What makes a good landscape architect?

It is another usual day in the office. We sit down after 40 minutes of commuting, in front of the computer loaded with 150 unread emails, a few unresponded meeting requests. We then take a sip of freshly-brewed coffee before we start drawing a series of polylines in CAD to finish a planting plan, typing up a LVIA report and then rush between meetings to solve a retaining wall issue on site.
Does this sound familiar?
Admittedly, this is probably a snapshot of how we work in the office but is that how people perceive us working as landscape architects? 

Recently, I came across an article “The TOP 10 Qualities of Great Landscape Architects” in Land8.
This made me reflect on what qualities make a good landscape architect. I always think about how to make a good design but the personal qualities that make a good landscape architect are equally important. Realising that the landscape profession has a wide spectrum, the below may not fully resonate with all backgrounds but I hope they form a useful reference.

Responsible and being professional

You would expect the landscape architect that you appointed to be able to take responsibility for what they design and is then constructed. There is a robust process to make sure all registered landscape architects in the UK follow high ethical standards and have the necessary knowledge to deliver a high-quality service to the client. I am currently a candidate for the Pathway-to-Chartership (P2C) exams this year. Every chartered member has been through this journey, with more or less the same format. It covers a wide range of subjects from the legal system, planning legislation and contractual agreement to landscape assessment. This learning process ensures we are a good pair of hands when we work as landscape professionals and is especially helpful when we face ethical dilemmas.

University degrees that offer education in landscape architecture are accredited by the Landscape Institute, the professional body of the landscape profession in the UK. Only graduates from the accredited courses are eligible to sign up for P2C and become chartered members after the exam. Good landscape architects would not limit themselves with a degree certificate but would also aim to absorb knowledge from all sources that extend beyond their own. It is a lifelong learning process.

Strong awareness of the environment

We pride ourselves on taking care of the natural environment when we design, although many misconceptions arise around the perception that we just plant trees and design gardens. Part of our duty includes specifying trees and planting but we make sure they are planted with the right aspect, the right type of soil is specified and that tree pits are installed properly. We do that, not because we are told to do so, but because we care about the natural environment. We are fortunate to have living forms forming part of our design palette, but we have the responsibility to make sure they are used appropriately and grow sustainably.

We often cross paths with other consultants including ecologists and arborists when our work involved biodiversity net gain calculation, tree protection plans and putting together a long term management plan. Landscape and visual impact assessment/appraisal (LVIA), landscape character and capacity studies all require professional judgement and rely on our environmental awareness. Only if we take this into consideration, we are able to give good advice to the client and to help steer the policy-making in a direction of protecting the natural and building environment.

Good storyteller and communicator

A good designer would be able to present ideas, confidently explaining the reason behind the design. Drawing is an easier task. The difficult bit is to put across our idea to the team and coordinate the design with other disciplines. We need to think ahead to identify risks and constraints, discover the opportunities and see how we could make good use of them. When the client has a tight budget, but you have an ambitious design that carries vision and value, then this is the time when soft skills like communication, management of expectation and the art of balance become very important.

There are undoubtedly always challenges and technical issues encountered when you are involved in a project, no matter how big or small. You would need to calmly handle the situation and understand the problem so that you could tackle it and realise your dream design.

Innovative and creative

A landscape architect thinks outside the box and works with less to create more. We ought to be more resourceful to be creative in this growing industry. As required under the code of practice, we are committed to at least 25 hours of continual professional development (CPD) to make sure we are aware of the latest products, trends and issues we encountered. Keeping yourselves up-to-date is a way to convince the client that you are competitive and have the competence to deliver quality service in this ever-changing environment,

We do not all have good drawing skills but this should not limit our ability to express creativity. Technological advancement pushes people to quickly adapt to the new environment including virtual meetings, remote working patterns, any new software or skillsets that could potentially improve efficiency in the office. Adaptation could keep us on top of the game, but determination is key in turning conceptual ideas into reality. We, as spatial designers, are trained to understand the most appropriate width for a footpath and height for steps and benches. Only if we are determined and committed throughout the design process, these beautiful designs will be constructed exactly the same as what was in mind initially.

Always have the users in mind

A lecturer in the university once told me, when we were reviewing an assignment together, to imagine yourself walking on the sinuous path that I had sketched on the tracing paper. He asked me to think about what I would expect to see and what can a designer offer to that space. We are expected to be humane as a designer. We design for the users and should take the stakeholder’s opinion into consideration. We should definitely not be thinking about the vehicle before we consider pedestrian movement in the car parks. 

Compassion is key as it is the ability for one to feel sympathy for others and wish to help them. A good landscape architect would be able to place themselves in others’ shoes. A compassionate designer might not necessarily express their emotion but their thoughts are usually reflected in their work. No matter it is a war memorial, hospital or just a playground, the ability to think about others, transcribe emotions and memory, and respond to the local context will add meaning and purpose to your design. 

We can all do this

I hope it doesn’t sound too overwhelming and make landscape architects sound like superheroes, who can do everything. However, I truly believe we all own a part of these qualities that might apply to other aspects of our life. A great landscape architect can connect his knowledge with the trend, make good decisions with the help of science and design, and confidently deliver creative design. Landscape architecture is still a relatively new idea but if you believe you can, you will slowly improve the world, one project at a time.