A Prairie Garden Journal
When I was learning how to design landscapes half a lifetime ago, the most important aspects of the design process were function and aesthetics. “Function” was the first phase of the design process—identifying the landscape rooms and connecting paths which best served the activities and lifestyle of the family or persons living in the home or on the property, and then arranging those rooms and paths on the site in much the same way that one would plan the floorplan of a new home. “Aesthetics” was the second phase of the landscape design process—creating the walls, floors, and ceilings of the landscape rooms and making those walls, floors, and ceilings look pretty—especially the walls. This is where having a long list of colorful trees, shrubs, flowers, and ornamental grasses came in handy.
But over the past two decades, another important aspect of landscape design has slowly been emerging and it almost certainly will become as important as function and aesthetics in the design process. This new and important aspect of the landscape design process doesn’t even have an agreed upon name yet–some are calling it ecological functionality or ecological sustainability, others call it ecological coherence or restorative landscape design. The lack of a clear name for this new aspect of landscape design reflects the underlying complexity of what it attempts to do—nothing less than to make your home landscape as ecologically functional as a natural landscape. That may sound like an easy thing to do, but it turns out that God was a little smarter than most of us humans.
Landscape phenomena or trends such as xeriscaping, use of native plants, raingardens and bioswales, are, without a doubt, all a part of the growing awareness of both the importance of landscape to the health of human beings and the complexity of recreating man-made landscapes that are functionally as healthy as natural landscapes.
At this point it might be worthwhile to review just exactly what it is that the earth’s natural landscape does for us human beings (and all other living things). Let’s see. Well it creates the air that we breathe—that’s pretty important. And it creates the pure, clean water that we drink. I like water, how about you? And it grows the food that we eat. Anyone else get hungry? And on top of that, many of the earth’s natural landscapes are just downright beautiful to look at.
With only a billion or two human beings on the planet, the capacity of the earth’s natural landscape to provide plenty of clean air, pure water, and healthy food was not a problem. But with the earth’s human population predicted to reach 9 billion within a few decades, most of those who study the subject say that we humans are going to have to make dramatic changes to how we live in order to allow the earth to continue to create enough clean air, pure water, and healthy food for that many people (and all of the other living things, too.)
Just to be clear, I am not one of those wild-eyed environmentalists running around with my hair on fire and a “THE END IS NEAR” sign. OK, I may be a wild eyed environmentalist, but my hair’s not on fire and I don’t think that the end is near. There are two reasons why my hair’s not on fire and I’m not carrying a sign. First, I have great optimism about the capacity of we humans to learn and eventually do the right things, and, second, I have an even greater optimism about the capacity of Nature to heal itself and endure.
Which brings me back to what’s going on in western Nebraska. The downtown Scottsbluff parking lot raingardens/bioswales, the bioswale at the Scottsbluff Public Library, the proposed landscape development for the downtown business district in Scottsbluff are all part of larger process to make the landscapes in which we humans live to be more than just pretty landscapes. These are a part of the early attempts of we humans to create landscapes which are not only pretty, but which also do a better job of producing clean air to breathe, pure water to drink, and healthy food to eat.
So make no mistake about it. These are cutting edge landscape concepts being implemented in a small community in western Nebraska. That said, no one who has worked on designing or building these projects would claim that they already know how to create man-made landscapes that function as well as natural landscapes—but we will learn more from these projects than we knew before, and in the not too distant future I think we will be able to create highly ecologically functional landscapes for homes, businesses and public spaces which also just happen to be pretty.