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Thread: Urban design vs. landscape architecture education

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    Urban design vs. landscape architecture education

    Hello Cyburbia,

    I am a 26 year old software engineer who is seriously considering going to graduate school in the built environment arena. Right now I'm debating pursuing an advanced degree in either architecture, landscape architecture, or urban design. I'm hoping some of the experienced professionals on this board could help me understand how my interests best align with a specific degree.

    I would like to be involved on the creative side of designing successful public places where people want to live, work, and play. Thats a pretty broad statement, so let me clarify by stating things that I am not interested in: I'm not interested in creating detailed designs of individual buildings, I'm not interested in choosing the plants for a site, and I don't want to produce guidelines that others use to be creative (I would rather be creating). I'm very passionate about the principles of TOD and new urbanism. I'd like to work with a team of creative people designing public-use sites that strive to meet these principles. What degree do you think will best prepare me to step right in after graduation and do this kind of work? Does anyone know of any good programs in particular?

    Thanks for your help!

    -Adam

  2. #2
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by propelahed View post
    Hello Cyburbia,

    I am a 26 year old software engineer who is seriously considering going to graduate school in the built environment arena. Right now I'm debating pursuing an advanced degree in either architecture, landscape architecture, or urban design. I'm hoping some of the experienced professionals on this board could help me understand how my interests best align with a specific degree.

    I would like to be involved on the creative side of designing successful public places where people want to live, work, and play. Thats a pretty broad statement, so let me clarify by stating things that I am not interested in: I'm not interested in creating detailed designs of individual buildings, I'm not interested in choosing the plants for a site, and I don't want to produce guidelines that others use to be creative (I would rather be creating). I'm very passionate about the principles of TOD and new urbanism. I'd like to work with a team of creative people designing public-use sites that strive to meet these principles. What degree do you think will best prepare me to step right in after graduation and do this kind of work? Does anyone know of any good programs in particular?

    Thanks for your help!

    -Adam
    IMO, you seem to be contradicting yourself: on one hand, you want to consider degrees such as architecture and landscape architecture, which are very technical fields (I am considering LA myself) and on the other hand, you don't want to create detailed designs (i.e. construction documents) or plant material, two areas that are very important components of architecture and landscape architecture. You don't want to create design guidelines either, which is how planning contributes towards design.

    You say "you would rather be creating". But what exactly are you creating? I think you need to elaborate on this a little more. "Public spaces where people live, work, and play" is also self-contradicting. People don't "live" in a public space, but you are looking to create public use sites, so I am assuming you are narrowing down to parks, squares, streetscapes, and plazas, as opposed to residential subdivision design, or commercial design.

    "Urban design" is used far too liberally and people use it to describe a whole variety of things: land use planning, residential planning, TOD planning, and even residential site design. Urban design is not really planning so much as site design: you are not really doing bubbles of land uses on a plan (that is land use planning). Rather, you are designing actual physical spaces, specifically public spaces. These would include streetscapes, plazas, squares, riverwalks, certain types of parks (usually smaller parks, etc.). Urban design does not include residential subdivision site design, commercial site design, PUD design, etc. Again, it is the site design of public spaces. Urban designers choose the placement of street furniture (lighting, trash receptables, monument signage, pavers, landscaping, etc.). It is very similar to the work of an architect, except it is outdoors and not individual buildings. IMO, architects and landscape architects fulfill the role of the urban designer, not the planner.

    Unfortunately, many planning schools claim they have urban design courses, urban design certificates, and even urban design degrees. They are not all the same. Some courses, like my experience at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, might be extremely theoretical, only analyzing readings of urbanists/new urbanists, whether it be Kevin Lynch, Jane Jacobs, Andres Duany, etc. Other degree programs such as University of Michigan's Urban Design degree program are more or less on par with a top architecture/landscape architecture program (so they have tougher admissions requirements, intensive studio, etc.). Personally, I don't like the term urban design because so many people abuse the phrase. I prefer to use the phrase public space site design.

    Before I can give you an honest response, I think you need to refine exactly what you are looking for. You want to be creative, yet you have no interest in embarking on the building blocks for site design, which is construction drawings nor do you want to contribute as a planner by doing design guidelines. So, please tell me a little more about the "creative side" that you want to be a part of.

    Hope this helps-
    Last edited by nrschmid; 22 Jun 2007 at 8:45 AM.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Jeff's avatar
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    Go for the Civil degree

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    Thanks for the thoughtful response. I'm not sure how to give an all-encompassing description of how I wish to be "creative", so I'll try to give an example.

    Let's say a new mass-transit station is going to be constructed in a metropolitan location that is currently just a roadway. The government wants to turn this site into a pedestrian-friendly area, with housing, commercial units, and open public space. Correct me if I am wrong, but I see a traditional architect as being the person who creates the building designs, while a traditional landscape architect might choose the planting scheme. Who is the one who creates the overall site plan? I would like to be involved in creating the overall layout and working to logically and creatively fulfill all of the site objectives. I'd like to work with the architects on a high level to create attractive and contiguous building designs, and work with the landscape professionals on a high level to determine best creative green use of specific sites within the overall site. My creative input comes from gaining a thorough understanding of how a user experiences the whole site, to best determine how to creatively plan that overall site.

    Hope this helps to clarify. Thanks!

  5. #5
    Cyburbian craines's avatar
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    Go for a landscape architecture degree though you will not get to do anyting but other peoples design work for a few years. There are many areas of landscape architecture and some can be quite techinical and are what is most readily available.

    I have been practicing since 1985 and just recently found my dream position with a advance planning dept with the City Of Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Dept.

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    Craines,

    Thanks for the advice. Do you think getting a landscape architecture masters with a specialization in urban design would help "speed up" the time it would take to get involved with the work that I really want to do? For instance, I know that UPenn and a few other schools offer a Urban Design focus that can be applied to an MLA degree.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian craines's avatar
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    It would help. Being very selective in what position you take goes along way though if you are like myself and many others you will may need to start pulling down some money. Also interning may help.

    Its tough I had pretty much the same deal, I just wanted to practice design within the a urban context and I ended up doing tract housing in supremely suburban orange county california.

    Good Luck

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    Cyburbian
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    I agree 110% with craines. It doesnt matter so much as where you go to school but what you can DO with your degree, and who you choose to work for after school. You don't need an urban design focus to necessarily do urban design as a landscape architect (just find a firm that specializes in this type of design work and get your foot in the door).

    IMO, go to a state school. You are not coming out of an ivy with a medical degree, so the last thing you want is to rack up a ton of debt. Check out the programs through the ASLA website.

    Traditional landscape architects were limited to just doing planting plans, but nowadays they do a whole more (site design, current and long range planning, etc. Check with the bureau of labor statistics definition of a landscape architect.

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    Thanks for the responses.

    Is it just as or more common for architects to do the site design, as opposed to landscape architects? I've been to a couple lectures where contractors were discussing developing a site design, and they had architecture backgrounds. I'm just wondering if there is any remaining attitude among architects, that landscape architects are the ones you "bring on board" to do the fine detail green planning after the larger design is done. If this is true, wouldn't it be better for me to consider an architecture degree instead?

  10. #10
    Cyburbian
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    Architects are perfectly capable of most of the work of landscape architects, including, but not limited to site design (parks, residential, non-residential, etc.). They really just need to know their plants. Most, but not all, architects usually focus on the actual structure and pay less attention to the site or the adjacent land uses. This is why there is a growing need for landscape architects. It is much harder for an LA to do the work of the architect though (the technical training including buildings, ventilation, electricity, insulation, HVAC, etc, are not covered in most LA curricula).

    LA's are not subservient to architects and vice versa. I think architects still do a lot of site design work, but the LA workforce is growing, too. There are architectual firms and there are landscape architectual firms, and there are combinations of both. Sometimes one firm will be subconsulted to the other. Sometimes both are subconsulted directly to the developer. There are also design-build firms, which both design the buildings and the site, and also construct them. There are pros and con's to design build just like any other consulting firm.

    I started in architecture and switched to planning. You usually focus on learning as much about the components of the structures: loads, insulation, massing, etc. You can spend several semesters learning about the many different layers within a wall, how to control moisture, heating, etc. Depending on the school you go to, some architecture programs are much more technical and some are more design-heavy (I don't think one really prepares you more than the other to do design work, both types of arch programs are still very intensive). If you are even lucky to do site planning in arch school, it might be for an elective, or a project that you decide to take up yourself. Again, the emphasis is learning about the individual structures, not the overall site.

    Yes, I think it will be easier to move around from architecture to site design as an architect than a landscape architect. However, if you are much more interested in the larger picture, I would stick with landscape architecture, and take additional electives in architecture (although you also mentioned your interest in land use, so coursework in planning is also good).

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