4 Myths About Landscape Architecture in Alaska

4 Myths About Landscape Architecture in Alaska

By Laura Minski, Landscape Architect

Hello…and happy World Landscape Architecture Month! This article kicks off a series of blog posts by our in-house landscape architecture team to help others recognize and learn more about what we believe is one of the best professions around.

Let’s start with a couple of questions. Do you know what landscape architects do (we refer to them as “LAs”)? Or what the profession of landscape architecture includes? Landscape architecture is the design, planning, management, and stewardship of the land.

Today I’m going to debunk a few myths all LAs occasionally hear.

Myth #1. There aren’t any landscape architects in Alaska.

Wrong! There are many of us! At the beginning of 2023 there were 36 members in the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Alaska Chapter and 55 professional landscape architects licensed in our state. Since some don’t live here, we can assume there are about 40-50 landscape architects in Alaska. Most LAs are in Southcentral with professional design and engineering firms. But we can be found all over the state. Some work for federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Others are with local governmental agencies in planning or parks and recreation departments. Still more work for landscape companies, nurseries, construction firms, or non-profits.

Long story short, we are everywhere and integrated with professions focused on land preservation, development, and use. If you need help finding a landscape architect, reach out to the ASLA Alaska Chapter and one of our members will assist.

Myth #2. Landscape architects are gardeners.

Well…we might be, but not all of us are. Gardening is a personal preference, a specialization, that a LA selects and develops. Most LAs have taken extensive courses in horticulture, tree health, soils science, and plant ecology, and have a solid understanding of local plant species that are available and will do well on our projects.

But like every profession there are specialty areas. Plants (or what some identify as more of a gardening focus) are a specialty within landscape architecture.

Education and mentorship. To call yourself a landscape architect, one has to first graduate with a degree in landscape architecture from an accredited program. Then comes passing a series of professional exams and working a number of years under the supervision of a licensed landscape architect (exam and mentorship requirements vary by state) before being licensed by your state licensing board.

In general, what is required of landscape architects in Alaska? According to the Alaska Board for Architects, Engineers, and Land Surveyors, “Design or creative work involving any of the following constitutes the practice of an aspect of landscape architecture that affects the public health or safety and thus requires registration as a landscape architect, this includes things like grading, clearing, or shaping of land; landscape irrigation; outdoor planting plans; outdoor play apparatus; outdoor structures.” You can read more here.

Good winter design. A big part of landscape architecture in Alaska is understanding the importance of getting outside in winter. Landscape architects here take pride in contributing to good winter design. Things like including spruce trees for green color all year, or amur chokecherry and dogwood with bark colors that are striking against the white snow and offer relief from the drab blacks and whites of winter. Aside from vegetation, lighting and heat sources are big components of successful outdoor spaces. Think of your favorite outdoor winter gathering spaces. I bet they all have a form of patio/holiday lights/tiki torches and a fire pit of some kind. A LA coordinates closely with electrical and mechanical engineers to produce those successful designs.

MOA Chanshtnu Muldoon Park in the winter

Stormwater design. Something else that many don’t realize is that most designs done by a LA consider and implement practices to address stormwater runoff. The EPA website says, ”Stormwater runoff is generated from rain and snowmelt events that flow over land or impervious surfaces, such as paved streets, parking lots, and building rooftops, and does not soak into the ground. The runoff picks up pollutants like trash, chemicals, oils, and dirt/sediment that can harm our rivers, streams, lakes, and coastal waters.” LAs work with other professionals and agencies to protect our natural water systems from these pollutants with stormwater design. You may be familiar with some of the design practices like rain gardens, tree plantings, cisterns, swales, or detention ponds.

Myth #3. Landscape architects do nothing during Alaska winters.

Sometimes this comes up as “you must be really busy in spring and summer” or “how can you practice in a location that is frozen eight months of the year?” Turns out that Alaska is a great place to be a landscape architect. As I mentioned above about specialties like planting design, there is so much more that LAs do.

Most landscape architecture work is tied to planning or construction, and planning and design projects can take place over a few months to a few years. Bidding and budget complexities often occur and projects can get postponed as well.

Spenard Road Reconstruction – Hillcrest Drive to Benson Boulevard

Planning and site design. One of the most important services a LA provides is planning and site design in the beginning phases of a  construction project. Even with projects that don’t include anything green or plant-like, having a LA on board to help plan a site that optimizes sun, wind, drainage, existing vegetation, surrounding resources, circulation, and soils can save money in the long-run. We are trained to look at things from a community level, to design with architects and engineers for the best final results for the user and client. And we work on larger green public spaces in our communities and provide designs and plans for trails, parks, schools, and playgrounds. These areas bring a bit of nature into our more urban spaces. As noted earlier, in Alaska if you need a playground to be installed it must be designed and professionally stamped by a licensed landscape architect.

Myth #4. We don’t need a landscape architect, we can do it ourselves.

While one might argue they don’t need a designer for any aspect of construction and can do it themselves, I would counter that designers do more than what one thinks of as design. A designer often helps the client clarify their goals and needs for a project upfront, saving money and frustration throughout the construction process. Yes, you can hire a contractor to build a house or install an outdoor gathering space without using a designer. The risk is that you’ll miss opportunities to make the project much better for the same cost – or even less.

I’d like to share a small scale example of what I mean. For four years after my husband and I moved to Fairbanks, we lived in a cozy cabin in the hills. The cabin was small but the site had great sun exposure and a garage. It was hand-built by a writer in the 1970s and we loved it.

After living there for a year and experiencing all the seasons, we began to see so many missed opportunities that weren’t easily corrected. We discovered the evening sun just missed the deck surrounding the house, making the deck too cold to enjoy. The best evening sun hit the driveway in front of the garage that was located up a hill from the house. We wanted to feel the sun, but each summer evening would watch it shine beautifully on our lovely garage.

The solution was to often leave our dining room table (covered with a tarp in the evenings) in the garden located next to the driveway and in front of our garage. We spent a lot of time in front of that garage and ended up coordinating all our outdoor activities around it! It was ridiculous. There were other issues, but because our home hadn’t been designed in alignment with the site’s microclimates we ended selling and moving. If the original builder had hired a LA it could have been an amazing home.

While this is a simplified example of a very small project, I hope it helps explain the importance of good site design, planning, and what a landscape architect brings to a project.

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