Design Vocabulary


This list of terms lends insight into ecological land design and development.
As in any fundamental change, the shift from an extractive relationship with the Earth to one of mutual health requires the development of new language.

The following terms are useful in this process and served as the glossary for Ben Falk's ENVS 295: Ecological Landscape Design and Planning course at the University of Vermont.
Element in a landscape that allows entry/exit to/from the site. The ability to move to/from a location within the site. The element most directly relating to off-site locations. Usually consisting of paths, roads, trails. Often the aspect of site development and maintenance that is most destructive and expensive.

Active (see passive)
An element with moving parts or mechanisms. A pump as opposed to a thermosiphon.

A view of a site from above and in perspective. Often a photograph or drawing from a bird’s eye view.

The position of an object such as the sun in relation to the horizon at 180 degrees. E.g. the altitude of the sun in Burlington on December 21st at solar noon is approximately 22 degrees. Perpendicular to the azimuth bearing.

Analogue/ecological analogue
A place or site sharing similar fundamental elements and relationships between elements. Can be broken into cultural analogues or ecological analogues. Other site sharing similar challenges with a given site. Ecological analogue: A biological environment sharing similar species, climate, processes and other fundamental traits as they relate to the scene of a design. A site in Vermont has many ecological analogues in Scotland and northern Scandinavia. Many clues to effective design strategies are found by assessing ecologically-analogous sites.

The systematic review of the existing conditions of a site. Often includes a description and rendering of sun and shadow patterns, microclimates, circulation and movement on site, zones of use, soils, hydrology and drainage, legal conditions, etc.
Analysis is done through a harder, more systematic process than an assessment and is thus more limited in scope.

Angle of incidence
The angular measure between an incoming light ray striking a surface and the normal (a line perpendicular to that surface). The lower the angle of incidence the more energy is transmitted from light to surface.

Angle of repose
The angle in degrees relative to horizontal that a given material will come to rest without unusual disturbance strictly through gravity’s influence. E.g. the angle of repose of large boulders is higher than that of sand (one can establish a stable slope more steeply with boulders than with sand.

A structure upon which plants can be grown. Often used to support vining plants.

The direction in which a land predominantly faces. E.g. southerly aspects are warmer and dryer in this region than northern aspects.

The numeric position (bearing) of an object in a 360 degree horizon. E.g. Azimuth 22 degrees north northeast.

Base map
A map used for reference in a plan set and helps the designer understand the positions of existing elements on a site.

An accumulation of material, usually soil, against an object such a building. As varies from a mound which is a freestanding pile of material.

Biological material. Often used for thermal storage in a house

To improve the health of an ecosystem by employing biota, usually in the treatment of pollution.

Black water
Any water carrying human effluents (“wastes”) and/or water from kitchen sinks. As distinct from greywater.

A group design meeting that collaboratively address a design challenge.

The flow or movement of people in a landscape.

Usually the person or persons seeking design services. Always a person or group of people with a problem or challenge to be addressed. May be any major stakeholder that has sought and is responsible for funding design services. There are many “hidden clients/stakeholders” such as the students in a schoolyard design, the users of a museum, the visitors to a landscape. The line between “user” and client may blur at times.

Weather over a period (usually decades or more) of time. The general characteristics of weather patterns in an area.

Climate Change
Also referred to as global climate change, climate change is a more descriptive and accurate term than climate warming, with respect to earth’s current climate trends. Climate change has always been the case on this planet and is becoming increasingly severe since the emergence of fossil fuel dependence and the results of transferring massive amounts of carbon from within the earth’s crust into its atmosphere. Actively designing for changes in the global and local climate will be increasingly critical to ensure the survival and success of human settlements. See also design for climate change below.

A system in which inputs feedback directly into outputs without leaving the system. E.g. vegetable garden to dinner to composting toilet to sheet mulch to soil to edible plant to dinner. There are almost always materials and energy that “leak” into the surrounding larger systems such as carbon dioxide, oxygen and other gasses in this example.
The earth is a closed loop materials system with incoming solar energy and outgoing radiation.


The production of one material or service simultaneous with others. I.e. In a system with multiple yields a product or service is cogeneratively produced. Heating greenhouse with the excess heat from a wood combustion heater would be cogenerative. Growing plants in a courtyard through which “waste” (excess) heat from buildings is piped is cogenerative. “Nature” is everywhere working via cogeneration; there is no growth or production without concurrent feeding of another process in the system.

Cold air drainage
Any low lying path along a landscape through which denser cold air travels. Usually an element that pulses in and out of existence over a day, month, year. Highly related to climate and aspect of the landform.

Cold hollow/pocket
A depression in which air flows into and settles. Often the coldest and lowest place in a landscape.

Concept/Concepting/Conceptual design phase

A general design idea that is broad but has a direction or pattern. Concepting is a part of the design phase, early on, where overall directions, symbols, themes, forms and strategies of a particular element or a group of elements is revealed. Concepting a garden would reveal overall layout and arrangement of plantings but not the specific species or materials used. Concepting a house would be revealing how it fits to the site, revealing the major forms of the building, possibly some openings, entrances/exits, but not the materials used or exact dimensions. Concepting always connects the element to its larger context.

Conceptual drawing
Any graphic representation of the above process. See also construction drawings.

Construction drawings/documents
Graphic depictions of building and installation specifics necessary for the implementation of elements in a design. A set of construction documents for a landscape would specify all materials to be used in the hardscape, all species, and dimensions. The layout and arrangement of these pieces is usually described in plan view and/or cross sectional drawings.

To harvest wood while maintaining the roots. Harvesting part of a tree such a limb but leaving the main shoot and roots. A system in which this technique is practiced.

Cover (vegetative)
Any surface of the landscape upon which vegetation is growing. Permeable. Solar absorbing. Living.

A specific standard of judgment. A discrete statement defining a measure of success by which the design or part of a design is based. A direct, brief design statement used to guide design strategies. E.g. Landscape would require watering only during the driest months of the year; lighting would be less than 40 fc at 20 feet; time to walk between the compost and the kitchen is less than 1 minute; snow on roof would be redirected away from entrance; etc; etc. For many designs there could be dozens if not hundreds or more criteria. Criteria guide designers and help communicate between the designer, client and builder.

A graphic depicting the vertical aspect of a design, usually aligned with a cut line that transects a landscape or hardscape. A “cross section through the pond” would show the arrangement in the vertical plane of everything lying on that cross section line.

From the Greek Κυβερνήτης (kubernites - meaning steersman, governor, pilot, or rudder; the same root as government). Increasingly we are seeing the design of living systems as necessarily being one of steering, piloting, orchestration.

Dead space

An area that sees little to no use, usually due to poor design of the particular space or space around it.

Broadly, to intend, to choose a direction and strategy amid a variety of options. To systematically and methodically, through a given process, determine the form and materials of a part of the physical world. To make more specific the planning phase of landscape. A detailed plan for changing the existing conditions of a place.

An arranger of energy, land and biota whose process is intentional.

Design date
Time of year in which a particular design is optimized for. Often best if it is the limiting factor design time in a year and/or a time when conditions are typical but challenging.

Design for Climate Change
The maxim that when we plan and develop places we should do so in anticipation of change, in particular change of the largest caliber – the long term weather patterns of the site. This approach is fundamentally different from conventional reactionist, approaches to place-making. It is forward-thinking and progressive; attempting to harness a force for a positive result, rather than react to a challenge after it emerges,

Any feature of a landscape that one is drawn to for whatever reason. Destinations help draw one into little used areas of a site. Destinations are sometimes visible from inside a building and draw one out of doors and into the landscape. Generally, a timeless landscape teems with destinations while retaining a certain subtlety.

Distinct Features
Anything in a landscape that is of unusual value or significance in guiding the design. Often a special tree, rock, water feature or other sensitive element, something the client has particular connection with. It is not always a physical feature, but sometimes is an aspect like a special sightline or sound.

The mechanical production of a graphic. Often cross sections and construction drawings are drafted. Usually a drawing depicting the technical/hard aspects of an element. Drafted drawings are usually more suited to describing built elements more than biological elements.

Stonework consisting of stone upon stone with no mortared (wet-laid) connections (joints).

The interrelationships of living things to one another and to their environment, and the study of these interrelationships.

Ecosystem service
An output in a biological system that has direct or indirect human value: i.e. oxygen production, erosion control, carbon sequestration, water and air quality enhancement. Ecological designs maximize and utilize ecosystem services.

The transition zone between distinct natural communities. Often the most biologically active area in a landscape and often the source of much design potential. Often an area of particular human interest and enjoyment. E.g. where a field meets a forest, a pond edge. See edge affect.

Edge effect
A tendency for the interface between species and communities of species to be especially fertile, productive, and interesting. Usually a zone of increased surface area where energy flow and relationship intensity is heightened.

Embodied energy

The amount of energy transformed in the production of a given material or group of materials. Often used quantitatively but can be just as useful in qualitative terms “type of embodied energy.” E.g. the embodied energy of lumber is recent solar energy (transformed by the tree), the embodied energy of a nylon is derived from fossil fuel (transformed by a factory). Choosing materials and systems with the lowest and most biologically-based embodied energy is critical in ecological design.

Emergent property

An initially non-existent condition that is “produced” by the interaction between parts of a system over time. A characteristic of a system that derives from the interaction of its parts and is not observable or inherent in the parts considered separately.

The potential to do work. Power. See also matter.

Energy flow
Movement of potential/power from one part of a system to another.

Entropy (second law of thermodynamics)
The tendency for energy/matter to erode or become less organized over time in a system. Notably, biological systems seem to break this law and often develop order and organization (org-anism) from less order. See also order.

The loss of biological material, especially soil, from weathering. Most often enabled by human mismanagement of a landscape and made especially rapid with heavy machinery.

Existing conditions
The state of a site previous to the action of the designer. This includes all elements in the landscape and their arrangement. An existing conditions map, often call a base or index map, identifies and communicates these elements and often notes any particular challenges or opportunities. For design process purposes, the status quo of a place, the baseline situation/raw material of which the designer will adjust.

Farm (regenerative)
A system in which the flow of energy and materials is managed negentropically - where biological production, ecological structure and complexity is increasing over time; where yields increase while inputs decrease.

Choosing which animals one lives with in a landscape (Leopold).

Outputs of information, materials or energy that flow back into the inputs of a common system. Positive (system reinforcing) and negative (system discouraging) feedback loops result. Consideration and ongoing management of feedback in a system is critical to desired results. The incorporation of feedback in a system provides an endless stream of opportunities for optimization.

Foot Candle
Measurement of light intensity used to guide the design of lighting elements. One lumen for square foot. See also lumen.

A word coined by Benoit Mandelbrot in 1975 to describe shapes that are "self-similar,” shapes that look the same at different magnifications. To create a fractal, you start with a simple shape and duplicate it successively according to a set of fixed rules. A simple formula for creating shapes can produce very complex structures, some of which have a striking resemblance to objects that appear in the real world.

Frost pocket (see cold pocket)

To cultivate biological systems, usually plants, through the management of nutrients and energy in a system. The most productive gardening does this in such a way that labor and energy inputs are minimized while outputs and yields are maximized. This is approached largely by harnessing the positive relationships between elements in the system.

Geographic information systems. A computer system designed for storing, manipulating, analyzing, and displaying data in a geographic context.

Verb: to manipulate earth or other material in order that some design goal, such as access, is achieved.
Noun: The angle of a slope.

The gradual transitioning between one quality and another. Gradients are usually productive, enjoyable and full of life. See also edge effect.

Water from bathroom sinks, showers and any other non-kitchen and toilet fixtures. A particularly valuable source of water on a site. See also blackwater.

A mutually-beneficial relationship of cultivated plants. A positive plan association. An arrangement of species in such a way as synergy and yields are maximized.

The built environment on a site. Often refers to stone walls, outbuildings, pathways, roads, and other supporting landscape features.

Health (of land)
‘The capacity of land for self renewal’ (Aldo Leopold).

Holism (from holon or holos) is the idea that the properties of a system cannot be determined or explained by the sum of its components alone. The word, along with the adjective holistic, was coined in the early 1920s by Jan Smuts. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Smuts defined holism as "The tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution."

A holon (from the Greek holos = whole and on = entity) is something that is simultaneously a whole and a part. The endless “nesting” of elements within one another is holonic. The term was coined by Arthur Koestler in his book The Ghost in the Machine (1967).

The amount of sunlight falling upon a surface, usually measured in Btu's per square foot per hour or Btu's per square foot per day.

To make into a whole or make part of a whole.

Interpretive (interpretive element)

A landscape feature that informs and transmits information, usually about the site, to a user.

A species that tends to dominate the ecology in an area. An invasive/opportunistic species is usually a generalist and is excellent at exploiting niches. Damages landscapes are ripe for their emergence and proliferation.

The earth’s surface.
“By land is meant all of the things on, over, or in the earth.” (Aldo Leopold, The Land Ethic, in A Sand County Almanac, 1949).

The traits, patterns, and structure of a specific geographic area, including its biological composition, its physical environment, and its human social patterns.

Landscape architecture
The arrangement of elements on the earth’s surface to meet specific goals. A field usually including urban and town planning and landscape design. With few exceptions landscape architecture in modern society has been the artistic and form-based arrangement of out-of-doors space for human users.

Limiting factor
A condition that, at a given time, discourages a desired function or output. E.g. A flat tire on an otherwise functioning automobile would be the limiting factor to speed. Soil erosion in an otherwise healthy landscape would be a limiting factor. There are usually a host of limiting factors in any given situation. Comprehensive landscape design and management can be seen, in part, as the addressing of existing and emerging limiting factors.

Living machine
A system that completes specific tasks (like a machine) and is designed by humans, but is composed of biological components. E.g. a constructed wetland, a biological water treatment facility, etc. Living machines are multi-yield and often low input. Living machines have been articulated and developed most notably by Dr. John Todd.

A measurement of light output from a fixture. E.g. a typical 60 watt incandescent bulb emits about 850 lumens. See also foot candle.

Master plan
A report or set of recommendations usually in graphic and textual form that detail the existing conditions of a site and outline directions of site development. A master plan is the primary and broadest planning action to complete on a site. Master plans should be geared to accept more specific designs as an ongoing process of land use over time.

Most fundamentally it seems to be energy in physical form. See also energy.

A small scale climate usually resulting from a variation in solar gain, wind exposure, and/or human-derived heat sources.

Mixed use
Typically refers to residential and commercial activities occurring in the same location but can refer to any location or design in which varied activities occur. Optimal mixed use elements act in similar ways to a plant guild. See also guild.

An element that produces more than one intended output. In an integrated design, as in natural systems, most elements are usually multi-yield.

For purposes landscape design, existing conditions that have not been directly manipulated by humans.

Usually used to describe a species that has been in a North American region since pre-European settlement. Theoretical, as species are in constant movement from both human and non-human actions.

Niche analysis

The identification, by the designer, of the inputs and outputs in an element in a system. A crucial step in the design process.

Organic matter that is the result of biological processes. Often nutrients occur in excess and offer opportunities for fueling another element in the system. Ecological design matches food and nutrient sources.

A condition of being most integrated, beneficial or desirable. Arranging a system for the most desirable outcomes. Optimize is often not the same as maximize.

To arrange in a predictable or patterned way. The seemingly non-random pattern of systems, especially living systems. Permaculture founders Bill Mollison and David Holmgren noted that “Life is the central organizing force in this part of the universe.” See also entropy.

Weather patterns endemic to mountainous regions. Precipitation often resulting from rising and cooling air masses that are moving over mountains.

Outdoor living space OLS
Open air spaces that are geared toward spending sitting, sleeping, gathering, etc. An outdoor room. Extension of the house in the landscape and the landscape in the house. Outdoor living spaces are prime human habitats taking advantage of the edge-effect where the built and biological environments meet.

Any element or system of elements which function without moving parts or regular user input. E.g. a south facing wall of glass is a passive solar device whereas a solar photovoltaic panel (PV) is an active solar device. As opposed to active.

A repeating or in some way predictable set of forms, elements, or events that have coherence relative to one another and/or to other systems. See also order.

Pattern Language
A term coined by Christopher Alexander and colleagues to describe a vocabulary of interacting design strategies that can be used to develop human-scale, enjoyable and durable spaces, buildings, landscapes and towns. The original book A Pattern Language is particularly geared toward building and architecture.

Percent grade
A description of the pitch of a slope. Noted in 5%, 20%, 135%, etc. A 100% grade equals 45 degrees from level.

An partially enclosed roof system usually composed of rafters upon which vining vegetation is grown. An excellent passive solar element.

An agricultural system articulated first by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren that emphasizes passive, perennial food production and land use systems that require a minimum of time, materials and expense to develop and maintain while yielding a diversity of products and services. An integrated, sustainable, diversified, perennial and biologically intensive system of plant production. A body of ecological design principles particularly applicable to the design of small scale human settlements.

Perspective (graphic)

A three-dimensional depiction of space. Draw with one or two vanishing points.

Plan/Planning (site plan/planning)
The long term arrangement of a site in relation to intended uses and the existing conditions of the site. More broad, less specific and long-ranging than design.

The system of plants on a site.

Plan-view (graphic)
A two dimensional graphic that is communicated from the perspective of being directly above the subject. As different from bird’s eye view or aerial view which is typically rendered as a three dimensional perspective.

Towards the north or south pole from a position on site.

Positive drainage
Drainage away from buildings, gathering areas, roads, and other spaces of high use. Usually achieved by grading or installing sub-grade drains.

Positive outdoor space POS

Spaces near built environments (usually residences) that take advantage of the hardscape for the enhancement of outdoor uses. POS leverage the built environment for privacy, shade, solar gain, windbreak and other services that help create an enjoyable and productive space near buildings.

A pattern repeating itself over time with physical ramifications.

Program (design/client program)
A boiling down of client goals and challenges guiding the designer in her endeavor. Usually a program is a textual statement of a sentence to a short paragraph. See scope.

Proposal (design proposal)
A document prepared by the designer for design services to be rendered. To be worked through and agreed upon by both client and designer. Outlines the scope of work to be completed and timeframe.

PV (photovoltaic)

An active form of energy garnering electricity from light. PV technology harnesses the movement of free electrons across a surface (the photovoltaic effect).

Regenerative system
A relationship in which the whole function of any one element in the system is realized and the value of its outputs increases over time.
A system in which outputs are more valuable than inputs. A system that is fundamentally economical. Land use in which entropy is reduced and biological stability, integrity and long term health are increased for both the local and global environment. A system whose interest increases while capital inputs decrease.

Rain shadow
Reduced precipitation on the leeward side of a hill or mountain.


Usually referring to sources of energy or materials that are produced in relatively short timeframes. A more specific term would be rapidly renewable, indicating that all resources are renewed over some period of time however long it may be.

Schematic (drawing)

Scope (scope of work)
A detailed outline of the work to be completed and delivered by the design team to the client.


A label applied to climatic and/or biological patterns occurring in a specific time period. A comprehensive designer is aware of a multitude of seasons the site may experience. Some of these patterns emerge from features of the site such as plant foliage changes; others emerge from patterns passing through the site such as migrating animals. A thorough design highlights particular landscape elements as they constantly shift and come into and out of season. Thorough landscape design takes advantage of the seemingly infinite variety of seasons across the year on a given site. E.g. sumac season, chanterelle season, sugar season, wild leek season, trout lily season, aspen season, maple foliage season, mud season, monarch butterfly season, etc. Some seasons last a month, others a day, others perhaps only hours or minutes. Some insect species, for instance, have their season for hours in the entire year. Some seasons occur only a handful of times a decade or less, such as the masting of an oak tree. The more climatic flux a site is exposed the more noticeable these seasons usually are. E.g. continental locations have intense seasonality.

Self organize
The tendency for systems, especially biological systems, to develop order and complexity over time. A force offering design and management opportunities.

Sheet drainage
Water moving across the surface of a landscape.


The discrete area of land under the designer’s attention.

To roughly or quickly communicate ideas through graphics.

An area of land angled relative to the horizontal level.

The living matrix of materials and organisms in which plants grow and the foundation for much of life on Earth. Not a rapidly renewing resource.

Solar gain
Positive contribution of heat from the sun.

Solar noon
The highest point the sun reaches on a given day. Time during which maximum energy is available to the landscape. 10:00 to 2:00 is commonly referred to as the “solar window”

Solar south

The direction on the horizontal plane (azimuth) where the sun lies at solar noon.

The audible environment experienced by a user. Should be defined during a given period as soundscapes shift quickly over an hour, day, season.

To recommend in quantitative terms. Usually applies to elements such as plant species, dimensions of hardscape elements, grade of roads and paths, etc. Often used in the scope of services between a designer and client.

Spring (water)
A location of groundwater emergence due to head pressure (gravity force) developed
from the aquifers connections with higher elevations on the landscape.

Patterns or processes resulting from seemingly random factors.

An assemblage of interrelated elements (or holons) comprising a unified whole. See holon.

A unifying framework that holds the overall design together. A set of symbols and/or meanings, associations, goals that serve to guide a design. E.g. The theme for this children’s playground is connection to nature (all elements aim to support that wherever possible).

Thermal buffering
Reduction in amplitude of temperature swings. Often the result of thermal mass. Usually allows a more productive and enjoyable living environment.

Thermal lag
The tendency for temperature change to have inertia. For example a stone exposed to sun will stay warm after exposure for time relative to its mass and specific heat (heat holding capacity). Both spaces in the landscape and the earth experience thermal lag as evidenced by later day microclimates in the landscape and hot July’s after the sun has reached its highest path in the sky.

Thermal mass
Heavy materials such as stone, water, earth that store incoming solar heat and re-radiate that heat during times of little/no solar gain. Typically an element in the southern area of a building or on the southern sides of a structure. Materials with the highest specific heat (ability to hold heat) such as water and stone are used for thermal mass. “Massing” of living environments is particularly important where temperature fluctuations are high.

The passive flow of heat through a system. Often called a convection loop. A powerful way to move heat through a building or landscape.

The non-physical context which contains all processes and elements. The vessel within which all physical developments happen. For the designer, it is the most powerful point of leverage in biological systems. One of the most fundamental and oft-forgotten resources in landscape planning and development. See order.

Any structure which facilitates the use of vertical space by plants.

Universally accessible
An element or series of elements that is accessible to people in a standard wheelchair. Wheelchair-accessible or barrier-free is a better term but “universal access” is often used in the field.

Any organism that directly engages with a site. Usually refers only to humans on site.

The wind tunnel effect occurring when the flow of a fluid (such as air or water) is increased in speed when a given volume passes through a constriction. A Venturi is often unintentionally created by building or vegetation positions. A Venturi can be utilized for passive cooling in many locations. Windbreaks and Venturis can be used to affect the direction and speed of air currents in a landscape.

An area upon which a user visually experience from a given location. See also sightline.

A resource misplaced. Usually, the unintentional outputs of a system. A biological or technical ‘nutrient’ that is without an optimal match in a system. A sign of design failure – as good design matches inputs with outputs “waste” with “food”.

The area of land draining into a common basin. Like many other landscape processes this occurs fractally, at all scales, i.e. from a puddle to a pond to an ocean.

A natural, biological or built feature that deflects or slows the flow of air.

A tree-based environment consisting of fairly large openings in the canopy (roughly between 50% and 15% open). More open than a forest, more closed than a savannah. Considered by many to be the most productive biological structure in net solar energy capture.

An intentional output of a system. Typically the unintentional outputs are “waste.”