Like many disciplines within the design and planning realm, landscape architecture is starting to rebound after several stagnant years.
The recession of 2009 and the subsequent halting recovery were tough on most architectural/engineering (A/E) firms, but it looks like the profession is starting to see growth again.
In fact, many landscape architects believe the industry’s recovery will be more rapid than other A/E disciplines.
One of the driving forces of the nation’s recovery from “The Great Recession” was a renewed focus on sustainability. With help from the federal government, a new commitment to sustainable energy and green technology has taken root in the overall economic infrastructure.
Landscape architecture is a natural beneficiary of this newfound commitment to sustainability because it is at the very core of the discipline.
Landscape architecture isn’t just about decorating or “greening up” properties or urban areas; rather, the foundation of the profession is built upon creating sustainable infrastructures that promote healthier development of all types.
Designed landscapes can prevent soil erosion around buildings and other developed areas, clean storm-water runoff by filtering contaminants, encourage groundwater recharge, and offer valuable shade to protect buildings and people. All of this is in addition to the aesthetic benefits that are readily apparent.
But how can we transform this historic culture of sustainability into business success? The answer can be found partly in what we do, and partly in how we market what we do.
Not all landscape architects have embraced the “green revolution.” For those who haven’t, it is time to reorient their firms to be greener, providing services that actively promote sustainability.
Firms that aren’t in a position to focus on sustainability should partner with firms that are green leaders and know how to translate the basic elements of landscape architecture into more sustainable designs and approaches.
And once firms do this, they need to know how to promote their commitment to sustainability to appeal to clients who want to pursue more environmentally friendly development.
Public and private developers are looking for designers who can make their projects more sustainable because it is both good citizenship and good business. When buildings or campuses are cleaner and operate more efficiently, owners save money in the day-to-day operations.
Landscape architecture can be one of the most important drivers of sustainability, and as a result, can provide significant benefits to owners’ bottom lines.
How Landscape Architects Promote Sustainability
One important way to promote sustainability is through the creation of biofiltration swales comprised of grasses and durable plants that can withstand the most extreme conditions.
Rather than allowing rainwater to run over the land and collect pollutants that can then go into storm drains and, eventually, into local streams and wetlands, biofiltration swales reduce erosion and flooding, clean runoff, and allow the water to replenish groundwater.
Some plants are also able to filter heavy metals from water, and can be particularly useful in industrial areas.
To the untrained eye, biofiltration swales appear to be merely decorative vegetation. However, landscape architects know swales are vital links in a sustainability chain that can help keep local water supplies clean and safe.
Similarly, landscape architects who work with pervious pavements and pavers also promote more sustainable development by creating filtration systems for oils and other contaminants.
This filtration is especially beneficial around roadways and other areas where vehicles typically leak contaminants, and they are particularly useful in areas that experience cold and icy weather because the design keeps the ground warmer than with traditionally paved roadways.
The green roof is a relatively recent innovation in the United States that is becoming more popular in both residential and commercial developments. Depending on the type of roof, green or “living” roofs can be composed of trees and shrubs, or can contain low-growth grasses and sedums.
In addition to offering an attractive flourish to the design of a building, green roofs reduce heating and cooling costs, provide wildlife habitat, and reduce urban air temperatures, thereby alleviating urban heat-island effect.
Green roofs can also help absorb and filter storm water and reduce the temperature of water that is discharged into sewer systems, lakes, and streams. The ecological benefits of living roofs are significant, but there are also some attractive financial benefits.
Finally, the introduction of trees and shrubs into urban settings promotes sustainability. Of course, the air-quality benefits of plants are well known. They consume carbon dioxide and return oxygen to the atmosphere, which improves overall air quality.
Plants also make the local environment healthier during excessively hot weather by cooling the air. Air temperatures can be 20 degrees cooler beneath trees than in surrounding areas, an important health benefit for people who live in areas of extreme heat, particularly pedestrians in urban areas.
Overall, trees and other types of vegetation can have an extraordinarily positive impact by reducing heat-island effect in cities.
From a business perspective, the benefits of trees and shrubs should be an easy sell, both for their ability to promote sustainability and the extent to which they improve the overall character of any development.
The Path To Profitability Is Green
And if there is one common thread that runs through these examples—and a host of other sustainable landscape-architecture practices that haven’t been mentioned here—it’s that they are all marketable practices that can help landscape-architecture firms sell more business and become more profitable.
Since the profession was founded more than a century ago, it has been practicing sustainability without even trying. Today, however, this element, which has been taken for granted, is one of the greatest assets when it comes to promoting our skills and experience.
We need to know how to articulate to prospective clients how a commitment to sustainability benefits their projects, and can help them realize their desire to create more environmentally friendly projects.
Environmentally friendly development isn’t a fad; it’s a trend that will continue to grow. Landscape architects who specialize in sustainable design, or can partner with firms that do, will continue to have a competitive edge over those that don’t.
For landscape architects, sustainability really can be the path to profitability.
Thomas R. Tavella, FASLA, is director of design for Fuss & O’Neill’s Landscape Architecture Studio and president of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Manchester, Connecticut-based Fuss & O’Neill, is ranked among the top 200 environmental firms and top 500 design firms in the United States. Thomas Tavella can be reached at TTavella@fando.com.
For more information about the financial benefits of sustainability, refer to Banking on Green, A Look at How Green Infrastructure Can Save Municipalities Money and Provide Economic Benefits Community-wide, a joint report by American Rivers, the Water Environment Federation, the American Society of Landscape Architects, and ECONorthwest.