“What I remember most about the MNR program and Croatia is the diversity of people’s backgrounds in this field,” she explains. “It’s always a fascinating discussion when people with field experience try to come up with solutions to an environmental problem. We all teach each other by sharing what we know from our educational and professional backdrops.”

As Nicole navigates the New River Valley region, she always thinks of ways to bring natural Appalachia into more urbanized spaces, such as the town of Blacksburg. The town was originally founded as an excellent source of fresh water, but as the city grew, parts of the landscape became obscure and forgotten about. Creeks, for instance, now have roads built on top of them, hiding them from the community.

“I think there’s always an opportunity to observe landscapes around Blacksburg,” she says. “I want to work to make those landscapes useful. I want to know how people interact with them both ecologically and socio-culturally so they too can understand how important it is to sustain them.”

Knowing there are so many individual systems within a landscape, Nicole can help preserve them by ecocentric design. By implementing socially impactful design elements, she believes she can influence community members to do the same.

“I want people to recognize the landscapes around them and play a part in protecting them. They provide a great number of ecological services such as erosion control and nutrient storage. But there can also be some cultural services, too. I want to help showcase all the things landscapes do for people.”


Online MNR alumna Nicole Hersch brings a commitment to sustainability and community outreach to her studies in landscape architecture. While living in San Diego, Nicole developed and ran an after-school program in which she taught youth about seed collection, propagation, and planting restoration of local canyons.  Nicole’s studies combine her interests in native habitats, local food production, and community outreach.

The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability thanks Chip Herman and the Town of Blacksburg for permission to use their photos of Nicole’s storm drain art.