Landscape architecture has a problem with job recognition

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To better recognize, respect and compensate workers, the Terremoto landscaping firm calls for a fundamental reimagining of the way professional practice is structured.

SoCal Landscape workers move a boulder to Terremoto’s Oak Pass Project, a house in Beverly Hills. Courtesy of Terremoto

The past summer brought a long-awaited toll with race in this country, including within our profession of landscape architect, both in terms of the blatant lack of racial diversity among accredited landscape architects and in what is about the environments we create and feel welcome in them. . But there is another very problematic issue that has historically gone unanswered in our chosen line of work. Rather than wait for national protests to push us to resolve systemic dilemmas, we’d like to talk about it now.

Landscape architecture has a problem with recognizing work. While we, as landscape architects and designers, may receive nearly all of the honoraria, attention and accolades for our work, the majority of that work is constructed and maintained by the manual labor of immigrant workers at low wages, many of whom are undocumented. . The $ 93 billion landscaping industry is built on the backs of an immigrant workforce of nearly two-thirds, the majority of whom, at least on the West Coast, are of Mexican descent and Central American. As landscape architects, what we do and how we cultivate the land is intrinsically linked to the people who put in the physical labor to make these projects happen. Now is the time for us as a professional community to do better by recognizing, respecting and appropriately compensating their work.

Let’s be clear: this recognition problem is by no means unique to landscape architecture. It permeates the great design and cultural sector of our economy, where a low-paid and largely undocumented workforce contributes to equity while existing outside of a formal economy that guarantees their wages, their advantages and safety.

But this trend can become particularly problematic in landscape architecture, when we tout our commitment to ecology, tackling climate change and creating resilient urban environments, without examining the structures and work ethic on which we let’s count.

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Javier, from the SoCal Landscape team, mocking a staircase in Oak Pass. Courtesy of Terremoto

For decades, this conversation was seen as too political to engage directly. But ‘business as usual’ is now officially a bad scene, and if we claim to be an industry that cares about ethical and sustainable design, then it’s time for us as a community to start a dialogue and, more. importantly, to go to Take Part. Because what good is building landscapes that respect the environment if we do not also take into account the broader social, political and economic landscape? The world is a garden, so let’s cultivate it righteously.

We have to take care of the people who build and shape the earth. We need to celebrate the manual labor that goes into landscaping projects and recognize the skills and wisdom that workers employ to bring designs to life. When we underestimate and poorly remunerate the humans who build our projects, we devalue their work and the land.

Some companies have made a commitment to reform that and come up with a model of what thoughtful practices can look like. Sacramento-based design / build company Miridae is committed to providing their crew with the same benefits and training as the rest of their staff. The construction team features prominently on the company’s website and receives nearly equal compensation from designers. (It’s important to note that this radical approach to its business model requires a rebalancing of wages across the company.) As a result, Miridae was able to integrate high-quality land maintenance as part of the its commercial and customer offers.

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Ysidro, from SoCal Landscape, cuts a thick stone for an entrance path. Courtesy of Terremoto

At Terremoto, we are intentionally explicit about the construction process in how we represent our work on our website. In doing so, we try to honor the contribution of the worker. We view the teams we work with as an integral part of our creative process: our designs, concepts and sketches are never treated as sacred, and we deeply value workers’ input and ideas on how to make things better. For our current Oak Pass project in Los Angeles, we worked iteratively with the team to co-design a beautiful set of garden paths and walls with reclaimed wood found on site.

As an industry, the images we use to represent our projects must move away from the primacy of the image of the completed project as an accurate representation of the process. Creating beautiful landscapes is messy, beautiful, and requires dozens of hands beyond those of the designer. We have to ask ourselves how to improve public credit and amplify these people who are so much a part of our job (with their consent, of course).

In many ways, this conversation is frightening because it requires a fundamental re-imagining of how landscape architecture offices and business models are structured. But to begin with, we call ourselves to do better. This means committing to having difficult conversations, internally as an office, with our contractors and with our customers.

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Barranca Landscape carefully sets up a rock at the Mohawk General Store in Los Angeles. Courtesy of Terremoto

Some of the actions we are committed to taking as an office are:

  • Educating our clients on fair wages in landscaping and maintenance, which in our opinion is not only a social imperative, but also promotes the long-term quality of their land management
  • Communicate our position on these issues and highlight the exceptional competence of the people we work with
  • Explore the evolution towards a living wage compensation model for the builders we work with (and we say explore on purpose, knowing that the construction industry’s ‘race to the bottom’ pricing approach makes this a continuous process)
  • Elevate our current land stewardship and maintenance practices (and the equitably paid workforce associated with it) so that it fits into our design work, including keeping clients away from the ‘idea of ​​landscape as a “finished product”
  • Connect with local and national groups doing relevant work in the area of ​​labor organization and immigrant rights, and exercise due diligence in advocating for legislation to improve working conditions and advantages for our teams
  • Establish a dedicated internal working group that will be responsible for the implementation of these goals

We admit right off the bat that we’re going to mess things up along the way. But we have to start somewhere. This is a conversation that has been on the sidelines for too long. We hope our industry peers, colleagues and collaborators will join us in this dialogue and commitment to action. Because if we really want to embody the values ​​and philosophy that we say we do, it starts with recognizing, respecting and defending the interests of the people who build and nurture the designs we create. And while all of this requires changes in attitudes, in business practices and requires checking our egos at the door, Terremoto is okay with it – and we hope the industry at large will be too.

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