Landscape Horticulture: Cultivating a Humane Environment

Physiological measurements can reveal how individuals experience and react to plants.

Photo provided by Andy Kaufman

A 2011 University of Chicago study finds that Research Scientist is among the 10 most enjoyable and satisfying jobs in the world, with more than 50 percent reporting that they are very happy in their work. But how many researchers can say their laboratory smells like a bright spring day after rain? Step into Dr. Andy Kaufman’s lab, and you’ll find an oasis out of the ordinary. The air is fresh, gently humidified by dozens of green, graceful houseplants. Your lungs expand gratefully as your shoulders relax. This harmonious physical and emotional reaction illustrates how plants and landscapes can transform the human environment, and it’s a key research focus for Andy, who leads a unique landscape horticulture program at UH Mānoa’s Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences (TPSS).

Kaufman group

Members of the Kaufman lab share their space with an assortment of lush potted plants. In this 2010 photo, the lab includes Dr. Andy Kaufman, Dr. Sangmi Lee (Korea), Alberto Ricordi (Brazil), Roxanne Adams (Molokai, HI), Tim Gallaher (Kaneohe, HI), Aliah Irvine (Waianae, HI), and Aarthi Padmanabhan (India). Photo provided by Andy Kaufman

Students and researchers in the Tropical Landscape and Human Interaction Lab study the connection between plants, the outdoor landscape, and the responses that vegetation and designed outdoor spaces evoke in people. This interdisciplinary approach reveals that the presence of ornamental or natural plants can provide a demonstrable improvement in an individual’s sense of physical and psychological well-being. By measuring heart rate, brain waves, facial muscle activity, and skin conductance, lab members can quantify the positive or negative impact of a given environmental stimulus, revealing deep-seated human reactions to foliage color, pruning techniques, and green roof technologies that can help shape practices in the landscape industry. Outside the laboratory, a pilot study on how plants affect the learning environment in high-school math classes found that students in classrooms with plants had statistically fewer disciplinary incidents, performed better on standardized tests (though not to the level of statistical significance), and reported less stress, greater comfort, fresher air, and improved concentration.

Plant-rich landscape design isn’t just good for your head; it also protects the planet. Through shade and evaporative cooling, trees cut air conditioning costs and energy consumption while chewing up carbon dioxide and spitting out oxygen for us to breathe. Vegetation can also be used as a buffer to protect low-lying coastal areas from wave damage. The Kaufman lab is working to identify alternative plants that can replace invasive species in landscaping and investigating the use of native plants as bioshields against tsunamis and storm surges.

TPSS baccalaureate and graduate education opportunities in landscape horticulture benefit from our state’s unique geography and incomparable climate. Through lecture, graphics studio, and hands-on instruction, students can learn the history, theory, and practice of landscape architecture and master the skills needed to design, draw, install, and maintain tropical landscapes. In 2002, Hawai‘i’s landscape services industry employed about 10,000 people and had an annual value conservatively estimated at $490 million, worth two-thirds of agriculture’s contribution to that year’s state domestic product. If you want to be part of this growing (and greening) industry, consider a career that combines the beauty and warmth of the tropics with the creative, commercial, and horticultural challenges of environmentally and economically sustainable landscape design.