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Common Space: A Public Practice Series—Q&A with Kris Sorich, ASLA

Image courtesy of Kris Sorich

Kris Sorich, ASLA, is a Senior Landscape Architect for the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT), responsible for in-house landscape design, contract construction plan and specification review, construction administration, and GIS mapping for the Division of Engineering. Kris has worked on a wide range of projects including the Chicago Riverwalk, landscaped medians, traffic calming elements, bicycle greenways, bridge and highway embankments, wetlands, bioswales, streetscapes, and plazas. She has also managed projects for public art installations and the rehabilitation and reforestation of Chicago’s historic boulevards and had a main role in the implementation strategies of CDOT’s Complete Streets Guidelines and Sustainable Urban Infrastructure Guidelines.

Kris is a current member of the ASLA Public Practice Advisory Committee. On behalf of CDOT, she received the 2017 Illinois Chapter of ASLA Merit Award in Communications and the 2015 Sustainable Landscape Award from MWRD.

This interview was conducted by Om Khurjekar, ASLA, PLA, Principal, Hord Coplan Macht.
Image: Historic Drexel Boulevard / Civiltech Engineering

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 was unaware of the work a public landscape architect did until I became one. I was working in urban residential design when I heard of an opportunity with the City of Chicago. I was driven by the notion that my designs would be maintained properly allowing the design vision to be achieved.

Q: How did your education and training prepare you for what you do today?
A: I was already working in the public sector when I was in grad school and many of the students would ask me how to build elements in their design projects. I think more programs should include studios that focus on constructability particularly as the student is nearing academic end.

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: In the professional designer sense, both public and private landscape architects can create functional and beautiful community-led designs from concept to final construction documents. However, the public practitioner role expands both within the project and outside project work. For projects with a private design consultant, the public practitioner role includes being both the client/taxpayer representative and the expert plan reviewer. Outside of project specific work, the public practitioner takes on roles such as inter-department/agency coordinator, policymaker, key contact person, and regulatory interpreter and enforcer.

Another difference between private and public practice is the long-term project and site ownership aspect. The public landscape architect is tied to the project long after the ribbon is cut by the politicians. This relationship with the site enables the public practice landscape architect to observe how the public space is functioning and to monitor that the infrastructure is of sound build. Noted successes and failures allow the public sector landscape architect to develop extensive expertise which will, in turn, influence the design of future public projects.

Q. Can you share the notable challenges you have had through your career practicing as a landscape architect in the public sector?
A: Working in the transportation sector means working with civil engineers on a regular basis. Due to the differing approaches of each discipline, it can be a challenge to move from the simple coordination level to the fully collaborative effort level necessary for a successful public project. Advancing the dialogue and getting the initial seat at the table is an important part of the process and the effort usually falls to the landscape architect. Sometimes it’s enlightening to indicate that the road is part of the landscape, not the other way around!

Q: Can you share the positive experiences you have had while working as a landscape architect in the public sector?
A: I’m always a bit teary eyed when a member of the public goes out of their way to thank us for our work. There is a lot of pride in public service.

Q: Is there one tip you wish to share with the next generation of landscape architects?
A: Design for the level of maintenance the site will receive. A beautiful plan or rendering will be just that if the actual site is a ruin.

Background information about Kris Sorich:
Degree or degrees, and where and when earned:

  • BS Finance, DePaul University
  • AAS in Horticulture / Landscape Design, Joliet Junior College
  • MLA, Illinois Institute of Technology
Employment history:
  • Senior Landscape Architect, Chicago Department of Transportation
  • previously Urban Residential Landscape Designer at several design-build firms and sole proprietorship

Number of years as an ASLA member: 7

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