The public often thinks of projects – architectural or landscape – in the context of a linear timeline with a definitive end point. But in reality any designed space, whether indoors or outdoors, evolves over time. This concept of design as ever-evolving has loomed on my mind lately: how designers maintain expectations about landscape projects after day one. When resources become limited or when maintenance budgets are eliminated years later, how does a project evolve and maintain itself?
Just like a business needs to plan ahead to sustain itself in relation to growth projections, a landscape needs more than just a well-trained maintenance team and water for its long term viability. Any planned landscape benefits from a design professional who plans ahead about both the resources available today and plans ahead for resource scarcity tomorrow.
Recently, I visited Pierce College, where I was able to walk-thru a site completed by AHBE Landscape Architects nearly 10 years ago. The campus mall was buzzing with students rushing to class; I watched students jumping over hedge rows and darting around the many clusters of large riparian trees to get to class on time. The hurried campus activity was just like in the movies, and brought up memories of my own time in college.
I toured the campus noting numerous details: Within the grove of Platanus racemosa (Western Sycamore) were smaller more recently planted drought tolerant trees, and it was wonderful to see the water-loving and extreme drought tolerant trees working together in harmony. With little funding available above and beyond the cost to go to school, alongside lottery ticket revenue distributions and local property taxes, there is still an active and engaged landscape maintenance team attempting their best to maintain the campus with less resources available. The installation was completed at Pierce College nearly ten years ago around the library and mall, yet the design intent clearly lives on today. The campus reflected the thoughts and execution of a savvy landscape designer who planned ahead of time for a manageable landscape that did not require a significant amount of labor, water, and materials to keep it looking beautiful.
There were a few surprises: how did those Equisetum hyemale (Horsetail) get into the parking lot around an area filled with water? Were they laying dormant underground? Did a broken irrigation system refresh them to life? Perhaps there is a secret underground spring thriving around the campus. What an amazing discovery that would be! I also wondered about what happened to the plants originally planted within a dry wash in front of a sturdy gabion wall facing the library. They were no longer to be found.
I moved onto note a circle of colorful succulents, their natural beauty heightened during cooler winter nights. The Grevillea x ‘Noell’ (Noell Grevillea) has filled in, so care could be redirected to other places or plants on campus. Pockets of perennials, like the Achillea millefolium (Yarrow) and Penstemon eatonii (Firecracker Penstemon) planted inside postage stamp sized cut-outs, are thriving and surviving without water and deadheading. Were they replaced over time? I wish I could answer all of these questions, but for the most part, the landscape design is still thriving on campus.
If I could go back and look at landscape architecture projects across Southern California that were started or completed around the time of “The Great Recession”, I believe I’d discover a common thread. Landscape designers then integrated “what if” into their designs – directed and motivated by concerns about project sustainability. What if funds, plants, and labor were no longer available later?
As someone who worked for a grower before and during “The Great Recession”, I learned about how to use plants to solve specific problems and stay within budget, while also executing beautiful, orchestrated landscape designs. The best landscape designers are respectful of clients’ budgets and needs without sacrificing beauty. I find pride in working in landscape architecture, discovering perpetual reward in exploring the thought process about how choices in a landscape project can shape a more resilient, sustainable, and community-integrated future utilizing our local and native resources…even a decade later.