April 11, 2023

Sustainable Design in Landscape Architecture

For over 60 years, Progressive Companies has been committed to innovative and sustainable designs that benefit our clients and communities. In this blog series leading up to Earth Day, we’ll share knowledge and best practices we’ve learned along the way.

In our last installment we explored site design through the lens of Civil Engineering. This week our landscape architects are sharing how biophilic, accessible, and people-first design leads to more sustainable and healthier communities.

Design beyond Aesthetics

Ecosystem Services

When people hear the term landscape architect, they might imagine us as primarily “plant people.” While plant selection is an important aspect of what we do, we don’t view it as our main vocation. We come alongside architects, urban planners, and civil engineers early in the design process in order to develop sites that are beautiful, functional, and sustainable for the people occupying them and supporting the ecosystems in which they are located. As designers first and foremost, we ask ourselves what we want people to feel about the space, whether artful, playful, peaceful, or something else, as well as the impacts our design decisions have on the existing environment and its long-term effects on the evolving environment.

Site design does go beyond aesthetics and can perform what is called “Ecosystem Services.” Several examples of Ecosystem Services include, biodiversity, rainwater harvesting and management, solar exposure/orientation, and heat island mitigation to name a few. One specific strategy utilized at Progressive Companies is the selection of plant material beyond their visual qualities. Using a combination of native and adaptive plant species and arranging those plants in layers is a technique known as a “designed plant community.” The goal of this technique is to allow the plants to “work together,” allowing them to establish quicker and thrive longer and reduce the amount significant human intervention to maintain in the long-term. Designing this way also provides “Green Mulch” and prevents invasive species from taking hold and reduces if not eliminates entirely the need for annual mulching of shredded hardwood material.

Great examples utilizing these various design techniques are the Padnos Rooftop Sculpture Garden, Amphitheater Plaza, and Volunteer Tribute Garden at Frederik Meijer Gardens. Another great example is Progressive Companies' office in Grand Rapids, MI. The building is situated on a sloped site adjacent to a wetland. Rather than flattening the landscape, the designers created a bridge connecting an upper parking area to the front door. The building sits at the edge of a wetlands area so the natural ecosystem is not disturbed and the site is planted with no-mow grass and native and adaptive plant species. The no-mow grasses reduce the number of mowings annually thus reducing the buildings carbon footprint and the native and adaptive plant species help promote biodiversity. When we do have to disturb the site, felled trees are repurposed and placed within the wetland area to create additional habitats for fish, frogs, waterfowl, and other animals. From a human perspective, employees and visitors can enjoy the natural landscape and watch the deer, blue herons, muskrats, and other animals that share our site.

Progressive Companies Office - Grand Rapids, MI
Progressive Companies Office - Grand Rapids, MI

Biophilic Design

Biophilic design describes the practice of creating spaces that more closely connect occupants with nature. Human connection with nature has been shown to decrease stress and increase overall happiness.

Progressive Companies recently completed a healing garden at Trinity Health Hospital in Muskegon, MI. The provision of useable exterior space with plant material, religious artifacts, and water features not only helps patients heal faster; it also helps hospital staff and visiting family and friends with stress reduction. The sights and sounds of the cascading water on the fountain combined with the fragrance of plants like thyme, lavender, bee balm, and false catmint are such that occupation in the space is the only way to truly experience it in its entirety.

Fountain at Trinity Health Hospital
Healing Garden at Trinity Health Hospital


The leafier the green material within sites and urban areas, the more carbon is being sequestered and oxygen is being added to the air. Heat island effect is also a concern, where larger concentrations of people within urban areas creates warmer zones than rural areas. Many cities now have tree initiatives to make sure there are enough mature trees to offset the carbon that people produce. Sedges, prairie grasses, and perennials can also help with this, and part of our site design process includes maximizing greenery for this purpose.

Supporting Community Resiliency and Vitality

Our team works closely alongside the urban planning team to design for resiliency. When it comes to climate change and natural disasters, it’s not a question of if our sites will be affected, but when. Climate events can quickly tear communities apart, so designing sites that will stand the test of time is important.

Another way we work with planners is by examining transportation systems and creating walkable or bikeable environments, both giving people access to nature and cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition to sustainability we’re also interested in accessibility for the widest range of people. We’re working on a number of projects in Downtown Grand Rapids, MI connecting people to the river, and we want them to feel welcome to experience nature through the design—enhancing connectivity to each other and the planet as well.