In a Harsh Economic Climate, New Opportunities for Designers

The three presidents of the major design organizations shaping the built environment — the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), American Institute of Architects (AIA), and American Planning Association (APA) — discussed the challenges facing the design professions as well as the opportunities at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in Los Angeles. They also outlined paths for the future direction of their organizations.

ASLA: “Adversity can make us fearless.”

Susan Hatchell, FASLA, president of ASLA, who said she often works with planners, designs parks, sustainable transportation infrastructure, and recreation areas in North Carolina. She believes that while the professions are facing severe economic conditions, there’s “opportunity in adversity.” She presented numbers showing how “really long periods of economic growth often come after periods of recession.” In this climate, “adversity can make us fearless” for when the next round of growth comes.  

There are a number of key opportunities for landscape architects. Population growth, expected to be 9 percent in the U.S., will lead to new work for landscape architects. Hatchell said: “These people will need to live somewhere. Many more communities will be looking for ‘live, work, play’ experiences.” The rise of the millennial generation, which is more “collaborative, technologically-advanced and socially-engaged,” along with the aging of the baby boomers, will mean new types of public spaces and housing development will be in demand. “Baby boomers will redefine old age and will need new types of housing, transportation, and recreation. They aren’t going to go lying down.”

Urbanization, which is a trend not only in the U.S. but around the world, will create opportunities for new public spaces and urban design work. “Cities are an emerging market for landscape architects.” Transportation currently sucks up 19 percent of people’s incomes on average. This expense is increasingly a burden for low-income residents who, like many other groups, are demanding public transportation systems. The demand for more sustainable transportation system will only grow as gas prices rise.

Landscape architects also have a major role to play in transforming the built environment into an enabler of good health. “Currently 66 percent of the population is overweight or obese, and by 2015, 75 percent will be.” Hatchell added that this health crisis is not only very damaging to our collective health, but also very expensive, with $117 billion being spent on diabetes and obesity-related conditions annually.

Turning redfields, underperforming real estate, into greenfields is another growth area. Hatchell said $700 billion in loans still have to “go negative” before 2014. These unproductive assets can be bought cheap and redeveloped as green space. As an example, she said some 40 “dead malls” are now revitalization projects.

Lastly, green infrastructure offers great opportunities. NYC is investing $1.5 billion in green infrastructure systems over the next 20 years, which is still much cheaper than the $2.9 billion they would needed to have spend on old grey infrastructure, sewage and stormwater conveyance pipes and other things made of concrete. Philadelphia also has a $2 billion 20 year plan in the works.

On unemployment among landscape architects, which Hatchell said was a serious issue, she said ASLA is seeing some positive trends. However, too few landscape firms, even the ones that are doing well, are hiring. She encouraged young out of work LAs to “stay in the game” by volunteering on projects and networking.

She discussed how ASLA, with 16,000 members in the U.S. and abroad, has launched a public awareness campaign to highlight the value of landscape architects. “It’s important that people understand what we do.”

In addition, there was a common theme running through all presentations: the need to improve collaboration among landscape architects, planners, and architects. Hatchell said: “It takes a village to make a good design. We all need to be at the table. When we come together, with our greater collective numbers, we can succeed.” In her mind, landscape architects play a central role in making this collaboration work and “weave together engineering and architecture using the foundation and guidelines provided by planners.”

AIA: “We need to better tell our story, how architecture improves our lives.”

AIA President Jeffrey Potter, FAIA, said he’s “passionate about communicating the value of design to the public,” while also improving the perception of architects among the public. With 75,000 members, AIA is more than “just a pin, an accreditation you can wear.” The organization has 18 regional components and 284 local chapters, with 23 “communities of knowledge.” An office with 200 staff is led by Robert Ivy, former editor of Architectural Record.

“Architects are under siege by competitors,” said Potter. And “the economic unpleasantness hit us hard.” On top of this, the “transition to the digital world has been costly for firms.” The BIM approach requires heavy up-front investment by architects. But for Potter the major challenge is the “deterioration of our culture. Beauty seems to no longer matter.”

Potter said architects may be to blame for some of their predicament, in part, because “of our jargon and tendency to look inward.” The membership, overall, seems to be of two minds on how to move forward. “About one half want to become the prominent master builder of the past. But the master builder model went out in the 14th century. The other half of the membership wants to the master collaborator.” Potter sees greater collaboration with planners and landscape architects as the only real way forward.

A major focus is getting emerging professionals jobs. Young architects starting out are being bludgeoned by the recession, which “may never have left the design fields,” but it’s important that “young people stay in our community.” Other key programs focus on disaster-resilient designs and rolling out green building codes worldwide.

AIA is also now working on a “repositioning initiative” because “we are unhappy” about how the public perceives us. “The public doesn’t understand what we do. We need to better tell our stories and demonstrate how architecture improves our lives.”

APA: “Multidisciplinary teams lead to better, richer designs.”

For Mitchell Silver, AICP, it’s a shame that landscape architecture and planning went in different directions back in 1909; they used to be the same thing. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., the son of the designer of Central Park and the father of landscape architecture, wanted “cities to be more efficient, attractive, livable, and less chaotic.” So landscape architects began to focus on the physical form of cities while planners moved towards spatial form and the policy and regulatory side of things. Still, he said, “our professions have a common DNA,” rooted in “scientific efficiency, civic beauty, and social equity.”

The APA, with its 40,000 members worldwide, is now very focused on sustainability and climate change. Another major focus is on “sustaining places.” Taskforces were set up in this area, yielding 8 new principles. APA wants to enhance the “value of comprehensive plans,” (possibly by looking into certification for them), and creating quality spaces for the long-term. A new “rebuilding America” initiative created recommendations to strengthen the ” place-making” focus of the organization.

Pointing to the successful Mayor’s Institute of City Design (MICD), a group Silver is involved in, he said “multidisciplinary teams” now need to be the way to go with projects of all scales. They are necessary because they “lead to better, richer designs.” Silver, who is the director of planning for the City of Raleigh, now forces his planning department to work in multidisciplinary teams and issues RFPs that demand those teams. He said, while planners can offer the vision and “plan for experiences that we want people to have,” it’s landscape architects and architects “who are critical to creating that experience.”

Still, Silver sees planners as providing broad leadership among the design professions. APA’s key goals are to “lead America to a more just and sustainable future, while growing the next generation of leaders.” On collaboration, Silver reiterated the points made by Hatchell, arguing that “we need to reforge our partnerships.”

All presidents said their organizations “don’t have jobs to hand out,” but are working hard (in unison) on Capitol Hill to save programs that create work for design professionals, while also creating opportunities at the state and local levels. Silver liked the idea of moving past the state-level bottle-necks and getting the federal government to provide funds directly to cities, who have many “shovel-ready projects.”

Depending on who you talk to, it’s the worst time to get a design degree, or, perhaps, the best given the growing number of problems that will require a design professional to fix. Plus, all the heads of the organizations seemed to believe the economy will come back.

Image credit: ASLA 2011 General Design Honor Award. Citygarden, St. Louis / Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects

3 thoughts on “In a Harsh Economic Climate, New Opportunities for Designers

  1. Boenau 04/27/2012 / 6:52 am

    Hearing the outlook from ASLA, AIA, and APA, one takeaway for GenY designers & planners is to create a career path, rather than just finding a job. Have an entrepreneurial mind. (A good idea regardless of the state of the economy.)

  2. Rob Parker 05/23/2012 / 2:05 pm

    Interesting that even among planners who want to take a different approach to code requiements and zoning often are not able to as the ultimate decision is made by a politician not a planner.

  3. cdub 05/27/2012 / 10:01 am

    Did they happen to discuss the real issue – that engineers and architects are ignoring their planner and landscape architect counterparts and doing our jobs for us, and doing a really poor job at it? I see this on a daily basis – architect or engineer has decided to do the landscape architecture component of a project “in house” and in the end, the client suffers from a very poor final product. All the while, the clients and public think a landscape architect or planner did a poor job. This ultimately cheapens my profession and makes us look incompetent. This is the real issue that needs to be resolved immediately.

Leave a Reply