Landscape Journal 30:2–11 ISSN 0277-2426
© 2011 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
persist any farther north than southern Ohio / northern
Kentucky in 1990 can now manage the winter cold of
southern Michigan. Beyond effects on individual spe-
cies, differential responses to climate change among
organisms can disrupt networks of community interac-
tions such as predation and pollination, critical compo-
nents of ecosystem health (Brooker et al. 2007; Gilman
et al. 2010).
The capacity of ecosystems to deliver services de-
ﬁ nes their “health” from the perspective of human need
(Rapport 1998). Healthy ecosystem function depends on
interactions among species and their abiotic environ-
ment that may be compromised by the unpredictable
impacts of climate change (Parmesan 2006). Conse-
quently, there has been a call for the development of
adaptation strategies to buffer ecosystems against un-
certainty (Blanco et al. 2009; Pielke 1998). Adaptation
in this sense refers to “adjustments in individual, group,
and institutional behavior in order to reduce society’s
vulnerabilities to climate change, and thus reduce its
impacts” (Pielke 1998, 159).
Increasingly, researchers and professional practi-
tioners in urban planning and design are identifying and
applying methods to better protect urban ecosystem
services (Baschak and Brown 1995; Botequilha- Leitão
and Ahern 2002; Colding 2007; Li et al. 2005; Lovell and
Johnston 2009; Musacchio 2009; Tratalos et al. 2007;
Zhang et al. 2007). Gardens and managed greenspace
offer the chance to create urban habitats that provide
and enhance urban ecosystem structure, function,
and services. Planting design plays a signiﬁ cant role in
stormwater management, biodiversity conservation,
and human health (Horwitz, Lindsay, and O’Connor
2001). Planting design for green space at any scale, from
front yards to city parks, supports human well being, re-
duces heat island effects, offers refuge for wildlife, and
provides the spatial habitat linkage that is needed for
the long term viability of plants, animals, and beneﬁ cial
microbes (Pickett and Cadenasso 2008).
In urban environments, planting designers and
horticulturalists have begun to realize that protocols
for plant selection must be modiﬁ ed to accommodate
ABSTRACT Global climate change threatens the structure and
function of ecological communities in urban areas, including
public and private gardens. An adaptation strategy was devel-
oped to accommodate the challenges of urban greenspace de-
sign under a changing climate. The strategy offers a protocol for
planting design that focuses on adding resilience to plantings
rather than matching speciﬁ c plant species to speciﬁ c predic-
tions of climate change. The adaptation strategy begins by rating
locally appropriate plant species on ecological criteria for plas-
ticity, functional redundancy, response diversity, and structural
diversity. The plant palette is then developed within the conﬁ nes
set by ecological value and aesthetic goals, plus cultural and ﬁ -
nancial considerations. Collective application of the strategy at
smaller scales across the urban landscape has the potential to
protect and expand nature corridors that are resilient to climate
change and to provide a low cost version of assisted migration.
Examples of how to apply the adaptation strategy demonstrate
that the approach is not speciﬁ c to place or scale, and does not
require extensive training or bring added expense. The beneﬁ ts
and manageable challenges of the strategy are discussed in rela-
tion to biodiversity conservation, social impact, the opportunity
for “designed” experiments that examine urban ecosystem pro-
cesses, and existing model forecasts for climate change.
KEYWORDS climate change adaptation, urban garden design,
biodiversity conservation, ecological resilience, translational
research, habitat connectivity, ecological urbanism, urban green
space, adaptive design, landscape architecture
Ecosystem- level consequences of climate change are
now well documented. Measureable effects within cities
include warmer average temperatures and greater ex-
tremes in temperature and precipitation, both of which
contribute to changes in the timing of seasons (Hamlet
et al. 2007; IPCC 2007). Beyond the urban environment,
climate change has been associated with shifts in plant
and animal phenology (Parmesan and Yohe 2003; Visser
and Both 2005; Wilson et al. 2007) and in the geographic
distribution of plants and animals (Iverson and Prasad
1998; Parmesan 2006; Walther et al. 2009). The real-
ized impact is evident when comparing the geographic
position of US plant cold hardiness zones in 1990 and
2006 (Figure 1). For example, minimum winter lows in
southeastern Michigan have increased by 5.5°C chang-
ing its hardiness designation from Zone 5b to 6a over a
15- year period. This means that plants that could not
Using Ecological Theory to Guide Urban Planting Design:
An adaptation strategy for climate change
174 Landscape Journal 30:2–11
siter 1996, aka MCR Hunter). As plasticity increases,
plant species can persist under a greater diversity of en-
vironmental conditions and are better able to manage
environmental ﬂ uctuations (Charmantier et al. 2008;
Chown et al. 2007). Plasticity is expressed on multiple
axes including temperature, soil moisture, tolerance of
urban pollution, ﬂ ood and drought, etc. For example,
both American mountain ash (Sorbus americana) and
Pin Cherry (Prunus pennsylvanica) are small trees that
are architecturally striking and offer beautiful colored
berries that are a good food source for birds. However,
American mountain ash has a geographic range that
includes plant hardiness zones 2 through 9 while Pin
Cherry has a much narrower and more northerly range,
conﬁ ned to hardiness zones 2 through 6. Mountain Ash
is capable of thriving under a much wider range of cli-
matic conditions including very warm and very cold
winters. Hence, it has more overwinter temperature plas-
ticity than does Pin Cherry. Plant hardiness zone is also a
proxy for capacity to fare well under lengthened periods
of warm weather given its correlation with latitude.
Ecological resilience is the ability of an ecosystem to
maintain function in the face of environmental dis-
turbance (Elmqvist et al. 2003). Ecosystem resilience
depends on the way that biodiversity is partitioned
relative to ecosystem function and emerges both from
functional redundancy—the number of species con-
tributing to an ecosystem function (Lawton and Brown
1993) and response diversity—the range of reaction
to environmental change among species contribut-
ing to the same ecosystem function (Elmqvist et al.
2003). The combination of functional redundancy and
response diversity acts as an insurance policy in the
face of uncertainty (Yachi and Loreau 1999) and both
are essential when designing for adaptation to cli-
For example, consider a planting design with goals
that include support for generalist pollinators. It is not
enough to simply select a set of plant species that of-
fer nectar—the timing of nectar ﬂ ow must provide re-
global warming and increasingly unpredictable weather
(Dehnen- Schmutz et al. 2010; Marris 2007; Primack and
Miller- Rushing 2009; Wolfe et al. 2004). However, most
adaptation strategies are focused on urban planning
solutions for sea level rise, heat island effects, health
impacts, and water treatment (Blanco et al. 2009).
Guidance on adaptation of urban plant communities
to global climate change remains limited. Most efforts
have focused on methods to assist migration of tree
species in forested landscapes (Aitken et al. 2008). For
urban plant communities, Hunter (2008) proposed
an adaptive strategy for managing aesthetic aspects
of plant selection to safeguard sense of place within a
changing ecological context. This paper builds on those
ideas and offers methods and examples of an adap-
tive strategy to buffer urban plant communities from
the impacts of climate change. The strategy focuses
on planting designs for urban gardens, the dominant
green infrastructure of cities, but can be extrapolated
to programs for larger scale landscape restoration and
assisted plant migration. The adaptive strategy trans-
lates aspects of ecological theory to practical guidelines
for planting design. Because the guidelines promote
greater biodiversity and ecosystem resilience, they also
offer a general roadmap for ecological planting design.
ECOLOGICAL, AESTHETIC, AND CULTURAL
COMPONENTS OF AN ADAPTIVE STRATEGY FOR
URBAN PLANTING DESIGN
Two ecological concepts are fundamental to the adap-
tation strategy proposed here: plasticity and resilience.
A third concept, structural diversity, is also a corner-
stone of good ecological design, whether or not it is in
response to climate change.
Plasticity describes how well species perform across a
range of environmental conditions. Although beyond
the scope of the current discussion, plasticity emerges
from interactions between genetic variation within spe-
cies and the phenotypic plasticity of individuals (Ros-
being in part owing to its role in the construction of
place identity (Hull, Lam, and Vigo 1994). Some plant
species become signatures of place such as palm trees
in warm coastal areas or heather in the Scottish high-
lands. After identifying signature species, alternative
species with broader ecological tolerance but similar
aesthetic presence can be added to planting designs as
an adaptation to climate change (Hunter 2008). For ex-
ample, American Basswood is a native tree commonly
found in urban areas of SE Michigan. This species is
likely to disappear from southeastern Michigan under
several scenarios of climate change (Iverson and Prasad
1998). Its loss will change the sense of place and remove
its functional contribution to local urban ecosystem
processes. An aesthetic and ecological substitute exists
in White Basswood, a congeneric and more southerly
member of the same Central Hardwood forest com-
munity. An adaptive planting design would call for use
of both species to maintain sense of place and support
local ecosystem function throughout the transition
brought on by climate change.
Finally, any discussion of ecological design in the
urban environment must consider the use of non-
native species in planting designs, a subject of conten-
tion among designers and ecologists for practical and
ecological reasons (Gould 1997; Warren 2007). Com-
pelling arguments for the use of native species center
on the reliance of co- evolved community members for
healthy ecosystem function (Tallamy 2009). The bias
favoring introduced ornamental species in garden de-
sign has a longstanding tradition in cultures worldwide
and is related to place identity (for migrant peoples) and
the human desire for novelty (Horwitz, Lindsay, and
O’Connor 2001; Jarvis 1973; Kendle and Rose 2000).
Non- native species that become invasive can have
clear negative impacts on ecosystem structure and
function (Alberti 2005). However, current research on
the utility and harm of using non- native species in ur-
ban settings illustrates the complexity of prescribing a
balance between cultural and ecological goals (Bergerot
et al. 2010; Bjerknes et al. 2007; Burghardt, Tallamy, and
Shriver 2009; Calkins 2005; Daniels and Kirkpatrick 2006;
sources throughout the pollinator season (Hunter and
Hunter 2008). To achieve functional redundancy, the
plant palette must include species with overlapping
bloom times to ensure that there are multiple pollina-
tor resources at any given time. For response diversity,
plants providing pollinator resources must collectively
bring broad competence in the face of environmental
variation. For example, at a single point in the season,
there must be both drought tolerant and ﬂ ood tolerant
plant species providing nectar rewards. The plant pal-
ette shown in Figure 2 provides multiple ﬂ owering spe-
cies in each month of summer (functional redundancy
for pollinator support). Within a functional group (for
example, pollinator resources in July), there is compe-
tence for handling variation in soil moisture (response
diversity). If climate change favors some plant species
at the expense of others, there will still be nectar pro-
vided in each month throughout the pollinator season.
Structural diversity describes the spatial complexity
offered by plant form and is generally applied to a col-
lection of plants, rather than an individual. Diversity
of physical or architectural form within a collection of
plants produces structural diversity. Although struc-
tural diversity is not a direct casualty of climate change,
it ranks high in importance for healthy ecosystem struc-
ture. The physical form of trees, shrubs, and ground-
covers, some deciduous, some evergreen, determines
the availability of shelter and space for organisms to
nest, forage and reproduce throughout the year (God-
dard, Dougill, and Benton 2010). As plants are chosen
to increase plasticity, ensure functional redundancy,
and provide response diversity, they must also provide
diversity in architectural form because structural com-
plexity supports biodiversity (Hansen et al. 1991).
In the design ﬁ elds, there are considerations be-
yond ecological function that demand adaptation strat-
egies for climate change. Chief among these, aesthetic
matching of signature species aims to protect sense of
place under circumstances of change (Hunter 2008).
The urban plant community supports human well
176 Landscape Journal 30:2–11
(USDA- NRCS 2011) was especially useful for data on
plant water requirements. Since adaptation strategies
for climate change must be tailored to local character-
istics (Blanco et al. 2009), the best information on phe-
nology often came from local or regional sources (for
example, Boland, Coit, and Hart 2002; Shaw et al. 2007)
and the Missouri Botanical Garden (2011). When these
sources failed, I drew a consensus from data published
by multiple sources including commercial horticulture
companies (for example, Monrovia 2011).
Coding plasticity characteristics. In addition to hor-
ticultural traits typically used by ecological plant de-
signers, I added plasticity characteristics. The plasticity
traits summarize the capacity of plant species to ac-
commodate variation in temperature, light, soil type,
soil moisture conditions, and bloom period (Table 1).
Based on the number of hardiness zones a species can
occupy, the temperature plasticity trait addresses the
ability of a species to withstand a range of temperatures
and seasonality. Values range from 1 to 8 where higher
values indicate greater plasticity. The soil moisture plas-
ticity trait is the sum of acceptable moisture categories
(dry, moist, and wet) for a given species; values range
from 1 to 3. Higher values indicate greater likelihood
that a species will persist under increased amplitude of
rainfall typical of climate change.
Several other plasticity traits were included in the
database to reﬂ ect challenges faced in urban planting
design, in addition to those of climate change. For each
trait deﬁ ned below, higher values indicate greater ca-
pacity for managing unpredictable variation in condi-
tions of the urban landscape. Light plasticity is the sum
of acceptable light conditions for a species (full sun =
6 or more hours of direct sunlight, partial shade = 2 – 6
hours, full shade = less than 2 hours); values range from
1 to 3. Light plasticity is valuable where climate change
impacts cloud cover and in settings where maturing
shade trees and development alter light availability. The
number of major soil types (clay, loam, and sand) ac-
ceptable to a plant species deﬁ nes soil plasticity; values
range from 1 to 3. The relevance of soil plasticity comes
Heneghan and Hunter 2004; McKinney 2006; Tallamy
and Shropshire 2009), particularly in light of climate
change (Bardsley and Edwards- Jones 2007; Hahs et al.
2009). An adaptation strategy for climate change using
the ecological characteristics described above empha-
sizes the use of native plants, but allows incorporation
of popular non- invasive, non- native ornamental spe-
cies to achieve ecological goals and acknowledge socio-
Assembly of a Plant Database to Enable Adaptive
In brief, the adaptation strategy proposed here for the
design of urban plantings that are resilient to climate
change includes exploiting plasticity in the ecological
traits of plants, in concert with structurally diverse de-
sign that exhibits functional redundancy and response
diversity. Implementation requires a catalogue of horti-
cultural and plasticity traits for commercially available
plants that are appropriate for the region of interest.
Cataloging species in this way provides a structurally di-
verse palette for choosing plants to meet ecological, aes-
thetic, cultural, and ﬁ nancial parameters of a project.
Coding species characteristics. To apply the adap-
tive strategy for planting design, I compiled a list of
plants suitable for urban areas in southeastern Michi-
gan. The majority of species were native to the region.
Some locally popular non- native species that are not
considered invasive (Brooklyn Botanic Garden 2006;
USDA- NISC 2010) and were readily available from
nurseries were included for reasons of practicality
and cost. Coding for each species involved character-
ization of aesthetic features, life history, and ecologi-
cal traits based on data corroborated across multiple
sources (Table 1). Data came from reference books
including Aniski (2008) for perennials, Dirr (1998) for
woody plants, Shaw et al. (2007) for stormwater man-
agement plants, and Darke (2007) for ornamental
grasses. The US Department of Agriculture’s website
selﬁ ng reproduction) and its capacity to accommodate
unpredictable timing of pollinators and other fauna
that use its ﬂ oral resources.
Development of Two Case Demonstrations of Urban
Planting Designs Illustrating Use of Climate Change
Two urban planting design case demonstrations illus-
trate use of the database (see Hunter 2009) in develop-
ing climate change adaptation strategies. The two case
from the reality that soil type is often unknown or the
planting beds are amended with commercial garden soil
mixes that be may unable to ameliorate poor drainage
or mitigate adverse effects of deeper soil layers. Conse-
quently, a high value for soil plasticity indicates greater
likelihood that a plant species will accommodate urban
soil. Bloom period plasticity is the sum of months dur-
ing which a species can produce ﬂ owers; values range
from 1 to 5. Bloom period is a plasticity trait because it
describes the plant’s opportunity for outcrossing (non-
Table 1. List of plant traits for each species entry with efﬁ cient coding conventions; emergent plasticity traits are preceded
by an asterisk.
Plant Type: 1 = tree, 2 = shrub, 3 = flowering herbaceous perennial, 4 = grass/rush/sedge, 5 = fern, 6 = vine, 7 = groundcover,
8 = annual
Persistence: 1 = deciduous, 2 = evergreen, 3 = facultative evergreen ( = semi-evergreen)
Nativity: 0 = not native to US, 1 = US native, 2 = Great Lakes native
Hardiness: USDA (1990) overwintering hardiness zone range; e.g., 4–9 or 4b-9a
*Temperature Plasticity: count number of overwintering hardiness zones
Light Type: F = full sun, PSh = partial shade, Sh = shade
*Light Plasticity: count number of acceptable light types; range = 1–3, least to most plastic
Light preference: notes; e.g., greater blooms in full sun; avoid afternoon sun
Soil Type (if known, preferred condition first): C = clay, L = loam, S = sand, SL = sandy-loam, SCL = sandy-clay-loam
*Soils Plasticity: count number of acceptable soil types; range = 1–3, least to most plastic
Soil pH: AC = acidic (<6.8); ALK = alkaline soil (>7.2); N = neutral (6.8–7.2); sl = slightly
Soil Moisture (if known, preferred condition first): D = dry, DM = dry to moist, MD = moist to dr y, M = moist, MW = moist to wet,
WM = wet to moist, W = wet, WMD = plant do well under all conditions
*Soil Moisture Plasticity: count number of acceptable soil moisture conditions; range = 1–3, least to most plastic
Details on soil moisture needs: preferences, e.g., can handle standing water
Drought Tolerance: 0 = no drought tolerance; 4 = yes; and 1 = low tolerance; 2 = medium tolerance, 3 = high tolerance
Salt Tolerance: ST = salt tolerant; SS = salt sensitive; undocumented for many species
Heat Tolerance: HT = heat tolerant; HS = heat sensitive; undocumented for many species
Typical Height: height range (feet)
Typical Height in bloom: height range (feet)
Typical Width: width range at widest point (feet)
Plant Form: C = columnar, CL = clumped, E = erect, H = horizontal, I = irregular, M = mounded, O = oval, P = prostrate,
Py = pyramidal, R = rounded, S = spreading
Plant Texture: F = fine, M = medium, C = coarse
Foliage Color: B = brown, BG = blue-green, Cr = cream, DG = dark green, G = bright green, Gr = Gray, GrG = Gray Green,
MG = medium green, O = olive, P = purple, PG = pale green, R = red, Si = silver , V = variegated, Y = yellow, YG = yellow-green
Fall Color: B = brown, Cr = cream, DG = dull green, G = green, M = maroon, O = orange, OG = olive, P = purple, R = red,
Sc = Scarlet, Y = yellow, YB = yellow-brown, YG = yellow-green
Bloom Time: Jn = January, F = February, Mr = March, A = April, My = May, Jn = June, Jl = July, Ag = August, S = September,
O = October, N = November, D = December
*Bloom Time Plasticity: count number of months when blooming occurs
Bloom Color: B = blue, Br = brown, Cr = Cream, i = inconspicuous, G = green, L = lavender, O = orange, p = pale, P = pink,
Pr = purple, R = red, Ro = rose, S = silver, W = white, Y = yellow
Fruit/Edible Type: C = cone, B = berry, F = fruit, S = seed
Fruit/Edible Type Color: B = blue, Br = brown, Cr = Cream, G = green, L = lavender, O = orange, P = pink, Pr = purple, R = red,
Ro = rose, S = silver, W = white, Y = yellow
Winter Form: A = architectural (e.g., interesting branching patterns), B = bark of interest, F = fruit thru winter, S = seed head
Wildlife Value: B = bee, Bd = bird, Bf = butterfly, D = deer, Ma = Mammal, Mi = mice, Sq = squirrel
Ecosystem Restorative Value: BT = bioremediation ability, EC = erosion control, NF = nitrogen fixer
Human Health Restorative Value: F = food, HM = herbal medicine, give details
178 Landscape Journal 30:2–11
The following discussions evaluate the two case dem-
onstrations using the criteria of temperature plasticity,
functional redundancy, response diversity, and struc-
Plants chosen for both designs exhibit high tempera-
ture plasticity with overwintering hardiness spanning a
minimum of 5 zones and an average of 6.7 zones. For all
species but one, the most southerly acceptable growing
area is Florida—zones 9 to 10 (Table 2). Use of plants
with this type of plasticity serves as an adaptation strat-
egy for climate change because each species can per-
sist under temperatures typical of the recent past and
under the warmer temperatures predicted in Michigan
under climate change.
In both designs, biodiversity is supported by the simul-
taneous ﬂ owering of multiple plant species that pro-
vide butterﬂ y resources (nectar, pollen, and habitat)
throughout the summer (Figure 5). For Design A, the
period of functional redundancy lasts from July (three
species ﬂ ower in unison) through August (three spe-
cies) and September (three species). By contrast, Design
B expresses greater functional redundancy beginning
in June (four species ﬂ ower in unison) followed by July
(eight species), August (nine species), and Septem-
ber (eight species). Greater functional redundancy for
bird resources exists in Design B compared to Design
A, based on availability of food and year round habitat
from multiple sources (see “totals” for each design in
The occurrence of abnormally high rainfall over several
consecutive years is a likely outcome of climate change,
and it serves to illustrate the capacity of response diver-
sity to protect ecosystem function under a typical out-
come of climate change. Design B is better equipped to
demonstrations illustrate the consideration of ecologi-
cal goals within the context of other cultural and aes-
thetic design goals. Not every design can include all
components of the adaptation strategy but even lim-
ited application is a good starting point and valuable in
the context of a collective effort across neighborhoods
The demonstrations described here involve a type
of space familiar to residents of American cities—the
easement area, the strip of land in front of a house, bor-
dered by the street on one side and the sidewalk on the
other. In addition to the adaptive ecological strategy,
there are additional design criteria typically established
by the client, local government, and designer. In the fol-
lowing example, developed for southeastern Michigan,
the accompanying criteria fall into several groups:
1. Aesthetic: generate a landscape form that is visually
engaging year round.
2. Cultural: select species for low- input management
that do not occupy space between about 1 and 2 m
from the ground to ensure a safety vision zone for
3. Ecological: select species that are drought and salt
tolerant to accommodate lack of irrigation and
winter road salting practices, and that offer food and
shelter for butterﬂ ies and birds.
Selected species must also meet soil type and soil
pH conditions. Over the short term, it is unlikely that
soil pH would experience rapid shift from climate
change (see Brinkman and Sombroek 1996).
Presented below are two designs, which both ad-
dress all design criteria. Design A (Figure 3) includes six
plant species, is easier to install and maintain but does
not implement adaptation strategies and biodiversity
goals as fully as Design B (Figure 4). Design B includes
15 plant species—six from Design A plus nine new ones
(Table 2; complete trait data for these species in supple-
mental Table S1). A comparison of aesthetic presence
and the spatial location of resources also illustrated for
summer (Figure S1) and winter (Figure S2).
Table 2. Plant list for Designs A and B with traits used for plasticity, functional redundancy, and response diversity; ID = iden-
tity in Figures 3 & 4.
Plan ID Common Name Botanical Name Hardiness
A+B CB Coral Bells Heuchera americana
‘Ring of Fire’
4–9 6 MD 2 Jn–Ag
A+B GF Gayfeather Liatris spicata ‘Alba’ 3–8 6 MD 2 Jl–Ag
A+B PC Purple Coneflower Echinacea purpurea 3–10 8 DMW 3 Jl–S
A+B RJ Grey Owl Red Juniper Juniperus virginiana
3–9 7 DM 2 Mr
A+B SU Gro-Low Fragrant
3–9 7 MD 2 A–My
A+B WO White Oak Quercus alba 3–9 7 DMW 3 My
B BS Black Eyed Susan Rudbeckia hir ta
3–7 5 MD 2 Jn–S
B BW Butterfly Weed Asclepias tuberosa 3–9 7 DM 2 Jn–Ag
B IB Indian Blanket Gaillardia aristata 3–10 8 DM 2 Jl–S
B IBB Indian Blanket-Bijou Gaillardia aristata ‘Bijou’ 3–8 6 DM 2 Jl–S
B MG Pink Muhly Grass Sporobolus capillaris /
5–9 5 DMW 3 Jl–S
B SA Stokes Aster Stokesia laevis
5–9 5 MD 2 Jn–S
B SG Switchgrass Panicum virgatum
3–9 7 DMW 3 Ag–S
B TC Threadleaf coreopsis Coreopsis ver ticillata
3–9 7 MD 2 Jn–S
B WC White Coneflower Echinacea purpurea 3–10 8 DMW 3 Jl–S
Figure 1. Shift in plant cold- hardiness
zones between 1990 and 2006. Color
coding relates minimum winter tem-
peratures in increments of 12.2°C
where minimum winter temperature for
Zone 5 = –23.4°C to –26.1°C and Zone
9 = –1.2°C to –3.8°C. (Reprinted from
National Arbor Day Foundation 2006;
updating based on data from 5,000
National Climatic Data Center coopera-
tive stations across the continental
provide pollinator and bird resources despite wet con-
ditions (see “totals” for each design in Figure 6). How-
ever, neither design will reliably provide resources for
pollinators from April through June. The iterative de-
sign process would proceed to add at least one pollina-
tor resource species that ﬂ owers in each of these early
months, is able to grow in wet soils, and fulﬁ lls other
criteria for height, drought, and salt tolerance. For ex-
ample, Showy Evening Primrose (Oenothera speciosa)
fulﬁ lls these criteria during June. A general rule of thumb
for providing response diversity is to choose species at
the outset with the greatest soil moisture plasticity.
180 Landscape Journal 30:2–11
Figure 2. Graphical representations of functional redundancy and re-
sponse diversity for pollinator resources throughout the growing season
with greatest insurance of nectar in July. Bars indicate blooming period.
Moisture requirements range from D = dr y, to M = moist to W = wet soils.
Both designs fulﬁ ll criteria for structural diversity by in-
cluding the architectural form and collective complexity
of a tree, several shrubs, and herbaceous perennials. The
spatial complexity persists year round for both designs,
although Design B offers greater structural diversity
in winter with ﬁ ve species compared to Design A with
three species. In summer, Design B has more structural
diversity owing to a greater range of architectural form
provided by seven additional ﬂ owering perennial spe-
cies. Because all species fulﬁ ll criteria for temperature
plasticity, the reliability of each architectural contribu-
tion to habitat complexity is greater.
Implementation of an adaptation strategy that focuses
on ﬂ exibility rather than accommodation of a speciﬁ c
predicted outcome of climate change is more likely to
be successful (Hallegatte 2009). The adaptive strategy
for climate change presented here provides an approach
to planting design for building resilience of urban eco-
systems in the face of climate change and other distur-
bance, whether natural or anthropogenic. The strategy
emphasizes the creation of planting designs that pro-
vide functional redundancy, response diversity, and
structural diversity. It also emphasizes the inclusion
of plant species that exhibit plasticity, particularly in
response to temperature and rainfall variation. The
ecological framework for planting design can be ap-
plied equally well to new development or to “adaptive”
retroﬁ ts of existing gardens. The adaptation strategy
can be used at many scales—from larger scale projects
such as planting plans for a regional park system or a
citywide pollinator support program, to smaller scale
designs for subdivisions, urban pocket parks, and small
resi den tial gardens.
Benefits and Challenges of the Proposed Strategy
Application of this strategy brings distinct beneﬁ ts and
some manageable challenges described below:
Ecosystem health. Resilience in, or restoration of, even
one ecosystem service, like pollinator habitat, can have
multiplicative effects on ecosystem health owing to the
high degree of dependencies among ecosystem mem-
bers. The adaptation strategy for climate change serves
equally well as a prescription for ecological restoration
because it supports diversity and buffers urban ecosys-
tems from the effects of disturbance. Creating many
small gardens provides the beneﬁ t of enhancing biodi-
versity and ecosystem function citywide or regionally
(Goddard, Dougill, and Benton 2010; Kendal, Williams,
and Williams 2010). With application of the adaptation
strategy to a collective of small spaces, there is poten-
tial to safeguard and enhance a network of urban linked
green space. Greening of cities creates links across
otherwise impermeable barriers to plant and animal
dispersal, thereby supporting both local and regional
environmental health (Angold et al. 2006; Arendt 2004;
Hunter and Hunter 2008; Oprea et al. 2009; Snep et al.
2006; Van Rossum and Triest 2010).
Collective application of the adaptation strategy
to many small gardens across a metropolis also has the
capacity to provide a low cost version of assisted migra-
tion. Assisted migration involves the manual relocation
of species by humans to portions of their expected,
expanded geographic range as predicted by climate
change models. The intervention is valuable because
natural dispersal may not occur with sufﬁ cient speed or
frequency to keep organisms in suitable habitat. Argu-
ments against assisted migration, based on interference
with natural plant communities (McLachlan, Hellmann,
Figure 3. Design A for support of birds and butterﬂ ies using 5 plant species. The illustrative plan view conveys the aesthetic intent and the dia-
grammatic plan view gives species identity (key to abbreviations in Table 2) and the number of individuals that occupy each delineated space. The
planting strip is approximately 30 m × 3 m.
and Schwartz 2007), may not be as relevant in urban
settings where ecosystem processes are already modi-
ﬁ ed. For example, horticultural introduction of species
that can sustain urban conditions typically bypasses or
enhances their natural dispersal capacity. Horticultural
plantings in urban areas have already assisted plant
migration to more northerly reaches (Van der Veken
et al. 2008; Woodall et al. 2010). Therefore, urban areas
may be suitable locations to assess the value of assisted
migration using the adaptation strategy for planting
design. Implementation would require help from the
horticulture industry (Dehnen- Schmutz et al. 2010) and
cooperation from local nursery suppliers.
Biodiversity constraints. The extensive use of highly
plastic species can inadvertently result in lower biodi-
versity in several ways. First, as requirements for plas-
ticity on multiple traits increases, the list of potential
plant species drops. Second, as the use of highly plastic
species increases, there is a drop in the number of spe-
cies available to maintain ecosystem function across a
wide range of environmental variation. Consequently,
biodiversity is best served by choosing plant species
for a given ecosystem function that include a mixture
of highly plastic species and those that contribute to
response diversity by differing in their capacities to
withstand climate extremes. Program goals of a design
project can also result in lower biodiversity. For ex-
ample, site conditions required that all plants for De-
signs A and B are drought and salt tolerant. This caused
a signiﬁ cant reduction in the list of potential plant spe-
cies to meet ecological and aesthetic goals. Compet-
ing demands call for pragmatism, greater creativity to
meet aesthetic goals, and ongoing expansion of the
Aesthetic consideration. It is important to keep aes-
thetic goals in sharp focus if an ecological planting
design is to be culturally accepted and supported (in
other words, sustainable) over the long term (Hunter
2006; Nassauer 1995; Parsons and Daniel 2002). The
adaptive strategy presented here allows aesthetic and
ecological considerations to remain on equal footing.
The approach does not require a modiﬁ cation of the
creative design process, leaving a designer free to create
spatial form, color and texture palettes, and a tempo-
ral sequence of sensory experience. However, the de-
signer must be willing to put more consideration into
the choice of plant species in order to fulﬁ ll eco lo gi-
182 Landscape Journal 30:2–11
understanding of urban ecosystem processes and per-
formance. Implementation of the strategy will pro-
duce experimental plots in the form of garden spaces
to test hypotheses about urban landscape ecological
processes at multiple spatial scales. Collaboration be-
tween designers and ecologists would constitute an
example of “designed experiments” (Felson and Pick-
ett 2005), wherein designers create a product that bal-
ances ecological, aesthetic, and urban functional goals
and is amenable to criteria for hypothesis testing as set
forth by scientists. “Designed experiments” aim to bal-
ance realistic complexity with experimental control.
This is an ideal approach for evaluating the ability of
the adaptation strategy presented here to support resil-
ience of ecosystems impacted by climate change. Post-
occupancy evaluation, a method used by designers and
permitting agencies to evaluate the success of installed
designs, could be used to evaluate the effectiveness of
implementing the climate change adapted planting
design strategy. Collection of scientiﬁ c data will enable
evaluation of hypotheses about the success of the adap-
tation strategy relative to ecological and management
Long term management. Unlike buildings, plants
grow. Consequently, a planting design should include
a management plan to guide future form and function
(Koningen 2004). The potential of climate change to
adjust plant performance makes the provision of man-
agement more critical. Written documentation should
include directives on how to replace a plant species that
does poorly, how to control a plant that begins to out-
compete companion species, and how to add new plant
species as the needs of other ecosystem members (for
example, pollinators, people) become known.
Research Collaboration between Designers and
The work presented here is an example of translational
research, wherein solutions for complex environmen-
tal problems come from connecting scientiﬁ c theory,
concepts, and principles to the design and planning
of the built environment (Musacchio 2008; Hunter
and Hunter 2008). The adaptation strategy for plant-
ing design under climate change offers a foundation
for collaborative work with ecologists to expand our
Figure 4. Design B for support of birds and butterﬂ ies using 15 plant species including 2 cultivars of same species. The illustrative plan view con-
veys the aesthetic intent and the diagrammatic plan view gives species identity (key to abbreviations in Table 2) and the number of individuals that
occupy each delineated space. The planting strip is approximately 30 m × 3 m.
these models exhibit greater uncertainty as variables
related to soil moisture, such as precipitation, cloud
cover, and wind are included (Crimmins et al. 2011;
Troccoli 2010) and as the geographic scale for predic-
tion becomes ﬁ ner (Praskievicz and Chang 2009).
One approach for understanding the nature of fu-
ture climates at ﬁ ner geographic scales (like a state or
city) is to ﬁ nd a climate analog, a present day geographic
location whose weather matches that of the projected
weather patterns in the place of interest. For example,
climate projections were used to identify climate ana-
logs for the states of Michigan and Illinois (Hayhoe et al.
2010). The results show that under a low greenhouse gas
emissions scenario, weather in southeastern Michigan
will be like that of present- day s outhern Ohio in the
near future (2010 to 2039), like that of West Virginia by
goals, the success of biodiversity enhancement in sup-
port of ecosystem functions (like pollination), the ca-
pacity of small linked gardens to serve as vital corridors
for the natural community, etc. Collaborative effort will
reduce the burden of data collection. Adaptive collab-
orative landscape management (Duff et al. 2009) and
citizen science (Bonney et al. 2009) offer approaches for
engaging other user groups and the public at large in
scientiﬁ c data collection.
Prescribing Adaptation Strategies for Uncertain
Models that predict the impact of climate change on
global weather patterns provide an enormously useful
premise for mitigation and adaptation planning (Kling
et al. 2005; Wilby et al. 2009). However, predictions from
Figure 5. Seasonal resource and
aesthetic presence chart for species
in Designs A and B. Bloom time and
ﬂ ower color are shown for butterﬂ y
resources; ﬂ ower and fruit / seed color
and availability are shown for bird
resources. Totals indicate the number
of species / varieties contributing to
functional redundancy in resource
provisioning by month (pollinators) or
184 Landscape Journal 30:2–11
be able to customize plant lists based on projected cli-
mate scenarios and knowledge of current microclimatic
relationships with the land. Third, as forecasting models
are improved and predictions modiﬁ ed, the constitu-
tion of the protective plant palette must be reevaluated.
While the reliability and local speciﬁ city of forecasting
models improve, planting designers and city planners
need immediate guidance in how to plan for ecosystem
resilience in the face of uncertainty about the local im-
pact of climate change. For these reasons, it is efﬁ cient
to use plant overwinter hardiness as the starting point
for selecting an adaptive plant palette. Hardiness data
is universally available and easy to interpret by both ex-
pert and layman.
Despite the perils of using climate predictions
to develop adaptation strategies, countries and com-
munities are developing place- speciﬁ c strategies. For
mid- century, and like that of Tennessee by the end of
the century. Under a high emissions scenario, the cli-
mate analogs are even further south and west. These
predictions provide additional criteria for creating
adaptive plant palettes. For example, a climate adapta-
tion plant list for southeastern Michigan could include
native species that are currently successful in urban
areas of southern Ohio.
This approach to adaptation while promising has
several limitations. First, the application of model pre-
dictions can be used only where downscaled climate
projections are available. Second, the simulation mod-
els, even with downscaling, are insensitive to the impact
of topography and land cover on microclimate at any
given location (Praskievicz and Chang 2009). Since skill-
ful planting designers always account for microclimate
during plant choice, it is conceivable that designers will
Figure 6. Evaluation of response diver-
sity in Designs A and B for year(s) of ab-
normally high rainfall. Shaded squares
indicate the species able to provide
ecosystem services owing to their
ability to sustain themselves through
extended periods with wet soil. Empty
boxes indicate lost ecosystem function
for species that cannot function when
soils remain wet. Soil moisture capacity
for D = dr y, M = moist, W = wet soils.
Projections emerged from coupled atmosphere- ocean
general circulation models (AOGCM) to which statis-
tical downscaling was applied to capture the nuances
of regional- scale change. Descriptions of a few of their
results show how climate change projections might be
used in the development of plant palettes that offer
protection for urban ecosystems in southeast Michigan.
For the near future (2010 to 2039), simulation models
predict that average winter and summer temperatures
in southeastern Michigan will be 2°C warmer com-
pared to average temperatures from 1961 to 1990. Over
this time frame, precipitation is projected to increase 5
to 10 percent (spring) and 0 to 5 percent (summer). In
combination with warmer temperatures, the net effect
will be drier summer weather.
example, policy makers and citizens from the City of
Chicago developed an elegant climate change action
plan based on feasibility and cost / beneﬁ t ratio over the
short and long term (Coffee et al. 2010). At least a half
dozen of the adaptation actions require careful choice of
plant species if they are to be successful. These include
city tree planting, development of a performance- based
landscape ordinance and a single- lot storm ordinance,
green alley design, updating of a recommended plant
list, and urban forest and wetland management plans.
The adaptation strategy for plant selection presented in
this paper offers guidance to help meet these goals.
Such visioning still leaves the problem of what fu-
ture to design for. For the Great Lakes region there are
climate projections at three future time periods and
under two emissions scenarios (Hayhoe et al. 2010).
Figure S1. Summer comparison of aesthetic presence and spatial location of butterﬂ y and bird resources between Design A (above) and Design B
186 Landscape Journal 30:2–11
futures (for example, increased summer ﬂ ooding),
plant selection can be adjusted accordingly within the
framework of local predictions and in light of the gen-
eral goals of the adaptation strategy.
As an antidote to the imprecision of climate change
projections, adaptation strategies should be designed
with built- in ﬂ exibility features for managed ecosys-
tems that combine multiple options for enhancing eco-
system resistance, resilience, and response capacity to
changing conditions (Millar, Stephenson, and Stephens
2007). The adaptation strategy for urban planting de-
sign embraces all of these goals. Resistance (forestall-
ing the undesired effects of change) is facilitated by
designing gardens with season- long diversity in polli-
nator resources with the collective capacity to protect
These speciﬁ c predictions suggest that an adaptive
plant palette for southeast Michigan should be biased
toward species that have greater capacity for spring
ﬂ ooding yet higher drought tolerance. Demonstrations
of how to apply the urban planting adaptation strategy
presented earlier show how to plan for this forecast. The
selected plant palette shown in Table 2 will produce a
garden able to handle drier summer weather (owing to
the criterion for drought resistant species) and wetter
springs (owing to high plasticity for moisture availabil-
ity). Moreover, species plasticity will buffer the garden
from greater year round extreme temperature and rain-
fall events, the types of ﬂ uctuation that accompany the
more gradual shift in average climate parameters (CCSP
2008). For geographic areas with different projected
Figure S2. Winter comparison of aesthetic presence and spatial location of butterﬂ y and bird resources between Design A (above) and Design B
Table S1. Complete trait data for plants used on Designs A and B in spreadsheet format, ready for sor ting
*Soil Moisture plasticity
Details on soil moisture
3 Butter fly
1 2 3–9 7 F–PSh 2 L,S,C 3 AC DM 2 Does well
1 1 3–9 7 F 1 full sun S,L 2 AC MD 2 Thrives in
1 2 3–10 8 F 1 best in
L,S 2 ALK DMW 3 Tolerates
1 1 3–10 8 F 1 full sun S,L 2 AC DM 2 Prefers
1 1 3–8 6 F 1 full sun S,L 2 AC DM 2 Prefers
‘Ring of Fire’
1 2 4–9 6 F–PSh 2 prefers
L,S 2 Neutral MD 2 medium
2 Grey Owl
2 2 3–9 7 F–PSh 2 L,S,C 3 sl
DM 2 Intolerant
3 Blazing Star Liatris
1 2 3–8 6 F 1 L 1 Neutral MD 2 Intolerant
4 Switchgrass Panicum
1 2 5–9 5 F 1 slumps
L,S,C 3 Neutral DMW 3 Flops in
1 White Oak Quercus alba 1 2 3–9 7 F–PSh 2 full sun L,S,C 3 AC DMW 3 Prefers
1 2 3–9 7 F–PSh 2 L,S,C 3 sl AC-
MD 2 Not
3 Black Eyed
1 2 3–7 5 F 1 L,S 2 Neutral MD 2 Best in
4 Pink Muhly
1 1 5–9 5 F 1 L,S,C 3 Neutral-
DMW 3 Tolerates
1 1 5–9 5 F–PSh 2 S,L 2 AC MD 2 Prefers
188 Landscape Journal 30:2–11
Table S1 (cont.). Complete trait data for plants used on Designs A and B in spreadsheet format, ready for sorting
* Bloom Plasticity
1–2.5′1–1.5′E M, C MG Jn–Ag 3 Y, O G Bf architectural
pods in fall
HT 1.5–2′1.5–2′M F MG Jn–S 4 Y Bf adundant pale
2–5′1.5–2′E M DG Jl–S 3 P-Pr S Bd, Bf many cultivars
HT 2–3′2′E–CL M GrG Jl–S 3 R B, Bd,
red petals with
HT 1′1′E–CL M GrG Jl–S 3 R+O B, Bd,
1–2′1′E–CL M BG–Si Jn–Ag 3 pP Bf pale pink bloom
on airy stems;
edge in fall
2–3′4–6′S M GrG–Si Mr 1 i F B-G A Bd, Ma silvery green,
Blazing Star HT 2–4′2′E F MG Jl–Ag 2 W Bd, Bf flowers as
like foliage on
Switchgrass 3–6′2–3′E–CL F MG–P O, R, Y Ag–S 2 P A,
Bd, Ma lovely winter
White Oak 50–80′50–80′Py C BG R My 1 i S Br A,
Bd, Ma handsome
1.5–2′6–8′R, S M MG O, R A–My 2 i F R F Bd, Bf
2–3′1–3′E M MG,
Jn–S 4 Y S B, Bd,
HT 2–3′2–3′E–CL F MG O, B Jl–S 3 P A,
HT 1–2′1.5–2′M F DG Jn–S 4 B Bf
effectiveness. Climate change is not waiting, so neither
Research was supported with a grant from the US Forest Service
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AUTHOR MaryCarol Hunter is a licensed landscape architect and
research ecologist. She has an MLA from the University of Geor-
gia and a PhD in Ecology from SUNY Stony Brook. She worked in
the academy as an ecologist for 15 years and for several years
at the University of Georgia as landscape architect faculty. Since
2006, she has been a member of the landscape architecture
faculty at the University of Michigan. Current research concerns
design strategies to support the ecological integrity of metropoli-
tan areas, the role of urban nature on wellbeing, and the role of
residential vegetation on energy costs.
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