All photos courtesy of Rick Darke ©
By Rick Darke
In an age when sustainability is the new drumbeat, what makes a landscape truly livable? Like most “green industry” professionals, I was taught that the physical elements—the plants, water features, bricks-and-mortarwork—were both the starting point and the final basis for successful landscape design. Our growing awareness of a broad range of environmental issues strongly suggests such an object-oriented approach is no longer sufficient to guide us in the creation of landscapes that are genuinely sustainable in both cultural and ecological terms. Although a lifestyle approach to design has often been dismissed as superficial or merely decorative, I’ve come to believe it is potentially right on target, given that the values—the very ethics—on which it is based are honestly and effectively dedicated to balancing resources and consumption. To help guide me in my own work and to communicate my ethics to clients, community and readers, I’ve defined a livable landscape concept and a checklist of its key elements.
The livable landscape concept borrows from both ecological science and human social science to outline a modern recipe for inclusive habitat. It embraces the changing dynamics of our world while recognizing the need to protect and conserve what is vital and irreplaceable. It promotes intensely local approaches that are simultaneously cognizant of global realities. It encourages and sustains spontaneous, sensual, everyday living while suggesting that even our most necessary journeys must be guided by a universal language of landscape stewardship. The following checklist associates qualities that might seem incompatible or even directly contradictory; however, with an open value-based approach to creative design, it’s possible to integrate all of them in the livable landscapes we make for today and tomorrow.
Livable Landscapes are: m Personal and Shared The garden is so often described as a refuge, and it can certainly be that: A personal place away from the crowds that offers a myriad of opportunities for individual expression. Our personal garden, or landscape, is a place where we can tell our story in our way, and it can provide satisfaction, reassurance and new insights even if we’re the only listener. The same garden can also, on a different day or during a different mood, be most alive when we invite others to share it with us: reacting to it, celebrating it and finding new meaning in it. And if sharing with others extends beyond human presence, the garden can at once be a very personal pursuit while simultaneously providing for the sustenance of so many forms of life. continued on next page
This aerial view of London Britain Township in Southern Chester County, Pennsylvania in October 2007 shows the familiar mix of roads, farms and meadows, ponds and woodlands, residential and commercial properties. With inspired design and stewardship, all these elements can contribute to a truly livable landscape.
m Dynamic and Sustainable
m Intimate and Expansive
Change is the signature of our age, and our landscape is in rapid transition through space and time, purpose and palette, meaning and motivation. No garden or landscape remains static, no matter how much we intervene. Truly sustainable design measures and anticipates landscape dynamics, calculating them into a formula that continuously balances available resources, responsible consumption and regeneration. For example, the currently ranging debate about “native vs. exotic” too often sees the globe in static, black-or-white terms, and this is not a sustainable approach. That human activity has resulted in diminished biodiversity is without doubt. That our flora and fauna will change, with or without us, is also without doubt. With the application of real science and informed management, we can better influence the nature and quality of that change.
Can one landscape be both intimate and expansive? Of course—no matter how modest or grand it is. With good design, or perhaps with just good fortune as in the case with many undesigned spaces, a single landscape can include both intimate places that encourage the closest appreciation of infinite detail and outwardly focused places that make it all but impossible not to contemplate infinite expanse. The intimate place can be as modest as a nook defined by layered vegetation, and the expansive place can be as modest as a deftly located seat inside the house with a clear view of the horizon or the night sky.
m Local and Global As David Abram has suggested, “the sensual world is always local”*. Much of the sensuality, breadth and beauty of our local landscape derives from long-evolved associations between flora and fauna, yet it is also intimately tied to global associations and dynamics. If conservation begins at home, then it seems imperative that our gardens and landscapes reflect and conserve local history and diversity while considering them in global context.
m Spontaneous and Reliable Abandon television, the mobile phone and other such devices for a while and look to the landscape for entertainment and intrigue. If that landscape is a yard full of turfgrass and clipped yews, your life is going to be spectacularly lacking in spontaneity. If the landscape is rich with growing, changing life and design, you’ll make many intriguing observations. Although spontaneous events are said to occur without apparent cause, the causes are apparent if you know how to look and understand how to plan. A landscape capable of sustaining mind and spirit reliably provides cause for spontaneity.
*Abram, D., “Turning Inside Out: Remembering the Sensuous Earth” Orion, Winter 1996.
Pictured left: This pileated woodpecker was too preoccupied with a search for sustenance inside a decaying log to be disturbed by an approaching photographer. The bird’s crimson crest, the gray of rocks and beech bark and the ruddy brown of the old tree trunk are all essential elements in this portrait of a sustainable woodland habitat. If the log is removed from the picture, we lose the bird too. Pictured right: Cedar waxwings make a late February stop in river birches (Betula nigra) at the front of the garden. A truly livable landscape provides food and shelter for all manner of species.
m Ecological and Cultural The divide separating ecological and cultural landscapes is gradually diminishing. The landscape that is primarily devoted to the conservation and management of a unique ecosystem need not ignore or destroy a bit of human cultural history that survives in its midst, just as the landscape devoted to human artifice need not neglect a remnant of ecological richness at its periphery. 14
An outdoor shower is enclosed by a durable mix of native and exotic plantings. Korean spice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii ‘Compactum) envelopes the space in May with its clove scent. In autumn its leaves turn rich wine-red as witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) blooms bright yellow. Although the witch hazel is locally native and the spice viburnum is exotic, both shrubs are part of a sensible plant palette for this part of Pennsylvania. Both are superbly suited to the site conditions: drought tolerant and tolerant of periodically saturated soils. Both are in sync with the textures, colors and sequences common to the local indigenous flora. Though the spice viburnum is exotic, more than a century of cultivated use has proved this species to be innocuous: It does not spread beyond the garden to pose any threat to regional ecosystems.
Layered plantings suited to site conditions make this Chester County residential property colorfully livable and highly sustainable. This November view shows a mix of locally indigenous species (oaks, beech, maple, river birch, blackgum, spicebush, dogwoods, magnolias, witch hazel, pawpaw, viburnums), regional species (fothergilla, silverbells, sourwood, American holly, sweetshrub) and exotics (magnolia, winterhazel, spice viburnum, trifoliate maple, japanese cedar), all of which are capable of thriving without irrigation, herbicides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers and none of which is potentially threatening to adjacent ecosystems. Integrated indoor and outdoor spaces sustain diverse activities ranging in nature from reliably practical to purely spontaneous. Though only 1.5 acres in total, pathways, destinations and varied habitats within make the landscape both walkable and watchable.
m Emotional and Sensible
m Unique and Universal
A livable landscape must offer opportunities to revel in emotion: to react strongly, with great feeling. And a truly livable landscape will provide opportunity to do so while making imaginative, sensible, responsible use of resources. Is it possible to create an outdoor shower open to sunrise and stars, scented by Spring flowering shrubs, illuminated by the glow of autumn leaves, that is still perfectly private and water-conserving? Certainly, if the design is both emotional and sensible.
Global diversity rests upon the uniqueness of common places and their ethical management. Every garden we make and every place we inhabit can contribute uniquely and directly to a universally livable landscape.
m Sensual and Practical Though we rarely equate practicality with sensuality, the two are not mutually exclusive in the landscape. Inspired design can transform a twenty-foot-long path from garage to front door from a dull routine into a richly textured sensual experience that is no less practical.
Progressive design and management of livable landscapes will require an increasingly multidisciplinary approach. Projects that at first estimate seem to belong to one discipline—perhaps landscape architecture or planning—will often prove to be dependent upon previously unrelated disciplines such as forest ecology, watershed ecology, meadow management, micropropagation, entomology or marine biology. The creative teams assembled to address each new opportunity will be most effective if they begin by defining the ethical basis that is to guide and sustain the resulting livable landscape.
m Walkable and Watchable My studies of local landscapes have taught me they are the most influencial: the most important to our sensibility and sustenance. This is true simply because we spend the most time in landscapes that are close at hand. Accessible local landscapes are the most sustaining of all, whether they be our personal garden or shared streams, fields or forests. To be truly accessible, the landscape must be walkable. It should provide practical paths, paths of desire and all manner of routes that get us to where we need to be. All the while, these paths should gently provoke us to watch more closely and to contemplate a greater interdependence.
Pictured left: Glowing even on a foggy mid-November morning, this mossy path is framed by locally indigenous American beech (Fagus grandifolia) and pawpaws (Asimina triloba) grown from seed. Providing intimacy in all seasons and a welcome, shady break from the heat of summer, the path is a constant invitation to kick off your shoes and remember the feel of moss on bare feet. Pictured right: A newly built bridge reconnects two banks in the bi-state (PA & DE) White Clay Creek Preserve, extending a path through two landscapes separated for more than half a century. Built on old footings that were originally part of a mill, the new structure bridges cultural history and modern ecology. continued on next page January/February 2008
Defining Sustainability Do this: Ask a few friends or professional peers what sustainable means.
The answers are likely to include variations on “self-sustaining” or “low maintenance.” But sustainable means neither. It simply means capable of being sustained or continued. A thing, a pattern or a process is sustainable if the resources necessary to continue it are balanced with the resources available. Much like the terms natural, organic and grass-fed have been compromised by uninformed or deliberately imprecise use, the meaning of the word sustainable seems up for grabs in popular culture. To achieve absolute sustainability, the use of resources must be such that the resources are not permanently depleted or damaged. Any landscape, whether it is a natural watershed or a suburban residential development, can be called sustainable if the resources required to continue it are in sync with its consumption. These resources can be anything from clean air and water to fossil fuel or solar energy to an affordable workforce available for regular weeding and watering. Sustaining or continuing a landscape is not a simple matter because few if any landscapes actually continue unchanged. Whether they are cultural or ecological, landscapes are complex entities and by nature are always evolving, and the sustainability of
things that evolve is understandably complex. On top of this, the availability of resources necessary to sustaining any particular landscape may change due to distant, seemingly unrelated factors such as drought or war on another side of the globe. It’s often necessary to qualify sustainability by defining a time period or the specific context. A formal, manicured residential garden may be sustainable in terms of water use and required maintenance given the current rain cycle and the economic resources of the current owner. If the owner’s financial health falters and there’s no money to pay for clipping and fertilizing, then the garden becomes unsustainable. If the global climate changes and rains diminish, or if increasing population equates to lower allotment of water, the garden will become unsustainable unless it is redesigned to match the new level of available resources. The most rational, responsible way to achieve relative sustainability is to design with an eye to inevitable change and with resource efficiency as a core value.
About Rick Darke
grasses THE ENCY CLOP
Rick Darke heads a Landenberg, Pennsylvania-based consulting firm focused on landscape ethics, photography and contextual design. His work blends art, ecology and cultural geography in the creation and conservation of livable landscapes. His projects include scenic byways, transportation corridors, corporate and collegiate campuses, conservation developments, botanic gardens and private residential landscapes. As teacher and public speaker on the subject of livable landscapes Rick has addressed audiences in North America, Canada, England, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Ireland and Chile. His work has been featured on National Public Radio and is reflected in his many books, including The American Woodland Garden: Capturing the Spirit of the Deciduous Forest and his latest, The Encyclopedia of Grasses for Livable Landscapes. Further information is available at www.rickdarke.com.
L I VA B L E L A NDSCAP
Text and phot ography
Be sure to check out Rick Darke’s newest book,
The Encyclopedia of Grasses for Livable Landscapes.
Speaker Highlight Rick Darke will be a speaker at the 2008 Pennsylvania Landscape & Nursery Conference. Sign up today to attend the Conference and one or both of Rick’s presentations: v “The New Digital Landscape: Photography for Green Industry Professionals” on Tuesday, February 12 v “The Other Grasses: Sedge & Rushes for Sustainable Northeastern Landscapes” on Wednesday, February 13 16