Saving Water Is So Hot Right Now in Landscape Design
Every February, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) asks hundreds of landscape architects around the U.S. to forecast the trends in outdoor design for the coming year. The point of the survey is to look beyond industry insider buzz and figure out what designers’ clients are actually asking for. This year’s results are in, and they show people are overwhelmingly concerned with water conservation.
Among the 803 landscape architects surveyed, 88 percent reported that clients seemed most interested in rainwater or graywater harvesting elements. Native plants and native or adaptive drought tolerant plants came in as the second and third trends, respectively. Low-maintenance landscapes was the fourth-most expected trend, and permeable landscapes was the fifth.
None of these trends is new to 2016—or even 2015, or 2014—but Nancy Somerville, ASLA’s CEO, says this year’s survey solidifies project types like rainwater harvesting as more permanent fixtures in landscape design. “Every part of the country is dealing with water issues whether it’s too much or too little,” she says. “It does reflect a much greater awareness from the population as a whole, about critical issues like water conservation and energy efficiency, as well as water efficiency, and stormwater issues.”
The timing makes sense. California is currently preparing for its fifth consecutive year of drought. Faced with the apocalyptic notion that the entire state could run out of water, people have been coming up with conservation ideas left and right. Gadget makers released water-monitoring sensors, an architect pitched an idea to siphon runoff water into a public pool, and the mayor of Los Angeles released plastic balls into the LA Reservoir to block sunlight and prevent evaporation.
Amidst the outpouring of wild ideas, California Governor Jerry Brown last year mandated that cities across the state reduce water usage by 490-billion gallons over nine months. To help make that happen, Brown also ordered that 50-million square feet of state-owned lawns be replaced with drought tolerant landscaping.
If ASLA’s survey is any indication, lots of people are getting onboard with the idea of water conservation. In California, where even a small lawn consumes as much as 75,000 gallons of water a year, installing graywater harvesting in your yard, or on your business’s property, can effectively reclaim water that would otherwise trickle away as wasted runoff. At the scale of a single-family residence, that translates to a significant reduction in water usage. In fact, a lot of people are ditching lawns altogether: The second and third trends on ASLA’s list have to do with introducing native plants in place of traditional grassy yards, and flora like deer grass, foxtail agave, and succulents require significantly less water in the first place.
The ASLA survey looks beyond California, of course, but Mitchell Pavao-Zuckerman agrees that it’s generally a good indicator of a widespread, and growing, awareness. “People are starting to think about how their house and property fits into the broader urban landscape context, and how they might contribute to more sustainable built environments than we’ve had in the past,” he says. Pavao-Zuckerman is on the faculty of the Department of Environmental Science and Technology at the University of Maryland, and he studies how pieces of green infrastructure perform ecologically, particularly in arid climates. As to how much these measures can impact an entire city, “that’s a big question right now,” Pavao-Zuckerman says. His group is in the process of launching a study to determine how existing water-saving installations can impact entire neighborhoods, as well as local water quality.
In the meantime, a creative shift is clearly underway. To illustrate this year’s forecasted landscaping trends, the ASLA released a dossier of photos from properties that already include some of the elements mentioned in the survey. In place of lush, maximalist gardens and fountains, there’s a good deal of cool, sculptured minimalism. These trends aren’t just for people who can afford landscape architects, either: multi-family residences and business organizations are among the properties in the gallery above. And on top of ASLA’s examples, Pavao-Zuckerman says there are non-profits springing up devoted to teaching homeowners how to install water-saving elements themselves. “It reflects a trend beyond what people [will get] from designers,” he says.