What are we doing + fat kids die young

This blog dropped in the middle of studio crunch time, so I didn’t have the opportunity to describe our vision and intent for the site.  If you’ve been following recent posts, you know we want to use it to keep everyone aware of relevent news and events.  But that’s not our primary mission.  Our principal goal is to make this a forum for conversations that extend beyond studio and classroom; a place where students can participate in ongoing design debates sparked by lectures, site visits, studio work, etc..  We view this project as a platform for NCSU students to demonstrate their awareness and understanding of contemporary issues in landscape architecture.  The site is already receiving an increasing stream of regular visits, ranging from 50-300 hits per day.   As our content deepens, we expect that exposure to continue to expand.  With exposure comes recognition, and with recognition come job opportunities.   I assume everyone came to school to prepare themselves for a sweet job, so I encourage you to help us build a lively blog.

In the spirit of creating conversation about landscape architecture, I thought I’d start at the beginning with a conversation we’ve all had, but perhaps not successfully – the “What do you do?” conversation.  When I reply, “Working on a Master of Landscape Architecture at State”  I usually get “Well you can practice on my yard anytime. I’m terrible at landscaping.”  Sometimes I get “Oh yeah, my cousin had a landscaping business for a while,” or “Ohhhhh.  I love plants too!”  These responses represent an extremely narrow understanding of the field, so I take a stab at characterizing the profession.  For the last couple of years, I’ve been failing. 

I usually end up with a mashed up rambling about stormwater, public space, sustainability, civil engineering, perception, smart growth, LID, social equity, regionalisim, sprawl, population density, transportation infrastructure, healing garden, landuse, brownfields, or any number of other buzz words I happen to cough up at the time.  At best, these responses spark a follow-up, but usually I get a glazed look or ” That’s interesting.  I like maples in fall.”

After too many frustrating conversations, I decided to pull together a canned response that I could offer anytime the question comes up.  The first place I went for a concise definition was ASLA.  That didn’t produce much, so I went to wikipedia, the Feds, Penn State, UW, Harvard, NCSU, and even the Landscape Architecture Coloring Book.  Most of these are multi paragraph explanations that have no place in a casual conversation.  I tried using individual phrases from these definitions like:

  •  shape and protect the physical environment in which we live, work and play
  • attractively design residential areas, public parks and playgrounds, college campuses, shopping centers, golf courses, and parkways
  • architects of the landscape– the landscape encompassing everything on (and in some cases underneath) the surface of the land (or water).
  • dealing with the arrangement of land and buildings for human use and enjoyment
  • a synthesis of arts, science, and technical philosophies and practices that seek to care for the Earth’s landscapes in a truly holistic, creative and sustainable manner
  • the art, planning, design, management, preservation and rehabilitation of the land and the design of large-scale man-made constructs
  • we design places– the places between buildings, the places we move about in every day, the places that make us comfortable, safe, and healthy, that provide us stimulation or peace of mind, and that affect our quality of life.
  • and so on…

These might have worked by the coffee bar at a TED conference, but they weren’t doing anything for me at the dining table.  I was still getting glazed eyes and humoring smiles.  After awhile, I dropped the project and resigned myself to just being a member of  “The Invisible Profession”.  But even that didn’t work because nurses and mothers already own the term.  Oh well.

AND THEN ONE DAY…Robin Moore gave a talk to my Research & Strategic Methods class and asserted we must  think of our profession a series of Human Health Interventions.  A few days later I was in my wife’s salon waiting for a free cut & color when she introduced me to one of her clients and told her I was studying Landscape Architecture.  When her client asked if I was going to “do residential”, I said “No, I’m going to make human health interventions.”    The conversation that followed was better than I could have ever expected.  We talked about fat kids and diabetes, how they can’t learn and are going to die young because playgrounds suck, how much time she wastes commuting and how great the metro is in DC, how Paley Park is so much cooler than the Commons at North Hills, and how Landscape Architecture can fix it all.

Since then I’ve tried it a few more times and its worked each.  I think it’s because Human Health Intervention has such a curative and determined connotation that people are eager to hear more.  If you follow-up with fat kids and diabetes the concept is immediately personalized and you’ve got them on the hook for an earful.  You don’t even have to mention lawnmowers.

So what do you guys say when somebody asks what you do?