The Core Principles of Aesthetic Ecosystem Design
There are four main principles behind the design of an aesthetic ecosystem for incorporating both aesthetic and ecological values with maximum human and natural benefit. Behind each of these principles are several supporting qualities that act in combination to bring about the implementation of these principles.
The four principles of Aesthetic Ecosystems design are:
- Visual Aesthetics
- Ecological Integrity
Visual Aesthetics ensure the pleasant experience of a landscape. There is an innate desire for us to design our surroundings to be pleasant – a desire that extends to our landscapes. What defines a pleasant experience is as diverse as our species. This quality is largely defined by the tastes of those who are intended to partake in the landscape experience. The following qualities ensure this pleasant experience and are largely defined by centuries of landscape design practice.
Unity in a landscape is what defines the landscape as a cohesive element, either as a singular experience or a progression of connected experiences. Unity is implemented on all levels of design.
An example of a large scale implementation of design unity is in the implementation of symmetrical and focal point plantings and features in an axial arrangement.
Another example on a small scale within an overall design is a planting scheme that repeats colors and shape throughout a given design.
Form is the overall design structure of a site that creates order. If this definition sounds similar, it is because form is closely tied to unity within a landscape. While unity ensures a landscape is cohesive, form is the design structure used to create that unity through overall order.
An example of a large scale implementation of form is the axial plan used to impose unity in the previous example.
A small scale example of form within an overall design is the integration of a similar or complementary element throughout a design, such as a circular pattern that is reflected in a patio, planting beds, and in an arch above the patio.
The most memorable designs throughout history are the designs that are unique or pleasantly diverge from the mainstream. A design does not need to be grandiose to be unique. In fact, many well-known designs are not only renowned for their individuality but also for their simplicity.
Landscapes that inspire are landscapes that evoke the emotions. When emotions stir, the spirit connects with its surroundings. I don’t know about you, but I like to be inspired.
A landscape with character has a meaning or purpose. This attribute ties into the previous two. But a landscape is much more than just a visually pleasant experience if it tells a story, shares a memory, or provides value. It connects with you on a logical level. Examples include a progression of thought or meaning, by teaching, or by providing nourishment.
Wonderful examples of designs with character can be found in Asian landscape design, where the landscape combines several elements of character. Often they set a contemplative mood with intent to provide a progression of thought toward a moment of enlightenment or zen. These designs also often have embedded meaning, with stories and histories attributed to different rocks or inscriptions throughout a garden.
Function ensures a practical design that provides value. Without a practical design, the landscape may become frustrating, less frequented, or even avoided. Instead, a landscape should be designed in a way that is not only pleasant, but also welcoming and provides for us as well – physically, emotionally, or spiritually.
Appropriate areas of a landscape must be appropriately accessible. Without appropriate accessibility, a landscape can seem either unwelcoming or detached. Accessible landscapes allow for pleasant passage for occupants, visitors, and maintenance.
An all-too-common example of inappropriate accessibility is a narrow front walkway leading to the front door of a residence. Occupants and visitors must shuffle single-file down a narrow passage to what is supposed to be the most welcoming and inviting area of a residential design.
A landscape must fit the needs of the intended occupants or visitors. A park that doesn’t appear fun and inviting won’t have kids playing in it. A patio without summer shade will not be used on the hot sunny days for very long.
Without meeting local and state codes, it may be difficult for a design to have lasting success – regardless of how amazing the design may be. It is what it is.
Ecological Integrity is ensuring that the landscape provides a return for itself as well. A site that is not ecologically sound undoubtedly will require endless maintenance to ‘overcome’ nature and pest ‘problems.’ In addition, it will not only require extensive human resources, but also will require significant cost from the environment. Many areas of this planet use water resources that are strained or diminishing for the maintenance of landscapes. Most areas require frequent mowing, trimming, mulching, and spraying. All intensive practices.
- Natural Beauty
A good design recognizes the innate beauty in natural systems and then utilizes that beauty for a more tangible form for all to experience. While many, including myself, appreciate the untouched wilderness in all its grandeur, many others do not want it in their backyard. Harnessing natural beauty is about transforming the wild grandeur into a more appreciated form. It is not about overcoming, taming, or suppressing nature. Rather, this is about understanding, appreciating, and providing for nature in a way that is more commonly desirable.
It is time we realize that acres of a single species is not healthy or sustainable. Think of humanity. Does segregation and racial purity work well for humanity? Does solitary confinement sound fun? So why do we think these are good things for our landscapes? Nature is meant to have diversity. Each species occupies a specific niche and provides a specific array of benefits to the ecosystem. It is time the clover and dandelion become our best friends. There. I said it.
You can disagree if you want. For now.
- Ecosystem Benefit
A landscape that does not benefit the natural world requires constant input to maintain. Because it requires constant input, a withdrawal must be made from somewhere else. Often this is in the form of fuel, mining, or water. A landscape that benefits the natural world provides a return to the soil for the future viability of the landscape.
A self-sufficient landscape is able to provide for itself for long term resilience with minimal input. For all of you that don’t like routine maintenance, this one’s for you. Over the ages, we have designed our surroundings with a subconscious and sometimes even overt attempt to exert our dominance over the natural world. Yet this always leads to an intensive system, as we combat a highly evolved system in nature. When a system is designed with our best understanding and appreciation of the complexity and perfection of a natural system, the end result is a much more self-sufficient system that works with us rather than in opposition.
- Maintenance Minimization
A low maintenance landscape allows for less time working to maintain a place and more time to enjoy a place. It really is as simple as that. Low maintenance landscapes are quickly becoming popular as part of the mainstream. This is a trend that can be adopted as the norm, then combined with these other principles to bring about more holistic practices.
- Resource Tolerance
When a design is implemented with primary consideration of long term resource requirements, the result is a more conscious and resilient landscape. Resource tolerance considers any input required or avoided and shapes the design outcome correspondingly. These resources could include fuel, water, energy, sunlight, or wind, to name a few.
- Climatic Resilience
Climatic resilience accommodates for fluctuations in local weather conditions from year to year. For any given landscape, it will undoubtedly witness extremes, survive record-breaking cold or heat, and weather prolonged wet or dry seasons. A good design accordingly accounts for these events in its planting, land design, and understanding of microclimate. Such a design is buffered and will more successfully withstand extreme events.
Non-invasiveness not only considers plantings, but any resource or element that may leave the confines of a given design space. Such resources may also include soil runoff, chemical pesticide or herbicide drift, or water. A non-invasive planting – without getting into semantics – is a planting that does not risk pushing other species out of a given niche on a large scale. This is to be considered before placing any such species into a design.
- Microclimate Understanding
Because designed landscapes often surround the built environment, there are often very diverse microclimates throughout a given design space. If these areas are overlooked, they may lead to problems. But if understood they can be utilized as an advantage. Microclimates are areas on a small scale that exhibit perceived differences throughout the year compared to other nearby areas. A few examples would be different sides of a building, slopes facing different angles, shallow recesses that pool water, and open areas. These microclimates experience differences in conditions such as light, temperature, moisture, or wind. When properly understood, these conditions can be mitigated, utilized, or created with purpose.
These principles and their supporting qualities are simply the roots of a much deeper ethic that in turn provide the fruits of an aesthetic ecosystem. But by operating with an understanding of these core principles you will begin to see the landscapes that surround you with a different lens – a lens that allows for a deeper appreciation for the world around us and its innate aesthetic value.