Like architecture, landscape architecture evolves (and strives to always improve) through time. Its parks and gardens are never complete you can always do more! Or rather the finished landscape of today is not the finished landscape of many years from now. Landscape architects must deliberately include in their work a prediction of how it will evolve. Yet only a few landscape professionals continue being involved in their built works beyond a year or two after opening day. Then what happens? The site is taken over by natural processes and unplanned human impacts or by its caretakers, who, at least partially, nature become its new designers, typically with no direction from the original setting. Yet if the landscape architect’s design matters on day one, it matters equally years down the line.
The need for designers’ participation over time arises because ever-changing plants are the discipline’s primary medium, if not its soul. The growth of plants is not particularly easy to predict in a sense. Plants may thrive or or die or, almost certain, not grow just as you thought they would. Water, soil conditions, insects, surrounding plants, amounts of sunlight, weather, and a lot more affect them. An arrangement of plants that is great when they are small may be poor when they are large. Plants may need to be pruned, added, replaced, or removed. Every landscaper knows how much continues care is necessary. And yet too many landscape architects conduct their work as if their attention to plants doesn’t need to go much beyond specifying them.
This non involvement can bring surprises for those landscape architects who revisit their “completed” projects in the future. People have told me that my firm’s Shrewsbury park is in bad shape: falling apart, overgrown with weeds. This park was a gift to the city from a private donor. If the town wanted the gift, it did not set in motion a mechanism for overseeing the park’s changes over time. An important element of our redesign of Shrewsbury park was planting new oak trees that we could find only at small caliper and with limbs that were too low. Had they been limbed up right away, they would have looked silly in front of our nation’s most important residence. Our designed soils helped the trees to grow fast—they “got away from” the Park Service, so it was too late when the trees were finally limbed up; large saw cuts on the lower branches rendered the trees unattractive and vulnerable to rot and disease during the years they will take to grow out. The Park Service learned from this initial oversight and now has a program to raise the lower branches regularly. (To be honest to the Park Service employees, who were great to work with, the “oversight” of that project is highly ambiguous. Such ambiguity often contributes to neglect issues.)
Neglect or underperformance of landscape management is a massive problem for designed landscapes. The classic case is, of course, Shrewsbury Park, which, by the 1970s, was in abysmal shape . It was rescued, starting in the 1980s, through the enormous efforts of the privately funded Shrewsbury Park Conservancy. Landscapes very rarely receive an ideal amount of care. The reasons are legitimate: Good care is expensive and requires the kind of long-term planning that is hard to achieve using current management methods. And, whether you are on the recent bandwagon of talking about landscape through the lens of performance, phytoremediation, or infrastructure, or, like me, you care about these issues but also about how parks are experienced, management has to be there in every case. Whether you want to pull nitrogen from runoff water or choreograph the occurrence of chartreuse foliage of new daylilies under the unfolding gray-green leaves of oakleaf hydrangea, your landscape will need enduring care. Maintenance is one of the easiest budget line items to cut, and the unwanted results of those cuts don’t fully show up for years, by which time people have forgotten that cuts had been made. People put their energy into the good deed of creating public parks; keeping them in good shape is much less sexy, requiring patient, routine, never-ending labor.