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A Brief History of Irrigation

Lush, verdant landscapes are a cornerstone of Optima communities. We’ve spent years of research and application honing our landscaping, arriving today at an innovative vertical planting system that incorporates self-containing irrigation and drainage. But just what is irrigation, why is it so important and how did we arrive at this solution? Today, we’re taking a closer look at the history of irrigation.

While our own landscaping research has gone on for decades, the history of irrigation dates back at least 8,000 years. The earliest known systems of irrigation originated in Egypt and Mesopotamia in 6,000 B.C. Fighting against the flooding of the Nile several months each year, ancient civilizations pioneered a technique to divert flood waters to nearby crop fields, thereby utilizing excess flood water for crops that would otherwise be difficult to grow due to lack of resources.  

This ancient technique is credited as the basis of agricultural economies and societies across the world. As the process of applying controlled amounts of water to plants at needed intervals, irrigation aids in growing agricultural crops and maintaining vegetation in a way that conserves water, preserves soil nutrients and saves time and energy. 

Before the Egyptian and Mesopotamian approach, primitive irrigation likely involved laborers carrying buckets of water from rivers and wells to water their crops. Increased innovation to control water flow where desired included innovations such as irrigation canals, dams, dikes, aqueducts and water storage facilities. 

Nowadays, modern irrigation systems have evolved to include reservoirs, tanks and wells, with reservoirs serving to collect water from natural sources such as lakes and rainwater runoff. As our global agricultural output continues to rise, irrigation protects against droughts and famines, ensuring successful and widespread crop yields. 

Self-contained Irrigation at Optima Sonoran Village
Self-contained Irrigation at Optima Sonoran Village

At Optima Kierland Apartments and Optima Sonoran Village, our self-containing irrigation and drainage system enables a palette of vibrantly colored plants at the edge of each floor to grow both up and over the edge of the building, culminating in a beautiful rooftop garden. Thanks to the innovations of many civilizations before us, these gardens are easy to maintain, and a beautiful natural respite for all our residents to enjoy.

The History of Landscape Design

Landscape design is an integral part of our communities, from our signature vertical landscaping system to intentionally designed sculpture gardens. Each element in our terraces, courtyards and gardens is placed with careful consideration for the aesthetic, function and enjoyment of our residents — inspired by the thought and evolution of centuries of landscape design that came before us. Today, we’re diving deep into that history of landscape design to understand where the craft came from, and where it’s at today.

Ancient Origins of Landscape Design

At the core of landscape design’s history is agricultural development. Beauty and aesthetic function evolved from there, with ancient Japanese gardens designed to facilitate meditation and spiritual connection and ancient Chinese gardens designed as both reflective and social spaces. The two marked features of landscape design are softscaping, utilizing living elements such as trees and flowers, and hardscaping, utilizing non-living additions such as water features, paths, statues and patios. In Japanese gardens, water features were often incorporated in hardscaping while in Chinese gardens, the plants in softscaping often had symbolic, spiritual meaning.

Popularization of Landscape Design

Despite these ancient origins likely dating even further back, the earliest recorded example of landscape design is said to be the Hanging Gardens of Babylon from the 6th century BC. Even then, landscape design isn’t said to have been popularized until it reached the ancient Romans. Their accreditation for the landscape design’s rise is due in part to the fact that they transformed it from something only done for the elites to a practice applied in every home garden. 

From the ancient Romans, landscape design lost momentum during the Middle Ages and was rediscovered by Italy, France and England, respectively, in the 17th century, and was applied to elaborate piazzas, ornate gardens, large parks and even Versailles. The 17th century also saw the rise of cottage-style landscape design, a compact form of gardening that would eventually serve as inspiration for modern day suburban landscaping.

Landscape design at Optima Camelview Village
Landscape design at Optima Camelview Village

Landscape Design in the US Today

In the late 19th century, Frederick Law Olmstead became known as the “Father of American Landscape Architecture.” His aesthetic incorporated sweeping lawns into building design, influencing the US Capital, Central Park in NYC and city planning in Chicago and Cleveland. In 1988, Olmstead founded the American Society of Landscape Architects and classes in the field began to be offered at Harvard in 1900. 

Between evolving urban and suburban landscapes, people’s desire for increased, organized greenspace led to the development of highly evolved outdoor landscaping, gardens and living spaces. The landscape design at Optima reflects this highly evolved trend, incorporating terraces, courtyards, green rooftops and gardens to provide our residents with ways to connect their living spaces with the natural world.

You can learn more about the landscape design at Optima in our green space spotlights on Optima Kierland Center and Optima Sonoran Village.

A Brief History of The Courtyard

An iconic architectural design feature of many Optima projects, the courtyard is a long-beloved piece of home and history. A space designed for peace, socializing and beauty, the courtyard has a rich history that has led to its modern interpretations. 

It’s estimated that the first courtyard houses made an appearance around 6000BC in the Jordan Valley, used for purposes ranging from cooking, sleeping, working, gardening or even housing animals. Before courtyards, open fires were used within a central place in a home, with a small hole in the ceiling for the smoke to escape. Gradually, the holes became larger and evolved into open courtyards more similar to what exists today. 

Courtyards are an iconic staple in many cultures throughout the world, though they vary in style and function. The central uncovered area in Roman architecture was referred to as an atrium, and would often contain a central pool used to collect rainwater and a garden. In China, the courtyard was a central space for multiple homes and families, and used as a place for privacy and tranquility. The medieval European courtyard was used for working, gathering and protection. With such a rich and diverse history, it’s no surprise that the courtyard continues to withstand the test of time. 

A courtyard at one of the Optima homes in Arizona.

Traditionally, courtyard homes are prevalent in temperate climates, since the open space helps maintain a cool temperature. To take advantage of the functional and aesthetic benefits of the courtyard, many of our Arizona projects feature courtyard greenspaces. Our Arizona Courtyard House is even named after the feature that makes it unique; outside and inside flow together to create a seamless layout and beautiful views of the landscape.  The home is arranged with the main house to the south and east, and a fitness center and lap pool to the north creating a private courtyard in the center.

The essence of a courtyard is the physical expression of the concept of connection, and ours are built with the hope that they will provide a peaceful oasis in which residents can reconnect to their friends, family and the surrounding environment.

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Glencoe, IL





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