Urban meadow and security landscaping at Austin forensics center and police station

How many police stations have landscaping like this? I spotted this raised meadow while driving through East Austin recently and slammed on the brakes to get a better look.

From the street — 812 Springdale Road, in the Govalle neighborhood — you see this along one side of the property: rolling berms with a rusty steel edge resembling rounded waves.

To the left of the berms is the raised meadow, laid out in a contemporary pattern that radiates outward in concentric arcs.

When you walk into the space, it becomes more maze-like, with paths that turn back on themselves as you search for the center.

You have to work your way there…

…where you find built-in benches…

…overlooking what must once have been an intentional water feature but is now just a stagnant, icky pool that’s probably breeding mosquitoes. Maintenance is always crucial to a garden’s survival, and this one seems to be getting just a mow-and-blow treatment these days.

But still, it’s a cool design. I was intrigued!

What’s this unique landscaping doing outside a police substation and forensics center? I went online to find out and learned that the facility was constructed in 2004 with a friendly face for the surrounding neighborhood (you’d never know there was a blood-spatter analysis room and a firing range inside), replacing an older police station surrounded by a blight of security fencing.

Instead of ugly fencing, security from vehicular attack (car bombs? ramming?) is now achieved through defensive landscaping — the rolling berms and elevated, steel-edged meadow.

As TAG International, the design team, explains:

“Security was a major design priority, with the goal of achieving a high level of threat resistance without projecting an unwelcoming image. Many passive security strategies were utilized to deliver heightened security without diminishing the center’s friendly presence in the neighborhood….Landscape features were also designed to protect the facility through the utilization of berms as further vehicle impediments.”

As it happens, this is more than just an updated version of a moated castle.

The landscaping is also a public arts project — and the elevated meadow of native plants is arranged in a fingerprint design as a tribute to the investigative work performed at the police station and forensics center. Cool, huh?

According to the public art directory at NowPlayingAustin, the project is titled “Elevated Prairie”:

“To complement the function of the facility, this earthwork consists of a simple labyrinth in the shape of a fingerprint, composed of low, steel-walled planters landscaped with native Texas grasses. At the center of the ‘fingerprint’ is a small fountain, surrounded by a seating area. Beyond the central planters is an area of low, rolling berms, which echo the fingerprint pattern and radiate across the remaining common lawn areas of the site. Medium: Steel planters, fountain, earth berms, and native landscaping”

Here’s another look at the street view — definitely eye-catching!

The native-plant meadow, while degraded through lack of real gardening attention, is still attractive thanks to the strong bones of the design and regular mowing. Although the planters are overrun with weeds, some of the original native plants are still blooming, like mealy blue sage, attracting butterflies and bees.

Native plants also make up the more traditionally designed foundation plantings around the facility, including bur oak, American beautyberry, and dwarf yaupon. While a bit overclipped, these are holding up well, proving that native shrubs and trees — just like non-native shrubs and trees — are easier to maintain than more gardener-needy perennials, annuals, and ornamental grasses, wonderful as those are.

Do you know of any other defensive landscaping efforts in your city? I’m intrigued by this, and it’s so much more attractive than concrete bollards, a row of boulders, and other typical security landscaping measures.

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.

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23 Responses

  1. No defensive landscaping in my town. I haven’t seen it any other place. I have seen something like this online. I thought you would say you had shown this before but not so. I guess I saw it someplace else. I will let you know if I ever figure it out.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Lisa, I did run across this landscaping at least 10 years ago, probably not long after it was planted. I’d forgotten about it until I came across it again. But I don’t believe I’ve ever posted anything about it before. —Pam

  2. What an intriguing and creative design! Too bad it doesn’t get more maintenance. Maybe a local gardening group can adopt it?

  3. Kris P says:

    How clever! A former employer, a local aerospace company, has been debating security fencing for its perimeter for almost as long as I can remember but has held off partly out of a concern with transforming the campus-like atmosphere into a prison atmosphere. Something like this might offer an acceptable middle ground.

  4. Oh, this is very interesting. So well done, except of course for the upkeep. i can’t think of any new buildings here that would have gotten this sort of treatment, it’s more a case of old buildings getting big planters moved into place (best case) or just bollards (worst case).

  5. Alison says:

    I haven’t seen this defensive landscaping anywhere around here. The combination police station/fire station in my little town is nicely landscaped though, with a little pond and a rain garden.

  6. I’m so glad you shared this Pam as I’ve never heard of defensive landscaping before reading your post. It is really clever and refreshing to see a municipality doing some research into alternative methods to address an issue. Shoot, even the fact that they use native plants is amazing. Someone in their organization or town must be a gardener.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Because it’s partly a public arts project, I suspect it got more than the usual cursory treatment. All new municipal buildings in Austin must have some sort of public art. What’s especially nice about this example is they combined that with the security that the building also required. —Pam

  7. Karen Miller says:

    I didn’t know about the shape of the plantings in the fingerprint design. that is cool!

  8. Judy Baumann says:

    It almost makes me want to drive over there and start pulling weeds. But somehow I don’t think that would be the right approach.
    What can be done?
    Anyone have any suggestions?
    Maybe the Master Gardener Group could add it to their list of volunteer opportunities.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      One would hope the people in the neighborhood would reach out to APD to see about helping, especially since the landscaping was meant to help the facility look neighborhood friendly. —Pam

  9. paula says:

    I’m with Judy B–I’d think a number of people would love to volunteer. But, considering this is a city building, there’s probably some stoopid ordinance about non-union people stepping on union toes. I love when there are surprises ans secrets like the fingerprint design.

  10. Melody McMahon says:

    Pam, so glad you stumbled across this interesting landscape and shared it with us all! Leave it to someone in Austin to come up with a clever way to get around the default of using an ugly fence! And thanks for the background info too. Landscape as a defense wasn’t something I’d thought about before.
    I know how hard it is to get volunteers but maybe a neighborhood group could be rallied by going to the newspaper and doing a story about it. If the weeds were pulled 3-4 times a year that would go a long way to keeping up the planters. Go natives!

  11. What a fascinating post, Pam. I can’t think of any place nearby that needs defensive landscaping but I’m truly interested to learn about the idea.

  12. Lynn says:

    This is intriguing, Pam, and seemingly unique. When I did a google search for defensive landscaping, the results were evenly divided between survivalist websites and homeowners arming their landscape with thorny plants to keep burglars away. I wonder what type of firm did this ingenious design? Thanks for sharing – I’ll never look at berms and steel planters in quite the same way :-)

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Tag International is the design firm behind the project, Lynn. In a pdf about the project, they say: “Austin was the first city in Texas to mandate works of art to accompany city construction projects. As a part of Austin’s ‘Art in Public Places’ program, a unique work of art adorns the front of the facility: a collection of native plants arranged in the shape of a fingerprint. A team of artists crafted this labyrinth of spiraling metalclad planters that change with the season. TAG’s design team worked closely with the artists in a collaborative effort to integrate the art with the landscape and building design.” —Pam

  13. Lara Leaf says:

    When I first saw ‘defensive landscaping’, my first thought was cactus or holly plants or some thorny type of plant outside the windows. I see how this would keep out any cars wanting to ram into that building. Yes, it is unique but it seems they went to a lot of trouble and money (those metal planters!) to implement it without any real thought to the future upkeep. If all they wanted to keep cars from ramming (is that a reoccurring ‘thing’?), they could have put nice concrete balls out (or other nice barriers) and put loose shrubs and things around them. Something easy to maintain. I do applaud unique outside public design but only if it will be maintained. Otherwise, it just becomes an eyesore – might as well have put up fencing.
    I hope a gardening group will take on this project. The pond would most likely have to go. Who wants to take on the upkeep of a public pond like that?!
    I hate to be such a nay-sayer. This reminds me of the type of thing you would see on those shows on HGTV on Curb Appeal or something. You see all the work and money going into the yard – and know it will look just as bad as before within a few months. If the owners really wanted a nice yard and willing to put in the effort, they would have made it so before.
    When I see designs like these, I wonder about the designing firm responsible. Did they just want the money or did someone have a design they wanted done and photographed when newly completed for their portfolio. And really – benches in the heat-sink that it looks to be? Beyond the first day or so, I bet no one has been out to sit on the benches since. If the firm was local and still designed such a heat trap, they should be run out of town. Surely for around the same amount of money, many unique defensive designs could have been used, designs that also observed the climate there and looked good year-round.

  14. […] love seeing public art — sculpture, murals, earthwork, any kind! — and often drag family members out to see new […]