Design for Maintenance

Urban environments depend on maintenance. In intensely used urban settings, the concept of low maintenance is not a practical reality. During the design process, landscape architects must identify the source and capability of that maintenance, and be sure that the maintenance team is informed of specialized requirements and system designs to support the success of the landscape in the long term.

A properly designed landscape should be able to support trees with minimum maintenance. If the tree fails because the level of maintenance available could not provide for its minimum requirements, is the design at fault? Understanding the maintenance capabilities of the client should be a fundamental pre-requisite for informing any successful final design.

Many projects that receive wide acclaim for design success have small armies of maintenance staff who can overcome soil design flaws. When another designer tries to emulate these award-winning projects without the same level of maintenance, plant failure is almost ensured. Sometimes, particularly in cases of poor drainage, the design is simply not maintainable. Design choices do affect the ability to maintain the design and maintenance providers, like designers, must understand soil and tree biology. How soil and trees are treated during maintenance – after the designer considers their job finished – is as crucial as it was during construction.

For example, few people, including landscape maintenance contractors, know that plants look wilted from being either over- or under-watered. Lots of hard work can be undone by overwatering the soil during the first summer after the project is built. Well-developed soil biology can be severely damaged by chemical applications intended to improve plant health. Soil testing, including monitoring of soil biology, should be a regular part of the maintenance process, and soil lab reports should be consulted before deciding on any chemical application. Pruning must be done with the long-term growth goals for the tree and to set up proper branching patterns for the creation of strong branch joints.

While primary designers are rarely part of the ongoing maintenance team, they must set the landscape on an attainable maintenance course and make strong recommendations to influence quality maintenance practices by certified arborists and other providers. This is an essential first step in designing for low-maintenance landscapes that can also thrive in urban environments.

This was adapted from Design Principle 10: Design for Maintenance in “Up By Roots” by James Urban. It is reprinted with permission from its publisher and source, International Society of Arboriculture

Top image Flickr credit: Mike Smail

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