What Are the Functions of a Landscape?

What have you come to expect from your neighborhood park? Do you think it should look nice? Be well lit and clear of shrubbery so it feels safe to walk through at night? What about the strip of grass between the curb and the sidewalk... is it merely a space to hold plowed snow in the winter or a space into which car doors swing open?

I think we can expect more from our public places. Every square foot of outdoor space has the potential to be high functioning and high performing, delivering benefit to the community, whether it's intentionally designed to do so or left in a natural state.

What does the word functional mean in this context? Humans can derive a variety of benefits from a place like a park. Some are ecological, some are social.

  • Aesthetics- it can be beautiful to behold.
  • Habitat- it can harbor humans, mammals, birds, insects, microbes,  and fungi.
  • Recreation- it can host activities ranging from picnics to soccer games to geocaching.
  • Infrastructure- it can filter, slow and absorb stormwater.
  • Sense of place- it can bolster a neighborhood's identity and community pride.

It is arguable that the ecological value we receive of a square foot of land is inversely proportional to the amount of maintenance we apply to it through mowing, irrigation, fertilization, pesticides, aeration and mulch. A soccer field demands more care than a woodland, but the soccer field will arguably receive more intensive use and abuse than a patch of woods whose visitors stay largely on a path. Meanwhile, the woods slow down rainwater and improve water quality, reduce carbon in the atmosphere, reduce ambient temperatures, and host the ecological web on which humans rely for its food production (think honeybees). This blog post isn't about placing ecological value of a place over its social value; rather we should be mindful of its potential and resist applying a default expectation or treatment to our public spaces through habit or perceived ease.

Look at Central Park in NYC as an example.  Maintenance is certainly high in some areas, but the intensity of care varies throughout the park.

For a ball field, the social value we receive is immense and can justify the regular upkeep.  But what about when lawn becomes the default treatment?  Is it "easier" to let maintenance crews use mowers to keep swaths of land in check rather than incorporate a system that involves ecologically productive elements such as forests or meadows? In the landscape industry, it's often seen as easier to replace something than keep it alive throughout the seasons. Think of those colorful patches of annuals that you see along sidewalks and at building entrances. Notice how often in one year those plants are removed and replaced with a different patch of color. It is debatable how much enjoyment those patches of color provide to passersby, in contrast to creating a permanent bed of plants with less flash and more longevity such as perennials and native grasses.

I recently visited a pond planting designed by my firm a year before, hoping to get some photos of the plants coming into their own.  The plant palette included shrubs like witchhazel surrounded by perennials such as black-eyed suzan and little bluestem. I discovered that the maintenance crews had mown to the water's edge weekly, effectively killing the native species.  Yet the owner complained of high maintenance costs and a population of nuisance geese that loitered in and around the pond. The owner allowed the crews they hired to weekly perform the single act that exacerbated their problems and complaints.  Geese delighted in the lack of cover for potential predators to skulk, the pond water quality was sickly and the crews continued to send invoices. If a proper maintenance schedule had been followed for native grasses and perennials, the geese would fly elsewhere and the required mowing would drop to 2-3 times a year.

"No enemies in sight. Let us feast!"

There needs to be a paradigm shift in the way we view the functionality of "passive" land.  Why let lawn (or mulch or gravel) be the default treatment?  Let nature do its job in ways that benefit our community- through water management, carbon reduction and biodiversity.

One critical step to determining a hierarchy of functionality is to clearly delineate changes in use. Edges are critical- to signal the appropriate treatment to maintenance crews and to signal to the public that a natural treatment is intentional and not an overgrown result of neglect.  This can be done through a variety of design options such low profile fencing, instructional signage, educational signage, paver edges and many others.

The social benefit of parks is undisputed.  This is merely a study in the way that the fringe where human environments and ecological environments meet can be much more blurred and integrated, to the great benefit of both.