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American Society of Landscape Architects


June 2006 Issue

Ethics, Water Conservation, and Sustainable Gardens
How a botanic garden and arboretum in Michigan started “walking the talk” of environmental conservation.

By Robert E. Grese, ASLA, and David C. Michener

Ethics, Water Conservation, and Sustainable Gardens Robert E. Grese

Ethical issues concerning the use and abuse of water resources are among the most critical environmental challenges facing public gardens. Here in Michigan, as with many parts of the United States, we have taken the availability of clean water for granted for generations. The lakes, rivers, and streams associated with the Great Lakes ecosystem literally define our landscape. We are surrounded by the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem and have an abundance of groundwater resources.

At the University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, where our staff manages four distinct properties totaling more than 700 acres, every set of irrigation-intensive displays, every sealed hardscape, every eroded feature sends a message. How and where we use or waste water, including the extent to which we rely on water-intensive plants, displays, gardens, and landscapes, clearly inform the visitor of the behaviors we expect them to live by as well. Recognizing this, we have been asking ourselves how we, as a public university garden, should clarify and link water-related issues to core practices, research, and education in public horticulture and responsible landscape management. How can we help the public understand the relationship between our (and their) practices and water quality? How do we lead the way to change before there is a water crisis? Our perspective is that our gardens and management should be the result of clearly articulated ethical judgments that we present to the public.

At our botanical gardens and arboretum we are not starting from an ethically neutral position—our gardens exemplify traditional models of development and construction practices that increase impervious surfaces and lead to an escalation in the amount of stormwater runoff. We must put our own house in order. But ethics, rather than mere pragmatism, must guide our actions and outreach if our audiences are to be persuaded by our practices. We have a historic opportunity to showcase implementable new and retrofit examples of scientifically sound, aesthetically compelling water conservation strategies. We have come to understand this not only as an opportunity but also as a profound means of demonstrating societal leadership.

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