Posts Tagged ‘sustainable landscapes’

It Pays to Grow Green

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

The old saying “money grows on trees” may not be literally true, but a sustainable landscape comes close. New studies demonstrate that environmentally friendly gardening practices not only can decrease utility and maintenance costs but also increase property value.

Growing Greener: The Sustainable Sites Initiative

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

The following was published as part of my regular “Growing Greener” column in Public Garden magazine, Vol. 23 No. 3/4 (2008). Public Garden is the flagship publication of the American Public Gardens Association. In “Growing Greener” I answer sustainability-related questions from public garden staff.

Q: What is the Sustainable Sites Initiative, and how can public gardens use it?

A: In the past several years, the LEEDR program of the U.S. Green Building Council has become synonymous with sustainable design. The USGBC awards four levels of LEED certification for the design, construction, and operation of high-performance green buildings: Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum. This rating system has provided targets for public gardens and other institutions striving to go green.

One limitation of LEED, especially for public gardens, is that it currently is concerned primarily with buildings. It’s not surprising, then, that two public gardens, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the United States Botanic Garden, have teamed up with the American Society of Landscape Architects to produce the Sustainable Sites Initiative, the first program to develop guidelines and standards for sustainable landscapes. (more…)

Growing Greener at Public Gardens

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

The annual meeting of the American Public Gardens Association always charges my batteries. This year’s meeting in St. Louis was no exception. Among other things, it gave me the kick in the pants I’ve needed to actually post the “Growing Greener” columns I write for Public Garden magazine, APGA’s flagship publication. In each issue, I answer sustainability-related questions submitted by public garden staff. You can find my column on the carbon footprint of homegrown food here. I’ll be adding additional columns over the next few days.

Regenerative Design: The Next Big Environmental Thing

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

“Earth Week” is as good a time as any to reflect on the environmental movement and how it’s evolved since the first Earth Day in 1970. Back in those days, the toxic smog spewed from chemical factories that lined the New Jersey Turnpike was so thick you could barely get from New York to Delaware without a gas mask. Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught on fire. Paul Ehrlich predicted that exploding human population growth would lead to mass famines and planetary disaster. In its report Limits to Growth, the Club of Rome said people were devouring natural resources, particularly oil, so fast that the days of economic growth were numbered. The old Sierra Club motto that people who enter natural areas should “take only pictures, leave only footprints” captured the prevailing environmental view that humans are “unnatural,” ecological outlaws, predators on a planetary scale.

Early environmentalism resulted in some landmark laws and considerable environmental clean-up. But twenty years later, ecosystems were still declining rapidly, and we still were faced with climate chaos, not to mention a mass extinction episode that could rival anything in the three and a half billion years of life on earth, including the demise of the dinosaurs. As a public relations strategy, gloom and doom got old real fast, and in the past decade or so, a more positive approach has become environmentalism’s mainstream face—the quest for sustainability. As a guiding philosophy, sustainable development certainly beats misanthropy and apocalypse. But LEED Platinum buildings and Priuses can get you only so far, and sustainable design, at least as currently conceived, won’t lead to true sustainability anytime soon. By settling for a higher recycling rate, more fuel-efficient cars, or less water consumption, we’re just making things less worse.

Five years ago, in an influential presentation, David Schaller, sustainable development coordinator in the EPA’s Denver office, called this a “cruel, zero-sum game that we are destined to lose in the end.”  No wonder there’s still talk about austerity and apocalypse, he said: “There is an austerity all right, but it is an austerity of imagination. All of it is fueled by the premise of scarcity in nature. I propose that there is an abundance to nature that, in our ignorance and even arrogance, we are only beginning to fathom.”

Any gardener who has contemplated the act of photosynthesis knows that life on earth is no zero-sum game. Plants are able to pluck sunlight out of thin air and transform its energy into the food that all animals, including us, need to survive. Through photosynthesis, plants are constantly renewing the planet. The business of nature is quite the opposite of scarcity and limits. It’s the creation of diversity and complexity, and also increasing consciousness. Although it’s been interrupted on a handful of occasions by episodes of mass extinction, the increase in the diversity and complexity—and consciousness—of species since life began is astonishing. Okay, so we humans have been misguided. But we are as capable of evolving and growing as the rest of nature. In fact, as the quintessential self-conscious species, we have a key role to play in the future of the earth.

The number of people in the world long ago overwhelmed what nature could accomplish via the plodding, incremental, and unconscious process of biological evolution encoded in our genes. Human thought and imagination, by means of cultural change, are now subsuming the far slower process of biological evolution. And in the past few years, a new way of thinking called regenerative design has been bubbling up into our collective consciousness. While the highest aim of sustainable development is creating things that do no harm, regenerative design recognizes that people can be a positive ecological force—that we have the potential to create more diversity and abundance on the planet than would be possible without us.

A lot of people scoff at the idea that we humans, who are almost singlehandedly responsible for climate change and the current extinction crisis, could ever become promoters of biodiversity and abundance. But as a gardener I know that from one single species of wild cabbage native to the Mediterranean we’ve created not only a multitude of cultivated cabbages but also a multitude of cauliflowers, and broccolis, and kohlrabis, and kales, and Brussels sprouts, and collards, and more. And in some ways we’re producing ever more diversity, ever faster. It took centuries for us to create the many vegetable varieties from that single species of wild cabbage. But in a matter of decades, we’ve developed enough new daffodil varieties to support an entire garden industry.

Of course, under our influence there’s also been a rapid evolution of invasive weeds. We need to learn how to distinguish between horticultural practices—and other practices—that enhance diversity and abundance and those that degrade and destroy them. We can do this by studying the natural patterns and processes that over the millennia have transformed the planet from a barren hunk of rock, to a green globe cloaked with lush ferns and giant conifers, to the world of multicolored floral ebullience we know today. That is what the native landscaping movement has been about. And permaculture. There are also glimmers of regenerative design in the Living Building Challenge, which is poised to surpass LEED as the gold standard for ecological building. In the words of the Cascadia Green Building Council, where the Challenge originated, a living building “is as elegant and efficient as a flower.” It doesn’t just use less energy, water, and other resources but rather generates more energy from renewable sources than it uses, captures more rainwater than it needs, and actually adds to the abundance and beauty of a place.

Heck, regenerative design already has its own Wikipedia stub. You’ll be hearing more about it.

The People’s Garden

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack celebrated Lincoln’s birthday by establishing the inaugural USDA People’s Garden at the agency’s headquarters. In the words of the USDA, “The Secretary declared the stretch of pavement permanently closed and returned back to green.” 

At the ceremony, the Secretary announced the goal of creating a community garden at each USDA facility worldwide. These will include ”a wide variety of garden activities,” including embassy window boxes, tree planting, and field office plots. They will be designed to promote “going green concepts,” including landscaping and building design to retain water and reduce runoff; roof gardens for energy efficiency; native plantings; and sound conservation practices.

So, here’s what we know about the inaugural “People’s Garden” so far: It will add 612 square feet of planted space to an existing garden traditionally planted with ornamentals. It will also eliminate 1,250 square feet of unnecessary paved surface at the USDA headquarters and return the landscape to grass. Grass? You’d think the agency that represents farmers could do better than that.

Some interesting facts: Abraham Lincoln founded the Department of Agriculture in 1862 and referred to it as “The People’s Department” in his last annual message to Congress. In 1860, farmers comprised 58 percent of the American labor force, compared to less than 1 percent today. The USDA’s 2009 budget is about $95 billion and includes a mishmash of mandatory and discretionary programs. You can find out how the agency is spending the money here.

Olympic Village Earns Gold

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

Last week the Olympic Village in Beijing officially earned the LEED Gold award from the U.S. Green Building Council under its pilot LEED for Neighborhood Development program. Among the sustainable design features of the complex, as reported in Inhabitat: rainwater, graywater, and storm water collection systems, lots of green roofs and open space, drought-resistant and native plantings, and a network of bicycle and pedestrian paths.