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American Society of Landscape Architects

 

April 2005 Issue

Ecological Classification Systems
Ecoregions of North America.

By Adam Regn Arvidson

Ecological Clasification Systems
US EPA, HNEERL, Corvallis, Oregon

Quick: What ecoregion are you in? Powder River Basin? Mid-Atlantic Flatwoods? Claypan Prairie? Ecoregions (in addition to having evocative names) say a lot about landscape: what it looks like, how it functions, and what you can expect while driving through it—or designing within it. Ecoregions are one of many methods of ecological classification: ways of describing, in relatively simple terms, the science of why a particular patch of land differs from another. Ecological classifications answer questions such as “What kinds of plants thrive here?” “How is soil type affecting surface waters here?” and “What is the overall natural character of the landscape here?” Because they often answer such questions with maps and narrative descriptions, ecological classifications are powerful inventory and analysis tools for landscape architects.

Ecological classification systems come in two basic types: general purpose and special purpose. Both types have important, though different, applicability for landscape architects. Together, they can inform design at a variety of scales. Special purpose systems focus in on a single ecological factor—most often vegetation—to create highly detailed maps and landscape descriptions. General purpose maps combine a wide variety of factors (vegetation, geology, hydrology) to define large areas of similarity in the landscape: the aforementioned ecoregions. The primary maps of United States ecoregions have been prepared by The Nature Conservancy, the United States Forest Service, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

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