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LAF Fellowship Spotlight: Attracting the Next Generation of Landscape Architects

Joe James is illustrated in front of a fountain.
In his application for the LAF Fellowship, Joe James included this illustration of himself in front of one of the parks he has worked on, Repentance Park at the Central Green in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Members of the 2022-23 cohort of the LAF Fellowship for Innovation and Leadership have been exploring big ideas and refining their proposed projects. The Fellows will present the culmination of their work at LAF’s Innovation + Leadership Symposium in June of 2023. In the meantime, LAF is profiling each Fellow to share more about their progress and personal journeys.

Joe James discovered landscape architecture early in life. Now, he’s an established landscape architect with his own firm in Rhode Island, and he wants to make sure others have the same opportunity. 

Joe is one of six members of the 2022-23 cohort of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)’s Fellowship for Innovation and Leadership, a program designed to create positive and profound change in the profession, environment, and humanity. He is using the $25,000 fellowship to work on a project meant to introduce and attract the next generation of landscape architects to the discipline, albeit in an unconventional way.

Joe is writing and illustrating a graphic novel, with landscape architects playing key roles in the story. As far as he knows, no other graphic novels feature landscape architects as major characters. The goal is to expose and attract not only a young audience to landscape architecture, but one that’s diverse as well, Joe said.

“I really wanted to do something that was fun and interesting and would have an impact on pop culture,” he said.

While Joe is only a few months into the fellowship, he has made significant progress exploring all aspects of graphic novel creation. Part of his research includes reading existing graphic novels and looking for precedents, themes and specific ways to convey images. He also has been working on settings, a process that has involved trips to Boston’s Franklin Park and the neighborhoods surrounding it. There, he has been detailing the specific characteristics of the space as the possible basis for a fictional setting in his story.

During the first third of the LAF Fellowship, the fellows are encouraged to take a step back and think expansively, digging deep into the “why” behind their project idea. This often leads to new perspectives, synergies, and directions – and in Joe’s case, different characters and plotlines.

One of Joe’s early ideas for story characters has been centered on a group of kids that could embark on a quest similar to the 1980s hit movie “The Goonies” or the more recent series “Stranger Things.” Landscape architects could end up playing influential roles as they guide the children through the storyline, Joe said, though he is still working out those details and others.

“There’s a lot of world building taking place inside my head and on my computer and iPad screens,” he said.

A cartoon by Joe James depicts a man climbing stairs in four panels.
Joe James created this series of drawings as he explores landscape while working on a graphic novel as part of LAF's Fellowship for Innovation and Leadership. 

Joe has never written a book, but he has been drawing comics and cartoons from an early age. In fact, it was his love of drawing, coupled with interests in architecture and science, that attracted him to landscape architecture in the first place.

“I figured out very early that this is really cool as a profession and that this is what I should be doing,” he said.

Joe majored in landscape architecture at Michigan State University, where he recalls working on a project with a classmate in which they created panels for a comic book. Those panels spurred the idea for their comic-themed senior project – “Super Sustainable Landscape Architects” – which received an honorable mention in Research in the 2000 American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Student Awards.

After graduating from Michigan State in 2000, Joe went off to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where he continued to draw and ultimately earned his Master of Landscape Architecture in 2003. With college behind him, he began working at landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand in 2003. He also married and had children in the subsequent years.

After years of success with Reed Hilderbrand, Joe left in late 2021 to start his own firm, Eponymous Practice. Education has always been important to Joe and it continues to be a major theme in his life today. He teaches part-time at RISD and is the chair of the Boston Society of Landscape Architects’ K-12 outreach initiatives to introduce young people to landscape architecture.

“The material that’s out there about landscape architecture for kids is well done, but it’s geared toward those that are already looking for it,” Joe said. “But people don’t find this profession because they’re looking for it. They find it through happenstance. So, is it possible to have them find it at an earlier age? We’ll see where my project goes.”

UPDATE: You can watch Joe's presentation from the 2023 LAF Innovation + Leadership Symposium here.

LAF is grateful to the many individuals and organizations that provide financial support towards fulfilling our mission to support the preservation, improvement, and enhancement of the environment.

Much of what LAF is able to accomplish would not be possible without the thought leadership and financial investment of our major supporters, including ASLA, which provides over $125,000 of in-kind support annually.