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East of Austin

by Buck Abbey, ASLA, The Green Laws Organization, New Orleans, Louisiana

The Elgin, Texas landscape ordinance references Austin's Texas AgriLife Extension's Native and Adapted Landscape Plants: an Earthwise Guide for Central Texas as its earthwise guide to flora. This resource advocates to protect and preserve water resources by selecting beautiful native and adaptive plants that are naturally drought tolerant and resistant to pests and diseases.

"The city would like to foster sustainable development patterns ..."
--Purpose Clause, Elgin, Texas Landscape Ordinance 2012

The small historic community of Elgin, Texas (pop. 8,135) is of course influenced by the growth and development of its nearby western neighbor: Austin. Austin has one of the best set of green laws in the country, and has had them for a great number of years. Consequently, if Austin uses landscape codes to better plan and build their community, other smaller towns nearby will likely do the same, i.e., attract only the best development practices on the part of developers and builders.

In the August LASN ordinance column, "Elgin Green", I noted Elgin's planning initiative, known as Envision Elgin, the result of a Sustainable Places Project Grant in partnership with Capital Area Council of Governments. A formidable outcome of this planning activity is the city has taken a big step towards developing one of the few sustainability based landscape codes in the nation. The new landscape code was officially adopted on January 8th of this year.

This is again further evidence that landscape codes are moving toward sustainable design. This is a cutting edge issue among planning commissions, code writers, landscape architects and developers, all of whom realize landscape codes have been a useful tool for promoting environmental quality in towns big and small. Several cities--New York City, Miami-Dade, Broward, New Orleans, Seattle, San Francisco and Irvine--have already taken the first steps.

Among the native small trees/large shrubs recommended by the Earthwise Guide for Central Texas: (from top left clockwise):
• Eve's Necklace (Styphnolobium affinis)
• Goldenball Leadtree (Leucaena retusa)
• Hop Tree (Ptelea trifoliate)
• Retama Palo Verde (Parkinsonia aculeata)

The Code
Like most landscape codes there is a rhythm in the way they are written. Code writers and code critics understand community landscape codes are written to include several types of clauses:

"design components"--apply to zoned areas.

technical "design standards"--measurable quantities applied to each site. In the Elgin code the common components are street yards, buffers, screening, irrigation, detentions, site service areas, parking lots interiors and perimeters. These are all set forth in Section 6 of the code.

"design directives"--less regulatory, but do influence the designer to achieve the needs and goals of the client.

"prescriptive specifications"--conveyed by drawings, design details or written specs as performance measures for contractors, builders, installers and suppliers.

All landscape codes consist of a combination of these various types of clauses. These written requirements affect design, landscape construction and landscape maintenance. The landscape architect brings these clauses together in landscape and irrigation plans.

What is of most interest about the Elgin code is it recognizes sustainability, a fundamental part of the purpose clause. The code suggests several sustainable practices that are important to the city. Elgin wants to reduce environmental impacts from poor development. It also wants to promote resource conservation, especially with water conservation, soil stabilization and the use of native Texas plants, particularly low-water use grasses. The code also encourages use of pervious materials and the design of onsite detentions. Designing detentions related to parking area will do much to reduce nonpoint pollution runoff.

Another sustainable practice encouraged by this code is to increase shade by designing a site canopy percentage appropriate to West Texas.

And finally, wanting to get people active, and healthy the landscape code encourages designers to create more pedestrian and bike-friendly environments in the community.

This code could be improved in regard to sustainable site design practices if it were to adopt the standards of the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES). This would be very easy to do with a preamble inserted into Section 6 that all commercial sites and all planned subdivisions must have landscape plans prepared that meet a minimum 2 STAR standard.

The first city in the U.S. to adopt the SITES program into their landscape code, will not be nudging green, they will be moving full tilt toward greening the city landscape.

Should readers care to contact the author, get in touch by email at You may call Abbey Associates Landscape Architecture at 225.766.0924.

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October 17, 2019, 9:21 am PDT

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