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Designing landscapes beyond the backyard

From reimagining old piers to creating flood-resilient urban plazas, Kate Hayes, Earth Systems ’08, uses her interdisciplinary background to design and build landscapes that bring people closer to the environment.

Kate Hayes
Kate Hayes enjoysviews of the Empire State Building while observing construction on the roof terrace of the American Copper Building. Photo credit Juan Guzman

Kate Hayes knew she wanted to study environmental sciences before she even started at Stanford. But it wasn’t until her last quarter that she understood how to merge her interests into a career.

“One reason I decided to study Earth systems is because I knew that no matter what I was going to do professionally, I wanted it to involve the environment, a basic understanding of the Earth, and how it functions,” said Hayes, Earth Systems ’08. “I had no idea it would be design.”

During spring quarter of her senior year, she took an urban design studio course on a friend’s recommendation as part of her Earth systems degree. The students were tasked with reimagining an old pier and parking lot on San Francisco's Mission Bay – and Hayes fell for the whole creative process.

“I loved thinking about movement across the site, about how people would occupy space, what they would want to do, to see, and more generally, how to re‑purpose this old historic pier,” Hayes said. “So much of what we design, people don’t even notice – it’s really about how they feel in a space. I got the beginnings of that in this class at Stanford. It led me to landscape architecture.”

Since 2013, Hayes has worked as an associate at SCAPE Landscape Architecture, a New York-based landscape architecture and urban design firm. Far from her original misconception that the field was restricted to designing backyards for people’s homes, she produces skyscraper garden terraces, plazas between Manhattan buildings, and suburban parks that bridge communities. Her work starts with a sustainable, interdisciplinary approach that stems from her background in Earth systems.

“It’s about creating great spaces for people, spaces where they can begin to see their surroundings differently, from new perspectives, whether that’s done by creating a dynamic edge on a waterfront project or designing an immersive wild wetland walk through a revived marsh,” she said. “We design sites that reconnect people with their regional landscapes and we engage them through this notion of ground-up education.”

Creating resilience – and a form of activism

Hayes’ projects have included revamping an old pier in Red Hook, New York, to promote new interactions with the water, developing a landscape framework plan for Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, and designing and constructing a resilient water plaza at the American Copper Building in Manhattan – a floodable civic space built on top of a parking garage that accommodates the infiltration of water without overwhelming the combined sewer system.

“With climate change, it’s important to build these resilient landscapes that are going to react, accommodate, and change with all the shifting baselines that are happening on our Earth,” Hayes said.

She is in the beginning stages of a federally funded, state-administered project in Norfolk, Virginia, to build a “line of protection” around a neighborhood in a watershed to help safeguard residents from both coastal surging from the Elizabeth River and mainland flooding.

“We’re working with environmental consultants and stormwater engineers to locate this line of protection and to think about equality issues and environmental justice. We’re designing a park that integrates the flood barrier into the program and amenities of the park, and bridges two communities,” Hayes said.

What she finds most exciting about her career is the challenge of connecting it with advocacy for the planet. Her projects require thinking about resilience, education, and reconnecting communities – Hayes’ favorite type of work. The daughter of an environmental lawyer, she considers her world of construction documents and construction management to meet the needs of people and climate a form of activism.

No matter what I was going to do professionally, I wanted it to involve the environment.

From concept to 3D modeling and a hard hat

Becoming a successful landscape architect requires working across disciplines, a skill Earth systems students master through required coursework in biology, chemistry, economics, geological sciences, physics, mathematics, and statistics.

One of the most important parts of Hayes’ job is being able to use her broad knowledge and people skills to understand the goals and generate the scope of a new project.

“We’re able to synthesize all the different disciplines and needs of the stakeholders and those involved in the project into a design for a public space that is not only occupied by people but also engages people,” she said.

How she spends her days depends on the stages of various projects. A conceptual design involves researching the site, its region, its ecologies, and demographics. After outlining big ideas, the team proposes graphic sketches and renderings of the concept to clients or engages with public meetings and government agencies for community projects.

Kate Hayes in hard hat holding blueprint
Kate Hayes is on site at the American Copper Building Water Plaza in Manhattan, observing the sub-grade construction of the plaza. Photo credit: Juan Guzman

“One thing I love about my job is that it’s so different day to day,” she said. “One day, I’ll be up in the Bronx monitoring streetscape bioswales [stormwater filters], inspecting plants to make sure that they were designed to their specifications, and evaluating how the plants are performing or which ones need to be replaced.”

Using 3D modeling software tools like AutoCAD and Rhino, Hayes works with engineers and architects before beginning construction. In the last stage, she visits nurseries to choose plant material and will often go onsite in a hard hat to observe construction progress.

Learning from every experience

When Hayes graduated in 2008, there were no jobs in design firms, which were hit especially hard by the recession when people stopped building and spending money, she said.

“From 2008 to 2010, I had six different jobs. I was getting laid off from paid internships – they were letting go of everyone – but in each internship, I learned something interesting,” she said. “I even coached crew during that time. Learning how to manage a bunch of freshmen in high school was surprisingly informative.”

She used that trying time to talk to as many people as possible and explore her next step toward an environmentally focused design career. The conversations led her to realize she would need a master’s degree in landscape architecture, so she enrolled in the University of Virginia’s graduate program in landscape architecture and never looked back, she said.

Don’t be afraid to try something you’re unsure about.

The biggest advice she now gives to students: Diversify your experiences.

“Every experience you have, every internship, every place you travel, they add up and help inform you of what you do or don’t want to do,” said Hayes, who earned her Master of Landscape Architecture degree in 2013. “Don’t be afraid to try something you’re unsure about.”

Hayes uses that same confidence to take a leadership role and handle the most challenging aspects of her job: managing consultants, stakeholders, and other designers – and balancing everyone’s opinions to create the most effective and successful designs.

“We’re reinterpreting and rethinking how we design and live in landscapes,” Hayes said. “It’s not returning to what was once there or restoring it – we’re accommodating people in the story, in the narrative.”

At work, Hayes also coordinates SCAPE intern programs. In her free time, she enjoys foreign travel, biking, and walking around urban neighborhoods with a refreshing cup of iced tea.

In 2018, Hayes began a new position as Design Principal for Restoration Landscaping Company in Northern California.

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