By Marla J. Stelk, Policy Analyst, ASWM
I recently had the privilege of co-presenting with two ecological landscape architects at the American Society of Landscape Architects annual conference in Denver. While in graduate school for planning and community development, I became immediately enamored with the landscape architecture profession after learning about Ian McHarg in my “Introduction to Planning History and Theory” class first semester. If you don’t know who Ian McHarg is, you should. His seminal book published in 1969, titled Design With Nature, was a ground breaking treatise on how to mesh urban planning with ecology. McHarg urged designers, planners and landscape architects to become familiar with a site’s ecological characteristics such as soil, climate, hydrology, etc. prior to embarking on any land use project and to work around and protect areas of critical environmental and cultural importance. If you use ArcGIS or any other spatial mapping software, you can thank Ian McHarg for coming up with the layered mylar mapping and attributes technique that he pioneered.
So what is landscape architecture anyway? When many people first hear the term “landscape architecture” they often think of fancy gardens or urban parks. But landscape architecture covers a wide spectrum of professional practice that requires a multidisciplinary approach, including environmental science, art, ecology, and more. Landscape architects may work in many different fields, including transportation planning and design, historic preservation, stormwater management and green infrastructure, park planning and design, urban planning, and yes, wetland restoration. In fact, the profession of “ecological landscape architect” is becoming quite popular these days.
What exactly is the role of the ecological landscape architect in wetland restoration? Yes, I have to admit, that was a question I struggled with while we developed our presentation and in fact, it was the topic of our presentation. Most landscape architecture projects that I could think of were placed in urban settings (e.g., Central Park), but the ecological landscape architects who presented in Denver with me worked in rural landscapes. I wondered what that would look like. I was imagining a rural wetland restored for migratory bird habitat with hedge or grass art sculpted to resemble flying geese or something – but of course that would be ridiculous. So what can a landscape architect contribute in a rural setting that a wetland scientist might not be able to?
For one, an ecological landscape architect can help break down silos. One of the biggest barriers to wetland restoration success has been the existence of professional and agency silos that make collective goal setting and program integration difficult. The landscape architecture profession is inherently multidisciplinary, which means that landscape architects have a unique ability to connect the dots and highlight those connections to advance efforts in resiliency and sustainability planning. For example, a wetland scientist may not be able to adequately foresee construction complications that might occur once the design hits the ground. Or the state and/or federal agencies involved may have differing priorities for the restoration and/or unrealistic expectations for feasibility and performance. However, an ecological landscape architect can synthesize design goals, budgetary constraints, and construction feasibility. They can work with the wetland scientist to: develop a reasonable construction approach, sequence and details; identify pitfalls that should be planned for; and lead the effort to develop visual tools that “speak” to the agencies reviewing the project, and later the contractors building the project, thereby increasing the likelihood of good project performance.
Ecological landscape architects are also qualified to create wetland restoration designs – in coordination with wetland scientists – that increase the community value and appreciation of a project through well designed access, interpretation, and views of the project. Rural communities often have diverging opinions regarding the best use of local natural resources. Rural areas may be rich in natural capital but poor in economic capital. Building stakeholder engagement and support within the local community can be challenging.
Ecological landscape architects are typically skilled at communicating complex scientific information (e.g., how improved ecological values might benefit the local economy through reduced clean water fees or through improved recreational opportunities). An ecological landscape architect would provide value to the team by providing design input and expertise that would improve human or social benefits and engagement with a restored wetland ecosystem, say, through the creation of viewscapes, places for respite and education, or other recreational opportunities. These are the sorts of benefits that appeal to locals, municipal officials, even tourists which can translate to increased public support for wetland restoration efforts.
Concepts like the importance of wetlands to achieve community stormwater resilience are more easily understood through the use of visual tools and graphics. As “they” say, a picture is worth a thousand words. For example, many stakeholders may not understand what Indices of Biological Integrity or Floristic Quality Indicators are or how that information is relevant to them – and many will have no idea how to interpret a scatterplot. But a well-drawn illustration (see example on left) will better communicate the important points to a diverse audience.
Finally, it usually comes down to the money, right? Ecological landscape architects know how to “build landscapes”, and can benefit the team via budget planning, construction estimating, contractor coordination, negotiation and management. A experienced, qualified landscape architect knows how to talk money – they understand project constraints, provide realistic and creative cost alternatives, and can identify the critical construction stages that require detailed oversight, which results in improved project performance at a lower cost.
There is a broad spectrum of skills and expertise among both landscape architects and wetland scientists and not all landscape architects are “ecological landscape architects.” However, although a wetland scientist will almost always understand the complexity of wetland ecosystems better, an ecological landscape architect can be an important component to add to a team particularly for complex projects with substantial community involvement. Being able to visually communicate with stakeholders is imperative these days if we want to build public support and use public funds to restore wetlands. In a time of competing priorities, climate change, and limited budgets it becomes more and more important to communicate effectively with stakeholders and to meet multiple needs.
If we are to meet the challenges of the 21st century and beyond, we will need to be better at managing the rural/urban interface in order to manage our natural resources for the benefit of all. Having a designer involved in a project from start to finish is essential for improved project performance, particularly for large, complex projects. There is a groundswell in the landscape architecture profession to collaborate with scientists and engineers and work together to solve today’s environmental challenges through land-based solutions. So For Peat’s Sake, if you’re thinking about starting a wetland restoration project, consider collaborating with an ecological landscape architect!
To learn more about ecological landscape architecture:
And many thanks to Lisa Cowan, PLA and Principal at Studioverde, as well as Allegra Bukojemsky, PLA, Wildlands, Inc. for helping me understand the role of the landscape architect in wetland restoration!