Nonprofit employee specializes in involving communities in the design and construction of public spaces

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Eric Higbee

What do you do? I’m a landscape architect at Pomegranate Center, a nonprofit [based in Issaquah] that strengthens communities by involving them in the design and construction of their public spaces. We have a unique model, developed over 28 years, that emphasizes collective creativity, multiple victories and literally putting tools in people’s hands. Our work focuses on community gathering spaces, such as small parks, amphitheaters, shelters, etc.

I help facilitate community workshops, translate community ideas into designs and coordinate community work parties.

How did you get started in that field? I have an arts background and spent a long time figuring out how to apply my creativity toward making the world a better place. Landscape architecture blends my artistic drive and my concern for environmental issues. My particular passion is for involving people in the design process through grass-roots participatory projects.

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After years of working for traditional landscape architecture firms, I’ve shifted my career toward more community-based work with Pomegranate Center, one of the few places nationally that specializes in this.

What’s a typical day like? It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint a typical day because they vary so drastically depending on the stages of our projects. A day in the office might include working in AutoCAD or SketchUp to develop designs or construction details, working on a community workshop presentation, or coordinating upcoming community events via conference calls.

A typical day outside the office might be spent facilitating community workshops or design charrettes [intense periods of design or planning activity], or spending four or five days working side-by-side with community members to construct a new community gathering place in their neighborhood.

What’s the best part of the job? Working with people and building stuff. Given the right conditions, the creative capacity and talents of communities never ceases to amaze me. My favorite moments are at the end of construction, when a group of neighbors, many whom didn’t know each other before, look around at what they’ve built and say, “We did this!”

Also, landscape architects are often relegated to office work, and getting direct experience in construction is really valuable for knowing how to successfully turn community ideas into constructable designs.

What surprises people about what you do? Many people don’t even know that the field of landscape architecture exists. Yes, someone designs the parks, trails, streets and outdoor spaces that we enjoy, and there is a whole world of design professionals (not just “landscapers”) who do this work. Many folks are also surprised that we successfully engage people in a public design process and build something amazing in just a few months. This is often because people are cynical about public processes (understandable, given the quality of our dialogue at a national level) and our local examples of the burdensome “Seattle Process.” We’ve learned that given the right conditions and structure, people will rise to their best behavior and work passionately toward solutions that achieve multiple victories for the entire community.

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