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How Sustainable Is Landscaping?

14/02/2023 - News

Sustainability is a word that we hear quite often these days. But what does it mean? More specifically, what does in mean for the landscape industry? And how sustainable IS landscaping right now?  These are all important questions that should be in the forefront of the minds of garden designers, landscape architects, property developers, landscapers and landscape suppliers.

Before I get too deep into this article, I want to point out that whilst I’ve done my best to fact-check the information within it, most of the words are based on my own thoughts and opinions.  I’m not a climate change expert, nor an ecologist or even an economist.  I am, however keen to make sure that the next generation - and every generation to follow - has a comfortable place to live with enough food and water to sustain a decent quality of life.  I’m sure, that you will disagree with some of my points, and if you do, I’d love to hear your side of the argument, so please ping me an email or comment on my social media profiles to start a conversation.

What Does Sustainability Mean?

We hear it all the time - sustainable building, sustainable farming, sustainable transport but what does it mean?

The RHS defines sustainable gardening as “the concept of using practices to maintain a garden so that natural resources are not exhausted and without causing ecological damage.’  That’s fairly easy to understand - in other words a sustainable garden should be managing water, looking after the soil, respecting biodiversity and possibly also be economical in its use of fossil fuels for mowers, strimmers etc.  

However the job of a garden designer and a landscaper is to CREATE gardens, albeit ones that can be sustainably managed.  And building a garden necessitates moving and importing materials, operating machinery and of course employing skilled labour.

I’m not sure that the RHS definition of a sustainable garden goes quite far enough to help us decide whether the landscape industry is planet-friendly.

I also found a definition of sustainable products.  Landscaping uses products and one could say that a new garden is, in itself a product.  This definition reads.  “A sustainable product is an item that doesn’t deplete resources while offering environmental, social and economic benefits throughout its life cycle. Therefore sustainability is made up of three pillars, the economy, society, and the environment.”  Now That’s a definition I can work with.

Is Landscaping Economically Sustainable?

Hmmm, does landscaping offer positive benefits to the economy? Well yes, I think if we look at the overall picture it does.

We know for example, that in well designed and well managed landscaped areas there are fewer problems with crime and vandalism.  I also get the feeling that where streets and communities are ‘greener’, residents and visitors are more likely to spend time and money in local businesses. Which has never been as important as it is right now. And of course, there is lots of anecdotal evidence to suggest that landscaping can increase the value of a property by a decent percentage.

Then there is the industry’s contribution to GDP  which, according to this article on the economic impact of ornamental horticulture and landscaping, is estimated to be £42 Billion by the year 2030.

I know that right now, some landscaping companies are feeling the pinch as consumer confidence has dipped, which means that landscaping doesn’t feel as though it’s economically sustainable to those poor souls. But I’m sure that this is a temporary blip and that garden designers, landscapers, growers, manufacturers and suppliers will soon start to see healthier bank balances. So yes, in my humble opinion, Landscaping is economically sustainable.

How Does Landscaping Affect Societies?

I think when it comes to asking if landscaping is sustainable for societies, we need to look not so much at the UK and the developed world, but at the less affluent countries, many of whom are the source of our landscaping materials.  Mining, quarrying, manufacturing and transporting landscaping materials for UK based projects offers work to those who would otherwise struggle to survive.  

Having said that, I’m very well aware that there may still be unscrupulous producers who exploit their employees. That’s one of the reasons I prefer to visit factories and quarries personally before committing to buy from them.  I refuse to spend money with organisations who have no morals when it comes to the welfare of their workforce.  

Closer to home, I’m in no doubt that careful design and implementation of landscaping schemes in the UK contributes enormously to the health and wellbeing of communities. In my opinion,  providing safe and attractive outdoor spaces for people to meet, socialise and exercise must surely help reduce the strain on our health and social services.  

How Environmentally Sustainable Is Landscaping?

I’m sure that most people associate the word ‘sustainability’ with carbon footprints, biodiversity, climate change and stormwater management.  I certainly do.  And of course landscaping is integral to all of these things.

Manipulating drainage and water storage, providing shade, creating safe spaces for people, preventing soil erosion, making places for wildlife and for food production, and even, in some cases  contributing to thermal insulation in the form of living walls and green roofs. Landscaping, on the face of it is incredibly sustainable.  But is it though? How sustainable is landscaping really?

Maintaining a landscaped area can certainly be sustainable.  By using appropriate plants, adding caring for soil and using organic pest control a garden can be beneficial to the environment and to people.  And certainly, anywhere that has plants that help sequester carbon has to be good for the planet.

But what about building that garden?  Think of the landscaping process and how much energy it uses.  Energy to extract materials and create natural stone or porcelain pavers.  Energy to transport materials around the world. The use of plastics.  Energy to bring landscapers to work so that they can use energy consuming machines for groundworks and for shaping landscaping materials.  Energy to take waste away from site and (hopefully) recycle it.

One report suggests that the concrete is responsible for 4-8% of global carbon emissions. That’s a scary figure. I’m sure it’s driven more by construction industry than by landscaping.  Nevertheless does the use of concrete impact on how sustainable landscaping is?

Making Landscaping More Sustainable

The thing is, it’s difficult to measure the carbon footprint of anything. There are so many factors and variables to take into account that I'm not sure scientists have really got the hang of it yet.  And if we can’t measure something, we can’t possibly know how good or bad it is, or how to change things for the better.  But there a few things we could all try to do sooner rather than later.

  • enlightened Switch to battery tools wherever possible - not necessarily right now, today, but when your power tools ‘die’ you could replace them with cleaner, more energy efficient equivalents.

  • enlightened Consider electric vehicles too, I know of several companies who have invested in EV and are pleased with their decision.

  • enlightened Insist on including plants in any landscaping scheme.  I appreciate that not all clients want to look after soft landscaping, but low maintenance plants are readily available and clients can easily be put in touch with a professional gardener who can look after the plants on their behalf.
  • enlightened Avoid any plastic products that cannot be recycled.
  • enlightened Choose really durable materials, ones that don't need lots of maintenance, and can be used for many years before they need replacing.
  • enlightened Go for fixtures and fittings that can be repaired rather than replaced.  This is one reason that I particularly like Neil Parslow's light fittings.
  • enlightened Use reclaimed stone where you can.  I know there is less choice in reclaimed stone than there is in say, porcelain pavers, but by using reclaimed you are making a slight reduction in the amount of raw material that needs to be extracted from the earth and processed.
  • enlightened Source UK made landscaping materials.  Straight away you are supporting the UK economy and of course, these products won’t have to travel half way around the world to get to your site.  You’d be surprised at the variety of products that are made and grown in this country.  Check out my UK Made Range of landscaping materials.
  • enlightened Work with local ecologists to find out how best you can support biodiversity in your area without impacting too heavily on the client brief.
  • enlightened Try to find carbon neutral or carbon negative landscaping products.  As I write, there are a few manufactures doing what they can to recycle materials and improve their carbon footprint.  Watch this space for more news on that.
  • enlightened Use permeable surfacing materials to help manage stormwater.  Planning often dictates permeable surfaces for front gardens, but there’s nothing stopping you from using them to the back and side of the building too.  Anything we can do to keep the natural water cycle in good health has got to be worth the effort.
  • enlightened Consider installing green roofs on garden buildings and living walls on facades in order to squeeze as many plants as possible into a project.
  • enlightened Get involved in training up the next generation of skilled landscapers. Sustainability means that something can carry on indefinitely.  Without the brains, innovation, enthusiasm and manual dexterity of landscapers, we definitely won’t have a sustainable industry, so let’s do what we can to inspire new people to learn about landscaping and work with us.  

Who is responsible for sustainability in landscaping?

In a nutshell, everyone involved in a landscaping project bears some responsible for sustainability.  

Clients: The world needs clients to understand the potential impact that their project can have on supporting local businesses (garden designers, landscapers, suppliers, manufactures, hauliers).  They should also consider the longevity of their project - you’ve heard the old adage, buy cheap, buy twice.  Well if one garden build has an impact on the environment, destroying badly executed work and replacing it with another new garden must make that impact even greater.  Hiring reputable and skilled landscapers in the first place - even if they cost a little more - is surely the more sustainable option.

Garden designers and landscape architects should be aware of the potential environmental impact of their designs and explain to clients the importance of planting, waterwise garden features, and choosing sustainably sourced materials.

Landscapers can tweak their processes to not only save themselves costs, but also to reduce the carbon footprint of their businesses where possible.

Suppliers and Manufacturers have a big part to play in responsible sourcing of things like stone and timber.  We should also be conducting research and innovating to make products as sustainable as possible.

Plant breeders and growers - you are already awesome.  But if you need to shout louder about the new varieties of plants that are bred for disease resistance, drought tolerance and the ability to adapt to our changing climate.  Oh and if you could find an alternative to plastic pots, that would be great too please.

Government and Big Business - Ultimately the government/defra/environments agency/planning legislation should also be taking responsibility for sustainable landscaping.  Of course we wouldn't want 'big brother' to be telling us what can and can't go in our private gardens. But for large developments local authorites and government are already legislating for biodiversity net gain, sustainable water management and climate change mitigation.  
Could big business be paying more attention to landscaping and green infrastructure as part of its CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) programs - possibly, yes. 

Ultimately though, each and every one of us should be looking to our own consciense before specifying, buying or installing landscaping materials.  I believe there is an equilibrium to be found, and that the carbon footprint of any landscaping project can be offset over time by balancing hard landscaping with organically managed soft landscaping.

What Will YOU Do To Futureproof Landscaping?

If each of us do our bit, the landscape industry could make an enormous contribution to the UK economy and to the health of our planet.  What will you do?

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