top of page
  • rick9162

It's Not Just About Carbon | Using the Three Pillars Framework to Guide Ecological Literacy in the Landscape

Updated: Apr 12

It's about ecosystem services, and carbon is a part of that.

I obviously support balancing our landscapes within the carbon cycle.

However, it is often not the most powerful action we can currently take, and under no circumstances should it be our sole focus. We need to take a multifaceted approach to our landscapes in terms of the problems they are solving and, therefore, the ecosystem services they are providing.

Climate change is here, and even if we had a magic pill that stopped it in its tracks, we have many necessary repairs to get the biosphere and humanity back into a reasonable balance. We were already facing large extinctions, shifting weather, groundwater over-extraction, and insect loss long before most of us finally agreed there was a climate problem. These problems are still here, and worsening.

When incorporating ecological literacy into a design, we find it helpful to view it through the lens of the "Three Pillars" framework.

Soils, Water, & Plant Choices

These Three Pillars are the primary points where designers and installers can leverage their work for high ecological returns with little to no changes in their business structures or budgets. Please read that last sentence again. I think it is important.

These three landscape components represent our easiest opportunities for leverage and a significant oversight in our professions. From the landscape architecture and design communities, through the building communities, we have not integrated these simple leverage points to any significant level. These simple milestones not only are NOT being met by most of us, they are not even being set.

A simple change in focus and basic tracking can help us address ecosystem decline right now, while we work to solve the larger challenges of excessive carbon expenditures in the landscape.

A water-wise garden that utilizes plastic artificial turf is not ecologically literate because it uses less water or doesn't require mowing.* It's a runoff generator, an insectary desert, and a distribution point for microplastics to enter everything from local waterways, the ocean, and even the human body.

A low carbon emission, a fire-resilient landscape made of crushed stone and succulents does not address water infiltration, heat island effect, provide a comfortable space for humans, or help support insects throughout the year.

While we may not be able to leverage all of the three pillars every time, we need a wider lens and a more sophisticated view of how we are judging our landscapes.

Carbon balance is a great aim, don't get me wrong. Right now, it seems a little too much like the in-vogue element to discuss and proclaim some expertise or achievement.

It has fast become another green halo.

We are doing ourselves, our clients, and the greater population a great disservice by paying lip service to carbon while going on with business as usual.

*(A traditional lawn will still be a net carbon sink even with inefficient mowing and fertilizing)



The single most powerful leverage point is soil health. Soil and the adjoining biology are literally the basis for water infiltration, healthy insectaries, and, ultimately, carbon. As one digs into this more deeply, it becomes hard to separate soils and plants in terms of their functions in sequestering and storing carbon. The plant is definitely the "engine" here, but healthy soils can represent 30%-60% of the carbon storage relative to the plant and soil typologies.

As most professionals with basic biology now fully understand, soils are a living, intertwined web of organisms, minerals, and organic matter. Working with that system and avoiding compaction, inversion and of course, synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides is a critical baseline management practice.

Building a healthy soil base allows plants to thrive, storing more carbon, using less water, and being more resilient to pests. Porous soils also capture and filter rainwater more effectively, reducing erosion and runoff while increasing groundwater recharge rates.



We are focused beyond water-efficient sprinkler systems and even beyond low-water-use perennials. We are designing zero freshwater-use landscapes and soil-based capture systems for rehydrating our uplands and recharging streams and aquifers.

Low water use plantings and irrigation strategies are important. It is safe to consider that as an expected price-of-entry as a designer in regions with water scarcity.

We must also focus on soil-based detention and water storage in tanks for reuse.

Strategies will vary from project to project and region to region, but these should be leveraged wherever possible.

The rain garden movement out of the Pacific Northwest brought soil-based water retention into the public eye. P.A. Yoemans introduced keyline design in the 1940s. Brad Lancaster combined these two design methodologies in his great work in the Southwest.

To be clear, this is not simply a desert strategy. It has uses in almost all climates, but our techniques will differ. Some of Brad's work will transfer, and some will not.

These efforts can be implemented at a larger scale on our rural projects, but the essence is still the same for smaller sites: Slow runoff, detain it long enough to settle out solids and infiltrate what you can. Then, release it during high events.

Water storage is a trickier challenge in the Mediterranean and drought-prone areas. In these situations, we tend to get all of our water in a small portion of the year, and the ability to store enough for the dry season is a real challenge.

We are able to overcome this hurdle by identifying runoff, storage capacity, cost, and overall use in the landscape. By analyzing this matrix, we can usually determine the storage capacity that will offset a specific portion of the project's use and provide water savings worth investing in when calculated on a longer time horizon. An "H2O / ROI", if you will.


Plant Choices

Plant choices play a powerful role in our carbon sequestration capability, water cycles, soil creation, shade, energy use, and insectary. Layering these elements into our plant selection criteria is a necessary step that will offer a substantial returns.

The impact of our plant choices can be far-reaching.

If you want to explore this further, click here for a long-format interview about the three pillars and its' associated software.

By working within the 3 pillars framework, we have a clear structure for analyzing the ecosystem services we are providing and creating a highly leveraged landscape. The individual opportunities and constraints of each project will impact our effectiveness in each of the areas. By taking a whole systems approach, we have a much better chance at an overall positive impact in providing solutions to multiple problems. If you decide to engage at this level, you will find that there are very few inherent conflicts between the three pillars. They all tend to help each other succeed.

In contrast to Carbon. The carbon dilemma is fraught with inherent conflicts.



Carbon is the wicked problem we all want to solve. Wicked means that every change for the worse or for the better that we implement COMPLETELY alters the actual problem itself. Therefore, it can render the path we took to get there immediately obsolete.

In contrast, soils, water, and insectary are relatively tame problems that have a linear, or at least manageable, decision matrix to reach the solution. Carbon does not. Comprehensively balanced landscape carbon solutions are something we can influence, but the big rocks are primarily out of our control at the moment. The Three Pillars are not.

The two main categories in which we should examine carbon are emissions, the "carbon "footprint," and sequestration, which is what we can draw down and store or at least cycle.

You will likely find it quite daunting as you dive into that work. You will find how out of balance we are between emissions for standard hardscapes and how slow a plant can sequester. You may face some discouragement, but there is a path through.

These topics and many more are explored in depth in the blog library on the Sandbox website.


Making Progress

Working within the Three Pillars framework, we have a clear structure for analyzing the ecosystem services we provide and creating highly leveraged landscapes in the process.

Each project's individual opportunities and constraints will impact our effectiveness in each of the Three Pillars. We cannot always make big strides in all of them.

By taking a whole systems approach, we have a much better chance of having an overall positive impact, providing solutions to multiple problems.

If you decide to engage at this level, you will find very few inherent conflicts between the Three Pillars. They all tend to help each other succeed. Contrast that to the carbon dilemma, which is fraught with endless inherent conflicts.

Moving Forward as Designers and Landscape Architects

The true gem here is that by addressing soils, we ARE addressing carbon. By addressing Plants and water, we address the ancillary effects of the damages from excess atmospheric carbon and other ecological disturbances from culture and industry. All of these efforts have made our projects here @ EC exponentially better. Most can be performed within reasonable, existing budgets. We just need to take a moment and make some informed decisions.

It can be as simple as specifying biologics in your planting design and then including the brand and supplier in your specification sheet. Make it easy, make it assumed as an SOP. It's not that hard. And it's not that risky. And if you lead, most will follow.

If you want to explore this further, click here for a long-format interview about the three pillars and its' associated software.



Founding Principal, Elder Creek Design Studio

To further his commitment to ecoliteracy in the landscape, Rick has founded Sandbox, a software company providing ecoiliteracy tools for Landscape professionals. Sandbox's first product is Bond, the world's first and only landscape carbon calculator that includes the full carbon impacts for both material choices and construction activity.



bottom of page