Licensing for landscape architects is a matter of public health and safety

March 13, 2023 4:55 am

A 2015 “after” photo of Ironwood Design Group’s State Street project in Portsmouth. (Courtesy of Ironwood Design Group)

A bill pending in the New Hampshire Legislature would remove the licensing requirement for landscape architects in New Hampshire. The health, safety, and well-being of the public – as well as the revitalization of local economies – hang in the balance. 

I’ve been a New Englander my entire life. Twenty-two years ago I moved to the Seacoast of New Hampshire and started Ironwood Design Group. Since starting the firm I’ve worked very hard and have been very fortunate. I’m proud that I’ve worked in partnership with more than 65 municipalities from Colebrook to Seabrook. The goal of those projects has been to achieve balance between nature and the built environment to create economically and socially vibrant communities. 

Longtime New Hampshire residents may remember how State Street in Portsmouth was a wide road with fast-moving traffic heading to Maine. State Street also connects Portsmouth’s historic downtown Market Square to both iconic Prescott Park, which hosts numerous large events, and historic Strawbery Banke. There was a huge economic opportunity with a new vision for State Street, and I am proud that my firm was part of the team to bring this vision to life.

A “before” photo of the Portsmouth State Street project, taken in 2009. (Courtesy of Ironwood Design Group)

In addition to managing traffic flow and revitalizing their downtown, the city of Portsmouth wanted to address multiple infrastructure issues, including separating the sewer system from stormwater runoff. That matters to public safety because if stormwater overflows the sewer system, everything becomes contaminated with sewer water. I have a particular interest in natural filtration systems for stormwater. In fact, my firm worked with the University of New Hampshire to take their vision for a stormwater and water-quality research facility and drew up the design plan for construction.  

Part of the challenge we have as landscape architects is that when we do our jobs well, it’s nearly invisible to most people. My firm focuses almost entirely on projects in service to public spaces. I like creating places where communities come together.

My firm sketched the new vision for what historic State Street is today, and working with the engineering team at CMA we created a space where people like to gather, which has sparked new businesses to move in and real estate values to increase. 

To make State Street safer and more inviting to pedestrians, we flipped the street-to-sidewalk ratio and moved away from a wide, fast-moving street with narrow sidewalks to a narrower street with slower traffic and wider sidewalks to encourage foot traffic into local businesses. 

Tree-lined streets are not only more attractive, but we also know that they are 10 to 15 degrees cooler than streets with no trees. However, most street trees die and need to be replaced in 10 years, depriving the community of any real shade and wasting money. The design included tree boxes with a dual purpose: The root system of the trees has plenty of room to grow, and the tree boxes also hold a lot of stormwater. So when you see a stormwater grate right next to a tree, it’s because we’ve diverted the storm water directly into the tree box. Trees not only provide shade, they also help filter impurities out of water.

We also designed strategically placed rain gardens along the street to absorb stormwater runoff from adjacent parking lots. Like the trees, the rain gardens help filter impurities out of the water and retain water during storm events, rather than rushing all that water into the sewer system. 

The wider sidewalks and the rain gardens have made State Street a much more pleasant place for people to gather. Local businesses have even created additional outdoor seating, which was not part of the plan we envisioned but is a wonderful expression of how the community has embraced the new design. 

State Street is just one example of the many community projects that my firm is part of in municipalities across the state. We’re also working right now with the city of Berlin to build a multi-use trail along the riverfront as they work to diversify their economy to attract more tourism. 

It’s a common saying among landscape architects that we design “everything between the buildings,” which is quite a lot when you look at your surroundings more closely. In designing spaces, landscape architects think most about people and how you will use and enjoy the spaces we create safely, and it’s a responsibility we don’t take lightly. 

Because of the high impact landscape architects have on the health and safety of the public, all 50 states and the District of Columbia require landscape architects to be licensed. Like building architects and engineers, landscape architects also must gain experience and pass a rigorous four-part examination in order to become licensed.

Therefore, eliminating licensure not only creates public safety concerns but also disqualifies New Hampshire landscape architects from bidding on public contracts in our own state.

Furthermore, one of the largest challenges I have operating a landscape architecture firm in New Hampshire is finding qualified employees and retaining them. The Seacoast is an expensive place to live and our proximity to metro Boston makes it extremely difficult to entice landscape architects, especially young talented ones, north. If we lost licensure, we would be unable to entice any graduate on a licensure track to a state where landscape architects are not licensed.

Taking all of these factors together clearly shows that deregulating landscape architects is bad for business in New Hampshire.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jeffrey R. Hyland
Jeffrey R. Hyland

Jeffrey R. Hyland, PLA, ASLA, CLARB, is the firm principal and senior landscape architect at Ironwood Design Group. His work focuses on the leading edge of green infrastructure, and his firm has been recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency for excellence in design and implementation of stormwater management landscape architecture features. His projects can be viewed all over New England, illustrating both his practical style and talent for creating distinctive and elegant built spaces.