Landscape's Influence: Margaret Jankowsky on Urban Life, Pushing Things Further, and Her Advice to Gatekeepers

Landscape's Influence: Margaret Jankowsky on Urban Life, Pushing Things Further, and Her Advice to Gatekeepers

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By Julia Gamolina

Margaret Jankowsky is the Director of Development at Field Operations, where she focuses on merging over a decade of landscape design experience with strategic thinking. Previously, she worked as a designer on large-scale public realm projects that incorporate open space, development, and infrastructure, including Seattle’s Central Waterfront and The Underline in Miami; led the design for The High Line book (Phaidon, 2015); and collaborated with the Friends of the High Line and Columbia GSAPP’s Urban Design Lab to quantify the High Line’s ecological, social, and cultural benefits for the Landscape Architecture Foundation.

Margaret was also one of the Urban Design Forum’s 2018 Forefront Fellows, where her collaborative work on researching homelessness in New York City led to a proposal to create a citywide Office of the Public Realm. In her interview, Margaret talks about working on both projects and pursuits, and how her love for the public realm informs all that she does.

JG: How did your interest in landscape architecture first develop?

MJ: An interest in architecture and the built environment at large developed first. My father is an engineer and designed and built a lot of our house growing up, so I was exposed to a very spatial way of seeing the world. In thinking about college, architecture seemed like the obvious choice. However, I also knew as a high school senior that I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do architecture forever - Penn’s undergraduate architecture program was a great fit as it was a liberal arts degree with a studio core.

One semester, they told us that our studio was going to be landscape architecture. I remember thinking, “A whole semester? We’re going to spend a whole semester arranging bushes around a building?” Little did I know [laughs]. I ended up falling in love  – the idea that one could design the spaces between buildings, and that whole cities are designed by somebody was so exciting. All that urban life and richness - the social aspect of things, as well as the ecological, environmental, and economic systems - all collide in the landscape. 

Margaret during field work.

Margaret during field work.

When did you officially pursue the landscape realm? 

When first looking for jobs out of college, I applied to both architecture and landscape architecture firms. I also specifically limited my applications to firms who had at least two or three women in their leadership group.

Ultimately, since I had interned at architecture firms already, I decided to see what the day-to-day of working in landscape was like. I ended up going to Miranda Brooks Landscape Design. That was great - MBLD is a super small firm so I got tons of experience right away - project management, construction, and drawing sets. I also got a lot of hands-on work by selecting plants and working directly with contractors. Eventually though, I wanted to go back to school. 

Why?

I felt like, to really move forward in architecture or landscape architecture, I needed a master’s degree. As much as I had learned at MBLD, it’s a small firm with a very specific focus and I knew I wanted more. I wanted to delve into urban spaces. I went to Penn again and really deepened my understanding of how cities function, the role open space plays in cities, how to work with a lot of different systems, and then how to synthesize that information into a design goal and strategy and enact that. 

Out of Penn, you first worked for Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. 

Yes. I had done internships there, which were great, but I was initially interested in MVVA before because they have a really strong material sense, both with plants and with hard materials. Their work is very textural and well-crafted, and that was something I hadn’t gotten to focus on in grad school. 

“Design is much bigger than concept to construction.”

Why Field Operations next?

Ultimately, I wanted to be working on projects with a more urban focus, and Field Operations was a much better fit in that regard. Culturally too, I tend to function best in places where there’s open dialogue and decisions aren’t made hierarchically. At Field Operations, I was working immediately not only on the technical side of things, but also on concepts. Working on problems early and directly with project managers and principles was great for a young designer, for me. 

You now focus on business development. Tell me about your transition. 

My first project was the Seattle Waterfront, which was incredible. Very complex, a lot of changes in topography - working to get people down to the waterfront, lots of engineering concerns under the ground, as well aspects of connectivity, stormwater management, connections to nature, and public art. It was very solution-focused, but in a creative way with a strong design vision guiding it all. Then, I was on the master plan team for the ten-mile Underline in Miami, another complex and wide-reaching project. 

I loved both, but the pace got to be incredibly intense and fast. We pulled out a ton of work for The Underline in a very short time. It’s not unusual – that’s how a lot of things go, but after that I needed a bit of a mental reset. I had mentioned to one of the principals that I was interested in publications and graphic communication. Around that time we had just decided to do the High Line book, so they asked me if I was interested and I said yes.

The High Line  by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio+Renfro. Courtesy of Margaret Jankowsky

The High Line by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio+Renfro. Courtesy of Margaret Jankowsky

The High Line  by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio+Renfro. Courtesy of Margaret Jankowsky

The High Line by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio+Renfro. Courtesy of Margaret Jankowsky

The High Line  by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio+Renfro. Courtesy of Margaret Jankowsky

The High Line by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio+Renfro. Courtesy of Margaret Jankowsky

That’s interesting that you first transitioned to a communications role. That was my trajectory too.

Yes! It’s amazing to get to know a project from a communications, a written communications, perspective, as opposed to being the one working on it. At the end, I realized, “Wow - I have a more comprehensive understanding of the High Line having worked on the book, than I would have if I had worked on designing one specific section.” Writing about your work should be a priority. Even if it’s to write an Instagram post where you have to summarize in one sentence, “Why does anyone care about this project?” Moments when you get to pull back and truly look at a project are really helpful. 

After the book was published, it turned out that our business development director was leaving and they asked me if I would be interested in doing this. I thought, “Sure!” I had always been curious about what was going on behind-the-scenes, and how offices actually function and get work. I also heard many times, “Architects are the worst business people. They don’t know what they’re doing,” and I didn’t want that to be me [laughs]. 

What does your current role in business development entail? 

I work closely with the Senior Principals Lisa Switkin and Richard Kennedy, and with James Corner to figure out what kind of projects we want to pursue, assess projects that are coming to us, figure out how we want to talk about the work that we’ve already done, and think strategically about how to position ourselves in all different venues - in front of clients, in the media, or amongst our colleagues in the landscape architecture, architecture, and engineering fields. 

Throughout the day, I’ll do anything from giving a tour of the High Line, to working with principals to formulate an RFP response, to working with my team to make sure that our libraries and information internally are getting up to speed. 

“Writing about your work should be a priority. Even if it’s to write an Instagram post where you have to summarize in one sentence, “Why does anyone care about this project?”

What advice do you have for designers regarding business development?

Curiosity about business development is a good thing to have. To do it, you really have to have an understanding that is grounded in what the firm is about, what a project is, and how to get a project done. Take a look at the proposals firms are putting out for RFPs - it’s a lot of work [laughs]. The things that I and the principals are talking about set the tone for the projects coming into the studio moving forward. 

I think there is often times a misconception that people who are working on business development are selling something or are out there schmoozing. For me, though, good business development is focused on real relationships and a constantly evolving understanding of what everyone is working toward, so you can find common interests and values. It’s also fast-paced and you’re moving things forward all the time. Whether it’s an RFP or a proposal, even an early strategy or concept approach, you’re generating a lot of energy, and eventually, a lot of new work. 

What have you learned about the industry at large from your experience in business development? 

The biggest thing that I’ve learned is how much is already determined before the designer gets the project. Clients have already figured out what kind of project it will be, the physical boundary, the budget, and the overall goals. The designer certainly does have a lot of influence in what happens within those parameters, but it’s been interesting to see what aspects are pre-set, and who is really making which decisions. 

I’m curious, as a designer, as a landscape designer, about how to be a part of those early conversations before the constraints are solidified. Clients will often times get perspectives from economic development consultants, engineers, or architects, but landscape architects are not usually a part of that conversation. However, potential clients – cities, institutions, and even the general public– are now starting to understand how important landscape architecture is. Developers are making sure to account for open space, municipalities are starting to prioritize their parks and green infrastructure, but to take that one level higher and have influence when the project is being formulated and prioritized would be really interesting. 

Margaret presenting "“Shelter for All” at the Urban Design Forum. Photography by Samuel Lahoz Photography

Margaret presenting "“Shelter for All” at the Urban Design Forum. Photography by Samuel Lahoz Photography

Where are you in your career today? 

I’m realizing I still want to define myself as a designer, but design is much bigger than just working on projects from concept to construction. Landscape architecture and urban design has been changing a lot, which I credit in large part to the work that Field Operations and other similar landscape architects are doing – really expanding the field. There’s a lot more landscape architects can influence before a project starts. I’m interested in pushing things further, personally being a part of moving forward, and hopefully that’s where the next phase of my career will take me. 

Looking back, what have been your biggest challenges?

Definitely deciding what to pursue at what moment. Part of that decision is dictated by your opportunities and what’s going on around me. At the same time, there is some agency that people have, to try and make things happen, and that’s where I get tripped up. There are so many things I want to do and if I go down this path to pursue that one, it inevitably closes off three other paths. That kind of paralysis could be dangerous and I’ve realized it can keep me in a place where I’m not really moving forward toward something I actively want. 

I’m trying to remind myself in my career and also in my life, just because I do something now doesn’t mean I can’t do those other things later. Hopefully I have a long career and life ahead and me, and the chance to focus on multiple things throughout the years. I try to keep in mind the core skills that are relevant to all these various interests I have, and build those skills – and to push myself to just go after something if it’s a recurring interest.

“How do you start your own firm and do experimental work when you have tons of debt?”

What have been the biggest highlights?

I just love working in a field where we’re impacting cities and urban life. Working towards building a public realm that is well-designed and vibrant and really sets the stage for the kind of cultural, interpersonal, and nature-based interactions that make cities such exciting places to be is great. I love that so much. 

In the garden!

In the garden!

What advice do you have for those starting their careers, and specifically for women starting their careers?

I appreciate that you asked what it is specifically for women. I’ve always assumed that if someone has hired me, it’s because they see value in my skills and my perspective, so I contribute those skills and perspective. Usually, contributing, speaking up, and putting work forward, in a collegial and collaborative way, has been welcomed. However, not all environments reward that, especially certain male-dominated ones. I have been in work environments where I was told that was too much. 

I’ve learned that if you’re in an environment that you don’t feel is a place where you’re thriving, go somewhere else. There are other places where women’s contributions are valued. Not because they’re women, but because they’re good designers. At Field Operations, over half of the principal group is comprised of women. Within that, half are minorities. It’s a diverse workplace and being overlooked or silenced has never been an issue for me there. Find places where you can thrive. Ultimately, those are the place where you’ll be able to do your best work and grow in your career. 

I’d also like to offer some advice for a different group of people...

Please!

Often advice that gets published is advice to young individuals, but there’s advice that needs to be given to the institutions and gatekeepers of our profession as well. Where is our profession headed? How are young designers as a whole moving forward in their careers? I remember in grad school, a professor said something like, “Why are there no exciting, young, boundary-pushing firms anymore, why is everyone just working for other people? Where’s the energy?” And we replied, “How do you start your own firm and do experimental work when you have tons of debt?” It’s a serious concern.

I don’t think more established professionals and professors realize how much debt people come out of grad school with today. Finances impact our decisions a lot. I worry about where our profession is heading if only a certain number of people can start firms because of financial privilege. Gatekeepers and schools need to start thinking about what their role is and what their responsibilities are - perhaps firms need to start thinking about that too. 

Something has to change if we want an industry that’s open to people from all different backgrounds - economic, social, cultural. We need a diverse field and we can’t have that unless school is financially available to many more people. It’s not possible to move forward in certain ways in your career if you have lots of debt. It’s a big problem. It’s systemic. So the advice that I would like those already established in their careers to hear is to take the future of our profession seriously and put some energy and resources toward solving this problem – it must be possible, and the potential benefits are huge.

“All that urban life and richness - the social aspect of things, as well as the ecological, environmental, and economic systems - all collide in the landscape. ”

I could not agree with you more. Financial privilege has huge impacts on our industry, and something we need to think hard about in order to expand opportunities for brilliant minds that may not have financial backing. Frankly, the idea of the “starving artist” is very tired. Given this, what has been your general approach to your career?

I’ve learned to ask for what you want. For example, I wouldn’t have worked on the High Line book if I hadn’t expressed an interest in publications. Employers won’t know what you want unless you tell them – if there’s something you’re interested in, put it out there, whether that’s salary-wise or benefits-wise, or project-wise, a role you want to play, or a principal you want to work with. 

Don’t wait for someone else to think of you for something. Nominate yourself. That has been a good approach – of course, you have to figure out how to do that in a way that is professional, collegial, and doesn’t put anyone in a tight position. I know now to say, “This is what I want to do, this is where I want to go.”

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