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Q&A with Mami Hara, ASLA, of Seattle Public Utilities

Interview conducted by Irene Ogata, ASLA 

Policy Shaper 200Mami Hara, ASLA, is the general manager and chief executive officer of Seattle Public Utilities. She has degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University. Her career has spanned a wide range as an advisor to several environmental, philanthropic, planning and design advocacy organization; teaching at PennDesign, Temple School of Architecture and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT; formerly a principal with Wallace Roberts + Todd; and first deputy commissioner of Philadelphia Water. Hara is committed to advancing equitable and sustainable cities and regions through collaboration and strategic investment. In those efforts she has advanced sustainable land and water management practices through cultivating leaders, partnerships, participation, planning and knowledge sharing. 

The interview: 

Landscape architecture is a broad profession. How did you get to the public sector?

I had been a private consultant for years and the opportunity to work at a public utility offered the potential to implement recommendations I had been making around green infrastructure, open space investments, community planning and financing. Philadelphia Water was my first public position but my experiences with clients and other colleagues helped prepare me; but I came into the sector with less operational experience than I would have liked. 

How did your education prepare you for what you do today - opportunities and challenges? 

As a student, my liberal arts education provided a very broad background that has served me well in cultivating understandings of the interconnections and intersections between physical environmental and human systems. University of Pennsylvania Design of the Environment program and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design provided global perspectives on landscape architecture, urban design and planning. After graduating, every day of work was an on-going continuation of my education; working with communities, my colleagues, clients and other design team members provided daily lessons. Transitioning to the public sector, I became more aware that as a design and planning student, I was not taught much about management and administration of operations, especially the social-human aspects of politics and public administration. 

What do you consider when developing projects with public funds?

There are serious fiduciary responsibilities when spending public funds. Public officials should get the utmost value from public investments and achieve the highest possible returns across multiple fronts. This means balancing the benefits and risks, developing projects that minimize risks but at the same time increases performance and innovation. It may seem that optimizing performance and minimizing risk are oppositional concepts; they are not. For public projects to take the lead, this entails taking some risks in order to gain greater efficiencies and benefits.    We cannot entirely preclude project disappointments; but examining why the project outcome was not as successful as planned and gaining insights on lessons learned, contributes to improving the next transformation. 

In your experience, is there a difference in how you apply landscape architecture as a private consultant versus a public servant?

I don’t see a difference. My background education, the training and ethos, informs me in everything that I do, in either sector. Landscape architecture design and planning encompasses a wide range of issues, criteria and conditions. Working on projects that involve management of water is also about management of land, in both the public and private sector. This is one of those intersections where landscape architects are trained to process data, analysis and design – sine qua non

What message would you like to convey to landscape architects? (If you were invited to do the Commencement talk at graduation): 

As environmental change accelerates, the ability to manage adaptively and rapidly becomes increasingly important. The practice of landscape architecture – in that it entails the management of flows and intervention in interconnected physical systems could and should play a stronger role in managing our resources – adaptively, rapidly and wisely.

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