Getting back to normal: Landscape architecture firms prepare to lend a helping hand

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Updated May 8, 2020
Photo: ASLAPhoto: ASLA

Landscape architects are seeing the effects of COVID-19 (coronavirus) on their firms, but for the time being, things don’t seem to be slowing down too much.

“Landscape architects are optimistic people,” says Wendy Miller, FASLA, president of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). “Even amid a pandemic, we can envision parks filled with people enjoying nature, playgrounds overrun by children and streetscapes alive with social commerce. That optimism reminds everyone of what awaits us when we can be together again.”

Coping with COVID-19Tlc Part Two Of Three

Michael Radner, ASLA, principal at Radner Design Associates, Inc. in Framingham, Massachusetts, says it seems to be a mixed bag at the moment, as many firms in the area are still busy.

Due to the nature of landscape architecture projects, Radner says it can sometimes take years for them to come to fruition, so projects that are already funded, whether public or private, are still going forward. Based on his talks with other firms in the area, there haven’t been a lot of layoffs, since business was booming before the virus.

Radner thinks they will remain busy throughout the construction season, but he is concerned about what will happen in the fall when the pipeline is exhausted if they don’t get new activity.

Photo: ASLAPhoto: ASLA

Radner says it’s been a challenge working remotely to some extent because the process of creating these designs in the studio is very high contact and personal in the way designs are developed and how people interact together. Many aspects are much easier to attain if they are all in the same room with each other, he says.

“You kind of have to be together because there’s a synergy that’s there,” says Radner. “As long as things are in construction, you can kind of move forward with a lot of the administration of projects, but when you get into the initial phases of design for new work, I think it’s harder to do it remotely. I think there’s going to be a new normal in the way that people work after this.”

Andrew Wickham, ASLA, project designer at LPA, Inc. in Sacramento, California, says the firm has about 400 employees, and almost overnight, the whole operation transitioned to remote work.

By swapping to a digital communication format with customers, Wickham says a new type of dialogue has occurred, as digital meetings sometimes allow more people to participate in a call.

“We’re finding that we have the ability to engage talent across the entire company, not just regionally, so we get the right people for the right job, and that really is a benefit for our clients,” says Wickham. “We’re finding that collaboration still happens at the same rate, if not at more of an increased rate now because we need to stay connected.”

Wickham says he expects business to slow down as construction slows down, and some clients might be a bit more hesitant to move forward.

As things begin to open up again, Wickham says they will have to make sure they are able to maintain safety as they continue projects in the office. Regardless of what they implement, he knows it won’t go back to normal right away.

Re-establishing normalcy in the world

Photo: ASLAPhoto: ASLA

Once the virus has finally run its course and the world begins to settle back into its day-to-day rhythms, landscape architects believe they could be major players in the fight to regain a bit of normalcy.

“We tend to be to the tip of the spear in terms of economic recovery because we’re a planning profession,” says Radner. “We’re kind of the first ones out there working on new stuff. I think if there are dollars available and people are confident that these are good investments, we’re going to be out there because landscape is infrastructure.”

With more people taking time to explore the great outdoors, Radner says they may no longer be taking these spaces for granted, as they might have before the virus.

As a result, Wickham hopes that people might desire to create more vibrant outdoor spaces and create better access for those communities that might not have parks or open recreational spaces. He says he also hopes landscape architects can appeal to government leaders to show how important those spaces are, as well as the role that landscape architects play in creating those spaces.

“I feel like there’s a way that we can add to creating a more resilient future,” says Wickham. “We as designers of place are working with living things and we create spaces for life to exist, flourish and grow. There’s the plant and animal kingdom aspect to it, but then there’s also the social aspect to it.”

Maria Bellalta, ASLA, dean of the school of landscape architecture at the Boston Architectural College (BAC), believes there will be both a philosophical and practical approach to take once the dust settles. Within the industry, she says it is very competitive, which can lead to a disconnect among landscape architects in the design and academic realms.

Photo: ASLAPhoto: ASLA

“There’s a disconnect at some level there that I hope that we could embrace so that we get double mileage out of that and grow,” says Bellalta. “We need to build community among us, and outside of the immediate discipline, we need to build community so everyone becomes more aware of what we do.”

On the practical side, Bellalta hopes and is convinced that the “best-kept secret” that landscape architects are will be fully blown open once the virus has run its course. But for this to happen, she says we will all need to change how we treat the environment and how we treat each other.

“All the ingredients that we think about as we’re designing, we should practice,” she says. “I guess it is philosophical, but I don’t think we’re going to go back to not thinking about all the strains and the communities that it affects. I don’t think it’s about beautiful landscapes. It’s about how they’re functioning at these more social-cultural levels as well.”

Check back tomorrow for part three, where we’ll find out about landscape architecture student demographics, as well as how more awareness can be brought to this field. 

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