At its former headquarters in eastern Pennsylvania, Air Products had a neatly manicured lawn and box hedges. But when the industrial gases company recently moved to nearby Allentown and built a new office building, it tried something different.
Rather than planting grasses that would need constant watering, mowing and fertilizing, it turned to native plants that pretty much took care of themselves. Today, shoulder-high grasses sway in the wind and attract wildlife.
“One plant had yellow finches around it,” said Patrick J. Garay, vice president of strategic projects at Air Products.
Forget the fuss. Corporate landscapes are becoming natural these days.
The change — mirroring what’s happening at public parks, further university campuses and in homeowners’ backyards — is driven by a growing awareness of the environmental costs of installing and maintaining lawns, trimmed hedges and tidy flower beds. New laws ban the use of water for “useless” grass in drought-stricken areas, and company sustainability programs encompass the land the buildings sit on. Applications calculate the carbon footprint of landscapes in the same way that buildings are monitored for greenhouse gases.
“There’s a lot more science and ecological rigor behind planting design,” said Michael Grove, the president of landscape architecture, civil engineering and ecology at Sasaki, a design firm that has been involved in developing two carbon-footprint programs.
The pushback against conventional landscaping might 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 might say messier, aesthetic takes over. Call it the horticultural equivalent of bedhead.
The new wave of landscape design reacts to the image of a a mid-20th century corporate campus. Buildings often sit in velvety emerald carpets that contribute to the more than 40 million acres of lawn in America. Can the public get used to the new look?
“It requires a significant mindset,” said José Almiñana, principal at Andropogon, the landscape architecture firm that designed the Air Products website.
Kentucky bluegrass, a common lawn grass, pulls carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But spreading the same types of grass everywhere comes at the expense of native plants that harmonize with the local climate and provide food and habitat for endangered birds, bees and butterflies. And then there’s the environmental cost of keeping lawns lush – the endless watering, weeding, mowing and blowing.
Landscaping equipment emits nearly 27 million tons of pollutants per year, according to ratings. One gas-powered leaf blower used for an hour generates the same amount of emissions as a car driven 1,100 miles.
As the climate crisis has grown increasingly severe, many companies have turned to their landscapes to help them achieve sustainability goals and boast of their ecological bona fides.
“The building reaches a private audience, but the landscape is visible to the public,” said Barbara Deutsch, head of the Landscape Architecture Foundation, a nonprofit organization.
At Ford Motor headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., turf is everywhere. But after the company released campus master plan that offered more “natural environments”, it decided to rethink the 20 acres of grass at a grove. The lawn under and around the trees sometimes had to be mowed “several times a week,” said Christopher Small, Ford’s design manager for global campus planning and architecture.
Working with the landscape architecture firm OJB, Ford expanded the arboretum and regraded it to include ponds to capture and filter stormwater. The company planted prairie grasses and wildflowers and threaded walking paths through the foot-high meadow that now needs mowing only twice a year.
“Fifteen years ago, when we proposed something like this, we would get a lot of strange looks,” said James Burnett, president of OJB. “It’s a lot easier to sell now.”
In 2021 an inquiry of more than 500 members of the American Society of Landscape Architects, a professional organization, three-quarters said they have more clients asking for design solutions to address climate change than they did the previous year.
State and local regulations are also driving change.
Stormwater management requirements have spurred the creation of vegetated ditches known as biosweeps to reduce runoff when it rains. A new Nevada law will prohibit using water from the Colorado River, which is shrinking from decades of overuse and a drought exacerbated by climate change, to irrigate “non-functional or “useless” grass. Homeowners who replace non-native grasses, shrubs and trees with desert plants can receive rebates on their water invoices
Los Angeles has recruited 298 commercial, industrial and institutional clients in its own discount program since 2015, with companies receiving $5 per square foot to exchange turf for California poppies and other drought-tolerant and native plants, said Terrence McCarthy, the city’s water resources policy manager. Companies that have made the switch no longer have to run sprinklers all the time, reducing their water bills, he added.
The US Green Building Council, which administers the LEED certification for sustainable buildings, has a comparable program, SITES, for landscapes that promote biodiversity, conserve resources and protect ecosystems. Of the 317 projects enrolled 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 working with the landscape architecture firm Stack Rock Group to replace lawn grass with a native seed mix that reduced water use and mowing—cutting landscaping costs nearly 50 percent and emissions 90 percent. . One thing that increased: honey production for the campus beekeeping club, presumably because the pollinators had a buffet to feast on. HP then spent $404,000 to overhaul its campus in Corvallis, Ore., earning SITES certification for that property as well.
These new landscapes may not immediately be carefree, however. Until the natives spread, invasive plants may need to be weeded out. And establishing a meadow is not necessarily cheaper than putting in a lawn and flower borders.
But the environmental gains can be significant. Meadows benefit pollinators and enrich soil, according to new research. Some landscapes are designed to be “climate positive,” extracting more carbon from the atmosphere than was emitted in their installation and maintenance.
Pamela Conrad, landscape architect, developed a carbon tracking application this provided guidance for ways site planners could sock away more carbon. So far, 787 projects have been submitted to the app, and last year’s projects reduce their carbon footprint by 12 percent, Ms. Conrad said.
“If you add paving, your number score goes down and it will take 50 years to offset your carbon footprint,” she said. “If you add trees, it will only last 10 years.”
Even companies embracing ecological approaches still often want some turf to throw a Frisbee on or work outside. But many keep lawns to a minimum, using native grasses or simply mow less.
The reaction to the more shaggy look seems to be mixed. In places where owners observe “Don’t Mow May” — leaving mowers idle until June — angry neighbors came with their own machines. One Maryland couple fought their homeowners association over their decision to grow sunflowers and phlox instead of grass. (Their fight ended up changing state law.)
“There’s a perception that if it looks a little wild, it looks like it’s not taken care of,” said Chris Guillard, a principal at the landscape architecture firm CMG.
At its new Allentown site, Air Products faced “questions about what we were doing,” Mr. Garay said, especially when the meadows had just been planted and “looked like a field of grass.”
Air Products explained its new approach in a company newsletter and posted signs around its property. Mr Garay spoke at a community meeting about how grasslands could benefit the environment.
“When people hear the why, you can see them nodding,” he said. “People are starting to understand that these small effects add up.”