What Is Hardscaping? Is It Sustainable?

With the right materials and a creative design, hardscaping can be done sustainably.
A permeable parking lot with grass growing between pavers.
A permeable parking lot with grass growing between pavers. Ekspansio / Getty Images
Hardscaping refers to non-organic features of a landscape such as pathways, decks, driveways, patios, walls, steps, and other human-made structures. Sustainable hardscaping may involve eco-friendly materials and a landscape layout that supports local wildlife and reduces pollution. This means there are ways to lower your impact on the environment without sacrificing your landscaping goals.

Benefits of Sustainable Hardscaping

Hardscaping of nearly any sort can have numerous sustainability benefits. You can also take specific measures to add even more environmental pros.

Replace Lawns

Modern front garden with decorative gravel
U. J. Alexander / Getty Images

Lawns are monocultures, reducing the potential biodiversity of your yard. Grass is the most irrigated crop in the United States, requiring an estimated 9 billion gallons of water per day.

With hardscaping, you’ll be less tempted to spread fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides that end up running into the local water system, leaching into the groundwater, or harming native wildlife.

Use Locally-Sourced Materials

Hardscape is almost always sourced from local quarries, due to the high cost of shipping heavy materials with a relatively low market value. This means lower carbon emissions in transportation.

Use Less Water

Hardscaping is often integrated into xeriscaping🎐—landscaping with minimal or no use of water other than what nature provides—which can save hundreds of gallons of water annually and reduce the carbon emissions used to provide that water cleanly.

Reduce Stormwater Runoff

Hardscapes can all too easily increase rainwater runoff and soil erosion. Sustainable hardscapes, however, use permeable hardscaping materials that allow water to drain into the soil, not the sewer. Excess rainwater runoff taxes municipal treatment systems and washes toxins into waterways.

Lower Garden Maintenance

Senior lady reading book in garden
Justin Paget / Getty Images

Americans spend an average of two hours per day on lawn and garden care, according to the latest American Time Use Survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics𝐆 Yet little maintenance is needed for a hardscaped area. That often means fewer fossil fuels used to run lawnmowers, weed wackers, leaf blowers, and other garden equipment.

Reduce Ice Build-up

Because sustainable hardscaping allows stormwater to drain into the soil, there is often less ice formation on hardscaping in regions with cold winters. This means safer walkways or driveways, and a reduced need for salt for de-icing.

Sustainable Hardscaping Tips

A pebble pathway in a backyard garden.
owngarden / Getty Images
The three R’s common to many sustainability efforts apply to hardscaping: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Add “support local wildlife” to that list, and you're fully prepared for sustainable hardscaping.

Reduce Runoff and Erosion

You can reduce stormwater runoff by using permeable pavers, gravel🍰, or other materials that allow rainwater (and oxygen) to precipitate into the soil below. Permeable pavers aren’t suitable for all landscapes, however. They are set into multiple layers of sand, gravel, and other aggregate material that allow stormwater to drain adequately. Because the sub-base of the pavers is dug deeper than non-permeable pavers, installing them under a tree canopy can disturb or even destroy roots that keep trees healthy and upright.

When impermeable surfaces are used, intersperse them with permeable ones, such as gravel pathways. A ribbon driveway allows grass or other vegetation to grow between the paved surfaces that are driven on. You can also gradually slope any impermeable surface so that rainwater drains away from the street and into your garden beds or into a rain garden.

Adding a rain barrelꦿ reduces water loss and soil erosion even further.

Use Recycled Materials

Consider using materials that are recycled from reclaimed concrete, glass aggregates, or other construction materials that might otherwise end up in a landfill. Many landscaping suppliers sell recycled hardscaping materials, but your local landfill might sell other usable materials as well. Recycling materials can also be used to make garden walls, fire pits, raised beds, walkways, and other structures. Pavers can be made of natural materials such as clay, as well.

Did You Know?

Concrete is made of aggregate material, water, and cement. Cement production is the largest single manufacturing source of greenhouse gases, emitting roughly 8% of the world’s annual CO2 emissions.

Wooden structures like raised beds or decks can be made from recycled or reclaimed woodꦆ. You can also use felled logs—stained or otherwise preserved—hollowed out as planters, or as borders for patios, paths, sandboxes, or garden beds. Just be sure your wood isn’t treated with toxic chemicals, especially if you grow food near it.

Support Local Wildlife

Littlebourne, Kent, England, UK. 26 April 2021. Common blackbird chick being fed my female parent
© Ian Laker Photography / Getty Images

Using permeable hardscape makes the soil below conducive to subterranean life, whether that’s earthworms, ground-nesting bees and other beneficial insects🥃, important microorganisms, and plant roots—all essential to any healthy ecosystem. More life lives below the soil than lives above it.

Between hardscaped areas, plant garden beds with native trees, shrubs, and perennial flowers to create wildlife habitats and attract pollinators.

Use irregularly shaped flagstones with unpaved spaces between them to allow for drainage, then plant moss phlox (Phlox subulata), wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana), Canby’s mountain lover (Paxistima canbyi♛) or other low-growing native plants in between the flagstones to fill in unpaved spaces and keep weeds from establishing.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What's the difference between hardscaping and landscaping?
    Landscaping broadly refers to the changes to and design plans made for an outdoor space. Hardscaping specifically refers to those non-organic changes to a landscape; this includes human-made structures such as pathways, patios, gravel, and more.
  • What's the difference between hardscaping and softscaping?
    Softscaping includes organic additions to a landscape, such as grass, gardens, trees and shrubs, and related maintenance. Hardscaping includes non-organic additions, such as building a deck or patio or creating wooden or gravel walkways.
  • Do permeable pavers require more maintenance than non-permeable ones?
    Permeable pavers are often easier to repair because each paver is separate. They also require to de-ice the surface because ice build-up occurs less frequently. You may need to replace the “dust” between permeable pavers more frequently than the dust between impermeable ones.
  • Do permeable pavers cost more than concrete?
    The upfront cost of concrete is definitely cheaper than permeable pavers, but the maintenance costs may be higher. Pavers can ; concrete lasts 25 to 30 years. And given the greater design choices and curb appeal of pavers, they can add greater resale value to a home.
View Article Sources
  1. C. Milesi, S.W. Running, C.D. Elvidge, J.B. Dietz, B.T. Tuttle, R.R. Nemani. “Mapping and modeling the biogeochemical cycling of turf grasses in the United States.” Environmental Management♑, 36 (3) (2005), pp. 426-438.; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Outdoor Water Use in the United States.” .

  2. U. S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. “—2019 Results” (June 25, 2020).
  3. Andrew, Robbie M. “Global CO2 emissions from cement production, 1928–2018.” Earth System Science Data෴ 11 (2019), 1675–1710. //doi.org/10.5194/essd-11-1675-2019.