• Credit: Alex Ostroy

It wasn’t that long ago that landscapes for affordable housing entailed a few trees, easy-to-maintain grass, and an overabundance of paving—all in the interest of saving a buck.

“There was this mentality of making everything cheap and cheaper,” says David Baker, FAIA, whose San Francisco firm won the AIA California Council’s 2012 Distinguished Practice award for successfully prioritizing and integrating sustainable design in affordable housing. “Developers used to say, ‘It’s just plants. Who cares?’”

Instead of being value-engineered out, sustainable landscapes are increasingly becoming an integral component of affordable housing, plus a way to build strong and safe communities for those who live there. In high-end and market-rate housing, “green” has become a selling point—but not, until recently, for affordable housing. Architects were often left trying to convince developers that creating sustainable landscapes is just as beneficial as a LEED certification. Case studies conducted by the nonprofit environmental group Great River Greening of St. Paul, Minn., proved just that. In 2008, Great River Greening collaborated with Urban Homeworks, an affordable-housing provider that was retrofitting two apartment complexes.

Up until that time, “there had been a lot of very exciting improvements on the architectural end,” says Deborah Karasov, Great River Greening’s executive director. “But in 2008 the conversation about sustainable landscapes hadn’t really started. We thought it would be a good way to affect a major sector of the building industry.”

At the sites, Great River Greening planted native species and installed permeable pavement, vegetative swales, and rain barrels. Such practices, which cost no more than typical engineering solutions that whisk water away in pipes, actually cut down water use and kept much of the runoff on-site. The findings were published in the 2010 booklet “Sustainable Landscape for Affordable Housing,” now a resource promoting eco-friendly practices in the industry.

“Even within the budgets of affordable housing, you could do sustainable things,” says Karasov, who coauthored the booklet with landscape ecologist Todd Rexine.

In the 30 years he has been creating affordable housing, Baker has challenged other commonly held budgetary assumptions. He maintains that hiring the best landscape architects is actually preferable over hiring “the cheapest,” and frequently collaborates with prominent landscape architects such as Andrea Cochran on both high-end and affordable housing projects. The cheapest landscaping proposals, Baker explains, often don’t include fine grading, which then becomes the responsibility of the architect to provide, often at a higher cost.

Then, of course, there are aesthetic benefits of collaborating with professionals at the top of their game. Rain gardens or swales are certainly more beautiful than what Baker describes as “filling a big hole with rocks and pipe.” And affordable housing developers and nonprofits alike are increasingly showing more of an interest in good design.

Aesthetics aside, residents need to be invested in their communities. At Via Verde, a new subsidized housing development in the Bronx, Lee Weintraub, FASLA, of Yonkers, N.Y., designed a series of sequenced roof gardens that will include fruit trees, Christmas trees, and vegetable gardens that will be tended and harvested by residents. “Landscapes that enable the residents to dig and grow and harvest create a culture of involvement and engagement, a culture of being great neighbors and of working together,” says Weintraub.