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The POV / featured

Landscape Architects – The Fundamental Designers of Cities

Conor O'Shea

When Conor O’Shea was in high school, trying to decide where to go to college and what to major in, he found a Landscape Architecture brochure in his counselor’s office. He flipped through the brochure and announced on the spot that he was going to major in landscape architecture.

“You’re telling me that you decided to become a landscape architect because of a brochure?” I ask.

“Yes!” he says. “No one came to my high school to explain what landscape architects do. I read a brochure.”

“You’re reviving my faith in brochures!” I say.

The truth is, majoring in landscape architecture made sense to Conor. He grew up immersed in two vastly different physical environments: Chicago and rural Ireland. He describes exploring Chicago during his “intense skateboarding phase” and spending his summers in Ireland on his family’s farm. “I wanted to rethink the spaces that I experienced growing up. I had a sense of their civic importance,” he tells me. He was also interested in art and science (especially biology and entomology), and landscape architecture “seemed like a field where all these seemingly unrelated interests could come together.”

Conor applied and was accepted into the University of Illinois’ Bachelors of Landscape Architecture program. The department immediately felt like home, a small, supportive community at a large university. “It gave me the training and skills I would need, but it also taught me how to think. Some of the more theoretical ways of understanding urbanism have stuck with me. I still find them useful.”

Now he’s back at the University of Illinois as a professor of Landscape Architecture, teaching some of the classes he took as an undergraduate. I am in his office on an afternoon in late September. We are talking about why landscape architecture matters.

“Students who want to design cities think that they should major in urban planning or architecture. But landscape architects are the fundamental designers of cities,” he tells me. “A city is essentially a series of landscape projects, from streetscapes, to large urban parks to public plazas to green infrastructure. Urban planners—they shape policies and make zoning maps. Architects—they design individual buildings. But Landscape Architects design everything that’s in between the buildings.”

And they don’t just add plants to places. Conor explains how landscape architects take an active role, working with architects and urban planners to address some of the biggest challenges cities in the 21st Century face: polluted lands and waterfronts, declining city centers, crime, abandoned manufacturing sites, climate change, the challenges of a shifting economy.

Say you want to bring in more business to your city, to invite corporations to relocate to your town. Hire landscape architects to design a beautiful park. “Corporate headquarters will relocate near beautiful public spaces,” Conor says. “It’s not only fantastic buildings people want, it’s fantastic parks.”

Perhaps a city has an ugly, polluted waterfront, a hotspot for crime. Work with landscape architects to clean it up. Create a “soft edge” to the waterfront. Improve the water quality with native plants. Inject these spaces with biodiversity—fish, ducks, and migrating birds and insects. Provide walkways, beaches, and recreational amenities for people to enjoy. “These projects appeal to people’s environmental awareness,” Conor explains. “And they increase tourism.”

Maybe part of the city is becoming gentrified, and the people who live there feel left out or pushed out. Landscape architects address this problem by designing spaces for the people and with the people. Conor explains, “Anything you design can be experienced by anyone—it’s an inherently democratic discipline.” Although private investors and businesses are increasingly funding landscape projects, “Landscape architects act as the mediators between corporate and civic interests.” They can work to ensure that the needs of the people who experience the landscapes aren’t ignored.

Conor’s own research and design interests center on the ways landscapes are changing to accommodate the shift from local to global supply chains.

You buy a laptop from Amazon, and it’s manufactured and shipped from halfway across the world, traveling great distances to get to your home in Chicago. Shipping, staging, and delivering goods like laptops requires a vast network of ports and roadways. This network, Conor argues, is a very real part of a city like Chicago. “There would be no downtown Chicago without these ports. If we focus on separate cities, we miss what’s happening to the places that connect them.”

So what is happening to these places?

Conor opens a book and shows me pictures of ports outside of Chicago. There are rows of colorful shipping containers. Vast stretches of asphalt and highways. Prime farmland completely paved over. Lines of trucks delivering goods to nearby cities. Conor says these inland ports “hit the ground very bluntly.” There is rarely any ambitious public space design involved.

“I’m not anti-growth,” he claims, “but I want these landscapes to be designed more intelligently from the start.” Conor’s design ideas include blending in ecological aspects, integrating ports and transportation networks with migratory areas for animals like bison. “These ports may not be flashy downtown parks, but they are places that need our attention.”

Conor is giving his students the tools they need to redesign places that need attention. He invites his students “to think creatively and critically, and to come up with more futuristic visions of where we want to be living in 40 or 50 years.”

My name is Conor O’Shea.

I’m a second-year assistant professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. During high school, I had a strong interest in art as well as biology, but I didn’t know that I wanted to major in either of those specifically. So, I eventually stumbled across this field called Landscape Architecture, and as soon as I read the name it really sparked my curiosity. I ended up applying to the degree program and attending the University of Illinois; enrolling in their BLA program. What I realized in starting the program, is that it was a way for me to rethink the places that I had grown up in, and to rethink them creatively in ways that enriched communities and enriched biodiversity.

What we’re seeing now in the professional world, and also in some of the coursework in academia, is that from the very beginning there is a collaboration between architecture, between urban designers, and between landscape architects. At the same time, we’re also seeing some projects starting solely with the landscape architect as the lead visionary and seeing architects plugin afterward. So, it’s truly a remarkable sort of turnaround that I think has really only happened in the past 10 to 20 years.

To use Chicago as an example, Maggie Daley Park was designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. who was actually a graduate of this program and it’s a park that Chicago has never seen before. The geometry of the park doesn’t reflect the city grid, has sinuous curves, wide pathways, year-round programming, a climbing wall, and an ice rink ribbon that actually changes in elevation. There’s an incredible playground there. These are types of spaces that we don’t ordinarily see coming out of planning studios or out of architecture studios.

It’s built on a very complicated site; it’s actually on top of a parking garage. The roofing membrane of the parking garage was leaking and its lifespan was up. The city needed to do something about that, so they had a competition.

Competitions have become a really important tool for municipalities to use in rethinking their cities. Rather than a group of planners who are employed by the city deciding, “Okay, we’re going to put a park here… the park is going to look like this… we’ll retain someone to design it…”, cities will put together a group and sponsor an ideas competition.

And with the cutting-edge representational techniques that a lot of the landscape architects are using, they can win these competitions and get these commissions to design places like Maggie Daley Park.

One thing that I’ve always felt about the Bachelor of Landscape Architecture program and the Master of Landscape Architecture program at the University of Illinois, is that when you enter the program, you are part of a small, supportive community in a large, public state university.

So, you have the benefits of a large research university, but you also have the intellectual and social support network that a small department offers. I think it starts in the first year and it continues, not just to the day that you graduate, but it continues with you all throughout your career.

And I find that faculty are generally very helpful in placing students in jobs. Each faculty member comes to the department with a certain network; a certain set of contacts. We don’t like to see students graduate without getting jobs.

What I found is that the University of Illinois it gave me enough training in the skills that I would need to go and be useful in an office environment, but it also taught me how to think. I felt that some of the more theoretical ways of understanding urbanism through the lens of a landscape – the fluctuations in the urban environment – those are things that sort of stuck with me that I still find useful. I found that it was a very well-balanced program in terms of doing and thinking – both of those things are important to the environment.

I mean I think every landscape architect has this similar story of how they got to where they are and how it’s [landscape architecture] is such a great fit for them. If only we could somehow anticipate that, and appeal to a younger audience. If we could explain to them that given these interests that they have right now put them in a perfect position to study landscape architecture. When you’re in academia, you can have a bit of space and resources to think creatively and critically to come up with more futuristic visions of where we want to be living in 40 or 50 years.