Defensive Designing: Landscape Safety

Features - Design/Build

Creating a feeling of safety in a customer's landscape can be done without compromising its appearance.

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November 18, 1999

Designing a landscape in 3000 B.C. Persia was completely opposite from the way it is today.

“The first thing they put up was a wall,” exclaimed Joy Dorst, owner of Design with Nature, Tallahassee, Fla., and a professor of landscape design at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, Tallahassee, Fla. “Then came the trees.”

During that time, the Persian environment was hostile. When there wasn’t a fight brewing with the Egyptians there was a battle nearby with the Greeks. Safety and security were landscape priorities.

“People did not want to have to leave their yards,” Dorst explained.

It wasn’t until 16th century Paris when King Louis XIV hired designers to create the lavish, wide-open landscape of Versailles that things changed.

“It’s all about curb appeal now,” Dorst said. “The front yard is open and exposed. We’re shunned when we enclose our yards because we’re thought to be turning our backs on our neighbors. Today, when I think of a suburban neighborhood with families, the yards are an open thoroughfare for the kids to get from one property to the other.”

And because landscapes can be such high traffic areas, about 25 to 35 percent of residential customers, and almost all commercial customers, bring up safety when talking to a landscape designer, said David Davis, a salesman/designer at Marvin’s Gardens, Sarasota, Fla.

“And if they’re not thinking about it, the customers look to us to bring up safety issues,” stressed Rich Deckman, administrative director for landscape architecture at Lifescapes Inc., Canton, Ga.

Designing a landscape for a customer’s functional and personal safety can be done without compromising its appearance. For commercial properties, safety is always an issue because there is more traffic. On residential properties, it’s all about how the customer feels living there, Dorst insisted.

“No residential landscape can be fully secure, like a prison, and most customers wouldn’t want that,” she assured. “It’s about a feeling of safety. I feel safe in my yard, but I don’t know if it’s secure. I naturally wouldn’t feel comfortable walking along tall shrubs at night in any situation. But if I keep the trees and bushes trimmed to avoid overgrowth around my windows and do some lighting around the house at night, a burglar may go next door.”

Deterring Unwanted Visitors
The idea of using the physical environment as protection against attack may date back to the cavemen, but it wasn’t until recently that creating a defensive environment was approached from the physical and the psychological aspects at the same time to create both physical and symbolic barriers to intrusion.

Landscaping as a physical barrier to prevent movement around the perimeter of a building can be achieved with several strategies, including:
  • Thorny plants. One strategy is to use a landscaping theme with cacti or other thorny plants along block walls and perimeter fencing. There are many different kinds of prickly plants that will provide a deterrent to intruders attempting to climb walls or trespass on private property.
  • Box hedges. If more substantial barriers are needed, shrubbery such as evergreen hedges can be used to create more formidable obstacles. Box hedges planted along the outside edge of the property are “natural fences.”
  • Fences. Wooden privacy fences can act as physical barriers around the perimeter of a property and can be incorporated into many landscape design themes. Choose sturdy fences that are no more than 4 feet tall. Landscaping can also be used as a symbolic or psychological barrier to subtly mark “no trespassing” zones around a home or facility. Following are several options for symbolic barriers:
  • Decorative fences
  • Flower beds
  • Ground cover
  • Cement patterning in walkways

Security consideration in landscaping should be part of any environmental design project to promote safety and cut down on crime. Knowledge of design principles that enhance appearance and security will pay off in the long run for businesses ready to meet the demands of clients who are increasingly concerned with protecting their assets.

– Bob Decker
The author is assistant vice president of loss control at Florists’ Mutual Insurance Co, Edwardsville, Ill.

SAFETY FIRST. Security was the first priority for one of Michael Currin’s customers a couple of years ago. The president of Greenscape Inc., Holly Springs, N.C., was designing a landscape for the head of a large health care company. This customer wanted security access gates, TV cameras and screen monitors implemented into his landscape so that he could clearly see visitors before they entered his property.

“The whole landscape project was close to $250,000 and $60,000 of that was just for security cameras and devices,” Currin noted. “In this type of situation, having a landscape architect on board is good because we are more sensitive to aesthetics and appearance. Having that type of security requires many electrical connections and cables. We were able to run the cable to coordinate with the irrigation installation to minimize the amount of damage to existing trees and turf. We also did a good job of blending the security equipment into the landscape by tucking the cameras in trees.”

Although most residential landscape design projects don’t require this amount of security, there are some basic safety rules for designers to follow from the start.

“The first thing we focus on when dealing with outdoor safety is the building codes,” said Dennis Murphy, design manager at Mariani Landscape, Lake Bluff, Ill. “For example, if there is a sudden drop in elevation on a landscape, then a fence or plant border needs to be put in there. A driveway should be wide enough for two cars to get in and out. If there is a swimming pool on the property, we have to make sure it follows the regulations, which could include installing a fence to restrict access.”

“The top code requirement with commercial properties is view,” Dorst added. “The Department of Transportation limits the use of shrubs in sight triangles or places where cars are pulling out into traffic. Nothing should block a motorist’s line of sight. Usually, you can’t plant anything between 1 and 6 feet high in these areas.”

On commercial properties, common safety knowledge includes the proper installation of irrigation systems. Because of the heavier flow of traffic on commercial properties, water should be kept far away from walkways, Currin explained.

“By doing this you’re eliminating safety hazards of water possibly freezing on the walkways,” he said.

Functional safety also means making sure guests on residential or commercial properties are directed naturally toward the right entranceway. This can be done with plant-bordered walkways or proper lighting in the evening.

“You don’t want a guest wandering around a residential client’s property only to show up at the back patio door and the client is in his or her pajamas,” Currin remarked. “And on commercial properties, you want to draw more attention to the public visitor entrance than the employee service entrance.”

FENCED IN. Murphy recently finished a design project for a woman with seven children. Functional safety for the children playing in the yard was her main concern.

“She wanted to be able to use the yard and driveway for play,” Murphy explained. “We absolutely were not allowed to use steps or walls or anything the kids could trip or fall over. The yard had to have a smooth riding surface for kids’ sports and fencing so that the younger kids wouldn’t wander out of the yard when mom’s back was turned.”

Adding fencing to a landscape can provide a safe and beautiful feature as long as it’s done correctly, Currin pointed out.

“Sure, a chain link fence with 3 inches of barbed wire on top is safe,” Currin admitted. “But how can we give that same feeling of safety and make the design look a lot better? Brick columns with a rod iron railing look nice. A wooden fence is very appealing. You can also use a combination of materials, such as adding wooden gates or columns to the rather inexpensive chain link fence.”

When it comes to fencing, a designer has to know his materials, Murphy said.

“Screening off a landscape with shrubs or fencing can add a lot of beauty to it,” he observed. “Ornamental fencing works well with any design. We use a lot of rod iron fencing on upscale budget projects and it comes in many handsome-looking designs.”

A pool may also require fencing for safety, depending on the city codes, Deckman said.

“Thirty to 40 percent of our residential clients have pools,” he noted. Since Atlanta doesn’t require fencing in pools, automatic locking pool covers are popular options.

“Many clients around here want a free form pool that has a very different shape,” Deckman added. “Because that type of pool is difficult to put a cover on or keep a fence around, we usually have to resort back to a rectangular or square pool.”

LIGHT THE WAY. Lighting is one of the most important landscape safety features because it provides comfort at night, whether it’s on a residential site where a homeowner is returning after a late dinner or on a commercial property where an employee is leaving work just as it’s getting dark.

Lighting is used differently on each site, however, due to the amount of traffic the site gets and the property’s specifications.

“On residential properties, it’s all about the customer being able to walk to the front door feeling safe,” Dorst noted. “Pathway lighting is important in this case, especially in places where there is a change in elevation or steps.”

Recess lighting tucked into the steps is aesthetically pleasing and lights the way at the same time, Currin added.

“You don’t have to use blinding lights on residential properties,” Currin stressed. “You just need enough to show people that there’s one step down from the patio or to give people enough light so that they don’t feel like they’re walking into a dark cavern.”

Motion sensor lighting works well in the frontyard of a home, Deckman advised, because it saves on electricity and can make a homeowner feel very secure knowing exactly when someone or something, i.e. a person or animal, is in their yard.

“We’ve also used a motion sensor beam that shoots across the driveway and alarms a bell as a visitor walks past it,” Deckman said.

“High voltage mood lighting can even be used on a timer to come on as it gets dark and go off at 1 a.m. or so or remain on until the morning,” added Jim Greene, creative director and landscape architect at Lifescape.

Because there is more traffic on a commercial site, lighting becomes more of a safety feature than an aesthetic enhancement to these types of properties.

“When lighting a commercial site, no ambient or mood lighting is used, especially in wide open parking lots or fields,” Dorst said. “Large pools create deep shadows. You have to use a consistent level of flood lighting so that it’s easy for an employee or visitor to see from the door to their car.”

EVERY ROSE HAS ITS THORN. Around her mother’s home, Dorst planted thorny bushes underneath the windows as a deterrent to burglars attempting to get in.

But poisonous plants and thorny plants, such as holly bushes, aren’t always endorsed for safe landscapes.

“I wouldn’t recommend a prickly bush to clients for safety reasons,” explained Greene. “It may deter kids, but it won’t deter hardcore burglars.”

Thorny, poisonous plants can also be dangerous to children or pets on a residential property, Murphy advised.

“Even if the thorns are on branches in a tall tree, like the Hawthorn tree, they can still fall; and if children are running around the yard barefoot or sitting on the grass it can be painful,” he warned.

SAFETY FOR THE DESIGNER. “No prudent design person would design something that would end up breaking someone’s neck later,” said Jim Leatzow, president of Leatzow & Associates, Chicago, Ill.

That’s the argument most people use when they sue their landscape designer because someone got hurt on their property.

“We’ve paid as much as $50,000 on claims with no merit,” Leatzow remarked.

When the issue of safety is involved in any landscape project, a designer or architect can limit their exposure by having professional liability and errors and omissions insurance and by putting detailed disclaimers in their contracts.

“Generally, a designer has to be found in neglect first, meaning they did something wrong or they didn’t do something they were supposed to do,” said Bob Decker, vice president of loss control at Florists’ Mutual Insurance Co., Edwardsville, Ill. “But you never know. The judge is going to believe the homeowner before a business.”

When a designer is in a situation where there are discrepancies between what he or she recommends for safety and what the client wants, Decker recommended describing the differences in the contract to reduce the risk of being sued later.

“You can put in the contract that you installed X number of bushes at the homeowner’s request and that these bushes generally are not recommended,” he pointed out. “It’s also wise to include a general disclaimer in every contract that says there is no guarantee of full safety and security in the landscape design.”

The author is assistant editor of Lawn & Landscape magazine.