At its former headquarters in eastern Pennsylvania, Air Products maintained a manicured lawn and boxwood hedges. But when the industrial gases company recently moved to nearby Allentown and built a new office building, it tried something different.
Instead of planting grass that needed constant watering, mowing and fertilizing, it turned into native plants that pretty much took care of themselves. Today, shoulder-high grasses billow in the wind and attract wildlife.
“One plant had yellow finches all over it,” said Patrick J. Garay, vice president of strategic projects at Air Products.
Forget the crowds. Business landscapes are becoming natural these days.
The shift — mirroring what’s happening in public parks, on college campuses, and in homeowners’ backyards — is being driven by a growing awareness of the environmental costs of installing and maintaining lawns, trimmed hedges, and tidy flower borders. New laws prohibit using water for “useless” grass in drought-prone areas, and corporate sustainability programs cover the land on which the buildings sit. Apps calculate the carbon footprint of landscapes in much the same way that buildings are monitored for greenhouse gas emissions.
“There’s a lot more science and environmental rigor behind plant design,” said Michael Grove, the president of landscape architecture, civil engineering and ecology at Sasaki, a design firm that has been involved in the development of two carbon-tracking apps.
The resistance to conventional landscaping may surprise those who assume that all green plants must be equally good for the planet.
But as manicured lawns give way to meadows and borders of annuals are replaced by wild and woolly native plants, a looser, some perhaps messier, aesthetic takes over. Call it the horticultural equivalent of bed head.
The new wave of landscape design responds to the image of a mid-20th century corporate campus. Buildings often sit in velvety emerald green carpets that add to America’s more than 40 million acres of lawn. Can the public get used to the new look?
“It requires a significant mindset change,” says José Almiñana, director at Andropogon, the landscape architecture firm that designed the Air Products site.
Kentucky bluegrass, a common grass grass, takes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But propagating the same grass species everywhere is at the expense of native plants that are adapted to the local climate and provide food and habitat for endangered birds, bees and butterflies. Then there are the environmental costs of keeping lawns lush: endless watering, weed killing, mowing and blowing.
“The building reaches a private audience, but the landscape is visible to the public,” said Barbara Deutsch, CEO of Landscape Architecture Foundation, a nonprofit organization.
Grass is everywhere at Ford Motor’s headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan. But after the company released a master plan for the campus that envisioned more “natural environments,” it decided to rethink the 20 acres of grass into an arboretum. The lawn under and around the trees sometimes had to be mowed “several times a week,” said Christopher Small, Design Manager for Global Campus Master Planning and Architecture at Ford.
Working with landscape architecture firm OJB, Ford expanded the arboretum site and rearranged it with ponds to collect and filter rainwater. The company planted prairie grasses and wildflowers and created walking trails through the foot-high meadow that now only needs to be mowed twice a year.
“When we proposed something like this 15 years ago, we got a lot of strange looks,” said James Burnett, president of OJB. “It’s much easier to sell now.”
In a 2021 survey of more than 500 members of the American Society of Landscape Architects, a professional organization, three-quarters said they had more clients requesting design solutions to address climate change than the previous year.
National and local regulations also promote change.
Stormwater management requirements have led to the construction of vegetated ditches, known as bioswales, to reduce runoff during rainfall. A new Nevada law prohibits using water from the Colorado River, which has shrunk from decades of overuse and drought exacerbated by climate change, to irrigate “non-functional or ‘useless'” grass. Property owners who are non-functional replacing native grasses, shrubs and trees with desert plants can get discounts on their water bill.
Los Angeles has enrolled 298 commercial, industrial and institutional customers in its own rebate program since 2015, which gives companies $5 per square foot to trade sod for California poppies and other drought-tolerant and native plants, said Terrence McCarthy, manager of the city’s water resources policy. . Businesses that have made the switch no longer need to use sprinklers all the time, reducing their water bills, he added.
The US Green Building Council, which administers LEED certification for sustainable buildings, has a similar program, SITES, for landscapes that promote biodiversity, conserve resources, and protect ecosystems. Of the 317 projects participating in the program, 11 percent are commercial, said Danielle Pieranunzi, the program’s director. “It’s not just designing for aesthetics,” she added.
Hewlett-Packard received SITES certification for its Boise, Idaho, campus after partnering with landscape architecture firm Stack Rock Group to replace sod with a native seed mix that reduced water use and mowing—landscape costs by nearly 50 percent and emissions by 90 percent Reduce . One thing increased: honey production for the on-campus bee club, presumably because the pollinating insects had a buffet to feast on. HP then spent $404,000 overhauling its campus in Corvallis, Oregon, and also earned SITES certification for that property.
These new landscapes may not be immediately carefree. Until the natives spread, invasive plants may need to be removed. And the construction of a meadow is not necessarily cheaper than the construction of lawns and flower borders.
But the environmental benefits can be significant. Meadows benefit pollinators and enrich the soil, according to new research. Some landscapes are designed to be ‘climate positive’, removing more carbon from the atmosphere than was emitted during installation and maintenance.
Pamela Conrad, a landscape architect, developed a carbon tracking app that provided guidance on ways site planners could stash away more carbon. So far, 787 projects have been tested on the app, with last year’s projects reducing their carbon footprint by 12 percent, Ms. Conrad said.
“If you add pavement, your grade score goes down and it takes 50 years to offset your carbon footprint,” she said. “If you add trees, it only takes 10 years.”
Even companies that embrace ecological approaches still often want a grassy area to throw a Frisbee or work outside. But many keep lawns to a minimum, use native grass, or simply mow less.
The reaction to the rougher look seems mixed. In places where property owners observe “No Mow May” — leaving mowers idle until June — irate neighbors have come along with their own machines. A Maryland couple fought with their homeowners association over their decision to grow sunflowers and phlox instead of grass. (Their fight eventually changed state law.)
“There’s a perception that if it looks a little wild, it looks like it hasn’t been taken care of,” said Chris Guillard, a director at the landscape architecture firm CMG.
At the new Allentown location, Air Products encountered “questions about what we had done,” said Mr. Garay, especially when the meadows had just been planted and “looked like a field of weeds”.
Air Products explained its new approach in a company newsletter and posted signs around its site. Mr Garay spoke at a community meeting about how pastures can benefit the environment.
“Once people hear the why, you see them nodding their heads,” he said. “People are starting to understand that these little effects add up.”