Designing Time

By Shane Sullivan

Time. It’s everywhere and everything. But how does time relate to design? Most commonly, time and design seem to be a discussion of how we, as designers, often have a skewed sense of time. Notorious for being late or pushing deadlines, our time scale is usually based on the foreseeable future. I need to do this by Friday. That project is due next month, but I need a process draft next week. This deadline is 3 months away. And on…and on…and on. That’s how we relate to time and how we understand it. But what about our designs? How do you design for the future? What happens to a design over time after a project is “completed?”

As a landscape architecture student, time is particularly interesting to me. Landscape architecture is different than designing a building, because while a building may change users and programs over time, the shape will likely not change. A landscape is constantly changing with time. Plants chosen will grow well or poorly and different animals and wildlife habitat may inhabit a designed space. So often it’s easy to picture a landscape design in its final fully constructed stage, but understanding how a “final” project may be adapted is just as important. We render images for classes and clients as the idealized final product, lush with plants and active people, every square inch being used for a determined purpose. However, this ends up being much more of an artistic expression of what a space could be rather than the visualization of a final design. We program and show what we want people to do in each space and how we expect them to move through a site and interact with the land, water, plants, people, and buildings. Behind this image of the idealized project is an understanding and a knowledge that things may in fact turn out very differently.

These are things we prepare for when making a design, but what about the unseen or unknown? Part of the beauty of landscape architecture for me is this level of uncertainty in the future of a space. How will people adapt to an area? What paths will people create off the standard circulation route? Will people gather in groups or by themselves? Sometimes we get too attached to what we want a design to be, but it’s important to accept the alternate uses of an area and a design. Some of the best designs are those that were planned as one space, and became something else. In 2 years, your small plaza design will be more lush with plants, but in 20 years those plants could have seeded and created a vibrant wildlife in an open parcel down the street. While there is a probable timeline with a landscape, it’s not always linear.

Time keeps moving, and our designs should be poised to update themselves to it.

We’ve reached a point where for the sake of our future environment and surroundings, we must design for time rather than react to it. This means incorporating our ever expanding knowledge of climate change trajectories so that we can be prepared for the most intense storms, sea level rise, and temperature changes possible. We must consistently educate ourselves on new technologies and construction methods so that we can build projects that last longer and perform more efficiently not just for people, but for plants and animals as well.