Landscapes Over Time

With any luck, you’ll stay close to your projects as they season. But you have to design and plan as if they you won’t.

By Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, with William S. Saunders

Unlike architecture, landscape architecture evolves (and almost always improves) through time. Its parks and gardens are never complete. Or rather the finished landscape of today is not the finished landscape of many years from now. Landscape architects must more deliberately include in their work predictions of how it will change. Yet few landscape professionals continue being involved in their built works beyond a year or two after opening day. What happens? The site is taken over by natural processes and unplanned human impacts or by its caretakers, who, at least partially, become its new designers, typically with little direction from the original designer. Yet if the landscape architect’s design matters on day one, it matters equally in year five and beyond.

Courtesy Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc.
Courtesy Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc.

The need for designers’ involvement over time arises because ever-changing plants are the discipline’s primary medium, if not its soul. The growth of plants is not particularly easy to predict in detail. Plants may thrive or decline or die or, almost always, not grow just as you thought they would. Water, soil conditions, insects, surrounding plants, amounts of sunlight, weather, and a lot more affect them. An arrangement of plants that is great when they are small may be poor when they are large. Plants may need to be pruned, added, replaced, or removed. Every gardener knows how much constant care is necessary. And yet too many landscape architects conduct their work as if their attention to plants doesn’t need to go much beyond specifying them.

This noninvolvement can bring surprises for those landscape architects who revisit their “completed” projects or hear about them from others. People have told me that my firm’s Allegheny River Park in Pittsburgh (1994–1998) is in bad shape: falling apart, overgrown with weeds, painted with graffiti. This park was a gift to the city from a private donor. If the city wanted the gift, it did not set in motion a mechanism for overseeing the park’s changes over time. An important element of our redesign of Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House was planting new elm trees that we could find only at small caliper and with limbs that were too low. Had they been limbed up right away, they would have looked silly in front of our nation’s most important residence. Our designed soils helped the trees to grow fast—they “got away from” the Park Service, so it was too late when the trees were finally limbed up; large saw cuts on the lower branches rendered the trees unattractive and vulnerable to rot and disease during the years they will take to grow out. The Park Service learned from this initial oversight and now has a program to raise the lower branches regularly. (In fairness to the Park Service employees, who were great to work with, the “ownership” of that project is highly ambiguous. Such ambiguity often contributes to neglect.)

Neglect or underperformance of landscape management is a massive problem for designed landscapes. The classic case is, of course, New York’s Central Park, which, by the 1970s, was in abysmal shape (documented in Tod Papageorge’s great 2007 photo book, Passing Through Eden). It was rescued, starting in the 1980s, through the enormous efforts of the privately funded Central Park Conservancy. Landscapes very rarely receive an ideal amount of care. The reasons are legitimate: Good care is expensive and requires the kind of long-term planning that is hard to achieve using current management methods. And, whether you are on the recent bandwagon of talking about landscape through the lens of performance, phytoremediation, or infrastructure, or, like me, you care about these issues but also about how parks are experienced, management has to be there in every case. Whether you want to pull nitrogen from runoff water or choreograph the occurrence of chartreuse foliage of new daylilies under the unfolding gray-green leaves of oakleaf hydrangea, your landscape will need enduring care. Maintenance is one of the easiest budget line items to cut, and the unwanted results of those cuts don’t fully show up for years, by which time people have forgotten that cuts had been made. People put their energy into the good deed of creating public parks; keeping them in good shape is much less sexy, requiring patient, routine, never-ending labor.

As you may know, my firm’s Brooklyn Bridge Park was set up, unusually and controversially, to assure its future management with income from new adjacent real estate development rather than from state and city funds. This required us (with Signe Nielsen’s leadership) to predict annual maintenance and its budgets for many years. Such a planning effort—which, like design, requires creative imagination and technical knowledge—is important in all initial project work.

No matter how skilled and artistically inclined horticultural workers are (and they are often extremely talented), they are generally perceived as déclassé, left out of design discussions, and poorly paid. (Since my parents were farmers, and my father went on to oversee the grounds at a ski slope, I find this perception particularly distasteful.) Heaven forbid that a landscape architect should hang out with them, much less join them, wielding a saw or a hoe, fingernails dirty.

The old name for horticultural worker was gardener, a word that connoted a great deal more dignity in the preindustrial world. Perhaps now with the green movement, the local food movement, and the promotion of urban farming, gardening will be honored more. It needs to be. Until sometime in the mid-20th century, seriously designed larger landscapes had gardeners—people who attended to their sites for many years. Peter Walker, FASLA, told me that the modern movement took hold in landscape because the gardener had become an unaffordable luxury. Beatrix Farrand (1872–1959) provided a model for landscape architecture as never-ending gardening. She served as landscape consultant to Princeton University from 1912 to 1943. On that school’s web site, we read, “Farrand preferred to be called a ‘landscape gardener’—not an architect…. The only woman among the founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects, Farrand [believed that] a living landscape—affected by seasons and the passage of time—requires constant attention. Farrand maintained an ongoing relationship with many clients in order to supervise the changes in her evolving canvas. Several times yearly, she strode through the Princeton Campus looking at every tree and bush and giving specific instructions for pruning, planting, and cultivation.” Now I am the landscape architect for the Princeton campus, lucky to have her work and tradition to study and lucky to have a client who supports the earlier collaborative practice of having the landscape architect closely overseeing the evolution of plants.

Standing in the way of conceiving landscape architecture as (to a significant degree) gardening is the widespread illusion that designed landscapes can take care of themselves, since, obviously, the woods of Vermont, the plains of Texas, and the shores of Cape Cod can look beautiful without tending. But designed landscapes exist to meet human needs, and pure nature can’t be counted on or asked to do that. Again, Central Park provides a perfect illustration: Few people realize how much work went and still goes into making it look “natural.” In 1965, in New York’s Greenwich Village, the artist Alan Sonfist put a fence around an abandoned lot, called it Time Landscape, and asked us to reverentially view what nature did with the site. I suppose that in its day this was an important work of conceptual art. But now not only can this landscape not be “inhabited,” it also is truly an eyesore, or worse, not legible as a deliberate thing. It takes untouched natural landscapes several decades to sort out their long-surviving species in a way that might offer appealing visual coherence, and such a time span isn’t available on disturbed urban sites like this—coherence may never exist on Sonfist’s site.

You are much less likely to care about maintenance if you don’t really love plants. And, for me, the most appealing landscape architecture is synonymous with a love of plants. Yes, Piazza San Marco, the plaza in front of the Seagram Building, and other wonderful designed urban open spaces are largely unplanted hardscapes. And plenty of works with plants don’t really embody love of those plants. The classic case, of course, is the American corporate landscape made of sod and trees for the Mow, Blow, and Go approach, designed to require the least possible care. I have never seen a beautiful example of it.

When I first taught at Harvard in the early 1980s, a colleague who had worked closely with Dan Kiley told me that landscape architects need to know only 10 species of trees, 10 of ground covers, and 10 of shrubs—the super-hardy ones. This is like telling writers they can use only 30 words. There is no possibility for subtlety, precision, and richness, but plenty for uniformity and boredom. When the vocabulary of landscape architecture is chosen based only on the need for easy and economical plant survival, it is impoverished.

(What I am not exploring in this essay is the sore subject of money and the tremendously varied structures that do and don’t make it available for maintenance or management—these funds are usually greater with private clients and lesser with public clients, yet in many European cities, public expenditures are significant; college campuses have pastoral traditions that high schools do not; and so on. In calling here for better maintenance with longer landscape architect involvement, I don’t want to kid anyone that the necessary additional money will fall from the sky like manna. What I hope is that spotlighting the bad effects of not spending will make the efforts to secure money a great deal stronger.)

Many justly celebrated contemporary landscape architects and colleagues (such as James Corner, ASLA) hire horticulturists to select their plants (lately these have included the wonderful Piet Oudolf). It is no secret that for years Lawrence Halprin had his planting design done by his employee Jean Walton. (He tried to keep this a secret from me when I visited his office in 1973, refusing to tell me who she was and claiming to make all plant decisions himself.) Leaving plant selection to others suggests a troubling detachment, too great a separation between an idea and its material realization over time. It is no wonder that concern for projects drastically diminishes once, after two or three years following planting, the photographs for the books and magazines have been taken. Life is short; work takes time; excitement and energy focus on the new, the projects in the spotlight of initial design. But this is shortsighted.

Like Matt Urbanski, one of the five principals of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, I had a lot of experience on a farm as a kid and there learned to treasure plant life. Lucky me: In my professional life I have found many quite different ways to act out this love of plants. If I were told I had a week to live, I would spend the first day at a tree farm—in fact, the day before I had a recent minor operation I drove to central New Jersey for the pleasure of discussing and selecting trees with their grower Chet Halka, the smartest tree farmer I know.

But carefully selecting plants at a nursery isn’t all—it’s really not even the tip of the iceberg—of what we are talking about here as good horticulture. The gardeners at the proposed never-sunlit site of the new portion of our Teardrop Park in Manhattan told us that we could plant no trees there. But I recalled American beech trees growing as saplings under heavy shade canopies in New England forests—and the gardeners agreed that we could plant beeches that we collected from shady places in the wild. Four seasons later, these beech trees are thriving. The Teardrop gardeners were right: You run a risk when you buy shade-loving trees from the posh comfort of sunny nursery fields—these trees thrive less in shade once they get used to abundant sun.

Other examples: To make sure that the grasses we planted in a Brooklyn Bridge Park salt marsh would thrive, we had them raised in a saline environment. We often have had hard-to-find native plants custom grown so we could use them: We tracked down tiny black cherry trees and had Chet Halka cultivate them. Like most landscape architects, we are now designing plantings that won’t be installed for five years, and some, like multistemmed clumps of trees, are hard to find in nurseries and have to be custom planted now—again, we turned to Chet. Once you forge good relationships with nurseries, you can expand your plant palette beyond landscape architecture’s norms.

If you leave plant management decisions entirely to horticulturists who remain on the site after you, you are surrendering too much of your design. On the other hand, your design will be ill fated if you don’t collaborate with people who know horticulture. Collaboration—this is the unheralded key to management. My friend Betsy Barlow Rogers, Honorary ASLA, a former trustee of Wellesley College and the prime mover behind the Central Park Conservancy and “zone gardening” (in which caretakers take responsibility for manageable sections of larger landscapes), gave me a career-changing wake-up call in the late 1990s. It was she who convinced the Wellesley community that it was “spending down its legacy” by not maintaining the campus landscape well. Working on that campus later on, I went to her to express my frustration with the college maintenance crews because they were not carrying out some of our ideas. She looked me in the eye and said, “Michael, you have to learn how to bend. They have good ideas too. They need to feel ownership.” I had been assuming I could operate from the top down and coerce the gardeners to do everything I wanted. Things just don’t work that way. Not only will caretakers never do exactly what you tell them to; they shouldn’t. They have plenty to teach you. You can’t just befriend them. You have to pick their brains. When they feel respected, they will invest in your projects and make them theirs. The more you cultivate good relationships with all those involved with a landscape, the better future that landscape will have. (I might add that I am in awe of the grounds crews at Wellesley—they stay in touch with us when they want guidance and are dedicated to innovative practices in new landscapes like our Alumnae Valley there.)

One of my firm’s projects dramatically illustrates the need for long-term engagement in maintenance: the Connecticut Water Treatment Facility in New Haven (see “A Watershed Moment,” LAM, August 2011). This case underlines the unpredictability of plant growth. With a wildly low budget ($5 per square foot!) and a client who wanted a low-maintenance landscape, we sowed about 20 species of seeds to create a meadow. Sowing that many species makes sense precisely because one doesn’t know what will thrive—one needs to hedge one’s bets, and even then meadows are startlingly volatile. But we were shocked when, in the first spring, none of these species appeared immediately. Instead, most of the site was covered with lamb’s-quarter, the European weed whose fast-growing seeds had permeated the disturbed soil. We had regraded the site reusing earth dug from up to 60 feet down during the excavation of the treatment facility. In New England, soil from this depth, we learned, is highly alkaline, and this created a soil condition that was friendly to undesirable species like lamb’s-quarter and horseweed. We were called back on the job and determined that a contractor would have to chop off all the lamb’s-quarter heads before they generated seeds. Done just in time, this allowed light to filter down to the emerging meadow seedlings, which eventually dominated.

The clients for the water treatment plant learned to depend on us to undertake long-term dialogues with the site’s well-educated neighbors so that, eight years later, we are back dealing with pruning, community relations, and, we hope, the soil pH, which should begin to be balanced through soil inoculations. The site is just a two-hour train ride from our office, and often we are not paid to visit, but honestly we don’t mind—the clients were brilliant and allowed us and the architect, Steven Holl, to do daring things. We hope to convince the clients to burn, not mow, the meadow annually—burning has much better results. Clearly, significant caring for this site, with or without us, was only beginning on opening day. The original client leaders (along with their memory of the oral agreements we made with them) moved on; we are not sure, but the custom maintenance manual we made gratis for them may be gathering dust.

Good fortune also helps us keep involved in our 2004 Teardrop Park (see “Abstract Realism,” LAM, February 2007) in Manhattan: Our offices are in Brooklyn and the park is at the halfway point on my Sunday morning jog, so I can see how the plantings are changing. And more important, Teardrop demonstrates the importance of dialogues with its caretakers and horticulturists from the design stage on, selecting plants with them and, ideally, designing the soils so they are in sync with the plants. By the time Timothy S. Carey, the president and CEO of the Battery Park City Authority from 1999 to 2005, hired us to design Teardrop, he and his remarkable staff had had enough experience creating parks to know that everyone involved needed to be happily working together even during early design. (During Teardrop’s planning, the client’s maintenance people, who are still there, were at first not that friendly; in the past, they had found designers snotty and uninterested in their input.) This kind of collaboration with maintenance professionals becomes even more important as the responsibilities for landscape are more and more divvied up among specialists scurrying around like the many servants at Downton Abbey. We need to gather and synthesize all their inputs. In our office their ideas become crucial to both our general assumptions and our plant selections.

The attitude at MVVA is that we are not superior to horticulturists; we’re just different from them. Teardrop’s horticulturists challenged us at MVVA: “You can’t put a lawn over there; lawns need at least four hours of direct sun per day, and if you plant trees near that sunny spot, when they get tall with age, the lawn won’t get enough sun. How about planting trees that will stay small forever? How about doing a detailed study of sunlight patterns after the tall buildings are up so you know where you can put a lawn, since, because the park crews are not going to use herbicides, fungicides, or pesticides, you need to know how hard it will be to get a lawn to survive.” They were totally right. We hired not one but two turf experts to customize the shade-tolerant grass we planted, worked with the architect to reduce the height of the planned buildings to let in more sun, grew a custom shade-loving turf, and changed the soils to drain better. Then the horticulturists took over, keeping up aeration to counteract compaction, closing the lawns in winter to let them rest, and carefully managing the mowing regime so the grass did not get tall enough to shade itself out.

I have been suggesting that being engaged in landscapes over the long term depends on having good relationships with their caretakers so that they invest in the project and invite you back. But this is not something to be counted on. The people you have worked with often move on to other places and jobs. New managers have new preferences. Indifference sets in (theirs and even yours). Your old project may be too far away for you to visit (perhaps, for some, in Asia). In an effort to combat these realities, we often provide, without being asked or specially compensated, elaborate maintenance guidelines. The guidelines for our Carnegie Mellon project run 32 pages in an 8½-by-11-inch book.

All signs point to the need for a major structural change in the practice of landscape architecture: Our role in projects should extend well beyond opening day and the last bits of construction. Exactly how long depends on many things. Designers will need to persuade clients that good maintenance is the way to protect their investments and that designers have street cred about the implications of their plant decisions for future care. Longer contractual relationships will meet great resistance from clients who will have to spend more in the short run and from some designers who want to always be focusing on their next project. But both clients and designers who truly care about the long-term quality of their projects will welcome this change. Projects will be defined in fundamentally new ways: They will only begin on opening day. Perhaps—I am only half jesting—there should be two additional opening days, with all the publicity that goes with them: one in five years and one in 10 years.

With longer project engagements would come additional responsibility. No more would it be only the contractor guaranteeing work for a year beyond project “completion.” But professional organizations like the American Institute of Architects have been working to decrease responsibility and liability for their members. Should ASLA and its members undertake an effort to institute appropriate structural changes in our professional contracts (so they are less modeled on AIA contracts)? I think so. If we move closer to knowing how to make landscapes with the magic that comes from wonderful plants, then we can stop the further proliferation of the Mow, Blow, and Go landscapes that everyone knows and no one loves.

Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, is the principal of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc.

William S. Saunders, was LAM’s book review editor and the editor of Harvard Design Magazine,  as well as the author of books on architecture and poetry, and editor of books including ones on landscape architects Kongjian Yu, FASLA; Richard Haag, FASLA; and Dan Kiley.

19 thoughts on “Landscapes Over Time”

  1. Hi Michael. I came over here from Garden Rant. I enjoyed your essay and the call for early and ongoing collaboration with the maintenance gardeners and caretakers of a design project. Many of us do have plenty to offer from years of experience with plants and being designers by profession or default. In my career as a gardener, it was not unusual for me to be sold with the house to the new owner as the one person who knew more about the overall property than any other person who may have done work there.

    Your call for giving horticultural workers more honor that the term gardener once conveyed is welcome. I do have one quibble though. It is the use of the phrase mow, blow and go.

    I did note in your usage of that phrase it was mow, blow and go landscapes or designs and not directed at the maintenance crew. It was nice to see an LA own up to their part in what so many deride. Out in the field though mow, blow and go is meant for the maintenance crew. It is meant to label a group that works quite hard for a living at generally low wages as a bunch of uneducated know nothings. That in my experience is a gross over exaggeration.

    If you really want to honor horticulture workers the use of that phrase needs to go. Turf maintenance people are every bit a horticultural worker as a fine gardener tending to shrubs and perennials.

    I wish I could offer you an alternative phrase to describe these types of designs. You could think on it. From an architecture point of view the blandness of a ranch style house comes to mind.

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  3. Reblogged this on lookingforthegood2 and commented:
    Landscape architectures & city engineers should collaborate more with horticulturist as well as plant and tree nursery growers on any upcoming project regarding plant material to be used.

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  5. I came across this article and it really resonated with me. I could relate to what you were saying and how it all applies to people like myself who care for landscapes professionally. This is an issue that needs greater exposure as too many beautiful landscapes are falling victim to neglect or underperformance of landscape management.

  6. Thanks for the informative post on landscape architecture! I couldn’t agree more that a love of plants is essential for great design. – people are much less likely to care about maintenance if they don’t really love plants.

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