Sustainability and Our National Landscape

by Dave on October 15, 2009

by Eric Wahl, RLA, ASLA

“The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value.” – Theodore Roosevelt, 1910.

Sustainability has its roots deeply planted in our nation’s history.  However, during the past 100 years it sometimes took a backseat in our country’s development and rapid expansion.  The term is simply defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability to meet the needs of the future; sustainability is critical now more then ever.

Sustainability is not one single entity’s concern or responsibility; it is our charge as citizens to come together and provide solutions to ever-increasing local, regional, national and even global issues.  As part of this multi-disciplinary partnership, the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and the United States Botanic Garden has teamed together to help bring about a transformation in land development and management methods.

As a result, ten guiding principles of a sustainable site have emerged from this team effort.  Broad in scope, but invaluable in the planning process, these guidelines can help foster preservation, conservation, and sustainability.  For further detail and information, please visit

1. Do no harm – Make no changes to the site that will degrade the surrounding environment.  Promote projects on sites where previous disturbance or development presents an opportunity to regenerate ecosystem services through sustainable design.
2. Precautionary principle – Be cautious in making decisions that could create risk to human and environmental health.  Examine a full range of alternatives, including no action, and be open to contributions from all affected parties.
3. Design with nature and culture – Create and implement designs that are responsive to economic, environmental, and cultural conditions with respect to the local, regional and global context.
4. Use decision-making hierarchy of preservation, conservation and regeneration – Maximize and mimic the benefits of ecosystem services by preserving existing environmental features, conserving resources in a sustainable manner, and regenerating lost or damaged ecosystem services.
5. Provide regenerative systems as intergenerational equity – Provide future generations with a sustainable environ
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ment supported by regenerative systems and endowed with regenerative resources.
6. Support a living process – Continuously re-evaluate assumptions and values and adapt to demographic and environmental change.
7. Use a systems thinking approach – Understand and value the relationships in an ecosystem and use an approach that reflects and sustains ecosystem services; re-establish the integral and essential relationship between natural processes and human activity.
8. Use a collaborative and ethical approach – Encourage direct and open communication among colleagues, clients, manufacturers, and users to link long-term sustainability with ethical responsibility.
9. Maintain integrity in leadership and research – Implement transparent and participatory leadership, develop research with technical rigor, and communicate new findings in a clear, consistent and timely manner.
10. Foster environmental stewardship – In all aspects of land development and management, foster an ethic of environmental stewardship, an understanding that responsible management of healthy ecosystems improves the quality of life for present and future generations.

– “the sustainable sites initiative, guidelines and performance benchmarks” – draft 2008

After reading the above guidelines, the question “what is an ecosystem service?” may arise.  Basically, ecosystem services are those services that provide direct or indirect benefits to all of us and are produced through interactive processes of living elements and non-living elements.  The services provided by our ecosystems are many and the benefits they provide are diverse.  Often overlooked and underestimated because they occur in the background, these services are difficult, expensive, and nearly impossible in some cases to replicate.  For example, native pollinators are vital to our food supply and are responsible for more than 150 food crops in the United States.  Other ecosystem services include, but are not limited to, climate regulation, air and water cleansing, erosion and sedimentation control, waste decomposition and treatment, as well as cultural benefits through the interaction with nature.  These systems are vital to our well being, as well to out planet’s success.

In today’s global melting pot, we can no longer afford sustainability taking a backseat as we navigate into the 21st century.  Preservation, conservation, and sustainability must be part of our land development lexicon.  From land planning to garden design, each and every gesture no matter how small can have a positive impact on the environment.  Bear in mind that the actions we take today will provide for future generations tomorrow and beyond.

Eric Wahl is a landscape architect with Element Design Group in Lewes. Contact him at

This column first appeared in Coastal Sussex Weekly, August 13, 2009.

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