City or Firm Employment- Which is Better?

Landscape Architecture for Landscape Architects Forums GENERAL DISCUSSION City or Firm Employment- Which is Better?

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    I’m looking for some insight. I’ve heard mixed reviews about working as an LA for a city. I hear it pays well but can be very boring and stressful- a lot of paper pushing.

    I’ve only worked for firms.

    What’s it like to work for a city? Anyone know?


    I think it would be really great and challenging to work as a landscape architecture for a city. You can explore your true power of imagination and creativity, and implement all your ideas to offer a new compelling look to the city.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    Where do you live?


    I live in the South East. But I see your point. Cities are as different as companies. Being the LA for Portland, Oregon would be wildly different than being the LA for Brownsville, Texas.

    Chris Whitted

    It’s definitely going to depend on the city and what role their LA’s play.  Are they strictly code review/authoring?  Are they within a department that uses them for design like parks?  Is the role primarily for overseeing design contracts that are bid out to firms?  Is it a public role or a behind the scenes position?  In my area I’ve seen extremes of all of these and a few more balanced positions, though I’ve never worked for a city or county directly yet.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    I meant where does Coordinates live where a municipality is turning staff LAs loose to “explore your true power of imagination and creativity, and implement all your ideas to offer a new compelling look”.


    I’m guessing sarcasm, …. or someone from a distant land.


    I went from self/unemployment to a big, lethargic, bureaucratic mess of a place.  Idealism has been been sort of squashed.  But I’m not quitting; the benefits of employment are way too nice.

    If you land the job, get ready for politics where there should be none, favortism, egos, fifedoms and a bunch of other stuff that has no place in a government job.

    If the city is forward thinking on regulations for stormwater and pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, go for it.  If there are a bunch of cronies running the place, run away.

    Go for the interview, take the job if it is offered, and evaluate the opportunities from the inside, because anything posted prior to that in the job description is HRs version of the job.  Jobs like this can open doors into lots of places that might not be open to you if you have private firm experience only.



    Wyatt Thompson, PLA

    I am a landscape architect working as Park Planner for a growing city in the Midwest. I worked in the private sector for about 8 years before moving to the public side in January this year. As the City’s only landscape architect and the Parks and Recreation Department’s only design professional, I have a lot of responsibility and oversight for designing and managing projects. I took the job for several reasons, but the most significant for me was my ability to impact the community where I lived. As a consultant, I had very little opportunity to design anything in my home town or see the results of the places I did design. Now, all my projects are local and I am able to engage with projects and stakeholders in a much deeper, more satisfying way.

    The public process typically takes more time in terms of decision making, and there are perhaps more rules. Municipalities are public entities and open to lots of scrutiny and transparency that a private firm is shielded from. Even when working on the private side, most of my clients were public entities so I was used to that process. If you’ve never worked with a local or state government as a client, it may be more of a culture shock for you. In my experience it has not been more boring or stressful than my experience in the private sector. There was paperwork and permits and memos to write there too. There is definitely more internal politics than where I worked as a consultant, but the City employs 10x more people than the firm I worked for.

    I think every city will be different. If you are pursuing a job with a municipality, I would suggest you ask lots of questions to figure out what your role will be:

    Who do you answer to? Is that person an LA, engineer, design professional, other?

    Who answers to you? Do you have staff to oversee? Are there others in your department or at the city that can provide assistance/resources to your office?

    What responsibilities will you have? Design? Construction management? Interaction with the public, design consultants, contractors? Input into the CIP and budgeting process?

    What type of projects will you be working on? Will you be dressing up public works projects, designing small-scale improvements or master planning for public facilities, engaged in large-scale planning projects with outside consultants? Are these the types of projects/tasks that you’re interested in and qualified to perform?

    Actually, these questions are probably worth asking when pursuing any new job, public or private.


    bwaa ha ha…. I’ve been in this profession long enough to have forgotten the ideals that drove me to this profession.

    Maybe that’s a little too cynical…. but it is funny how little we get to exercise our imagination and creativity. Depends on the client I guess.


    Thank you all for your insights.

    Robert Primeau

    Wyatt, I’m currently in grad school but I’m interested in doing municipal work in the future. What are some of the projects you’ve worked on?

    Wyatt Thompson, PLA

    Robert, what interests you about municipal work?

    I’ve only been in this position 3.5 months, so the list of completed works is not all that long. I currently have 2 projects under construction – a natural playground and a small retaining wall. The playground was designed by a consultant, but I came on board in time to handle bidding and construction admin. I’m on-site every other day or so to observe progress, answer questions, and work with the contractor to make field changes. Projects currently in design include improvements to a neighborhood park (restroom, sidewalk, renovations to a shelter, addition of a plaza w/ seat walls, and replacement of existing playground surfacing); a brick sidewalk replacement at an urban pocket park; a parking lot addition at the zoo; and some small additions for the natural playground that will be built by in-house crews. Upcoming projects include master plans for two resource-based parks and a community sports park; lighting upgrades for a second regional athletic complex, several zoo exhibits, and grading plans for a planned cemetery expansion. I have also worked with a couple community groups to make improvements to trails and a memorial project. 

    Prior to this job, I worked for a consultant where most of my projects were civic in nature. Those works included planning and/or design for neighborhood and community parks, athletic facilities, ped-bike paths, campgrounds, etc.

    It’s a diverse set of projects in scope and scale. I didn’t know this when I was getting started, but I I really enjoy the parks and recreation industry and am really happy in my current role. I wish you the best as you complete your education and begin the next phase of your career.

    Robert Primeau

    That sounds like an interesting mix of work right now!  I have a history of working in government and I like the fit for a variety of reasons. I currently work for my State governmnent doing air monitoring, and I like that I’m serving the public, the relative security and the insulation from the market (i.e. I don’t necessarily have to be hustling out in the world for clients, etc etc). Municipal work interests me for the same reason, though I’m certainly not opposed to working for a private firm. When I get out of school I’ll certainly be casting a wide net in terms of the job search. 

    The work you do with construction management, is that something you learned on the job?

    Wyatt Thompson, PLA

    The program I graduated from provided a lot great “nuts and bolts” education with a lot of emphasis on construction. That was a good foundation. The firm I went to work for was a multi-disciplinary firm that had a strong background in construction support services like inspection and field testing. I am actually DOT-certified for inspection and concrete testing. I didn’t spend a lot of time in the field in my previous position, but I was fortunate to work through several projects where I was on-site at critical points, reviewed submittals and pay applications, wrote addenda and change orders, and participated in sometimes heated meetings with contractors and owners. I am very glad to have had the opportunity for really broad experience on the private side, now complemented by my work directly for the project owner. It has allowed me to see projects from both sides of the table which I think is invaluable.

    I think you’re smart to not limit yourself to only public work straight out of school. As I’m sure you know, jobs in this field are not as abundant as they once were, so getting your foot in somewhere is probably the most critical step. The first years in practice are great opportunities to learn no matter where you end up. Those experiences will benefit you if and when you land the dream job for the agency of your choice.

    Tonie C.

    I agree with the location issue.  I would think the West Coast and the bigger more progressive cites in the east would be better than more traditional environments were they are not as interested in design.  My first job in landscape architecture was for a west coast city govt. and I loved it.  They were some of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with.

    I also agree that you should cast a wide net, it’s tight out there.  There are about hundreds of people applying for  every LA job where I live.    

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