Interview with Emily McCoy
What place has the most potential to be transformed by landscape architecture?
Areas rich with natural resources and of cultural significance that need to balance growth and development with conservation and preservation. As landscape architects, we need to continue to find creative strategies that allow humans to have more positive relationships with our environment and with each other through environmental and equity planning. For example, we are working on several projects on the North Carolina and South Carolina coasts that are seeing and will continue to see significant impacts of climate change. These areas traditionally are also where marginalized groups have lived for many generations, and now are places of significant growth- where tensions around gentrification, land rights, resiliency, and economics intersect. Couple this with the fact that these areas are also places rich in history and culture, there is critical need to plan and design in a socially and environmentally responsible way. Our charge as designers and planners is to balance all the voices of a community with environmental and cultural resource protection, while considering the future scenarios of climate change and its impact to human safety and economic development – not an easy task. Landscape architects are trained to navigate these complex problems, but we can’t do it alone. We need our allied disciplines and our community partners to rally around a commitment to responsible and sustainable planning and design in order to have significant impact. Amongst all these serious issues, it is important to not lose sight that outdoor spaces should be fun and inspiring for the people we design for. It has been a fascinating process working with these communities and I continue to learn from them every day, including acknowledging my own biases and challenging business-as-usual practices in the profession.
What is the greatest challenge facing landscape architects today?
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, public spaces are more valuable than ever before- they provide places for safe active recreation and mental restoration, and thus should be a part of a comprehensive public health strategy for every community. Due to closures of indoor facilities and social distancing guidelines, we are encouraged to gather outdoors to stay healthy. Therefore, it is even more important to ensure that we gather public insight from all members of the community that will be utilizing these outdoor spaces. This was challenging to do prior to the pandemic and now it is even harder. Our industry had shifted to rely on digital tools – email and social media – to gather public feedback. Yet, due to broadband issues and other challenges prohibiting people from having internet access in some of our communities, we are seeing a shift back to a more analog approach. Think mailers and phone calls. For a project I am currently working on that has experienced some delays due to the pandemic, we are trying something really exciting – temporary art installations. The goal is to keep people connected to the space even though it has stalled. On this same project, which happens to be an area where families have lived in the same homes for generations, we are calling residents and collecting oral histories. It’s fascinating to learn about the families that have lived here for decades and their memories of the neighborhood. We are digitizing these histories and going to use them for a permanent art installation.
What is on the horizon for the landscape architecture industry?
With my STEM-based education prior to becoming a landscape architect, I have always been fascinated by the confluence of design, planning and technology. My latest obsession is uncrewed aerial systems, also known as drones. Drones are becoming less expensive and more sophisticated. They have become one of our go-to tools for evaluating existing conditions quickly and accurately. However, drones are much more than a way to take photographs from above, they can also capture other information about the environment through sensors that allow us to track changes such as flooding or soil erosion over time. Before it would take months to evaluate existing conditions, now we can do it in a matter of hours. It’s so much faster and efficient than before. I think our reliance on drones as a helpful tool in our landscape architect’s toolbox will only grow. The interesting thing to watch will be how much more regulated they become and how that impacts our usage of them. Either way, I expect drones to continue to be an integral part of our work allowing us to assess exiting conditions, and monitor and measure our landscapes in real time, particularly the impact of climate change and the urban heat island, and how and why people use different spaces. This will allow us to assess the success and failure of our design and planning decisions quickly, when it once took years, in order build more sustainable spaces for future generations.