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Landscape Architects -- Experts on More Than Just Lawns and Gardens
Roger K. Lewis
29 April 2006
The Washington Post

Ah, spring -- milder temperatures and more rain, trees leafing out, colorful flowers appearing high and low, pollen in the air inducing periodic fits of sneezing.

Thoughts naturally turn to landscaping. For some homeowners, such thoughts may include consulting a landscape architect whose expertise is assumed to be in what to plant and where to plant it.

But not all landscape architects are horticultural experts who focus on front and back yards. In fact, the field of landscape architecture has expanded and become increasingly diversified. Although all landscape architects have studied horticulture and horticultural technology, many do more than lay out gardens and specify landscaping materials.

Landscape architecture is not a subspecialty of architecture; rather, it is a separate discipline with its own education and licensing requirements.

Landscape architecture firms design all kinds of open space: urban and suburban streets, public parks, and civic squares. They also work on indoor and outdoor spaces on private commercial, institutional and residential properties.

Some go even further, preparing master site plans for sizable developments. Such plans may designate land uses and building densities, road and infrastructure networks, lot layouts, and patterns of open space for recreation and other amenities. They often include detailed design guidelines, not only for landscaping streets, drives, parking areas and public spaces, but also for positioning and configuring buildings.

Clearly, landscape architecture practice today, encompassing much more than applying horticultural expertise, entails work that overlaps with services provided by civil engineers, city planners and architects.

This overlap, although occasionally a source of confusion and competition, actually reflects the range and complexity of design challenges presented by a piece of land needing to be transformed. Even if the piece of land is modest in size, even if it's only your back yard, dealing with it successfully demands a combination of engineering, horticultural and architectural knowledge.

No matter what the scale of the project -- from an intimate, private garden to acres of open space around a corporate headquarters building, from a boulevard to a municipal park or a new community -- essential site-related factors, some technical and some aesthetic, are always present.

* Topography. A primary design determinant is the form of the land, with its slope characteristics, storm-water runoff and surface drainage patterns; topographic analysis also reveals where favorable views exist.

* Soil, hydrologic and geologic conditions. Surface analysis, subsoil tests and geologic mapping provide important information about soil composition, erosion susceptibility, rock strata, wetlands, aquifers and seismic stability; soil conditions affect grading and planting options, since soils, hydrology and vegetation must be compatible.

* Climate and microclimate. Competent designs always take into account sun, shade, precipitation, wind and temperature.

* Indigenous vegetation and wildlife habitats. Faced with vegetated or natural sites, even within cities, diligent landscape architects study and advocate use of native plant species; they also worry about animals that inhabit or depend on a site's natural features.

* Existing built context. Designers also must document and consider everything constructed -- roads, bridges, retaining walls, buildings, fences, overhead and underground utilities -- on, under or around a site; existing structures influence landscape composition, pedestrian and vehicular access, land uses and views.

* Existing regulatory context. Like other factors, ordinances and regulations governing land use, site development, construction and conservation must be carefully researched, not only because they limit or prescribe design choices, but also because they must be followed to get building permits.

By analyzing all these factors, capable designers gain profound understanding of the nature of land, discovering both opportunities and constraints. Then, understanding the project site and context, they can make creative, prudent decisions about land forms, about patterns of movement and place-making, about where to build or not to build.

Only with such understanding can they develop specific design strategies for planting trees, shrubs and ground covers; for configuring paving and retaining walls; for introducing water features; and for installing structures, artwork, outdoor furniture and exterior lighting.

Like architects and engineers, landscape architects are also concerned with issues of sustainability. They can specify recycled landscape construction materials, avoid disturbing sensitive natural areas, prevent erosion, make paved surfaces permeable, collect and use rainwater for irrigation, and deploy trees and shrubs to keep buildings cooler in summer and warmer in winter.

So if you hire a landscape architect to help you redo your scruffy yard, remember that, in the plan showing where to build the terrace and plant the Leland cypresses, the landscape architect has probably invested much more thought than the drawing may suggest.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.
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