NEAR NATURE: The Role of Native Botany in the Geography of Everyday Life

Every physical structure, everything that occupies space in the arena of everyday life, is contextual. It exists, certainly, but since it does not exist in a vacuum, we appreciate it in relation to its surrounds. A fabulous piece of modern architecture plunked down in the middle of a boulevard of classic New England homes is jarring because it does not fit inside the context of its locale. The house itself may be smashing and a clear beacon of individuality ~ very much a New England characteristic ~ but our eye still struggles with the collision of two such distinct worlds.

Buildings that do appear connected to both their immediate sites and the broader locale, whether new construction or renovation, have sufficient reference points to their specific geography that we perceive them as part of a unified whole. In other words, they speak the architectural vernacular of the region. Whether there is a formula, a definitive percentage that constitutes sufficiency, is debatable, but no doubt lies somewhere between all and nothing.

The same holds true for the structural botany of a site, the trees and shrubs that constitute the ‘bones’ of a landscape design; only by speaking the botanical vernacular of a region do we move that landscape beyond mere occupation of space into the creation of place. To effect place, the landscape design must have sufficient botanical relevance to the broader locale, and that sufficiency lies somewhere between all hybrid or all native. The condition of ‘all’ exists only on a pristine parcel; the moment we begin to build, the moment we insert the human element into the natural landscape, we have an equation, we have some of the built environment woven into some of the natural environment. For those of us who create place, the job is to weave as seamlessly as possible.

Admittedly, the construct of place has a metaphysical quality, but the primary threads are wholly tangible and identifiable. The warp and weft of the fabric of place are vernacular architecture and vernacular botany, plants which are either true natives or which have been part of the communal landscape for so long they are fully integrated into both the visual aesthetic and wildlife habitat. The coast of southern Maine, for example, is cloaked in Rosa rugosa, commonly called beach rose and though technically not native, is so long established that it’s hard to imagine the coastline without it. Every locale has its own version of this, making the purist stance of ‘native only’ not just futile, but foolish. The ephemeral quality that we call ‘spirit of place’ is, in part, psychological, and keyed by emotional attachment and memory. There’s often a plant at the core of that attachment, so whether or not the plant is native in the strict sense, we are wise to use it, to allow the attachment to flow into the place we are creating.

In this paper, as in others, I equate botany with architecture for good reason: alongside their value as structural design elements, both are evocative of specific geographical place and being eradicated at alarming rates. In his brilliant work The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler chronicled the architectural demise of Main Street and with it, the perpetual blight afflicting small cities and towns across the country. Poor planning, apathy and a shocking lack of foresight all seem to have played a role in what he calls ”…the immersive ugliness of the built environment.” These are the very forces at work today in the botanical realm.

The advantage we have when considering how to stop the loss of vernacular botany is the evidentiary trail of damage left by the loss of vernacular architecture and the data we already have concerning the psychological weight of botanical loss post-Hurricane Hugo. A research team conducting a study in Charlotte, South Carolina, came up with some startling figures: a full thirty percent of survey respondents “identified something natural as the most special [place] feature damaged or destroyed.” That figure is a composite of two categories (parks and gardens 13%, street and yard trees 17%) and I mention them separately because it helps us understand the ranked importance of the individual elements which comprise a region’s botanic array.

There’s one more intriguing statistic from the research: the category of home garnered the same thirteen percent as parks and gardens, a comparison that I confess surprised even me. What’s the takeaway from this study? If people place greater value on trees than on every other significant element in their physical world, then botanical considerations are deservedly on par at minimum with architectural considerations in site planning and development. The vernacular array is a design feature that can be used to effect connection, person to place.

“On balance, it appears that residents value their environment for much more than purely functional and economic reasons. Part of this value seems wrapped up in the meanings symbolized by place features and the contribution this mean- ing makes to place identity. This quality of the environment exists in an intangible transaction between people and place. It is not easily seen by officials or professionals concerned with community renewal, reconstruction, and/or development efforts. Hence, it is easily ignored, resulting in the production of sterile, identity-less environments that may further disassociate residents from their place-based communities.”

We already acknowledge the value of vernacular botany on the grand scale ~ it’s in every tract of land we preserve, every scenic overlook we enshrine ~ but on the scale of the ordinary, the landscape of everyday life, we treat any green thing as interchangeable with any other. This is akin to saying that a Cajun dish could be swapped for a Thai dish because they’re both spicy. The argument would be ludicrous on its face, and yet we continue to say that a tree is a tree.

The case for retention of botanical vernacular is usually made on behalf of local fauna, in the maintenance of habitat and food sources for these other, smaller members of the biotic community. Those arguments are well founded, and the logic of taking care of species on whom we ourselves depend is irrefutable. Environmental altruism alone, however, is insufficient, and only one element in a larger, more persuasive brief: the biotic community includes us. Putting a human value on the botanic array, recognizing its worth to us, makes the thesis personal. Ironically, making it personal broadens both the argument itself and the circle to whom the argument can be made.

The argument comes up against two forces: the inertia of common landscape practices and a long history of what Kunstler calls the ‘extreme individualism’ of American property ownership. When we think of home as the castle, landscape becomes the realm and we stamp our mark on every inch of the domain, often with all the heavy-handedness that phrase implies. These are landscapes conceived of possession and levied at will; such are not stewardship concepts and yet this land is as important a conservation issue as any other. We just don’t see it yet because we aren’t looking at the network they create in terms of its effect on the human populace.

The practice of considering property a ‘blank slate’ is, sadly, still around, and even those who build within the envelope often cling to the notion that private property is somehow visually private, and install whatever landscape confection catches their fancy. Here I can only echo Thomas Paine and say “…a long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.” To alter custom, we must first alter our concept of public space.

In the arena of design, with the exception of far-flung rural sites, every property has a civic interface. Any aspect of your site that is within your neighbor’s visual field becomes, in its own way, your neighbor’s. This common visual is the thread that weaves through neighborhoods, and towns, and cities; it will either frame what writer Jonah Lehrer calls “a world of form and space that we can understand,” or it will not. It will either create a sense of place, or it will not. It will either maintain the unique botanic vernacular of a region, or it will not.

Since place identity is an integral element of self-identity, fraying this common visual thread wears us thin. Designing in situ, using the botany of locale to maintain a sense of place even on the smallest, most ordinary residential lot, will do more than keep that individual owner connected to the land, it will add to the fabric for the rest of us. For all the talk in all the fields that concern themselves with sense of place and its inextricable link to rootedness, no one is discussing rootedness in its literal meaning, that of having actual, physical roots in the ground, nor contemplating the plants that arise from those roots. This poses the question: how much of place alienation results from stripping away vernacular botany and the opportunity for connectedness that unique botanical expression provides?

Said another way, the botany of locale is a tangible method of actualizing the ephemeral concept of genius loci. Those of us who design know that the maintenance of spirit of place is the ultimate achievement on any project; while some may insist that the quality is too transitory to be captured, I say that its roots are quite literally in the ground. Place, spirit and all, is an entirely plantable idea built, leaf by leaf, from the botany of locale. Those of us who design and build planned environments have, with every project, the opportunity to create places of meaning and matter.

You get to meaning by tying your site to the broader locale, using native botany as connective tissue; you get to matter by insinuating the built into the unbuilt. Whether urban planner, designer, architect or builder, all of us manipulate some aspect of the environment, so when I say insinuate I do in fact mean maneuver into a position of favor by artful methods. Not just any position, but a position of favor; not just any method, but an artful one. The better I do my job, the more artful, the more intuitive I am, the more favorable the outcome.

That said, neither the gentlest positioning nor the most artful construction will ever make a built property appear unbuilt; the goal is to render the finished site as whole as possible. If we understand that what makes us whole is connection to place, and we understand that botany is an element of that connection, then the logical step is to use the botany of locale to make the site appear whole, to put it into a position of favor in our mind’s eye.

The problem with sites that lack this connective ability is akin to a problem faced by robotics designers called the ‘uncanny valley,’ a phrase which describes the unease people feel the more closely a robot resembles a human. We seem to recognize that the humanoid robot is, in the words of David Rose, “…a human being in everything but the most important elements: heart, mind, soul.” I believe that same emotional construct is at work when people occupy sites which are mere facsimiles of place, sites which lack the elemental connection found in the botany of locale. We experience these sites with the same vague unease; although we may not be able to pinpoint the cause, we recognize that something is off. Consequently, as we interact with them, we’re never fully comfortable, never nestled within. To some, that may sound like an emotional or psychological issue; to me, it’s a simple matter of botany. Once the site is redesigned to reflect the botanical vernacular of the region, the landscape version of the uncanny valley dissipates.

In addition, creating sites with legitimate resonance, with their own zeitgeist, may obviate the need to install the coopted landscapes ~ English cottage, Tuscan, Zen ~ of other cultures. We desperately seek places of resound, but because the everyday landscape has been so neutered, so stripped of place identity, we grab any identity we can find. The desire is completely understandable, but the ‘cookie-cutter’ landscape that results is not, because the concept behind the concept garden is entirely mutable. English cottage is happy and carefree; Zen is ordered and tranquil. These sets of ideas, these feelings, are easily separated from their usual design schemes and translated into the regional vernacular. Using the botany of locale imbues the landscape with a place identity all its own; unique, but clearly and visibly part of the whole. In possession of the visual and emotional goals of the concept, but relevant and connected to its specific geography.

Cues from vernacular botany can be used in the selection of materials for both buildings and hardscaping, as well. When these surfaces are wrapped in colors that correspond to what the eye sees elsewhere in the locale, the constructed elements become visually integrated into the site. Since every built environment will, of necessity, lose a measure of visual integrity, the more connective cues we build into the new construct, the more unified the finished development will appear. Greater visual unity, which is a primary goal from the design standpoint, has a secondary benefit: it’s easier for the brain to process. Sites designed in this fashion have a more fluid read, which make them less stressful all around. Given the pressure and pace of daily life, any measure that might contribute to stress reduction ~ particularly in and around dwelling space ~ should be employed. To borrow from University of Montreal’s Peter Jacobs, “At issue are the imaginative, sensorial and experiential aspects of landscape…”

Additionally, there’s an easy case to be made for salvaging as much of the native botany from new development sites as is practicable, to be held aside and replanted within the new landscape design. It makes no sense to continue to salvage all the old milled wood we can get our hands on ~ doors, floors, mantles and beams ~ but bulldoze the living wood surrounding the structures we so carefully disassemble. Is it harder to cache plant materials and keep them alive during the interim construction period than it is to pop a door off its hinges and set it aside? Of course it is. Is it prohibitively harder? No, and the advantages are threefold.

You get the botany of locale, not just in theory but in fact; you get old-growth material, which is harder to source through nurseries and exponentially more expensive; and you get it for the price of the land itself. There will be costs associated with identifying, salvaging and harboring this material, but even so will be a fraction of the replacement cost. The site, when finished, will have some patina of age and appear more integrated, more a part of the broader locale than the typical new build. Lastly, older trees have a greater ability to scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than young ones and I suggest that be a consideration when local boards review plans for site development. According to the Urban Forestry Network, “trees reach their most productive stage of carbon storage at about 10 years at which point they are estimated to absorb 48 pounds of CO2 per year. At that rate, they release enough oxygen back into the atmosphere to support two human beings.” An advantageous design aesthetic and breathable air, all in one.

In the journal Landscape and Urban Planning, Wenche Dramstad and Wendy Fjellstad said, “We need to highlight how one person’s ‘mark on the landscape’ may affect the landscape for other members of society. We need to communicate the consequences of landscape change in a sustainability perspective, and we need to communicate to the right audience.” It’s the ‘right audience’ segment of their equation that requires amplification, because that audience needs to include the individual homeowner and the small developer. They, and the tradespeople they employ, must be brought into the fold for any initiative or policy endeavor to be effective. We can talk all we like about sustainability, but if the message doesn’t make it to the people who are on the ground, we accomplish nothing.

“It may seem that biodiversity and cultural heritage values are more highly regarded by academic researchers and planning experts than by landowners and the general public. However, because both biodiversity and cultural heritage are so strongly linked to the landscape, it may be that placing these values in a landscape context can provide a better way of communicating about them. The gap between science and policy must be bridged and a dialogue established between researchers, policy makers and those actively changing the landscape ~ the planners, developers and landowners ~ with the common goal to generate sustainable landscapes. To achieve this, we may need to focus more effort on establishing such a dialogue…”

As we big-box our way across the landscape, we are stripping out the very botany that allows us to form and maintain connection not only to place, but to self. In his seminal work Place and Placelessness, Edward Relph said “To be inside a place is to belong to it and to identify with it, and the more profoundly inside you are the stronger is this identity with place.” When we lose the botanical vernacular, we lose the ability to be ‘profoundly inside’. If this place is indistinguishable from that place, we lose more than the individuated character of a space; we lose the ability to form attachment. When we strip a place botanically, we strip the visual, psychological, emotional and cultural elements of self-identity that are bound to those plants. The botanical vernacular is a living expression of place that we inherited from our ancestors and, if we have the sense to preserve it, will be passed on to our descendants. That language ~ living expression, ancestors, descendants ~ is precisely the tripart definition that UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) uses for ‘intangible cultural heritage.’ The use or reuse of vernacular botany in the creation of built environments is not only visually appropriate at the individual level but also acts as a safeguarding measure against loss of the intangible for the culture at large.

The Landscape Psychologist Rachel Kaplan tells us, “Many aspects of the natural environment are greatly preferred; ‘nature’ in this context does not need to be remote and pristine.” I propose that the far nature of national parks and land trusts is less important to our daily welfare than the near nature of the built environments which constitute the geography of everyday life.

Thus far, the argument in favor of sustainable building has been made largely by scientists and academics; outside that realm, it has been heard and forwarded only by those who either are predisposed to the cause or who can be persuaded by the evidence. Granted, the predisposed and persuadable segments of the market are increasing, but to become more inclusive, the argument needs to come down to the ground. The argument needs to come home if it is to effectively confront what Gertrude Jekyll called “a wearisome and irritating exposition of monotonous commonplace.” Before we bore ourselves to death, before we eradicate everything unique about any place we live, we need to find a new way of perceiving the common visual of our daily landscape. Seeing it ‘in common’ may be the first step.

Peter Jacobs offered new language for a more comprehensive definition of the very word landscape, suggesting that it is “an expression of who we are and what we value… for what we wish to become and how we wish to live within nature.” Jacobs wants the full wilderness experience brought to the table, that the data will not so overwhelm the research as to deaden it. I want bits of the wilderness experience to be available within the everyday, that modern life will not so overwhelm the landscape as to bury it. Fritz Steele writes that “all of us are at least latent place people, and that using our settings better and getting more joy out of them are learnable, practicable skills that can, in fact, be developed if we try.”

Maintaining the unique vernacular of regional botany is the key to producing built environments that are both sustainable and emotionally engaging. When we lose the vernacular, we lose meaning and import, we lose bond. Without bond we are, literally and figuratively, rootless.

How do we stay rooted, how do we achieve a sense of place within the everyday landscape? We plant it.


Dramstad, Wenche E., Fjellstad, Wendy J. Landscape and Urban Planning 100 (2011) 330-332.

Jacobs, Peter. “Where have all the flowers gone?” Landscape and Urban Planning 100 (2011) 318-320

Kunstler, James Howard. The Geography of Nowhere. New York: Touchstone, 1993.

R. Bruce Hull IV, Mark Lamb, Gabriela Vigo, Place identity: symbols of self in the urban fabric, Landscape and Urban Planning, 28 ( 1994) 109-I 20.

Relph, Edward Place and Placelessness (London, Pion Ltd., 1976) 49. Steele, Fritz The Sense of Place (CBI Publishing Co., 1981) 50.


VERNACULAR AESTHETIC: Reestablishing the Landscape of Locale

The word vernacular is most commonly applied to speech, considered the parlance of a given group.  When applied to a visual style, it is taken to mean a localized phenomenon that is part of a very particular culture such as the hortillonnages, the floating vegetable gardens near the French city of Amiens, or African-American gardens in the rural South.  I propose broadening this concept to include a landscape aesthetic based on the visuals of locale.

The view of a given area takes in more than its geography, being heavily influenced by botanical expression.  Botany is site-specific, dependent upon the climate associated with geographical placement but also upon topography and geology.  The white pine of my beloved Maine, for example, is here because it loves the acidic soil, which is propelled to its extreme pH by the granite ledge underlying the state.  That white pine has a botanical shape, as well, similar to other evergreens but softer in overall attitude.  Next to the stiff formality of a Colorado blue spruce it appears almost relaxed, with a fluidity that echoes our long stretch of the Atlantic and a color that matches the deepest hue in these vast, cold waters.

Why, then, are we settling for the same generic suburban landscapes found in Connecticut or New Jersey?  And why, for that matter, are the landscapes in Connecticut and New Jersey evocative of everywhere but their locale?  The desert Southwest, with increasing public awareness surrounding issues of water, is doing a great job of xeriscaping, of using native, drought-tolerant plant materials to construct landscapes appropriate to the region.  Here in the Northeast, however, the habit of landscaping in styles other than our own is well ingrained, and since the need to conserve is not so present, the habit wins.  Absent need, absent state or municipal dicta forcing us toward new habits, how can a different landscape aesthetic take root?  Put another way, can a call for change be predicated solely on aesthetic principles and still overcome the lethargy of the status quo?

I say yes for two reasons, the first being that we are witness to a cultural shift in the importance placed on environmental issues.  Ecological impact is emerging as a primary consideration in terms of our behavior, and the case is easily made that a landscape design aesthetic centered around native flora is more ecologically sound.  Whether this new focus marks the beginning of true empathy with the natural world, I can only hope, because I concur wholeheartedly with Anne Whiston Spirn:

“I now believe that promoting the harmonious coexistence of nature and humankind depends upon more than knowledge alone.  Equally important are a sense of empathy — the projection of one’s own consciousness into another being, thing, or place — and the power of imagination.  My book The Language of Landscape and the one I am currently working on, The Eye Is a Door, aim to help people read landscapes as products of both nature and culture and to inspire them to envision new landscapes that restore nature and honor culture.” ~Landscape Theory 

This honoring of culture is the basis for the second reason behind my belief that the landscape world is ready for change.  It is also the basis for my absolute lack of affinity for the current design modality, which seems to take one of two forms:  it honors any culture but that of the area or it is the product of big-box mentality, so homogenized as to be entirely culture-less.  In reality these states are merely two sides of the same coin — we have no wish for society to view us as peculiar, and so we adopt a style that has been used in the past or is accepted elsewhere rather than stepping out of bounds.

“For all that we mock those who fake aesthetic enthusiasms in hopes of gaining respect, the opposite tendency is the more poignant, whereby we repress our true passions in order not to seem peculiar.” ~The Architecture of Happiness

Those same societal boundaries keep many of us within the builder’s generic landscape plan, even if it is the same as every other tract in the development, even if we don’t particularly like it.  The builder, though, is not interested in botany or expressions of regional flavor; the builder is interested in making the sale and moving on, because that has become the accepted business model.

“Before [WWII] one-third of all houses were built by their owners.  Small contractors, who averaged fewer than five houses a year, built another third.  By the late 1950s, about two-thirds of the new houses in the United States were produced by large builders. … By the early 1950’s the tract house as a conventional box was commonplace.  Any regional vernacular styles… were downplayed in favor of national Cape Cod or ranch-house designs.” ~Building Suburbia

This is, of course, the natural fall-out of the tilt away from building communities to building housing lots.  Although we are still maintaining in the landscape an image of the picturesque enclave, it is a faint and rather hollow echo.

“As decades went on, the picturesque enclave, carefully fitted to its hilly terrain with winding and well-graded roads, augmented with handsome community parks, appeared in more and more reduced form as a flat subdivision with just a suggestion of two-dimensional curvature to the streets.  By the 1920s, design of the picturesque enclave was routinized.  Every new suburb included the word ‘park’ in its name, whether it had a park or not.  Developers swapped [planning] schemes for increasing lot frontage.” ~Building Suburbia

We have spent a great deal of time following a path away from site-specific design, from a vernacular that speaks to locale, but that time can only be considered lost if we continue along this route despite knowing that we are far afield.

“We should be free to imagine how much tastes could evolve if only new styles were placed before our eyes and new words in our vocabulary.  An array of hither-to ignored materials and forms could reveal their qualities while the status quo would be prevented from coercively suggesting itself to be the natural and eternal order of things.” ~The Architecture of Happiness

In that passage, Alain de Botton was talking specifically about architecture, but his argument is easily applied to materials and forms within the landscape.  Indeed, it may be even more successfully applied to the land, since it is the land itself that speaks most strongly of “the natural and eternal order of things.”  It is that order to which I urge that we return, because the natural world is home to both the materials and the forms with which to express culture and create a sense of place.

“…design is prescriptive rather than descriptive.  Any piece of design contains, to some extent, an assertion about the future.” ~How Designers Think

Secondary to the problem caused by lack of synchronicity between the extended landscape of a given area and the materials used within the landscape plan of a particular property — that being the failure to resonate with locale — is the dimensional flatness of design that speaks only to the past.  Such design is not merely, in Norman’s words, descriptive in the current sense, but descriptive of a time that is ages gone.  Indeed, it is descriptive of a time where impositional design ruled the day.

Picturesque style may have had legitimate forebears in England, being evocative of the pastoral British countryside, but it has no such ancestry in America.  It was and is a built environment, designed by the elite class for the elite class.  It is a construct born of an amorphous concept of idyllic village life, with roots not only in another time but in another place.  The same is true for Tuscan, for Medieval, for Zen, for any style that has been co-opted from its own time or place and planted, whole, behind a split-level in the burbs.  I discussed this in an article called “Translating the Concept Garden“.

Those are concept gardens:  English cottage, French, Medieval, Tuscan, Zen.  A woman took one of my classes some time ago to see if I could help her figure out what the problem was with her Japanese tea garden.  She’d been working on it for a couple of years, and just couldn’t ‘get it right.’  She couldn’t get it right because it was a Japanese garden, complete with tea house, installed on Peaks Island, Maine.

Tea gardens have a zeitgeist; they are rooted in a specific time and place.  When transplanted whole, they are out of context.  There is a garden idiom, just as there is a language idiom, and as you know, idiom does not translate well.  The translation is often bizarre, frequently stilted and always, always out of kilter because it lacks the cultural reference of the original.”

Employing the vernacular of locale allows the translation of a concept — calm and ordered, casual, romantic — into indigenous form with no loss of the meaning or intent of the original garden.  It requires only a slight shift in our way of thinking, a shift that I believe is a matter of enlightened self-interest, and the employment of what Margaret Boden calls psychological creativity.  P-creativity, which she distinguishes from the historical creativity of a Galileo or an Einstein, is a more universal method of applying creative thinking.  We needn’t have the kind of mind that changes human history in order to take a novel approach to an everyday issue.

“What you might do… is make a distinction between ‘psychological’ creativity and ‘historical’ creativity (P-creativity and H-creativity, for short). … The psychological sense concerns ideas (whether in science, needlework, music, painting, literature…) that are surprising, or perhaps even fundamentally novel, with respect to the individual mind which had the idea. … The historical sense applies to ideas that are novel with respect to the whole of human history.” ~The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms

In this case, the novel approach is a method of landscaping that speaks to the inherent beauty, the vernacular aesthetic, of a given area.  That this method is often more cost-effective is the self-interest boon of ecological enlightenment.  That it also creates a landscape that appears more connected to its place, which allows us to feel more connected to our place, is an additional benefit, although slightly more ephemeral than the very tangible cost benefits of using native materials.

“Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or for worse, different people in different places — and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.”  ~The Architecture of Happiness

Again, although the reference is to architecture proper, the built environment is the built environment, and the concept of rendering vivid who we might be is quietly astonishing.  It is not, however, new; the purpose of the picturesque enclave, as the purpose of  suburbs in general, was to create idealized communities, communities that would make us better citizens, better families, better souls.  The implication of de Botton’s words is more personal than communal, and the implication of a vernacular landscape aesthetic is also more personal in terms of the potential for empathetic response, human to habitat.  If we see ourselves only as caretakers of landscapes from other places, we will continue to be, at least in part, somewhere else, and if somewhere else, not fully invested here.

“Materials available to the human builder vary, however slightly, in time and place, forcing him to think, adjust, innovate.” ~Space and Place

The words in time and place are indicative of more than just an array of the landscape materials in a given area; they are the stock in trade of a complete vernacular aesthetic.  How better to craft a built landscape than to see what nature presents in the larger surrounds?  And how better to integrate ourselves with our environment than to express elements of that environment within our private terrain?  This is, in part, an act of stewardship of the common visual, which I think is also an act of enlightened self-interest.  The common visual constitutes the everyday landscape and while I applaud, and participate in, efforts on behalf of the uncommon, the magnificent landscapes, it is the everyday landscape that feeds us visually.  As I wrote in an article called “The Stewardship of  Small Things“:

“Only the wind is permanent; we occupy a tiny bit of space, each of us, and the earth is constantly shifting under our feet.  Oddly enough, that perception leaves me in good stead when it comes to landscape design because my job, first and foremost, is stewardship.  I get hired to resolve problems of habitation, and my clients are only half of the equation, and the second half at that.  The first is the land, and what it is inclined to do, and what it needs from me in order to accommodate the human element.

That’s a far cry from the last century of design, which was almost entirely impositional.  There were notable exceptions, but by and large the rights of ownership reigned.  If you wanted your property to have a certain look you could, and to some schools of thought should, do it.  Property considerations were confined to matters of zoning and code, to angle and curve, and ideas of stewardship applied only to large tracts of land.

I’m here to argue for stewardship of the small, the ordinary plot of land on which sits the ordinary house.  Bound together, I believe that these ordinary plots are as valuable as large tracts to the ethos of place, and to the common good.” 

Creating a landscape plan that is weighted toward native flora also keeps us at the visceral stage of Donald Norman’s three levels of design (visceral, behavioral, reflective).

“Visceral design is what nature does.  We humans evolved to coexist in the environment of other humans, animals, plants, landscapes, weather, and other natural phenomena.  As a result, we are exquisitely tuned to receive powerful emotional signals from the environment that get interpreted automatically at the visceral level.” ~Emotional Design

A landscape aesthetic based on locale produces designs that most closely mimic nature, and so most readily satisfy that visceral interpretation of place.  Designs which interpret place as ‘other’ in terms of stylistic reference to a specific place or period force us to separate ourselves from the immediacy of place by engaging us primarily at the reflective level.

“The principles underlying visceral design are wired in, consistent across people and cultures.  If you design according to these rules, your design will always be attractive… If you design for the sophisticated, for the reflective level, your design can readily become dated because this level is sensitive to… trends… and continual fluctuation.” ~Emotional Design

Reflection was, in fact, precisely the intent of the picturesque movement.  Built landscapes were meant to be, as in the title of William Adams’ book, Nature Perfected.  Gardens were to be viewed, often from particular vantages, and studied.  That culture, that time period, has come and gone, and I find nothing especially reflective about the remaining fragments of the style.  To be sure, there is nothing wrong with reflection, but a landscape that engages only the mind cannot resonate at the level where we live and breathe.  To be lived in, to be truly inhabited, landscapes must be visceral.

They must also, from both the aesthetic and stewardship points of view, bear kinship to the pre-development landscape.  Designing to the specific locale makes this relationship automatic; the landscape, at least in material if not in form, remains as intact as an inhabited piece of land can be.  This method may exempt the property from the ‘harsh indictments’ that often attend new builds.

“There are few harsher indictments against architecture than the sadness we feel at the arrival of bulldozers, for our grief is in almost all cases fuelled more by a distaste for what is to be built than by any hatred of the idea of development itself.” ~The Architecture of Happiness

There is, of course, bound to be a loss; however gently one inhabits land, habitation requires change.  No aesthetic, not even vernacular, can keep a built property in pristine condition; we live in houses, we have parties on decks or patios, we lay pathways to the gardens.  A vernacular aesthetic simply means that the materials we choose to implement those housing needs should reflect, to the highest degree possible, the materials that are found naturally in the unbuilt surrounds.

This does not mean, however, that only local materials should be used.  There is, for example, a flagstone from Pennsylvania called ‘chocolate grey’ that is a perfect mate to the color spectrum found in the local granite types of southern and mid-coastal Maine.  Because it contains the same color palette, it contains the same visual cues as the other elements in the locale.  Because it ‘reads’ the same, it keeps the viewer in that same visceral state of response that the surrounding environment evokes, allowing the material to  melt into the site and become part of the vernacular experience.

This is slightly less true for plant materials, since we are talking then of more than an aesthetic response.  In terms of total habitat, any aesthetic must include elements in addition to the visual considerations of the humans in residence; we may prefer the look and feel of native materials, but the local fauna are entirely dependent upon the material itself.  Again, the solution is found in a commitment to the land that is at least equal to the commitment to human comfort.  A vernacular aesthetic aims for both.

“We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be the inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced.  We owe it to the worms and the trees that the buildings we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness.” ~The Architecture of Happiness

The final question is how we accomplish such lofty goals as synchronous landscape visuals and intelligent happiness.  The former comes from cleaving to an aesthetic that pays homage to locale rather than to a particular style; designs so created will be both of the landscape and seamlessly in the landscape.  This method of design has an additional benefit in that it offers greater freedom in terms of personal expression.  If I am planting a true Zen garden, I must toe the line not only in overall style but in specific materials.  If, however, I am planting a serene and meditative space, I need only create a landscape which supports that mood, that mindset.  I am free to use whatever local materials bespeak those qualities and, with a highly edited hand, craft my version of serenity.  Whether I’m in the mountains or along the estuary, I have all the tools I need to create the visceral response I’m after, for in both places lie the materials which represent that concept within the framework of locale.

“Today’s aesthetic imperative represents not the return of a single standard of beauty, but the increased claims of pleasure and self-expression.  Beauty in its many forms no longer needs justification beyond the pleasure and meaning it provides.  Delighting the senses is enough:  ‘I like that’ rather than ‘This is good design.’” ~The Substance of Style

Intelligent happiness undoubtedly requires a deeper revolution than any mere shift in aesthetic awareness can provide, but a design aesthetic born of locale will indeed provide a visceral, contented happiness by creating a cohesive habitat.  It will, in addition, do this feat in perhaps a more intelligent manner than non-aesthetic methods.  Since native materials are well-suited to the local ecology, they not only provide visual concordance in the overall view, but tend to require less care once established and have greater survivability at weather extremes.  The cost benefit alone may be sufficient to start the engine of this change-of-taste train, and I suspect that the lure of greater personal expression will provide the fuel to carry it along.

“Lest we begin to despair at the thought of how much might be required to bring about a genuine evolution in taste, we may remind ourselves how modest were the means by which previous aesthetic revolutions were accomplished.” … A few buildings and a book have usually been sufficient to provide viable models for others to follow.  Nietzche observed that the development portentously known as the ‘Italian Renaissance’, which we might imagine to have been engineered by innumerable actors, was in fact the work of only about a hundred people… and a mere 200 or so pages of Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture (1923) to decide the appearance of much of the built environment of the twentieth century.” ~The Architecture of Happiness

Unlike le Corbusier’s belief in ‘machines for living’ and all the dispassion which is involved in that view of the constructs of habitation, I come to this aesthetic, finally, as a point of passion.  I want, not merely to love the terrain I inhabit, but to be in love with it.  Loving it will give me de Botton’s happiness; it will give me respect for the surrounds and the desire to care for it, and it will give me a certain peace.  Those things alone are reason enough to embrace the vernacular of locale, but I seek visceral response at the deepest level.

That response may not be available to everyone — or I should say that everyone may not be open and available to that response — but the more we remove the stylistic obstacles that keep us separate from our surrounds, the more likely we are to develop true empathy for the places in which we live.

“Place for me is the locus of desire.  Places have influenced my life as much as, perhaps more than, people.  I fall for (or into) places faster and less conditionally than I do for people. … I can’t write about places without occasionally sinking into their seductive embrace.” ~The Lure of the Local

A slight shift in focus is all it will take.  The land is waiting.

published in isp architecture ~ read it here:

AESTHETICS OF LOCALE:  The Use of Vernacular Aesthetic to Enhance Residential Landscape Design and Preserve the Intangibles of Place

The vernacular aesthetic of a region’s botanic array is one of the chief means by which humans connect ~ emotionally, psychologically and spiritually ~ to the places they inhabit.  That array, particularly in the residential landscape, is often stripped out and replaced with a hybridized, standardized confection, doing disservice both to the site’s human occupants and to its biotic community.  I claim it further a disservice to the human community as a whole, since these landscapes are part of the common visual and are therefore a shared aesthetic wherein the diminishment of one is the diminishment of all.

Designers are under the imperative to act, but until we begin to value the inherent aesthetic of locale as much as we value the right of property owners to impose upon the land whatever design they fancy, residential landscapers will continue to favor homogeneity over diversity to the detriment, not only of native flora and fauna, but ourselves.  The ‘blank slate’ approach to design, although sustainable in the sense that hybrid plant varieties will continue to be available, comes at too high a price; once lost, vernacular aesthetic will be impossible to recover.  UNESCO’s drive to preserve intangible cultural heritage reminds us that vernacular, the visual as well as the verbal, has societal value.

It is time to step away from this impositional methodology, take the landscape as a partner in the process and create built environments in harmony with the totality of their natural surrounds.  It is time for us to put the vernacular aesthetic foremost in the design brief; time for us to consider the intangibles of place a bona fide value; time for us to recognize the whole pie and not merely our piece.  The whole is the landscape of the everyday, what the environmental psychologist Rachel Kaplan calls ‘near nature’ and that very nearness contains within it the opportunity for daily connection, person to place.  Person to generic anywhere lacks the power of connection, which also means it lacks the power to provide the emotional and psychological benefits which accrue from such contact.  Further, maintaining the visual connections between the botany of the specific design site and the botany of the broader region enables design cohesion by effecting subtle repetition of color and form.  These more delicate connectors, often not consciously recognized but nonetheless registered, contribute to the feeling that the property remains intact despite the incorporation of the built landscape.

The aggregate of land in the residential arena is huge, and as designers we have a responsibility to see the broader impact of our actions on the health and well-being of all the players.  Designing to the vernacular aesthetic is a direct and immediate exercise of that responsibility.

c. 2012