Laura Hansplant, 49, of London, Ont., is the director of design at Roofmeadow in Philadelphia. A landscape architect, she specializes in sustainable landscapes on structures and constrained sites.
My parents were from the United States; I'm first-generation Canadian, born in London. I thought of myself as from Southwest Ontario. It wasn't until I came to the States I realized London is mid-western – a tendency to be polite, a little quieter. I don't know if it's my personality or growing up there – my knee-jerk reaction is to be more conservative.
We [siblings] grew up without a television, for which I am profoundly grateful.
I didn't know what I wanted to do so I appied to three universities for three different majors. I loved art but wasn't sure how I'd have a career. I was looking down a list of programs in the University of Toronto brochure and at the bottom in teeny print was Landscape Architecture. It sounded cool, combining art and the environment with structure.
Going to Toronto stretched me. My transformational moment was Carol Franklin, a founding partner of Andropogon Associates coming in as a guest lecturer. Her firm pioneered sustainable ecologically based landscape design. I was so inspired, I went up to her and asked how to get started. She [also] said I wouldn't always have a project that would let me do big or holistic changes, but in every project, look for one or two opportunities to do something different.
A semester in Europe, then later going to India made me realize how engrained our own culture is, how intimately built environment is tied to habits, ways of living and how we use space.
I graduated in a recession. I worked for myself, part-time at other firms and cobbled together a career for a year then got my master's in landscape architecture at Penn State University. I was able to work with Carol and Andropogon, eternally grateful for what I learned there in 15 years. Some days it's as if Carol's speaking over my shoulder; she not only taught me how to navigate design, she taught me critical thinking techniques.
I got a chance to work at U of T on the King's College Road redesign. I found it challenging, partly because it was complex in terms of stakeholders and number of people on the team. I was a little green in project management and learned a lot. It made me think, 'Wow, this is what I want to do.'
Roofmeadow offered a less traditional business model, more fluidity to work among conventional design process, construction support and longer-term stewardship. In New York and Toronto's density of urban development, from above, you see terraces, pedestal pavers and box planters. They're fine as social amenities but not filling their potential; on the flipside, cedar roofs and flat green carpets are fine for managing stormwater but not filling their potential either. I'm interested in bringing those together, like Philadelphia's Cira Green, a green roof for residents of adjacent towers that manages stormwater, on top a parking garage. The developer said it needed to be an event space; difficult because of having to plant most of it. When a client hands you a dilemma like that, it makes the best opportunities, leading to innovation and interesting design.
I was determined to get my masters and return to Canada. I got married in 2003 and before you know it, 20 years went by. I did not give the pun on my married name a thought. No one – including us – commented for a very long time. I almost kept my maiden name because when you have a career, changing it is difficult.
Particularly with current smart technologies, there's an increasing tendency to be on the go and constantly active; my best thinking happens when I disconnect, let my thoughts free-range. Getting out to see and experience places and natural environments has value in insights that arise in the creative process.
People think design comes from the inspiration of a designer. Design is more collaborative. A stronger design incorporates suggestions and viewpoints. I think about paving, water movement, plants, how people are going to use spaces, talk to lighting designers, architects and the owner. There's an instinct and tendency in all of us to say, "This is my creation, this is how I've envisioned it" – that's a mistake.
This interview has been edited and condensed.