For WithersRavenel landscape architects, the people in places are the reward
There’s a misconception about landscape architecture as a profession limited to planting and landscape maintenance.
As WithersRavenel celebrates World Landscape Architecture Month in April, we decided to speak with some of our landscape architects with the Design & Planning team to sketch out a clear picture of the profession.
“Members of the public often don’t know what we do or how we do it. There are definitely stereotypes out there,” explained Daniel Whatley, PLA, ASLA, CID, a Landscape Architecture Senior Project Manager at WithersRavenel. “For some, they view our sole job is to put trees on the plans after the civil engineers have done their work—shrub it up. That certainly isn’t the extent of our focus, ability level, and what our passions are.”
Melding art and science
Jon Blasco, PLA, ASLA, is another Senior Project Manager with the WithersRavenel Design & Planning team. He believes a lot of landscape architecture is designing spaces for the public realm and designing spaces for people to use.
“I think there’s so many different broad ranges in terms of ecology and environmentalism and designing spaces that protect the environment and control stormwater that are both useful and beautiful,” Jon said. “And there’s so many different realms to it.”
“It is really the marriage of art and science,” said Courtney Landoll, PLA, ASLA, WithersRavenel Director of Landscape Architecture. “One of the things that they’re saying about landscape architecture these days is that it’s actually a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) profession.”
Jon agrees. He says landscape architects view things holistically and “we blend them, the science and the artistry, so to speak, and we are just a well-rounded bunch. And we tend to have this bigger vision.”
But landscape architects often get pigeonholed into very narrow tasks within their own field, too.
“We’re so much more than just landscape plans,” Jon said. “Yeah, that’s a part of what we do. We’re such a broad community that we have some people who love horticulture, they love plants, but there’s others who love site design and site detailing. And what we do spans the gamut of what can be done and what a profession can do.”
Personally, the part that Jon likes most about landscape architecture is doing site design and detailing. “A lot of times people think ‘oh, that’s an engineer.’ Yeah, an engineer can do that, too, and that’s not to take away from the engineers either, but so can we.”
Daniel said landscape architects weave together nature and people, harmonizing the various elements, including nature, the built environment (such as cities, towns, and urban areas), and eventually the people who use those spaces and enjoy them.
While engineering is focused on providing efficient and cost-effective critical infrastructure that is crucial for any community, adding more natural elements into and around that built space is the work of landscape architects. It is crucial in its own way to provide a space that is more than just utilitarian.
“We are able to collaborate really well with other disciplines in this company, like the civil engineering teams. Every project is better when you bring all these different trades together,” Daniel said.
He said the multidisciplinary nature of WithersRavenel elevates projects to the next level with collaboration between engineering and landscape architecture.
Courtney said when people think of architecture, they know what architects do—they do the building. “Landscape architects can handle most aspects outside of the building. We aren’t going to do utilities, typically we aren’t going to design the stormwater system, though some landscape architects do, but generally things like grading, earthwork, hardscape and planting design,” she said.
Most projects involve a site visit to see and imagine the human element in something that is not yet built and ready. The team gets the context around the site, its history, and conducts an on the ground site analysis.
Daniel shared a few project layouts and plans that were designed by landscape architects for a project in the Triangle area, and depth of detail in it.
Courtney added: “The stormwater was designed by our stormwater engineers. We worked with our civil team on the grading, but the layout itself, what goes where and why in this case and many others is quite often done by landscape architects. That’s why we work on many different project types because we’re involved at a high level early on.”
Of course, their work isn’t done at that point. “And then when we get down into the particulars. We’re looking at the paving patterns, we’re looking at the planting, site lighting, landscape features and site detailing” she said.
Wearing multiple hats
According to Courtney, landscape architects are coordinators, facilitators, designers and project managers. “At this firm, we lead our own projects, and we support our engineering counterparts who are leading projects,” she said.
At WithersRavenel, the landscape architects work as a team rather than as individuals that are siloed into very specific project types.
“The last thing landscape architects, especially the ones new to field, want to do is get stuck working on just one type of project all day, every day,” according to Daniel. “We keep our team dynamics very fluid so that everybody’s getting lots of opportunities to work on new types of projects, whether it’s streetscapes, parks, or urban design.”
The team’s understanding of different textures and materials, whether they be natural materials like plants and mulch or manufactured materials like bricks for paving, requires a creative eye of a landscape architect, who provides the icing on the project cake.
That kind of expertise is “what really elevates a project in my opinion,” said Courtney.
According to Daniel, in addition to that kind of technical knowledge that licensed landscape architects bring to a project, the decision-making about things like amenities and courtyard spaces are “focused on people and user experience.”
Before a project becomes reality, landscape architects provide a glimpse of it to clients, giving them an understanding and an idea of the “look” of the project and what the costs might be for achieving it.
“Where our team is also really good at graphics [is] 3D modeling, graphically communicating to our clients and to others what [we] are designing, what our intentions are,” Daniel said.
No walk in the park
For instance, when designing spaces around big buildings, landscape architects often do a sun study to plan out where there will be sun and shade and when—a good thing to know before anyone goes planting trees or benches into the design plan.
And for WithersRavenel’s team, when it comes to landscape architecture for recreational spaces, it is another ball game (sometimes literally).
For one such project, Daniel said the team is dealing with the National Pickleball Agency, which has just changed their standard dimensions for the courts.
“And so now we’re having to pivot and adjust the entire design just because of an outside governing source changing the size of what a pickleball courts supposed to be,” he said. “So we have to stay up on that type of information for sure. When we think about parks and rec or any project, we’re always trying to be innovative. You know that’s the creative side, the art side.”
The question on every project for WithersRavenel’s landscape architects is “what’s a different way we can do this next part to make it not just the same old run-of-the-mill thing over and over again?”
“We are always looking at a new ways to approach things. The kinds of things that we get excited about is just looking at a project that might be an ordinary project and elevating it to be something different, something special and unique with some touches of creativity here and there,” Daniel said.
Equitable access to spaces
For Jon, one of the challenges of landscape architecture is creating spaces that provide equitable access, especially in public projects.
“Within the public realm should be opportunities for people from all walks of life to come together, be together in the same space, and enjoy the outdoors.”
For many communities, urban space design is gravitating toward making spaces pedestrian friendly.
“We do a lot of streetscape projects that are really kind of focusing on the sidewalks and in more how the sidewalks dominated the streetscape as opposed to the street itself, which is just a place for cars to drive back and forth and can be a really unfriendly place for people to be,” said Daniel.
Rewards of landscape architecture
When a project is completed, for a landscape architect, the greatest satisfaction or reward is to see how the community interacts with their work. They measure success by the level of joy it brings to people who use those spaces.
“I always love to go back to my projects and see the space used. You know, if you see people using your space, you know you’ve done a good job. But if no one’s using it, what’s the point?” Jon said. “So, to me, you have to go back and see those spaces being used and that’s really, really rewarding. I worked on the Coach’s Corner project on N.C. State’s campus years and years ago that is wildly popular, and it’s always amazing to go back and see the place always busy.”
Daniel echoes Jon’s view about revisiting and assessing one’s work as a landscape architect.
“For me, personally, one of my favorite things to do is just go see something that I was a part of actually finished and being used,” Daniel said.
“A good example of that is the East Campen Row project in Wendell. When I go on a Saturday, and it’s got like 200 people hanging out in that space, that’s just really rewarding to see.”
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