5 Broad Purposes of Landscape Design

Defining the purpose of landscape design is a redoubtable undertaking, as it requires synthesizing the many explanations of the phrase that seems as vastly different as the number of landscapes. So much so that presenting a summary of outdoor design philosophies becomes a bewildering task. To simplify matters, however, I have placed the different approaches into one of five categories.

At its most basic level, landscape design serves nature. The writings of most landscape designers include concepts related to sustainability, ecology, and natural preservation. This aspect of environmental design is concerned with issues such as insuring proper drainage, preventing soil erosion, creating an outdoor milieu that will last through time — as did the natural setting before man altered it — and more poetically, being “responsive to the nature of the site.”

At a more abstract level, most but not all landscapers talk about bridging the gap between man and nature. Some planting designers employ contrasting language to describe this function. One artisan mentioned combining culture and nature. Another refers to the reconciliation between man and nature. Another designates the purpose of landscape design as blending “manmade buildings into the natural setting.” Another nature artist talks about “blending man’s technology into the natural setting.” An Islamic environmental designer describes the need to maintain “fluidity between internal and external space.” While some outdoor site planners give equal importance to culture and nature, some give more weight to one or the other. On the side of nature, one site designer describes the need to strengthen the client’s “sense of connection to nature.” Another emphasizes the importance of “deepening the connection between people and their land.” On the side of technology, some practitioners see nature as serving man-made structures. From their perspective, landscapers should ensure “a beautiful setting for a building,” “protect the home from the wind,” or in the words of another planner “create a beautiful environment around the building.”

Many environmental engineers emphasize the artistry inherent in their profession. A Harvard trained landscapist calls nature a palate with which she creates her works of art. Reading about what the various practitioners have to say you will find numerous references to “creating beauty.” In practicing their craft, some designers focus more on the beauty in nature and talk about, “evoking the beauty of the natural world.” Others, like the Harvard trained landscapist, focus more on creating a work of art and describe what they do as creating a “manifestation of art that can be lived in and enjoyed.” The two views, however, are not mutually exclusive. An Islamic landscaper revealed that artistry is only one of the means she employs. While using “the principles of art and beauty” in her work, she is first and foremost guided by the religious principles found in the Koran.

Some designers focus extensively on the client’s perspective. They describe this aspect of their work with phrases such as “expressing “the client’s vision,” evoking the beauty of the natural world in ways that are “responsive to the… client,” or considering the landscaping ” needs of the user.” At the same time, many designers emphasize the practical benefits their work bestows upon clients. These boons include “providing the necessities of modern living;” providing “comfortable seating, scenic and seasonable variety, practical areas for family leisure, child play, entertainment, play space;” “shaping the land for people to use and enjoy;” “giving occupants a healthy breath;” and “creating an inviting and soothing atmosphere.” A few landscape designers, such as Michelle Derviss, focus on the importance of evoking a strong emotional response in visitors to their sites. In designing her projects, she wants to engage “all the senses and creating an emotional response within the garden setting.” Her goal is to “inspire the heart, imbue the senses, and inspire the eye of the beholder.”

Finally, some landscapers, such as the Islamic designer Emma Clark, see landscape design as transcending all of the fore mentioned considerations and serving a religious purpose. She uses Islamic teachings to bring out the “spirit of the place.” However, she emphasizes that her goal is to bring out a spirituality that is innately present in the spot, a landscape that is “totally at home in its environment.” In like manner some site engineers create gardens that serve as sanctuaries or places of meditation and contemplation. In this regard they offer a retreat into nature such as Ralph Waldo Emerson talked about in “Walden.” But perhaps they have progressed beyond the man machinery conflict found in Walden in that their intelligent retreats are engineered by the landscape designer to provide sanctuary within the context of modern living.