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An ASLA Rant

February 8, 2012

Do you follow the The Dirt? (the blog of the ASLA)  I stop in from time to time but this morning’s visit quickly got under my skin.   I am curious to know your opinions about a recent post titled “Frederick Law Olmstead is Holding US Back (there I said it)”  (please go read it, leave a comment there and then come back and we can discuss here too)


I shared my opinion in the comments of the post but to to further clarify, I think it is more than fair to respect the training that someone has.  It is even better if they take that training and apply it in great ways.  But to act as if your training is inherently better than the training that anyone else has, is just absurd.  Is it somehow harder or more worthy to become a world class landscape architect than it is to become a world class horticulturist, gardener, groundskeeper or garden designer?  NO.

So to be a Landscape Architect in the eyes of the ASLA you have to take and pass a test ….so let anyone take the test….if they pass it give them the certificate. What are you afraid of?  Why can’t you take the test unless you have gone to a specific set of schools?   This  all wouldn’t so distasteful if through this ‘licensing process’ there wasn’t also an effort to also make it illegal to work in the industry without the license.  I have no love of the ASLA’s constant drum beating for required licensure for anyone acting in an exterior design role.  My general feeling is that while, in theory, licensure sounds like it is a public protection thing, it often really isn’t.   I generally get the idea of licensure for things like Medical professionals, architects, structural engineers and so forth.  The common thread being that if these people screw up, people can die….so it is important to make sure that they know what they are doing – for the sake of public safety.  It is a rare landscape project that carries this kind of life and death ramifications. — and for those — fine, require a license.  And fine, if you want to give out liscenses for those who want to earn one….sure go ahead — even make it really hard to get it you want — but don’t go trying to make it illegal for those who don’t opt into your self-serving system  to work.

Further, I have dealt with some of these ‘professional organizations’ and in my experience (I am speaking specifically of one instance which involved a Structural Engineer’s design failing immediately, miserably and spectacularly) the professional organization for structural engineers did little (as in nothing) to help me (as the person who hired them) and was far more concerned with protecting the engineer in question.  I can only presume that this was because he is the one who pays the hefty fees to belong to the organization….not me or my client.   It was a shameful display of closing ranks and protecting one of their own, even in the most obvious of professional mistakes.  (BTW — all I was asking for was a note to be associated with his name and firm so that should others call for a recommendation, (as I had) that this could be noted….further, I later learned (through my lawyer and colleagues) that many people in my community had hired this firm and like me, had horrible mistakes happen, and had to resort to legal action — where in every case they won in the court system and this firm was found repeatedly negligent).  Who knows really how many people have had this kind of experience with this company….and yet the professional licensing board still defends, protects and even recommends them.

I don’t mean to sound jaded or victimized, but I think that the nature of these ‘professional’ organizations — even when the profession is suitable for needing licensure or control of some sort —  aren’t achieving what they should be setting out to do.   The ASLA in my opinion should be spending their time and resources educating the public about what Landscape Architects do and how they make our world a better place, how to hire them, how to find a good person or firm in your community, helping LA’s to be better at what they do and all those good things, but they shouldn’t be the ones who are regulating who can call themselves a Landscape Architect or lobbying to for this in local governments.  If we can even come to an agreement (which I can’t) that it  is an important thing to do it ought to be an outside group who only has the public’s interest at heart not the ASLA or any other professional organization who more often than not has only their business and members interest at heart.

BTW — This is my comment on the post at The Dirt:

There are two lines here that really have me a little irritated….”We lament that laypeople confuse us with landscape designers and horticulturists, and we envy the greater visibility that architects enjoy. ” and then later “The talk was all “architect this, architect that,” but when it came to discussing the landscape, which is one of the landscape architect Dan Kiley’s masterpieces, it went something like this: “The garden was designed by Dan Kiley.” Period. I was thrilled to hear Kiley mentioned by name, but there was no hint of any professional association or credentials. It was as if this guy Kiley were the groundskeeper.”
IMO — this wouldn’t be such a problem if the LA side of the exterior design professional spectrum didn’t see themselves as the rightful heirs to the top of the heap…..there is no heap…you should not be ashamed to be confused with other professionals that are are your teammates and who quite frankly can bring you and the industry a lot of great attention and glowing accolades. It is Horticulturists who cultivate the plants that people connect with and it is largely landscape designers who create the residential spaces that they live in on a daily basis and it is gardeners who make them last for generations…these people, if you embraced them — rather than act like they are unqualified 2nd class professionals would be your allies, but the ASLA and people with attitudes like yours continue to behave as if you are above all others and it isn’t helping you. Stop being so hung up on credentials….we all have them….nobody’s are better than any ones else’s.

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  1. colin says:

    Thanks for sharing this very informative article… from this overall great blog!

  2. Great post! I’m “just a landscape designer” and the LA/LD thing is… something else. I have zero problem with title acts. I need my MLA, internship time, and to sit the LARE to call myself a landscape architect? That’s cool, you can have it. I have a portfolio that gets more interesting with every project and that’s what lands me work, not a title. I can live without the added stress and debt.

    What does aggravate me are practice acts, LAs influencing government to say that only they can do what I do. There are things that LAs can do that I don’t, like large scale site development and stamped grading and drainage plans. And, I recently spoke with an LA (who does gorgeous urban planning work) who was jealous that I can do plant selection and construction drawings. At the end of the day, we’re tools to get a job done. Professionally, we should help our clients pick the right tools, but a title isn’t the answer.

    And a funny side note is that if I pay the ASLA three hundred bucks, I can join AND put their letters after my name. So I can LOOK like an LA, but I don’t need to bother with all that book learnin’. Awesome.

  3. mrbrownthumb says:

    Shared this on the Garden Bloggers Facebook page because it is an interesting read and sounds like the ones I’ve seen had about whether being part of a garden writing association gives you more credibility.

  4. Tim Lee says:

    Kudos Rochelle, I completely agree. It has always rubbed me wrong and gets under my skin that we are not unified as an industry and the supposed leader the ASLA does nothing to help. I have a BSLA degree and over 20 years of experience but by choice and due to complications and financial constraints no license so i can’t call myself a ‘Landscape Architect’ – big deal. 95% of my work is residential and has never been an issue with my clients. I do landscape design plain and simple. If i need an engineer, horticulturalist or wetland specialist i call one in. The ASLA has made the practice laws and licensing a divisive issue and the system and process is archaic and comes across as elitist. I paid my money for the ‘ASLA’ after my name and for what? I’ve never gotten a job from it. I love what i do but i think the ASLA has adopted a very narrow view and need to remove the blinders.

  5. Interesting that The Dirt mentions Dan Kiley and then puts down groundskeepers. Kiley’s Tampa garden was almost lost (after only 16 years) from inexpert maintenance and, arguably, poor plant selection in the first place. During design and installation, he had failed to value the knowledge and experience of good horticulturalists and groundskeepers. (He, and his clients, also failed to consider the features of good urban plazas that “Holly” Whyte — a journalist — demonstrated in the 1970s. See

    I remember taking a class at GW’s landscape design program in which the landscape architecture professor admitted that he’d only had one semester on plants. I took 5 semesters to get my certificate — from an amazing urban forester (horticulturalist).

    This is not to trade tit for tat. The skills of many kinds of professionals are necessary to design and build gardens that really serve the public or the private client. Thanks for this thoughtful essay.

  6. While I’m not keen on the current LARE process, to say that landscape architects are/can perform the same functions of a “world class horticulturist, gardener, groundskeeper or garden designer”, is underselling the profession.

    Contemporary landscape architecture is constructing infrastructure, artificial ecosystems, wasteland reclamation, so certainly a minimal level of competence in these complex systems is and should be required.

    This by no means belittles other professions that experience some parallels to landscape architecture, but they are not the same, so why compare them? A gardener gardens, a groundskeeper keeps the ground. Walter Hood is not a licensed landscape architect, but his work has clearly earned respect from the profession, and ASLA.

    I will agree, that there should be no prerequisites for taking the exam.

    • rochelle says:

      Adam — I think you might have misunderstood my point….the impression that I got from that article that this is in response to is that many LA’s think that the training and practice that is required to become great at the LA profession is somehow more important/ more difficult/ or generally superior than that of other related professions. I wasn’t in any way diminishing (in fact, quite the opposite) and I don’t think that LA’s can necessarily perform the functions of horticulturists, gardeners, groundskeepers, or garden designers….which is precisely the reason I wrote this — it is because the original article (which was written by an LA) was diminishing these professions and displaying a belief that somehow the practice of Landscape Architecture is above all others. My point is merely that one set of credentials is not inherently better an another — it is a team that often makes great exterior design.

  7. I couldn’t agree more….on most of your points. I do agree with A.Anderson’s response. There is a technical level to LA training that is quite rigorous, but university’s often fall short in conveying plant knowledge and irrigation specifications. The metrics necessary to do grading and drainage are daunting as well. That noted, there certainly is a snooty side to ASLA. I know this well, having put together and sponsored a keynote address with the organization in the 90’s and the recent licensure rift doesn’t bode well for our green-industry as a whole. The fact is, there are a lot of hack landscape designers out there – landscape architects as well, truth be told, and licensure is one, imperfect way to separate the levels of professionalism. I have me stunningly talented APLD members and ASLA members that don’t know their Asplenium from a hole-in-the-ground , and vice-versa. All that said, there was a local kerfuffle here ( a few years ago that I blogged about on my website a few years back.

    Best wishes to you …and keep up the great webwork. I have you bookmarked!

  8. It has been a tough economy in the landscape world. I personally believe planting design is an art as well as a science. We need more artists and scientists doing what we do to create beauty and sustainable vision for us all. The greatest landscape designers and architects didn’t just create their vision without a plan for exceptional materials and a list of great installers, who can make their visions shine thru and thru. Our forgotten heroes, maintenance teams, as without them, the design was only a just memory, like a painting on a wall.

    As a grower, freedom for skilled artisans to practice their talent by using plant materials along with education, schooling or hands-on training, only helps aid the process of creating beauty that is safe, fun, and sustainable. I am so pleased that Monrovia is the Platinum sponsor of APLD, active with various chapters of ASLA as well as being a national corporate member, and we are looking beyond just the landscape community to encourage more developers, government decision makers, resorts, home builders and planners to want to use more plants.

    We do need to unite ourselves as as an industry to find more fulfilling work, and I have been fairly successful uniting many landscape groups state-by-state in various ways thanks to input from a Monrovia appointed panel of California landscape designers, design & build, and landscape architects. Your blog was a reminder to how significant it has been for me professionally to share the love of plants with both groups in the same room or a bus for that matter, and then hearing about new collaborative projects, networks, and finally, open communication between professionals, no matter what letters may be at the end of their names.

  9. Kelly says:

    Thanks for this rant, sometimes I feel the same way. I think the LA profession really suffers by locking out any mid-career professionals seeking licensure–if a designer comes to the profession through any other avenue than the traditional one, the internship requirement effectively slams the door on licensure, even if there is ample equivalent professional experience. LA’s are by nature professionals who cross a lot of boundaries and draw from different backgrounds, it seems very backward not to provide an alternative.

  10. Jodie says:

    I agree with all of your comments on the politics of landscape design. It’s a mess for residential Landscape Designers and needs to be fixed.

    Although I agree with 99 per cent of your counter-rant. I do think safety issues should be more important to landscape designers and feel you are unnecessarily dismissive in your treatment of this important aspect of what any landscape professional does ASLA, APLD, designer, contractor, etc. You say, ‘It is a rare landscape project that carries this kind of life and death ramifications.’ Yes, this is true – safety in your own backyard is often not very dramatic, as your statement implies, but a poorly designed outdoor space can easily become a repeatedly unpleasant experience for homeowners and guests that can quickly ruin a day or an evening.

    Something these accredited programs do teach quite sucessfully is the subtle way landscape design can make moving through an outdoor space a seamless immersion in the beauty of the space and less about constantly watching your step due to thoughtless or uneducated ‘design’ decisions.

    In just the past year, I have seen a downright dangerous steep, slippery concrete, ramp-like path down a steep hill, stair treads that step up with uneven riser heights, a pool edge just a few feet from a back door, a deck that cut diagonally across at a strange angle with no visual cue that there was a grade change causing even the homeowner to trip over the edge while I watched!

    On behalf of our clients who do not often think about these details, Landscape Designers should be concerned with and educated on safety and the psychological aspects of navigating space and that is something these programs you dismiss do quite efficiently. In the program I went to, this was not only my favorite part of the program but also radically changed the way I experience other people landscapes. As Martha would say…it’s a good thing.

  11. Maureen Decombe says:

    Let’s be sure we’re talking apples to apples in regard to the above post. The garden nightmare described was clearly not built to code. Residential construction code is constantly expanding, particularly in regard to earth shaping, water conservation, stormwater management, etc. Even on the tiniest urban lot, the condition described above would be regulated in most municipalities by residential code, regardless of the licensure status of the designer, contractor or even homeowner.

    In California, any person can legally design and get permitted for a two-story home of wood-frame construction, including construction details, foundation, basement, garage, and appurtenant structures. But that same person may not design the arbor outside of that home unless they hold a Landscape Architects License, or are exempt as a Licensed Landscape Contractor, Architect, Engineer, or Homeowner.

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