The Landscape Project is the latest publication from the Department of Landscape Architecture. Launched this fall, it brings together 18 provocative essays by 20 members of the faculty on the myriad ways landscape architects today engage with agriculture, energy, water, urbanism or another issue through the agency of design—and how they could do so in the future. In this essay from the book, titled "Purpose," alums Rebecca Popowsky (MArch’10, MLA’10) and Sarai Williams (MCP’17, MLA’17) discuss new modes of practice and developing models of professional structures in the landscape architecture field. Popowsky, a lecture in landscape architecture, is a landscape architect and research associate at OLIN, where she leads the firm’s research and development group, OLIN Labs. Williams is also a lecturer in landscape architecture and is on the social impact real estate team for Community Solutions, a national nonprofit working with cities to create a lasting end to homelessness. The Landscape Project, edited by Richard Weller, Meyerson Chair of Urbanism and professor and chair of landscape architecture, and Tatum Hands, editor in chief of LA+, is available from Applied Research & Design/ORO Editions, and is expected to begin shipping in January.
The widening gap between the changes that must be made in the built environment and those that can be made through conventional models of professional design practice is driving a generation of landscape architects, architects, and planners to search out and create new modes of practice. In this essay, we describe aspects of this emergence within the current structures of professional landscape architectural practice and discuss several landscape architecture and planning practices that present potential to expand the scope, and in some cases, challenge the foundations of these existing structures.
To paint a clear picture of current professional landscape architectural practice, it may be helpful first to describe an analogous professional services model that is more widely familiar – that of law, which has well-established models for public interest practice. Law school prepares would-be lawyers to analyze and apply statutes, regulations, and case law, but generally does not prepare students to become agents of social good. However, the profession has addressed the need to put the law to positive use by creating public interest and government practice models, giving practicing lawyers the opportunity—or obligation—to handle pro bono cases. Non-governmental public interest lawyers who work for groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) work to advance societal goals and are generally supported by public and private grants and private donations.
In comparison, the landscape architecture profession has a very small government sector, almost no pro bono mechanism, and no formal public interest sector at all. One obvious reason for this difference is the relative size of the profession – while there are about 800,000 licensed attorneys in the US, the Department of Labor estimates the number of professional landscape architects to be under 25,000. Another reason is that landscape architects haven’t effectively communicated the societal value of the profession to the general public, so little public and philanthropic funding is directed to landscape architectural services. While legal services are widely seen as critical to the protection of individual and community rights, design services (especially in landscape) are more often seen as an unnecessary luxury. However, when the impact of the design of the built environment on issues of social justice and public health is appreciated—especially in a time of extreme climate change and widening inequality—the landscape project should be recognized as an essential service. Absent a source of substantial funding for public interest landscape architecture, landscape architects must themselves build a structure that allows this essential service to be advanced within or alongside the existing practice model.
While comparison to analogous fields such as law is helpful, it is important to draw some distinctions that might otherwise be overlooked. One is the distinction between pro bono work and public interest work. State bars set minimum pro bono (or unpaid work) requirements for lawyers, embedding a measure of social obligation into the legal profession. While this certainly has a positive impact at scale (and is something the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards—the licensing body for landscape architects—should consider implementing), pro bono work within private practice generally cannot make serious headway on complex societal or environmental problems. In contrast, public interest legal organizations, such as the NAACP or the ACLU, which support full-time professionals and are expressly established for this purpose, play a significant role in delineation of fundamental civil rights. In this essay, we will refer to both pro bono and public interest work as “purpose-driven” work. This term is used in contrast to “profit-driven” to indicate that the primary goal of a project or practice is societal or environmental benefit rather than private economic gain.
A similar distinction should be made between overhead and overtime. In the absence of substantial public interest design funding, purpose-driven work is often non-billable, unfunded, or under-funded. In order for an individual practitioner to take on unfunded work, they may need to perform the work outside of “work hours,” that is, at night or on the weekends. This can be considered overtime. If, on the other hand, a design firm decides to take on non-billable public interest work, that work may be completed during work hours and the cost to the firm can be considered overhead. The key difference is that overhead cuts into profit, while overtime cuts into employee or individual personal time. The scale of work that can be done using either overhead or overtime is limited by the budgetary and time constraints of practices and individual practitioners. To push beyond these limits, external funding is required.
Architecture and landscape architecture, like law, are service professions. Design services are commissioned by clients, within a defined scope, for a fee. Design commissions (usually referred to as projects) typically present themselves to design professionals as Requests for Proposals (RFPs). RFPs are issued when three puzzle pieces come together: first, recognition of a need or demand for a built project; second, funding for planning, design, and construction; and third, an individual or number of individuals who have the power and authority to implement the project. When these factors align in a location (project site) an RFP is issued and a design professional can be commissioned to articulate a material form that meets the needs of the project within constraints defined by funding, site, and political, social, and ecological contexts. This model, which might be called the design-commission model, the RFP model, or the client-driven model, can lead to immensely successful built work that provides equitable social, environmental, and economic benefits. However, the good that comes out of any given project depends more on the political, social, and economic context and forces that pre-date the RFP, than on the resulting design actions. In other words, by the time the designer is hired, the overarching impact of the project is largely already set.
Practitioners are compelled to establish new structures to support their work, while also providing design services.
To subvert the conventional role of the designer in this design-commission model, projects need to be instigated in the absence of an RFP. Sometimes this means that no client exists; other times a client group has identified a project need, but they do not have access to funding or decision-making authority; in other cases, needs or problems exist on a site but they have not yet been clearly articulated. Practitioners are experimenting with several mechanisms to support project instigation outside of RFP or client-driven scenarios. For example, grant funding, pilot projects, and “communities of practice” support important work outside of, or in addition to, traditional project models. The following cases are helpful in exploring how these mechanisms interface with projects and communities.
Public and philanthropic funding mechanisms such as grants and fellowships are commonly used by designers to support purpose-driven work. Innovative firms have honed their ability to seek out and secure research or seed grants, often in collaboration with academic or institutional partners to support design research and action. Mahan Rykiel Associates, a landscape architecture practice based in Baltimore, for example, has initiated a series of research-based projects around beneficial reuse of dredge material in the Chesapeake Bay, with grant funding from the Maryland Department of Transportation and the Maryland Port Administration and in partnership with researchers at Cornell and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Outcomes of this research-based initiative have included public engagement and education workshops, experimental seed germination studies, and a site-specific pilot installation, all aimed at reimagining Baltimore Harbor sediment as an essential resource, rather than a waste material. As in this example, grant-funded work often builds upon itself, moving from “proof of concept” research to small-scale pilot installation, and eventually to large-scale implementation.
Merritt Chase, a young practice cofounded by Nina Chase and Chris Merritt, has honed a capacity to move a design agenda forward using pilot-based advocacy projects. They make the case for public space as the foundational building blocks of communities, and for landscape architects to occupy a seat at the table “further upstream” in the process of planning for change (prior to the issuance of the RFP). This compels them to focus much of their attention on short-term design-build projects that aim to build momentum for design ideas. Their “tactical urbanism” projects are about making things that build enthusiasm for longer term investment in the urban landscape. For example, Birch Street Plaza, in Boston’s Roslindale Village, which turns a trafficked street into a pedestrian plaza, began as a six-day pop-up plaza that prototyped and tested design elements using duct tape, milk crates, and wooden dowels. In this case, the pilot project was used largely as a community engagement mechanism that facilitated in-person and online surveys, observation, and conversation that shaped the final plaza design.
Sponge Park on the Gowanus Canal, designed by DLANDstudio is another example of a small-scale pilot project that is intended to pave the way for large-scale transformation. The park is a modular street-end installation that intercepts and filters stormwater while providing accessible neighborhood green space. DLAND worked with the Gowanus Canal Conservancy to pull together funders and public agencies over a multi-year process to get the $1.5 million demonstration project implemented. The pilot project demonstrates the effectiveness of nature-based stormwater management and aims to garner public support for large-scale transformation along the full length of the canal.
While each of these firms found creative ways to leverage alternative funding mechanisms to instigate built projects, another practice, Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), used similar mechanisms to support research into building innovative business models. Seed funding allowed the firm’s founding members to explore mission-based business models in other fields, before establishing KDI as a non-profit design firm. Based in Los Angeles and Nairobi, KDI balances grant-funded work with traditional client commissions and a small amount of donor funding. The practice model includes hiring local experts in various fields, including design, engineering, and construction, locally, for projects in Africa and the US while serving communities that lack political and economic clout. In this instance, the structure of the firm is as innovative as their design work
In our research interviewing several of these innovative practitioners, common themes emerged. Practitioners are looking for ways to bring new voices to the table at all stages of the design process; if the people most in need of design services cannot participate substantively in the process, the process will not be fair or just. Practitioners are also looking for ways to ensure that the voices heard within the profession reflect the communities the projects are meant to serve; otherwise, projects will not fully meet community needs. Specifically, community input must be more than obligatory steps taken to smooth the way for development, or for the superimposition of a single designer’s vision. Opening the design process to multiple voices and reorienting design services toward communities in need represents a paradigm shift in contemporary design culture. To support this type of community-oriented work, landscape architects must take advantage of alternative funding mechanisms and collaborative structures.
Another common sentiment among these practitioners is that working outside of the typical client-commissioned design model adds layers of complexity and cost that are borne by firms and individual practitioners. They talk about the need to be open to “failing forward”; in other words, missteps are part of the process and should be seen as opportunities to reexamine approaches or refine or adapt objectives. Leaving established professional structures behind is an unruly and risky business. Practitioners are compelled to establish new structures to support their work, while also providing design services. As a community, we can do more to collectively support this kind of work through education and skill-building and by building networks of support among practitioners.
In addition to non-traditional funding mechanisms, purpose-driven work can be supported by formal or informal social infrastructures that make space for open-ended collaboration and design exploration. “Communities of practice” (CoP) were defined in the 1990s by educational theorist Etienne Wenger as “a group of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis.”(1) The CoP model is different from a typical professional organization or institution, in that involvement is voluntary and not project- or profit-oriented. Communities of practice are commonly housed within businesses, though they can also function outside of (or bridge across) formal institutions. While big corporations like Ford and IBM use the model as a formal platform for innovation, problem-solving, and driving change, this type of social infrastructure is not often discussed in the design industry.
OLIN Labs is an example of the community of practice model housed within a private firm. Five topic-based “Labs” (Eco, Build, Tech, People, and Design) host regular meetings among designers at all levels across the firm in conversation around topics of shared interest. This model, which is internally funded and relies on voluntary staff participation, creates space within the workday for designers to identify research and design projects outside of the RFP pipeline, and work together with colleagues and external collaborators to find creative ways to bring those projects into being. Discussions that grow out of the Labs’ communities of practice sometimes turn into opportunities for informal learning, and other times become freestanding research or advocacy initiatives or pilot projects that can attract grant or client funding. The belief here is that robust communities of practice may offer routes to purpose-driven and impactful design action.
Other examples include WxLA and The Urban Studio. WxLA, organized by Gina Ford, Jamie Maslyn Larson, Rebecca Leonard, and Cinda Gilliland, is not firm- or project-specific (Ford, Larson, Leonard, and Gilliland all run their own firms) but brings practitioners together around the goal of gender equality in the profession. Initiatives, such as the WxLA annual scholarships, grow out of this shared mission and community-based infrastructure. The Urban Studio initially arose from a collaboration among Landscape Architecture Foundation Leadership and Innovation Fellows and then grew into a team of practitioners organized around a shared cause, bridging firms, that, in addition to paid consulting work, take on co-design and co-creation workshops in communities of color. In contrast to the traditional for-profit design firm model, The Urban Studio exists primarily as a platform for collaboration among professionals. They convene industry-wide conversations through their annual Cut/Fill “unconference,” relying on donor funding from mission-aligned design firms and industry partners. The studio also brings together practitioners from other firms to take part in career discovery workshops in underserved communities. In both instances, communities of practice provide social infrastructures that challenge the profession to more equitably reflect and represent the populations that we serve.
Skills that would facilitate non-conventional practice scenarios such as grant-writing, community organizing, research methods, policy analysis, and business planning, are not generally considered central to design curricula. At some schools, students have the chance to learn these skills by taking part in public-interest work through university-backed centers that hire students as researchers or designers either during the school year or over the summer. Upon graduation, however, emerging design practitioners tend to perceive their career path as one they walk alone. Visual artists are accustomed to the idea that attracting an audience and building collaborative platforms through which their art will be displayed, are as critical to successful practice as the production of art. Artists, who have to not only invent their own projects but then find ways to fund them, hone skills in grant writing and pitching projects to potential patrons, searching for seed funding while communicating their ideas on multiple levels so as to build their reputations as emerging practitioners. If design education is to support emerging forms of practice, a similar set of skills will need to be foregrounded. Even as individual firms and practitioners are finding creative ways to reimagine professional practice models, the field of landscape architecture currently lacks sufficient shared infrastructure to support industry-wide transformation. Rather, efforts to challenge the conventional role of design are ad hoc and rely heavily on voluntary sacrifice on the part of firms and practitioners through nonbillable overhead or unpaid overtime.
Frustration among practitioners, students, and academics with the limitations of professional landscape architectural practice is high. If we’re honest with ourselves, we would likely find that the great majority of landscape architects would prefer to work in public-interest scenarios, rather than on projects that primarily support private interests. The problem is that the field lacks robust professional structures that make this type of work sustainable at scale over the long term. Practitioners who are actively trying to get purpose-driven work done (outside of university or government structures) are faced with the difficult task of building the stage that they are performing on, while convincing a non-existent audience to show up and pay attention. Landscape architecture, like architecture, is a very challenging profession even for those practitioners who “just” work on conventional design commissions. Doing anything even slightly outside of that realm is even more difficult, and it can be risky (professionally and financially) without robust support structures. Current and future landscape architectural practices will need to take on the unruly challenge of building these structures cooperatively, if we want to be relevant in the coming decades. To help achieve this we can look to practical precedents such as formalizing a pro-bono system in landscape architecture, building our capacity in government, and also more seriously considering the way in which artists and the not-for-profit sector invent, promote, and build coalitions for their projects.
1) Etienne Wenger, Richard A. McDermott & William Snyder, Cultivating Communities of Practice: A guide to managing knowledge (Harvard Business Press, 2002).