Landscape architects angle for respect

2011-08-25T00:00:00Z Landscape architects angle for respectBY MOLLY WOULFE Times Correspondent nwitimes.com
August 25, 2011 12:00 am  • 

In space, comes grace.

The old Scottish proverb holds true for landscape architects, who design and plan outdoor spaces for private or public use. But the concept is sometimes a little hard for the average person to grasp.

Ask Dominic Zuccarelli, 21, of Schererville.

"Everyone thinks I cut grass," said the college senior, majoring in landscape architecture at Purdue University.

"I don't want to cut grass," he said. "I don't want to pull your weeds or anything. That's not why I'm in school."

In fact, just 10 percent of the job is literally spent "in the field." The typical landscape architect logs the other 90 percent at a computer, analyzing and enhancing spaces -- mainly urban sites such as parks, plazas and city centers -- into people- and eco-friendly destinations.

Jacks of multiple trades, these experts are grounded in botany, geology, earth sciences, fine art, architecture, industrial design, psychology and civil infrastructure. A technical background is recommended, a creative flair essential. Passing the national exam is mandatory to be licensed.

For Zuccarelli, it's baffling how anyone can confuse master planners -- think the visionaries who mapped out Central Park in New York and Millennium Park in Chicago -- with dandelion-yankers. 

"You have landscape architects and you have landscape designers," he explained. "Any Joe on the street can call himself a landscape designer. You don't need a degree. You don't need a license. That's a huge difference."

While the recession is curbing municipal projects, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics consistently ranks landscape architecture as a growing industry. U.S. News and World Report included the career in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 on its annual "Best Jobs" list.

According to the American Society of Landscape Architects, which has 17,000 members nationwide, salaries start around $45,000. The average salary is about $71,000, with 30-year veterans raking in six figures.

As the greening of America continues, the field is destined to flourish, experts say. Post-millennial consumers view recyclable products and sustainable environments as parts of the cultural landscape. A recent survey by the national environmental marketing company TerraChoice found that the number of "green" products soared 73 percent between 2009 and 2010.

Earth-friendly stewardship is critical today, says Taghi Arshami, president of the Arsh Group, a multi-discipline urban design firm based in Merrillville.

Green initiatives include an emphasis on rainwater retention, native plants, and recyclables incorporated into landscapes, said Arshami, for whom Zuccarelli interned this summer. Consider the Arsh-designed butterfly garden, boardwalk over the wetlands, and hiking trail of Pruzin Park in Merrillville. 

The first two elements preserve and conserve the natural integrity of the land. The spring trail, an all-age favorite of walkers and runners, is made from recycled tires. "That trail attracts so many new people to the site, and we're getting rid of tires from landfills," Arshami said.

As for the new West Lakes Park, under construction south of West 45th Avenue in Munster, the five-employee Arsh firm is integrating guest-friendly features like soccer fields and a basketball court with eco-savvy elements like LED lighting, a rain garden, and a water retention system-cum-pond. The company, which specializes in historic and cultural landmarks as well, also drew up the blueprints for the veterans memorials in Hammond and Merrillville.

Like intern Zuccarelli, Arshami runs into his share of clients who confuse him with a gardener. Like other landscaper architects nationwide, he hosted a free meet-and-greet on Aug. 17 to educate the public about his profession. 

Yet no one showed up for coffee. The problem, one only a landscape architect could appreciate: limited car/pedestrian access from the busy Westfield-Southlake Shopping Mall across the street. Visitors would have had to head west "a couple of blocks" and double back. A proposed reroute sent to Merrillville "is still in the works," he said.

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