If The Plants Could Talk –

Entering the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum the scene is set with native landscaping.

Actually the plants, the landscaping and the grounds do talk. How we plan and care for the landscape at nature centers, zoos, museums, aquariums and communities tell our audience more than we think.

We see organizations that interpret nature, history and anthropology whose buildings have the same landscaping as the mall nearby or an urban boulevard. Though it may “blend” with other local landscaping, such an approach fails to communicate the theme of your unique facility. It’s a missed opportunity to reinforce your message through landscape features, upsetting the design balance of the site. A talented landscape architect plugged into an interpretive project must know what the landscaping, flow of traffic and entry experience should communicate and attempt to create balance between the building, interpretive media, and the landscape based on that message.

An organization teaching sustainability and conservation that has a bluegrass lawn and irrigation system to support it in an arid climate steps on its message. A local or regional natural history organization with non-native trees and shrubs planted around the building steps on its message. A community that wants a very strong regional identity must carefully plan streetscaping that matches the local environment to avoid looking like every other part of the country.

We teach experience planning for communities and heritage sites as having the following components: Decision – Entry – Connections – Exit – Commitment. The entry phase sets up the connection phase, the heart of an experience. If an asphalt parking lot with a few linden, locusts and junipers is the landscaping, it could be any mall in America. That generic look works well for ease of maintenance, but it does nothing to help residents or visitors connect with your identity and message.

The parking area at Arizona Sonora Desert Museum is beautifully landscaped with the native plants of that region. The hard surfaces of the parking lot disappear to some degree due to the lush growth of palo verde and other typical plants. The entire property is beautifully landscaped in native plants to look like the local landscape, purposely blending not looking planted. Jones and Jones, the landscape architects, are rightfully proud of this incredible place.  They made the property seem to blend with parklands around it, which is part of that world class desert museum experience. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas uses their parking lot as an interpretive experience, having used porous materials that allows rain to soak through rather than running off as happens in a typical asphalt parking lot.

We expect an arboretum or botanical garden with an international scope of exhibits to create diverse environments. Plants are their business, but even there we prefer seeing more contextual exhibits of plants than mono-cultural plantings that would be more suitable in a backyard garden. Topiaries that tie into the theme of the place can be interesting and useful.

A cottage from a specific cultural period at a botanic garden is shown at its best with landscaping of a type that cottage would have had in a typical community.

When done well, landscaping can teach the concepts we hope to convey, like xeriscaping for water conservation, heirloom varieties of plants to recreate earlier cultural landscapes and the importance of pollinators with their special adaptations. The design of the grounds, trails and bridges reveals the site or community and helps create a strong sense of place. Done without consideration of the message, it creates confusion that detracts from the holistic experience.

It’s always a bit of a shock to hear that an organization has hired an architect and a landscape architect, designed the building and grounds and then wants to add the “interpretives” to finish it off. Every piece of the experience – facilities, landscape, and interpretive media – tells the story. To keep these elements in balance, hire the interpretive planner first to determine the central message so that the entire experience works together as architects, landscape architects, and designers continue to add layers of nuance. No one would design an aircraft or motor vehicle without first thinking about how it will be used . . . it’s time to give interpretive sites and communities the same regard so that we create the strong sense of place that tells the stories of our cultures, environment, and beliefs without words. It’s time to let the plants talk.

A shark topiary at an urban aquarium makes its own interesting statement about your arrival at a place of ocean animals and environments.

– Tim Merriman and Lisa Brochu

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