International Projects Post-COVID: One Expat’s Perspective

by Edward Flaherty, ASLA

image: Edward Flaherty

I can’t deny the romantic attraction of the places where I have worked and lived:

Tangier, where on the Strait of Gibraltar, Europe meets Africa. Tangier lesson learned: waterfront tourist district. I learned the hard way how important free access to multidisciplinary project information is.

Istanbul, where on the Bosphorus Strait, Europe meets Asia. Turkey lesson learned: 200km motorway connecting Europe and Asia. I learned how to scale ‘making a difference’ when working with senior engineers whose career had been on horseback.

Saudi Arabia, on the Red Sea in a port called Yanbu, where for centuries people have made their way to Mecca and Medina. Saudi Arabia lesson learned: new town in the desert on the Red Sea coast. I learned the hard way how small the landscape infrastructure is compared to the energy, port, primary industries, transportation, jobs, and telecom are to a city being built from zero.

Kuwait, at the head of the Persian Gulf, a stone’s throw from the Tigris and the Euphrates. Kuwait lesson learned: multiple urban city center and waterfront projects. I learned that power has its benefits working in a country that had just been freed from an oppressive foreign occupation.

Logistics, often redefined. / image: Edward Flaherty

Dubai, truly a 21st century city, next to the Strait of Hormuz and on the edge of the Empty Quarter. Dubai lesson learned: massive, one-of-a-kind, five-star resort destinations. The speed of completion for a mega-landscape project can not be slowed down for any ‘moral’ argument; otherwise, employment will be terminated and the job is lost.

Letchworth Garden City, the work of Ebenezer Howard and only 30 minutes by train from London’s West End. Letchworth Garden City lesson learned: cooperative city/university planning. I learned that a well-planned city with adequate green space does not guarantee good citizen behavior.

These places are full of memories, but what’s the bottom line for post-COVID international work? Well, if the new ‘COVID-world’ normal is stay at home and no international travel, that might be a good thing. Why? Because we landscape architects need first to clearly understand our local landscape roots. That’s a good thing, right?

image: Edward Flaherty

Another reason to stay home: there has been a transformative international trend over the past 30 years. Earlier in the 80s, I never saw anything of landscape architects but from the United States and the United Kingdom. Now, everywhere in the last 10 years, I have seen landscape architects from all of Europe, from South Africa, from India, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, the Philippines, Korea, and China. They are competing with the Americans, and almost all of them will work for lesser salary packages than Americans have been accustomed to—one more reason to stay at home.

But some of us will always have the fire to explore. And sooner or later, we will be able to travel internationally with no more fear than we used to have for the flu. When that is the situation, the rest of this article will apply.

Expatriate Life or Not?

Once upon a time, international work meant being apart from your culture, your friends, and perhaps even your family. It was big time hardship. That was before the internet, which, 1995-2000, wasn’t so very long ago.

Large tree transplanting technique provided by American experience. / image: Edward Flaherty

International project work on the ground in foreign countries used to be cowboy work—survival of the fittest stuff—but those times have gone, in most of the world. While every project still has stories that can’t be told, I will tell you what I can to assist you in growing your landscape architecture career.

Henna—most all of us have seen the beautifully intricate henna designs on the hands of women, especially Muslim women. When I started my career as a landscape architect, henna was exotic and not seen in the Western world. I was in Los Angeles and had been hired by a landscape architecture office to help produce (before computers) a huge set of planting design drawings for a project in Saudi Arabia. Somebody else had already made the plant list and established the on center spacings. None of us had ever been to Saudi Arabia and none of us was scheduled to visit the site. We only had ground floor architecture for our site plans. It was all about drawing circles and call outs. All the plants were familiar to us because they were Southern California standards. except Lawsonia inermis (also known as the henna tree).

But what I am about to share with you is not for people who work in their home country, the U.S., on an international project to be installed and achieved in a foreign country—what some call seagull work. No, this is not about flying in, and then flying out. Let’s get started.

International project work is not like international tourism. Why? With international tourism, in the 21st century age of instant internet connectivity, the international tourist can keep himself digitally comfortable in his ’normal’ cultural cocoon, 24-7, anywhere. It is travel without challenging multi-cultural interaction, without cross-cultural disruption.

Where there is water, there is life, food, skill, culture, and they must be protected. / image: Edward Flaherty

International project work tears away the cocoon protection. Post-COVID, that will not change. No change? No change! Ever since the advent of the internet and the improvements of processing power, transfer rates, storage capacities, the things of high-res on your desktop, some professionals have been speculating that travel is not necessary for international work. Give somebody a drone. Access host country national GIS data and imagery. Present via Zoom, Skype…dream on…maybe sometime.

Sooner or later, you will have to exit your comfortable digital cocoon. Then comes interaction with real life and disruption. Multi cultural and cross cultural; in real life is never clear. It is always the blurriest of lossy images, always fuzzy on the edges—never as sharp as vector graphics. Somehow, you have to learn and you have to make it work. That is either your fear or your fun. It can be both. It can be very hard work. But if it is not fun, don’t do it—for your own good.

image: Edward Flaherty

Language

Worried about communication? Worried about languages? Let me share an observable trend over the past half century. In the early years of my career, French was considered the international language of choice—it was impossible to find someone in Paris speaking English. In mid-career in Saudi Arabia, English was the language in the shops and in the international consultant discussions. Now in Paris on every street corner there are French people who will answer your questions in English. English has become the language of international business. And me, I’m nothing special: run-of-the-mill ‘C’ landscape architecture student, Midwesterner, slow talking, slow walking. I am American-educated, American-licensed, and an ASLA member. I am proud and thankful for those American roots. They got me every foreign project assignment. And that is rule number one: get your professional and personal paperwork in order and keep it straight; keep your record clean.

image: Edward Flaherty

Culture

Now, after 60 years of international living and 50 years of international landscape architecture projects, I am not a seagull, flying in for a brief visit. I am from the other school of international project work: I am an American expatriate. I have lived outside the United States for more than three decades. That means I have been a resident in foreign countries, foreign cultures for more than thirty years. All those years, I earned my living as a professional landscape architect. I am an American expatriate landscape architect.

How would you make a difference as a landscape architect? / image: Edward Flaherty

Making a Difference

‘Making a difference’ may have at its roots the motivation to excel. What is the alternative? Just getting by? International project work is not for people just wanting to get by.

There is a real life question that we all encounter on a job, either international or in our home country. Am I working to change the world, or am I working to put food on the table and protect my family? That question is there. I have seen people lose their job because of activism. Don’t think the project is right, but you need to support your family? The challenge is how to do both without failing to protect your family. It will be your choice.

Suleimaniya Mosque by Sinan and the old Galata Bridge in Istanbul. / image: Edward Flaherty

And there is another question for all interested in international work: do I bring my culture with me or do I give it up when I enter the new place? Or, how and where do I fit between two different cultures? These are not conceptual or textbook questions. These are real life, in-your-face challenges.

If you are uncertain, here’s what you should do. Run your ‘making a difference’ impulse through the filters of cross-cultural real life by talking with people you trust who have already been there. Then, with those answers in hand, factor out your hubris and megalomania. If you are still interested in international projects as an expatriate, be aware that there are many layers of ‘making a difference’ on international projects.

Challenges? Questions? Email me: eflaherty at mac dot com.

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