The Need for Storytelling in Landscape Architecture

  What does it mean to tell the story of landscape architecture? Of design, generally? And what about the stories behind the designs of all of the projects underway worldwide? The aftermath of a great project can unfortunately be a resounding silence: the metaphorical gates open, the space is unveiled, the construction teams leave the […]


What does it mean to tell the story of landscape architecture? Of design, generally? And what about the stories behind the designs of all of the projects underway worldwide? The aftermath of a great project can unfortunately be a resounding silence: the metaphorical gates open, the space is unveiled, the construction teams leave the site, and then a few leaves fall. When people use new spaces and places in the urban setting, how do we tell the story of the creation of landscapes beyond launch day? Beyond signage? About the designers, architects, planners and people behind the projects?

In this interview, I join Amanda Walter and Holly Berkley, co-authors of the recently released book, Social Media In Action, to talk about the need for communication in landscape architecture and how the increasing prevalence of social media tools–such as blogging, Twitter, Facebook and more–are helping the architecture, engineering and planning industry change the way we communicate.

Sarah Kathleen Peck: What do you see as the role of storytelling and communication in landscape architecture?

Amanda Walter and Holly Berkley: Unfortunately, landscape architecture can be invisible to lay people. This may be the profession’s biggest struggle. If landscape architects don’t tell the stories of their projects – drawing attention to the design and intention of the space – no one else will. Your designs can’t speak for themselves when the public attributes their authorship to God. For landscape architecture firms, your narrative is what will open the public’s eyes to your work.

Today, telling and sharing stories couldn’t be easier and digital formats are great for visually rich topics like design. Social media loves visual content. Videos are shared more frequently and posts (whether on a blog, on Facebook or LinkedIn) with striking images attract more readers.  Once you start telling your stories in social media, your readers will let you know (like, share, comment on, etc.) the content they like the best – pay attention to what content engages your audience and you’ll hone your story telling skills.

SKP: What excites you about the future of landscape, architecture, and engineering?

AW and HB: There is so much about our future that will be determined by these professions. From the rethinking and rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure–like San Francisco’s new eastern span of the Bay Bridge’s that includes a 15’ cantilevered bike and pedestrian lane or the Highline’s game changing reuse of a New York elevated railway–to addressing climate change by designing and building smarter, walkable, park-filled and transit accessible cities and suburbs.

Social media can help advance public acceptance and even drive demand for high-quality design in our cities – and even the smallest firm can affect these shifts. PlaceMakers is a 7-person urban planning and design firm that uses its PlaceShakers blog and Facebook page to embrace the myriad of public stakeholder types through a dialog about great communities. Theirs is an excellent example of how firms can create a real following of clients and influencers by talking about what the topics that they can relate to. These tools effectively promote the firm even though PlaceMakers doesn’t use them to promote themselves directly. (You can learn more about PlaceMakers approach in our book.)

SKP: What are some of the new trends in design that are exciting to watch?

AW and HB: We have been really interested in watching how designers are tracking personal technology use to see how this may impact the future use of spaces and facilities.  In some ways, personal technology may be making us more anti-social than we used to be, but clever designers seem to be finding ways to draw us out of our shells – by creating spaces that require our attention and encourage us to connect with the physical world. West 8’s the billowing structures and outdoor sound system at Miami Beach Soundscape Lincoln Park that has made the symphony accessible to everyone. Our built environment can remind us that despite our involvement in rich virtual communities, we have wonderful real communities worth investing our time and energies in as well.

Also cities like Greater Des Moines, Iowa where technology is making the public want to participate thanks to Sasaki’s gamified tool “Design My DSM.”

SKP: You co-authored the recently published book, Social Media In Action. When did the idea for this book come about?

AW and HB: At the beginning of 2011, I [Amanda] was approached to write a book on social media for the AE industry and I immediately called Holly to see if she would collaborate with me. Holly has been working in online marketing for several years (she’s written two books on the topic), so she adds a deeper analytical understanding of social media to my practical experience with including social media as a part of programs I’ve built with my former firms and my clients. Ultimately, we wanted to write a book that wasn’t necessarily a how to, but instead one that would help firms explore why they would use these tools and how an objective-driven program can be an asset to their communications. We do this by showing real cases of firms that have built a social media presence that supports their practice.

SKP: What role does social media take in sharing the stories of landscape architecture and urbanism? Are firms “missing out” by not using social media? Or should we not be so quick to jump on the bandwagon?

AW and HB: Most firms are still trying to find their voice. This is a rare moment in time when the potential of these tools is not yet known. These tools can effectively level the playing field. Small firms with big ideas have just as much access to publishing and circulating these as the biggest firm with the most resources. It requires creativity and a commitment to investing the time required. Once social tools become as engrained in our normal communication as email is today, the opportunity to stand out and to do something no one else has done will be much more difficult.

This doesn’t mean firms should go start a blog, a Facebook page and a Twitter account right away, only to let them go dormant next month. Firms need to invest in their approach wisely. Build something that supports the intellectual brand and ambitionof your firm. Most importantly, firms need to commit to a sustained program and practice patience as you gradually grow a loyal audience by putting thoughtful content out there and engaging with others. Social media takes time.

SKP: How can firms encourage innovation and leadership in times of uncertainty?

AW and HB: These are times to explore new ways of working, winning work and promoting the firm. Trust in the good people that you hire. Look internally for potential leaders. Listen to their ideas and invest in the strong ones by letting your staff explore them. Your best people can represent the firm as examples of the quality of expertise you bring to projects. Encourage them to engage in the many professional online communities and groups like Land8Lounge, Architizer, or the LinkedIn Groups related to professional organizations. Let them share what they know. The gains in their own personal reputation will also reflect well on the firm.

Sarah Peck is a communications specialist and designer at SWA Group in Sausalito, CA, and a freelance writer. She works in the spaces between architecture, technology, communications and strategy. She is the founder of the landscape urbanism website, an online journal, blog and resource that looks at the state and future of cities, landscape and design.

Recent articles from the landscape urbanism blog include Mona El Kafif’s essay to re-code urban metabolisms, Stephanie Carlisle and Nicholas Pevzner’s investigation of the High Performance Guidelines in New York City, and  Lea Johnson’s look at integrating ecological science with design.

This post is syndicated with Landscape Urbanism, a website focused on the design and functioning of cities through the perspective of landscape.

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