The Sustainability Trap

Stone + Flora series: Sustainability

By now most of us have heard or read about sustainability perhaps hundreds of times. But ask yourself or another person what sustainability means and a concise response will be unlikely. We generally know what it means but we have difficulty articulating it. My distilled definition is that sustainability is the core of ecological balance based on our use and re-use of natural resources. Our current and future existence is dependent on the stability and health of our natural environment.

Sustainability is the continuation of natural systems without depletion of necessary resources.

Sustainable landscapes

How is this for a concise definition as sustainability applies to landscapes? I think it’s perfect: “Sustainable landscapes are responsive to the environment, re-generative, and can actively contribute to the development of healthy communities. Sustainable landscapes sequester carbon, clean the air and water, increase energy efficiency, restore habitats, and create value through significant economic, social and, environmental benefits.” American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)

Dense plantings shade soil and stifle weed growth
Trees and understory plantings reduce storm run-off into a marsh

Merely thinking of landscapes as outdoor spaces of beauty is obviously not enough. Even usable spaces may in fact be unsustainable if our end goal is primarily a stunning garden ready for a photo shoot. Not surprisingly as designers, we believe in the process of a thorough, holistic approach to building and preserving landscapes. Land, organisms (those include people!), structures, context, history, climate and narrative are all drawn from and then integrated into sustainable landscape design. The “narrative”? Yes that’s the story we are telling through each design. And herein lies the potential trap.

We have dutifully analyzed the site, taken notes and photos, drawn the base plans, the concept plans and refined the final plans. Our quest for the ideal landscape that is comprised of: √habitat  √soil stabilization  √stormwater capture  √native plants  √local stone  √edible plants  √outdoor spaces to enjoy and observe. All the boxes have been checked and our landscape has been built and molded into the site as envisioned. The narrative unfolds as creatures begin to settle into our sensitively-built environment. Birds, insects, animals, flowers, seeds and other food sources proliferate. So beautiful too. We have achieved sustainability.

Native plantings and boulders integrated to stabilize a slope

But how do we know? We really don’t because ecological balance takes time. I don’t know how long and I’m certain it varies. What’s truly astounding is how, with a little disturbance and re-arranging, the natural forces take over and transform a landscape. This can be messy according to our ingrained landscape sensibilities. Mowing a native grass lawn weekly and raking leaves annually are incongruous with sustainable landscapes. Even annually adding compost can be detrimental! It is true that not all of us are ready to step back and reduce the tinkering and preening of our gardens. However this is ultimately necessary in achieving genuine ecological balance and sustainability. What about public parks and play spaces (tick infestations, etc)?  Yes concessions are still needed but let’s start thinking differently about these spaces as well.  Until we become knowledgeable stewards of our ecological landscapes, we remain in the sustainability trap of good intentions. Sustainability remains an ongoing quest not the apex of human resourcefulness and compassion.

6 thoughts on “The Sustainability Trap”

  1. Good article, Zachary.
    It’s good to ensure that the finished space is ecologically balanced. I like the ethics.
    Over the last year or so, the Stone Federation of Great Britain widened the focus by looking at the supply chain of the natural stone materials that might be used in the project. Recently, some high street store names were embarrassed when it was discovered that their granite came from quarries that used child labour. There are also examples of slave labour being used in some London construction projects. This initiative by the Stone Federation checks that stone suppliers (and their supply chain) operate sustainably and ethically. As a result, the Ethical Stone Register was created.
    There’s more about the Register and our journey on this blog page: or visit

    1. Thanks so much Steve! This is a great resource and something I’ve been thinking about for many years. Again many are misled into thinking that natural stone must be the most sustainable choice without thought of the source. We will be sure to share the work of the Stone Federation here in the US. Please check in again if you’d like as we will be posting more pieces on ecology, ethics and sustainability.

  2. I am all agree with you however if we watch buildings with real aesthetic values we always find the signature of the creativer. There are intentionality in the aesthetic designing process and not everything is integration in energy expenditure. Why not in landscape design? Even in small or big sizes. This is a questión that concern me now. Greetings.

    1. Absolutely Antonio – why not in landscapes? I think there’s a tendency to have so much of our landscape efforts “cloaked in green” that we assume sustainability is priority when in fact many aspects of the designs and management are unsustainable.

  3. Such a good article on the complex puzzle of sustainability. When clients look for “pretty” and “low maintenance”, the true multifaceted functions of cultivated landscapes transcend those desires into so much more. We, as professionals have so much work to do in educating, refocusing priorities and repairing prior ecological mistakes (such as the introduction of Callery pear by USDA to name one of many…) clients often do not see beyond “pretty” to consider long term sustainability for future generations. Sustainability is so complex. Thank you for including the economic factor of this puzzle. To “sell” the installation of environmentally sensitive design, sustainability must also be viewed by the end user as economically appealing. Thank you for verbalizing this concept so clearly.

    1. The economic factor is so important! Incidentally, true sustainable design and management of landscapes actually saves the landowner money over time. However designers, installers and maintenance professionals will all reap the benefits. It is not a stretch to foresee the demand for created and repaired sustainable landscapes and wildlife habitats increasing exponentially as practitioners and clients begin to better understand their respective roles. Ecological practitioners offer a premium service worthy of susbtantial compensation!

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