How Can Landscape Architects Lead Sustainable Development?

Sally Parker

By: Sally Parker

A graduate of the University of Illinois Landscape Architecture program and a veteran of the Marine Corps. Sally works to help federal and local government projects reach sustainability and security goals.  She is a masters candidate in the Virginia Tech Executive Master of Natural Resources program.

Water.  Air.  Plants.  Temperature.  People.  These are the components upon which a landscape architect builds a place, one site at a time.  As pressures mount on our global population, these five issues among others have risen to the forefront of the conversation.  Water.  Air.  Plants.  Temperature.  People.

The push to go green is on the rise.  It’s easy for landscape architects to sit back and say, “We’ve been talking about this since Olmsted picnicked in cemeteries!  Environmental stewardship is already on our resumes.”  But how can we adopt a proactive stance and guide society’s transformation into a resilient, stable place to live?  We can do it by scaling our focus up and out to envelope the entirety of the built environment as it fits within the greater ecosystem.

Processes to guide development are in place through planning and zoning.  But what falls through the cracks between building height and parking capacity are the threads of urban ecology and water and health that can form a true interconnected fabric.  Instead of limiting green initiatives to a grid of leftover open space between buildings and utilities and streets, how can we float above the grid and stitch it all together? By focusing less on completing a patchwork of disparate components, and more on weaving upon a loom of interconnectivity that accounts for water, air, plants, temperature and people.

There is a distinct lack of comprehensive environmental planning because the ecosystems that grow around us are more complex and intricate than we are practically equipped to measure and manage.  There is a calibration response that happens constantly in nature, which is not static but dynamic.  Nature shifts in response to the environment we create, for better or worse.   How can a city adopt a policy of good environmental practice when there is no constant?  A city can track air quality metrics, but what city budget could possibly monitor every pollutant and the quantifying details of every ounce of biomass that absorbs carbon?  Piecemeal efforts are a step in the right direction but don’t look at the big picture.  Adding beehives will not help a city (or the bees) if appropriate vegetation isn’t added in kind to feed them.  Green walls in an office lobby will purify some air, but not at levels high enough to neutralize the greenhouse gases generated by commuting employees.

Landscape architects have always known the landscape as a living, breathing thing; able to deliver benefits to humans in proportionate quantities to the value we invest in its development.  We also know that it is a challenge to manage or quantify the landscape because of its infinite nature.  The rest of the world is beginning to speak our vocabulary and embrace our ideas.  It would be a stretch to say we are suddenly the cool kids, but our niche demographic is experiencing a groundswell of interest.

Again, how can we adopt a proactive stance?  It is fair to say that landscape architects are under appreciated.  No one will gather at our knee to hear us impart the wisdom of bio-retention.  Of the many hats a landscape architect wears, environmental stewardship is the team role that is often relegated to the want, not need category of design.  Insist on its importance.  As other professions in the industry look to internalize concepts and vocabulary, mentor them. Speak up in team meetings, using the language we use amongst ourselves.  Standardize that vocabulary in discussions with our peers in other disciplines.

The principles of sustainability are arising in all sectors of society.  Leaders in every industry are stepping forward to spearhead the transformation from gray to green and internalize the triple bottom line of social, economic and environmental equity. The world is finally speaking our language; let’s earn the right to be leaders in sustainable development by preaching to the growing global choir.

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The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS), a center within Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE), provides interdisciplinary graduate education, cutting edge research, and strategic leadership needed to navigate a rapidly changing world. Our work spans five continents and engages key stakeholders from education, business, government, non-profits, and local communities. Our goal is to create real solutions to the world’s global sustainability challenges. To learn more about our programs, services, and global engagement, please visit: cligs.org