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Sustainable Landscapes: the Port in the Storm

As I write, I am vacationing in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Gulf Shores was among the communities impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill last summer1. Although the cleanup has been underway for some time, the oil is never far from mind. The impact of this spill is vast, but unfortunately not the only environmental trouble spot. When I sneak a look at the headlines of the Washington Post, I learn that DC has experienced its hottest July on record, and the month of August is getting increasingly drier. And on the drive to the airport, listening to a gardening show on public radio, I hear a caller complain that her tomatoes flower, but do not fruit. The reason, she is told, is that it is simply too hot. Other crops in the area are reduced by the brown marmorated stinkbug, an invasive species.

When the heat is intense and the water is scarce and the plants don’t produce, the landscape can come to the rescue. Not every problem can be solved, but they can be mitigated. When we plan not only for ornamentality, but also for functionality, we can use the benefits of the landscape to make our own environments more habitable. For instance, we can strategically locate trees and other vegetation to cool our homes in the summer and allow sunlight to warm them in the winter. We can creatively capture the rain that falls and direct it so that it sustains the life all around us. We can preserve our soils and nurture them with the compost we make using the detritus of our kitchens and gardens. And we can work to restore the ecology of our own back yards.

Let’s do what we can to build a more hospitable environment, powered by our landscapes. Let’s insist that they be both functional and beautiful. The end result can be a place we not only pass through, but also inhabit, a place of restoration, a place of sanctuary in a harsher world. Landscape designers can help to make this changing planet more comfortable: the port in the storm.

There’s a wildlife refuge called “Bon Secour” next to the condominium tower I am staying in. It’s one of the elements that make this hot, humid peninsula more bearable: it’s a landscape. “Bon secour” means “safe harbor,” and, especially now, in this damaged, threatened place, it’s more important than ever. We all need those safe harbors. Sustainable landscape design can help us create them, yard by yard, garden by garden.

1 April 20, 2010

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