Landscape architecture has been enjoying an elevated status in recent years as both the private and public sector recognize how good design can spur economic vitality. This year, Minneapolis-based Coen + Partners, a small firm in the Warehouse District, received the nation's highest honor in design, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian National Design Award. Its founder, Shane Coen, now finds himself on a larger national stage and with a louder voice in the design world. When Coen started out in the industry, landscape architecture was often an afterthought of development and design projects. As awareness about the field heightens, so does the competition, which he sees as opportunity rather than conflict. Coen, who grew up in Colorado, has strong convictions about how to thoughtfully design everything from sidewalks to interstate overpasses in his home state of Minnesota.
Q: What's the greatest misunderstanding you encounter about your industry?
A: I don't think people understand how far-reaching the industry is. It's from something as large as a major infrastructure project all the way down to the design of a garden. I think most people hear landscape architect and they think you are a planting firm. The last thing we ever do on a project is plants … We tend to think of the plants as the frosting because the project has to work without them.
Q: Is it an accurate assessment that the profile of landscape architecture is rising?
A: Landscape architecture is experiencing incredible growth right now, and so is architecture because design awareness is constantly increasing and matters more and more in our society. We are dealing with huge issues of conservancy, green infrastructure, permaculture and recognizing the importance of connected pedestrian systems within a city. Highways, bridges, overpasses, cloverleafs, sound walls — all of these projects that engineers used to get — are all really important things that we are spending a ton of money on and no one has ever really thought about the best way to design them. Cities, states, even the federal government have recognized it, so the possibilities are endless.
Q: Are you seeing an increase in competition as a result?
A: We have gone from the profession that got invited in after the fact to the profession that is leading urbanism. All of the big, urban design projects that invite landscape architects to submit plans now have many top-tier architecture firms in the country bidding for them. Even though their training is not in that realm, they are pushing themselves to try and learn it. There are some great firms doing it, but it's still an interesting shift all of a sudden.
Q: Where do the Twin Cities fall in the realm of landscape architecture?
A: I think that Minneapolis is still very young in realizing the important of the public realm, but it is starting to recognize it more. If you look at Boston or Washington, D.C., every sidewalk is constructed as if it were a plaza. … Materials create an urban fabric that define a city and I don't think we fully grasp that yet.
I think everyone is trying to get it because the public realm has become big business for cities. The Highline (in New York City) and Millennium Park (in Chicago) were the poster children for investing heavy in the public realm and being rewarded with tax base revenue over and over again.
Q: What does the region need to improve on?
A: Two things: We need to recognize and fund great projects and … the everyday realm needs to improve for us to compete with the other major cities. And we can compete with them.
Also, the Hiawatha corridor is the landscape that everyone sees when entering and exiting our city and should welcome people to our city, which it clearly does not. This corridor needs a lot of attention and is an incredible opportunity. I'm also sure I share the opinions with many that we had this fabulous riverfront competition and work effort that nothing really emerged from in the built realm. The river is part of our city and we are not fully utilizing it as a major living park.
As for the state itself, I would love to see our highways get a lot more attention than they do. People literally go out to their highways in Texas and Maine to experience the wildflowers every season. Our highways should be corridors that celebrate the beautiful native environments of our regions.
Q: What projects are you the proudest of?
A: Right now, it's actually a project in Saudi Arabia. We were asked to conceptualize 1,200 hectares [about 3,000 acres] in Riyadh, which is the capital city. It would be a series of public realm parks around the new King Abdullah financial district, which is 50 towers designed by the world's best architects. It would be an enormous project — the exact same size as Central Park in New York. The other project that we are all excited about is that we are creating the Millennium Park of Kansas City. This park has the potential to change the city forever.
Q: What does the future hold for your field?
A: I think globally the scope of landscape architecture will increase to be even more environmental and infrastructure based. And then within cities, I think the importance of great designed spaces will continue to be the driver for development and urban living. I think the public realm will continue to shape more of the built realm, rather than the other way around.