Here-There

Appreciating the Landscapes we Swim in

Chicago Field Trip

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” –David Foster Wallace

Like fish in a stream, we are often oblivious to the water around us. We exist in landscapes, but we seldom notice, appreciate or talk about them, and we have little idea of how they are conceived. This creates a problem for landscape architecture.

When landscapes and the people who create them are invisible, how do you attract new students to the profession? 

Landscape Architecture at Illinois has been working to address this problem. Few students have been taught how to observe and appreciate landscapes, and even fewer are aware that landscape architecture is a field of study. Since landscape architecture is not a well-known field, many of our students don’t choose to major in landscape architecture when they apply. Instead, they discover it later, often with the help of an undergraduate or community college advisor. 

This gave Lori Davis, Academic Coordinator, the idea that if academic advisors were more appreciative of landscapes and what landscape architects do, they would be more likely to introduce students to the field. While advisors may know about related fields–architecture, environmental design, or urban planning–they are less familiar with landscape architecture. Lori decided to organize a field trip for these advisors.

This summer Lori and Professors Mary Pat McGuire and Craig Reschke led a group of advisors from the University of Illinois Division of General Studies and Parkland Community College on an all-day field trip to experience some of Chicago’s most iconic landscapes: Millennium Park, Lurie Garden, Maggie Daley Park, the South Garden at the Art Institute, Palmisano Park-Stearns Quarry, and Ping Tom Park. Advisors met with Scott Stewart, the Director of Millennium Park, who advocated for the importance of nature and public parks in cities.  Each site offered an opportunity to explore the complexity of site design and look at a different kind of landscape: an urban park on top of a parking garage, a modernist garden, a river site, a quarry turned park. 

Mary Pat and Craig introduced new ways of looking at landscapes, from the spectacular to the every day, and discussed how landscapes intervene in the environment and address major societal and environmental challenges. Though we all “swim” in landscapes, the quality and quantity of these landscapes is not distributed evenly; too many people still do not have access to beautiful, restorative spaces. Both Mary Pat and Craig have extensive experience working in design studios, so they shared their experience working as licensed professional landscape architects. They explained how our two accredited degrees prepare students for professional licensure and careers. 

In the afternoon, advisors were treated to a studio visit at the office of site design group, ltd, where a number of our alumni work. Designers showed them around the office and described the projects they were working on. They explained what a typical day looks like (creating drawings, meeting with engineers, spending time in the field, but not planting plants–a common misconception). The designers expressed their concern that the profession isn’t growing fast enough to meet the professional demand in Illinois and encouraged the advisors to introduce more students to the profession. 

The Chicago field trip gave undergraduate advisors a better appreciation for the landscapes we swim in and why landscape architecture is such a dynamic field of study. We look forward to meeting the students they send our way!