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Challenges That Landscape Architects Face in California

In a state where water is scarce, wildfires are routine, and hills comprise a large portion of the terrain, challenges in being a landscape architect are countless. And yet, despite the hurdles, California’s landscape architects still find a way to craft beautiful, resilient, and sustainable designs. In this article, we’ll explore the many obstacles California’s landscape architects face and how they overcome them. 

Designing Appealing Landscapes Despite Strict Water Management Regulations

As California endures yet another drought, a set of new water management regulations have come into effect. The new rules vary between jurisdictions but are at present relatively mild: no watering lawns for 48 hours after a rainstorm, no letting sprinklers run off the lawn, and local restrictions on watering frequency.  Nevertheless, these restrictions limit how, when, and how much homeowners can water their lawns. What’s more, with climate change picking up pace, drought conditions are supposed to worsen in California over time.

For California landscape architecture firms, the current restrictions — and, more broadly, the grim prospect of increasing water scarcity — means finding creative new solutions for clients who want lush, green landscapes to surround their homes. Finding vegetation species that are drought-resistant and visually appealing can be a delicate balance; not every client will be satisfied with cacti and gravel in their yards.

Luckily, however, local landscape architects are embracing and promoting the many native species, along with water-wise design features that help lawns retain water and minimize runoff.

Landscape Design for the Wildland-Urban Interface

Despite an increasing intensity of wildfires, Californians aren’t giving up on their dream to live in contact with nature. For some, building on the wildland-urban interface — a transition area between wilderness and human communities — is not a matter of choice, as empty parcels of land are becoming harder to come by around large urban centers, like Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.  

For landscape architecture firms in California, wildland-urban interface properties present a very unique challenge: these homes are at the highest risk of being affected by wildfires, and landscape design plays a crucial role in slowing the advance of flames. That’s because the front, back, and side yards that surround a home provide the first line of defense against approaching wildfires. Designed correctly, these landscaped areas offer more than curb appeal. They can actually prevent fire from getting close enough to ignite the home’s exterior elements; this is known as the home’s “defensible space.” Conversely, poorly designed landscapes can serve as kindling material and rid their owners of any chance of preserving their property during a wildfire.

Generally speaking, fire-smart landscape design boils down to the following: selecting fire-resistant plant species, planting vegetation in a strategic manner, and choosing hard instead of soft landscaping as much as possible.

Wildfire-Resistant Plants

There’s an issue with simply choosing a plant that’s labeled “fire safe” — the same plants may have different levels of flammability under different conditions. That said, it’s important to avoid plants that quickly generate a large amount of dead material, as it tends to ignite quickly and encourage flame spread.

Likewise, plants with lots of resin, wax, and oil, or those that shed bark and branches, are at a higher risk of igniting given the right conditions. On the other hand, greener, leafier plants that hold on to water are better-suited to slow down the spread of flames.

Creating a Defensible Space

There’s no “one-size-fits-all” formula for designing an effective defensible space; the requirements will vary depending on the climate zone and the terrain. That said, there are a few principles that tend to apply everywhere:

  • Maintaining an adequate distance between the vegetation and the home’s exterior
  • Providing enough horizontal clearance between plants
  • Allowing sufficient vertical clearance between low-growing plants and trees
  • Creating a defensible perimeter of hard landscaping between the property line and the vegetation 

Needless to say, the challenge with meeting the objectives above is that cacti, gravel, and asphalt aren’t everyone’s idea of an appealing landscape. Fortunately, many of California’s native plant species — particularly those that are drought resistant — are also well-suited for slowing down approaching flames. Nevertheless, achieving wildfire resistance and the desired aesthetic usually requires some level of compromise on the client’s part.

Landscape Architecture on Hillside Terrain

Apart from having to contend with strict water management regulations and the risk of wildfires, landscape architects and designers in California have the uneasy task of designing landscapes on challenging, hillside terrain.

On hillside properties, erosion and runoff threaten landscapes, surrounding ecosystems, and neighboring homes. And while homeowners can control runoff to an extent by not overwatering, homes in regions prone to heavy rains and flash floods require adequate drainage and erosion control strategies. These may include retaining walls, erosion blankets, terraced landscapes, selection of native plant species, and smart irrigation systems that don’t overwater.

Succesfully dealing with landscape challenges

Landscape architects and designers in California face a number of challenges, most of which relate to the region’s climate, terrain, water scarcity, and vulnerability to natural disasters.  Dealing with limited project budgets is yet another hurdle — finding the balance between the client’s desired landscape and the many constraints we’ve described above often translates into higher costs. Effective communication between the landscape architect, the client, and other project stakeholders is key to overcoming these challenges and delivering a design that works.

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