LP Article: Working Large — A Panel Discussion Inspired by Carl Steinitz

By James Thomas

Published in Landscapes Paysages Spring 2017


The Summit on  Landscape Architecture and the Future, held at the University of Pennsylvania in June, 2016, gathered together over 700 landscape architects from the United States and other parts of the world. The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) convened the summit, exhorting the delegates to think big, challenge the status quo, and join together in meeting the urgent challenges of climate change and other global environmental issues.

Carl Steinitz (Ph.D, Professor Emeritus of Landscape Architecture and Planning, Harvard Graduate School of Design), a preeminent leader in large landscape design, delivered an address which in 10 brief minutes, aimed to reset the profession’s perspective for the future. Landscape architects should, he argued, focus their work at the size and scale of regions. That, he said, is “where real issues occur in the world”. (To watch the video, see the box below.)

This broad scale work, Steinitz continued, is where “society needs us the most”. Yet he also observed that very few landscape architects are in fact working at larger scales, a fact confirmed by the recent task analysis survey completed by Adrienne W. Cadle for CLARB (2016) (bit.ly/CLARBanalysis). If landscape architects are challenging one another to think big, why are so few landscape architects working at larger scales?

To consider that question and others, I spoke with six current and former colleagues at HTFC Planning & Design, where I have practiced for over 35 years. While our practice is very diverse, with projects spanning the full spectrum of sizes and scales, regional and community scale projects have been consistent features since Garry Hilderman founded the firm in the late 1960s.videolink

“There’s no one profession who can do this [large scale work].” said Carl Steinitz. “This is by definition collaborative.”

Large-scale work requires the knowledge and perspectives of many disciplines. While that is fundamental, it is not news: collaboration has been a strong and repeated theme for fully a half century. In fact, the Pennsylvania summit was inspired by the 1966 Declaration of Concern written by Ian McHarg and his colleagues. “The solution of the environmental crisis demands the skills of many professions,” they wrote. Like other firms working at a large scale, HTFC embraces collaboration, but over time, we have become more diverse within our walls. In recent years our planning group has included individuals with backgrounds in natural resources management, geography, GIS, biology, anthropology, commerce, literature, psychology and planning as well as landscape architecture.

So what do landscape architects bring to such collaborations? At HTFC, our newer team members are convinced that LAs are particularly suited to collaborative work.

Trent Workman: “LAs bring a generalist approach. We know a bit about everything but our strength is knowing we’re not experts in any one particular field. We listen and facilitate the sharing of knowledge (and try to understand).”

Chelsea Synychych: “We know a bit about a whole lot, whereas other professions may specialize and know a whole lot about a bit. I believe this allows us to approach projects with consideration for the larger picture.”

Rob Nedotiafko, former HTFC Principal, now Director of Manitoba Parks and Protected Spaces, believes LAs are valuable to multi-disciplinary teams because they have a holistic perspective that encompasses the complex social, cultural and bio-physical elements of landscapes.

“I see no reason why landscape architects should see themselves as the stewards of the landscape, or the protectors of the landscape, or the designers of the landscape. We are not the only ones with wisdom,” said Carl Steinitz.

When teams come together to work at very large scales, we must learn to be humble and listen well. It is more important to understand the extent of our collective ignorance, than to be over-confident about what we know. This awareness of the limits of our knowledge, our sincere interest in other cultures and worldviews, and our capacity to actively listen are particularly valuable in building teams that recognize the critical value of local expertise, including that of Indigenous people.

Elly Bonny: “While professionals in engineering, science and environmental assessment are coming to recognize the importance of consultation and Indigenous knowledge, LA grads are already there. Our young staff members have flown to northern communities and arrived with the right mindsets to connect with and listen to local people. They have demonstrated a valuable willingness to understand local cultural landscapes.”

Rob Nedotiafko believes it is not the specific knowledge of LAs that is key; rather it is our broad understanding of landscape, and our creative, goal-oriented or solution-focused perspective that sets LAs apart.

“We have to be in a position to propose intentional change,” said Carl Steinitz.

It is a special landscape architect who chooses larger scale work. HTFC is always on the lookout for those rare graduates who have a sincere passion and aptitude for regional work. What are those characteristics? For one: you have to be patient. It may take many years for a project to run its course, and many more years before the effects of the“intentional change” are apparent in the landscape, if they are apparent at all.

This requires humility, and parking one’s ego at the door. Large Landscape people need to find fulfillment in the collective, collaborative process and in assisting the clients (typically communities) to realize their vision and their creation. It means enjoying the process as much as, or more than, the product. The work is unlikely to be satisfying to someone who wants to take ownership of a “design intervention” that will make the cover of LP.


Chelsea Synychych: “I enjoy it when people walk through a site and are not aware it was designed. I like the design to be subtle and flexible…allowing people to make their own discoveries in the landscape.”

Tim Hogan: “The human component of design is largely about relationships and learning about the client, users and stakeholders and the cultural groups that comprise them; building those relationships and striving for an understanding of the cultural group helps to solve problems at different scales over successive and interrelated projects.”

If the close and enduring relationships forged with clients is a definite plus, the long project time frames can be frustrating. After three fruitful years with HTFC, Katie Black turned to Urban Design.

Katie Black: “I really like large-scale work, especially the relationships you build. But large-scale work is also a lot more nebulous and open-ended. Sometimes it’s very nice to just see a finite project, know exactly what the process will be, complete it and be able to say, ‘Done!’”

Trent Workman: “The only thing I miss about smaller scale projects is that sense of completion. It seems as if our projects never finish.”

“We retain this very foolish idea that there’s a difference between planning and design…this is all design. It’s design in the sense of a verb,” said Carl Steinitz.

In Steinitz’ Pennsylvania address, he briefly summarized the history of the profession, highlighting the split between planning and design. Like Steinitz, I and others who have spent decades working across scales, believe that division is a “foolish idea”.

The profession of landscape architecture likes to claim large-scale work as part of its bailiwick, yet the CSLA, the ASLA and their affiliates, have put barriers and disincentives in place. The processes of professional registration and licensing are focused on site-scale design and construction and barely acknowledge larger scale practice.

It is worth noting that neither Tim Hogan nor Rob Nedotiafko, who hold degrees in landscape architecture, are Full Members of MALA. (Hogan is an Associate Member.) Neither of these practice leaders have the recommended days of site-scale experience to qualify for Full Membership. It is also noteworthy that Elly Bonny who, with Tim Hogan, currently leads HTFC’s large landscape work, is not a landscape architect.

While both Hogan and Nedotiafko see themselves as landscape architects, neither foresees a day in the future when they will be Full Members of MALA/CSLA. If MALA is successful in its campaign to have Manitoba pass a landscape architect Name Act, it will be illegal for both these practice leaders to use the title “landscape architect.”

Tim Hogan: “It feels like you are fully not welcome in your own club.”

The emerging practitioners on our panel acknowledge they will need to tackle LARE and other requirements for professional accreditation, but some of the hoops they will be obliged to jump have little relevance to working large.

Katie Black: “The governing chapters of CSLA and ASLA are making it very hard for emerging professionals who practice alternative forms of landscape architecture to become professionally recognized and accredited. While I understand the necessity and value of the LARE for general professional practice, it is a limited measure of what landscape architectural practice can be and how landscape architectural knowledge can be applied in various professional roles. Given the need for landscape architects in roles that are not typical LA practice, the profession should be opening up avenues for those of us who practice large-scale landscape architecture (and urban design) to gain professional recognition.”

Trent Workman believes that meeting accreditation requirements is an important step in his journey as a landscape architect. Yet he recognizes that a significant proportion of the requirements for MALA have marginal significance to the work he wants to do at larger scales. Like the other emerging practitioners on our panel, Trent is interested in the full spectrum of landscape architecture practice, and applauds the traditions of the profession’s founders like Frederick Law Olmsted.

Again, Steinitz puts it well, advocating that we recapture the vision of LA pioneers. “[We must] see the world the way the founders of the profession of landscape architecture did.”

Landscapes Paysages is the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects (CSLA) quarterly publication. Click here for the electronic edition.