Key to Success in Rain Garden & Native Landscape Design for Cities

The Key to Success in Rain Garden and Native Landscape Design for Cities

(Crystal A. Proxmire, Oct. 23, 2017)

Southfield, MI – Many communities are embracing the idea of using natural, native landscaping as a way to both beautiful their public spaces and to help reduce storm water related issues such as flooding.

But what is the one thing they get wrong?

Amy Murdick of Tetra Tech is a landscape architect and expert in water retention engineering.  She spoke Friday at the 2017 Regional Stormwater Summit at Lawrence Technological University hosted by Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash and his nonprofit Pure Oakland Water.

The answer is that there is often a disconnect between the projects and the public.  “Public acceptance is the key to success,” she said.

“A lot of communities are embracing these practices, but are not accustomed to designing them,” Murdick said.  “What we run into is that how they function is not the only key to success.”

The appearance is crucial, she said, because if the public doesn’t like it, they aren’t going to be supportive of keeping it.

She recommended being mindful of traditional landscaping practices and incorporating those into native landscaping and bio-retentive areas like rain gardens to make it clear to the public that the area has been planted intentionally and aesthetically.  Maintenance was also an issue. Keeping landscaping looking attractive depends on those maintaining it knowing the difference between what is supposed to be there and the weeds.

Some suggestions for a successful project include:

-Using ground covers or plants with large leaves to shade out the ground and discourage weed growth

-Plant with a restricted palate, using large masses of the same kind of plant instead of a hodge-podge approach

-Or plant in rows so that plants are clear and distinguished from weeds

-Make sure that it all looks intentional

-Use walls and edges to define the landscaped area

-Plant tall plants in back of shorter ones

-Use traditional landscape patterns, such as alternating groups with 3 or 5 plants per group, if you don’t stick to large sections or rows

-Plant in big blocks of color for a stunning visual effect

One common problem is when planning and outcome do not match up.  Considering how a project will look, especially the first year that it is planted, is crucial in public acceptance.  It may make sense to mix some non-native plants in to the landscape to help the public get through the visual transition.  Tulips and Irises, for example, are not invasive and they are an easily recognizable plant for the public.  Murdick also recommended easily identifiable native plants such as black eyed Susan and coneflower.

“People like familiarity,” she said.

The other key to public acceptance is getting community input. “Find out what the community already knows,” Murdick said.  “Most people don’t know about native plants, so ask and go from there.”

She cautioned against using renderings and the best photos out there on the internet.  “Renderings and Google pictures may look pretty but they can be a little misleading and create disappointment,” she said.  “When I look up plants on Google I look for the one that looks the worst. What’s the ugliest picture of this plant, and can I live with that.

Another suggestion was to show pictures in isolation when talking to groups. This means people can think on a case by case basis of the elements of design without being turned off – or overly excited – by a composite concept. For example, show a brick edging by itself, show a statue by itself, show a mass of purple flowers by themselves.  She also said she puts in things she knows people will dislike and things she knows they will love, to help get the conversations going and open people up to expressing themselves.

Tetra Tech works worldwide on environmental and infrastructure solutions for communities.  Learn more at

For more on native landscaping and rain gardens see:


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