Page 1

Po e t r y + R e s i l i e n c y

Viewing the Suburban Landscape as a Living System

Kate Cholakis and Emily Lubahn Competition Entry | Suburbia Transformed 2.0 March 2012

INSPIRATION This proposal begins with an acorn sitting amongst the leaf

synchronized their internal processes in order to produce an unfathomable

litter within a quiet and serene deciduous woodland in western Pennsylvania.

surplus of acorns this fall. Scientists refer to this pattern as a mast year, but

Despite the tranquility, the acorn is not alone: it is one of hundreds or even

the details of this process are still an ecological mystery. What we do know is

thousands of acorns that have just been released from the brown and orange

that trees themselves are self-regulating living systems that absorb and transform

oak canopies above. Although the deer, turkeys, squirrels, Blue Jays, and mice

energy, recycle nutrients into the soil, stabilize the ground, and support a

will gorge on this feast, they will not be able to make a dent in the amount

host of animals, other plants, and decomposers. Their science supports a

of acorns littering the landscape: all of the oak trees within this forest have

healthy environment, and their mystery continues to inspire people.

Viewing the Suburban Landscape as a Living System PROJECT DESCRIPTION This proposal gains inspiration from the oak trees occupying the chosen site, and rethinks the suburban landscape as a living system, where ecological processes are drawn into a landscape that is highly used and maintained by people. The benefits of integrating ecological function within such a highly manipulated, residential landscape take the form of: • Cost savings through reducing labor and chemical inputs • Productive yields through growing food on site • Long-term resiliency of gardens through using a diversity of native species appropriate to the site conditions • Improvement of water quality through reducing runoff, impermeable surfaces, and chemical use • Contribution to the health of local ecosystems through incorporating plant communities that support native plants and animals

Applying the concept of systems to the landscape requires contact with the sciences: hydrology, chemistry, zoology, botany, soil science, and nutrient cycles are all crucial components of ecological functioning. However, systems are also poetic. As suggested by Buckminster Fuller, beauty has roots in function. The myriad ways in which plants and animals coexist and coevolve are humbling and profound. Restoring ecological functioning to the landscape therefore holds an additional benefit: a landscape inspired by nature, that incorporates ecological processes found in nature, grants people the opportunity to ponder their placement within the larger systems of the natural world. This connection is powerful, and has the potential to both heal and inspire.

Drawing ecological processes and trophic structure into the built landscape





Prior to subdivision, the area was used agriculturally as a farm. The landscape lost touch with this productivity upon subdivision into single-family residential properties.



Today, the subdivision is bordered to the east by a ravine with a creek, to the north by Lake Erie, and to the west and south by other subdivisions. The site is a 2.3 acre lot that borders two houses to the west and four to the east. The east length of property contains the driveway with a 5’ buffer from the bordering properties.





Lakeside Cliff


South Lawn 1” = 150’

Woodland Plants

Formal Garden Beds around House

South Lawn Facing North

Studying the existing conditions of the site reveals strengths and opportunities in the current functioning of the landscape. Topography (Refer to Section) Although the lawn and area surrounding the house are uniformly flat, the lakeside cliff is very steep with a drop of approximately 130 feet in elevation. The shore is accessed by a wooden stairway. Vegetation (Refer to Photographs) There are a variety of plants along the southern end of the drive including willows, lilacs, sumac, firs, and invasive multi-flora rose. There are several large oaks here as well. Blue spruces and firs are located mid-property. Additional oaks surround house, with two particularly large specimens standing immediately south of the house.Vegetable garden beds, pachysandra, hydrangea, hosta, holly, tiger lilies, boxwood, dogwood, and hemlock are located in the area surrounding the house. Mulched planting beds in this area also include cornflower and blackeyed susan. A large mown lawn dominates the property to the south, and includes a 30x30’ vegetable garden. The cliff to the shore of the lake is bordered by boxwood, several large oaks and ash. Cliffside plants vary from invasive multi-flora rose and non-fruiting raspberries to sumac and willow.



Soils and Drainage The south, southwest and west areas of the site contain a fine sandy loam with clay at three feet below the surface. The west length of the property tends to be very wet; during spring and fall there can be up to three inches of standing water in patches close to the house. The southern end of drive tends to be very wet with up to 5” of standing water in some areas.

Lakeside Cliff

Maintenance The property is mown by the owners approximately every two weeks. All neighboring properties have lawn services that treat the lawns with pesticides and herbicides. The contrast in grass diversity is noticeable. Site Challenges A significant amount of impermeable pavement and somewhat impermeable mown lawn contributes to standing water and runoff along the drive and throughout the lawn. The vegetable garden is quite far from the house, making access difficult. Herb and vegetable plots near the house have limited sunlight due to their location under the large oaks. High populations of deer and turkey eat saplings, berries, and vegetables. Surrounding properties are highly maintained; converting the lawn from grass to meadow will require making it appear intentional. Although the property contains a significant amount of land, this land serves limited function for people and the environment.

Vegetable Garden


1” = 150’


South Lawn Facing South

SITE DESIGN Landscape Patterns • Productive Garden • Rain Garden • Woodland Garden • Grassland Meadows • Riparian and Woodland Restoration 6

• Woodland Garden: gaining inspiration from the trophic structure of nearby woodlands, the woodland garden towards the south of the property is created with oak saplings and groundcovers. This garden stretches to patches of oak trees throughout the property. Existing non-native groundcovers are replaced with strawberries and astilbe.


• Grassland Meadows: monoculture lawn is transformed into a diverse, low-maintenance, self-regulating grassland. An art piece added to the meadow is created using interwoven pieces of driftwood from the lake shore. The seven pieces used to create the orb-like sculpture represent the client’s seven children. The piece is visible yet slightly hidden from the road, daring passersby to gaze deeply into the meadow.


• Riparian and Woodland Restoration: the cliffside vegetation is maintained to support wildlife. This includes removing invasive species, protecting the health of the oak trees, supplementing the woodland with seedlings, and adding plants for erosion control.




3 1” = 150’

• Productive Garden: this expansion of the vegetable garden maximizes the landscape’s ability to allow people to obtain a yield. Added fruit-bearing shrubs and trees extend the garden gracefully beyond the white picket fence. In addition, raised vegetable beds replace pavement to the east side of the house. These beds are built with leftover boards from a remodeling project. Strategies for preventing over-browsing by deer are included in a maintenance handbook for the homeowner. • Rain Garden: patches of native flora that tolerate occasional flooding are installed in an area north of the house, along a path throughout the meadow, and along the driveway. Plants include summersweet and blue flag iris. These patches prevent stormwater runoff by increasing infiltration into the ground.



Landscape Patterns

On-Site Plant Harvesting: Plant material for many of these patterns has been harvested on site. Since the lawn has not been treated chemically, many native species have emerged here since mowing was stopped. Over 20 species have been counted. These species are suited to the site conditions and contribute to the regional character of the landscape.

Restoring ecological functioning to the existing landscape necessitates the development of several patterns that are applied across the site. Each pattern is associated with a particular function that will benefit both people and the environment. Refer to the diagram and the description of patterns. Transforming suburbia demands a shift in how people think about the landscape. Seeking to achieve a recognizable aesthetic, homeowners and designers have created landscapes that no longer function well for people or for the environment. To communicate the need for change, this project begins with suggesting small-scale changes in landscape management that in turn result in small-scale improvements in site drainage, ecology, expenses, and aesthetics. Using mow lines and allowing existing grasses to grow tall is a feasible first step for homeowners, giving them the opportunity to be creative in the landscape while observing change. A maintenance handbook provided to the clients serves as a valuable installation and maintenance guide, yet also contains areas for the homeowners to make changes and note their observations. Small-scale changes will magnify and lay the groundwork for larger adjustments in landscape management. Working with the homeowners allowed the designers to create a flexible system for changing and maintaining the landscape.The design concept is also flexible: the proposed patterns can stitch together and transform over time. Parts of the meadow may be allowed to transition into open woodlands and forests.The meadow may also move closer to the house, replacing more lawn. The ability to adapt to change is key to the long-term sustainability of all landscapes. This presents a challenge yet also an opportunity: change is natural and poetic.

IMAGES Top left: a native grassland meadow contains drifts of wildflowers tolerant of dry to average soils. The grass and meadow species offer food and cover for wildlife, while increasing surface water infiltration. These plants are allowed to grow tall; maintenance is simplified, consisting only of an annual mowing and monitoring for invasive species. A mow line along the edge of the meadow demonstrates to neighbors that the meadow is intentional. Bottom left: mow lines through the meadow create paths that allow people to enter and engage with the landscape. Benches spaced within these meandering corridors allow people to sit and enjoy the view of the grasses as they ripple through the lakeside breeze. The paths connect the road with the vegetable garden, offering a serene stroll to residents. As the paths disappear into the grasses, they add an element of mystery to the landscape.


Connectivity + Mystery


Top left: an area to the front of the property is thoughtfully and artfully designed to allure the attention of passersby to the meadow. Attractive perennials and grasses at the entrance of the mow path invite people to think about the interplay between design and nature. Although the meadow will save the client money while contributing to the health of the local ecosystem, this space along the street communicates that there is beauty in biodiversity.


Art + Science

Top right: the vegetable garden expands beyond its picket fence, serving as a metaphor for the larger concepts of the property design. Blueberry shrubs, fruit trees and nut trees planted outside of this fence serve as resiliency patches, offering higher yields of food production on site. Garden maintenance shifts from yearly rototilling to sheet mulching.


Beauty + Production

Bottom Left: the design of a round orb created from driftwood responds to the client’s interest in integrating artwork into the landscape. The shape of the wood comments on movement, and might accommodate harvesting energy from the movement of the pieces in the wind.


Bottom right: raised vegetable beds replace existing pavement on the site. This reduces the amount of impermeable surface while moving food production closer to the building. 6

Left: salt and moisture-tolerant shrubs line the driveway, absorbing water from the road while creating a visual buffer between the road, mow strip, and meadow. The plants chosen for this border are beautiful during all four seasons: persistent berries, dormant foliage, and unique branching activate this area of the landscape throughout the colder months. Right: the meadow sweeps up to the house, encompassing native plantings. Perennials and grasses are interplanted with existing groundcovers, creating a more dynamic and diverse garden ecosystem. 8

Garden + Ecosystem 7

Change is poetic. This project is inspired by the living systems that are under constant change and transformation. Our hope for this project is that it will act as acorn taking root in a new location. The beauty of the space will inspire those who pass by, daring them to convert a patch or all of their traditional suburban lawn to a living, ecological system that functions for people, plants, and animals. This new approach to landscape design seeks to encourage suburban dwellers to ponder the wonders of the natural world of which they are a part.

Viewing the Suburban Landscape as a Living System...

Poetry + Resilience, Viewing the Suburban Landscape as a Living System  

Connectivity & mystery, art & science, beauty & production, garden & ecosystem. These are all the possibilities converting a suburban lawn t...

Poetry + Resilience, Viewing the Suburban Landscape as a Living System  

Connectivity & mystery, art & science, beauty & production, garden & ecosystem. These are all the possibilities converting a suburban lawn t...