The landscape architect for the project, Eugene Ryang, could have offered a variety of site designs to bank executives, including a conventional plan that stripped out most trees, flattened the earth, piped and buried a stream on the property, and paved much of the lot for parking (below right).
But Ryang pitched an alternative, low-impact design he calls “eco-revelatory” landscaping – a plan that preserves the natural contours and features of the land and seeks to inspire visitors by revealing the ecology and aesthetics of nature.
Fortunately for all concerned, Union First Market executive Rod Gentry and bank President John Neal opted for trees over asphalt. There was really never any doubt.
“I grew up in Charlottesville and used to hunt in the woods where Barracks Road is now,” Gentry says. “And I’ve been an amateur naturalist my whole life. As a kid I used to collect snakes. I’ve always had a deep and abiding interest in wildlife.
“I was thinking this site could be a little pocket park with a bank on it. But it would never have been possible without John Neal’s enthusiastic support. He’s a lifelong outdoorsman. He said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
And so rather than pave over the stream to maximize parking, Ryang maintained and restored it, softening the stream banks and planting native trees and shrubs. And instead of a conventional large retention pond to collect runoff water, he installed multiple smaller traps with bio-filters to catch, treat, and absorb runoff from the site.
At Gentry’s suggestion, Ryang even included a wooden bridge over the stream, similar to bridges in nearby Shenandoah National Park. The final result is a beautiful urban garden that meets all civil engineering requirements as well as the bank’s business needs.
The eco-friendly design (above left) reflects Ryang’s approach as an ecological planner and landscape engineer. He laments that much contemporary American landscaping hides or destroys the ecology of our surroundings and thus increasingly dims our understanding, appreciation, and respect for the natural world as well as the technological wonders of modern infrastructure.
In an article for “Environmental Sustainability in Transatlantic Perspective,” he quotes fellow ecological designers Sym Van Der Ryn and Stuart Cowan:
“We have culverted the creeks, paved the wetlands, and built on the farms, orchards, and meadows that once nourished young minds. We have rendered both nature and the consequences of our own technologies increasingly invisible…Many of us live in cities where both ecological and technological processes are hidden from our everyday awareness. The designed environment does not reveal to us how technology supports us and how, in turn, it is interconnected with the natural world…There is a pernicious cycle at work here. As our system of food, water, energy, waste, and sewage have grown ever more intricate and hidden, it has become more difficult to understand or question them. As nature has receded from our daily lives, it has receded from our ethics.”
But they also are functional and practical, especially in managing runoff pollution (stormwater).
“It is understood that stormwater management is one of the more important, if not the most important, tasks of civil engineers and ecological planners/designers,” Ryang says. Alternative, low-impact designs like those at Union First Market Bank “introduce less harmful nutrient and sediment loads into our waterways while maintaining the same stormwater quality and quantity requirements of conventional engineered systems.”
Ryang believes Virginia’s new stormwater regulations, which become effective this July and call for more low-impact practices to reduce the harmful effects of urban runoff on streams, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay, will help spur greater use and acceptance of eco-friendly designs.
“It’s easier (for builders) to simply clear, grub, and flatten the landscape and bury infrastructure rather than take a more nuanced approach to the implementation of alternative stormwater management,” he says. “In other words, contractors sometimes simply do not want to undertake something that is new to them.
“But if consultants can design and implement these alternative processes into everyday landscapes, then more people will be able to experience the benefits of these designs. Perhaps one day, they will become the more conventional approach.”
Today, the Barracks Road bank (top photo) remains “a very peaceful setting in the middle of a very busy area,” the bank’s Gentry says. “It’s just amazing…You can see snakes, turtles, minnows, even kids fishing.”
He concedes the eco-friendly landscaping was more costly upfront than a conventional design, but he insists the long-term paybacks are worth it.
“We’re doing a lot of good things for the environment,” he says first. “But some of the most unexpected paybacks are the periodic calls we get out of the blue from people who have seen the property and want to talk about it.”
One such unsolicited call came several years ago from the Garden Club of Virginia, which awarded the bank its prestigious Dugdale Award for Meritorious Achievement in Conservation.
But most tellingly, the eco-landscaping is attracting new bank customers, he says.
“People come in and open up an account and say, ‘We want to do business with people who care about the environment.’”
That’s a powerful eco-message – ecological and economic -- everyone needs to hear.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Images courtesy of Eugene Ryang)