A sit-down with Douglas C. Smith: EDSA president on bettering the landscape

Doug Smith
Doug Smith

When Edward Durell Stone Jr. was working summer gigs for his father — the modernist architect behind such iconic American buildings as the Museum of Modern Art and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts — he bristled at the rigid, centralized structure of his dad’s practice. So when it came time for Stone Jr. to start his own landscape architecture and master planning firm, he settled on a more egalitarian studio format—a “collective of peers,” as he called it.

Stone Jr. passed away in 2009, but the company he left behind, EDSA Inc., enters its 57th year with over 130 employees and a globetrotting portfolio that includes prestige projects like the Hilton Yuxi Fuxian Lake in China, the Dubai Opera and the $49 million Las Olas Corridor Improvement in Fort Lauderdale.

The Real Deal sat down with EDSA President and principal Douglas Smith to talk about the benefits of the company’s decentralized format, its work on the forthcoming Miami Brightline station and the role of landscape in an urban environment.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Q. You started at EDSA in 1987. Can you tell me about your early days?

One thing we always chuckle about is, I think when I arrived here in 1987, there were probably about four desktop computers in the whole company. That’s when AutoCAD was really starting to emerge, in the late ‘80s, and become more of the tool of choice for production. We chuckled back then that, “Oh, someday everybody will have a computer on their desk.”

The culture of the company still has the same imprint as when I first arrived. We work very hard to make sure that that cultural foundation — the way you treat people, the way you interact with clients, the way we treat each other, the collaborative nature of our work, the non-egotistical approach to our collaborative design and work — continues through our generation and on to the next generation.

Q. Are you prepping that next generation now?

Absolutely. It’s a constant process, and I give Ed Stone a lot of credit. He could have very easily just said, “Okay, at some point in time I’m going to be done and I’m going to cash out, and you guys figure it out.” He realized that wasn’t a great model and he wanted the firm to continue beyond his lifespan, so he intentionally started a succession plan back in the mid-1990s. That’s some foresight that not a lot of firms have.

Q. Is there a typical kind project that you specialize in?

I think we’re most well-known in the hospitality design world — resorts and hotels — but we tackle a really wide variety of project types and we do it globally. I don’t know what the numbers are for this past year, but typically we’re doing billings in 30 to 40 countries every year, and we’re doing work across a variety of sectors, meaning hotel/resort, new community planning and design. There’s office and office park and that sort of thing. There’s more civic and public types of work in urban design, and each of the studios here does a little bit of work in all those sectors, and that really keeps everything very interesting because we’re not pigeonholing ourselves over and over.

Q. Where in the process are you generally brought in?

On the planning side, in most cases we’re probably the first or second consultant that comes into the picture. Sometimes market research happens before we come to the table. We’re there analyzing the physical property, the regulatory environment, the political environment and pulling all those things together to figure out how to approach a planning exercise.

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Landscape architecture, we could be brought in very early, at the very beginning of a design process, with all the other consultants — the architects and engineers, etc. Or in some cases those disciplines may start ahead of us.

We always tell our clients we are most effective for you if you hire us to do [both planning and landscape architecture], the logic being that we’re thinking about some of these detailed relationships as we’re going through the master planning, so there’s this continuity of planning and design that happens all the way through the process. Sometimes if you’re only doing this or only doing that, there can be a disconnect.

Q. EDSA is the Landscape Architect-of-record for the Brightline station in Miami?

Well, there’s another landscape architecture firm involved, [Peter Walker Partners]. We’ve collaborated on the design and now, because [EDSA is] the more local firm, we’re carrying the design of the working drawings through to completion.

Q. What is a landscape architect’s job in a very urban project like that?

It’s important for us to have a lot of design interaction with the architect. In this case, and in a lot of urban projects, the architect and the way the building functions, the way the building is arranged, sort of dictates a lot about how the people interact with the facility. So there’s this crossover line where architecture leaves off and where landscape or site pick up, they come together. And [our job] has to do with how people circulate through some of these spaces, both hardscape and softscape, and how those things come together to create a very rich experience.

Q. EDSA is known as a pioneer in walkable cities. Why are walkable cities important?

I think especially now when there’s a lot more awareness in the general population about health, really at the core of that is walkable communities, walkable places. People not only get out and move around on foot for health reasons, but to sort of get in touch with their environment, which you really can’t do so well from an automobile.

Q. Can you talk to me about environmental psychology: what effect does an environment have on those within it?

I think there’s a lot of empirical data out there on the importance of exposure to the environment to health. There’s a lot of studies about wellness in the workplace and just the simple aspect of having visual connection to the outdoor environment and how that increases productivity. You see a lot of hospitals now with healing gardens, and that speeds up the healing process, so there’s a lot of information out there, a lot of research that supports the importance of people being in touch with the outdoors and in touch with natural things and how that improves cognitive ability and health.

Q. What if there was no empirical evidence for those benefits? Is there still an aesthetic imperative?

I think there is. You know, our profession is termed landscape architecture. [The American Society of Landscape Architects] has done public surveys where they’ll go out on the street and they’ll say, “Hey have you ever heard of landscape architecture?” And 95% say “Yeah, I’ve heard of that,” and only 10% of people can really tell you what that is.

We probably have a little bit of a stigma within our own profession about what people think landscape architects do. Just by having the term landscape on there [people think], “Well, you’re a gardener. You do garden design.” But landscape can be defined in a lot of different ways. Landscape doesn’t always have to be just shrubs and trees. It can be a great urban plaza space that may have a lot of interesting elements that keep people engaged, keep them interested, keep them there.