Native Vs. Nonnative

Today, perhaps more than ever before, there are good reasons for landscape architects and restoration ecologists to join forces in developing basic ecological and design principles that apply in all land-use decisions.

It’s important for landscape architects to look at the ecological impact of their designs and the plants they use. Photo Courtesy Of Applied Ecological Services, Inc.

While we have come to our professions with different training—one heavily based on design principles, the other heavily based on scientific principles—our aims are often aligned.

A shared goal is to create landscapes with ecosystems that are low-maintenance yet aesthetically pleasing, and which provide beneficial services, such as aesthetics, noise abatement, stormwater control, or habitat for wild fauna, while also providing for human needs.

Much attention has been focused on the use of native vs. nonnative species in projects. However, too often this debate ignores an important underlying principle of restoration: The focus should be on restoring ecosystem functions rather than on the species.

More than 40 years ago, Ian McHarg made the case for a design and planning approach that is sensitive to and compatible with regional environments. McHarg’s basic principle of using nature as a model struck a chord with landscape architects and planners, and it certainly resonated with ecologists.

However, the impact of invasive species—at the hands of well-intentioned designers, gardeners, farmers, and landscapers—has exacerbated a problem that was just beginning to loom when McHarg penned his text.

Many nonnative species are highly invasive, and have compromised the health and stability of natural communities well beyond the point of their introduction.

The spread, success, and dominance of some species is so pervasive that some ecologists have begun to question whether we should merely accept the permanent alteration of natural associations by nonnative species.

These new associations, with various mixes of native and nonnative species, have been called “novel ecosystems.” Do these ecosystems, some of which appear to be stable and self-sustaining, challenge the “design with nature” model?

Or are novel ecosystems different models that might provide important insights for both landscape architects and ecologists?

The identification of stable, self-sustaining novel ecosystems has fueled the native vs. nonnative debate.

Novel ecosystems exclude flower gardens and hay fields, for example, but might include vacant lots or mixed-species forests under some management. These increasingly widespread ecosystems (perhaps covering 35 percent of the Earth’s land surface) range from near-monocultures of a nonnative species to diverse ecosystems with mixes of native and nonnative species.

Indicators Of Ecosystem Health, As Design Principles

There is little doubt that stability and resiliency, or recuperative potential, are effective ways to evaluate ecosystem health. Healthy ecosystems require the least maintenance while still providing desired services.

The introduction of nonnative plants can create a whole new ecosystem. Photo Courtesy Of Applied Ecological Services, Inc.

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