Imagine That

Dream Big with Design meets kids where they are to help them find their place in landscape architecture.

By Zach Mortice 

Black Spire Outpost is home to galactic outlaws and space explorers. Image courtesy Disney 2021 Marvel.

Jennifer Mok doesn’t have a job like most landscape architects. “We build worlds,” she says. Mok, a landscape architecture studio executive at Walt Disney Imagineering, designs theme parks and resorts. “Our designs have to be complete; it has to be immersive. It’s putting the magic into that experience [for] the guest.”

The newest example of this design philosophy is her team’s designs for the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge theme park. Set on the planet of Batuu, on the far rim of the galaxy, Black Spire Outpost is a dusty haven for villainy. There are seedy bazaars, parked space freighters, and spire-like petrified trees that meld into domed structures: unmistakably alien, but also of a piece with one of the most richly realized sci-fi universes ever made.

What Mok and her team of a dozen-plus landscape designers do is both a continuation of the legacy of Ruth Shellhorn, one of Disney’s first landscape architects, and also a wild extrapolation from it. As acts of sheer invention, where the singular purpose is amazement, these places are landscape architecture at a scale that’s unforgettable, and that makes Mok an ideal participant for “Dream Big with Design: A Showcase of Landscape Architecture and Pre-K–12 Design Learning,” ASLA’s two-day session of design introduction and education for primary and secondary school students. Mok and her team at Disney will present their work as landscape design Imagineers, along with landscape designers from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Legoland theme parks, and Minecraft-related programming, on September 23rd and 24th. “If it excites students to see what landscape architecture does with Imagineering, but opens up for them a world of, ‘This is what you could do as a designer, and apply that anywhere,’ that’s what we’re hoping to do,” Mok says.

The virtual event will focus on pre-K through elementary school students on September 23rd and middle and high school students on September 24th. Sessions will be prerecorded and have interactive elements. Participants can register online for free.

Jennifer Mok’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge theme park, set on the planet of Batuu. Image courtesy Disney 2021 Marvel.

The full slate of programming forgoes the mistakes of other top-down “kids-focused” career introductions by stepping firmly into the world of children today. In addition to sessions presenting Disney-designed landscapes, Dream Big with Design will feature webtoons that illustrate the value and practice of landscape architecture in a quickly digestible and smartphone-ready package, and books written by ASLA members that focus on landscape design and environmental issues.

Lisa Jennings, the manager of career discovery and diversity at ASLA, developed the program, a first ever, after seeing a need for widening the conversation about landscape architecture to include primary and secondary education students. “There was no national push that was introducing the profession in a dynamic way,” she says. “These are the next generation of landscape architects.”

Dream Big with Design places landscape architecture alongside STEM fields as burgeoning avenues for career discovery, and Jennings says other allied professions are further ahead in introducing themselves to younger audiences. A common refrain from landscape architects, she says, is “I didn’t know what landscape architecture was until college.” She says that landscape architecture, typically regarded as the least understood design profession, is “behind the curve when it comes to exposure and general public understanding of what they do.”

Landscape designers of the Legoland theme park will present their work as part of Dream Big with Design. Photo by Todd McCurdy, FASLA.

Jennings credits ASLA CEO Torey Carter-Conneen with the mandate to better connect young people to the profession. “I attribute a lot of this to our new CEO,” she says. “He gave us the green light, allowing me to dream big for the association.”

Jennifer Nitzky, ASLA, helped Jennings with programming for Dream Big with Design, connecting her to organizations that work at the intersection of youth education and landscape design. In her work with Studio Hip, Nitzky partners with the Trust for Public Land on school playground projects that heavily involve students, enlisting them to do site analysis, provide programming guidance, and come up with preliminary designs using templates. “One of the best ways to really engage with students is through hands-on activity,” she says. One way to do this is to introduce students to the Minecraft video game, a sandbox-style modular deformable and re-formable environment that’s become a go-to platform for introducing kids to built environment design of all sorts. Presented by Park University, the video game will be part of Dream Big with Design’s programming.

Batuu’s most imaginative landscape features are petrified trees that meld into buildings. Image courtesy Disney 2021 Marvel.

More broadly, participants will introduce students to the basic concepts of design thinking. “What we want to share with students is the idea of a toolbox: These are the things that we think about when we are presented with a design project,” Mok says.

“[Dream Big] is hopefully going to be building awareness of landscape architecture at an earlier age,” Nitzky says. “You plant the seed when they’re young and it continues to grow.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated incorrectly that Jennifer Nitzky would offer a short presentation on Minecraft as part of Dream Big with Design. The error has been corrected.

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