Beyond Sustainable Landscapes


My March, 2011 post on rain barrels has generated a great deal of discussion both here on the blog and elsewhere. It seems to have gone viral and has been showing up all over the place. Prevailing opinion is favorable to my position that rain barrels are not useful and not sustainable. There are, of course, some dissenting opinions and nuances. If you missed the conversation or haven’t checked in to see all the comments, you may be interested in revisiting the article.

As interesting as all this is, it misses the real point. There is a meta-question that needs to be answered, and a proper answer will render moot much of the discussion about conservation and sustainability. I’ll cut to the chase: Why are we creating landscapes that do not survive on rainfall and natural soil fertility, and that for the most part do not offer up ecological services in excess of their negative impacts? Why should we waste our time and intelligence on trying to adapt to a paradigm that accepts landscapes requiring more resources than nature delivers, and to one that doesn’t ask anything of the landscape other than that it be pretty?

Yet much if not all of the activities generated by the sustainable landscaping movement (and indeed by the green building movement as well) assume a continued, if abated, consumption of resources, and rely more on novel technologies often of dubious merit (smart controllers, synthetic lawns, etc.) than on creating place-adapted natural ecosystems. This blindness to reality is going to kill us, more slowly than the old ways, but just as surely. We are evolving systems that destroy the planet but at a more languid pace, and there is an unspoken assumption that in our unquestioned strivings for luxury and comfort we will use everything up sooner or later. This is the elephant on the lawn that nobody wants to talk about.



Anyway, sustainability is not the issue. Defining sustainable as the standard sets the bar too low. Sustainability is about being “less bad,” in the words of sustainability’s Number One Guru William McDonough. I don’t agree with McDonough about everything, but I shall be forever grateful to him for calling out any approach that means only to reduce the negative impacts of an activity or structure. A so-called “green” building that merely cuts energy use or substitutes a less damaging material for a conventional one, or that hews to any or even all of the accepted standards for sustainable construction as codified in LEED or other standards, isn’t a good-enough building. It still has tremendous negative impacts both on and off site.

And landscaping is no different. Until we free ourselves from the conceit that a couple of rain barrels or some native plants and a drip system are an adequate response to the challenge of creating a living ecosystem that delivers more services than it demands, we will be forever creating sub-optimal projects.

Sustainability is not the issue. Adaptive productivity is the issue. Being less bad is not good enough. Being useful, beneficial, worth the costs is what we need to strive for, and nothing less will do. After all, everything is at stake, isn’t it?

35 Responses to “Beyond Sustainable Landscapes”

  1. Landscaping is an art. Each of us has different idea or even concept to make it looks nice and perfect. This topic will never come to an end because I believe anyone has different opinion about the sustainability. Some people said that it’s the core point in landscaping and some people disagree with it.
    Karen –´s last blog post ..August is Lawn Renovation Time!

    • Owen says:

      Everyone has the right to their own opinion, but nobody has the right to their own facts. The fact is that we are rapidly making the planet uninhabitable and turning it into a giant waste heap. Landscaping impacts this situation in many ways that are easily documentable, and easily mitigated. That’s what sustainable landscaping is all about, and it’s mighty important. Art and personal preference have to take a back seat to survival at this point in history, because we are in a colossal crisis and we have to stop screwing around and start solving the problem.

  2. Not just the Landscaping there should be some sustainability require on every field of all work. This blog content is so nicely describing about this matter. I appreciate Mr.Owen to discuss a valuable topic. Thanks for sharing your views….
    Brock Mackness´s last blog post ..Sydney Landscapers: Choosing the Right One for You

  3. Nick says:

    The previous commenters did not get it, or maybe they read a different piece. It’s not about being sustainable or less bad. It’s about being positively productive. Creative action, as opposed to more or less destructive action. No small task, and a lot to ask, but achievable and, ultimately, necessary.

  4. Topsoil says:

    At the beginning of the year, we moved into our first house and I immediately started working in the back yard. I planted things that were native to my region which means that they required a lot of water and time. How silly of me was that! I really appreciate this article as I believe that our environments should be sustainable.
    Topsoil´s last blog post ..Outdoor Rock Water Feature Maintenance in Utah

  5. Very insightful.

    I really like this part: “This blindness to reality is going to kill us, more slowly than the old ways, but just as surely.” – you’re definitely right! We all should start making things “less bad”.. not just in creating landscapes, but in everything that we do.

    This should be read by everyone. Will definitely share your post.

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