Open green space design: getting started

Getting started with landscape architecture—the design—of your Sacred Place can feel intimidating. But it doesn’t have to. Often the answers are closer than you think; you just may need some guidance to see them.

First: how complex is your space—and your vision? That can dictate how you go about getting started with design. To help navigate this course, let’s examine two possible paths: (1) partnering with a landscape architect to plan and design your space, or (2) leveraging more resourceful approaches to align with smaller projects, and, well, budgets.

Today, we’ll explore the first path: how to kick-start your design project for a Sacred Place alongside a landscape architect. The second path: how to design a more straightforward green space — DIY-style, is here

When do I need a landscape architect?

Too often, well-intended green spaces miss the mark in execution due to lack of planning and design. The subtle art of designing a welcoming, open portal to summon passers-by; placing a bench in a certain way to encourage visitors to give pause; ensuring there is a sense of ‘surround’, helping people to feel safe—these are the design elements that ensure a Sacred Place is actually delivering on its goals. That it works to bring people solace, help combat stress and promote stronger, more unified communities.

While our design model is intended for use for any community to interpret—there is often a need for professional help. Many Sacred Places are integrated into densely built environments—near the ICU unit of a hospital, embedded in a prison campus, or nested within tight confines in an urban neighborhood, for examples—projects that can be more complex by nature. Sometimes there is a bold vision that involves irrigation, grading or electrical gymnastics—and could involve many different contractors to pull off. Creating these kinds of spaces requires a good bit of upfront planning, engineering and budgeting. This is where a landscape architect comes in.  These are professionals who “analyze, plan, design, manage, and nurture the built and natural environments”, as described by the American Society of Landscape Architects.

“Think of a landscape architect as a kind of community interpreter: our job is to grasp the community’s vision, culture and story and translate that into a design that is meaningful—sacred to them—but also purposeful. By leveraging evidence based design practices, green spaces can work to improve mental health and promote community unity—through nature.”

– Jay Graham, FASLA, Nature Sacred Design Advisor

What does a landscape architect offer?

While every landscape architect is different, typically, they will work alongside you and your community to:

  • navigate the upfront engineering; helping to survey the land and its boundaries, navigate zoning permits, assess “what’s below”, and identify any restrictions upfront
  • envision your space—working with you and your community to pull in meaningful design elements that reflect your history, sense of place and unique community culture—and work within your budget.
  • customize a strategic design that aligns with the design model set forth — ensuring the space is open and accessible to all, sacred to the community and intended to bring people outside for mindful reflection.
  • serve as the conduit for the construction and contractor work, pulling from their network of partners to build the space—from electrical, irrigation, grading, plantings and more.

When to loop in a landscape architect—and how?

It can feel somewhat chicken-eggy at first. Do you need a budget set forth in advance? Ideas crystallized? Or is that what a landscape architect does? The answer if often a blend of both, really. It can follow a flow that resembles something like this:

  • With your community, assemble a wish list—any ”must haves”, community design elements or ideas you’re considering (labyrinth, water features, sensory garden, meaningful plantings for examples). A straightforward list can do, even crude “napkin” sketches can be helpful to share ideas, but not necessary.
  • Research local landscape architects via ASLA’s directory—and ask around your community. Narrow your selections to a list no less than 3, maybe as many as 6-7.
  • It can be a good idea to craft a basic Request for Proposal to send around to your top landscape architect picks. This can be a simple 1-2 page document that outlines the project summary, intended goals of the green space, design requirements (reference the Nature Sacred design model), and a rough idea of desired timing. An example can be found here. 
  • Review the responses to identify the landscape architects who most align with your vision, embrace the Nature Sacred design model and who can meet your requirements.
  • You may wish to call in your “finalists” to meet in person, should time allow it. This is standard procedure for larger design projects.
  • Narrow your choices down to 2-3, in case your first pick doesn’t pan out for any reason. Let them know!

“A landscape architect brings poetry to your green space.”

Tom Gamper, Firesoul, The Children’s Peace Center, Baltimore, MD.


You can expect a collaborative session or two with your landscape architect on-site, if it hasn’t happened already—and it’s a great idea to have them attend your community meetings, or charrettes, where input is gathered.

Typically, a color rendering or sketch or two are proposed, based on the community’s vision and the technical requirements of the space. These images can resemble these kinds of visuals, and are intended for communities collaborate on and reach consensus. The landscape architect can serve as the design quarterback—helping to ensure that the concept aligns with best practices for evidence-based design.

“Our landscape architect at Floura Teeter helped with design options and planting types that helped us take our vision from a sketch to a fully formed plan that we could implement.”

Todd Marcus, Firesoul, Intersection of Change  

Once the rendering and concept is approved, the landscape architect will help craft a strategy for completion, earmarking where and when construction occurs and outside contractors are brought in. They will oversee this process—keeping the project on budget and on time.

Looking to get started?

A collection of resources to help you get on your way with design: