Context in design means that we place our work within the framework of our surroundings, that we try to give it a distinction based upon the sense of place in which we are working. Design of a site should be understood within a holistic context of its natural and cultural setting. While this may seem like a simple precept, the globalization of design elements and styles, and the standardization of nursery and plant stock, work against its accomplishment.

First, we would like to fit our design to the bioregion in which it is located. This approach suggests that we have a good understanding of the region's geology, physiography, climate, soils, plant communities, habitats, history and culture. The natural landscapes of the region give us clues to successional processes that we may emulate. The cultural landscapes provide us with clues to past use of land and materials to meet the needs of people. With a background in natural and cultural processes we will be better able to develop sustainable design solutions.

At the next level, we want to consider the locality and watershed in which we are designing. Locally we may be concerned with specific land uses, problems of erosion and pollution, and particular social and political issues. Understanding the watershed will provide a better appreciation of drainage, microclimate, soil and orientation considerations.

The community level is the next step down in scale and needs to be defined for each design site. Community definition is based on constructed and social elements. We want to understand the cultural setting into which we are moving and adding elements. While we may control a certain piece of land for a time, we need to consider the living patterns and life styles of those around us and see our tenure as a part of the bigger social pattern.

Finally, we are concerned with use of immediately adjacent sites. This is likely to have great impact on design decisions because activities on them influence our site and what we do affects them. Views, noise and flow of water are usually critical; on urban sites patterns of light and shade may be important as well.

It is within this larger set of nested environments that we can finally begin to be concerned with relationships of elements on the site. Our design needs to respond to functional requirements of our program, from the inside out so to speak, but it also has to respond to the larger setting, from the outside in. The final relationships of elements in our design becomes a balance of the pressures of inside program forces and outside environmental forces.

The principle of context is reinforced by a number of sources:

The bioregional concept is "a crucial conceptual tool for protecting and preserving the biological, cultural, and political integrity of a given area." "Bioregionalism is simply biological realism ... holding that the health of natural systems is directly connected to our own physical/psychic health as individuals and as a species." (Nancy Jack Todd and John Todd, From Eco-Cities to Living Machines, pg. 44)
"No site can be understood and evaluated without looking outward to the site context. Before planning and designing a project, fundamental questions must be asked in light of its impact on the larger community." (Andropogon Associates, Valdez Principles for Site Design, in U.S. NPS, pg. 41)
"The elements of human design interact with and depend on the natural world, with broad and diverse implications at every scale. Expand design considerations to recognizing even distant effects." (U.S. National Park Service, Guiding Principles of Sustainable Design, pg. 5)
"Ecological design begins with the intimate knowledge of a particular place ... it is small-scale and direct, responsive to both local conditions and local people." "Traditional place-centered cultures depended on their immediate surroundings for almost everything: water, food, shelter, materials, fuel, medicines, and spiritual sustenance." (Sim Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan, Ecological Design, pg. 57, 58)