“I am kind of a transportation nerd”

Wendy Miller is the new president of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). We spoke to her at this year’s ASLA conference in San Diego.

topos: Wendy, how did you get into landscape architecture?

Wendy Miller: I grew up in Washington, DC in politically very active times. There was the civil rights movement, a lot was going on. This had an impact on me. Luckily, at Thomas Jefferson University, I got to be involved with the campus planning office. It is a very beautiful campus with great landscape architecture. There I had this epiphany moment: this area is where I belong, because I can make a change here.

Miller-Wendy
Wendy Miller. (Credits: Jacquelyn Bianchini (PR Communications))

But you did not study landscape architecture at first…

No, I have a degree in English and Studio Art. Only later I graduated with a Master of Landscape Architecture from North Carolina State University.

It is interesting that you have a fine arts background. Professionally, you focus a lot on transportation solutions – not the most artistic of all fields…

It is true, my background is not with primarily artistic landscapes. I started in the public sector, working in local government developing environmental ordinances and promoting aesthetic improvements through design, project development, and public awareness. I think these are highly relevant, future-oriented topics. My transition to transportation planning and policy opened a new avenue of work and commitment to creating humane transportation infrastructure. I simply believe having landscape architects involved in shaping transportation corridors – our most ubiquitous public space – is critical. So I guess you could say I am kind of a transportation nerd.

“Having landscape architects involved in shaping transportation corridors is critical.”

Today, transportation and urban mobility is one of the primary topics of urbanist debates. So with your background, you are quite cutting-edge.

That might be true. The difficulty with transportation is that it is a very complex and research-intensive issue. Luckily, I found an international group of landscape architects early on with a strong background in research. We have to be involved a lot with data in order to understand how things like autonomous vehicles change landscapes and landscape design. This is a big challenge, but a very exciting one, too.

We are sitting at the annual ASLA conference. At the conference, the mobility topic is not overly present.

Well, I think it is in there. For instance, Michael Johnson of the SmithGroup will talk with William Riggs and Melissa Lentini Ruhl of AICP about a design framework for liveable streets in the era of autonomous vehicles. But of course, there are many different topics such a conference has to tackle.

This probably holds true for your role at the ASLA as well. You are the president of the ASLA for one year only. Is that enough time to really achieve a lot?

Well, it is a three-year commitment really. I have already been president elect for one year, and will still have a role after the year as acting president. So I will be able to make an impact.

What is your program?

A big part of my job will be to drive forward what we call the framework project: We need a new framework to talk about landscape architecture. In society, there is still is a misunderstanding about what we do; we are sometimes still seen as gardeners. This has to change. We have to reframe communication about what landscape architects really do.

“We need a new framework to talk about landscape architecture.”

And in terms of the future of landscape architecture?

The big issue, of course, is climate change and carbon neutrality. We have to give people tools to better apply existing knowledge to their daily work in landscape design. And we have to influence politics. This is why our communications director Kevin Fry has organized an exhibition on climate change in Washington.

Influencing national politics must be hard under a president Trump.

But it is possible. We focus on concrete things like stormwater management or greenways.

Still, I imagine that these initiatives are difficult when you have a president who seems uninterested in the effects of climate change.

We have an advocacy team that is constantly monitoring new legislation. And they have an impact. The Living Shorelines Act introduced in the House of Representatives in summer is an example of that.

And still, the political situation in the US, as well as in many other countries worldwide, seems unstable; many countries seem divided. I see this reflected in this year’s conference program, with a lot of emphasis on topics of culture and cultural heritage. Identity seems to play a role, and landscape architecture seems to be in high demand in that context.

It is true, there is a new friction in our society, and a heightened awareness for the question whose culture is represented how. There is a lot of research about these topics in our field. It is important that our profession clearly defines its role in this debate. We cannot maintain a Robert Moses style urban planning. We need to constantly fight for more complex, cultural and visual assessments.

“We need to constantly fight for more complex, cultural and visual assessments.”

Another big conference topic is the integration of subcultures and diversity into urban planning.

Absolutely. As a profession, we need to be more diverse. It is our task to reach out to communities and to develop ways to share space and make everyone feel connected.

We’re at the convention center in San Diego, some 20 kilometers from the Mexican border. And yet, the topic of that border does not seem to play a major role in this year’s conference; there was only one field trip to Tijuana. Why?

You have to keep in mind that the call for proposals works on a nationwide basis. Only the field trips are organized locally.

Is the border no topic for landscape architecture?

Oh yes, it definitely is. And there are responses of our profession to this unique challenge. In Texas, for instance, there are some really high-quality resources and projects.

In general, how international is the ASLA?

We realize increasingly that we are a resource for landscape architects worldwide. We are the world’s largest organization dealing with landscape architecture, and our website has 1.5 million unique visitors, 40 percent of which are from overseas. Countries like China or India use our resources, so we have to create high-quality material for the professionals there. When you look at this year’s student awards, half of the winners are international, many of them from China. On our website, we started to have articles in Spanish and Chinese.

Talking about your awards, I found it interesting that you have awards for communication solutions. The “Award of Excellence” went to the “FloMo”, a mobile messenger for sea-level rise.

Communication is key to political change and to functioning projects. As a profession, landscape architects as communicators facilitate many controversial projects and strengthen community engagement. Especially the community topic is vital. When you take on a project, there will always be a component of community outreach – which is a good thing.