Updates from ASLA

ASLA 2021 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Ghost Wash. Paradise Valley, AZ. COLWELL SHELOR LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE >

Common Space: A Public Practice Series—Q&A with Haley Blakeman, FASLA

Haley Blakeman, FASLA, PLA, holds the Suzanne L. Turner Professorship at the Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture at Louisiana State University. In addition to teaching, she serves as the undergraduate coordinator. This interview was conducted by Om Khurjekar, ASLA, PLA, Principal, Hord Coplan Macht.

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

I preferred private firms that did large-scale projects, such as parks, greenways, mixed use development, community planning, open space preservation, and helping communities implement projects. I liked working for private companies on projects with clear scopes and a definite end. However, I love community engagement and building consensus, so I tended to work really well with municipalities and residents on public projects. I love the public sector work, as creative solutions can not only improve one project, but also change how a municipality implements their projects overall if there is education and buy in along the way.

I have really enjoyed working in a private non-profit focused on community planning and resilience to climate change, Center for Planning Excellence. A landscape architect’s civic responsibility is important to me. It is our responsibility to make the places we live better. Working in a non-profit allowed me to let go of the bottom line and focus on improving the overall design, building capacity, researching and providing best planning and design practices, adjusting policies that do not reflect the community’s goals, and doing incremental projects that add up to big changes in our cities and towns. I bring this mindset into the classroom every day to help shape how students respond to a design problem.

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

Doc Reich, the founder of our program, always said that LSU teaches students how to think, not what to think. LSU taught me the design process – how to come at a problem with a variety of ideas and test them out until you arrive at the best solution. This training has made me a creative problem solver and collaborator. I used these skills daily in practice to think through complex problems and find solutions that accomplished the goals of various stakeholders. I use the same skills in the classroom now to teach students to think through designs from various perspectives before they settle on a single path forward.

While practicing as a landscape architect in the non-profit sector and working with landscape architects or design teams from the for-profit sector, what, in your opinion, are significant differences? Has anything surprised you?

Non-profit work is mission driven, where for-profit work is more focused on profit and project type. Therefore, all the work that we did at the Center for Planning Excellence had to be based on community input and best planning practices. There was a public education component to every project. We never worked in a community unless the residents and leadership invited us. Many times, we did the initial community engagement, capacity building, and master planning that would then be followed by a detailed site design led by a design firm. We built support for projects, which made it easier for design firms to get projects funded and built. Design firms liked teaming with us for community engagement because we think about engagement as a part of the design process. Sometimes we were the lead; sometimes we were the subcontractor, depending on the scale of the project and who had a relationship with the client. I love working like this where each company contributes their strengths.

Can you share the notable challenges you have had through your career practicing as a landscape architect in the non-profit sector?

There were definitely times when we competed for jobs directly with other private landscape architecture firms, some of which happened to be our members. Talk about uncomfortable! As a private non-profit, CPEX raises money in three ways: membership funds from businesses and municipalities that believed in our work, fee-for-service work, and national grants. We always charged market rate for consulting services, and never undercut other firms because we believed in increasing the overall quality of design. Grants and membership funds were used to do catalyst projects, like Better Block demonstration projects to influence the design of transportation infrastructure. These funds were also used for best practice education and capacity building, not to supplement fee-for-service work.

Because I had close relationships to other design firms, I proactively talked with those firms that were both our members and sometimes our competitors. I tried to explain that CPEX was mission driven, not profit driven, which meant that any profit had to go back into supporting that mission. It didn’t go into our pockets as bonuses or towards reducing rates on fee-for-service contracts. In addition, our capacity building, best practice education, and community engagement laid the groundwork for better quality of design and design fees for everyone. Over the years, many of our competitors came to see the value in CPEX because we also building capacity and community champions that would be funded and built.

Can you share the positive experiences you have had while working as a landscape architect in the non-profit sector?

I really love working with community members to define how they want their community to look, feel, and function. When we design together, they become champions for the project, ensuring that it gets funded and built to their liking. One of my favorite projects was a downtown plan for Jena, Louisiana. The residents and business owners were so passionate about what their town had to offer and were willing to put in the work to make it the best place possible. The greatest reward for me was that the last time we were in town, the residents and business owners had already organized implementation teams to take on each project in the plan. Over the next three years they implemented 17 projects. They were relentless! They believed in their shared vision so wholeheartedly that they kept working until it was done. I had the pleasure of working with them on three follow-up projects and kept in touch for over a decade. Amplifying people’s voices and building support for a project, then watching the locals see it through is really rewarding.

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

Be open to different types of work and offices. Try non-profit. Try a traditional firm. Try the public sector. Maybe run for an office or serve on a public service committee. Whatever you do, embrace your civic responsibility as a landscape architect. Find a way to contribute and make a difference where you live.

I would never have had the same impact if I had not had the freedom to be nimble and respond to the need as I did in my non-profit. I was always after a paradigm shift – I want the way we do things to be better, not just one project to be better. For there to be a shift like that, it takes time and patience to build trust. It takes a lot of education and input. It also takes some humility to move over once they get it so they can shine in the implementation. 

Here is some background information about Blakeman:

Degree or degrees, and where and when earned:

  • Master of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP), University of New Orleans, 2006
  • Bachelor of Landscape Architecture (BLA), Louisiana State University, 1999

Employment history:

  • Suzanne L. Turner Assistant Professor, Undergraduate Coordinator, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA, 2019 – present
  • Vice President, Center for Planning Excellence, Baton Rouge, LA, 2009 – 2019
  • Urban Planner, Architects Southwest, Lafayette, LA, 2006 – 2009
  • Natural Resources Planner, John R. McAdams, Durham, NC, 2003 - 2004
  • Project Manager, Greenways Incorporated, Durham, NC, 2001 - 2003
  • Designer, Haden-Stanziale, Durham, NC, 1999 - 2001

Number of years as an ASLA member: 26

Leave a Comment