The value of landscape architecture in the modern worldreturn to journal
In May 2023, Uncommon Land’s Vanessa Chan was promoted to Associate Director. Here, she talks about her new role and the value of landscape architecture in the modern world.
Can you tell us about your new role and about working at Uncommon Land?
My new role is all about project delivery and quality. I oversee the project process, ensuring the work we produce meets the exceptionally high standards we set. This involves managing and mentoring members of the Uncommon Land design team, while building good relationships with clients and consultants. I’m also responsible for project finance and resource allocation. So, essentially it’s about keeping everything running and on track.
It's been really exciting to join the senior management team at Uncommon Land, and I’m relishing the opportunity to grow personally and professionally in this role. I particularly like the dynamic I have now with the more junior landscape architects; we talk a lot about what they want to learn and the ideas they want to explore. We also discuss how we can work together and push each other further.
What changes have you seen at Uncommon Land in the time you’ve been there?
When I first started at Uncommon Land there were just seven people; now there are 16. This growth has been driven by expansion into new geographies, particularly South Asia and the Middle East. And with these new markets come new challenges. As landscape architects, we’re having to adapt our designs and planting strategies to more arid climates and environments. We’re having to think more about how we recycle water, how we use shading, and how we use local plant species to minimise water consumption and mileage.
In this way, we increasingly focus on sustainability in everything we do. We recently produced a set of Sustainable Design Guidelines, which we’re incorporating into project work and design schemes. The guidelines cover a range of topics linked to climate change mitigation, such as permeable paving, rain gardens, sustainable materials and planting. They’re intended for internal use, but we plan to share them across the Handley House Group and with clients to enhance our sustainability impact.
What sets Uncommon Land apart from other landscape architecture firms?
Being part of Handley House is a distinct advantage. Working alongside Benoy, Holmes Wood and Pragma, we benefit from a multidisciplinary environment in which diverse sector knowledge is shared. When we’re in the studio, we sit next to our colleagues from across the Group, and because we’re like family we help each other develop ideas and solve problems. We’re always brainstorming and asking ourselves, ‘what if we did it like this?’, or ‘how can we make it better?’ These discussions enable a holistic and cohesive approach that’s unique in landscape architecture.
We also benefit from the tech capabilities within the Group. With access to cutting-edge software like Rhino, Revit and Twinmotion, we can meet client demands for sophisticated design development and presentation. Alongside our advanced graphics skills and our sustainability knowledge, this tech offering really sets our work apart.
Can you describe your professional journey and career highlights to date?
I started my career in Hong Kong, where I worked in several multidisciplinary offices, including RMJM, Atkins and 10 Design. I also worked in independent creative landscape firms, such as Randle Siddeley Associates and One Landscape, where I learned how to run projects, prepare fee proposals and negotiate contracts.
In 2015, I moved to the UK and joined Martha Schwartz Partners. I gained my chartership in landscape architecture in 2017, then joined Uncommon Land in 2020. I think it was the creative freedom and the opportunity to work across a range of projects that attracted me to the company. The sheer variety of clients and sectors is amazing – hospitality, retail, mixed-use – and the breadth of design challenges is very exciting. I like working across different scales and typologies. I also like being involved in every stage of the process, from concept through to project delivery and build.
I suppose my career highlights include receiving industry accolades for some of the work I’ve done – the most recent being at Uncommon Land, where our designs for project Solitaire in Saudi Arabia recently won an award. It’s very satisfying to know that your hard work has been recognised; that all the time spent scrutinising details and trying to make things perfect has finally paid off!
Who or what inspires you in your work?
I’m greatly influenced by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. I like the way he incorporates nature and culture into his designs. His use of light and natural materials is really inspiring. Through Kuma, I have learned how to bring history and culture into my work – to focus on the context, along with the client brief, to shape relevant design solutions that respond to the surrounding environment.
Landscape is about our senses; what we can see and touch and smell. When you go to a park, you’re surrounded by landscape; you engage with living things. And this is the perspective I work from. I think about what the user needs, what they will touch and interact with in that space, and I focus on providing an experience for that. In this way, I draw inspiration from contextual surroundings.
What value can landscape architecture bring to urban development?
Some people think that landscape architecture is the cherry on the cake. But it’s so much more than that. With climate change requirements, landscape is playing an increasingly critical role in sustainable urban development. In our work as designers, we can help protect the natural environment; we can devise strategies to mitigate climate impacts and increase resilience – which is why our Sustainable Design Guidelines are so timely and important.
Landscape design is also vital in the post-Covid era. Through landscape architecture we can create high-quality outdoor areas and greenspaces that provide a connection to nature. Since the pandemic, more and more people are realising the importance of nature to mental and physical wellbeing. And landscape design plays a key role in facilitating those connections and enhancements.