Landscape Theories: Aesthetic Sustainability and Organic Design

By on February 17, 2012.

Let us abandon simplicity and give unity its due.’ – Ian McHarg 1969

This post is part book review and part reflection on the ecology of design and sustainability. It begins with a tour of an organic farm in north Florida and closes with one chapter of Simon Swaffield’s reader Theory in Landscape Architecture.

***This is a reissue of a post from earlier last year due to some website reformatting. Enjoy***

Little Organic

Swallowtail Farms is a north Florida CSA organic farm that serves the Gainesville area. CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) is a program that provides fruit and produce to local communities for an upfront yearly fee. This affords sub/urban areas lacking time or space to receive seasonal produce at a reasonable organic price. I worked and toured the farm one Saturday morning with managers Noah Shitama and Zack McLean. The farm’s produce, cut flowers, and eventually livestock are specifically chosen by the CSA member. They operate on biodynamic and site specific principles by cultivating soil, using native resources, and interplanting companion plants. These practices remove the need for fertilizers, herbicides, and fungicides of any sort. This is ultimately better for the food and the people who eat it, but most noticeable to me, better for the landscape. Organic farming offers an alternative to monotypical crop rows and subsidized food and elevates ecology while keeping with the vernacular. Produce lists, pricing and general farm info can be found on their website here.

At the end of my day, I can best describe the 1 year old Swallowtail Farms as trials and tribulations with perpetual smiles. Isn’t that what you really want from your food? Someone who loves their living product, who’s only assistance is from the earth herself, not the chemical company down the road.

An Ecological Approach

So… is organic farming a practical example of a sustainably man-aged landscape? This idea is resurfaced with my reading of Alan Ruff’s An Ecological Approach in Theory of Landscape Architecture inside Swaffield’s reader.  He notes how we overlook the need for healthy landscapes and how practitioners must actively design our world as visual indicators of health, not just functioning symbols of it. If we can use the symbolism of landscapes to sell homes, milk, cars, etc. then we can express and promote sustainable relationships between ourselves and the environment.

Unbeknownst to Swallowtail farms, Ruff’s seven components of an ecologically inspired landscape fall in line with their style of farming.

  1. Working with Nature – Take biological factors and let them determine the design while keeping artificial details limited.
  2. Enrichment through complexity – Not just diversity of life – planning and designing niches in microenvironments create stability.
  3. Landscapes as a process – Designs should grow through succession and design should evolve like great gothic cathedrals
  4. Creativity on site – Since the site gives clues to product design, the designer gains inspiration from hands on development and direct contact with the earth.
  5. Involvement of users – The absence of a fixed plan involves public discussion and can evolve to suit future needs. The LA needs not be all knowing, but a catalyst.
  6. Minimal energy consumption – Use local materials and maintain sites waste. Maintenance should decrease with time and eventually be productive landscapes themselves. Returning our investment.
  7. Nature in your front door – With natural management, parks and recreation land use can be reduced.
  8. A Need for Conspicuous Sustainability

Filled with haute design vocabulary, part five of the reading focuses on ecological design and highlights the discipline’s emerging focus on ecology and sustainability. As a whole, the authors exposes the difficulties of portraying ecologically functional landscapes to a public that has been oversaturated with detrimentally beautiful spaces. Each of the authors introduced by Swaffield stress that success is found in the smaller sustainable victories and new approaches of management must be integrated into design.

John T. Lyle is a second generation Ian McHarg who’s Design for Human Ecosystems urges that natural processes should be the underlying context for inspiration and planning. Floating seeds cannot create deep forms, deep forms come from the inner workings of landscape and should be visible and seen as meaning.

Robert Thayer’s Gray World, Green Heart has been a staple in green design since 1994.  His focus is on the two relationships that are explored in great depth: Tranparency/Opacity and Nature/Technology.

  1. He describes societies current perception as fact, ‘ Opacity and fakery in the landscape only serve to perpetuate the unsustainable status quo…’  By making sustainable forms conspicuous and without transparency, acceptance into society can grow with time.
  2. Perceptually, technology is making the world a pleasant place. Practically it is worsening our relationship with the environment and pillaging resources. It also has created a fantasy world of excess and extreme and isolates humans from nature.
  3. Here’s a great link from Harvard Design Magazine critiquing and updating Thayer’s sustainability into the 2000’s.
  4. Joan Iverson Nausser takes the aforementioned theories and asks Why? Why do we design and manage landscapes the way we do? From Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames she explains that humanized landscapes are communication symbols of culture and status. People are constantly seeking information about each other, even through their front yards. This embellishes human traits of neatness and order onto the natural world. Sustainable changes must start by engraining society with a compromise between a messy nature and the human order.

It’s easy to agree with these concepts and theories. Unfortunately, agreeing isn’t enough and action must be taken. The steps were laid over 50 years ago and ecological tolerance is in sight. The media worships green ideology and transparency may be the buzzword of the political year.  Although public opinion is changing, or at least aimlessly walking in that direction, there are decades before acceptance is universal.  LEED doles out points for billion dollar construction and electrical companies are exploring cleaner options. That’s fine and dandy, but light must be shined on smaller aspects of sustainability like food consumption, planting design, maintenance requirements and soil health.

As future professionals, landscape architecture students must find their own balance of ecology and design.

Your approach may not be as draconian as the guidelines of environmentalists or even the authors ascribed here. But hopefully you’ll stop and think occasionally during design development and remember that every move of your sign pen, Staedler, Micron, or marker has momentous consequences for the life below and the success above your project. Believe it or not we truly are changing the world.