Houston's Buffalo Bayou Promenade, designed by SWA Group.
Houston's Buffalo Bayou Promenade, designed by SWA Group. Tom Fox/American Society of Landscape Architects

And could a golden era for urban design lead to the automation of landscape architects?

Ian Siegel is a futurist. As founder and CEO for ZipRecruiter, the job-seeking site, he spends a lot of time thinking about what happens next in work. From his 11th-floor office in downtown Santa Monica, Siegel says, he can see seven different parking garages, each one capable of hosting north of 1,000 cars—none of which will be necessary in the future he foresees. “There’s an amazing amount of real estate that’s about to go underutilized,” Siegel says, “unless they find a way to repurpose it.”

Siegel is backing one of the sunnier future transportation timelines: In his mind, the coming rise of autonomous vehicles (AVs), coupled with the takeoff of drone delivery, will leave our roads empty and our parking lots derelict. Quadcopters bearing take-out and on-demand goods will buzz the skies. Meanwhile, the ground below will quake with a different kind of activity: landscape architecture.

In Siegel’s near-distant future, 90 percent or more of the privately owned and organically operated cars currently on the roads will no longer be necessary, and society will reap a windfall of real estate that it has never before had the luxury to reconsider. Landscape architects—the design professionals responsible for planting grassed swales that convey stormwater runoff, siting benches that line pedestrian thoroughfares, and meeting the demand for shade with tree canopies—will be the front line in re-thinking the built environment.

“It is with relatively high confidence that I predict you’re going to see a boom in landscape architecture,” Siegel says. “You will see innovation and invention that has never been possible, because suddenly, everyone’s going to have all this excess space.”

A girl peeks through a waterfall feature at Yards Park, designed by M. Paul Friedberg and Partners for Washington, D.C. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Are we indeed about to enter a golden age for landscape architects?

“I certainly want to believe it,” says Nancy Somerville, executive vice president and CEO for the American Society of Landscape Architects, of a future society reoriented away from personal automobiles. As far as the landscape architecture boom is concerned, she says, “that would continue what we’re already seeing, a major trend already underway to recapture and reuse underutilized or formerly utilized urban space.”

She’s talking about the High Line, of course—no conversation about landscape architecture is complete without it. But Somerville mentions other projects that have begun to nibble away at the vast automotive infrastructure that the age of the private car inflicted on cities. Consider Buffalo Bayou Park, designed by Page and SWA Group, the centerpiece of a $220 million, 150-mile network of green space, bicycle trails, and landscape reclamation in Houston. Specific to that project is SWA Group’s Buffalo Bayou Promenade, which connects downtown Houston to Buffalo Bayou Park to the west by establishing 23 acres of new urban parkland underneath the “spaghetti of highways”—the frenetic Interstate 45 exchanges.

Toronto has locked down the formula for urban landscape reclamation, a process begun in earnest with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates’ Lower Don Lands master plan for the waterfront. Nearby, PFS Studio turned 2.5 acres of grim freeway infrastructure into Underpass Park, a fun zone near the waterfront. Building on that success, the Toronto City Council decided two years ago to transform part of the Gardiner Expressway, a different elevated eyesore, into The Bentway, another urban park, this time by Public Work.

Lafayette Greens, designed by Kenneth Weikal Landscape Architecture, in downtown Detroit. (Beth Hagenbuch/American Society of Landscape Architects)

At a smaller scale, there’s Lafayette Greens, designed by Kenneth Weikal Landscape Architecture. Occupying less than half an acre in downtown Detroit—on a parcel that used to be the footprint of a mid-rise Italian Renaissance–style tower that sat empty for more than a decade before it was torn down in 2009—Lafayette Greens is a complete urban farm. It features raised beds for vegetables and lavender, a hedge circle of blackberry bushes, and an heirloom apple orchard (healthy counterpoints to the notorious Lafayette Coney Island diner across the street).

In a perverse way, Lafayette Greens makes Siegel’s optimistic case: A ruined Detroit tower, neglected in the wake of mass depopulation, made way for a more suitable landscape use. There is a darker possible timeline, however: one in which autonomous vehicles don’t take off, or don’t take off everywhere. Or they add more cars on the road. A future in which on-demand delivery grows faster and faster but still proceeds by plain old automobiles. A future in which the status quo prevails—and thanks to climate change, grows even bleaker.

For landscape architects, climate change means more projects

From their perspective, climate change might look more like developing solutions to a series of smaller, discrete, inter-linked problems, from mitigating floods to cooling urban heat islands. The city of Houston commissioned Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects to restore the dwindling tree canopy in Memorial Park, a 1,460-acre green-space that has fallen victim to hurricanes and drought. The advocacy arm of the American Society of Landscape Architects pressed Congress to include incentives in the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act to support habitats for pollinators (think: flowers for honey bees) along federal highway rights-of-way.

Policy-makers see reasons at home to invest in landscape design. Local governments across the nation are cottoning on to the public-health benefits of access to public parks. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation recently launched Parks Without Borders, a series of landscape interventions to make the city’s parks safer. Houston has taken tentative steps toward boosting racial equity in access to and planning of parks and landscape.

“Put climate change to the side for a minute,” Somerville says. “Look at our development patterns. We were already proceeding along a development pattern that was unsustainable.” She points to flood-insurance data from Chicago. While you might expect to see more flood-insurance claims near the floodplains, in fact the majority of them hail from wherever there is the greatest amount of impervious surface. “Duh—we didn’t provide a way for the water to filtrate back into the land,” she says.

An emphasis on resilience—whether it be in response to the devastation of Superstorm Sandy or to reduce the level of stormwater runoff deteriorating our watersheds—has led local lawmakers to place greater trust in planners and landscape architects, even endorsing some truly visionary projects. “More of these things are becoming reality, instead of just student dream projects for landscape architects,” Somerville says.

Underpass Park, designed by PFS Studio near Toronto’s waterfront. (Tom Arban/American Society of Landscape Architects)

A big re-think of the built environment may be underway. Autonomous vehicles may be only the start of it. Consider the coming reshuffling of the employment landscape. Every year, during the fourth quarter, Amazon and FedEx—just two companies—hire between 150,000 and 450,000 part-time workers. Seasonal Santas, brought on just to handle the demand for delivering holiday packages. In the future, this work will likely be done by hundreds of thousands of remotely piloted electronic elves instead. Drones are bound to have an impact on commerce at least as dramatic as the retailpocalypse underway.

“If you think a lot of cars are going to come off the road with autonomous on-demand fleets, wait ‘til you see what happens when drones further lighten that congestion because they’re a far more efficient solution for delivering fill-in-the blank,” Siegel says.

Today, some 2 million Americans work as over-the-road truckers, to say nothing of the urban armadas driving for Lyft, Peapod, Postmates, and so on. Siegel estimates that drone delivery will open up a boom economy with a six-figure rise in jobs over the next five years (!)—first in research and development, then for pilots and mechanics. Eventually, that will put a lot of drivers out of their vehicles (and into work as drone operators and support staff). And when drivers leave the roads? That’s when landscape architects step in.

Could landscape architects put themselves out of work?

Here’s an alternative twist to the bright timeline: Could the boom in landscape architects lead to the automation of landscape design?

Ryan Avent, senior editor for The Economist , is the author of The Wealth of Humans: Work and Its Absence in the Twenty-First Century. (He’s also a friend of mine.) If demand for landscape-design services goes up, it will lead to an increase in salaries for landscape architects. As Avent explains, that in turn creates pressure to economize on the labor side. In the future—perhaps a none-too-distant future—machines might fit the bill.

“What humans think is appealing boils down to pattern recognition,” Avent says. “Computers can come up with a pop song that people are going to love, and they can come up with poetry that people think is cool. It will be a while before they can write a novel, but if you have a large enough dataset of how things can be put together in different ways, the machine can learn from that and anticipate what’s going to be an attractive way of designing a particular space.”

Imagine the algorithmic thinking that is already at work in parametric design taking over the steering wheel. “They’re going to be super-good at combining that sort of [design] analysis with the other stuff: what’s the best way to deal with rain-water in an optimal fashion, how to not have a building overheat,” Avent says. “Machines are much better at analyzing all these sorts of things.”

In the nearer term, a landscape boom might open up lots of jobs—not just in design but construction, maintenance, engineering, data collection, and so on. (Look at all the human jobs associated with autonomous vehicles right now.) Computers will continue to make the work of landscape architects even easier.

“As at many small firms, five years ago, the technology in THK Associates’ office mainly consisted of hand-drawn plans, some 3-D modeling, Photoshop, and [computer-assisted design],” writes Daniel Tal in Landscape Architecture Magazine. “Now, the firm is incorporating drones, 3-D printing, and virtual reality into many of its projects.”

Even as designers make gains in efficiency, breakthroughs in artificial intelligence will continue to move the goalposts on the kind of “routine” work that can be automated. Futurists believe that will come to encompass creative and technical decision-making once assigned to licensed architects and engineers. Only a few short years ago, after all, automated driving was the stuff of science fiction.

Avent predicts—he humors me a scenario like the one outlined by Siegel—that wealthy clients will still prefer the one-on-one attention of a (human) landscape architect. On the other hand, large companies such as Google that are collecting data on any number of human activities could train software to address some of the questions that a landscape architect would need to answer. These AI giants might eventually work with data provided by cities to tailor solutions to specific locales.

“Eventually, maybe, they’re able to sell LandscapeBot, who you have on your phone,” Avent says. “You say, ‘Hey, Siri, can you figure out what LandscapeBot thinks I should do with this parking lot that is no longer necessary?’”

Tough break for carbon-based designers. But your pocket LandscapeBot is still a ways off. Today, the problem isn’t competition: Not enough people are taking up landscape architecture as a profession. Somerville attributes a lag in the pipeline to the costs of higher education in accredited programs, a lack of available scholarships, and competition for students from STEM-oriented fields. The relative lack of visibility of landscape architecture is a central concern. “It’s the least well known of the design professions,” Somerville says. “A lot of people come into it as a second career.”

The 20,000 or so people working in landscape architecture today have more and better projects than they did in the past. They’ve seen boom-and-bust cycles before. “Before [the recession], there was a crazy competition for graduates,” Somerville says. “Signing bonuses, all kinds of unheard-of things for landscape architects. That, of course, all dropped off. Now we’re seeing a build-up, and we believe we’re going to be moving back into that territory.”

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