Articles

    Designing Landscapes for Affordable Housing

    Designing Landscapes for Affordable Housing

    By: City Architecture in collaboration with Boulevard Studios

    In an industry in which luxury homes, corporate campuses, and large public works projects with ample budgets take center stage in our perception of what good design looks like, it’s easy to forget that the site and landscape remains intrinsic and ubiquitous to all projects, even the small or seemingly mundane.  And while as designers we may joke that only the buildings that connect with the ground need consideration for how a site should be developed, it’s indeed true that landscape affects us all.  Every project deserves the value of a well-designed site.

    Aside from their obvious aesthetic benefits, plants can help define space, contribute to air quality, and reduce the effects of climate extremes by providing shade, windbreaks, and water absorption.  Plants can be engaging, encouraging people to touch and smell, sit and enjoy, or even play a little.  And for homeowners and renters alike, their ability to instill a sense of pride and well-being is boundless.

    Affordable and public housing is no exception, so for the urban designer for whom these projects are a staple, thinking about how to better design these landscapes for residents is a significant part of the charge.  Further, housing projects are developed for their potential to strengthen communities through the physical improvement of their environments.  When the public is a primary stakeholder, it’s crucial that the grounds maintain their beauty long after the ribbon cutting.

    While of course there is no one particular formula for their development, guidelines tailored to the unique and specific nature of affordable housing can help ensure the future success of the landscape in these environments.  With the understanding that a zero maintenance landscape is merely wishful thinking (plants get big, weeds happen, soils dry and require nutrients), the key instead is establishing an effective relationship between the designer and housing authority:

    -   Research or visit other projects that your client built and currently maintains—even if it was designed by your own firm. Note the level of maintenance and the complexity of the design.  Likely this will be a representation of what will be expected, but do note issues and failures that proved detrimental to the development as well.

    -   Approach the project with a clear and established strategy for obtaining credits under green rating systems that are in play.  Wonderfully important to gaining tax credits and other financing for a project, these systems can be a stumbling block if the requirements are too idealistic.  Project team members should weigh in on the feasibility of each. Ask:  Can the minimum percentage of native materials be acquired locally? Can we truly achieve the shade requirements? Would green infrastructure such as bioretention areas receive adequate runoff needed to supply its plants with vital water?

    -   Develop a design that is simple yet elegant. Choose plants in the interest of maintenance such as compact varieties that don't need frequent shearing, shrubs and grasses that can be cut back hard when necessary, and trees that leave little mess.  If irrigation is limited, specify drought tolerant materials where they are aneeded.  Favor plants that more or less take care of themselves without the need for constant fertilizing, pruning, and watering, and select easy perennials that come up, bloom, and die back on their own.

    -   Plan for wear and tear.  Affordable housing can see high turnover of residents and plenty of activity. Choose durable materials and design a hardscape plan that anticipates where the most likely paths of travel will occur. Lower perennial and grass species should be “steppable” and regenerative while larger materials must not be sensitive to broken limbs or compacted soils.

    -   Meet with the housing authority and its maintenance staff sometime during the design process to review the landscape concept. Determine if they are comfortable maintaining the proposed plants and landscape features. Discuss the level of upkeep the project will receive once warranty and maintenance periods have expired. Maintenance plans are varied from one property manager to another and understanding the client’s abilities and resources early in the design process allows for a design that will thrive versus one that will fall into disrepair.

    -   Seek out opportunities for "pride in ownership" in which residents themselves can be involved in the project's maintenance, from community vegetable gardens to the flower beds at their front doors.  Never underestimate the potential of people who are invested in the appearance and upkeep of their home and their community.

    -   Carry out construction observation and perform punch lists. Yes, project budgets are tight at the end of a project, but the reputations of your firm, your client, and project stakeholders are on the line. Make sure the project is installed properly and is being cared for as dictated in the specifications.

    The goal, ultimately, is to create places that add value to their neighborhoods and inspire their communities. Developing a thorough understanding of the project’s limitations and opportunities ensures a landscape that will thrive.  When designer and agency join forces to oversee the project, the interest of its long term success comes into focus and can have a profound effect on the final product.