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Common Space: A Public Practice Series

Nick Aceto is a landscape architect and urban designer at Aceto Landscape Architects. This interview was conducted by Jennifer Shagin, ASLA, Redevelopment Support Specialist at City of Fort Collins, CO and land planner at Todd Hodges Design, LLC.

Q: Did you prefer public sector versus private work when you were starting your career, or did other events shape your career decisions?

A: I had a natural inclination toward public parks and open space work when I began my career, but quickly shifted my interest toward development and urban spaces. I still very much love the outdoors and spend most of my free time in natural places, but I have a passion for urban designing urban environments and shaping communities.

Q: How did your education and training prepare you for what you do today?

A: My education in school helped open my eyes to landscape architecture and provide historic and cultural context for the work, as well as guide me toward the tools necessary to actually do the work, but it was my experience outside school that really shaped the way I practice and my guiding principles.

Q: While practicing as a landscape architect in the public sector and working with landscape architects or design teams from the private sector, what, in your opinion, are significant differences? Has anything surprised you?

A: Both public and private sector work have their own ethos. Naturally, private sector work and the clients and consultant teams geared for them tend to be focused on efficiency, economics, and bottom line. We have a somewhat unique role in that we tend to be one of the first consultants hired on a development project. When we are brought on early, we not only help guide the development program, but we also help develop a project narrative. Oftentimes, this narrative becomes adopted as part of the project branding. This brand becomes the impetus for our placemaking work and helps guide detailed site planning decisions. On public projects, there is often a lengthy public engagement component whereby the public and stakeholders dictate the program and project goals. Our role as landscape architects is often more focused on functional design and weaving the program together in a cohesive manner which satisfies the greatest constituency possible.

Q. Can you share the notable challenges you have had through your career practicing as a landscape architect in the public sector?

A: Public sector work is often less profitable than the private sector and requires a substantial commitment of resources just to be considered for the work. Oftentimes, proposals are ranked based on experience. For younger firms, these factors can be insurmountable barriers to breaking into public work. As a byproduct of this process, much of the public work in many regions tends to be awarded to larger, more established firms and sometimes non-landscape architecture firms, even if the program is clearly in the wheelhouse of a good landscape architecture office.

Q: Can you share the positive experiences you have had while working as a landscape architect in the public sector?

A: Open houses, charettes, and other forms of public engagement are always a rewarding experience. Getting to know the community you’re working for is often eye-opening and energizing. Public work tends to be oriented to projects that communities really want. They want our creativity and vision. It’s an incredible feeling to let your creativity flow and have your client be so engaged and appreciative.

Q: Is there one tip you wish to share with the next generation of landscape architects?

A: Streets, transportation, and stormwater treatment and management (including sea-level rise) are where our profession needs to focus. We need to hone our creative and technical skills in artful representation while being conversant in matters such as land use, transportation planning, and site engineering. However, landscape architectures must continue to deal with the continuities, the full spectrum rather than continue to specialize. We can't just be the “plant people” any more if our profession (and our planet) are to survive. We need to educate our clients and allied professionals and do really damn good work to ensure we are brought on early on the next project.

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