Landscaping is something most of us are familiar with, whether at a local park or in our own yards. Though we traditionally think of landscaping as garden design, encompassing things such as lawns and hedges, there are also many non-organic, or “built” elements of landscaping to be considered, such as stones, fences, and paved areas. The combination of built and natural elements in a way that suits user needs is considered landscape design.
In public spaces, built elements are especially important, often relating to traffic and vehicle control. The ground materials and grading selected by landscape architects can affect site installations, and effective site planning can improve (or decrease) usability.
In this post, we'll look at nine principles of landscape design, as well as some key strategies in developing great designs suitable for any urban or greenspace environment.
1. Effective landscape design improves user experience
Planning and organization make a property easier to read and navigate—helping increase comfort and familiarity.
When planning any landscape, it's important to know how it will be used. First, decide how you want people to see and use a space. Every design decision should stem from this idea. Will it be a sports field or a rose garden? Are you looking to attract visitors or guide them to another location?
Planning should consider the full space available. It is important to understand the existing landscape aspects such as:
- Hardscape: Non-organic features incorporated into a landscape such as paved areas, stones, fences, and other hard-wearing materials.
- Softscape: Living landscape agriculture such as trees, lawns, and other plant materials. These are used to lend character to the landscaping.
It's also important to consider existing site conditions in the final design of a project. Features like slopes, drainage, utilities, and existing structures—as well as climate and other environmental considerations—can have a significant impact on planning and design. Physical characteristics affect the construction and performance of hardscapes, while climate and drainage may limit the type of plants that can be used.
2. Create unity through consistency and repetition
Once it has been determined how users should interact with a landscape, you should develop a conceptual focus.
Greenspace Design & Décor specializes in artificial landscape installations for both interiors and exteriors. They work on both residential and commercial projects, and their work can be seen at the Vancouver Airport, Vancouver Aquarium, and Shangri-La Hotel Vancouver. Their Commercial and Residential Designer, Sarah d'Artois, explains how professional site designers plan their projects:
When it comes to planning a new project, "unity and cohesion are key principles of design, which are always a major consideration in the initial process of a project," said d'Artois. "Without harmony, a space will lack completeness, which users sense intuitively whether they know it or not. We select certain elements to focus on, such as line, texture, and shape, and combine those with selected principles—repetition, for example. Repeating a certain texture or shape throughout the landscape will help create unity."
Dominant characteristics or attention-grabbing focal points are key to establishing strong patterns. For example, unique tree species or decorative architectural features are ideal for building entrances, pathways, leisure spaces, or other places of interest.
3. Strong lines make for strong designs
Lines influence how visitors interpret and navigate a landscape. They tie elements together—achieving unity through interconnection or distinguishing unique elements.
D'Artois offers some perspective on how she uses lines in her work. "Lines are an integral element of design and will evoke different effects,” she said. “Horizontal lines create a sense of ease and relaxation, where vertical lines suggest a more dynamic sense of expansion. Analyzing a client's style and ensuring unity with the rest of the property is the first thing to consider in any new project."
"If the property is intended for relaxation, such as in a spa, we'll use horizontal lines," added d'Artois. "When designing an interactive exterior landscape, we'll incorporate dynamic and curved lines to encourage people to explore."
Site walkability is not just a goal, but a requirement for many designers. Proper active design can help encourage more active lifestyles.
4. Straight lines vs curved lines
Straight and curved lines can be used to reinforce order and encourage movement. But when and why should you use them?
- Ordered, straight-line landscapes are common in urban settings, such as busy downtown environments, where vehicles and pedestrians need to move around as quick and efficient as possible.
- Straight-line landscapes also complement the basic rectangular shapes of traditional office building architecture, though curved lines are also common with more modern building styles.
- Straight-line configurations with lots of plant material can be labor-intensive to maintain, as plants require significant attention and pruning to keep their intended forms.
- Curved-line landscapes emphasize more natural forms and asymmetric compositions. We can look to traditional Japanese gardens for examples of free-form, natural landscapes that embrace asymmetrical compositions. As d'Artois mentioned, these types of spaces encourage more intuitive or unplanned wandering and exploration.
- Curved lines can also be used to create focal points for attention. Curves naturally embrace radial movements and imply a central point.
- Curved lines are common around water elements, reinforcing natural waterlines or drawing attention to fountains or ponds.
5. Keep balance and symmetry in mind
Landscapes should be designed with balance in mind. Balance can be achieved both formally and informally by mirroring like materials and forms.
"Balance and symmetry are integral to design," d'Artois said. "It's impossible to ignore a picture frame that hangs crooked on a wall, or a lone tree that appears out of place in a garden. Landscape design should flow naturally—however, key principles should still be followed. Designers can create focal points by emphasizing certain areas, but the focal points must have some unifying factor within the overall space."
6. Direct attention with form and shape
All design elements have form, whether it be in the shape of an elaborate building, a picnic table, or a vapid expanse of pavement. Form describes the shape of an object, as well as the relationship between objects. Positive and negative space should also be considered.
Trees offer a flexible range of shapes and compositions for the landscaper. Conical and column-shaped trees direct attention upwards, which can reinforce open areas or guide attention to tall buildings. Willows and other trees with draping branches attract attention and emphasize their immediate surroundings—making them an excellent compositional element for water features and leisure areas.
Trees with high trunks can create shade-giving canopies for benches or hammocks. When set in a line, trees and shrubs can create barriers to direct people and traffic.
7. Play with scale
When we look at scale, we compare relationships between objects. The most useful comparison is how an environment measures up to an ordinary person.
"Playing with scale in landscape design can tremendously affect the feeling of an area, and it must be executed carefully to maintain balance," said d'Artois. "Large boulders next to tiny flowers are an obvious misuse of scale. However, intentional misuse of scale lends well to playground designs, where it allows kids to feel taller in their environment."
Successful use of scale considers the total square footage of architectural components onsite, as well as the area to be landscaped. Designers can select from a wide variety of heights and materials to reflect the qualities they wish to enhance or reduce.
8. Inspire emotional context with texture and color
Texture and color have more subtle emotional and psychological impacts. Plant materials feature a range of textures from short, broad leaves to long limbs with dense foliage. Broad leaves are the most attention-grabbing, as they often shimmer and rustle in the wind. Compact shrubs with small leaves, when kept trimmed, can appear almost smooth from a distance.
Other surfaces can complement or contrast surrounding greenery. Concrete and paving stones can reflect the design and texture of rockwork throughout a site, and different types of wood features can complement surrounding trees.
Color can also be a very dynamic and overt means to drawing attention. Bright colors make a place feel more energetic and alive, while neutral and subdued colors have a more calming effect. When designing buildings and other structural elements, consider color tones:
- Natural earth colors like greys, blacks, deep browns, and greens, as well as woodgrain tints, complement natural landscape elements such as garden soil, grass lawns, water features, and rock and concrete structures.
- Bright, synthetic colors, on the other hand, such as reds, oranges, yellows, pinks, and purples stand out—and may even clash with surrounding greenspaces. It is important to consider the contrast of colors as well.
9. Design for people
It's important to remember that landscape design is primarily for the benefit of people. High-traffic urban locations typically require more hardscape materials and areas for social interaction. Plazas, college campuses, retail centers, and transit stations need to accommodate both pedestrian and vehicle traffic. Contrastingly, parks, decorative courtyards, and country clubs benefit from more natural greenspaces.
D'Artois also emphasized the importance of universal access in ensuring effective design. "If a user is unable to access certain areas, these spaces become irrelevant and wasted,” she said. “Universal design is the principle of designing for all users, regardless of age or ability. Landscape design is intended to enhance the quality of the user's experience outdoors. This would include patio and pathway circulation, ground-cover transitions, and lighting to ensure safety for all ages."
Exceptional landscape design
These basic principles are intended to guide the development of personal style and taste, while encouraging new ideas. When developing new landscape designs, or re-visioning existing ones, consider the landscapes and locations you enjoy. Using the design elements covered in this article, look for neighborhoods and communities that integrate elements you'd like to achieve, and that deal with similar urban or climatic constraints.
Using the right tools and strategies, we can better analyze, plan, and implement great landscape design.
- "8 Principles of Landscape Design." Weekend Gardener. WM Media.
- Boulden, Steve. "The Basic Principles Of Landscape Design." The Landscape Design Site.
- Colorado Master Gardener Program. "Water Wise Landscaping: Principles of Landscape Design." GardenNotes. Colorado State University.
- Colorado Master Gardener Program. "Water Wise Landscape Design." GardenNotes. Colorado State University.
- Crisman, Phoebe. "Form." Whole Building Design Guide.
- The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. "Basic Principles of Landscape Design." University of Florida.
- Great landscape design focuses on user experience: La Citta Vita, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr
- Repetition of color and texture helps create harmony: William Murphy, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr
- Curved lines encourage movement at Ritsurin Garden, Japan: Public domain, via WikiCommons
- Form and shape create balance and symmetry: William Cho, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr
- Horizontal lines create calming environments: La Citta Vita, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr
- Vertical columns direct attention and create scale: Jim G, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr
- Texture and form work together: William Murphy, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr
- Universal design enhances user experience and minimizes wasted space: La Citta Vita, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr