What’s it like to work with Public Design Bureau? An interview with a partner

Illustration by Camryn Cogshell. Learn more about our illustrators.

What’s it like to work with Public Design Bureau? An interview with a partner

One of our favorite ways to work is as the “people” partner – collaborating with teams of designers, planners, and other experts and helping them learn from and incorporate wisdom of people with lived experiences of places. We’ve been thrilled to get to do that with the team at Lamar Johnson Collaborative, most recently on the University of Missouri-St. Louis Campus Master Plan

We chatted with our colleague and collaborator, managing director Chip Crawford, about how he sees landscape architecture and planning connecting to human-centered design and deep community engagement. 

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

PDB: Tell us a little bit about your background and work.

CC: I always wanted to be an architect. From third grade on, there was nothing else I wanted to be…but after starting in architecture, I realized that the architecture of land and place was much cooler. I originally got into the idea of construction and the toughness it took to build things, but I realized how fascinating it is to build construct out of living things, including plants. So, I got a degree in landscape architecture — and I don’t consider it work because I love it so much. 

At Lamar Johnson Collaborative (LJC), we’ve worked on everything from large-scale regional planning, corridors, districts, campuses, at every scale. Over my career, our team has been active in about 35 countries, and it’s been fascinating to do our work in places with different languages, different climates, different soils, and different cultures. 

PDB: Can you describe what landscape architecture is? 

CC: Most people think of landscape architects as the people who answer “What’s wrong with my tree?” To me, landscape architecture is design from the outside in, from the largest regional scale down to the experiences of the people who use a design. As a landscape architect, I use natural systems thinking to try to understand the best way for the project and design to fit and be at home in the context of the place they exist in. We want to figure out how a project fits into the ecology of a place.

Landscape architects are trained as jack of all trades — we start with planning and we end with the science of soil and plants. We have to know a little bit about everything. Some people choose to go deep into one area, like irrigation or soil. My tendency has been to be a generalist, working on a lot of different scales and types of projects. 

PDB: Tell our readers a little bit about how you’ve worked with Public Design Bureau. 

CC: I first had the chance to work with Liz on the Brickline Greenway. I was impressed with the way that she jumped in with big design personalities, and we knew we wanted to find more ways to work together. The UMSL Campus Master Plan was an amazing opportunity to work with a client who already knew a lot about what they had, but was ready to see ways they should be getting input from their community in an inclusive way — not just from faculty and campus leaders, but from staff, surrounding community, and harder-to-reach students. 

PDB: What do we bring to projects like the UMSL Campus Master Plan? 

CC: The hardest part of a project is not the design — it’s aligning the agendas. The more inclusive we are when we work in the public realm, the stronger our ability to bring consensus and move forward. In the public realm, it’s not one person’s idea — there’s not one client who gets to do exactly what they want, as if you were designing a house. Public Design Bureau has brought a special skillset in this alignment that really helps us. Most designers are incredible introverts. They want to concentrate on their design work, tweaking it until someone takes it away. You all help us discuss design ideas in a more extroverted way that is better received in the contentious conversations that are needed to come to true alignment. 

PDB: How does designing for humans connect to designing with nature? 

CC: I start with the underlying premise that humans are part of nature. One’s not above the other — humans and nature are all part of Planet Earth. Natural systems are multi-functional and complex: watersheds are made up of river systems and tributaries that all connect to a bigger system. Nature has its own design brilliance. Everything in nature has had 3.8 billion years of research in trial and error, and it’s all multi-functional and intentional. That’s true in natural systems and in human systems: we can’t ever do just one thing. It is difficult to afford that kind of redundancy, but we need to ask more from what we have. We’re being creative about how to get more out of less. 

PDB: What’s one thing human-centered design brings to your design process? 

CC: One thing I’ve really appreciated about PDB’s work is the focus on the emotion of place. Engagement in public space is so broad, and so many emotions come into our experiences in it. Public places are so emotionally complex. We worked on a plaza for Mid-America Transplant. You’re designing for someone who has decided to give an organ, or someone who is grieving a lost sibling, or someone who is celebrating having received a donation. The emotional is so critical to creating a successful space. 

PDB: What would be your ideal process of collaboration for bringing together people, natural systems, and all the other factors that go into decision-making? 

CC: The process would be similar to what we have now, but it might include more characters. We should have a biologist, an ecologist, a historian at our design table — and we should represent more constituents. When we have a meeting, I’m representing the built environment, and PDB is representing the attitudes and concerns of people. But no one is asking nature what it thinks. We should be inclusive of all living things in this process. 

This doesn’t have to be over the top. If we could take a few lessons from the many species that have learned to adapt, it would be amazing. For example, tight feedback loops responding to conditions would be very doable for us. The way that leaves twist and turn to follow the sun in real time would be something we could design into our systems. 

PDB: What do you wish clients knew about incorporating empathy into their processes? 

CC: I wish people knew that it’s not too crazy! We can actually do it. Sometimes clients entertain aspirations in an interview or a proposal, but when the rubber hits the road, they want implementable solutions they can afford. We need to have the right tension of what might be, what could be, and how we could actually do it. I wish the whole reward system would change. Some decisions are so short-term, when the long-term would be so much more valuable. 

The best projects are when the client and the team are able to share their vulnerabilities. We have the most success when we’re part of one team, and there’s trust. In architecture school, you’re taught to be the creator with invincible ideas. When you open up your ideas to the public, or even to clients, it puts you in a weird place. But sometimes the light comes from the cracks, and great ideas come from different places. I’ve learned to quiet my cleverness and listen. 

PDB: Listening is such an important part of your process. What’s your approach to listening? 

CC: We always have so much to learn. When I first started in the profession, you would show up in the first meeting as the expert. But now, it’s the process of discovery, inventory, and analysis that enables you to begin to listen and understand the genius of a place, and how it’s surviving and thriving. Now, I focus on keeping an open mind. I’m probably the one with the most dumb ideas, but we focus on having a process that brings out all the ideas, and using drawing and visualization as a process of listening. 

We’ve enjoyed collaborating with Chip and the team to create new ways for listening and learning from people and places. Read more about the collaborative process we used with the UMSL community and project team over on our case study page: Community Engagement for Campus Master Plan. 

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