Perspectives: Chris Sanders
December 28, 2018
Chris Sanders is a designer in the Kansas City, Missouri office of SWT Design and has worked at the firm since 2013. He brings a broad range of experience and collaborative energy to bear in his design work, including a unique interest in water resource management and hydrology.
What drew you to landscape architecture?
As with many in our profession, I would think, my love of the outdoors drew me to landscape architecture. The natural wonders that surround us have been an integral part of my life since I was a child. What began as youthful adventures in the woods and creeks behind my parents' home grew into spending weeks on end in the mountains of New Mexico or the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. Even now, my days away from the office are spent pursuing wild game in some of the most beautiful settings the United States has to offer. Time spent outdoors is a spiritual experience for me and carries great importance in all aspects of my life.
It wasn't until I was attending Kansas State University with my eye on a degree in architecture that I was exposed to landscape architecture. I saw these wonderful landscape renderings and site plans hanging on the walls. Grading plans reminded me of the topographic maps I used to navigate the backcountry, and I was compelled to learn more about landscape architecture. I remember walking into an LA studio and chatting with some of the upperclassmen about what they were working on. I was blown away by how eager they were to share their projects and help me to understand how landscape architecture fit into the design professions. From golf courses to healing gardens, I was enamored with the way designers were integrating the natural environment into the built environment. Given the profound impact nature has had on me, I knew landscape architecture was something special. When it came time to declare a discipline, I chose landscape architecture.
What is driving you professionally right now?
As an emerging professional, the desire to grow through the accumulation of knowledge and experience drives me to take on new challenges every day. From large-scale planning projects to urban rooftop gardens and just about everything in between, I am blessed to have an opportunity to work with a group that constantly pushes me to explore all aspects of the profession.
I believe the integration of natural systems into the built environment that surrounds us is the most meaningful thing we do as a profession. It allows landscape architects to view the environmental, societal, and aesthetic issues of today and tomorrow though a unique lens. When you think of a challenge such as aging infrastructure or increasing flood intensity, landscape architects can question the status quo. Instead of focusing on how big a pipe should be to convey the water, we might ask what natural wetlands can teach us about infiltration and phytoremediation. Instead of paving event spaces, we may ask how soil amendments and reinforcement can promote infiltration while providing resilient flexible greenspace capable of hosting sporting and large-scale events. We could draw inspiration from the soil structure of native prairies to turn traditional park lawn into a high performing landscape. When designing urban park space, we may consider how the use of native plants can reduce supplemental irrigation and chemical input, promote infiltration, and reduce lifecycle maintenance costs. All of these decisions make beautiful, high performing landscapes more accessible across the entire socioeconomic spectrum.
As a professional in the field of landscape architecture, it is exciting to creatively tackle the design challenges of today and tomorrow. The belief that we can leave the world a better place through the application of landscape architecture is what drives me.
What challenges is landscape architecture allowing you to address right now?
Currently, landscape architecture is allowing me to address the growing need for resilient stormwater infrastructure despite the growing budget deficits of many municipalities. As a society, we have slowly come to terms with the fact that human development is having adverse effects on the planet. While climate change seems intangible to many, the seasonal threat of rising floodwaters is very real to people in the Midwest. We continue to exacerbate the issue by increasing the imperviousness of our built environment. Consider that a native woodland or prairie may have a runoff rate of 10-30% while a parking lot has a runoff rate of 85-95%. Rivers and streams are constantly changing and adapting to the inputs that are directed to them. However, to alter the runoff quantities and time of concentration in a drastic way as by converting prairie to parking lot, has a huge impact in a very short amount of time.
The natural systems cannot compensate for widespread sudden changes such as this, and the result is a spike in localized flooding across the region. It's a trend that we see here in the Midwest and are given the opportunity to address by working with civic leaders on a regulatory front, as well as landowners on the design side. Many large municipalities have development requirements in place to address the impact of development on stormwater quality and quantity. Conversely, many smaller municipalities do not have such regulation, though the impacts of flooding are hitting those communities very hard. The profession of landscape architecture provides me the opportunity to design in a way that addresses stormwater management and adds aesthetic beauty by incorporating high-performance green infrastructure. For me, the real fun is in finding creative ways to solve problems in a sustainable way while maintaining increasingly tight budgets.
What challenge would you give emerging leaders?
I would challenge emerging leaders to continue to grow the profession and assert our role in the design community. Use your work as a way to show the importance of the landscape architecture perspective.
Reach out to community leaders. Illustrating the benefits of resilient design oriented around the beauty and balance found in nature, to our community leaders will have a profound impact on the way public policy impacts our profession. Incorporating sustainable design solutions into the permitting process is a way to ensure the voices of landscape architects can be heard.
Share your work with your neighbors. Public outreach and perception are important aspects of any profession. I'm sure all of us have answered the question, "What is landscape architecture?" at some point. Well, if we want to continue to grow the profession and demonstrate the value we bring in design knowledge and cutting-edge innovation, it is important that our communities understand what we do. Don't ever shy away from an opportunity to expose members of your community to the profession.
Collaborate as much as possible with the allied professions. Collaboration is the key to growing the influence of landscape architecture in the design community. Working together with architects and engineers to creatively re-envision the way that we develop our built environment is a big step towards the integration of landscape architecture into all facets of built space in the same way that architecture and civil engineering are seen as central to defining the places we live, work, and play.
Where do you think the profession needs to go from here?
Up. I think the profession needs to take an increasingly active role in the design community. Let's continue to show the world what we can accomplish. Let's lead the design teams of the future, tackling the biggest design challenges that face society. Landscape architects should be thinking about the infrastructure deficit, the impacts of climate change, and how we can do things better in general.
I also feel strongly about the representation of the profession in all communities. As the role of landscape architects grows, it is important that the profession represents the communities for which we are designing. We need to be exposing youth of all ages and all demographics to the power of landscape architecture and handing them the tools to be the next generation of designers. Landscape architects are often responsible for some of the most emotionally connected spaces in a community, from everyone's favorite public park to deeply impactful memorials. It is important that all perspectives are represented.
LAF's Perspectives interview series showcases landscape architects from diverse backgrounds discussing how they came to the profession and where they see it heading.