Ten random principles to consider when starting your career in Landscape Architecture:


When you first start out in Landscape Architecture it is easy to be left feeling like a very small cog in a very large wheel.  While it is true that starting out in a small office will offer a different experience than working in a large office, there are certain general principles that if followed,  I believe will  keep you challenged, inspired and confident of your potential for future growth in the profession.    These are in no particular order:

  1. Bring your sense of humor.  Everyone needs a laugh and nothing can limit a career faster than passivity, complaining or negativity.   I make it a goal of mine to ensure that I make everyone laugh at least once during every meeting I attend.  I’m not always successful but that’s not the point.   It goes a long way to building relationships and can have the residual effect of making others enjoy the work as much as you do.  It’s a great team building strategy and can set you apart from others.
  2. Grow your own career.   If you aren’t being given new responsibilities and want new responsibilities then just take them.  If you are handed work to do then ask yourself questions like “can this design be better?” “Can this detail be more easily constructed?” “Is there a way to make this just as effective but less expensive?”    If you think it can, then you should propose the changes you think need to be made.  Sketch your ideas so that it’s clear you haven’t spent a ton of time on your own behalf.    The more you do this and the more successful you are at doing it, the more you will be trusted with new responsibilities.   If they aren’t generally accepted or you aren’t encouraged to work this way, then maybe you are in the wrong work environment.
  3. Help the Firm.  I suggest offering to take on an administrative project that will further the efficiency and effectiveness of the office.  Web site design or data entry, in-house graphic standards, organization of block and detail libraries are all examples of projects that can greatly improve office efficiency as well as give you something to do if the project work slows.   No firm likes to have people sitting on their hands and every office likes continuous improvement.
  4. Lobby for what you want.  If you want to make the jump to project management and believe you are ready to make that jump, then wait for an interesting project to come into the office (it can be big or small), and then lobby your superiors to make you responsible for it.  I did this two years into my career in California and ended up working on Euro Disneyland for five years and living in Paris!
  5. Learn EVERYTHING.  This is to say that if you really want to climb the ladder as it were, then make yourself a student again.   If you don’t know about constructing on-slab landscapes, then learn about it. If you don’t know about LID, then learn about it.  If you don’t know about green roof systems, then learn about them.    Try to get involved in projects where you can learn the most.  Rest assured you won’t learn everything even if you try, but you’ll learn more than others and will end up with a much broader skill-set.  Remember that you can also learn a great deal by listening to the other professionals you are working with.  Clients, Engineers and Architects are your collaborators and you can learn just as much from them as you can learn from other Landscape Architects.  Ask them questions.   They love to talk.
  6. Work in the Public Sector.  If you get the opportunity to work in the public sector, do it.  You don’t have to do it forever (though some do), but learning about the public sector and municipal / agency approvals from the inside, can become an extremely valuable asset if you later return to the private sector.  Clients will become reliant on you for your working knowledge of the system as well as your established relationships with staff.
  7. Measure EVERYTHING.  As designers our decision-making is in part, centred on the dimension of objects and scale.  For example, in community design the dimensions of roads and their proportion to building heights is critical to the design of successful streets.  Sidewalk and boulevard widths and building setbacks can significantly alter the appearance and character of new neighborhoods.  Small parks are very different from large parks.   On a smaller scale, the dimension of everyday objects like light poles, seat-walls, steps, landings,  gates, hand-rails, guards, parking bays and pedestrian trails are all critical to successful design.  Knowing them by heart also helps to streamline the design process.    In many cases, dimensions are a function of guidelines and building codes.   Get to know them intimately as well.
  8. Make research a daily part of your life.   If you are working in an established office then you will have a myriad of built projects to refer to as reference.   Review the drawings.  Review the details.  Learn the patterns of the drawing sets and corresponding details.   It is better than having a complete library at your finger tips.  Though if the office has a library then review that too,  as well as internet blogs, suppliers and reference web sites.
  9. Get Involved. Get involved in your profession early. Whether it is the CSLA or ASLA or your local chapter – get involved.  Volunteer on a Committee or Sub-Committee.  While I have not personally done this to any great extent I have seen first-hand the benefits of getting involved.  Getting involved early can lead to becoming a Committee Chair, or better yet a member of the governing Council.  It can offer access to a number of worthwhile events and conferences as well as give you exposure that you otherwise wouldn’t have.  In this same vain I would suggest that you also take your professional certification exams as early on in your profession as you can.   Getting that stamp offers opportunities for advancement.   If you fail the first time out, look at it as a snap-shot in time.  It is a good way to learn where you are in professional development terms.
  10. Have a Life.   It is very common for recent graduates to work long hours, nights and weekends hoping that this makes them stand out from the crowd.   It is true that most firms will not discourage this approach.  After all, it helps their bottom line.   Keep in mind however, that the amount you work is not necessarily tied to your creativity, energy and/or passion for the job.    Don’t work at the expense of having a full, varied and rewarding life.   Follow ALL of your passions and interests.  You never know where they will lead…including possibly in new directions as a Landscape Architect.

There are more, but I like the number 10.


Upon reflection…also consider No. 11 :

Know that it is not about you.  The vast majority of your greatest achievements will not come as a result of your efforts, but as a result of your work with others who have become your friends. People who respect your talents and capabilities, who enjoy your company and who bring out the best in you. So don’t be a dick.  That is all


Author: paul nodwell

Paul Nodwell draws on almost 33 years of experience in Urban Design and Landscape Architecture. He is a passionate student of the public realm and believes that great 'place-making' cannot happen without listening to stakeholders, shaping the project around a big (not necessarily complex) idea, and wherever possible, introducing metaphorical and even poetic elements that engage the public in their own experience of the built environment. Early in his career Paul's work took him to Southern California with Peridian Group Landscape Architecture and to Paris, France with Walt Disney Imagineering, but he has enjoyed most, his participation in helping to shape the Greater Toronto Area. As part of the senior management team for the Town of Markham, Paul played a key role in bringing The New Urbanism to southern Ontario. In private practice, Paul has designed a myriad of public parks, streetscapes and condominiums. He has played a key role in the design of a number of new mixed use communities including Angus Glen, Cornell, The Galleria, Concord Floral, Vaughan Metro Centre and Markham Centre. Paul is the recipient of more than a dozen awards for urban design and landscape architecture. He has served on the City of Vaughan Design Review Panel for three years and continues to enjoy serving as adjudicator at the University of Guelph. Even more, he enjoys the dip of his canoe paddle in a northern Ontario wilderness and the challenge of paints and a blank canvas.

3 thoughts on “Ten random principles to consider when starting your career in Landscape Architecture:”

  1. Great list Paul. Ignoring number 10 almost cost me my marriage. Thankfully I woke up to a much more balanced and fulfilling life. Landscape Architecture is a great profession that should be treated like a long beautiful walk rather than a winded sprint.

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