Landscape architects have been and continue to be terrible at branding our profession.
It’s a problem.
I've been more involved with thinking about marketing recently and read How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Want You to Know by researcher Byron Sharp (thanks, S). This book offers a research-based approach to marketing and branding. It’s made me think about how we market ourselves as individual designers, firms, and - especially - as a profession.
The goal of branding is to make your products and services easily identifiable AND frequently noticed during your potential customers’ everyday lives. Sharp writes, “The purpose of building strong, distinctive assets is to increase the number of stimuli that can act as identification triggers for a brand.” Potential customers need to know your work when they see it and somehow connect it with you.
Sharp outlines several strategic guidelines (such as continuously reach all buyers of the brand’s service category, ensure the brand is easy to buy, stay competitive and keep up mass appeal), but the one that’s had me pondering for the past couple of days is:
Refresh and build brand-linked memory structures that make the brand easier to notice and buy
What’s a memory structure? Sharp writes, “Memory structures that relate to a brand include what the brand does, what it looks like, where it is available, when and where it is consumed, by who and with whom.”
Think about that for the profession of landscape architecture:
What do landscape architects do?
What does landscape architects’ work look like?
Where do you go to hire a landscape architect?
When and where is landscape architects’ work consumed?
Who experiences landscape architects’ work?
Do you have a clear and easy answer to any of those questions? The ASLA defines landscape architecture as “Landscape architecture encompasses the analysis, planning, design, management, and stewardship of the natural and built environment through science and design.“ That’s actually a pretty concise definition - but it’s not exactly easy to picture.
Sharp defines the distinctive elements (or cues) that contribute to memory structures as “anything that shows people what brand a product is”. He lists the following possibilities: colors, logos, taglines, symbols/characters, celebrities, advertising styles. Landscape architects’ work isn’t so easy to identify. What kinds of things do we design? Everything outside. We operate across scales. There’s also the self-defeating tradition within landscape architecture which tries to mask human effort in the experience of landscape - just think of Olmsted and Niagara Falls.
Sharp also identifies that distinctive elements can be evaluated using two criteria: uniqueness and prevalence. It’s interesting to think about high-profile landscape architecture projects related to these criteria. Consider the High Line and Lurie Garden. They’re unique. The abundance of flower color creates a highly memorable experience (Hitchmough’s research identified flower cover of 27% or more as a highly attractant quality of naturalistic plant communities). They’re also prevalent - they’re publicly accessible, located in major metro areas, and have heavy visitorship. That visitorship and accessibility makes them easy to visit - and well publicized on social media.
Landscape architects have the knowledge and skill to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the human and natural systems we serve. Moving forward, we need to start marketing ourselves in ways that allow the public to connect our skill and expertise with their positive experiences of place.
I live in books. If you know me at all, you’ll know that I always have some book in my bag, something else loaded on my phone, hold requests at the library, and a waterfall of books stacked down my staircase. A childhood isolated from mass media gave me the impulse to read anything I could get my eyes on.
Over the past year or two, I’ve begun to realize that - even if I manage to finagle my way to old age - I won’t get to read everything. Starting with Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge (an endeavor I’ve bonded over with the remarkable Lindsey Kerr), I began to think more seriously about reading as a practice - the types of work I’m reading, whose work I’m paying attention to and how I was reading it. I’ve been nudged further in this thinking through conversations on a variety of podcasts - Book Club for Masochists, Overdue, The Worst Bestsellers. I’ve also been inspired by our local UU’s social justice book club and the recommendations of Mandy Cowley.
After a year of consuming a lot of book-related media and exploring some of the associated reading challenges (including trying to expand my understanding by reading books by authors from different countries of the world), I’ve realized that - while these challenges might be good for some people, they don’t necessarily translate to a meaningful reading practice for me. Perhaps it was a late and naive realization - any challenge related to publishing is going to have a focus on selling more books and promoting recent publications. Neither of which is a bad aim, but not necessarily what I’m trying to do.
I’ve been letting the thought “how do I choose what to read” simmer for a while. When, in the usual imbricated way of contemporary life, a highly contingent chain of events (friend’s book recommendation, reading the book, rating on goodreads, link to a list based on the post) led me to A Planner’s Guide to Reading by Martin Weigel, which answers the question:
"What should I read to inform and inspire myself?"
Weigel lists 7 kinds of reading from which planners benefit:
“1. That which expands our capacity for empathy
2. That which grounds us in the basics of strategy
3. That which grounds us in the basics of how brands are built
4. That which illuminates the present state of things
5. That which lets us peer into the near-future
6. That which deepens our appreciation for creative instinct and craft
7. That which expands our capacity for persuasive expression”
Weigel goes on to provide a short reading list under each of these categories, with a brief explanation of his thinking around each category. His list felt solid, but not quite right for me. Some were a little too focused on marketing and advertising. Others were, perhaps, a little narrow.
I’ve thought about (and bounced a draft list off the ever-insightful Jared Barnes) how I’d frame such a list for myself. Here’s what I read:
I’m sure I’ll realize that I’ve left out something essential, but here is my own quick list of what I’ve been reading lately in each of these categories:
That which expands our capacity to love
Empathy isn’t enough.
Mister Loverman - Bernardine Evaristo
Crush - Richard Siken
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous - Ocean Vuong
Autumn - Ali Smith
Generations - Flavia Biondi
The Velvet Rage - Alan Downs
That which amplifies the past, illuminates the present state of things, and projects possible futures
Think about these as a continuum rather than as separate categories.
An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States - Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Staying with the Trouble - Donna Haraway
Transmetropolitan, volumes 1-10 - Warren Ellis
Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place - bell hooks
White Fragility - Robin DiAngelo
That which provides vocabulary, concepts, frameworks, and models for describing thinking and experience
Queer theory and phenomenology are incredibly useful frameworks to help me make sense of the world.
Queer Phenomenology: Orientations - Sara Ahmed
The Queer Art of Failure - J Jack Halberstam
Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric - Madison Moore
Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity - Jose Esteban Munoz
Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality - Gayle Salamon
That which deepens our appreciation for creative instinct and craft
So you feel less alone and are compelled to keep making good, whole-hearted work.
How to Make Art at the End of the World - Natalie Loveless
On Writing Well - William Zinsser
Eat Up - Ruby Tandoh
Coal to Diamonds - Beth Ditto
Educating the Reflective Practitioner - Donald Schon
Create Dangerously - Edwidge Danticat
That which grounds us in our areas of expertise
Be informed - know the scholarship in your disciplines.
Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the birth of agriculture - Bruce Pascoe
Overgrown: Practices Between Landscape Architecture and Gardening - Julian Raxworthy
Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape - Lauret Savoy
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City - Matthew Desmond
Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire - Ed. Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands, Bruce Erickson
I don’t expect that my five categories of reading - or my recent reads in each category - will be right for you. These lists are by no means comprehensive. They just demonstrate how some of my recent reading can fulfill the categories. Perhaps they’ll help you gain some clarity in thinking about your own reading practice. Go read!
I’ve never wanted an apocalypse.
As a kid, I was told that the end of the world was something to watch with joy. The fundamentalist teachings that my parents enjoyed portrayed the apocalypse as a triumph - destruction of humanity and life as we know it was an opportunity for the elect to be proven right once and for all. Apocalypse would yield those righteous few an opportunity to start over in perfection without having to deal with the messiness of the world and all the rest of us. If you didn’t like it, well, you were damned anyway.
That way of thinking didn’t work for me.
I liked the world. Oak trees and sunsets and mud puddles and chocolate ice cream all seemed pretty great. Even when the world was scary or threatening, I didn’t want it to end. There was so much to see and discover and learn.
When I went to college, I chose landscape architecture as my discipline. This wasn’t because I was impressed with the legacy of landscape architecture or with the (limited amount of) built work that I had encountered. Instead, I was fascinated with the world - specifically with exterior environments and systems. Landscape architecture seemed to offer a wide range of practices for investigating and understanding the earth.
Landscape architects have wrestled the relationship between humans and everything else since the inception of the discipline. Practitioners have often gotten things wrong. Pruitt-Igoe, Robert Moses’ neighborhood destruction, the Make It Right Foundation’s Ninth Ward homes, are all examples of projects where landscape architects and designers have failed. Some times we’ve gotten things right. This summer, at UPenn, the Design With Nature Now exhibit showcases 25 projects that boldly explore the political, ecological and economic aspects of landscape architecture practice. Weller, Hoch and Huang’s Atlas for the End of the World is another fantastic example of our discipline’s potential to address concerns at a planetary scale.
Five years out of school and into practice, I’ve been thinking seriously about how I - as a landscape architect - practice a relationship with landscape and place. As David Cain from Raptitude would say, I need to “care deeply, not passionately”. I like an interesting mess. But I need my action to be informed. How do I measure the worth of my work?
Other people have been studying and thinking about this relationship between humans and the earth since long before I was alive. I’ve been spending time with Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene recently. That phrase, “staying with the trouble”, really resonates with me. Haraway explains, “Staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, and meanings.” I like it as a way of thinking, but I haven’t quite placed how to make it real.
The closest practical design approach that I’ve encountered is the discussion of practice in Jinny Blom’s The Thoughtful Gardener. The whole book reflects Ms Blom’s ethos of making-with place, making-with clients. She references Thomas Church and the goal to “make drawings conversational”. The grounded and conversational process laid out in The Thoughtful Gardener offers the opportunity - not only for the landscape to be transformed through the design process - for the client and designer to be transformed as well.
To declare an apocalypse is easy. The world isn’t perfect? Give up now.
But to live in the world and try to make it better? That’s hard. You get to the end of the day, then have to wake up and do it again.
I’m currently working with a panel of other design and landscape professionals to develop an ecosystems component of a ten-year plan for our metro area. The following manifesto and strategies are a first draft of my personal ecological vision for Chattanooga over the next decade. The plan is necessarily limited by my knowledge and experience - I welcome objections, additions, and pointing-out-of-gaps. Dig in and let me know how you’d frame this conversation in your own city or town.
In Chattanooga, we know that land is the foundation for human prosperity. The myth of Chattanooga is based in our natural landscapes - our mountains, forests, waterfalls & streams. Our reputation rests on the land and our relationship to it. However, our municipal policies and personal practices have failed to protect the land we inhabit. We acknowledge that the history of development and land management in our region has primarily been one of destruction. The land on which Chattanooga is built was stolen from its first peoples (who were killed and forcibly removed), developed with resources based on the labor of enslaved people, and continues to be a site of legalized inequity. With that history in mind, we picture a future where shared systems and resources build prosperity and foster community for all Chattanoogans. We are looking for opportunities to distribute, layer, and design landscape’s value and benefits so that the sum is greater than any specific part. We operate in an iterative and prophetic way: the city is an open experiment where interventions and effects are measured, reported, assessed and adjusted.
In Chattanooga, we believe:
In Chattanooga, we are committed to:
In Chattanooga, we know that we have inherited a rich evolutionary legacy of biodiversity. We acknowledge that historical land management and development practices have destroyed habitat and systems. We picture a future where we repair and regenerate in a non-innocent process of healing with our cohabitant species. In Chattanooga, we seek to grow a stable biological infrastructure that supports native (and productive) animal, bird, amphibian, and invertebrate populations. Our endangered and threatened species populations have long-term protection and population redundancy. Visitors and residents have a culture of respect for biodiversity. Our city and our region are known throughout the country as innovators in promoting multi-species thriving.
In Chattanooga, we believe:
In Chattanooga, we are committed to:
To make these values real, in the next 10 years we will:
In Chattanooga, we know that food is a fundamental need that all humans share. We picture a future where the entire population of Chattanooga has access to opportunities to grow and enjoy food of their choice. Chattanoogans are excited about the food that they have available in their city. We are proud of our city’s history of food technology. There’s a central hub that showcases urban agriculture, while each neighborhood has community gardens.
In Chattanooga, we believe:
In Chattanooga, we are committed to:
To make these values real, in the next 10 years we will:
Did you grow up here?
No, I moved here about a year ago.
Oh, what brought you to Chattanooga?
I still have this conversation at least twice a week. My answers vary, depending on who’s asking: I moved for a job, I thought there were interesting design opportunities, I wanted to be able to go hiking in the mountains.
These answers are all a little bit correct.
I find the real answer embarrassing.
I moved here for a memory.
My old Rogue’s air conditioning had gone out half-way through Florida, when my brother and I stopped for lunch at a Caribbean cafe in Gainesville. We drove sweat-soaked through Georgia. Windows down. We had music blasting, but we couldn’t hear it over the highway noise.
I’d been living in south Florida for a year. Before that I spent five years on the Kansas prairies. I was accustomed to flat fire-dependent ecosystems.
Then we drove through Chattanooga. We wove through the forested hills, ribbon roads between the trees. We emerged into a city held in a bowl of hills. The Tennessee River flows through downtown. Ridges rise around. It’s a sheltered place. Lush. Green everywhere. I was in total awe at the little city.
It stuck in my mind.
So, when I’d spent my time in Little Rock and was looking for the next location - Chattanooga kept surfacing.
I’ve been here over a year now. I have a Hamilton County Driver’s License and a Tennessee license plate. (I’ll admit, I’m ridiculously over-conscientious and got those within a month of moving here.) I’ve been lucky to amass a phenomenal posse of local friends. I can now identify most of the common regional native plants. I’m on the Chattanooga 10-year Ecosystems Future Planning Committee (yes, that’s an In the Loop reference).
But moving here, to this place that I held as a fantastic memory, I’ve realized something about belonging and my relationship to place.
I’ve spent years searching for a place that felt like home. A place where I felt like I belonged. I felt a tinge of it the first time I went to Portland. In London. Later, on Bainbridge. Here in Chattanooga. Those were momentary experiences of physical environments where I felt safe and comfortable and motivated.
But now I’ve realized that home isn’t really about the physical place: it’s about my relationship to the place where I happen to find myself.
Home is somewhere that I make. It’s somewhere that I choose. Years ago, Dan Pearson gave a Sunday Sermon at the School of Life where he talked about commitment - how gardening, any act of landscape-making, is a practice of commitment to a place. To garden is to invest time and attention into a place. Whether it’s cutting back invading ivy or coaxing out the delicate twining tendrils of a jasmine vine, gardening is an act of commitment to place - devotion of time, attention, and effort. You make home, one humble act at a time. I watched the video of Dan’s lecture almost daily for two years, until it was taken down from both Youtube and Vimeo, and have been trying to track down a digital copy ever since.
I may never walk into a landscape, stumble into a place, and have it instantly feel like home.
But I’m here. Now. I can choose to live as an observer, keeping my hands clean, not getting involved. Or I can commit to this place. Get to know it closely, earn a sense of belonging. And that’s how I’ll find real home in this fantasy place.
A couple of years ago, a Sunday morning, in Little Rock, I remember going to an abandoned dance studio. It was a few blocks down from my apartment, crammed between an ice cream parlour and a novelty gift shop. It was dark inside, and cool. You could look out the big front windows and see the hot street, sweaty people under faded umbrellas at the cafe across the road, sunflowers and hibiscus hanging droop-headed in the sun. There were only six of us, maybe seven. We sat on squeaky metal folding chairs arranged in a circle.
We sat in the cool dark room. There were a few faltering songs, some words of invocation. In the light of truth and the warmth of love, we gather to seek, to sustain, and to share. Then a woman in a crisp white shirt stood and began to speak.
I don’t remember who she was or why she had been chosen. I don’t remember what personal experience compelled her testimony. But the core of her talk has stuck with me, surfacing in my mind when I’m feeling strained or overwhelmed.
She spoke about rest. Sometimes, she suggested, we need to retreat. We may be fighting a good fight, doing good work. Doing something important. Making the world wonderful. But, as individuals, we can’t be fighting all the time. We need to give ourselves space to heal and to transform.
In landscape terms, we need to take time to lie fallow. A fallow field is repairing itself. It’s not being broken or aggressively managed. It’s renewing its internal structure after being exhausted. To be fallow is to let yourself shift and settle. Avoid disturbance. Let the slow inner work happen.
Going fallow is a radical act. We’re used to proving that we deserve to exist. Internalized capitalism coerces us into measuring our worth through our productivity. Our cultural obsession with work as identity permeates even into children’s entertainment. Mindfulness, spirituality, and wellness are pushed forward as business tools for increasing employee productivity.
So far this year, I’ve been trying to go fallow. Do some deep work. Let things shift and settle. Take time to find myself again.
In the quiet, I’ve also been working on a new type of project that I’m excited to share with you soon. It’s not about landscape or design. Not even about plants, although they’ll push and jostle their way in as they do in the life of anyone who is primarily a gardener. (Yes, I know that’s a Beverly Nichols ripoff.)
These past four months, the focus of my creative practice (outside of my day job - yay for Asa Engineering where I’ll soon have exciting work to share) has been on an essay cycle, Memos to Myself. These memos reflect my experience as a queer kid growing up homeschooled in a large household in rural Missouri. My intent for the cycle is highly personal - to recognize the ideas about the world that I’ve been carrying around, name them, and dismiss or transform them. I hope that reading these essays will help other people - especially queer homeschooled kids - who are struggling to figure out how to deal with life. The essay cycle concept is an homage to Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, a collection that was transformative for me in my early 20s. I’m expecting to release Memos to Myself by the end of summer - you’ll be able to purchase it digitally and in print through Amazon. You can read the introduction here.
For those of us who make and create and design and grow, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the inundation of great work that our peers are doing. I’m incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by a cloud of friends and mentors who astonish and inspire me daily - whether they’re sewing 100s of beautifully crafted tarot bags or making incredible public gardens or training new generations of plantspeople or telling garden experts’ stories. Making good work matters. Being visible is important. We all want a mast year.
But to keep doing that work, to keep building the world with wonder and delight - you may need to retreat and rest for awhile. Let yourself be fallow.