Illinois landscape architect Jens Jensen once went to review a client property that looked out over a ravine in Chicagoland’s North Shore. After assessing the property carefully, he advised them to ‘do absolutely nothing as he could not improve upon it’.
He also billed them $1,300 for his recommendation and site analysis. When the bill arrived the client protested the amount as exorbitant for doing nothing. Jensen responded that others would have charged much more to ruin a view that should not be disrupted and that could not be enhanced by man’s hand.
About twenty years ago I worked on a landscape design project in Frankfort, Illinois. The back yard was heavily wooded with sugar maple, ash, as well as hackberry and bur oak. It was a bucolic and calming view. During the initial consultation the client and I had dialogue about ‘doing nothing’. But they insisted that they wanted to grow grass and have room for a play structure for the kids.
They were nice people, but I left the meeting wondering why they ever bought that specific lot in the first place. It met none of their usage needs, only their desire to be in the upscale subdivision of Abbey Woods. I did not have the courage at that moment in my career to walk away from the project.
I inventoried over forty existing trees, some clearly over one hundred years old. And then I took out the smallest number possible (ten) that would accommodate a children’s swing set and also allow enough light to grow a traditional bluegrass lawn. We put in a small patio attached to a deck and called it a day. It was in my mind, at the time, the most minimal intrusion that would meet their needs. They were delighted and I was happy for them but took no joy from the process.
Last week I was in that subdivision for the first time in a while, looking at another project that is also heavily wooded. It is going to require some tree removal though nothing quite as drastic as before and the trees being removed will mostly be ash, already doomed to the emerald ash borer. We are leaving an old fence post and barbed wire at the back of the lot. The barbed wire is partially embedded into a small line of osage orange. It looks like it belongs and both the homeowner and designer on the project are on board with it. That is a good thing.
While in the subdivision, I drove by my other project and the scene was still serene and the back was still shaded nicely. At this point my client has moved on and it’s doubtful that anyone but me knows of the tree removals. Yet, as I am writing this, it still is something that I think about from time to time.
All landscape designers and landscape architects should take a cue from Jensen when looking at native areas, conservancies and settings that have aged gracefully even when they are not native. Sometimes the best response is no response.