Blog Post

HydroLogic: Enhancing the Nature of Water in Landscape Design

Water is a part of landscape architecture. The presence and absence of it influences the climate, the vegetation, and the culture around it. In the beginning of historic times, regular people use water from natural resource, such as rivers and lakes to sustain their lives. They obtain food and culture the food from it, they relax around it, they survive drinking it, and it became somewhat an attraction for people to settle around. That is why many big cities were located next to water bodies.

                For people who are in higher positions, although, water was not just an element to survive. It became arts and power over nature. Many elites of different culture announced their power with the water engineering system. The distinctive example is Villa d’Este in Italy, where the climate was quite dry. One third of the water resource in the city it was in was transferred to be amusement, relaxation, and luxury of the Villa’s owner[1]. Although the water in the city was relatively dry, it is still abundant enough for the villagers, and the quality of water seemed not to be very problematic.

                The population growth and the technologies along with two thousand year of history shifted the entire world to a totally different place after 20th Century, yet the idea of controlling power in landscape still remained. The recent studies had been done to proof that water in landscape is very much justified because of its function over temperature control and its psychological relieving effect[2]. The total difference was: it was not only the hierarchies anymore that have the access to such power. The establishments of water features, along with plants that need special water treatment than needed on the particular climates, are everywhere. For a certain point of time, such design was a very successful beauty. Most of the successful parks and landscape in US still broke the open rules and created the ‘beautiful landscape’ regardless of the vernacular the particular landscape locates. We saw green lawns everywhere even where it was once desert area[3].

                Once the reliable, usable freshwater sources become less and less abundant, many designers and firms picked up the clue and try to compromise with nature. With the new water engineering system in the time, it is possible to receive the water from the site, store it, use it along with application of the water from the outer source, and then let the remaining off to nature. These designs are the designs of the present. It has been well accepted and became one of the strongest principles toward Landscape Design[4].

                However, just using the rainwater to reduce water irrigation alone might not be enough to solve this global trouble. For various reasons, the reduction freshwater reservoir that had been a crisis only in West Coast is now starting to move east. According to a study done on Catawba River across North Carolina and South Carolina, the water level is dropping drastically low that the riverbank might just become a vast plain. That means the water source of it, the Florida aquifer, has lost its power to supply water to the river. In this rate, locating next to the coast like it does, the Southeastern region in the US will suffer a clean water shortage in no time[5].

                If the threat of water shortage on the citizens’ lives is not enough, the political tensions about water issue between states would make it even worst. Florida, Georgia, and Alabama tried their hardest to compromise their water sharing fight[6].

                Comparing to Southeastern region, the West Coast might actually have suffered much more on water issues. Leave alone the water needed for landscaping; the water wars have been going on forever in Southern California that they were called ‘The Fight between Fish and People.’ The large amount of water has been pumped into the aqueducts to supply the agriculture all along the Sacramento Delta. When the pumping was reduced due to the environmental issue of the endangered species, the farmers did a sharp strike[7]. They compared this decision of California government as ‘equals to the earthquake.’ However, if we let the cropping going on the same way they are, the California’s water infrastructure might be destroyed as well[8].

These struggles show how Californians have suffered from this water issue, and it is not our job, as landscape architects, to take more water than it needs to. The Californians still care for beauty from water and the landscaping plants that mostly need water, but it’s our real job problem to figure out how.

When looking closer where University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign locates, the great lakers are, inevitably, also starting to be anticipated about the water wars. While other parts of the country suffer from water shortage so much they fight for years, the states surrounding Great Lakes have the largest source of fresh water with them. Some states in the drier regions, such as New Mexico and Georgia, suggest that the water source should be for share[9].

However, the lakes are fragile enough with the changes around it. Lake Superior’s water level dropped for another 2 inches this year, and a few aquifers around Lake Michigan have been polluted. The city of New Berlin, Missouri, has been fighting hard to transfer some of Lake Michigan’s water to store in the city because of their contaminated aquifers. Since the city is located just a little away from the basin, once the permit allows the water to transfer to it, the political tension between the states will outrage unpredictably. Now, the city of New Berlin lives in a very political and health sensitive risks.[10]

And landscape Architects can be a part of solving these wars that threaten human’s health, physical and psychologically, as well as the ecological system of the earth.

To prevent these similar problems to occur worldwide, Famous firms of Landscape Architecture have made their moves. Turenscape, the world’s biggest landscape architecture company in China takes these issues that also appear across worldwide into their design morale[11]. According to Kongjian Yu, the CEO of the firm, the goal of the design now is to make a ‘rustic beauty’ to the landscape. He exclaims that the beauty now of the forced turf lawn and rows of trees are nothing more than a ‘little feet landscape’ which term refers to the Chinese ancient culture in which the girls had to force their feet into a cup size to fit the ‘civilized’ beauty. For the company, the water infrastructure and ecology is one of the most important parts in the design. This new kind of beauty that Turenscape makes fits the vernacular of each site and creates new aesthetic value that is unique to one particular site or region[12].        

                Some of the US’s landscape companies also pick up the phase quickly as well. A few good examples of those companies are Michael Van Valkenberg Associates and the Conservational Design Forum inc. Both of the firm concentrates much on how to compromise with water to fit the need in each region as much as possible. For Van Valkenberg, the good design displays on Allegheny Riverfront Park. This riverfront will have a beautiful strip along Allegheny River on Pittsburg, PA, which would be submerged under the water in a time every year. On the other time it would have to frost and drought. However, with the plant selection and the study of water, the design is highly resilient with low maintenance[13].     

                Compared to Michael Van Valkenberg Associates, Conservational Design Forums has much stronger goal toward water management. It is a multi-disciplinary company that has the main goal of manipulating the water ecological system toward the designs they have done. James Patchett, the founder, has displayed his determination of water design in many scales across the mid-west such as the Green Street in West Union, IA, and the Waukegan Lakefront, Waukegan, IL[14].

                Beside these two companies, there are many firms and many work pieces all around US that embrace the design with take the hydrological design into consideration. 

                The stated companies realized the situation we have been and will be facing, and they are leading the way toward the solution. People want beautiful green space to be alive. People need water to live, but green space also needs water to survive. However, there are ways to build a green space that won’t require too much outer water, or even purify and cleanse up some water. It is a job, from now on, of the landscape architects, to find the way to bring the needs to one point that people, in any region, can enjoy the green, natural landscape without having to be dead from thirst.


[1] Harris, Diane. "LA314:The Italian Villa." University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Champaign, IL. Spring 2009. Lecture.

[2] Matsuoka, Rodney. "Restoring Landscape Elements." LA270. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Champaign, IL. Spring 2009. Lecture.

[3] Harris, Diane. "Landscape after 19th Century." LA314. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Champaign, IL. Spring 2009. Lecture

[4] Patchett, James. "Coffee Creek and the Sustainability in Water Management." LA335 Fieldtrip. Coffee Creek Center, Chicago, IL. 18 Sept. 2009. Speech

[5] Cubie, Doreen. "The Water Wars Move East." National Wildlife 47.6 (2009): 16-18. EBSCOhost. Web. 15 Nov. 2009.

[6] "Florida, Almabama, Georgia Water Sharing." WaterWebster. Web. 15 Nov. 2009. <http://waterwebster.com>.

[7] "California Water War Spreads to Congress." CBS NEWS [Washington, DC] 16 Oct. 2009, Politics sec. CBS NEWS. Web. 15 Nov. 2009. <www.cbsnews.com>.

[8] "California's Water Wars of Farms, Folks, and Fish." The Economist 22 Oct. 2009. Www.economist.com. 22 Oct. 2009. Web. 15 Nov. 2009.

[9] Great Lakes Water Battle. Dir. Adam Hinterthuer. Great Lake Water Wars. Web. 15 Nov. 2009. <greatlakeswaterwars.com>.

[10] Great Lakes Water Battle. Dir. Adam Hinterthuer. Great Lake Water Wars. Web. 15 Nov. 2009. <greatlakeswaterwars.com>.

[11] Turenscape-Landscape Architecture-Urban Design- Architecture- Environmental Design. Web. 15 Nov. 2009. <http://www.turenscape.com>.

[12] Yu, Kongjian. "From the Art of Survival to the Art beyond Survival." Landscape Architecture Lecture Series. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Champaign, IL. Oct. 2009. Lecture.

[13] Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Allegheny Riverfront Park. New York: Princeton Architectural, 2005. Print.

[14] Conservation Design Forum :: Home. Web. 15 Nov. 2009. <http://www.cdfinc.com>.

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