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The Things They Didn't Teach You in School About Public Practice

The ASLA Public Practice Advisory Committee aspires to encourage more landscape architects, including students in landscape-architecture programs and emerging professionals, to pursue careers in the public sector. Less than ten percent of ASLA’s membership identify as public practitioners, working for local, state, and federal government agencies, universities and colleges, or parks and arboreta. Many of these ASLA members have found their way to public practice after years in private practice, looking to shape public policy and have an impact on public spaces for the common good.

Current Public Practice Advisory Committee members looked back on what they learned about public practice in school, what they didn't learn in school but wish they had, and what they think ASLA members should consider before pursuing public practice.

Theresa Hyslop, ASLA
Project Manager & Landscape Designer
ETM Associates, LLC
Importance of Local Politics—Board members, elected officials, etc. will all have different priorities and varying levels of support for projects you're working on. Learning where they stand and knowing when elections will happen will help you determine if, and potentially how, public support may change for your projects and help you plan accordingly.

Learn to Design Within a Budget—Public entities often have a limited supply of funds for both designing and maintaining projects. Since school curriculums need to develop general design skills, these realities are usually kept out of design studios. However, looking back, I would have greatly appreciated at least a few exercises in cost-estimating and designing within budgets to better acknowledge and prepare me for public realities, such as designing within available funds and ensuring the design can be adequately cared for.

Public Practice Is Rewarding
—Working with the public and within the public realm can be challenging. However, it also provides a greater opportunity to create positive change for communities.

Robynne Heymans, Associate ASLA
Park Planner for Parkland Dedication and Acquisitions
City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department
Public Policy—I will echo Theresa’s sentiments about the importance of local politics. Local politicians balance the demands of so many different kinds of stakeholders and make critical decisions about the health of a city and what that means. Sometimes a healthy city is interpreted as a robust housing market and public parkland takes a back seat. It would have really informed my project design skills to have insight into the importance and implications of that on public parkland, and how to advocate for park projects in that context.

The Role of Community Stakeholders—School makes community outreach seem like a really rosy, feel-good exercise where everyone’s voice is heard and easily translated into the design and then into the built environment. The reality is often much closer to the public forums seen on Parks and Rec. School is a great place to indulge your creative license, but I wish we would have had a bit more practice balancing the needs and wants of the pro-park and anti-park community members.

Purchasing—Working within the limitations of government contracts and buy-boards and how to think creatively about funding a project is probably the most challenging aspect of the job. It would have been great to have public practitioners visit my site tech and landscape business fundamentals classes to talk about the limits and opportunities of working within bureaucratic systems when developing a project.

The Work/Life Balance—Being a public servant is incredibly rewarding, but designing spaces for the public means you never really leave work. I would have loved to have public practitioners teach about how they carry their work with them every time they visit a public park and how they experienced the role of parks within the greater social context of the community.

Andrea S. Weber, ASLA
Program Manager, Historic Roadside Property
MnDOT
Figure Out Who Your Client Is—It may not be who you think it is! Organizational understanding is key. If your organization has elected leaders and a lot of constituent contact, your client is the public and elected officials. But in any organization, some clients have more power than others, and I've found that it is important to discover and cater to the 'real' client on a given project—preferably sooner than later.

When You Are Working With the Community, They Are Not the Expert, Not You—This is a tough one for someone who has worked hard for a degree and to get their dream job! In any kind of community-involved work, your true power lies in your ability to frame questions, listen carefully, and then ensure that what you heard from the community is reflected in your next steps. This goes beyond the political implications of appearing that you might think you 'know what's best' for a community—when done correctly, open and good-faith dialogue will help you uncover creative solutions that you might not have found otherwise.

Working in the public realm is shaping the environment through sometimes complicated processes. Patience and strategic thinking are really important.

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