Who are we?
Where does the landscape architecture profession fit in the world of design? Who are we? What do we do? Do we get the respect we deserve? You hear these questions a lot if you are a landscape architect, especially if you are a landscape architect at a gathering of other landscape architects! The nature of the work crosses over many disciplines. It can fade into a helper role for all of them, without a clear, designated responsibility assigned by a project or program manager. The fit for a landscape architect on large public projects is hampered by outdated perceptions of landscape architects as garden designers for the rich.
Competition for business within the design and construction industry nudges the landscape architect out of the picture for the plum opportunities in the public realm. Civil engineers are more than happy to create streetscapes, since they are experts in road design. They also like to step in whenever stormwater treatment and drainage is part of a project. It is very rare to see a landscape architect take the lead in large, public projects that include roads and bridges. Civil engineers call in a landscape architect only if they want a good suggestion for a plant, usually for some free advice. There is often more public trust for the construction design skills of a civil engineer than a landscape architect. Civil engineers fight against any intrusion into what they consider their territory, without a thorough understanding of a landscape architect’s role.
Civil engineers are not the only competitors for the design market of outdoor spaces. Architects claim design sovereignty over any artistically envisioned structural design. The term landscape architect denotes design limited to only lawns and shrubs—a sub-specialty left to decorate the paving and structures designed by others. Urban design specialists sometimes stamp a few trees on their plans as an afterthought, thinking the need for a landscape architect is not there.
Ecologists rarely call in a landscape architect to assist with restoration or mitigation planting plans. Inexperienced restoration designers have been known to outline a disturbed area on a plan sheet, add a list of obligate or facultative obligate plants from an Army Corps of Engineers list, spec out a quantity, and hope their efforts work. Very few eco-restoration teams understand the value a landscape architect can bring to the project, and the improved long-term success a landscape architect can provide to mitigation efforts.
Landscape designers come in all types. Professional and certified designers do practically everything a landscape architect might do in designing a planting plan. They might even create outdoor hardscape structures. Some self-taught professional landscape designers create amazing landscape plantings that compete strongly with landscape architects that are weak on horticultural skills. They’re cheaper to hire, usually, so self-taught designers take a large bite out of the market for licensed landscape architects. Retired volunteers can take a few hours of Ag Extension classes and become Master Gardeners. They volunteer landscape designs for free. Retail nurseries are also willing to provide a free design, as long as clients also hire in-house staff for installation of in-house plantsWorking outdoors and designing outdoor spaces can be fun. There are lots of plant enthusiasts more than happy to do free landscape design work, just for the opportunity to be a part of an exciting project. How can anyone resist such an offer? It’s hard to compete with the word “free.” Public groups, when given the option, will choose free landscape design advice over the advice of expensive, licensed firms, whenever local funds are limited.
There have been times when landscape architects and university programs showed a snobbery against planting plans, assuming great landscape architects should spend them time on loftier projects like regional planning or show-stopping hardscapes. Planting design is sometimes discouraged in landscape architecture programs as a less important facet of the overall multidisciplinary range of services provided by the profession. New graduates of LA programs that de-emphasize horticultural knowledge venture out into the intensely competitive marketplace with embarrassingly poor landscape design skills.
Civil engineers have claimed the public projects as theirs. Architects have claimed the buildings and structures. Ecological specialists have claimed mitigation and restoration projects. Landscape designers, both professional and volunteer have claimed plant expertise. The result of all these challenges is landscape architects get called in only if there is a need for a pretty landscape drawing. Is the only value of a landscape architect the ability to draw nice looking trees with cool shadows on plan sheets? Is a refined, color-rendered drawing all that is offered by the profession? Historically, landscape architects were the design professional for grand estates and magnificent fountains, but now that they are unaffordable, the only work available is in the public sector or with small-scale or private commercial sites.
What’s left? Is the landscape architecture profession dead? How can landscape architects compete? For what market should they compete?
The way landscape architects can compete in today’s market is by creating iconoclastic outdoor spaces. Every design must be incredible! Landscape architects must show there is a difference between the educated professionals and the amateurs. The designs need to slap people in the face and say, “Notice me!”, but not with impractical gimmicks. Great landscape designs have lasting impact and are worthy of being maintained for decades. Fine garden and hardscape design can be done, but it isn’t done enough. Landscape architecture programs need to require amazing design work, including amazing planting plans. Mediocre results are not an option when competing against such strong competition and opposition in the market place. If your designs are ambiguous and bland, then the health of the profession will weaken. Don’t simply fight for licensure. Collaborate! Create! Invent! Inspire! Prove your relevancy in the modern world!