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Published May 29, 2014, 09:38 PM

ARCHITECTURE: Designing a Better Life

Landscape architects focus on quality of life improvements for clients, communities

By: Kris Bevill, Prairie Business Magazine

It’s nearly impossible to define “quality of life” because it is an intentionally vague term used to describe a community or individual’s general well being. We know that a good quality of life leads to happiness, but “happiness” is also difficult to define. What makes people happy?

Generally, when community leaders on the northern Plains address quality of life improvements, they are most often referring to the establishment of public spaces such as parks, greenways, playgrounds and other leisure amenities. In western North Dakota, for example, rapidly growing communities are beginning to require that new developments include green spaces in their designs and cities are dedicating funds toward recreational amenities, oftentimes declaring that the additions are an essential component to improving quality of life. In more urban settings like Fargo, N.D., and Sioux Falls, S.D., “quality of life” improvements more often focus on redevelopment efforts to provide opportunities for residents to gather in public spaces or to participate in outdoor events.

Of course, careful planning is necessary in order for these projects to be successful long-term additions to a community. Civil engineers often tackle tasks associated with development plans and landscapers can deftly design layouts for greenery and outdoor features, but when it comes to adding outdoor amenities to the betterment of an entire area — transforming an outdoor space into an experience rather than just a place — landscape architects are the true specialists.

“We’re the ones designing what that experience is like and then planning for it, so that it can be more beautiful, I hope, and also possibly more efficient,” says Dominic Fischer, a landscape architect professor at North Dakota State University and part-time associate at Fargo-based landscape architecture firm Land Elements.

New Profession, Old Philosophy

Landscape architecture has been a recognized term for only about 100 years, making it a fairly new profession compared to other disciplines. Newer still is its role as an in-demand profession in northern Plains states. While landscape architects have been active in urban areas and throughout the U.S. coastal states for some time, landscape architecture has been a recognized licensure in North Dakota for only a little more than a decade. South Dakota recognized the profession earlier, but demand for the practice also did not really begin to take off until about 10 years ago, according to Jon Jacobson, principal at Confluence, a landscape architect firm with offices in Sioux Falls, Minneapolis, Des Moines and Iowa City, Iowa, and Kansas City, Mo.

Jacobson attributes the slow growth of landscape architecture in the region to the area’s low population and rural, agriculture-based societies. But as urban areas have grown and recruitment of new citizens has become more vital, the desire for landscape architecture services has increased. “We’ve really seen the popularity of what we do grow in the last decade,” he says. “There are lots of big companies that need talented people to come here and having a nice place to live is an important part of what we do.”

At its core, the focus of landscape architecture is to design outdoor spaces that are functional and aesthetic while preserving land and protecting the health, safety and welfare of the public. Landscape architects can serve in any number of roles — from city planners to national park advisers — and the scope of their work is vast. Think Central Park in New York City, bike trails through Theodore Roosevelt National Park, rooftop gardens, well-shaded parking lots, water management projects, playgrounds, apartment buildings with curbside appeal and backyards with outdoor kitchens and lush gardens. Landscape architects are responsible for all of these things.

Green Infrastructure

Mike Allmendinger founded Fargo-based Land Elements 11 years ago this month and has spent much of the past decade educating people about the profession and its services. During that time, he’s also built the firm to eight employees and has racked up an impressive portfolio that includes rooftop gardens at several downtown Fargo buildings, the most well-known being the Hotel Donaldson’s Sky Prairie, as well as master planning for residential developments, commercial property layouts, stormwater management projects for the city of Fargo, greenspace developments at local universities and streetscape work in downtown Fargo.

Allmendinger says he’s noticed growing appreciation for outdoor spaces in recent years, which has contributed to increased awareness of his profession. “As soon as people start valuing their outdoor spaces and thinking about the experiences they want to have in them, they want the best design. And when they want the best design, they end up seeking out landscape architects,” he says.

One of the top trends in landscape architecture in the region currently is stormwater management, which can be achieved through a variety of methods including rooftop gardens, rain gardens or bioswales.

Rooftop garden systems typically hold three-fourths of an inch of rainfall in the garden soil. Considering that about 90 percent of the annual rainfall in the region comes in increments of less than three-quarters of an inch, rooftop gardens can be a very effective method of stormwater management, Allmendinger says. To date, Land Elements has created six rooftop garden projects in downtown Fargo. “We’ve had a lot of fun doing rooftops in Fargo,” he says. “They’re in high demand. A number of rain garden and stormwater projects are happening all over the place. Every property has to manage their stormwater.”

Large stormwater management projects have traditionally consisted of retention ponds or pipe systems, which are not particularly aesthetically pleasing. Keith Kinnen, landscape architect at Bemidji, Minn.-based Karvakko Engineering, says bioswales can provide the same benefits as rain gardens, but at a larger scale. Bioswales are long, shallow depressions with gentle slopes which allow rainwater to flow into the depression and disperse slowly through vegetation. They can be especially effective when combined with curbless parking lots, which will allow water to sheet off the lot and into the bioswale. Kinnen notes that curbless pavement is also less expensive than curbed pavement.

Pervious pavement, which allows water to seep into the soil between pavers, is another fairly easy-to-implement stormwater management method.

One green infrastructure trend that has yet to be widely implemented in the region but offers great potential is tree boxes, Kinne says. Developed to alleviate some of the stress endured by trees when surrounded by concrete, tree boxes utilize a specific soil medium that allows water and air to better infiltrate the surface. They also incorporate a curb cut or other method of allowing rainwater to filter through that soil, which serves the dual purpose of nourishing the trees and filtering out pollutants before water meets up with the city’s drainage system. Tree boxes are easiest to install when streets are being updated, according to Kinnen. “It’s an awesome practice and that’s what I’m really excited about to see more of,” he says. “Honestly, I think we’re just at the beginning of this environmental stuff. I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon.”

Masterful Planning

Residential developments and master-planned communities can also benefit greatly from the expertise of landscape architects. Since launching Axtman + Associates in Bismarck, N.D., about 18 months ago, Jake Axtman says he has focused heavily on large-scale land use planning, particularly in the growing communities of North Dakota’s oil patch.

“That’s been pretty exciting for me, to help plan for the development of new housing developments as cities grow — thinking about parks and playgrounds and walking trails,” he says. “I really enjoy [parks and other leisure amenities], especially out west where that sort of community-building infrastructure wasn’t really part of the initial plans. Those things are important because people have moved here for the availability of jobs, but if we want to retain people for the long term, we have to give them things to do outside of a job. As landscape architects, if we can help by doing things like designing walking trails, parks, playgrounds and athletic fields, it gives people something to do to get out into the community, to meet new people, to feel like they’re part of something larger than themselves.”

Leaders of the booming communities in western North Dakota have become increasingly aware of the impact landscape design has on quality of life and have begun adopting commercial landscape ordinances that require developers to include landscaping in their design. Axtman believes that trend will continue and become even more popular in coming years as communities continue to strive toward expanding and retaining their workforce populations.

Urban Streetscapes

Streetscape projects are relatively new to our region, but are increasing in popularity as cities such as Fargo and Sioux Falls seek to modernize their city cores. NDSU’s Fischer specializes in urban design and is spearheading some of downtown Fargo’s most well-known streetscape work. A feasibility study he and a partner conducted several years ago to explore the impacts of switching the one-way streets of First Avenue and NP Avenue to two-way streets is largely responsible for the city’s approval to make the switch last year. Now that the two-ways are in place, Fischer and Land Elements are addressing some of the existing aging infrastructure and will ultimately redevelop it from building front to building front.

“We’re doing things like extending some of the curbs to reduce crossing distances and helping to choose some of the historic elements that go into the streetscape so that there’s more public space for urban activities,” he says.

The project is expected to begin next year and will likely take several years to complete because it will tie in with other large downtown projects, he says.

Land Elements also plans to produce a book of design guidelines for streetscapes which can be applied throughout downtown Fargo. Fischer says the book will be available for private developers as well as city engineers.

In Sioux Falls, Confluence has played a key role in redeveloping its downtown. The firm served as the lead consultant in the Big Sioux River Greenway-Downtown Riverfront project, an anticipated $35 million quality of life improvement project that will be realized in phases over the course of many years along with downtown redevelopment projects, Jacobson says.

The first phase of the greenway project was completed in 2012 along the riverfront in a space that once housed an industrial agriculture elevator and rail switchyard. Updates included improved greenway access as well as new public gathering spaces, seating, a pedestrian bridge and large, stone-based light piers. A second phase was completed last year and consisted of similar redevelopments along the riverfront near the downtown Hilton Garden Inn. Jacobson expects up to 10 more redevelopment phases before the greenway project is complete.

Jacobson says he enjoys working on public projects because they provide the most exposure for the firm and can make the most impact on the general public. The firm is currently working with the city of Sioux Falls on a healthy living initiative that would incorporate public infrastructure projects to encourage residents to recreate and exercise. Public outdoor exercise areas are a growing trend elsewhere in the country and Jacobson is eager to put them into play in our region.

“Literally, there is outdoor fitness equipment located along trails and public gathering areas that people don’t have to pay to use, they can use it when they’re walking or using the bike trail and kind of build it into their routine for exercise,” he says.

The future of landscape architecture appears bright in the region and established professionals say they are excited for the opportunities that lie ahead for them and for the growing number of new landscape architects working in the area. Fischer says that while most of NDSU’s landscape architecture graduates used to pursue their profession in Minneapolis, Chicago or along the coasts, a growing number of recent graduates are now able to find work in the region.

The desire for quality of life improvements will likely continue to drive the expansion of landscape architecture throughout the northern Plains, a movement which Allmendinger says he is happy to be playing a role in.

“I believe that if you create great outdoor spaces and unique experiences, people will create memories in these spaces, and memories will help create a strong sense of community,” he says. “There are many components of making strong communities, but I absolutely feel that landscape architecture is one of them.” PB

Kris Bevill

Editor, Prairie Business