As National Park and Recreation Month continues, let’s meet an employee-owner with more than 30 years of experience in the field. Brian Starkey, PLA, ASLA, is WithersRavenel’s Director of Parks and Recreation. While he is known in the company for his passion for parks and landscape architecture, he’s also a sketch artist, a basketball fan and loves spending time in the mountains. Let’s get to know Brian better in his Owner Profile.
What does the typical workday at WithersRavenel look like for you?
There are no typical workdays. It changes from day to day, which is one of the things that I love about it. But it’s usually a mix of a little design, a little marketing, a little mentorship, writing a proposal, getting ready for an interview, reviewing plans; depends on the particular day. The only thing that is typical is the variety.
What’s one of your favorite projects that you’ve worked on at WithersRavenel?
We’re just getting into an intriguing project for the Town of New Bern. The catalyst for the project is addressing stormwater resilience needs for a neighborhood near downtown which has been subject to flooding more frequently in recent years. In addition to meeting the stormwater management objectives, we are creating community green space, wildlife habitat, educational opportunities and play environments. Educational opportunities will convey to residents the benefits of these areas for their community. Places for habitat, places for expression, for public art. It’s an exciting opportunity for us and the community. There will be more and more of these types of projects down east and in other places in response to our ever-changing climate and the frequency and intensity of storm events.
What do you like most about working with communities on parks and recreation projects?
We work in a lot of small and mid-size communities and the part I enjoy most is learning about that community, hearing stories from residents about their history, culture and experiences. We draw inspiration from these stories, and they inform our design vocabulary whether it’s an urban park, a pocket park or regional park. It’s about transforming a place and making it meaningful to the community. I like engaging with them and we take every opportunity to do that. The more we do that, the more informed, the more responsive and the more meaningful the space will be to them.
You’ve served on many commissions and boards, including the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the North Carolina Board of Landscape Architects (NCBLA), the City of Raleigh and others. What drives your interest in volunteering in this way?
My involvement is about giving back and contributing to the advancement and betterment of my profession and my community. I have held several positions on the Executive Committee for our state ASLA chapter and I am currently our state’s Trustee representing North Carolina at the national level. My involvement with ASLA is about advancing the profession. I’m interested in several subjects on the state and national level including diversity within our profession and protecting our licensure. I also spent ten years on the North Carolina Board of Landscape Architects. NCBLA is the regulatory body that is charged with regulating the licensure of Landscape Architects. Their mission is protecting public health, safety and welfare by making sure those who practice Landscape Architecture are qualified to do so. Promoting the profession and protecting licensure is extremely important to me.
On the civic side, my volunteer efforts with the City of Raleigh have included the Appearance Commission, Arts Commission, Public Art and Design Board and the Environmental Advisory Board. I helped author the City’s Percent for Public Artordinance for capital improvement projects and led the first public art installation project under the ordinance. I’m a big believer in the intersection between landscape and art, and what art brings to a community space. Public art creates conversation, educates, enlightens, or simply brings joy. I was excited to be part of that.
You studied and worked in the Netherlands when you were younger. How did that experience shape you as a landscape architect and as a person?
It was very influential. I spent three years in Amsterdam and studied at the Amsterdam Academy for Building Arts. The Dutch are very innovative and creative. There is a Dutch saying, which translated means, Anything is possible. When you create two-thirds of your country by stealing land from the sea, through engineering and design innovations, anything truly is possible. Their approach to design, willingness to experiment, and the importance they place on providing community space is inspiring.
It was also really refreshing to learn that in the Netherlands, landscape architects are held in high esteem. There is a better understanding of how important what we do is. They are focused on density, and land is very valuable, but they don’t just build buildings all over it. They understand the balance between open space and development. In Holland you’ll typically find a three-, four-story building right up against farmland and you don’t have to walk or bike very far before you reach a public open space. I often reference my experiences there when I sit down to design a public park space.
One of the differences I found between public park spaces there and spaces here, and it’s a reflection of culture, is the openness of those in Holland. I find that American designers try to fill up a space with program. In Holland, people live in such dense scenarios, that public spaces are more open. It’s more flexible than anything. The quality of design is there, and it doesn’t mean there are no program elements in it, but the value of open space and the ability to accommodate different events and leave the use of the space to what the community really needs is a notable difference.
What is something that you really like to do in your spare time?
I like to sketch. You would think that I get enough drawing here at the office, but I don’t. I carry the sketchbook with me a lot. I’m a sports fan and played basketball growing up. Still do a little bit of that, though I don’t run 90 feet anymore.
We have a cabin in the mountains and spend as much time there as we can. The cabin is in Long Hope Valley where the New River begins in the shadow of Elk Knob. The valley has numerous endangered species of flora and fauna and it provides a welcome respite from our life in downtown Raleigh. We become reconnected to nature there.
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