Sustainability and Our National Landscape
“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”
This Native American proverb shows that sustainability has its roots deeply planted in our nation’s history. As our country evolved, so did our understanding of its natural systems and resources.
The term sustainability is simply defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability to meet the needs of the future. Sustainability is critical now more than ever. Cycles of environmental protection and environmental devastation ebbed and flowed as our economy and population expanded. Teddy Roosevelt foresaw a crippling of our environment and used the Antiquities Act to expand our National Parks.
However, during the past century, Mother Earth has taken a backseat to our country’s suburban development and rapid expansion. Sustainability is not one single entity’s concern or responsibility; it is our charge as citizens of this planet to come together and provide solutions to ever-increasing local, regional, national, and even global issues.
A partnership of the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and the United States Botanic Garden worked to help bring about a change in land development and landscape management methods.
As a result, ten guiding principles emerged. Broad in scope, but invaluable in the planning process, these guidelines, based on the group’s sustainable sites initiative, guidelines, and performance benchmarks, can help foster preservation, conservation, and sustainability.
These principles can be applied to just about any size project, so even if you feel like you can’t make a difference, believe me, you can.
Do no harm—Make no changes to the site that will degrade the surrounding environment. Promote projects on sites where previous disturbance or development presents an opportunity to regenerate ecosystem services through sustainable design.
Precautionary principle—Be cautious in making decisions that could create risk to human and environmental health. Examine a full range of alternatives, including no action, and be open to contributions from all affected parties.
Design with nature and culture—Create and implement designs that are responsive to economic, environmental, and cultural conditions with respect to the local, regional, and global context.
Use decision-making hierarchy of preservation, conservation, and regeneration—Maximize and mimic the benefits of ecosystem services by preserving existing environmental features, conserving resources in a sustainable manner, and regenerating lost or damaged ecosystem services.
Provide regenerative systems as intergenerational equity—Provide future generations with a sustainable environment supported by regenerative systems and endowed with regenerative resources.
Support a living process—Continuously re-evaluate assumptions and values and adapt to demographic and environmental change.
Use a systems-thinking approach—Understand and value the relationships in an ecosystem and use an approach that reflects and sustains ecosystem services; re-establish the integral and essential relationship between natural processes and human activity.
Use a collaborative and ethical approach—Encourage direct and open communication among colleagues, clients, manufacturers, and users to link long-term sustainability with ethical responsibility.
Maintain integrity in leadership and research—Implement transparent and participatory leadership, develop research with technical rigor, and communicate new findings in a clear, consistent, and timely manner.
Foster environmental stewardship—In all aspects of land development and management, foster an ethic of environmental stewardship, an understanding that responsible management of healthy ecosystems improves the quality of life for present and future generations.
Imagine if everyone in a single community pulled together and began a transformation of their open spaces, or where their backyards met with others and implemented a reforestation plan. What was once a segmented forest, or an open farm field could one day become an interconnected “highway” of multi-tiered forests, open meadows, and other green spaces. These spaces would help to contribute to many ecosystem services such as clean water, clean air, wildlife habitat and food sources, and pollinator forage areas.
In today’s global melting pot, we can no longer afford sustainability taking a backseat as we navigate through the 21st century. Preservation, conservation, and sustainability must be part of our land development lexicon. From land planning to garden design, each and every gesture—no matter how small—can have a positive impact on the environment. The actions we take today will provide for future generations. ▼
Eric W. Wahl, RLA is a landscape architect at Element Design Group and president of the Delaware Native Plant Society.