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.


    Wet or Electronic Stamp: Ethical Considerations

    Wet or Electronic Stamp: Ethical Considerations by Luther L. Liggett, Jr., Partner, Korhman Jackson & Krantz

    As technological advances race onward to achieve previously unimaginable computerized applications, design professional practice laws remain conservative in order to insure the highest level of professionalism and protection to the public.

    Before the age of computers, traditional practice and law required crimping or signing over a design professional seal, usually with colored ink to identify an original. But paper is a tool of the past, and today’s project owners develop construction documents on computers for ease of correction and transmittal.

    Ohio law accommodates electronic seals, provided that an Architect follows several different sets of rules promulgated for different purposes. This article will review those provisions of law.

    Click here to read the full article

    Announcing The Launch of the New Transportation and Health Tool

    The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Centers for Disease Control are pleased to announce the launch of the new Transportation and Health Tool, which provides easy access to data that practitioners can use to examine the health impacts of transportation systems. The Transportation and Health Tool provides data on 14 transportation and public health indicators for each state, metropolitan statistical area (MSA), and urbanized area (UZA). 

    The indicators measure how the transportation environment affects health with respect to safety, active transportation, air quality, and connectivity to destinations.  You can use the tool to quickly see how a state, MSA, or UZA compares with others in addressing key transportation and health issues. The tool also provides information and resources to help agencies better understand the links between transportation and health and to identify strategies to improve public health through transportation planning and policy.

    Explore the Transportation and Health Tool: 

    • Select a state, MSA, or UZA from the map to see how it performs on each indicator;
    • Learn about the 14 indicators and the process used to select them;
    • Discover evidence-based strategies that practitioners can use to address health through transportation; and
    • Read more about the scoring methodology or download a spreadsheet with the complete dataset.

    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) jointly developed the tool in partnership with the American Public Health Association.

    If you have questions or feedback about the Transportation and Health Tool, please contact

    CLARB Welfare Study Presented at Ohio Chapter ASLA Annual Meeting

    CLARB Welfare Study Presented at Ohio Chapter ASLA Annual Meeting - Thursday, May 17, 2012

    Ohio Board of Landscape Architect Examiners member, Tim Schmalenberger, and Executive Director Amy Kobe made a presentation to the Ohio Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects 2012 Annual Meeting in Columbus. The presentation discussed the groundbreaking study commissioned by the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards (CLARB), which sought to define public welfare as it relates to the profession of landscape architecture, and, using Central Ohio projects as examples, illustrates the impacts and benefits of landscape architecture has on the public welfare. A copy of the presentation is available here and a copy of the study is available here.

    For more information please visit:

    2013 Annual Meeting: Millennium Park Quadruaple Net Value Report

    Attendees of the 2013 OCASLA Annual Meeting:

    Edward K. Uhlir, FAIA, Executive Director of Millennium Park, Inc. has been kind enough to share with us the Millennium Park Quadruaple Net Value Report released by Texas A&M University and DePaul University in the summer of 2011. Statistics outlined in this report were cited in the presenation given by Ed at the 2013 OCASLA Annual Meeting in Columbus.