Where people find their place: Currents in landscape architecture

Every good column starts with a good lead. I’d like to begin with a short quiz. What do the following things have in common? The 9/11 Memorial, Target Plaza, the High Line, Minneapolis Federal Courthouse Plaza and the Grand Rounds?  They are all powerful urban, civic spaces? True, but not the answer I’m after. What these places share is that they were all created by the most diverse of all the design professions.  

Imagine a vocation that allows its practitioners opportunities to work across the globe or in their own backyard; creating solutions for enhancing both native open spaces and the urban core. These designers master plan thousands of acres for regional governments, then turn around and work on a park that is smaller than a city backyard. Picture someone crafting a vision for how a national historic landmark can be re-vitalized, or proposing low-impact development techniques for addressing storm water to a city mayor. Green roofs, native prairie restoration, scenic roadway design, brownfield re-development and places of respite — all are accomplishments by designers in this unique profession.

Think of how exciting work would be if it was constantly challenging, fascinating and inspiring? Boredom is not a word in our lexicon. The range of daily scenarios runs the gamut — from the broad visioning and multi-year implementation concepts needed in large-scale planning all the way to the minutiae of figuring out how best to fabricate a custom outdoor bench.

Science and art sit side by side in this occupation. Someone practicing this craft must be equally versed in design thinking, public speaking, ecology, transit, engineering, horticulture, zoning policy and the political arts. My fellow colleagues are connectors of people, ideas and molders of consensus. We understand the inertia of being comfortable and the necessity for progress.

Collaboration is second nature to those who work constantly with the element of change. Ideas (and challenges) can come from anywhere; creativity is not the realm of the “lone genius.” We understand that place is tied directly to personal identity, and when change comes without a guide, chaos can reign. My profession has a noticeable ability to synthesize information from many different sources and distill it into a clear direction forward. Words and thoughts that we send out into the world during these processes never return empty — they are built upon, added to, enhanced and dissected — coming back with more richness and diversity to help us with our task.

In accomplishing all these things, we create places that people want to be in. Places where memories are created, or are in and of themselves memorable because they stir something deep within our human core. If we succeed in our task — these places can exist for centuries, allowing generation after generation to experience the quiet power they exude.

What do I do? I am a landscape architect.  

I was inspired to write this column by an opening paragraph that I read a few weeks ago in this very paper:  

“The vines on the east wall of MoZaic, Uptown’s newest and tallest building at Lagoon & Girard, have undergone a Darwinian experiment. About four different plant species crawled up the mesh screen that veils the parking garage, so the architects (emphasis mine) could learn which one could best survive the microclimate 10 stories off the ground.”

It was a fantastic opening! I loved the images that the words “Darwinian experiment” and “crawled” conjured in my mind.  As the professional who carefully selected the plant species for the aforementioned green wall experiment, I was secretly excited to see the how the writer would describe my work. Yet imagine my dismay when I read that my work was being credited to another design discipline. It was a clear reminder to me that there are many who do not know what landscape architects actually do. It got me thinking about the myriad ways in which — historically and still today — landscape architecture is misrepresented.  

I could have just written a letter in complaint and gone about my business. Yet, I started thinking that how we tell our story matters.  If I could only find a place to articulate why my profession is so unusually prescient, it would help people understand and value what landscape architects right here in Minnesota are accomplishing.  The Southwest Journal will now be that place.

David Motzenbecker is the director of Landscape Architecture for BKV Group, he is also currently president of the Minneapolis City Planning Commission. He can be contacted at [email protected]