Landscape Architects -- Experts on More Than Just Lawns and Gardens

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, April 29, 2006

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.

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