Changing Landscapes: The search for 21st century planting typologies

A landscape of tall trees and a clean, green lawn is an iconic image of the American landscape. Despite its wholesome feel and widespread appeal, the traditional turf and tree landscape typology (a classification defined by form, order, and composition) is so commonplace that it has become the kneejerk reaction to landscape design and maintenance.  According to the National Turfgrass Research Initiative, turfgrass covers 50 million acres of the United States. That is enough grass to nearly cover all of Minnesota (55,640,960 acres).

Image: FloraTerra Landscape Management

Image: FloraTerra Landscape Management

We place high value on a maintained lawn of turfgrass. A large, sweeping lawn is often seen as a symbol of power and control which provides much of its appeal. Yet, an invisible truth lies in that perfectly cut, fuzzy green lawn. Turfgrass lawns require a tremendously high amount of resources and provide next to no ecological benefits. To quote the brilliant botanist/ecologist/author Gerould Wilhelm, turfgrass is nothing more than “a drug dependent rug.” Requiring a near constant stream of irrigation, fertilizer, and mowing (all of which have an increasingly high carbon footprint), turfgrass is not a low maintenance planting. Additionally, turfgrass provides little to no resource value or habitat structure for animals and insects. As a consequence, the rampant use of turfgrass will inevitably diminish in the 21st century.

In response to the boundless use and low resource value of turfgrass, Urban Ecosystems has developed a new planting strategy for developed landscapes such as parks, civic institutions, and corporate campuses. The Urban Meadow is a naturalistic, planting aggregate of flowering annuals and perennials, designed to minimize maintenance inputs while maximizing ecological benefits. The basic premise is simple: create a diverse planting of native, cultivated native, and non-native flowering plants that produce a dynamic array of color, texture, and contrast that persist throughout the growing season.

Image: Michael Keenan

Image: Michael Keenan

The flowers of the Urban Meadow offer critical ecological resources. First, the robust offering of flowers provide nectar for a vast array of pollinators. Second, a season long array of flowers is attractive and engaging to people. This is exactly where most native plantings fall short in urban areas. Native plantings have dearth periods in the early and late parts of the growing season, leaving the planting to look weedy and unkempt to many.

The Urban Meadow is a native planting with more flowers, more habitat value, and more aesthetic value.

The first deployment of this idea is at the Room & Board Central Office and Weekend Outlet in Golden Valley, MN. As a company dedicated to sustainability initiatives, Room & Board was eager to be the first to implement this new landscape typology. The Urban Meadow, along with other resilient landscape features, contributed to a LEED Gold certification for the renovated Central Office site. The project, installed in May 2015, has established quickly and proved a success. Today the Room & Board meadow is filled with several species of wildflowers. Stop by and see it for yourself.

Image: Michael Keenan

Image: Michael Keenan

The Urban Meadow represents a unique response to a ubiquitous challenge. The rampant existence of turf and pavement dominates our urban environment. This leaves our water bodies damaged, sends animal and insect populations on the run, and produces built landscapes that look bleak and desolate. The Urban Meadow is a new alternative to traditional landscaping that reduces the impact of these environmental problems while being beautiful. Urban Ecosystems is actively researching and envisioning new landscape planting typologies that will improve quality of life in the urban environment. Stay tuned, as our Urban Meadow develops.