Knowing Yourself: Laura Starr on Creating Journeys, Facilitating People, and Running a Business

Knowing Yourself: Laura Starr on Creating Journeys, Facilitating People, and Running a Business

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By Julia Gamolina, portrait by Jonathan Levine

With over 25 years’ experience working in the New York City area, Landscape Architect Laura Starr has emerged as a local champion for sustainability, collaboration, and design excellence. As Chief of Design for the Central Park Conservancy, Laura worked intensively to forge consensus among diverse groups of stakeholders, renovating major destinations such as Harlem Meer, the West Side, and the Great Lawn. Entering the private sector, she collaborated on lauded landscape transformations exemplified by the Battery Upper Promenade, the award-winning designs for the Battery Bosque, and a pair of historic courtyards on Front Street at South Street Seaport. 

As a founding partner of Starr Whitehouse, Laura continues to nurture ties between the public, the city, and professional organizations. She has negotiated public/private partnerships both internationally, on master plans for Tel Aviv’s Park Ariel Sharon and Gazelle Park in Jerusalem, as well as locally, collaborating with BIG Architects on VIA 57 West development. Ms. Starr has contributed significantly to Sandy recovery efforts through her work with the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency, as the Landscape Architect on The BIG U, a winning Rebuild By Design team, and leading the East Harlem Resiliency Project. Today, Starr is seen as a leader in the field of sustainable landscape design and a strong advocate for a city that is greener and more responsive to the needs of a twenty-first century public. In her interview with Julia Gamolina, Laura talks about her work and what she loves most about it, advising young architects to talk to everyone they can and to go for what they want. 

JG: How did your interest in all things architecture and landscape develop?

LS: I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, which has a really wonderful open space system - I realized early on the relationship between city design and the social life within. There was an area near the riverfront called River Quay that was the “Old City” which I became fascinated with, because it was a space in which you could interact with people besides your family and the people you went to school with.

I didn’t know about landscape architecture in high school, so I first pursued architecture - my mother is an artist and my father was an engineer. We had a family friend who was an architect and went to Washington University in St. Louis – he encouraged me to apply there, I did, and I absolutely loved it.

Do any moments stand out from architecture school as being especially formative?

I went on an Outward Bound trip in Utah one summer, and the experience of walking through this grand landscape with a sense of journey was transformative. After my sophomore slump [laughs], the effect on my mental state was so great that it contributed to me wanting to design spaces that were a facsimile of that experience.

You did briefly work in architecture before going back to school for landscape – walk me through your experience and the transition.

Straight out of school I worked for an organization called The Energy Task Force here in New York – they were the first people to put a wind generator on a building to sell the energy back to the utility company. Through that I met some architects and then did some affordable housing in the early 80s.

Then I fell in love with Central Park – I loved the idea that you could walk out of the asphalt streets into this meandering landscape, and your mood would change. You would see all sorts of people, all who took part in this designed landscape. Someone finally told me about landscape architecture, and so then I applied to and went to the University of Pennsylvania.

 Laura in Israel

Laura in Israel

What did you do when you graduated?

While still at Penn, I got a summer internship working for the Central Park Conservancy. When I graduated, I was the first landscape architect that they hired to implement their master plan. I did that for six years and then I got promoted to Chief of Design, and did that for another six years. The conservancy was an amazing place to work - I was in the Olmstedian landscape a lot, and really learned in a visceral way.

I was also in the early phases of the Central Park Conservancy, and so was going to fundraisers with donors, meeting with people maintaining the park, working with the design team and the planners. I really got a sense of the diversity of players and the bodypolitik that it takes to sustain a landscape like that – the community boards, the Parks Council, the Municipal Arts Society, other non-profits. I became fascinated with the amount of stakeholders in public open spaces and how to get better and better at managing them to achieve the design vision.

What did you do after?

I joined a firm in the private sector that had an office in New York and needed a partner to run it. I thought it was a good chance to practice running something without being fully on the front line of it – I was also pregnant with my daughter at this time. I eventually brought Steve Whitehouse there, as well as Jeffrey Poor, both of whom are with me now at Starr Whitehouse. After being there for ten years, I started to want to have my own business.

 Battery Park landscape, courtesy of CBRE

Battery Park landscape, courtesy of CBRE

 Battery Park landscape, photo by Amy Barkow

Battery Park landscape, photo by Amy Barkow

Why?

There was nobody else whose design vision I really liked and who was in New York. I also like a lot of autonomy and I like to set the tone for the culture of where I work.  I’m not great with authority figures that I don’t respect, so it’s psychologically better for me to have the risk of being on the front line. 

You’ve run Starr Whitehouse now for twelve years now! What have been the key milestones?

The recession was huge. We had just signed our lease for our own office space in 2008. Because we were landscape architects, we were a year’s cycle behind architects, but then it got really slow. We had staff, we had rent – we always made payroll and rent – but we were barely paying ourselves, so we sublet out empty desks , negotiated with some of our vendors, and cut some other costs, so that was a really important learning experience. Eventually we started getting work again, through networking and a concentrated effort to get other projects.

 Shelter Island landscape design, courtesy of Starr Whitehouse

Shelter Island landscape design, courtesy of Starr Whitehouse

Do any projects or clients stand out?

I got a great project just from talking to the head of the board at my daughter’s school - they had amassed a lot of property on Shelter Island and needed a landscape park. That became a ten-year relationship that I really valued; it was a fabulous design opportunity. Working in the Battery and having a 20-year relationship with Warrie Price, the founder of the Battery Conservancy, was really incredible too. She’s been rebuilding the foot of Manhattan for over twenty years and seeing how she’s able to raise money, bring her friends and her community into the park to move that vision forward, and maneuver politically was really educational for me.

I would say that working on West 57 Street with Durst, which is how I met you, was wonderful. As a family business they make really good decisions, and working with BIG and Bjarke was excellent. That project enabled me to take what I learned from Central Park and orchestrate that in that courtyard so that you would end up on top of the hill with views of the Hudson.

Perhaps the biggest game-changer was working on Park Sharon in Israel with Martin Weyl, who retired from building and directing the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. He contacted me to join an international team he was assembling to transform a giant Tel Aviv landfill into a world-class park. Martin quickly became a life-mentor, showing me the leverage that one person with vision, passion, drive, and the ability to assemble the right people at the right time can have in redefining the life of a region. Martin was also a huge force in convincing me to start my own practice. 

 VIA 57 West, photo by Iwan Baan

VIA 57 West, photo by Iwan Baan

 VIA 57 West landscape, photo by Alex Fradkin

VIA 57 West landscape, photo by Alex Fradkin

 VIA 57 West landscape, courtesy of Starr Whitehouse

VIA 57 West landscape, courtesy of Starr Whitehouse

You guys do some resiliency work too. Tell me about that.

The resiliency work really grew out of Sandy. Living in Lower Manhattan when Sandy happened, we got invited to join the SIRR team for the Bloomberg administration. We were trying to problem solve how to protect Lower Manhattan and also Staten Island and trying to get the city to think about urban design in the best way.

We were then able to parlay that into the BIG U with BIG. They could have picked any site between Southern New Jersey and Bridgeport, and we convinced them to focus on Lower Manhattan. We at Starr Whitehouse organized the community outreach for all of that, since we had done this kind of work there, so a lot of the ideas from the BIG U came from our work. Shout out to your previous Madame Architect Iben Falconer– she’s the one that reached out to us and got us onto the team.

 The BIG U, courtesy of the BIG U team

The BIG U, courtesy of the BIG U team

Where does motherhood come into all of this?

I have to say, it’s very hard to be a working mother in our society. I was married to somebody who is an artist, and even though he had an even more flexible schedule, it was still up to me to be on the front line in terms of childcare and household, on top of running my practice. I felt guilty all the time – I felt like I was either cheating on my work, cheating on my kid, and if I wasn’t going to yoga, I felt like I wasn’t taking care of myself.

I developed the idea though of putting on my oxygen mask first – taking care of myself and then taking care of everything else. That helped a lot. I tried not to miss a single important play or event my daughter was in, and to stay involved with her school, in general. I also tried not to obsess over every little thing, because it’s good for kids to have to figure stuff out. Now my daughter says that I’m an amazing role model because I have this business and she sees what it is to be a female entrepreneur.

What have been other challenges?

Owning a business is a very fragile balance – a large client could fire us, the economy could go south, our best employees could vanish. One thing I’ve learned is that you can spend years and years building up a client relationship, and you could screw it up in a second.

One of the biggest challenges is probably hiring and retaining the right people. We’re 21 people and the relationships become really strong at that size. I get a lot of feeling of community and structure from my business - it’s very nourishing for me to be the “mother” of the office [laughs].

What have been some of the biggest highlights and what are you most proud of?

I’m very proud of having started the business and hung in there. Also our work in Israel and being part of creating a park for a young country was a life highlight in so many ways—the idea that a person can have the freedom to walk from the city grid and enter some form of designed “nature” is what turns me on, and defining that idea in a country that is in the process of defining itself was a great challenge and delight.

The housing we’ve done are highlights too - the idea that a kid in the Bronx can go into a backyard that feels like Bronx nature right at his backdoor, is really cool.  And now the “thrill” is coupling these ideas about urban nature with the resilience work we are doing.  I am determined to do my part to bring the city agencies together to move the process forward.

Where are you in your in your career in this moment?

My kid is in college now, I have my business, and I still have my health and my energy and my yoga practice - so I actually feel like I’m in this golden stage of life [laughs].

Because I’m 60 though, I’m at the point where I want to keep working but to also start thinking about a succession plan. We have a great team and I want to find a way to encourage people to stay with us and to cultivate the next generation of owners of the company.

 Laura with her daughter Lily, photo by Jonathan Levine

Laura with her daughter Lily, photo by Jonathan Levine

What would you say has been your general approach to your career?

The question that I always ask myself is how I can best deploy what I feel confident in. For example, for a year I was the President of the ASLA, the New York chapter - it was a game changing time for landscape architects and a chance for us to claim that work and I knew I was a good fundraiser, so I agreed to become the president to bring that organization to a different level. My approach is not so much, “What do I want” but “Who am I and what are my unique capabilities that I can offer a situation.”

What advice would you give to those just starting their careers?

People my age like to help younger people, so don’t be shy – meet people, talk to them, ask to have a cup of coffee, do interviews like this! It’s also really important to know yourself – observe carefully when you’re happy and when you’re not. For example, I tend to be really happy and satisfied when I’m facilitating groups and getting a decision-making process moving in a good direction.

What advice would you give to those wanting to run their own business?

If you want to start your own business, do it when you’re young. You learn on the job, and the younger you are, the sooner you can start learning – there’s no learning like when you’re responsible for it all because running a business is like cooking with twelve burners.

Dear god [laughs].

It’s true – you have to bring in the work, keep the clients happy, translate the client’s needs to the staff, train the staff, have the right software and equipment, have the right space, bring in a bookkeeper, establish benefits for your staff, and cultivate a social life in the office.

You just have all these balls in the air, and there is constant, constant, decision-making. So the earlier you start and understand that you have to have all these systems going all at the same time, the sooner and better you can figure out which ones you can outsource and delegate so you can do what you’re best at. Basically, if you want to do something in life, just try to do it. I feel really lucky to have been able to do that.

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