In Memoriam: Mark Simmons

September 21, 2015 at 1:05 pm

By Christine Thuring

Dr. Mark Simmons, director of the Ecosystem Design Group at The University of Texas at Austin Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, died August 31, 2015 in Austin, Texas due to complications from battling leukemia.


Dr. Mark Simmons. Photo: The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin.

Within the trans-disciplinary green roof community, Mark Simmons held the torch for Ecology.  With degrees in Environmental Science (BSc University of Lancaster), Botany (BSc and MSc, University of Cape Town), and Rangeland Ecology and Management (PhD, Texas A&M University), his perspective of all landscapes was unwaveringly ecological.  As an ecologist, botanist and environmental consultant, Mark brought unique insights to the professional circles in which his expertise was valued.

When asked to design a green roof that would blend a private home into the landscape, the project was taken as a challenge in habitat creation: to successfully replicate the rare Blackland prairie native to this region. Bercy Chen Studio collaborated with the Lady Bird Wildflower Center to reintroduce over 40 native species of wildflowers and grass to preserve the local ecosystem on the Edgeland House.

Edgeland House, Austin, Texas. Photo: Bercy Chen Studio.

Similarly, Mark and his team assisted Michael Van Valkenburg Associates on the landscape surrounding the Bush Presidential Center, maximizing not only the beauty and recreational value of this 1,500-acre landscape but also the environmental benefits: native plants and turf, restored plant communities, wildflower meadows, rain gardens, biofiltration basins, wetlands, bioswales.


Bush Presidential Center, Dallas, Texas. Photo: Bush Presidential Center.

Mark Simmons made important contributions to our understanding of extensive green roof performance in arid climates.  In addition to researching the usual metrics of stormwater and thermal performance, he worked towards the development of a green roof substrate comprising sustainable materials and screened many native plants.

“He was a lovely man and he made important contributions to our understanding of extensive green roof performance in arid climates.” ~ Steven Peck, Green Roofs for Healthy Cities

At the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University, Mark taught university and professional courses on ecological landscape design and restoration ecology. For the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), he wrote the Sustainable Sites protocol, and won the Honor Award from the ASLA 2013 Professional Awards for developing a native seed mix as a sustainable alternative to traditional lawns (“The Lawn is Dead — Long Live the Lawn“).  Dr. Simmons led the study comparing bermudagrass to seven native grass species at the University of Texas at Austin’s Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center; click to see the press release.  He has also demonstrated the value of prescribed fire for restoring landscapes.

InMemoriam-DrMarkSimmons-NativeTurfStudy-The LadyBirdJohnsonWidlflowerCenter

Photo: The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin.

Beyond his contributions to science, society and the natural world, Mark’s greatest gift to us may be his example of making the most of life.  Anyone who has met Mark in a social setting will recall his engaging communication skills, whether philosophizing or story-telling, not to mention his terrific laugh.  His love of music, fearless pursuit of health and vitality, appreciation for art and design, awe of the beauty of nature, and general joie-de-vivre kept him young at heart.  His untimely death is an urgent reminder of the briefness of our precious human life.  For those of us imbued with passion to make the world a better place for future generations, Mark would undoubtedly be pleased to serve as inspiration and motivation to drive us towards realizing these dreams and visions.


Dr. Mark Simmons. Photo: The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center has a lovely In Memoriam for Dr. Simmons; here’s an excerpt:

“A dynamic leader, Mark led research and design projects at the Wildflower Center focused on restoring landscapes and urban green spaces to improve their environmental benefits. Among his research accomplishments were the most comprehensive study of the impact of commercial vegetated roofs…Mark was passionate about the role that landscapes can play in improving our lives, particularly in urban environments. In November 2013, he delivered a TEDx talk on the topic. One of his goals was to bring prairies into the city, and he worked toward the day that our cities would be home to the largest expanse of Blackland Prairie, a highly endangered ecosystem.

He is survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters. He will be sorely missed. To share your memories of Mark, please visit HERE.” ~ Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Watch his 16:12 “Eco-metropolis: Deploying the Power of Nature: Mark Simmons at TEDxCongressAve” below:

Publisher’s Note:  Mark was an extremely talented individual who will be sorely missed by his family and colleagues, and we send our condolences to all.  Along with Christine Thuring, Mark participated in our second Greenroofs and Walls of the World™ Virtual Summit 2013.  Their 3:00 Inspiration Nook video proposed:

“Now that we are an urban species, we are ever more compelled to create and regenerate urban ecological function to maintain global sustainability, human health and our relationship to the natural world.  But is ecological function really being prioritized and implemented in our cities?  Are methods and technologies like green roofs, living walls, water sensitive designs and natural green space being as widely used as they could be?  If not, what’s holding it up?

This short video gives a brief introduction to urban ecology and presents a case for collaborative ecological urban design towards an optimistic future for our cities and planet.” ~ “Upping the Urban Green.  What is the Actual and Potential Role of Ecology in our Cities?” by Dr. Mark Simmons and Christine Thuring

Watch it below:

We invite you to share your impressions and memories of Mark – please add your comments, too.

In memoriam,

~ from Christine, Linda, and the community