PRB Articles

Can You Spare The Change?

Have we not all been bombarded enough with magazine articles, training sessions, public service announcements, and warnings from various sources about the importance of low-maintenance landscaping and xeriscaping?

Don't just keep up with the changes; get ahead of them.

Am I not alone in stating that as experts of our craft, landscape architects certainly care about their practice, have a genuine stewardship attitude about the environment, and actually have a grip on what they're doing?

If we are so good at what we do, then why do we get lectures about low-maintenance landscaping concerns instead of give them?

Well, it begs the question, “Hey Joe and Jane Q., what exactly is it you think we do around here?" To answer that, the Qs may have to initiate that conversation.

Simply put, "they" really don't know. It may be because we landscape architects are notoriously lackluster in our efforts to educate our worth to the public. And that same effort is apparent in our interaction with many allied professionals.

Many times the public unjustly associates us with a perception, especially if we stay inside our own professional circles.

One of the public perceptions is with landscape maintenance contractors. The count is lost on the number of times I have been unwillingly composted by a contractor's interpretation of how best to maintain the design integrity of a project.

And so to my friends in this industry I say this: With the client, quit the "consult-change" of landscape design just for the sole reason that it will expedite your job performance by using a mower or hedge-trimmer. Quick maintenance can be so different from low maintenance, and in so doing could makes us all look "high maintenance".

Maintenance is a responsibility of landscape architects that we oftentimes overlook. I realize when maintenance specifications are brought to mind, we are usually at the end of a project, up against a deadline, and tapping into the profit margins of our fee budget. But our projects deserve more than a general plan note stating, "The Contractor shall properly maintain the Work until final acceptance".

Two-thirds of my career has had me working alongside engineers. Although rewarding most of the time, my work with engineers has also been professionally challenging, for each of us, on occasion.

A few weeks back during my company's business quarterly meeting, I had one of those slap-your-forehead realizations. Mark, our CEO (and engineer), started the meeting with an explanation of our company's rebranding strategy. He spoke with enthusiasm and confidence.

I was as excited about the change as he. However, Mark was met with some reservation from the group. Not all in the room were sure this corporate change was going to be easy, nor would it be good for us in the short-term.

He then offered up a bit of logical advice: "Guys, we are a changing industry. What will it look like tomorrow, next year, in 10 years, in 20 years? Who knows? We must adapt to stay in the game!"

That's about the time my hand hit my forehead. Oh my gosh, go, guy! You, sir, are talking landscape architecture to my engineer counterparts, and by golly, I'm taking notes!

I admit my moment of professional enlightenment was with engineering, or I should say it was with engineers, being people in a landscape. This engineering association finds my friends striving for low maintenance in their daily project solutions as well.

Engineers define "low maintenance" in a sense, and do so with a concentrated purpose and good intentions, I might add. Think about it: Once built, an engineered facility rarely changes. A drainpipe does not grow, a curb never needs fertilizing, a bridge column requires no pruning, and pavement typically does not need mowing. How low-maintenance is that?

But with their work, change happens with how, why, and when their designs are used. Engineers, too, must adapt and anticipate the maintenance changes, just like us.

Whether knowingly or not, design is ever changing. Even after the project is off our boards, the design remains a dynamic force--growing, thriving, and demanding an ever-changing level of maintenance.

We trust that our experience and training will anticipate the changes in store for the project. Hopefully, we take those into account when being creative. Adaptive design and its evolution should be a well-used, fat marker in our sketchpad repertoire.

Much like Mark's rebranding message communicated, we should routinely ask ourselves what will our design look like tomorrow, then in 20 years, and then all those times in between?

If we have any design foresight, our low-maintenance project needs today will successfully transition to a whole different set of low-maintenance needs in 2032 and beyond.

So just when I thought my engineer friends could be ribbed with yet another stereotype, they end up being on the side with the low-maintenance advocates. As a designer, I'm going to embrace that as great news!

So the next challenge will be to professionally encourage creative latitude amongst us through a collaborative, unbiased design process--and yes, I am an optimist by nature.

I hope everyone enjoyed their Thanksgiving and that the holiday weekend found you maintaining your safety in travel and family celebration.

Tim May is a professional landscape architect and LEED AP for TNP in Fort Worth, Texas. He can be reached via email at or by twitter at @TMay82

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