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Land of Plenty

Wildflower Center Consulting and Research director says design should follow nature


Photo credit: Dave Mead

Mark Simmons, Ph.D. loves talking landscapes. But he thinks most landscape designers get it all wrong – and have for years. Why is it – he asks – that traditional urban landscapes buck nature – leaving them ecologically bankrupt or, worse, sterile? Those landscapes aren’t functioning for the benefit of nature or humans. As more and more people in this country and others inhabit cities, there’s a better way, Simmons, says. It’s simple: design landscapes that follow nature. And the wildlife, reduced water use, cleaner air, cooler cities – and aesthetic! – will follow.

Q: What are the advantages of designing landscapes that follow nature?

A: In the wake of the industrial revolution our approach to the environment has been largely based on exploitation and manipulation, grounded in the fields of agriculture, horticulture and aesthetic landscape design. For example, 18th- and 19th- century European country estates were founded on a pastoral approach to the ‘perfect’ landscape – sweeping lawns with distant woodlands or lakesides with grazing livestock.

Translated to the urban environment this became lawns and tree–lined streets – but only in wealthy urban areas. Driven by aesthetic alone, this approach traditionally ignored ecological function and ecosystem processes. So what we inherited were suburban lawns, parks and campuses that not only heavily consume resources but are ecologically sterile polluters too.

But if we take our understanding of how nature works (plant physiology and plant relationships with soil, plants and animals) and use that knowledge to engineer the human environment, we stand to gain from all the benefits that provides – cleaner air and water, less flooding, cooler cities and even urban natural habitat.

Q: What are some examples of ecology made relevant in design?


Photo credit: Elizabeth Felicella for MVV Associates Inc.

A: Urban design by capitalizing on natural processes, or ecological engineering, allows us to utilize a wide palette of landscape types both traditional and novel:  green roofs, sustainable turfgrass of native and well–adapted species, urban wetlands and rain gardens, restored urban meadows, native roadside and park revegetation, even food production. 

In this way the urban landscape becomes an opportunity or substrate for greening. Why have a sterile turf monoculture when you can have a wildflower meadow? A parking garage becomes a shady trellised pollinator habitat, and a concrete stormwater culvert, a richly diverse wetland.  

Q: Why now more than ever is it necessary that nature and landscape design be linked? 

A: We live in exciting and challenging times – most of us in the United States live in cities, but the urban environment has its challenges of air and water pollution, flooding, extreme summer temperature (heat island effect), noise pollution, and ultimately, and perhaps more importantly, the detrimental effects of these on our own physical and mental health. Optimizing the urban environment by creating functioning ecological landscapes has direct positive effects on the urban population. The urban environment has to be seen and hence designed as a natural resource where we all benefit. 

Q: Have we gotten to a place where people are tuning out “sustainability?” What will empower people to pay attention?

A: Although “sustainability” has been a useful term to get us to rethink landscape and building design, if we are serious about the long-term health of our cities and the potential to bring nature back into our urban environments, other terms may be more helpful to create a better vision for our cities such as “regeneration,” “ecological engineering” and the “optimization of landscape function.” 

Conservation also may not be enough. We have accumulated much knowledge over the decades on how to rebuild landscapes that can have many functions and allow humans and nature to coexist – bringing this to planning and design is just beginning.

The Ecosystem Design Group conducts consulting services based on performance guidelines of the Sustainable Sites Initiative™, applied scientific research and professional workshops and graduate courses.

Writing and interview by Christina Procopiou

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