Is Urban Sprawl good for Landscape Architects?

Landscape Architecture for Landscape Architects Forums GENERAL DISCUSSION Is Urban Sprawl good for Landscape Architects?

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    Is Urban Sprawl good for Landscape Architects? Does more low density developed land create more work for LA’s?


    It’s mostly suburban sprawl.  I would say, yes, it does create more work.  Every day I design subdivisions, master planned communities, and town centers.  It’s an unappreciated / step child of design that’s not really done by any one profession.  I have a non-design planning degree but it could be done by LAs, engineers, surveyors, architects, and others.  

    Sprawl is not necessarily a bad thing, despite heavy criticisms from APA, ASLA, AIA, ULI, etc.  I always have the same defense: as long as I am not violating the “health, safety, and general welfare” (land use law term) I am free to improve the land that meets my clients needs.  In this case, it is market demand for single-family detached housing.  

    The demands for this type of work will vary from one metro area to another.  I have largely worked in Chicagoland, Wichita, and now Houston.  The exurbs of Chicago are still a fraction the size of Houston when it comes to suburban development.  Despite recent (and hopefully temporary) drops in oil prices, Houston is still the energy capital with plenty of new jobs (and much higher demands for new housing construction).  Houston is extremely entrepreneurial with little regulation.  Chicagoland is highly regulatory.  At my current job, I can pick up a marker, turn it into a CAD drawing, plat it, and build it.  There are very few layers of agency review.  

    Yes, suburban development can be very monotonous at times.  I am managing physical land planning on a +2000 acre master plan, among many other projects, and I have redesigned the same sections at least 20 times over the past 2/12 years.  The built product is not very noticeable 1′-2′ from the ground.  It’s not a streetscape or a park or a healing garden or a sports complex.  I think there is always a need.  If you REALLY want to stand out, I would learn AutoCAD Civil 3D.  It doesn’t help directly as a landscape architect, but there is always a demand for CAD monkeys in oil/gas.  Hope this helps-


    I think you’re just being a contrarian.

    I agree that virtually ANY development creates more work for LA’s and other allied professionals, even so-called ‘suburban sprawl.’ We could argue semantics on that one all day.

    Further, I think it’s a bit of a cop-out (or youre trolling a bit) to say it’s all OK as long as you’re not violating HSW–that’s the lowest common denominator of responsible design. 

    All that said, I have designed plenty of projects that could easily fit under the umbrella of ‘suburban sprawl.’ In business, there are very few opportunities, in my experience, to turn away work. Hence, the best we can do is mitigate compromises to our personal-professional set of ethics while meeting the clients objectives. In the case of ‘subdivision planning’ I tend adhere to Andres Duany’s notion that ‘the loss of a forest or farm is justified only if it is replaced by a village.’ Again, we could debate all day on what constitutes ‘a village,’ but I might argue that a bona fide village contains all the basic services, including food, access to transportation, school(s), parks/rec space, and employment within a reasonable distance to a range of housing options. 

    The problem with most typical suburban developments is they only provide housing with limited, if any, and often convoluted access to outlying services. With oil prices (now dropping, but sure to rise again) most surburban developments are not configured for alternative forms of transportation. In my view, the success or failure of mass transit comes down to convenience. 

    So, does sprawl benefit the average LA? Probably, but if the LA profession wants to remain relevant in the 21st century, we better begin understanding mass transit, TOD/TND, and how streets work.

    Also, if you ever feel an engineer or surveyor can do an equivalent job on the project you’re designing you’re doing it wrong.


    Are there more LA jobs in Low Density cites? Like Houston or Atlanta? Verses a Chicago or New York. Per capita of course. 

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    It is too general of a subject to rate as good or bad for landscape architects. …. and what is “good” for one landscape architect is not good for another.

    The more simple development is, the more easily the design can be completed without a landscape architect involved – whether it is a residential planting bed, subdivision, park, or whatever. Sprawl is often associated with development of undeveloped areas rather than fitting into developed areas. Working with a clean slate is less complicated in that it usually has less conflicts to sort out. 

    More complicated sites at any scale equal more opportunity for us. I think that is a fact and not an opinion.Complication may come from the sophistication level of the client, it might be from the physical characteristics of the site. it might be market driven, or it could be from regulation.

    Sprawl tends to occur in the path of least resistance, which usually means the least complication, which usually means less opportunities where a landscape architect is in demand. …. not less places where we can be useful, just not in demand. That is an opinion.

    Mark Di Lucido

    “Does more low density developed land create more work for LA’s?”

    Compared to what? Landscape design for Paolo Soleri type arcologies—certainly. Designing urban forests for dense, walkable cities—probably. Producing landscape architecture design for transit oriented development—probably not. Is it another way for LA’s to make money—of course. Is it sustainable and where we should be directing our energies and resources—no. Would I do it again if it meant the difference between being able to pay my daughter’s college tuition and not paying it—yes, but it’d be an extremely bitter pill to swallow.

    There’s a lot of science (not all of it new) that tells us sprawl is a bad thing:

    • Loss of farmland (1.2 million acres per year according to National Geographic)
    • Loss of trees, plants, topsoil and whole ecological systems
    • Loss of wildlife habitat
    • Increased water pollution from point and non-point storm sources
    • Higher levels of air pollution because of longer automobile commutes
    • Increased greenhouse gas emissions
    • There is a direct correlation between lower obesity rates and walking. Generally speaking, sprawl offers limited opportunities to walk.
    • Higher costs (tax funded) for government agencies to create infrastructure to serve sprawl

     Finally . . .



    Density is the number of dwelling units/acre.  Rural land uses, such as agriculture and agribusiness, have a low density.  It is considered “low” in relation to other densities, whatever they are.  “High” density in a farming community might mean 10 du/ac.  “High” density in NYC might mean several thousand dwelling units in a half mile.  Sprawl and low density are two different concepts, the former having a very negative connotation of large-tract single-land uses, often dependent on automobile usage.  

    Larger cities have more of anything: more doctors, more firefighters, more police, more landscape designers.  Cities that place a higher value on cutting edge planning and design may have a stronger market for landscape architects, but that isn’t set in stone. I would check out Chapter ASLA websites to find out the markets for different cities.  I don’t see a direct correlation between the number of LAs and low density cities (by low density you mean cities with large single-family developments).  But with more single-family residential there is a direct need for master planning, high end residential landscaping, strip commercial/big box commercial uses.  

    Sadly enough, conventional subdivision design, despite the market need, is not heavily taught in schools.  It used to be taught to students in surveying, engineering, architecture, and “city” planning (pre-WW2 design-heavy planning, which is part of landscape architecture today).  Conventional design is heavily ridiculed and it is often substituted in portfolios with flashy, pie-in-the-sky master plans that are heavily rendered.  Plotting out a 200 acre tract of land on paper, laying on trace, and sketching out a street plan with pencils and markers can be very daunting to some students.  These skills have to be learned on the job.  Again, I think that this work, which is very large-scale and still gets built like sports complexes and parks, is often done grudgingly by many different types of professionals. 

    And to the previous post “health, safety, and general welfare” is not a cop out.  It’s a valid argument that allows the owner of the land to do any number of things to the land, whether to leave it alone, improve it, convert it, subdivide it, trash it, etc.  And yes, as a practicing planner, I often had to resort to the lowest common denominator because that is what will ultimately be approved by a reviewing agency.  If you don’t like it, amend the ordinance.  If you can’t have municipalities enforce design guidelines (which are non-legally binding recommendations), contact your state lawmaker and have him/her get your state’s enabling acts amended.  


    I use the term specifically for Houston.  Suburban uses are outside of our beltway, urban is more or less everything within.  Our land use development code (for the largest city in the country without zoning) has different land development standards for each.  Sorry for the confusion!

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    I’ve heard others say that Houston is text book sprawl. Is that not correct?

    Curious, not a challenge.


    Chris– I don’t do lot farms 😉


    Houston has so much sprawl, it’s sprawl has sprawl…hence, ‘suburban sprawl’ 🙂


    Whats ‘a Chicago’ ??

    My advice: if you’re job searching, bypass the larger cities and look for growth opportunities in small, medium cities and towns–if your goal is to make a living. If you want to be a small fish in a big ocean and maybe do some cad for some very prestigious projects go for the big city.

    There’s plenty of work on both sides of sprawl in both big cities and small towns.

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