Perspectives: An Interview with Sarah Sutton, ASLA, LEED AP, BFQLP

Perspectives: An Interview with Sarah Sutton, ASLA, LEED AP, BFQLP

How did you first get involved in landscape architecture?

I always love to hear how people discovered landscape architecture – I was lucky.  I entered college as an art major, determined to complete my general education requirements and build up a portfolio to gain admission to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, but wasn’t sure that was the best path for me.  A month into my first semester as a freshman, I met with my counselor and let him know of my interests in biological science, geography, math, sociology and, of course, the creative arts.  He handed me a catalogue for UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design and suggested I take a look at landscape architecture – it was the first time I’d heard of the profession.  I visited the campus, talked to students, looked at the work on the walls, and felt an immediate kinship.  I applied immediately for a transfer and started as a sophomore.  I’ve never regretted that decision.


How long have you been working in the landscape architectural field?

I graduated from the CED in 1976.  The year 2000 seemed so distant and now it is 2014!


What type of work have you done and what do you do now?

My career has been somewhat diverse, with a strong focus on the public sector including parks, trails, streetscapes, and stream and habitat enhancement projects.  I was responsible for the design and detailing of many rooftop gardens for multi-family housing projects over the years, well ahead of the green-roof movement.  A key highlight was a series of visits to Puerto Rico in the early 2000s to develop trail plans along one of the main rivers and broader ecosystem-based community plans, working with many local agencies and non-profit organizations.  On one of our trips, we were treated to an in-depth tour of the Bacardi factory in San Juan, where they were repurposing every “waste” product into a new resource – illustrating the economic and environmental value of closed loop systems thinking.


What has surprised you most about working in landscape architecture?

The wholesale shift from hand drafting and illustration to computer based graphics.  Our work was all by hand the first 10 years of my career.  While AutoCAD has greatly improved the consistency and quality of construction documents, I feel that we need to retain our ability to draw as well, especially during initial concept visioning.  The eye-hand connection stimulates the right side of the brain and allows for a more fluid creative exploration of ideas than designing by computer.  I’m concerned that many graduates say their instructors have told them we do not draw any more in our work, and they are not learning the basic concepts of hand drawing.


What do you find most challenging about the field/practice?

The business side of a private practice – negotiating contracts and setting budgets, balancing workload, etc.  It is something we have to do and usually learn on the job, but I’d rather spend more time on the drawing table.  I also strive to find a fresh sound bite to describe what we do as landscape architects to the general public in ten words or less.  My son at age seven came up with the best description after observing my work during his early years.  When asked what his Mom does as part of a Mother’s Day project in class, he told the teacher, “My Mom does work around buildings.  She tells people where to put things.”


What might someone be surprised to know about you?

Let’s see.  I have had many interests and experiences over the years from exhibiting my abstract photos and paintings in one-woman and groups shows, studying medicinal herbs for over 25 years, to living on a boat in Alameda.  I was a co-owner of a scuba diving store in San Ramon for over five years.  I taught classes, and spent many weekends in the kelp forests off Monterey.  At the same time, I also founded a non-profit organization to mobilize underwater conservation efforts in the Monterey Bay, and taught divers how to count fish (yes, it is possible, even when they are moving!) as part of a national program, The Great American Fish Count, modeled after the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count.  A highlight for me was a national promotion one year where I conducted the diver training at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and participated in a dive/photo op with Jean Michelle Cousteau.  What a treat to watch him have a zen, face-to-face moment with a giant sheep crab.  All of these experiences enriched my perspective on life and our profession.


How do you think landscape architecture practice will change over the next five years? Over the next 20 years?

With our broad-based training and holistic view of the built world, our profession has the potential to lead significant changes to solving public infrastructure challenges in the next decade.  The stormwater infrastructure in our cities, including concrete channels and subsurface pipes and culverts, is literally crumbling and with rising sea levels, we have to work with engineers, agencies and communities to develop creative solutions that are cost-effective, and contribute to better ecological and environmental health.


If you weren’t working in landscape architecture, what would you be doing instead, or what would your life be like?  That’s a good question – would that be before or after I win the lottery?  I often don’t think of landscape architecture as “work” – it is what I do, what I am passionate about and I’m grateful I can earn a paycheck at the same time!  If I’d never met with that counselor, it’s hard to say.  Perhaps as a painter living in a house in the country?  (That’s the lottery option)  Or working diligently with a non-profit organization championing environmental causes, especially if linked to the local communities.  I’ve been called an idealist before and have always had a desire to contribute to a cause that can make a difference.  Fortunately, I have been able to find that opportunity with my chosen field, at least most of the time.  Creating my recent book, The New American Front Yard, has also given me the opportunity to share a vision of how individual actions can have cumulative environmental benefits.


What words of wisdom do you have for landscape architectural practitioners or for why landscape architecture is important?

Above all be good stewards of the land and push the environmental envelope as much as possible with each project.  When I graduated so many years ago, we were in the middle of a drought and as students, we were prepared to change the world, yet were met with considerable resistance when the drought was declared over and the rains resumed.  Acres and acres of turf and exotic plants became the norm and were difficult to overcome in most communities.  Fortunately this is changing, due in a large part to increased regulations such as the Municipal Stormwater Permits and Water Efficient Landscape Ordinances.  The increased visibility of many programs including LEED, the Sustainable Sites Initiative and our local Bay-Friendly Landscaping and Gardening Program has helped educate the public and provide more opportunities to shift the status quo.  We need to continue championing regenerative approaches to our landscapes that restore habitats, eliminate the use of chemicals, protect water quality, and reduce waste.  Architects are creating net zero carbon buildings – we need to do the same in our landscapes, and educate the public about the intrinsic value of this approach.


If you could go back and meet yourself when you first got out of landscape architecture school (or your first day on the first job), what words of advice would you give yourself?

I would say three things:

  1. Be inquisitive and question the “givens”.  There are so many different ways to solve a problem and often a constraint that appears inflexible can be overcome or reconsidered.  Often the simplest and most appropriate solution involves thinking differently about the context and brainstorming completely different, alternate approaches.  Look at the LA River.  The Army Corps of Engineers wanted to build enormous floodwalls to contain the ever-rising floodwaters, due to the constantly increasing upstream imperviousness, yet it has been shown that a targeted, Low Impact Development approach will provide a better and more cost-effective solution that also provides ecological and community health benefits.
  2. Always be a student of the profession.  This industry is constantly evolving and changing.  Read, attend conferences and seminars and above all, look around you.  Become a detail geek – study handrails, stairs, paving patterns, (and especially the cracking patterns) structures and other installations.  Study the scale, line, proportions and composition of even the simplest spaces.  What works and why?  What feels best?  What does not?  Like Leonardo, keep a sketchbook to record your observations and strengthen your observation skills.

I’d also say, “Don’t take yourself too seriously and remember it is OK to not have all the answers, no matter how many years you’ve been in the profession.  Just keep asking more questions.”

Perspectives is a recurring series of interviews with a variety of Bay Area landscape architects, planners, and designers to capture the wealth and range of experience within our profession.  If you have suggestions for interviewees, please feel free to contact

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