Understanding the Concept Of Regenerative Landscape Design: An Interview with Helena Farrell and Sebastian Gutwein of Regenerative Design Group LLC

Tell us a little bit about your company and its foundation.

Regenerative Design Group (RDG) was founded in 2009 by partners Jono Neiger, Keith Zaltzberg and Sebastian Gutwein. Their combined backgrounds and experience created a strong foundation for the business to provide a suite of regenerative landscape design/build services. We provide standard industry services, including Site Design, Master Planning, and Green Infrastructure, as well as services that other firms don't offer, such as Food System Assessments, Agroecological Overlay, and Farm Planning and Design.

Our philosophy and areas of expertise significantly differentiate us from other firms. Regenerative Design, envisions human developments that restore, renew, and revitalize their own sources of energy and materials while supporting natural processes. Way past conventional landscaping, and even beyond "Sustainable" landscapes, our approach aims to create resilient, evolving systems that integrate the needs of society with the integrity of nature.

What are some important questions to ask the landscape designer before beginning the designing process?

Before beginning the design process, it is critical to carefully assess whether the landscape designer is a good match for you and your project. The most important first questions should be self-reflexive, for instance, "What is my vision for the landscape and what am I hoping to do? What problems am I hoping to fix and what am I hoping to create?"

Then you can begin interviewing landscape designers to find out how they will help you realize your vision and goals. At that point, you will want to find out if their skills and expertise match the challenges and needs of your site, if they offer the services to get the job done, and if their overall approach is in alignment with how you wish to connect with your landscape.

As all realtors know, and home and land buyers soon come to realize, location is everything. But it is not the geographic coordinates that are important; it is the vibrancy and well-being of the land, and the surrounding human and wild communities that help give a location value. While landscape professionals are often employed for discrete and focused tasks like installing pathways and flower beds, there is great potential to have positive impacts well beyond the picket fence, through well-thought-out and well-built ecological landscapes.

Who you work with on your landscape is an important factor for whether you will realize the full potential for beauty, productivity, and enjoyment of your land. Any industry professional, from landscape designer, landscape architect, environmental engineer, to construction manager, gardener, or lawn care provider can fall anywhere along the spectrum from conventional to sustainable. All of these terms can be confusing for the consumer and it is not always clear why they should choose one over the other.

At Regenerative Design Group we feel that the choice is clear. Professionals & contractors who employ a sustainable approach are advantageous because they aim to create landscapes that are healthier for the residents and do less damage to the planet. After all, to quote Henry David Thoreau, "What good is a house, if you haven't got a decent planet to put it on?"

Please discuss in brief the concept of "regenerative landscape design" and the most significant differences between this approach and conventional landscaping?

Sustainability has become an important selling point for many industries and markets around the world, encouraging firms to improve practices and innovate smarter ways of meeting demand. Concepts such as "ecological" or "sustainable" that have to do with stewardship of the earth and reducing negative impacts of human activities are recognized and embraced more widely now than ever. There is increasing awareness that alternatives to the norm, characterized by the "earthly-friendly" or "green" ethos, are desired by consumers concerned about the state of the planet.

Regenerative Design Group goes beyond the notion of sustainability. In addition to creating landscapes that serve practical purposes and offer beautiful places to live, work and play outdoors, our work aims to fortify the integrity of the landscape by rebuilding natural habitats and ecosystems.

For example, we design and build rain gardens that capture and infiltrate storm water runoff, add beauty and interest to the landscape, attract butterflies, birds and important insects, and reduce maintenance associated with lawn care. This may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but rain gardens play a major role in safeguarding nearby streams and water bodies from erosion and pollution. Rain garden plants and flowers provide much needed habitat for a wide range of wildlife, especially migrating birds and insects, such as the monarch butterfly.

This example shows that even a small change in the landscape can have major benefits to the world around it. Imagine the positive impacts that can be achieved with large scale, ecologically designed landscapes that sequester atmospheric carbon, reconnect regional wildlife corridors, foster neighborhood safety and community cohesion, improve air, water, and soil quality, and increase access to fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables.

Other landscape details we offer at RDG include wildflower meadows, water catchment & storage systems, green roofs, greenhouses and bio shelters, and edible forest gardens. We also do large-scale planning projects such as community farm master plans, regional redevelopment, city-scale green infrastructure, and university and hospital landscapes.

As a result of Regenerative Design, your location, or "place" as we like to call it, is not only made more useful and enjoyable for you, it is reconnected to the bigger picture of ecosystem health and aligned with the goal of maintain the earth as a decent planet to live on.

If you could, please list the steps of the regenerative landscape design process.

We begin our process with an interview in which we find out all of the key information about what clients need and envision, what they feel curious about, what they can afford, and so forth. We conduct site analysis and assessment, which is a process of studying the existing conditions of the site and its potential to meet the goals of the client. All of that information then provides the foundation for the design work to build upon.

We start by generating design concepts, which are loosely sketched sizes and arrangements of space, landform, plants, structure and other key design features. This is where our regenerative landscape sensibilities go to work and take shape. The client then reviews concepts, provides feedback, and we work together to hone in on the best solutions. Then we take the concepts into the schematic design phase, in which all of the details get ironed out. Sometimes detailed design is needed for specialized elements or for specifying materials.

Then we bring the vision to life in the implementation phase. If the project is appropriate, we install the designs we developed. Often contractors install our designs, in which case we provide implementation oversight. The choice of contractor is important to the success or failure of a project.

After landscapes are designed and built, we evaluate their performance to ensure they are meeting the original goals and criteria. The evaluation phase allows us to learn what worked, what didn't, and make the necessary adjustments to ensure the project will perform over the long-term.

What are the most significant differences this concept has with the traditional landscaping design process?

The design process that we follow IS a traditional design process. Our designers were trained in professional, accredited programs in Landscape Design, Landscape Architecture, and Environmental Design. So, we are equipped with the traditional, professional skills and education required for the industry. The difference is that our process imbues the ethos of regeneration into our design work, which places value on long term sustainability and ecosystem integration.

What are some common issues you face when it comes to designing landscapes?

Common issues include how to make leach fields beautiful, reduce mowing, balance low maintenance with high-interest gardens, accommodate vehicular access while minimizing paved areas, screen unwanted views and open up desirable views, and protect sensitive habitats, like vernal pools and wetlands, in a way that allows people to appreciate their ecological and aesthetic value.

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