Finding Rewarding Work in Landscape Architecture

Village of Yorkville Park, 2012 Landmark Award Winner image: © Peter Mauss/Esto
Village of Yorkville Park, 2012 Landmark Award Winner
image: © Peter Mauss/Esto

In a 2014 survey of ASLA’s Professional Practice Networks (PPNs), we asked members: Which sector do you find most rewarding to work in? To simplify responses, we gave members three choices: the public sector, the private sector, or academia. Looking at the results, working in the public sector was deemed to be the most rewarding, selected by 42% of survey takers. The private sector was a close second, with 38%, and academia came in third with 11%.

Among our survey takers, there were 25 respondents who stated that they have worked in all three sectors. This select group, with the greatest breadth of experience, might be the most qualified to pick which sector is most satisfying to work in. Within this subset of the results, 13 chose the public sector, 4 chose private, and 5 picked academia as the most rewarding kind of work.

“Other” was also a possible answer, and a handful of people wrote in either “all of the above” or a different answer. Those in favor of multi-sector experience wrote:

“The mix of sectors is most appealing—you don’t get bored.”

“Rewards from each are incomparable.”

“As of now, all are vital to my development.”

“I strive to help people realize their dreams whether that be through design or teaching. It’s all rewarding.”

“I’ve worked in both public and private sectors. Public is embroiled in politics and limits opportunity and creativity. Good to see both sides though!”

Other favorite sectors to work in include:

“Non-profit botanical gardens and/or arboreta.”

“Community and, in particular, rural and underserved educational settings.”

Below, we review the reasons why different sectors were picked, exploring the many joys and challenges of different kinds of landscape architecture practice, and investigating why, though most ASLA members and most of the PPN members who took the survey primarily work in the private sector, the public sector was deemed to be the most rewarding.

Mill Creek Ranch, 2015 Honor Award Winner, Residential Design Category image: Bill Timmerman
Mill Creek Ranch, 2015 Honor Award Winner, Residential Design Category
image: Bill Timmerman

1. The Private Sector

Working with Clients

“It is very satisfying to develop and cultivate the personal relationships that are so important in the private sector.”

“The initial meeting with the client, then taking their ideas, mixing it with your own, then having the design come alive to a point where you can actually see the excitement in the client’s eyes.”

“Dealing directly with the people who will use and appreciate their landscape.”

“Able to work closely with clients and their dreams.”

“Clients who genuinely care; freedom to consider the greater good (not just the bottom line).”

“The design flexibility to be creative on an individual basis with the client who understands and appreciates the value.”

“Close relationship with clients; more involvement in entire project scope from schematic design to maintenance post-project completion.”

“Sophisticated clients who understand design and have a desire to create award-winning work.”

Variety and Range

“The range of projects and the diversity of clients.”

“I’ve gotten to do an incredible variety of projects during my 30 years of practice. I love to learn. Private practice allows me to continue to learn new information.”

“Typically a wider variety of work that has a more direct impact on the quality of life within a community.”

More Creative Freedom and Less Bureaucracy

“More room for creativity, vs. public sector projects which have many constraints and many stakeholders to please.”

“Opportunity to be more creative in design and solutions, usually larger budgets to work with.”

“Ability to have more design influence and flexibility.”

“It is dynamic and quick paced.”

“Individuals make a difference; not as committee driven.”

“Your design gets built. More control over the final result.”

“Allows for design creativity and more often turns into reality.”

“Typically the work comes to fruition faster without as much compromise.”

Phil Hardberger Park, 2015 Honor Award Winner, General Design Category image: Charles Mayer
Phil Hardberger Park, 2015 Honor Award Winner, General Design Category
image: Charles Mayer

2. The Public Sector

Scale of Impact

“This is the most difficult sector due to contractual restrictions, a protracted public process, design by committee, and low fees, but ultimately, if you prevail, you will have improved the lives of many, many more people than any other type of project.”

“Improves more people’s lives with one project, makes you feel like your profession is important.”

“That our projects are experienced and shared by a larger community; contributing to the greater good.”

“Sense of accomplishment in increasing the overall liveability on a larger scale.”

“Being able to provide beauty to everyone.”

“I love helping communities realize their dreams because it ultimately benefits a huge number of people.”

“Seeing multiple user groups enjoying something you designed.”

“You can address public needs while also adding beauty and ecological health to projects.”

“Ability to investigate issues in depth; create policy that has wide ranging impacts.”

“Design can touch the lives of many.”

“Exposure, publicity, and recognition.”

“In the late 70s and 80s, our clients were almost 100% private. In the 90s and 00s, the more interesting projects and important projects were public. Private projects overtime get rebuilt, remodeled, or demolished. Public project endure over time and have a greater impact on the quality of the built environment of the city.”

Serving the Public vs. Profits

“It’s solution-oriented instead of profit-oriented.”

“I was born to be a public servant. I love being able to focus solely on serving our residents and not have to be constantly worrying about my billable hours.”

“Providing a chance to enjoy nature and the outdoors for those who do not have the monetary means to achieve on their own, or who may not intrinsically value what the outdoors affords the soul.”

“Satisfying to see people enjoy these places after their built.”

“Best feeling of appreciation for work well done.”

“Long term commitment for open space and park lands.”

“Culturally significant, freighted with values.”

The Power of Teamwork

“I get to work with teams of creative people to create parks and preserves that will be here in perpetuity.”

“Input from multiple stakeholder groups.”

“It’s wonderful to work with people, turn them on to the design process and include them in it, see the results benefit them.”

“Working with fellow professionals who are able to discuss workable criteria for a given project without requiring babysitting.”

Green Roof Innovation Testing (GRIT) Laboratory, 2013 Award of Excellence Winner, Research Category image: GRIT Lab
Green Roof Innovation Testing (GRIT) Laboratory, 2013 Award of Excellence Winner, Research Category
image: GRIT Lab

3. Academia

Freedom to Pursue Intellectual Questions

“A lot more open to working outside of the box.”

“Asking questions and searching for answers.”

“The ability to research and publish. More potential for unleashed creativity.”

“Opportunities to make a difference.”

“Usually the academic realm ‘gets it.’ You don’t have to battle bureaucrats and politics (although academia can have its own ilk).”

“I enjoy identifying a problem, collecting data about it, analyzing and evaluating the data, and then telling the story of what I found. It is very difficult to do that in private or public practice—and even more difficult to get paid for it (I do it in my private practice, but off the clock). I also enjoy accompanying students on their journey.”

The Joys of Teaching

“Sense of accomplishment from teaching others.”

“Seeing others build their understanding of the world around them.”

“Wide variety of projects; opportunity to work with young people; interesting combination of teaching, service, research, and scholarship.”

At the start of 2014, a questionnaire was sent out to members of ASLA’s Professional Practice Networks (PPNs). The theme: career paths in landscape architecture. As you can imagine, responses were varied, and included many insightful comments and suggestions. Synopses of the survey results were originally shared in LAND over the course of 2014, and we are now re-posting this information here on The Field. For the latest updates on the results of the annual PPN Survey, see LAND’s PPN News section.

3 thoughts on “Finding Rewarding Work in Landscape Architecture

  1. Bob Oberdorfer August 4, 2016 / 11:17 am

    With absolutely no intent to cast aspersions on what appears to have started an interesting dialog, I do feel it is worth pointing out that the question itself was worded in a somewhat ambiguous fashion. “Working in…” could mean either “being employed by” or “working on projects for” the various sectors. I had interpreted it to mean the first, but it is apparent from the range of responses that many others understood it differently. As such, the “rewards” mentioned have to be interpreted relative to the perspective from which the question was answered. The point being that not everyone is answering the same question.

    • asla staff August 4, 2016 / 11:26 am

      Thank you for making that point, Bob – it’s a good one to keep in mind. Crafting clear survey questions is always something of a challenge, but I’m hoping the direct quotations help to clarify members’ responses, as the question itself is open to interpretation/slightly different readings, prompting different sorts of answers, as you noted. Given those differences, we can at least see some of the pros and cons associated with each sector.

  2. F March 18, 2019 / 1:02 pm

    It is rather sobering to see a paucity of responses that find joy in nurturing students and unlocking their creative potential as the next generation of designers. It seems to be a fairly accurate symptom of what seems to be lacking in academia more often than not–a genuine interest in students over one’s own research or personal interests. I was unpleasantly surprised to witness this in architecture school. The teachers may be saying the right things like “be different,” “inclusivity,” and “passion,” but then often fail to live those standards or truly inspire students.

    From these roots, it seems no wonder that public can be more rewarding than academia, since we get to interact with real, and different, people and have a positive impact on their lives. I think it’s safe to say that many of us enter design to have this kind of impact on the spaces we inhabit.

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