Landscape Architects Giving Feedback

Landscape Architecture for Landscape Architects Forums GENERAL DISCUSSION Landscape Architects Giving Feedback

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    Kevin J. Gaughan

    So, I am not sure how many of you on this site are also members of the LARCH-L Listserv, however, recently I saw that an intriguing discussion had taken place (see post below). The discussion got me thinking more about our responsibility as Landscape Architects. I thought the responses to the original questions Laura posed to the listserv were thoughtful and well written, and yet, I wonder how helpful these responses actually are. Not that the ideas weren’t sold, but they seemed to just be responses given for discussion sake (which I am totally okay with), but I wonder how many of the people who took the time to answer these questions for Laura also took the time to post feedback on the The Sustainable Sites Website (which is where these comments could actually affect reality).

    After looking at discussions on both LARCH-L over the past year, I have gathered (not very scientifically) that Landscape Architects are pretty comfortable complaining about things and criticizing things. However, almost every time someone posts a question about how to fix a problem, or request feedback on how to make something better…the discussion becomes very quiet. My theory is that many of us are no confident about our own knowledge and abilities. It is easy to criticize because then someone else is responsible for fixing the problem, but as soon as it is in our laps we have to worry if our solution would actually work and if not, would we be blamed for it.

    I would love to hear people’s thoughts about this. But more so, I would love to see their actions. It would be great if by Tuesday, January 20th (the deadline for this round of feedback) The Sustainable Sites Initiative website was flooded with useful feedback. If you have not had a chance to read the latest draft please check it out at As Ghandi once said “you have to BE the change you want to see in the world.”

    In the meantime, I am going to paste some of the responses that came up on LARCH-L in response to these questions, because I think they could spur some good conversation.

    Thu, 8 Jan 2009 14:49:39 -0600

    Dear colleagues,

    I am contacting you because I need your help. Have any of you reviewed through the draft report for the Sustainable Sites Initiative? The report is available at, and they are accepting comments until Tuesday, January 20, 2009. I have some questions to pose to the list because I am trying to grapple with some answers after browsing through the report last night:

    1. Is it possible to design a sustainable site?
    2. Who should be responsible for saying a site is sustainable?
    3. What are the credentials and knowledge needed to say a site is sustainable?
    4. If a designer uses the lens of sustainability to see the world and make value judgments about landscape architecture, is this person a more “progressive” designer than some who uses some other lens?

    I need your collective help and wisdom! I have a Ph.D., but I an having trouble answering these questions.

    Laura Musacchio

    Kevin J. Gaughan

    I will keep these all anonymous unless the authors would like to attach their names:

    I wish I understood what ‘sustainable sites’ actually means. I could write a treatise, I suppose, suitable for academia. Or perhaps for very willing commercial clients could be interested in a sustainable project.

    A recent project brings a developer through the door with 240 acres [parenthetically, some developers here in Florida see that they need product in 12-18 months and have begun to stir]. The project was previously designed for multi-family, but nowadays in Florida SF is king. She says to me she needs X units.

    How on earth do I add the accouterments needed to even approach sustainability?

    Sure, we have detention, and retention. But that is about it. And I am serious. Where do I find direction on how to bring a ‘modern’ subdivision into some–any– congruence with sustainability, no matter what the term might mean? do we add a wind farm? do we mandate solar panels? outlaw pool heaters? deny the ability to plant grass in the front yards? Require electric vehicles? demand vegetable gardens?

    The irony here, on this particular site, is the adjacent presence of a major slough connecting two very large preserve/habitats, and the need to accommodate the water flow through our site.

    Is this purely either an academic exercise, or a concept more suitable to regional planning?

    Kevin J. Gaughan

    The use of trendy vernacular for marketing in design industries has long been a personal source of contention, particularly as they apply to ecologically conscious design theories and definitions like ‘green building’, ‘xeriscaping’, ‘sustainability’, ‘new urbanism,’ etc. My experience has always been they are used overwhelmingly as marketing fodder instead of genuine design/engineering principles because of the lack of objectivity in their definition.

    Conversely, any effort to wrap the definition into something more substantive eliminating or significantly reducing the loose edges of interpretation is a good effort – like SSI – IMO. Unfortunately, often the effort to define such concepts is futile because of inherent subjectivity within those who’ve been tasked to define the parameters.

    For example, regardless how much empirical data may suggest a specific scenario, such as human induced global warming, there will always be a minority influenced by external factors (i.e., religion, economics, greed, politics, etc.), that finds a position on the steering committee defining what these initiatives actually means. There’s no getting around the bias.

    Recall when the current administration, through executive order during a congressional recess, closed 19 EPA research libraries effectively eliminating several thousand research documents from circulation that likely would prove counter productive to their self serving interests.

    While the Canadian forestry model of calculating the net intake/exhaust of carbon gases is extremely compelling and fascinating, that alone can’t be used to determine whether or not a site is sustainable. However, I suggest to you Michael that makes for an excellent starting point regarding your Florida project. Unfortunately there seems to be a swelling of empirical data to suggest European descendants (post industrial revolution – western culture) lack the sustainability gene. I personally look to indigenous cultures when trying to define for myself what sustainability at the site level means. For example, the Tewa tribes of the Rio Grande river valley have been sustaining their culture and habitat for nearly three thousand years, despite the influx of an invading western society. As Ed eloquently points out, the Tewa tribe’s path to sustainability has been an epic of accepting and incorporating change to continue their lifestyle. Any definition of sustainability must incorporate the reality of a changing world but at the same time such a premise seems mutually exclusive, at least what I understand the current industry-driven definition to mean.

    Certainly other components such as consideration for hydrology and building materials has to be included in any definition of SSI. What concerns me is vernacular misuse driven by industry. Just because a timber company says their forestry management methods are sustainable, or their products are sustainable doesn’t make it so. A timber farmer’s claim that their ‘agriculturally friendly’ harvest and re-vegetation methods for quickly reproducing yellow pine stands for framing actually produces a much inferior and structurally weaker framing member thereby making any structure built with these components more susceptible to premature failure. So while the agricultural practice may define their approach as more sustainable, in fact the product they produce is inferiorly sustainable.

    Kevin J. Gaughan

    You have raised some great questions that the folks working on the Sustainable Sites Initiative are indeed grappling with.

    1. Is it possible to design a sustainable site?
    Clearly it depends on how we define sustainable. You have raised a good point that we have not specifically defined “sustainability” yet (other than via the definition from the Brundtland report). I would assume that a site that provides the same or more ecosystem services after the installation of the design, is sustainable. But what if there is a loss of 10% of the ecosystem services? 25%? 50%? An even more difficult question will be when a project improves the performance of some ecosystem services but degrades others. What then? What if the ones it improves are perceived to be of regionally greater importance than those that it degrades. Does that make a difference? Great question and we would welcome ideas on how to address this.

    2. Who should be responsible for saying a site is sustainable?
    The intent of the rating system is to provide some proportional assessment of sustainability. The more credits you achieve, the more sustainable you are, at least theoretically. If you look at the last pages of the Guidelines and Performance Benchmarks Draft 2009 (or go to the Sustainable Sites website at you will see a list of the 35+ individuals and organizations from around the country with a wide disciplinary background who have helped to develop these credits. If you buy into the assumption that the more credits you get, the more sustainable you are, then this group is in a way responsible for saying that the site is sustainable. Additionally, the reason that we have public comment periods is to continue to improve this approach, so hopefully, we are all saying, in the end, that these projects are sustainable. The intention is that, in the end, we will have a 3rd party certification system in place to verify the claims of the designer/owner.
    This also brings up the potential importance of a weighting system for the various credits (perhaps regionally based) if we assume that not all of the credits are of equal value to becoming sustainable. The Initiative will be looking at this after the report is published in 2009, but we would definitely take any input anyone has at this time.

    3. What are the credentials and knowledge needed to say a site is sustainable?
    I don’t believe that any one individual or discipline is well suited to making the claim that a site is sustainable. This is why there is a prerequisite for an integrated design team. That said, the disciplines needed on any specific project will vary based on the project and goals. Thus, in developing the credits we have had landscape architects, ecologists, civil engineers, community health professionals, soil scientists, government regulators, materials experts, botanists, and a host of other disciplines all working together to develop the report that is out for public review.

    4. If a designer uses the lens of sustainability to see the world and make value judgments about landscape architecture, is this person a more “progressive” designer than some who uses some other lens?
    Well I would suggest that we should not have to choose between sustainable and other value systems, but perhaps this is a cop out. I see sustainability as equivalent to safety. Undoubtedly being required to design spaces that are safe could adversely affect the artistic nature of the design, but in most cases, isn’t this a fair trade off? I would say the same is true of sustainability. As we learn more, I don’t see any reason why we cannot have highly artistic landscapes which are sustainable. Wouldn’t we want to do both? Is there a reason why anyone would want to create a clearly unsustainable landscape for its own sake?

    Great questions. I look forward to reading the feedback that all of you will hopefully be submitting by January 20, 2009.

    Kevin J. Gaughan

    Thank you, Laura, for bringing those questions on sustainable and sustainable sites out of the closet. I’d like to put forward two points that are hard to find in common discussions of sustainability.

    1. The word sustainable needs to be unbundled by landscape architects. It has only been in our planning vocabulary since Gros Brundtland’s 1987 report entitled, Our Common Future.

    Furthermore, common usage in the media and in public fora, seems to imply some kind of static state as key to sustainability. Actually ecosystems are never static…thus, sustaining ecosystems means allowing for movement, change, over time as a key constituent.

    Site boundaries are artificial impositions on the dynamic borders of existing ecosystems…McHarg was very clear on that…and current science, especially geographic information science, is equally clear that those vector lines we draw as boundaries of ecotypes are in reality dynamically fluctuating raster edges. Landscape discussions of sustainability have to address movement and dynamic life cycle change over time…birth, growth, disease, old age and death over time…something every living thing experiences.

    2. Humans, as part of ecosystems, as a real influence, without editorial, political or ideological emphases, need to be addressed in landscape urbanism, not just as an animal that needs water and food in and out, shelter and paths. Humans have emotional and spiritual needs to be accommodated in a sustainable site plan…substantive discussion of these is currently missing in the SSI, in the economic return on investment. Humans as a source of ‘ideas’ that flow into the built environment of landscape urbanism…this energy flow is real and needs addressing in sustainable plans.

    Certain flows and movements of all life forms and their energies, along with their multi-faceted dynamism as mentioned above need to be a foundation of landscape architecture in this era (fad?) of sustainability.

    from Dubai to Abu Dhabi…

    I would suggest that understanding movement and dynamic life cycle change through life cycles as part of sustainable landscape architecture contributions implies an approach to the use of plants which might elevate planting design beyond native vs exotic, beyond natural vs formal.

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