Access to Nature

The wilderness can teach more about what it means to be human than perhaps any place else. It consumes every one of your senses in vivid and profound ways (especially smell, which goes largely unused in day to day living – with the exceptions of generally bad food and farts).

This experience has been turned into a luxury – only for the very poor, or the very rich, depending on your geography. For most Americans, it is a vacation activity – something separate from daily life, and often financially unattainable. This is backwards.

Connection and access to nature are fundamental to experiencing your humanity to the fullest degree.

Every Landscape Design is a Reclamation Project

The question is: what are you reclaiming it as?

You may be delivering it back to a perceived version of nature. Tallgrass prairie, hardwood forest, desert, riparian system, etc.

You may decide that it should be reclaimed as a French garden. Or an English garden.

You may want it to be reclaimed to an agricultural field.

Finally, you may want to reclaim a landscape as part of the modern, urban, connected world. This is where things get complicated, because the reclamations you see around you don’t work. They aren’t tolerant of changing climate, they don’t reflect the uniqueness of their context, and they don’t nurture human health and promote creativity.

The first two are (poorly) reflected in the design of every subdivision, commercial center, and urban plaza we see around us. The third is slowly making its way into residential and certain municipal settings, by way of gardens, urban agriculture, and edible public space.

The fourth idea has yet to happen. That’s the one I’m most excited about.

In 5 Years, Our Cities Will Be

the only things that look the same. Everything else (important) is diversifying rapidly.

Brands, products, hair styles, clothing, cars, and other unimportant things have already diversified. Their industrial model prevents “niche” and specialized offerings, except for local craftsmen and boutique trades (which you should already be supporting).

Experiences will diversify. New and immersive events are coming on line all the time that offer a once in a lifetime experience. Oculus Rift and interactive gaming present digital options, which will only get more and more realistic.

Employment is already rapidly changing. Twenty years ago, the standard “cool” job may have been an executive or manager. Now it’s a freelance graphic designer.

How we work has changed. The internet is on 24-7, so if we can do our job remotely, why do we need to be in a windowless office (which are illegal to build in most developed countries) for every daylight hour? We’re discovering that we don’t.

Our relationships have changed. How we communicate with loved ones and those we don’t yet know is completely different now than it was fifteen years ago.

Energy is changing. So, what’s left?

What’s left is our cities and the way we’ve built and are building our world. At least in America, one after another, cities are chasing dreams of sustainability, high design, and “place making”. Why? To encourage people to move there, and keep their residents “happy”, or at least feeling important.

In an effort to do this, city officials hire the biggest name consultants from a prestigious place like New York or San Francisco (places with strong identities) to tell them what they should build. The city after them follows suit. And as a result, everything looks the same. Chain restaurants, big box retail, fast food joints, and subdivisions (which all look the same) dominate the perimeter. The interior is populated by parks and disjointed spaces that follow the New American design aesthetic decorated with plant material that (hopefully) works in that region. Sprinkle in an artist or two (don’t have to be local), and you have a successful project.

If everything else is [rapidly] going niche and specialized, the design of our world should too. Finding what actually makes a place unique requires extensive research (and living there, I’d argue) and work, which makes it expensive.

But not as expensive as a society of people who value their time, health, freedom, and individuality living in a world built for the mass market economy. We’re already seeing the health consequences, and the economics can’t be far behind.

Be on Time

Especially at conferences.

If you walk in late, you lose the opportunity to ask a poignant questions by bringing in the risk that the speaker had already addressed the topic before you walked in.

It’s also distracting to the other participants, shows a lack of respect for the speaker and the topic/work they are presenting, and illustrates that you are only attending to get a certificate of completion for continuing education.

On that note, don’t try to ask the nice gentleman handing out the CE slips if he can give you one so you can leave early. That nice gentleman might be me, and you will definitely wish you hadn’t.

Interchangeable Design

Who are your designs for? They can’t be for everyone. So, who are they for?
If they are for two groups of people, are those groups interchangeable with other groups?
Can you interchange your user base entirely and still maintain the integrity of the design?
Can you interchange pieces of the design for other pieces? One material for another. One detail or proportion for another?
Will your design work in multiple ecoregions? Multiple topographic settings? Multiple time zones? Multiple languages?
Does your design work, if the assumption upon which it is entirely based is interchanged with another? Are there multiple ways to concisely and
convincingly describe your design, in a language that we can all grasp?
Can you interchange who fulfills each role in the design process?
Can you interchange which craftsman or factory or construction team creates the work?
In all the great works of design, the answer to each of these questions is “no”. Make it “no” for your work as well.

Placebo

Note: If you haven’t listened yet, check out the Archispeak podcast for a satirical take on this topic.
Why do landscape architects and architects use philosophical language that even they can’t understand to describe their work?
Why does the description of a chair claim that its form is a response to the conflict in Syria and world hunger?
Why does a site’s design have to be a commentary on the confluence of ecotypes and cultural norms independent of time constraints along the space axis?
Because we want it to be. It puts the user or reviewer into a state in which they want to experience something sophisticated and magical. And, with help from the placebo effect, they do.
This is independent of what is actually happening outside of the viewer’s mind, but is extremely powerful and real. Design could probably use a little more of it (placebo effect, that is, not ego-driven grandstanding).
Just describe your grand visions in more accessible language and with vivid analogies. You get your placebo effect, and it will stick better.

Convenience

The New American design aesthetic (“clean lines”, designed in plan view, use of the same materials, including planting, regardless of locality) delivers one thing extraordinarily well: convenience. More efficient parking, less maintenance, faster routes to, and through, a place, faster installation, quicker design process, etc.
This focus on convenience is probably an outgrowth of the desire to “simplify”, or not have to think about, aspects of our lives like transportation, food, technology, and entertainment. The less time we spend thinking, the better (or so we’re told).
It also removes the possibility of being different, and having to explain that difference to a friend or family member, who might frown at the non-conformity (see Nice vs Good).  For public spaces, this effect is heightened by real or perceived political pressures.
So, staying the same, and making everything new look the same, are convenient. They also reward the part of our brain that revels in knowing that we made the decision that is looked upon positively by the group. Seth Godin calls it the Lizard Brain, and Stephen Pressfield calls it the Resistance.
On the flip side, making design decisions based on what you think is right, what will be best for the site, it’s users, and contribute more fully to its environmental context, may be the least convenient thing you can do – from many angles. But, it’s what needs to happen.
It’s also what separates the good design professionals from the bullshit imposters.

Continuing Education (Conferences)

Continuing education should be renamed. I’m not sure what to yet, but something offensively long and boring.

There are definitely good speakers and worthwhile lectures thrown in the mix, but in large measure it’s a yearly marketing exercise meant to sell ego or products. Very little is dedicated to providing knowledge on the issues facing our profession right now.

One of the speakers at an upcoming conference wrote his own biography, in which he states that all of his peers believe him to be a Polymath. Another titled his discussion “One Landscape”. I’ve heard the same green roof lecture four years in a row. And I’m starting to get angry about it.

There’s a Lot in a Name

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A colleague of mine runs a design/build company that is also one of the larger landscape contractors in town. They do great work, and everybody knows it. What they don’t know is that this friend also does design work, and is just as qualified as I am to do it.

One of the problems, aside from everyone knowing his organization as a great landscape contractor (with a maintenance side), is that the organization is named that way as well. It very clearly communicates landscape construction and maintenance – not design.

So, when we discuss new projects and who’s doing what, there’s the inevitable topic of why he hasn’t been able to land certain design commissions. I always chalk it up to another firm’s longstanding tenure in the community, my firm’s connections from past work, or some combination of the two, never saying the real reason – that nobody thinks his company is capable of design, because of the way they’re named.

Unfortunately, it is something that can’t be changed at this point – there’s too much equity in their name to just change it. But, if you’re starting from scratch, think about what you want your organization to do while you’re thinking of the name. There’s a lot at stake.

 

One Stop

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As Seth Godin describes in the Startup School podcast series, “it’s not about finding more customers for your products, it’s about finding more products for your customers”.

Ask your clients what they need help doing and what they are currently outsourcing. Then try to offer a solution – either you take care of it for them (becoming a “one stop shop”), or find an innovative, exciting way for them to more efficiently solve their problem.

It gets you closer to your client, and provides ideas for new services.
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