A Case for Landscape / by Lora Martens

A open letter to all pro-bono residential improvement projects: 


Here is a list of 5 things I would think about as a landscape architect when visiting a project site. I encourage you to use this to think about the site and identify ways in which landscape architects could help with this project. I would like to see all housing improvement projects such include a portion of the budget for landscape improvements. 

Safety - Drainage issues, stormwater management

Questions to ask:

Is the drainage functioning on the site? Have the home owners reported any standing water or water coming inside the house? 


Drainage issues can be very damaging and don't necessarily have to be an expensive fix. Diverting water away from the building through light grading and adding dry wells are both easy and inexpensive way to deal with stormwater on a site. 


Ecology - Trees and plants

Questions to ask:

How many trees does a site have? Are there any street trees in the public right of way? Are the trees on the site healthy or appropriate for the site?

What condition is the site planting in? Are the plants healthy, overgrown or appropriate for the site? Is there lawn? Does the resident use the lawn?


Trees have been shown to directly increase the appraised value of the home as well as increase the perceived value of a home. 

Exposure to green space with trees have been shown to lower stress levels in people. Trees also clean the air and provide habitat for wildlife. 

Landscape planting makes up 25% of residential water use on average nationwide. This water use can be decreased by reducing lawn, choosing climate appropriate plants and adding smart controllers to automatic irrigation systems. 


Health and Self Reliance - Space for Growing Food

Questions to ask:

Is the client interested in a space to grow food? If the client isn't able to commit time to growing food, would they be interested in a fruit tree?


Studies show that food production at home leads to healthier eating (people who grow more fruits and vegetables eat more fruits and vegetables). Spending time in the garden is also excellent exercise, particularly for elderly adults, and has been shown to lower stress and blood pressure in adults. If the project is retrofitting systems to capture grey water, some fruit fruit trees can tolerate grey water and need it at the rate that a house can produce it.


Well Being - Outdoor living

How much of the outdoor space can be used by the residents? How sloped is the site? Is there any hardscape, and what condition is it in. Do the residents have a play area outside? Do they have seating outside that is accessible to all residents of the house? Does the landscape support the values and lifestyle of the residents? 


Ecology - Soil

What shape is the site soil in? When is the last time compost has been added to the soil? Is there mulch present? Mulch can be either leaf litter left on site...or added mulch, like bark mulch. Is this mulch 2" deep minimum? 


Soil is often overlooked in urban environments, where it is the most damaged. Building up healthy soil systems takes time, but a layer of compost and mulch added every year can increase the soil's capacity to hold water, requiring less water to irrigate the landscape. Healthy soil with high levels of microbes also can be a carbon sink, helping with the reduction of carbon in the atmosphere. 

Feel free to contact me to discuss any of these points, or if you would like the research for any of these studies. 

Lora Martens

Landscape Architect