the artistic possibilities
of designing with nature
Design and construct the man-made environment to be in harmony with the natural environment.

Rescape Project

author: Robert Shannon

This is a project to develop a plan for transforming the typical american suburban landscape.  It involves converting a portion of the land that is now covered in grass into aesthetic, healthy landscapes of botanical and agricultural gardens, designed, maintained, and harvested by community-scaled organizations for the benefit of the homeowners and an ecological future.  The Rescape plan has the potential for several important contributions to contemporary society.  Beyond the advantages of creating a more stimulating local environment, this project proposes an open-source blueprint to transform the land required to grow crops necessary to bolster farming against foreseeable food shortages. There are also intrinsic economically viable business and software development opportunities that could be explored.

Rescape Redux

Existing Problem = Opportunity (summary)

The existing suburban American landscape, although accepted by most as a standard, lacks aesthetic ingenuity, botanical diversity, and environmental sustainability. Most homeowners hire landscape firms to maintain their property to a certain degree of acceptability, both in terms of image and cost. This work involves toxic pesticides and herbicides on lawns, shrubbery, other plantings. Lawns receive the bulk of these toxic chemicals and are often seldom used to any purpose, and mowing uses large amounts of fossil fuel. If one were to examine the percentage of these properties, lawns vs. other plantings, one would find that they comprise a vast majority. These areas could certainly have better use. Sarah Stein has written extensively about this issue first in her book “ Noha’s Garden: “people think it’s OK the way it is. And in the new developments no one does any gardening at all, not even flower beds. Maybe one ornamental oval. They have a landscape service. They aren’t interested in nature, and their children don’t play in the yards. There is a general anxiety among parents about things that happen outdoors..”

Americans have become acclimated to looking out their windows at a lawn, usually edged by some sort of shrubbery, and maybe a few flowering plants near their front walk or in the back yard. This has become so commonplace that people do not see the opportunity for a much more beautiful, sustainable, and productive use of the land. Certain locations have tried to abandon this model in favor of a cottage in the garden scheme. Two examples are Carmel, California and New Harmony, Indiana, where the residents live within an agreed upon pattern of development. The resultant image is of a common property with multiple dwellings, signaling a stronger sense of community. When these residents look out their windows, no matter which windows, they see a garden, an ever-changing garden. A transition to this way of living on a much larger scale, while not an easy one, is a viable option now made possible by evolving technologies, which can improve scientific planning and maintenance efficiency. Certainly several roadblocks require detailed scrutiny to undo the habits developed in the 20th century, both on the part of homeowners and landscape companies. For homeowners the current aesthetic is mostly a result habit without alternative choices being available.  For the landscapers, issues of economic efficiency mostly affecting planting and maintenance decisions overrule any possibility of complex aesthetics. Additionally, these companies do not possess the adequate technologies now becoming available to incorporate complexity into their designs. Integrating these design aids requires substantial adoption of new technologies. Without the demand of a new paradigm, there is no economic incentive to do so. 

Property Analysis

Existing properties often contain a variety of trees and shrubs and lawn, and therefore have varying conditions of sun and shade, exposure to wind, and soil viability.Tree growth can be extremely variable depending on the species, the density of planting, and soil, so that future prediction of solar access to both the house and open-space needs to be understood for any long-term planting design. This would be especially important for any vegetable products which might require warmer conditions with more sunlight. What might work initially could easily fall prey to excessive shade years later. So, computer analysis is a prerequisite to understanding the conditions of any property over any substantial length of time. Where properties are basically barren in new housing developments, the opportunity for more intelligent integration of landscape can be more precise; for example, certain diseases of trees are not going to be an unpredictable existing condition on which one would place an important role in the overall design. Computer modeling after analysis can present multiple possibilities, many of which can fit into a sustainable pattern with varying aesthetic possibilities. At this juncture, the homeowner and the landscapers have an interactive and collaborative opportunity to make choices, any of which still lie within a sustainable mode.


Aside from the beauty of shrubs and herbaceous perennials with a dob of annuals, edible plantings can also be interesting. These, of course, require non-toxic soils and non-toxic treatments from planting to eating. Therefore, when planted with botanicals, the entire garden must be free of such chemistry. Agricultural plants must be frequently rotated which is not the case of most perennials. Consequently, planting patterns must give easy access to agricultural areas which need changing. Companion planting traditionally pairs annual flowers with vegetables to enhance the production of the vegetables, but mostly in terms of reduced pests. Some of this is perhaps more fable than fact, but what actually works, scientifically determined, should definitely be a part of this program. Some limitation on pathways and density of beds can be a result of necessary access to agricultural species for maintenance, harvesting, and rotation.

It is estimated that by the year 2050 There will be 10 billion people on the planet needing food. This projection may be mitigated depending on the impact of global warming on many parts of the world. This impact could severely impede food production. For example, in Egypt, it is estimated that there are 80 million people with enough arable land to feed 20 million people. This type of discrepancy has become legion in Arab countries, or those so over-populated that they become dependent on imported food. Of course, such inability to grow in the country the food needed in that country can lead to political instability, emigration, border-wars for the purpose of annexation of other countries arable land. In places like Africa and Australia, increased desertification will probably undermine the agriculture. And in places where water is stored in snow mass, the rivers will dry up during the growing season when it is most needed. Therefore, the only location left for new food production is in the northern hemisphere, which requires the illumination of the forest which produces the most oxygen on the planet, or reuse of land that is currently laying fallow, or land that can be retrieved from built areas that are obsolete, such as abandoned factories, defunct mining operations, etc. Parking lots may be the first line of attack as we reconfigure transportation to a more sustainable system. ( This sustainability would occur not just from a large reduction of fossil fuels, but also being able to use the land retrieved for agriculture, not mention reduced accident deaths and injuries .) This introduction of pop-up agriculture, can serve local food needs with only small scale distribution, an other ecological advantage. The more of this that is added to the overall production allows larger-scale agriculture to produce more exported food, and, one hopes, alleviating foreign starvation.

The technological world which evolved in the 20th century has not only left those in the first and second world with pollution and energy problems, but also a lack of physical capacity for difficult manual work. Imagining a future time of crisis impacting the scale of agriculture available in the now accustomed manner of eating, how many people could actually produce their own food and survive? Recent studies on this have shown that only a small percentage of Americans would have the physical strength, not to mention the agrarian knowledge needed. Added to this is the fact that a large portion of Americans are now elderly and so cannot be expected to have the requisite strength. So, a mixture of professional growing and amateur growing is most likely the reality of pop-up gardening.

Very few people presently grow their own food ( not to mention, prepare it ), so any large-scale program dedicated to mini-farming / mini-gardening would probably best survive without homeowner hands-on help, unless they are experienced. This does not preclude opinion, which can be expected to be profuse and sometimes, possibly helpful. When a commitment to this multi-purpose gardening has been finalized, it must be for the long-term because the effort of such complex analysis and its expense needs to be distributed over many years to be economically viable. Long-term use of the land requires legal commitment for such use and possibly continuation from owner to owner over the projected thirty-year period. To do this, the portion of the land to be landscaped must be documented and preserved as some form of land covenants or restrictions, which would prevail for any given period without breaches which would end its efficacy. Portions of the property can be reserved for other uses, such as tennis, bocce courts, children’s playgrounds, or even small areas of ecologically maintained lawn. Of course, diehard amateur gardeners could maintain a separate and completely private garden plot on the same property. The beginnings of the gardens would require several years of maturation to be visually complete and, from time to time, certain plants would have to be replaced due to disease or lack of longevity.

Role of Homeowners

Most adults in each household hold jobs and have only a certain amount of free time for various other activities and few people turn to horticulture as a hobby, and even less to grow their own food unless desperate. So, the ability to have a seriously designed and maintained landscape with a Rescape system might make them believe they had elevated to the position of the French royalty at Versailles. While the likelihood that any suburban garden could reach such heights is remote, many aspects of suburban architecture have subtle references to much more noble domicile, as pointed out by Robert Venturi in his book on suburbia. In addition to the visuals, there are the edibles, but there is no pilfering by the homeowner in his front yard because he has wisely joined a group of neighbors in a more efficient and productive growing environment. The neighborhood as become a CSA ( Community Supported Agriculture .) Should one not choose to receive the weekly bag of vegetables typical of CSAs, one could opt-out and would pay a lesser membership fee. Some homeowners might choose to be a part-time or full-time employee of a firm that works the gardens. Like all other employees, training would be necessary. The products of this new defragmented farm could be sold to restaurants touting local farm to table fare. Some, or residual amounts, could be donated to food kitchens. The ability to organize the information about maintenance, harvesting, and documenting in a highly organized system creates a new economic paradigm helping to compact teamwork into efficient onslaughts on suburban bread baskets.

A difficult hurdle to overcome is a readjusted balance between community and privacy. We see this taking place in transportation systems where an attempt to force more public transportation is somewhat thwarted by a lingering desire of people to hold onto the automobile. Similarly, home ownership on a suburban lot is traditionally portrayed as more of a fiefdom than its true nature, an approved land use condition. Recent housing growth has centered on clustering with different tags, such as townhouse, condo, or cooperative. In these instances, there is an increased portion of community over privacy. Basically, having shared exterior land has less options for each individual in terms of use, but has shared maintenance and cost benefits. On suburban lots, there are multiple easements emanating from the street for utilities. In some instances, it is one easement because these utilities are combined. In others, there are multiple paths under the property or above it in which the homeowner is prohibited from interference. These rules are codified by legal agreements connected to the deeds so that they are transferred from owner to owner. In the Rescape program, a large amount of effort and cost would go into he initial design and landsculpting for the property and, if a long-term projection is required for the program to work, opting out would require a monetary return from the homeowner for this work, which would go from inception to garden maturity. How would this repayment take place? Two avenues are possible. One would be a bond established up front with an ability to maintain the value against inflation if inflation were at a higher rate than interest. The second possibility would be to withhold in a mortgage, probably separate from any other existing mortgage. In order to acquire agreements to participate, the rewards must be great enough to overcome old fashioned fears of investment up front. At the heart of resistance is sheer momentum So what are these rewards? Aside from saying goodbye to a bland and boring plane of toxic grass, and saying hello to a beautiful garden, one can wallow in the knowledge that they are helping to produce nutritional foods with multiple sustainability kudos, the potential, too, is an increased bonding with neighbors and extending relationships with others at a further reach. There is a sense of belonging to a new organization collectively doing good things. Their participation is helpful to others, as the whole program is to them. This should bring about a more cohesive and environmentally responsible community inspiring others to do likewise.


There are various information technologies critical to complex agriculture. These can combine multiple concerns to understand the consequences of interaction between them. Rather than just soil analysis, these computer applications can analyze not only soil conditions, but predict soil changes initiated by moisture conditions, various fertilizers, and different organic materials. Add to this the ability to source materials of significant variety, for example, organic material additions, varying from deciduous tree leaves (for example, the leaves from fall foliage as a replacement for peat moss in terms of environmental impact), animal manure, organic waste products, etc. Guesswork is mostly eliminated. While more and more leaves are being used by suburban areas to make compost, this requires transportation of all the leaves to one location and then a redistribution in lieu of harvesting the leaves and using it for mulch in a shorter distance from source to use. The computer application would know where the sources were, when the sources were likely to be available, and therefore could schedule pickup and delivery. Also planned can be the onsite composting of certain materials, requiring no transportation, paying attention to the avoidance of problems such as noxious smells, animal invasions, etc. In the planning of the design, efficiency analysis can be made of locations of plantings relative to access, biological interaction of different species, the attraction of pollinators, and the specific plants for various soil conditions on any given site, or a multiple of sites. Further, the dispersal of various vegetable species in compliance with the above information can also include the efficiency of maintenance transportation, both in fuel use and effective use of time. The varying skills of the farm crews can be apportioned to best use by knowing what tasks need to be done where, when, and to what degree of accuracy. Programs already in place are able to determine schedules for acquiring seeds, certain fertilizing materials, and accessories, such as netting, support structures, and tools.  The tools can be chosen based on sustainability and economic issues, the computers searching the web for innovations and production data.

Visual Design Using Tech

No garden can be designed the way a painting is designed. It is more like a building because it has use. Aesthetics are only one of many elements in this endeavor. Once all the analysis is complete, there is a computer “understanding” of the existing environment, into which a design must be fitted compatibly. The elements of the analysis are not variable at the time of design, only over some period of time, which would be tracked in the future and, perhaps, predicted. So, the choices to be made at this point involve the viability of the plants themselves in relationship to each other and the visual reward of the plants beauty. This beauty relies on the visual interaction of the parts. And even the visual aspect of each individual plant has some variation that can be predicted and some that cannot. There are many species of plants with considerable variant colors and blossom types and leaf colors, and while less so with vegetables,(recent hybridization has led to a riot of multicolored vegetables, such as purple carrots.) This is where homeowner input is useful in helping to settle on color patterns which may already be somewhat constrained by plant zone and availability. One failing of the current average garden center is an extremely limited choice of plants. The most favored plants are about 90% of the average supplier’s supply, when in reality this quantity more resembles a minority of available species and hybrids. Potentially a computer program can contain almost all options of existing plant species and is able to find a seller, schedule deliveries, basically undermining local garden centers. One suspects that garden centers might eventually use some of this technology to increase the selection available and thereby make local purchasing of the bulk of the plants in seed, root, or whole form possible, i.e. more sustainable. 

The design program will model multiple choices that are now left after other decisions were affirmed by constraints showing at a mature stage of growth ( about three years ) to present to the homeowner. Multiple views from different places, known as virtual walk-throughs, make comprehension of the various proposals understandable, as opposed to the traditional garden plan with a couple of sketches. Parts of any given scheme can be interchanged with other plants that still remain within the technological viability of the garden, providing the ultimate set of subjective choices. Not only can one see the three-year iteration, but could view a video of a year-to-year growth up to thirty years to see how it might change, although as time progresses the choice branches increase in number, so to see all possibilities is unlikely. To explain further, at any given point in time, changing out of plants for reasons not predictable because of disease, or because certain vegetables are in favor, or perennials reach their age limit where rotation might be advisable, cannot be predicted. The main point here is to wow the homeowner to understand the significant change that can take place on their property.

We of the Fourth Corner Foundation believe that there is a plausible, practical road to the introduction of aesthetic, healthy landscapes of botanical and agricultural gardens, designed, maintained, and harvested by community-scaled organizations for the benefit of the homeowners and an ecological future.

Foundation Mission:

Designing and constructing the man-made environment to be in harmony with the natural environment is not only a technological pursuit, but, more importantly, an aesthetic opportunity. Our greater understanding of this synchronous interconnection should impact the way buildings and landscapes look in the future. Education at present ignores this potential in favor of retrospective styling. The Foundation seeks to correct this focus. 

Copyright c. 2017. The Fourth Corner Foundation. All rights reserved.