By Carol Robertson
This winter in Massachusetts was a harsh one. By the time spring came and the six foot banks of snow had melted, I had been abundantly reminded that a physical connection to the natural world helps maintain your mood, blood pressure, and mental health.
As a landscape designer, I make a habit to drive through nearby industrial parks. Typically, I see acres of manicured lawns dotted with a few species of trees and shrubs, many of which have been sheared into geometric shapes at the expense of their natural habitat. Not exactly the natural ambiance I was craving all winter. And yet these commercial sites encompass large tracts of land that were once fields and woodlands. Using sustainable practices, commercial landscapes can be managed to connect the land to the surrounding environment, while addressing energy and water needs more sustainably.
Current landscape practices pose significant barriers to more sustainable practices, starting with the contract between business owners, facility managers, and their landscape service providers. A typical maintenance contract gives priority to seasonal lawn maintenance services including mowing, irrigation, multiple fertilizer applications, and seasonally timed weed, insect and disease controls, with a much smaller focus on attractive pruning of shrubs and hedges.
In reality, lawns don’t support sustainability goals. They require high inputs of water, energy (in the form of mowing), and chemicals, with relatively low returns in carbon sequestration or other environmental benefits. In contrast, shrubs and other broad-leaved plants are more sustainable because, if selected correctly, they are adapted to local environments and require minimal inputs in water, energy or chemical treatments. Native plantings can be even more sustainable, since locally adapted plants support a wide variety of other organisms, providing benefits to the local ecosystem.
Changes to this common scenario have been painfully slow to manifest themselves. And yet there are other good reasons to adopt more naturalistic planting practices, including this surprising finding: More natural settings in the workplace increase worker productivity.
A study published by the environmental consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green summarizes research showing that employees are more productive in natural settings at their work sites. Factors as simple as having a view through a window to a natural area, access to an outdoor meeting space, or the addition of indoor plants or water features correspond to lower blood pressure, increased alertness, and longer attention span. These increases in productivity can translate into cost savings in the form of reduced absenteeism, better focus, improved mood, and reduced fatigue.
Even small changes in productivity can mean significant saving to employers. The Department of Labor cites the rate of absenteeism at 3% in enclosed office settings nationwide; in a corporate office with 1,000 employees and an average salary of $40,000, that 3% translates into a cost to the employer of $1,200,000 annually. Exposure to natural design and its accompanying positive effects has been shown to reduce absenteeism by 10%. This would result in a savings of $120,000 annually to the company in the example above. Increases in productivity resulting from the same changes, such as increased focus, improved mood, or reduced fatigue would lead to further cost savings.
The explanation for these biological effects, which scientists call “biophilia,” stems back to our early heritage as hunter-gatherers on the low grasslands of our ancestral home. It was there, over many millennia, that modern man developed an affinity for and a set of biological responses to the massive grassland, expansive vista, and scattered masses of trees that were man’s home. Is it any wonder that we still feel a sense of well-being when immersed in nature?
While every employee can benefit from views of nature, the changing work habits of younger employees are another factor to consider. More collaborative and less hierarchical in their work styles, Millennial workers have started to exert a powerful influence on commercial building design. Instead of executive offices commanding all the best window views, with entry level workers in cubicles clustered in the middle of the office floor, architects are now designing offices with more open areas near windows, higher emphasis on collaborative spaces, and sophisticated visual touches. Many of these new office spaces are in cities, leaving traditional suburban office parks to an aging population of workers.
A new approach to landscaping suburban office developments that integrates natural areas and provides more open, collaborative spaces can meet the demands of this next generation of office workers. For instance, an active lifestyle is essential to younger workers. They want to walk, jog, bike or hike during their breaks. Suburban areas are well suited for amenities such as bike paths or jogging and hiking trails near natural areas.
Now re-imagine the typical suburban industrial park redesigned to provide the type of environments that take advantage of these findings. What would it look like?
My firm’s project at Brookwood Business Center in northeastern Massachusetts was designed with the employees in mind. We repurposed topsoil and large boulders from the existing planting areas to surround two new common seating areas intended for use in outdoor meetings, relaxing breaks or as a destination for employees who walk or jog through the sixty-plus acre complex at lunch. Seated on the patio, employees are surrounded by native plant groupings, which attract a variety of butterflies, birds and other wildlife. Plantings vary in height to offer interesting, naturalistic perspectives and to shield the view of cars in the parking lot, while reducing noise.
Because movement is so important in our response to nature, the inclusion of masses of taller grasses that sway in the breeze is an important feature of the landscape. The project was planned for long seasonal interest, which in New England, means early spring flowers through vivid fall colored shrubs to winter evergreens and berries.
An office building optimized for sustainability and productivity would give every employee the opportunity to collaborate in a natural setting, take breaks outside or enjoy a view of the natural world from their desks or work areas.
To develop a more sustainable approach to landscaping your commercial property, keep these principles in mind:
1. Ask your landscape designer to consider sustainable goals that employ practices such as minimizing lawn and increasing permanent plantings of shrubs, tall grasses, and perennials.
2. Move plantings away from building foundations for better visibility from inside and allow them to grow in a naturalistic shape that integrates well with the surrounding environment.
3. Design outdoor spaces that encourage an easy flow with inside collaboration areas. For instance, consider an outdoor patio setting near a corporate café, with tables that double as impromptu meeting areas.
4. Examine your landscaping contract to reduce water requirements, lower energy demands, and establish integrated pest management.
5. Address the desires of younger workers for outdoor activities. If your office park is near conservation land, develop footpaths that lead to those areas for easier recreation during breaks. Consider protected bike lanes along the roads and jogging paths near natural water features.
6. Integrate your landscape into your sustainability plan by calculating the carbon footprint of your site. You may find that a few changes to your landscape design can lead to significant impacts on sustainability.
Robertson is the president of Garden Imprint in Newburyport, MA. She is a past president of the Massachusetts Association of Landscape Professionals and served on its Board of Directors for four years.