James LaGro, Jr. Interview
On June 1, 2021, James LaGro, Jr. will succeed Katherine Melcher as the Editor-in-Chief of Landscape Journal. The CELA interviewed him from his home office in Madison, Wisconsin in February.
Are there any seminal moments in your education or professional career that influenced your path?
Yes, I certainly have had moments where I knew it was time to close one chapter of my career and move on to the next.
For example, my undergraduate degree is in urban horticulture, so I studied plant ecology and plant physiology, and soils and pathology, and all the things that contribute to healthy plants. I started a business in my senior year—a landscape contracting and gardening business—but within about a year I became much more interested in the design and construction aspects. So that led me to go back to school for my Master’s in Landscape Architecture.
I then worked for five years in private practice. When I was in South Florida with EDSA, I began to see the connections between public policy and land use change and impacts on the environment. And that got me interested in going back to school yet again for my PhD in Natural Resources Policy and Planning with a focus on urbanizing landscapes. Each step was a progression up in scale, looking at increasingly bigger issues.
I have also had good mentors along the way – in universities and in private practice. They influenced my career path by helping me visualize what my next steps could be.
It seems like you’re coming into this position at the perfect time.
I hope so. My experiences as a researcher, educator, and practitioner all help to broaden my perspective on land planning, design, policy, and management. I’ve planted trees and built patios with my own hands. But I’ve also worked on teams that planned new communities on sites as large as 5,000 acres.
And you also worked in Switzerland.
Yes, I did. I learned a lot about green roofs in Switzerland. The Swiss are fantastic in horticulture and in using space very efficiently. So that was fun because I spent time up on rooftops—sometimes five, six, eight stories up, overseeing the construction and planting. Because it was a design-build firm, I would be in the field about half of the time, supervising crews that were always international. These skilled workers came from several European countries.
What interested you in becoming Editor-in-Chief of Landscape Journal?
One of the reasons is that I love to write. I am continuously trying to improve my craft. I enjoy the writing process. I enjoy editing. And I enjoy helping other people write well. I often review graduate student writing, but I also peer-review journal and book manuscripts. So, this opportunity really appealed to me—a leadership position focusing on writing for publication.Frankly, I was impressed by the position description because it was clear to me that there had been considerable thought given to where the Journal has been, where the Journal is currently, and where it could go in the future. That came through very clearly. I was impressed by the level of analysis, but also by the visionary aspect—that the task force envisioned a new model for editorial oversight and leadership. It was also clear that this wasn’t just a caretaker role, but an opportunity to provide innovative leadership. So that attracted me very much.
As Editor-in-Chief, are there any types of scholarship, genres, or topics that you are most interested in expanding or emphasizing in the future?
Yes, definitely. I would like to encourage scholarship from a broad range of authors. Original research articles, obviously. Those are the mainstays of an academic journal. But I also would like to find ways to encourage review papers that synthesize the literature and articulate the state-of-the-art on important issues for the profession and discipline. Different practice types, educational pedagogies, and research methods could be examined. I would also like to encourage reflective and speculative essays, to encourage more practitioners to write for Landscape Journal.
I also think there’s a role for advocacy scholarship in landscape architecture. Public policy plays a huge role in shaping the built and the natural environment. So, public policy briefs that are evidence-based and analytical could be published in the journal. These policy briefs might look at two or three policy scenarios: compare the pros and cons, and then make recommendations for policy reforms. These could focus on federal, state, or local-level policies. Landscape architecture, as a profession, could play a more assertive role in public policy conversations in this country and across the world.
Have you seen a lot of landscape architects advocating for this as well?
The New Landscape Declaration addresses this issue and that’s one of the reasons why I’m excited to serve as Editor-in-Chief. So, I do think some of the aspirational aspects of what the LAF (Landscape Architecture Foundation) and the Landscape Declaration are saying are outcomes that I can help bring to fruition.
We also can learn from critiques of built works—projects that have been implemented. LAF’s landscape performance case studies, for example, assess the social, economic, and environmental benefits of selected built projects. These increase our collective knowledge base. And in the best traditions of design criticism (I’m thinking, here, of Ada Louise Huxtable), critiques of built works could offer interesting new perspectives and insights.
Is that an area where practitioners would come in?
They absolutely could. This is an area where both practitioners and educators can contribute—including students.
Why do you think that practitioners have been less represented in the Journal?
I think it has to do with the traditional expectations for publishable scholarship. And this is one area where I can help. I plan to reach out to practitioners in the field and invite them to reflect upon and write from their experience. These would not be 8,000-word articles reporting on scientific research. But shorter pieces—1,000 or 1,500 words—reflective essays that encapsulate the views and insights that they’ve developed through practice. This scholarship can have benefits not only for students, but for academics who are teaching the next generation of practitioners. I’m hoping this is a mutually beneficial dialogue that helps to shape the field’s future research agenda.
Do you see them as playing a special role when it comes to public policy discussions?
Practitioners confront public policies in terms of regulatory requirements and ensuring that their projects meet local permitting and approval standards. Practitioners also have an interest in understanding the performance of implemented projects. Research collaborations – between academics and practitioners – could generate useful new knowledge. That kind of information can be good for business and also influential in shaping policy reforms.
Ideally, we will have authors from the research community and the practitioner community writing from their experiences in different contexts. I’m interested in the perspectives of practitioners working in the private sector, but also in the public and non-profit sectors. This is an under-tapped resource. In the City of Madison, the community where I live, there are landscape architects who are or have been in influential positions within local government. They have a story to tell, too, that I think would be interesting and useful.
Do you think that the greater public would benefit from hearing from people such as yourself and these practitioners?
Absolutely. I often tell my students that, as future professionals, they will have a responsibility to be civically engaged. When opportunities arise to serve on committees or advisory boards, they should take them because they have a unique lens for looking at community issues. They can contribute to the greater good if they use their knowledge and values to weigh in on local policy decisions.
Is there anything else that you would like to share with the members of CELA?
I’m excited about this new role. The plan is to increase the annual number of Landscape Journal’s issues from two to four. This will happen incrementally. So, all these changes will increase opportunities for publishing scholarship from CELA members, from practitioners, and from other disciplines. More information on the Journal’s revised aims and scope and author guidelines will be forthcoming.
What is your overall goal for your editorship?
Increasing Landscape Journal’s impact factor is a key goal. As an international outlet for scholarship on land planning, design, and management, the Journal should be a respected resource for scholars and practitioners, not just in landscape architecture but in other disciplines as well.