Tackling Water Issues Through Landscape Urbanism

I mentioned in my last blog how we have created a built environment where urban and natural systems are disconnected and discussed some of my observations had on my personal life and career. I also described (in general terms) what green infrastructure is and how proper implementation can help to bring our built and natural environments back into balance. I can’t emphasize this enough: I feel we have an obligation in this century to right a lot of wrongs from the last century. There are theories and various approaches as to how we can rethink our cities and I think they should all be studied and explored. Landscape Urbanism is one that I am most passionate about.

What is Landscape Urbanism?

New urbanism and the emerging spinoff niche of lean urbanism are two areas getting a lot of attention, but there is another theory that resonates well with my concern for the growing disconnect between our urban and natural systems – landscape urbanism. As defined in Wikipedia, landscape urbanism is the “theory of urban planning arguing that the best way to organize cities is through the design of the city’s landscape, rather than the design of its buildings.” Landscape urbanism recognizes the functional and mitigative qualities of biology.  With an aggressive understanding for addressing health, environmental and economic benefits, this is a design approach that is grounded in science but perceived as if it were art.

Few designers practice this design philosophy, but as droughts are becoming more frequent and the water quality in our creeks and rivers continues to worsen, I believe landscape urbanism has a place in how we go forward addressing development and infrastructure. I was fortunate to have worked alongside a landscape urbanism advocate, Ignacio Bunster–Ossa, with Wallace Roberts & Todd. We put this design theory to practice on what I still consider the best opportunity for implementing green infrastructure in the U.S., the Trinity River Corridor project. The Trinity River Corridor Design Guidelines provided the framework to introduce landscape urbanism principles through the planning and design of a major urban park. My colleagues at VERDUNITY and I are focused on incorporating landscape urbanism principles into residential neighborhood rehabilitation projects, repurposing roadway corridors into complete and green streets, and working to evaluate opportunities on broader scales as part of comprehensive or area development plans.

Repurposed Residential Street; introducing complete and green street amenities.

Repurposed Residential Street; introducing complete and green street amenities.

Sprawl's Impact on Water

As we embrace these new ideas it is good to see where we have gone astray and how we might be able to correct it. Thirty years ago the Dallas/Fort Worth region experienced a significant population explosion. Growth was directly associated locally with the immediate need to address transportation deficiencies. Fear of traffic congestion directed much of our funding towards vehicular-centric expansion. With no geographical boundaries to overcome, suburban sprawl took over, namely in the form of single family detached housing with large yards and automatic sprinkler systems. The consequences of this development pattern rendered this region vehicular-dependent, which also meant more roadway medians and parkways requiring irrigation and increased stormwater pollution.

Today the DFW region is experiencing another significant population explosion. We, unfortunately, have even more traffic and even more sprawl, increasing the consequences. We have greater immediate concerns than just adding more roads. We have a lopsided housing surplus of detached single family homes, increasing vehicle miles travelled and water supply. We must deal with an aging infrastructure that is too expensive to replace and a very serious drought. The traffic reports that used to dominate the news, pale in comparison to the urgency we now have with rainfall deficiencies and low lake level reports. While we now have implemented measures for mandatory water conservation our reservoirs are still drying up.

Typical Residential Neighborhood in North Texas

Typical Residential Neighborhood in North Texas

If we are going to have enough water to sustain the region’s population growth it is becoming more apparent that we need to go beyond conservation mandates. We must look at more systematic changes that can be made to how we use the water we have. Automobiles drive the pattern of our development but rain water drives the pattern of nature, landscape urbanism attempts to bridge the gap between the two. What would happen if either gasoline or water dried up? There is no guarantee that either resource will always be available in the short or long term. If gasoline disappeared tomorrow it would cripple us. If water disappeared tomorrow it would absolutely break us.

Drought in North Texas

Drought in North Texas

At last year’s Greater Dallas Planning Council annual luncheon, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price mentioned that irrigation alone consumes 50% of all potable water usage in this region and that (on average) each person uses 400 gallons a day! Our suburban development pattern has created a type of landscape that relies heavily on potable water as the primary irrigation source, diverting any and all rainwater from the landscape and into storm sewer systems. This is a dangerous precedent which may result in a mass death of our private and publicly invested urban landscapes, because of mandatory water restrictions focus on restricting irrigation in early stages. The fact that we haven’t utilized storm water as an irrigation source for our landscape to begin with, is unfortunate. While we may consider irrigation as wasteful consumption of our water, it also tells us just how important having a landscape really is to the general population. Having nature around us is a value, no matter where or how we live. Our landscape is becoming much more of a necessity for livability, environmental mitigation, and the basic wellness of our daily lives.

Conservation Alone Cannot Resolve Our Water Issues

We are at a crossroads in North Texas and many other parts of the country as we grapple with growth, drought, deteriorating infrastructure and a sluggish economy. If we want our communities and our country to be resilient and prosperous, we have to be better stewards of the natural resources we have, especially our water. Conservation is part of the solution, but we have to make broad and significant changes, both in how we think and in how we develop.

Incorporating green infrastructure is how we can integrate nature into the built environment in the context of urban systems . The broad misconception is that landscape design is only for aesthetic purposes. Vegetation can also serve a functional purpose, designed to mitigate pollutants, regulating temperature, creating habitat and minimizing so of our man-made impacts. It is also worth noting that plants and trees are also being linked to mental health benefits as well. The Texas Trees Foundation is an excellent local resource to learn about those benefits in greater detail.  

If we now can understand all that nature can provide for us, then why not design with nature as the first step? Landscape urbanism pioneered a greater understanding of green infrastructure and explored a more meaningful relationship between landscape and the built environment. While there are bold urban examples of landscape urbanism in design, we at VERDUNITY are also studying how these principles can be introduced in both urban and suburban environments. I believe it is imperative to understand this approach as a precedent and as a foundation for how we design infrastructure projects - moving forward from here.