Green space design: getting started — DIY-style

This is the sequel post to our first article focused on getting started with more complex green space designs—and how and when to pull in a landscape architect. 

Today’s post will take a deeper look more resourceful paths, for smaller, more straightforward green spaces. 

Revitalized vacant lot in Baltimore’s Sandtown Winchester. The Sacred Place at the Intersection of Change.


Just add water?


Ever notice a pocket of nature in your community and think—hey, that would make a great public green space? You then might delve a little deeper, understanding what makes a green space sacred—how it can best serve the community, foster unity and promote wellness. And at this point, a happy realization may strike: this place already nails the basics. It’s nearly a Sacred Place already!

For example, a green space may inherently possess some of the design basics: it may have its own natural portal (a clear entry point into the space that welcomes all passers-by); its own path to wander (no matter how modest); a destination (a tree, a sculpture, a bench); and a safe sense of surround (a natural boundary or low fence). It may not require much complex planning, irrigation or hardscaping—it’s almost inherently ready to go, in its natural state. 

The question then becomes: how to ensure the space is designed in a way that is meaningful to the community, affordable to create and sustainable to maintain? Not every green space has the means to hire a landscape architect to help guide this process. Many in our Nature Sacred Network have gone “DIY” for some, or all, of their landscaping, in fact. So, we’ve rounded together a few of their tips and stories to help other communities think on their designs—resourcefully. 


Blue sky visioning


The Nature Sacred guiding principles and design elements are not intended to be taken literally, but rather, to be interpreted creatively. A portal could be as simple as two plantings or stones, for example, inviting visitors to enter this separate, special place, open to anyone needing a moment to reconnect with nature. 

Trust your own creativity here, grab a few inspired neighbors and let your imagination roam—with the community in mind—using the Nature Sacred model as guide rails:

  • How might the community’s history and sense of place be celebrated, creatively, in this space? 
  • Think on the users—the community the space is serving: How might they be best served? What design elements might bring them in—and help them return?
  • Down the road, what kinds of programs might you envision happening there—an important part of keeping the community engaged and outside?
  • Browse our directory of Sacred Places for some inspiration—feel free to sort by type (community space, hospital garden, etc.). 
  • Start with napkin sketch—quite literally—and then work to refine it together with some horticulturist-types to fill in any details such as plantings, benches or paths. 


Landscape Expertise. 


Not everyone can envision the design of a garden—and not everyone knows what plants are native, easy to maintain and will visually benefit a space. But many do. If you’re not one of these people, how do you tap into that expertise, without leaning on expensive contractors? A few resourceful ideas follow from our Nature Sacred Network to you.

Neighborly green thumbs

Chances are good that someone in your community is an experienced gardener and will likely respond well to a green space project. We’ve heard many stories of many civic-minded green thumbs willing to guide the design process for communities as volunteers. 

How to find them? Your community may have the means to share something via:

  • Social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
  • Email or printed community newsletters
  • Press release on community website 
  • Flyer at places in the neighborhood where gardening-type neighbors might frequent—garden centers, grocery stores, coffee shops, libraries.
  • Community meetings
  • Word of mouth: ask around! Chat with neighbors and community leaders—they may be able to point you in the right direction (this is the most popular path we’ve heard our network mention).

Local garden centers.

Some of our Sacred Places have leveraged their nearby planter, nursery or garden center to get advice for planting and garden design. It’s worth reaching out to one if you’ve got one in your community, they may be willing to lend their expertise on the cheap, and will likely end up being a long-time partner, too. 

“If you have a local planter, reach out to them for some ideas. They are often happy to sketch out some ideas for you to consider based on your budget—even smaller ones—and even work with you to phase out plantings, if needed,” says Todd Marcus, Firesoul and head of the Intersection of Change in Baltimore, MD. 


ASLA provides a national map of schools that offer programs in Landscape Architecture—a growing field. Look to see if there’s a university you can contact in your area. Often, you can find students who may lend their expertise to design your green space design for free, or a much reduced fee. They get the experience and you get the landscape architecture!

For land surveying, let an engineering student do the work for you—they may do it for free. That said, given the nature of busy student lifestyles, this can take longer than paying someone, so if you have a time constraint, you may want to confirm timing upfront. 


Search for local organizations that support the creation of a green space or city park—they often exist. For example, in Maryland, the Neighborhood Design Center works to pair communities with pro bono (free) work from landscape professionals. Try keywords such as “Pro bono Landscape Architect” in your town or city. You may be surprised what you find, also. For example, many organizations exist to plant free trees—such as Casey Trees in DC—in the name of healthier, more equitable cities. 

Scan AIGA’s Design For Good resources, they’ve curated a list of professional looking to offer their services for the greater good, like CatchaFire and All For Good, for examples. You may find a nearby professional willing to lend a hand to get your design mapped out, gratis.


Get Resourceful. 


Keep your eyes peeled around your neighborhood. Maybe you have a local institution who regularly turns over their annual plantings — you could ask them for some of the healthier throw-aways — that might work beautifully in your green space! Upcycling is awesome. 

“Especially in those early years when resources were so scarce, we had to find creative way to beautify our green space. One day a volunteer noticed a row of perfectly nice white cedar shrubs in front of an old boarded-up Roy Roger’s on Florida Avenue. Someone supposedly called Roy Roger’s headquarters and got permission to take the plants. That Friday evening, a group went back in a truck with some shovels and dug them out of the ground. The beat officer who encountered six men digging up bushes in a Roy Roger’s parking lot after dark was skeptical, but fortunately the park board had developed a good relationship with the community police over the years and he eventually let them keep digging. Those bushes were some of the first splashes of green in Crispus Attucks Park, and they graced the park for years.”  – John Corea, Firesoul, Crispus Attucks Park 

Let us know if you need help getting started—we’re here to lend guidance, or pair you with a relevant Firesoul to answer your questions! 

A round-up of a few helpful resources: