INTERVIEW: Boston Society of Landscape Architects’ Emerging Professionals On Engaging Young Designers

INTERVIEW: Boston Society of Landscape Architects’ Emerging Professionals On Engaging Young Designers

Want to boost awareness and participation in your local landscape architecture chapter but don’t know how? If you were lucky enough to attend last year’s ASLA conference in Boston, you’ve experienced first-hand the energy and ambition of the Boston Society of Landscape Architects. Located in one of the hottest spots in the country for landscape architecture schools and firms, BSLA also hosts an active Emerging Professionals group that’s been spearheading a local community around landscape architecture with fun networking events. I had the opportunity to speak with Nina Chase, BSLA EP Chair, and David Buckley Borden, BSLA EP Event Producer, about their leadership roles in the EP group and their advice for getting more people involved and active in landscape architecture.

Can you tell us about what the Emerging Professionals group is and how it differs from the Boston Society of Landscape Architects?

Across the country, local ASLA chapters support local Emerging Profession (EP) committees. Here in Boston, the BSLA EPs are a committee within the BSLA. As the name implies, EP members are emerging into their careers, as opposed to being “established.” However, we often joke that being an EP is a self-identification. We have a large contingency of members in their first 10 years of practice. We also have student members who are eager to break out of the academic scene to start making professional connections.

Is Emerging Professionals strictly a networking group or is there any fundraising involved?

We are purely a networking group and we are sponsored by Landscape Forms who provide financial support for meeting and speakers.

RELATED STORY: Interview with David Buckley Borden and the ‘Fun-A-Day’ Landscape Project

How did the two of you get involved?

Funny story, we went to school at Harvard GSD together for a whole year and never met each other! We knew of each other, but didn’t officially meet until we were both on a jury for a design review. We got to talking about the need to bring the young-gun landscape architects together to have a stronger presence in the Boston design community. There are so many of us here going to school or working in the 30+ firms in and around Boston. We wanted to showcase the energized landscape architecture community. Since then, almost 2 years ago (where has the time gone?!), we’ve been working side by side within the BSLA.

Emerging Professionals on the recent Speed Studio Tour

One of the most recent events Emerging Professionals orchestrated was the Speed Studio Tour, a series of very fast-paced visits to three landscape architecture firms in less than an hour and a half. Sounds like a lot of fun! Where did the idea come for that come from and how long did the even take to arrange and execute?

The idea for the Speed Studio Tour came from having a lot of success with a studio tour at Sasaki when we both worked there. Everyone loved seeing the office and getting a peek into the lives of other designers. We wanted to do more!

Landscape architects taking over the streets of Boston | Speed Studio Tour

We also realized that there are 3 prominent LA firms (Stephen Stimson Associates, Reed Hilderbrand, and Hargreaves Associates) within a mile radius of each other in Central Square Cambridge, MA. We thought it would be fun to riff off of the idea of speed dating and get everyone in and out of the three firms in one night. We could get a quick taste of the offices’ culture/projects/people/etc.

We had pretty ambitious goals, 3 firms, 1.5 hours, with a much needed stop at a bar at the end. We courted three friends who work at the firms and invited them to each coordinate a presentation and a tour. Each firm was given 5 mins for a presentation, 5 minutes for Q+A, and  5 minutes for a tour. Amazingly by the end of the night we were only 10 minutes behind schedule. We used an iPhone alarm to kept the pace. It got pretty funny and ridiculous, but we kept people on their toes and we made it!

Inside Hargreaves Associates

Inside Stephen Stimson Associates

What was the turn out like?

Way more than we ever expected! At the peak of the tour, about halfway through, we had 45 people in route.  It was the first time we had ever seen a parade of landscape architects in Cambridge! We had EPs from all the major firms in the area. There were also students from UMass Boston, the BAC, and the GSD, and there was a professor from MIT. We even had a dad and his son who were interested in learning more about landscape architecture.

We’re already planning our Speed Studio Tour: Boston Edition for the Fall.

Inside Reed Hilderbrand (1)

Inside Reed Hilderbrand (2)

Are there any other fun events like those that you regularly try to hold? How frequently do you hold events?

Yes! Our strategy is to build a community through events. Throughout the year, we have a number of recurring events that we program in addition to quarterly meetings about every 3 months.

At the quarterly meetings we give updates and usually invite a speaker to talk to the group. At past quarterly meetings we’ve had presentations from up-and-coming landscape architects to presentations on the how-tos of networking (which we did right before the National ASLA Meeting to brush up on our skills) and social media (aka our “Digital Media Download”).

Nerd Nite

We try our best to leverage existing events. Boston is ripe with lectures, meet ups, networking events, and design scene shindigs. We started, Post Lecture, where we designate a bar to meet in after a major lecture in the area. We have also hosted Nerd Nite twice. Nerd Nite is a national monthly event where two people present about a topic of their own interest/obsession and others come to listen, drink, and meet-up. This past May we co-hosted with with the Boston Society of Architects Emerging Professionals Network (BSA EPNet) and invited two speakers. The speakers were both traditionally trained as designers, one as a landscape architect and the other an architect/urban designer, but they are pursuing alternative design career tracks. It was great to work with the BSA EPNet and start to bridge between our two groups.

This year was also particularly fun because the BSLA hosted the National ASLA Annual meeting here in Boston. The EPs went above and beyond in their volunteerism for the event, creating the walking tour map, designing the host booth, and hosting the National ASLA Alumni Tailgate, among countless other efforts. The momentum was fantastic. 

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It must be hard planning and managing these types of networking events on top of a busy work schedule. How do you motivate yourself into maintaining an active Emerging Professionals presence?

When we first began revamping the EP group in 2012, it was certainly a lot of work. At the time, we both worked at Sasaki Associates, so it was relatively easy to hold impromptu meetings and make decisions quickly. Now that the groundwork is laid out, it’s not nearly as time intensive.

The key to maintaining our engagement is that there are two of us leading this effort plus we’re supported by a great community of EPs and the BSLA leadership. Between the two of us, we often divide and conquer a project, much like this interview. It’s not just about a division of labor, but we feel accountable to one another. Beyond our partnership, we’re motivated by a mutual interest in having fun with all the BSLA EP projects and building an excited community.

Your audience exceeds emerging professionals; your events seem to attract everyone from the individual with a fleeting interest to longtime professionals. What communications strategy do you use to spread the message about your events and landscape architecture?

One of our goals is to foster an inclusive community of design professionals. From the beginning we made an effort to reimagine what the EP group could be and the role it could play in the larger professional design context. From the start, we welcomed professionals outside the traditional landscape architecture field. We don’t design in a vacuum, so why would we network in a professional vacuum?

We reach people through a variety of social media platforms (twitter, instagram, facebook, etc.) , an opt-in email list and the larger BSLA communication network. We also still use the old fashion telephone to reach out to folks. Most importantly we love to meet people face-to-face at our events. Our events-driven programming is really about setting up opportunities for people to communicate with one another.

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Is there anything that Emerging Professionals does that you think may be different from the approach of other landscape architecture chapters or groups?

We can’t speak to what other EP groups are doing but we can speak to how we’ve revamped the BSLA EP group. I think the key success factor to our approach is taking programming risks in an effort to stay fresh. Many professional groups fall into programming ruts. As a rule we are constantly trying out new approaches to programming with an aim of keep our events and subject matters relevant to young designers with diverse interests.

It’s not enough to be relevant to emerging landscape architecture practitioners. We pay attention to larger trends and cultural happenings to ensure we stay relevant to how young people socialize, communicate, and ultimately enjoy themselves outside the office.

We also downplay the forced networking practices and throw out everything that makes professional networking so unappealing, especially their exclusive nature and their tendency to be self-obsessed and inwardly directed. We’re really intent on building an inclusive group that is loosely organized around the design of the built environment.

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In what ways do you think Emerging Professionals has benefited young landscape architecture professionals and the public perception of landscape architecture?

We have had members land jobs and develop other professional opportunities through the EP group. Members have also enjoyed publication opportunities. Still, the major benefit is that one can connect to informed, engaged, active professionals and have access to a variety of professional development opportunities. Our members are exposed to both the landscape architecture field but also to the greater Boston design community.

The biggest benefit may be the fact that we regularly provide opportunities for our members to get outside the bubble of their office. Our members are very well informed young professionals. They’re aware of the local job market: What firms are prospering? Who’s winning new projects? Who’s losing talent? Who enjoys favorable reputations for having a good work environment?  This is information you won’t find on LinkedIn. Being an informed professional is beneficial to your professional success.

Do you have any parting advice for other chapters hoping to boost engagement amongst students and young professionals?

If you are not happy with your engagement track record, change whatever you are currently doing. Throw out the baby, the bathwater and the bathtub! People are energized by change. Novelty can be a real asset when it comes to planning successful networking events. We’d also recommend that people reach out to other professional groups and participate in existing cultural events that would appeal to the types of people you want to attract to your group. Most importantly, foreground the social component of your engagement efforts and do it in a fresh fashion that is in line with the youthful attitudes of young designers. In short, be engaged, inclusive and relevant.

Thanks so much Nina and David!

You can follow what their Emerging Professionals Group is up to on their website.

Interview was conducted by Lucy Wang.

Published in Blog

1 Comment

  1. Some great ideas in here – thanks for sharing!

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