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Getting Started in Landscape Architecture

If you're a person who loves both visually pleasing landmarks, and other outdoor areas and who is passionate about preserving a specific environment, becoming a landscape architect is absolutely something you will want to consider.

When people hear the term "landscape architect," they tend to picture individuals who choose the most appropriate flowers for a given climate or who make sure that a new brick walkway sits as level as it can given the anomalies of the space they're working to improve. While it's true that landscape architecture involves the design of outdoor public areas, landmarks, and other spaces, the end goal is a great deal more complicated. For instance, landscape architects are master craftsmen in terms of important areas like site analysis and inventory, land planning, planting design, grading, sustainable design, and so much more.

A landscape architect is essentially someone who serves two different masters at the same time. Not only are they often tasked with creating an aesthetically pleasing setting in an outdoor area (like in a public park or some other type of environment), but they must do so while also protecting and preserving the natural environment. In many ways, landscape architects are artists of a different sort – they're tasked with making decisions in the context of both the structure and the culture of a landscape while still creating a setting that people can use and enjoy as intended.

In addition to the development of plans for the environment, a landscape architect must also make sure that all decisions meet current building codes, as well as both federal and local ordinances. To that end, they must often be knowledgeable (and passionate) in the greater field of landscape design while still understanding local politics and environmental issues as well.

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Develop Essential Skills and Techniques

In terms of day-to-day work, a landscape architect will commonly spend much of their time split between two different locations: an office and the great outdoors. Whenever landscape architects become a part of a new project, they often spend a great deal of time using computer-assisted drawing (CAD) and other software to create designs, prepare models, and more – all in an effort to make sure their vision for a particular space like a park, a recreational facility, or even a college campus remains in line with the requirements and other restrictions of the job.

Once the project gets underway, they will begin to spend more and more time at job sites, making sure their plans are adaptable and that they're able to make certain adjustments or improvements as new information comes to light. 

In addition to the planning of new spaces, landscape architects will also design and plan the restoration of natural places that may have been disturbed by humans over time. There are many wetlands, mined areas, and forested lands across the country that people are working hard to restore to their natural beauty. Landscape architects play an important role in these efforts, not only with their deep knowledge of how these environments operate in relation to the long-term damage that may have been done, but also in regard to creating plans to return these areas to sustainability in a way that will stand the test of time. This is a large part of the reason why many landscape architects are employed with local and federal governments and working on national, regional, and other historic sites.

As a landscape architect, you will need to be comfortable working closely with not only large internal teams, but also in navigating the bureaucracies that come with environmental protection. Landscape architects will commonly find themselves working with city planners, civil engineers, local government representatives, other types of architects, and more. Everyone will have their own different ideas on how certain natural challenges should be addressed, but everyone should be focused on two core areas: making sure that the needs of environments and the needs of the people who live around and who use those environments can co-exist in the safest ways possible. 

At the end of the day, the goal of a landscape architect is the same regardless of the project they're working on; the environment they're dealing with and the challenges they're trying to address. They use their passion, their artistry, their education, and their experience to help ensure that human beings are using our environmental resources in the smartest way possible to guarantee that those resources will still be around for decades to come. 

To ensure work is accomplished in a professional way, a landscape architect must have a number of skills and abilities, which include complex problem solving, decision-making abilities, critical thinking skills, and time management. They must be socially perceptive, persuasive, willing to learn new techniques and skills, and instruct others. Working well within a team environment is imperative, as is understanding that everyone will not come to the same decisions all the time.  They must have integrity, be dependable, have attention to detail, initiative, and persistence.  They must also be flexible, and able to travel to work sites when necessary, sometimes at a moment’s notice in an emergency.

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Pursue Higher Education

Per the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the most common path to employment as a landscape architect involves first earning your degree from an accredited program, after which you can then gain experience by interning with a local organization. As you continue with your education and gain real-world experience, you can then pass the Landscape Architect Registration Examination and begin your career in earnest. 

Regarding a formal education, the vast majority of states require a landscape architect to be fully licensed. As is to be expected, those requirements will vary depending on exactly what state you are interested in working. According to the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, for example, those interested in working within sustainable planning, design and management must complete either an undergraduate (bachelor’s of landscape architecture) or a graduate degree (master’s of landscape architecture) that has been accredited by the Landscape Architecture Accreditation Board. The University of Maryland is just one example of an institution that offers two such programs that meet that requirement, which itself is necessary to obtain licensure and begin your career in Maryland.

Coursework found in most university programs include environmental design and landscape creations, CAD design, geographical information systems (GPS), principles and theories of landscape architecture, rural and urban design, and design studio courses.  To gain practical work experience while in college, students should consider completing an internship. Beyond the experience they’ll gain, students will also make valuable professional contacts and mentorships with their professors, both of which will help further their career and enhance their development in the profession.

The BLS states that there were 22,500 people employed in the field of landscape architecture in 2014. The entire industry was expected to add roughly 1,200 jobs between 2014 and 2024, marking a growth rate of about five percent – or roughly as fast as the national average for all professions.

Get to Know Our Experts

Tom Tavella

  • Title:
    President
  • Company:
    Alta Planning & Design
  • Where:
    New Haven, CT
  • Experience:
    26 years in the industry
  • Understanding My Career Path

    • I started off as an art major out of high school, then went into forestry where one of my professors, who just graduated from a landscape architecture program, saw my art work and said I should look into studying landscape architecture. Once I learned more about the profession there was no turning back.
    • After graduating from the University of Massachusetts I worked for a small firm in Springfield, MA. They had a sizable project in Greenwich, CT, so I oversaw all of the construction for a renovation of a five million dollar estate.
    • From there, our firm was bought out and I worked for a large multidisciplinary firm in Massachusetts. There, most of my work focused on municipal projects like streetscapes and parks.
    • After several years working for them and with my family growing, I moved back to Southern Connecticut. There, I worked for another multidisciplinary firm.
    • In 2008, when the recession hit, I was laid off and I started my own firm, grew it to 4 people then merged it with a large multidisciplinary firm, where I worked until 2013.
    • I recently joined Alta Planning and Design where I am helping manage the Northeast market.
    • Throughout my years working in Massachusetts and Connecticut, I was heavily involved with the American Society of Landscape Architects. I served as chapter president, trustee and national Vice President of Communications. Recently, I served as National ASLA president in 2013. Being part of ASLA has allowed me to transition to various positions throughout my career.
    • What I like most about my job is being able to assist communities design and develop healthy and sustainable environments. I also enjoy mentoring the next generation of landscape architects.

    Advice

    Join ASLA

    Go to the ASLA web site and go to “Career Discovery” tab. This will give you a great overview of the profession and what schools offer landscape architecture degrees. While in school, as well as after graduation, get involved with ASLA and be an active member.

    Get an internship

    Shadow a landscape architect for a couple days a week, or get an internship. Nothing is more informative then actually see things hands-on.

    Cameron Rodman

  • Title:
    Landscape Designer
  • Company:
    TBG Partners
  • Where:
    Austin, TX
  • Experience:
    2.5 years in the industry
  • Understanding My Career Path

    • I am an MLA Candidate. I also am the National Student Representative to the American Society of Landscape Architects Board of Trustees.
    • I have completed some residential designs on my own and interned with Stephen W. Hackney Landscape Architecture and the Facility Services – Design Services department at the University of Tennessee.
    • I have worked in my profession as a writer and photographer. I have written for Landscape Architects Network (Land8.com, and been featured on architect.com). I have also conducted interviews with Landscape Architects and featured other related items on my personal website.
    • Becoming a landscape architect requires a formal education (accredited degree) and state board licensure. One can be a landscape designer (one who studies horticulture or similar) and practice residential and planting design. There are also fields like design build. However, all states have limitations on the scope of work as set forth by their state licensure boards. For instance, a landscape architect can do residential design, city planning, stormwater management, large scale ecological restoration, mine reclamation, historical preservation, forestry/national park management, project management, and much more. Check out the ASLA website for more details.

    Recommended Organizations

    • The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) – ASLA is the world’s largest society for landscape architects and is the go-to model for numerous international associations.
    • U.S. Green Building Council. (USGBC) – Through programs like LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) the USGBC is seeking to change the products markets and policies surrounding the design industry
    • American Institute of Architects – While I am not a member, their values and goals are very similar to those of ASLA.

    Advice

    Practice

    Practice technical skills constantly (hand drawings, digital skills such as CAD, 3d modeling, and graphic creation).

    Read

    Understanding design and design thinking is critical to creating informed design. Become familiar with emerging concepts, theories, history, etc. Be sure to read outside of the profession as well. (i.e. ecology, urban development, representation, politics, sociology, etc.)

    Start early

    Develop professionally before you leave school. Network with licensed landscape architects and seek out opportunities to gain professional experience. Don’t wait until graduation to set yourself apart as an asset to potential employers.

    Advice on getting your foot in the door

    Volunteering at firms, organizations, parks, and other places will help you gain experience. Employers are looking for the best fit for their firm or office. They will be most likely to hire the emerging professional who has experience and knowledge. You are an investment for their business. The more ready you are to come in on the first day and hit the ground running the less time they have to spend training you. Make yourself an asset.

    Bob Kaye

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    RTK Design Group, LLC
  • Where:
    Marlboro, NJ
  • Experience:
    32 years in the industry
  • Understanding My Career Path

    • I graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in Landscape Architecture in 1983.
    • After graduation, I went to work for another design/build firm for a short time and went out on my own within 1 year.
    • In 1988, I spent 18 months as a consultant on staff at Rutgers in their Facilities Design Department.
    • The best things about my job are the ability to be creative and see a project from design to fruition, the fact that every day is different and the variety of different aspects there are to the creating outdoor environments, and the response we generally get at the end of the project when we hear “This so far exceeds our expectations of what this project would look like.”

    Advice

    It takes time

    Understand that being creative is as much about experience as talent. It took me 8 years until I became comfortable with my design abilities and began to be able to visualize an entire project in my head before putting it on paper.

    Don’t stop learning

    Understand the difference between smart people and stupid people; stupid people never stop talking and smart people never stop asking questions. To this day, I try to learn something every day and realize that I don’t know everything about this trade, so I try to surround myself with people that do know and never stop taking advice.

    Learn compromise

    Understand that everything in life is a trade-off and that there are no right or wrong solutions, so always ask yourself, am I gaining more than I am giving up with this design solution. And most important never forget that form follows function. Any design solution needs to be functional before esthetic.

    Landscape Architect Infographic