Shift in landscaping as field embraces sustainability

Landscaping consultants describe how the sector is undergoing a transformation, with new technologies coming into play

A tastefully landscaped yard, a beautiful garden and well-manicured lawns make an attractive addition to homes and buildings. Landscaping involves intricate, elaborate, complex activities combining engineering, art and science, and is always the outcome of careful consideration and design.

Middle East Consultant engaged with two landscaping consultant practitioners for their take on the business. It was back to basics as we asked both for their perception of landscaping and what it entails.

“Landscaping, put very simply, is the modification of the visible features of an area of land using or enhancing natural elements such as the topography to arrive at an aesthetically pleasing, sustainable and creative environment,” explains Michael Mascarehnas, CEO, Desert Group, a firm founded in 1988 which has grown into one of the largest landscaping companies in the Middle East.

He adds that landscaping has since evolved and seen the introduction and care of living elements, such as plants, animals or fish. “We have seen the introduction of ‘hard’ elements such as paving, structures, sculptures and fountains, and the introduction of related elements such as lighting, drainage, irrigation, woodwork and other similar additional items create spaces for human interaction and enjoyment. Landscaping requires expertise in horticulture, construction, maintenance and artistic design.”

Nev Connell, the principal landscape architect with over 30 years’ experience who heads AECOM’s operations in the UAE and Oman, is more concise in his definition. “Landscaping is the enhancement of external spaces. It is a complex combination of art and science incorporating spatial, functional, ecological, microclimatic and aesthetic considerations.”

“Designers consider all aspects of a site as well as beyond the site when planning the landscape,” continues Connell, noting that technology plays a pivotal role in shaping designs. “Technological advances generally revolve around the production of detailed design for the construction of unique elements. Specialist digital software is now commonplace, generating new ideas and allowing them to expand into areas not previously possible.”

“Landscaping must be examined from a composite perspective, the sum of many parts. It must resonate with the broader home and community development plan and not just developed in isolation. It can and should be individualised and customised to meet client-consultant briefs, demands and specifications,” says Dubai-based Sasan Niknam, design manager at U+A Architects, an international firm offering architecture, interior designing, urban planning and landscaping services.

In Niknam’s view, landscaping entails many facets, from engineering to designing, planning, terrain, topography, geography, water availability, the environment and the ecosystem. “Sustainability and conservation are key priorities, as also are functionality and aesthetics.”

Virtual reality software allows designers to better present their ideas to clients. Fabricators have been able to use technology to produce complex shapes and forms in landscape elements such as landscape furniture, paving, modular and bespoke pre-cast elements.

These technological advances are not lost on Mascarenhas. “The growth in technology is reflected in the garden through the introduction of composite materials, Wi-Fi areas, smart LED lighting systems, smart irrigation systems, solar heating systems, fibre optic lighting, algorithm driven shading systems and so on.” He believes technology is advancing exponentially, and that the trick is to use that technology to push the creative elements in a way that enhances the natural outdoor experience without becoming gimmicky, costly and difficult to maintain.

The first and prime question is the use of space when providing landscaping ideas. “Once the desired purpose of the area has been established, then other decisions become simpler. Pets can often dictate landscaping decisions, and there are other factors as well that range from environment and climate, sun or shade areas, wind direction, views and orientation and even soil,” he says.

Landscaping is also about individuality, aesthetics and style, he observes. “The interior and exterior style of the property should create the feeling of unity between the two areas. The outdoor space should make people feel happy and relaxed. Garden styles used commonly here include desert, tropical, formal, informal, Japanese and modern.”

Regional adaptation

Landscaping has been around much longer in the Middle East than in many Western countries. The development of Islamic gardens has been an inspiration to garden designers around the world.

“The current major differences for gardens in our region is probably the need for a constant supply of water for irrigation purposes. All the other factors in Middle East landscaping are fairly similar after taking into account our rather harsh and hostile climate,” Mascarenhas notes.

This view is echoed by Connell. “Many of the principles that apply to design in other areas also apply to landscape design in the Middle East. However, designers in this region must also consider the intense climate and limitation of resources – water, for example.”

What is driving demand for landscaping in the region? According to Connell, in many cases the demand for a high-quality lifestyle environment is what drives the development of urban areas in this region. “As in most areas of the world, design of the built environment, such as buildings and landscapes, are becoming less regional and more global in style, with references to local character in the detailing of elements.”

Mascarenhas sees the desire to create an external experience that satisfies our senses to see, smell and touch greenery as a factor for increased landscaping demand in the region. “There is a young, well-educated, well-travelled and growing population, a large portion of which have reasonable disposable incomes. Governments are investing in infrastructure such as recycled water systems and social infrastructure such as parks, gardens and urban greenery.”

In his estimation, the strategic location of the Middle East countries, as an important transportation hub and tourist destination, has been one of the main drivers for the demand for high-quality landscaping from developers of residential properties and hotel groups.

The biggest changes in Middle East landscaping and customer demand and consciousness over the past five to ten years is the move towards sustainability through the use of more and more native species and the drive for ever greater irrigation efficiency. “To that end, we at Desert Group have established a very large native plant nursery and developed a new smart irrigation controller that reduces water consumption by at least 30%,” he points out.

Connell also indicates that customer demands have remained largely the same – create a high-quality environment with the least expenditure, and always have it ready yesterday!

The Middle East is rapidly evolving despite the arid terrain and paucity of water resources, and has done remarkably well in terms of water availability and ‘greening’ the desert, notes Niknam, who has been extensively involved with Dubai’s Marasi Business Bay Development, Dubai Holding’s AED 1 billion ($273 million) mixed-use waterfront destination spanning 12km of waterfront promenade along the newly inaugurated Dubai Water Canal. “Waterfalls have a way of attracting visitors anywhere, in public facilities, malls, city centres or residential communities, and the affinity for water and the serenity of water bodies such as ponds, pools, canals, lakes and associated lush vegetation in the vicinity is the growing trend in the region,” he indicates.


As in any sector, challenges abound. Mascarenhas opines that there is equal responsibility for landscape architects, consultants and contractors to focus on innovation. “The client then can be better advised. We have to address the big goals of sustainability, water conservation and designs that do not flatter but optimise scarce resources. There must be an immediate focus on inclusiveness as well. For far too long in this region, the agency concept of products has stymied innovation. It’s time to depend less on the core that must be imported and look at how we can use what is available in the region.”

His advice for designers and entrepreneurs in the landscaping industry? “There is endless potential within the landscaping industry, but let it be known that like any other industry it is hard work. While there is a dearth of good horticultural and landscaping skills, any service or solution will have to meet the new goal of affordability. Hence start small, conserving cash, assess the market as you go along – and deliver.”

What does it take to get to the top of the landscaping industry? Customer focus, persistence, innovation, patience and the most important element – a team that is motivated and delivers a quality product each time, on time, Mascarenhas notes.

“This region has been blessed with some visionary leadership. Part of the ethos is some great landscaping. Now it’s for us to deliver solutions that can make a positive difference to our habitat and society at large. We must continue to focus on what matters most to this region, and right at the top is water conservation. A greater focus on delivering innovative solutions is the need of the hour,” he emphasises.

With his international background, Niknam says total commitment and dedications are key attributes for success in any enterprise, including landscape. “Smart yet sustainable designs, technologies, aestheticism and concern for the environment are vital considerations that will give landscape professionals the competitive edge and success in the industry.”

For Connell, regulatory requirements tend to constrain creative and non-standard design ideas. “Often, this means there are limited opportunities to create the uniqueness that clients want to see,” he rues.

“Listen to your client. Create and develop your ideas, and have confidence when pitching them” is his counsel for his peers in the business. “To get to the top of the landscape ladder, you need to be creative, responsive and have a good sense of humour,” he concludes.

Landscaping Trends

COLOUR: Customers are becoming more adventurous with regard to the colours used in the landscape. Walls, fences, furniture and paving is all now being used in a wide variety of colour that wasn’t generally used in an external setting before. Paint colour of a building or structure definitely affects what a garden looks like, often creating a vibrant background for setting off plants in the garden. There is also appreciation for subtle colour ranges and even monochromatic gardens. Details of a stone wall, interesting edging or delicate patterns caused from the sun shining through carefully designed pergolas can add a strong positive element of interest to an area.

NATIVE VEGETATION: There is definitely a greater understanding of the use of natives in the landscape by landscape architects and developers. Again we have seen requirements for species that were not on the asking list earlier. Thus inclusiveness, sustainability and water usage are key drivers of this new trend.

RETHINKING OUTDOOR EXPERIENCES: Everything you have inside you can have outside, be it grills, covered areas, areas with cooling, heating, lighting. The fire pit, for example, seems to be trending quite strongly at the moment. The use of composites rather than hardwoods is gaining popularity due to environmental considerations, price and maintenance.

STYLISH AND PERSONALISED OUTDOOR FURNITURE: No longer limited to a few pieces of wicker furniture, there’s a growing movement toward individualising outdoor spaces through the use of a wide range of available fabrics and accessories. The outdoor space is now becoming an extension of the house and reflects the various uses as found indoors – social area, dining area, play area, cooking area and so on.

MANAGEABLE MAINTENANCE: Clients are far more aware of the need to use design principles that include manageable maintenance: thoughtful plant selection, choosing a planting scheme that matches how people want to live in their garden, and selecting a manageable plant palette characterised by fewer plants, each plant well-chosen and doing its job.

SUSTAINABILITY: There is definitely a move toward landscapes that are sustainable but also very aesthetically pleasing. So it’s no more ‘just build’, but a cost consciousness towards lifecycle costs.

LED: LED lighting is quickly changing the way we use lighting as an important part of an outdoor space. Though the initial cost is higher, there are long-term energy savings and the quality is getting better and better. LEDs can be ‘warm’ coloured and are available in many forms.

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