What Do You Think About Steps, If You Think of Them At All?


Frederick Law Olmsted is often cited as being the father of American landscape architecture. He created many iconic spaces in the Northeast, and throughout the country, including New York’s Central Park and Boston’s Franklin Park.  His design philosophy involved taking advantage of the natural features of a space, and many landscape architects continue to follow in his footsteps.

During the summer, we all like to spend as much time as possible outside, and creating the perfect environment for our outdoor activities can be a lot of work. Many of our clients have beautifully maintained landscaping surrounding their homes, designed by one of the area’s many talented landscape designers. Quite often you find that lakeside homes are situated on steep lots, and one thing that I notice in particular when I see the walkways surrounding a home, is how the steps or stairs blend into the environment.  Steps are an important feature, and it is interesting to me how landscapers address the issue.

Some of the steps I see are very artistic, using natural stones that blend into the landscape, but usually I feel that they are a bit difficult to navigate. The treads are often different dimensions and the rise also varies from step to step. You have to pay attention, and you really want to stay away from them in the dark.

My main thought on the subject is that, first and foremost, steps need to be functional, and sometimes these natural steps don’t make that a priority. However, for a professional opinion I spoke with Jim Anderson recently, from JCB Designscapes, to get his perspective on the matter. Jim made an excellent point. While he agreed with my principle regarding functionality, he says that the location of the steps and their intended use really should influence their design.

For example, for a main entry-way that is used every day in all types of conditions (light, dark, inclement weather), “you don’t want to be guessing how high and wide each step might be”. In this case he feels that dimensional granite steps are a great option in many locations, providing a beautiful look, practicality and a good value. However, on a garden path that will primarily be used in good light and weather conditions, like on a wonderful, summer day, you can be more non-traditional and use natural stone with more variation.

That makes perfect sense, and I have a great appreciation for those who can turn the blank canvas of the natural terrain into a beautiful (and functional) work of art.  It’s no wonder that Frederick Law Olmsted coined the term landscape architecture for his trade. Just like designing a building, the craft of designing landscape is a combination of the functional, practicality of an engineer and the creative mind of an artist. And the best creations will endure.

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