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Perspectives: Yoshihiko Kubota

A photograph of Yoshihiko Kubota smiling.


FEBRUARY 22, 2024

Yoshihiko “Yoshi” Kubota, PLA, SITES AP, ECODISTRICTS AP, is an Associate at Rhodeside Harwell in Washington, DC. Yoshi holds a Master of Landscape Architecture from the University of Michigan and a Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies from Hamilton College. He is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects and served as a regional co-lead in Green Schoolyards America’s National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative. Yoshi’s work consistently centers the human experience in design, emphasizing inclusivity, equity, and heightened perception of the uniqueness of each site.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you first learn about landscape architecture as a profession?

I learned about it back in 2012. I happened to be doing some IT work for a company, back in Japan. Two years earlier, I’d gotten my bachelor’s degree in environmental studies at Hamilton College in upstate New York. I'd always been interested in the environment, but I just didn't know what to do with it. I knew I didn’t want to spend my entire life doing the work that I was doing. And that was when I came across a magazine article about a landscape architect in Japan who was designing—I think mostly residential—but in such a way that really brings nature back into people's lives. I hadn’t known about landscape architecture up to that point, but it sounded exactly like what I wanted to do.

How did you make that shift from office work in Japan to being a landscape architect in the metro Washington, D.C. area? 

That was in October of 2012, and I spent the next month studying for the GRE, taking whatever I need to take. The following year, I was fortunate enough to get into the University of Michigan’s MLA program. I spent three years getting that degree, and I was able to get some internship experience at various firms and working at the university’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens for a summer. I was trying to get a sense of what we do as landscape architects and broaden my knowledge base. From there, I was able to get a job in Baltimore and then at the same firm’s D.C. office for a couple of years, doing a lot of good social design, trying to improve people's lives, designing schools, libraries, affordable housing, things like that. That was very fulfilling. It was a great job, the people were great, and the work was meaningful. But I felt like I needed to learn more about design generally to have a greater impact. The budget is so limited for this type of work, and you really need to know what is important and what you're trying to accomplish in order to make the most of the money that is available. I decided that I should experience some other firms and wound up at Rhodeside Harwell.

What is driving you professionally right now? What do you find most rewarding about your work?

There is so much to learn in the type of work we do, and there's such great variety. Right now, I'm working on some museum projects, projects in national parks, libraries, recreation centers, schools, and—of course—parks.

The beauty of the work that we do is that we are designing for people and society. To do that effectively, we have to understand how people live, both specifically and generally. We ask, for example “Where do people want to walk to?” because if you don't put in the right path in the right location, there's going to be a cow path. But also, more broadly, what are people looking at as they're experiencing this space? It’s different in every setting, and I just don't get tired of learning how people function. Learning how to design for these places also leads to a better understanding of myself. What am I looking at? What am I thinking?


How do you think landscape architects are having an impact on the world? 

There are so many roles that we fill when designing: improving the lives of the communities, enhancing the outdoor learning environment, historical preservation, and providing opportunities to enjoy sensitive landscapes. Those are some of the roles I've taken on in the last few years, and they all really make a difference in people's lives. The common thread I see is the experience of the user. We’re asking what are people thinking as they're walking through spaces, what are they looking at, what are they feeling? We design on paper or on the computer, but the eventual product that we come up with is this space, and it's all about how you walk through it. So, trying to think through that and create the best experience for the end users—I think that's the biggest impact that we have. It's very basic, but very important.

What are your professional hopes and goals for the future? 

I've been thinking about ways to really distill the way we see and understand beauty and nature. I was interested in environmental studies to begin with because I love nature. But the fact that we have so many global issues related to the environment comes, I think, from not enough people being attuned to those sensibilities. We need to identify this—what I've been calling the “essence of nature”—and figure out a way to bring it to everyone's daily lives. And not just someone who's privileged enough to go to a great park, but literally to everyone's daily lives. I don't know how to do that yet, but that's my goal. I would like to look at actual literature studies and see what’s behind these things, if any of them have been studied. Have any techniques been scientifically proven to bring people closer to nature? 

What advice would you give to landscape architects who are just starting their careers or to someone thinking of switching careers to become a landscape architect?

Depending on what your interests are, landscape architects have such a breadth of expertise. You could be more social oriented, more environment oriented, or more materials oriented. Try to identify your interests and why you want to become a landscape architect and start from there.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the profession and what directions would you like to see it go in?

As society becomes more global, people latch onto things, and if someone does it one way, other people want to copy it. As designers, we like nice looking things, so we're prone to look at something nice and say “Hey, let's put that into our project.” Clients always want the best and the greatest and latest things as well. So, it's always good to be looking out for what is being done. The danger is that everything becomes the same all around the world. We still have a great depth of variety in culture and design around the world, but if we continue being completely global in the way that we do our designs, then we're going to start to lose that. It’s important to pay attention to this and try to do as much as we can that’s local and specific to a site. It's very obvious, and it’s something that we always tell ourselves, but it's so hard to do. I think that's one of the biggest challenges.

I think we have a tendency as landscape architects to claim we do a lot of things. And that’s a good thing, but with that comes the responsibility to make sure we are actually doing those things. There is so much more depth we can and probably should be going into for every part of our designs. If we're only talking about it and touching the surface of it just to show we're talking about it, that’s not enough. We need to have more of a strategic mindset.

LAF's Perspectives interview series showcases landscape architects from diverse backgrounds discussing how they came to the profession and where they see it heading. Any opinions expressed in this interview belong solely to the author. Their inclusion in this article does not reflect endorsement by LAF.

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