The biggest technological advances for landscape architects have come from the integration of the pen and pencil with the computer. Graphics programs have made presentations, and sharing plans, easier than ever, but the greatest new tools come in the field of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), allowing study of the work site long before an actual site visit.
“[We are] using GIS at the planning level in terms of recreational uses, in terms of identifying travel routes, scenic value of those routes, studying impact of expansions of electrical grids,” says Cameron.
“Most recently, blogs and other social media tools (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.) have opened lines of communication between professionals – allowing for ‘real time’ critiques, opinions and data sharing – worldwide,” says Lustberg. “Nothing is a secret anymore. Its my guess that this will have a great influence on the design profession in the coming years.”
On the ground, the most evident advances have been spurred by a desire to create the illusion of space, privacy, and varied topography, and doing it cost-effectively: the recent trend in using cheaper synthetic fill to build hillocks in place of soil, for example, should make such projects become more pervasive. More often, however, the progress happens from sheer common sense, with very little additional cost to the clients upfront in exchange for significant maintenance savings down the line.
To control storm water runoff and filter it from pollutants from the urban environment, a site needs little more than a bioswail, also known as an ecoswail. Whatever sci-fi fantasies the name may suggest, the system is little more than a trough that collects water by virtue of lower elevation, with pebbles and plants (native, so they require almost no maintenance) acting as filters and dissipaters The innovation comes from experimentation and gathering of evidence, tinkering with depths and locations.
Drake’s dlandstudio is doing just that in the area of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn – originally a swamp, made into a channel for industrial production, particularly petroleum production, and subsequently polluted by the industry’s toxins. In addition, because the area is a catchment area for several neighborhoods in Brooklyn, any substantial rain fall ends up as surface water runoff, as well sanitation sewer runoff from when the systems become flooded. dlandstudio’s Gowanus Sponge Park is a relatively simple concept: absorb the surface water by creating a series of wetlands at the water’s edge, add sidewalk and parking lot swails, bury additional cisterns underground to collect anything extra, study their efficiency and adjust accordingly – and no more runoff. The program required two years to take off, but is now running in conjunction with several city agencies. dlandstudio did not stop with the water purification – the plan includes boardwalks and walkways for when the filthy canal one day becomes a desirable destination on its own.