“Can we sustain our intentions while also expanding our profession?”, asked Sandra Nam Cioffi, ASLA, founding principal, Ink Landscape Architects, at this year’s Cut|Fill, a participatory and collaborative “unconference” on landscape architecture.
In a wide-ranging discussion, five women design leaders delved into how to design with intention and empathy amid the pandemic, inequities, and economic pressures — and preserve mental health and well-being in the process.
According to Maura Rockcastle, ASLA, principal and co-founder of TEN x TEN, sustaining intentions in a mission-driven firm can only be achieved through “radical transparency” — both within the firm and in interactions with clients.
To achieve this level of transparency, TEN X TEN “has adopted a flat-flex leadership model and shared information on salaries. We have undertaken decolonizing, non-violent communications training. We have hosted team retreats on hiring, marketing, and management to refine our vision.”
But maintaining a commitment to mission-driven work while growing a firm is also challenging. “Where do we reinvent ourselves and evolve and where do we save time? How do we focus on health, happiness, and joy, but also balance that with efficiency? Where do we push boundaries and how do we also keep things manageable?”
Maintaining intentions may mean looking outside conventional landscape architecture practice, said Maci Nelson, Assoc. ASLA, a podcaster, educator, designer, and host of The Landscape Nerd Podcast. She often felt like she “didn’t know where she belonged” in the landscape architecture profession. “As a mother of a child with special needs, I didn’t see others in private practice given time off. I saw my friends easily discarded and laid off.”
To “keep her foot in the profession,” Nelson began researching, discovering new perspectives, and finding the connections that weren’t often discussed. “I began focusing on media and storytelling that is accessible for everyone.” To sustain her purpose, she created a podcast designed to “bring out everyone’s inner nerd and connect the nerdoms.”
“In 2010, the economy was bad, and I was struggling to find my place. As a single mom, I needed a flexible work schedule. I hopped around — doing design-build work, public art, and teaching CAD as an adjunct faculty,” said Linda Chamorro, co-founder of the Tierra Media Project, and assistant professor in landscape architecture, environmental, and urban design at Florida International University.
Then, during the height of the pandemic, she became a tenure-track faculty member at Florida International University. In her new role, “I felt pressure to define an academic agenda,” to set her intention.
“Attending the first Cut|Fill event in 2020 in the wake of the murder of George Floyd was an impactful moment for me and helped me find my calling in the field. I have been rethinking so much since 2020, learning and unlearning.”
One learning opportunity was a Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Leadership and Innovation Fellowship, which Chamorro undertook as part of a collective of Latinx landscape architects. Their fellowship explored Latin American conceptions of tierra (land). For a group of expat designers “not fully of the U.S. or Latin America, who exist in a hybrid, in-between space,” it was an opportunity to explore “beautiful and fascinating rabbit holes.”
“When I worked at an architecture firm, there were only three people of color, and we were the only ones working late and on the weekends,” said Fauzia Khanani, founding principal, Studio Fōr. She then realized her intention: “I could practice on my own, address issues for other people of color, and create a community focused on impactful work.”
Now twelve years after founding the studio, Khanani thinks design professions are still “white male-dominated fields, but that’s shifting.” Prior to the pandemic and George Floyd, “I didn’t speak publicly about race and inequality,” but there has been a “fork in the road” with the “mass recognition of police violence against people of color” and that too has changed.
Khanani joined Design as Protest, a design advocacy non-profit organization, which is focused on “making change at the larger scale.” But increasingly, she sees the for-profit and non-profit sides of her work merging. She thinks values are aligning among more young designers of color.
Conversation then shifted to how it’s important for landscape architects to maintain a sense of empathy with the communities they serve. This was viewed as key to preserving a sense of intention and advancing mission-driven work.
However, in some cases, a firm’s client may not fully understand what a community needs or wants. It’s increasingly the role of the landscape architect to start those difficult community conversations and create support for the collaborative, community-led processes needed for projects success.
The added challenge is that many of these approaches may be a “bit unprecedented” with clients and requires “showing up differently,” Rockcastle said. “Empathy is now required. But how can we advocate differently? How can we push projects towards different goals and outcomes?”
“As designers, we need to model the ways that don’t currently exist,” Chamorro said. “We need to model different ways of doing things and push back on expectations.”
“Not everyone speaks and hears in the same way. Observe closely how your client communicates, and how you communicate, and what resonates or not. If you start that process, you can reduce misunderstandings about new design processes,” Nelson argued.
Pursuing mission-driven work during a pandemic, increasing workloads, and rapid economic and social change has led to mental health challenges, including anxiety, depression, and burn-out among designers. “Where can landscape architects go for mental health support?,” Nam Cioffi asked.
“I go inward. If I am not going to take care of myself, who will? I go on walks — if I can interact with my child or pet, a plant or tree, I can connect and find myself again,” Chamorro said.
“I share challenges with my team and make them part of the decision-making process. But I also make sure the workplace is not adding to the stress of their lives,” Khanani said.
“I am empathetic so I absorb and feel the struggles of others. It’s important to be honest and model healthy ways of interacting and not be too emotional. You can have, feel, and name emotions. And then we can bring our empathy to the table with clients,” Rockcastle said.
“Landscape architecture created traumatic experiences for me. It’s important to focus on mental wellness, value your feelings, and share them. I monitor what I say but am honest,” Nelson explained.
Panelists then discussed the value of self-care — seeing a therapist or personal coach; listening to motivational podcasts or audio books; and enjoying cooking, art, and other restorative, creative pastimes.
And amid all the flux, the future remains filled with possibilities. “If you looked at the top 50 professions 50 years ago, you will see most don’t exist today. The job you may want to do may not exist yet, but you still have time to create it,” Nelson said.