Sustainable. It’s often used these days in reference to just about everything -- cites, buildings, products and, yes, landscapes. But what does the term really mean and how does it relate to site design, residential and commercial landscapes?
According to USGBC (United States Green Building Council), the term sustainability means “to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” To go further, let’s define the three basic criteria that sustainable design must meet: social needs, environmental needs, and economic feasibility. Now, with a better understanding of sustainability criteria we have to ask: where does it get us? Are we there yet?
Sustainability. It’s a good thing for our planet and our lifestyles. However, it’s often very confusing for the consumer as to what is really sustainable versus greenwashing. (Greenwashing is when you say its green or sustainable but nothing’s changed, business as usual.)
Are you confused? Well yeah! Hopefully, I can help here by really digging into what sustainability means for the residential landscape customer. Let's begin by addressing the three criteria above and how they relate to the client and the end product.
First: Meet the social obligation or expectations of a designed sustainable landscape. (No, it’s not necessarily tall grass or unkempt appearances.) The reality is that sustainable landscapes can still have the well-kept appearance of more traditional (non-sustainable) landscapes. So, you can blend in with the neighbors and still feel good about your sustainable footprint. But, there is another aspect of the social criteria.
Sustainable or green landscapes offer more variety, diversity and seasonal interest that benefits wildlife. They also create a sense of stewardship and social acceptability that will encourage others to consider the same path. Now that’s what I call meeting the social criteria.
Second: Meet the environmental needs and goals of the residential landscape. Here is where the reality of sustainability is defined and where eco-speak is exposed. The overall environmental goals are: reduce or eliminate potable water use, reduce or eliminate storm water runoff, encourage ground water recharge, preserve natural areas, reduce or eliminate chemical use in the landscape, and add bio diversity for wildlife.
The first three of these goals can be met through rain water harvesting and reuse. Through the design process, lawns which consume a lot of water can be reduced or eliminated, and plant selections based upon like water requirements will help minimize the need for irrigation. Native plants are a big help here when selected properly, because they are more adapted to our climate. And, by use of drip irrigation systems and proper mulching water is not wasted through evaporation-transpiration. In residential projects, storm water run-off is often ignored or piped off property to become someone else problem. Water becomes a waste product instead of a resource. Let's re-think this scenario. It rains and dumps water onto your property. You remove it as quickly as possible with pipes and then turn around in a few days and spend money and resources on irrigation. Our solution is to design a system that treats rain water as a resource by capturing the water into cisterns and using for it irrigation.
Considering that for every 1000 square feet of roof in a one-inch rain event, your roof will shed 623 gallons of water. Clearly, rain water harvesting makes a lot of good green common sense. Then, the excess is taken and placed into rain gardens or more correctly termed a created wetland where plants remove any toxins and the system allows ground water recharge. The other part of the solution to runoff is to consider permeable pavements such as concrete paver systems which further reduce the quantity of storm water run-off. The sum effort is about water quality and water quantity.
Preservation of natural areas is another way we help meet the environmental criteria for sustainable landscapes. Natural areas provide habitat and food for wildlife adding to the overall value of the landscape. Because vegetation is left intact in these natural areas, erosion and storm water runoff are reduced. The plant roots hold the soil and the natural groundcover slow surface water flow. Natural areas also provide a residential client with opportunities to view and interact with wildlife such as birds and butterflies.
The goals of reduction of chemical use and the addition of bio-diversity can be accomplished with the same method. The use of native plants wherever possible require less water, less fertilizer, and have fewer impacts from pests, thus greatly reducing the chemical dependency of the landscape. Fertilizers can be regarded as a toxin when used in excess and when they reach the nearby stream or ground water.
Native plants also provide the preferred food and habitat for wildlife, while providing seasonal color and interest for the homeowner.
Third: Meeting the economic criteria for sustainable residential landscapes is a scenario where good design and spending a bit extra up front save money over time. Proper planting can shade the house or allow for winter sunlight helping to reduce energy use. Reduction of grass reduces maintenance, chemical use, and water use helping to save money as well. Though some aspects of a sustainable landscape can be more expensive, a sustainable landscape will, over time, pay for itself. The bottom line is thoughtful, well designed landscapes to fit just about any budget.
Sustainability on the residential landscape level may seem like a drop in the big pond of the environment. But the reality is that if you multiply the impacts of home after home, landscape upon landscape, the scale is enormous. If we all can make a difference in our own landscapes and make a commitment to conserving water, reducing chemicals, preserving and creating wildlife habitats, then we can ensure future generations will have a planet that is healthy, beautiful and vibrant. Are we there yet?
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