What’s Wrong with Landscape Architecture?

Execution. Grand ideals with no plan for real-world execution.

Inspired by a recent blog post from new LA grad Win Phyo (https://landarchs.com/10-things-wrong-landscape-architecture-today/), I decided respond with a few thoughts from my perspective as a landscape architect, a member of a startup business, and an entrepreneur:

Win, these are all accurate observations and it is awesome that people are thinking this way, but I would suggest that they are not at all new issues. I asked myself many of these questions when I entered professional practice ten years ago. I know that my senior colleagues with twenty or thirty years’ experience faced the same challenges as they left the academic world for private practice jobs.

Professional Organizations, Education, and Marketing

ASLA, our primary professional organization in the US, does not primarily use revenue raised from membership dues, conferences, magazine subscriptions, and other event to promote the definition of landscape architect to the average lay-person. And I think that is okay. They should be using our resources, both monetary and knowledge based, to promote the requirement of licensed landscape architects to be involved in projects at various jurisdictional levels. They should be our collective voice for tackling political issues related to the profession and representing us at the national level.

That being said, landscape architecture firms and practitioners could do a much better job marketing themselves, and the profession, at the local level. By raising awareness of what they do within the geographic/economic/niche market they serve, firms could generate more business as well as educate their community about the profession. When was the last time you heard of a landscape architecture firm (outside of the multi-disciplinary giants) invest in marketing? It is all about communicating the value that we provide actively to our target audience and passively to a broader audience. These are very basic business development concepts that are largely lost on landscape architects.

The Business of Landscape Architecture

I am not suggesting that we throw out all artistic merit and lofty academic pursuits, but at the end of the day, most firms are for-profit businesses. As Win mentions, most college curriculum do not adequately address business skills and the reality of professional practice. Even in a five-year program there may be only a single 2-credit hour class on professional practice. Add to that, new grads are usually left in a dark corner to conduct plant counts and crank out construction documents, oblivious to the behind the scenes operation of the practice. If you are interested in how your firm actually operates, express that interest to your firm’s owner or principal. If they aren’t willing to give some insight into the workings of contracts, the project pipeline, general expenses and overhead, etc. then they may be “winging” it themselves!

Not everyone has to be a business leader, though. An innovative, sustainable practice must be made up of landscape architects with diverse backgrounds and interest. Our profession is so broad, no one person can be an expert in cutting edge design, historic restoration, ecology, botany, construction methods, landscape products, technology, business development, marketing, and office operations. Spend the first few years of your career exploring the facets of your office, pick an area that your are passionate about (or are already an expert in), and embrace it. If you are building a new team, make sure you have that plant expert, that construction guru, that introspective designer, and that people-facing project manager.

Academic vs. Professional

Sure, I would like to conduct plant community restoration studies or post-occupancy evaluations on every project, but if our customers do not see value in that (or are not required by code to do that) then they will not pay for it. I learned many skills in college (advanced land suitability modeling using GIS, for example) that are difficult to market to a client, but could be beneficial to the physical and cultural landscape. How do you advance these endeavours and values outside of the academic environment?

The large, multi-disciplinary firms are able to create innovation and research budgets because of their economies of scale. This research often translates into new, proprietary processes that add value to a project without increasing cost to the client and keep their customers coming back again.

How do you find time and money for this in a smaller firm? Write better proposals and contracts. Promote flat-fee contracts over hourly. Embrace technology that automates tedious processes. Find a niche market and strive for economies of scale through repeat business or specific expertise. Audit your internal operations. Once the practice is optimized, channel a percentage of your increased profit margin to an innovation fund and use it to encourage research, to create marketable content, and to encourage employee recruitment and retention.

Final Thought

If we want to promote healthy relationships between people and nature; if we want to approach projects holistically from concept though maintenance (BIM theory); if we want to change office culture, we can’t rely on academia or ASLA to do it for us. We need to use business acumen and entrepreneurship to find ways to implement these values within the reality of our competitive, capitalist society.

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