Letter from ASLA-NY President Laura Starr

To the American Society of Landscape Architects:

On November 1st I will be ending my tenure as the President of our New York Chapter and welcoming President-elect Nette Compton in succeeding me. It has been an honor and a challenge to serve in this position.

My goal as President was to rebuild our organizational infrastructure, recreate our image, and improve our relationships with sister design-related organizations, so as to enable the ASLA better to promote our profession and serve both its members and their clients. Toward this end, I took steps to address a number of challenges that had long plagued the New York chapter.

The chapter lacked the organizational infrastructure necessary to effect lasting change. With limited funds we could only hire our directors part-time. This meant that the President and volunteer board were faced with the lion’s share of responsibility, and had to expend time and effort at an unsustainable rate. Since the Presidency changes every year, our ability to undertake and follow through on long-term initiatives was impaired: with each new leader, however good, continuity and momentum was lost. Furthermore, without a full-time director, fundraising and public relations suffered. We had little money with which to do anything.

But there was a still more fundamental problem that we faced: landscape architecture simply wasn’t taken seriously enough by clients, potential sponsors, or the city–especially when compared to other design professions. However good our work was, it was largely ignored in press coverage, opening presentations and various print and online sources. The architects and engineers got the credit, by implication, for our work. This lack of attention and appreciation was ironic at a time when landscape architects were leading some of the most important projects in the city; Brooklyn Bridge Park, The High Line, and the ongoing upkeep and development of Central Park would not have been possible without us.

This problem in turn was due, in part, to the ASLA’s lack of a clear public image. It appeared to me that the first order of business was to revise our logo and website to project the crisp optimism and elegance shown by our profession and by our sister organizations, to attract the elite decision makers and funding sources and be properly recognized by the press.

Not only would creating a more vibrant identity for ourselves help raise our public profile, it might also help the organization’s view of itself. Additionally, we needed a fulltime Executive Director to offer the continuity and energy to help guide our volunteers and ease some of the impossible burdens on members who might otherwise be daunted by the prospect of getting more involved with the organization.

I was determined to address these problems by raising enough money to hire a full time director and revamp our image. The instrument chosen to raise money was our annual benefit gala, the ASLA Dinner. I personally called suppliers, contractors, engineers and architects I knew and got them to be sponsors and attend the dinner. I honored the Architect’s Newspaper for covering the leadership role landscape architects were playing in leading the game-changing projects in New York. And I honored Central Park Conservancy President, Doug Blonsky, who had been my colleague when I was Chief of Design of Central Park. His board and staff came in full force to support him, and very generously supported our event. The third honoree was the Commissioner with the most money at hand to hire landscape architects, DEP Commissioner Carter Strickland. In conjunction with honoring Commissioner Strickland, Nette Compton and I met with him and urged him to include landscape architects in green infrastructure projects; it worked, and we are continuing to push to have landscape architects be given a strong leadership role there. Finally, to make the event even more enticing, and to start the re-imaging process, I recruited Keith Helmetag of the world-class design firm C&G Partners to design the

The dinner succeeded in attracting the largest number of guests the ASLA had ever had, and in doubling our revenue. The large audience and the experience of being honored inspired The Architects’ Newspaper to establish an annual issue devoted to landscape architecture, with the ASLA sharing in the advertising revenue.

With our new funds, I sought to hire a full-time executive director who could bring continuity and, with professional administrative skills, ease the impossible burdens on our volunteers. Out of a wide array of talented applicants, we selected Kathy Shea, an attorney and administrator with a proven track record of transforming small nonprofit groups operating under the public radar into prominent enterprises accessible to city-wide audiences. Through her skills in executive strategy, public relations, marketing, and fundraising, she has already helped to do the same for us. We reestablished and renegotiated our relationship with AIA NY. We celebrated the holidays last year with the Van Alen Institute, and co-sponsored a Sandy-recovery speaker series with the Museum of the City of New York. We are continuing to expand our collaborations with other organizations, including the Municipal Art Society and The Cultural Landscape Foundation and will do even more going forward.

With Kathy here full-time, and the continued work of the programming committee under Nette’s direction, we have vastly expanded and improved our own programming. Better and larger events are attracting a larger number of sponsors, as well as talented collaborators in architecture, planning, and engineering. Our new funds also allowed us to create a new dynamic and communicative graphic identity that will aid us in all our efforts. Again, the design gurus at C&G Partners were an invaluable resource, dreaming up fresh, new logo and website designs. The new designs have already given our weekly newsletter, which Jennifer Nitzky has so thoughtfully and tirelessly assembled, a snappy look to match her great work. These visual elements make it palpable that landscape architects are green; we’re urban; we’re leaders and collaborators; and therefore we’re uniquely positioned to lead multidisciplinary teams–for example, those addressing pressing issues of climate change.

To foster the public’s deeper engagement with our work, we are also creating a new Open Spaces app that provides information on some of the city’s parks, plazas, and greenways from the designer’s point of view. More such services are in the works, so stay tuned.

I have tried to address the challenges facing the ASLA and our profession in a way that will create a basis for continued expansion and positive change. As my tenure comes to an end, I would like to express the hope that my efforts will help generate a lasting awareness of the benefit landscape architecture brings to our city, and that it will help give our profession momentum that will continue into the next mayoral administration and beyond.

Thank you all for entrusting me with these decisions. I would like to extend my gratitude to my predecessor, Denisha Williams, for her patience in helping me get up to speed, to our board members for their unending dedication, to President-elect Nette Compton for organizing all of our programs, to Jennifer Nitzky for tirelessly drafting our newsletter every week, to Marcha Johnson for her advocacy work, to Adrian Smith for his role in negotiating with the DOB, and to all who participated in the director selection and graphic design committees.

I will remain heavily involved in the ASLA-NY and wish it every success moving forward.

Laura Starr
Outgoing President of the ASLA-NY
Partner, Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners, PLLC