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Years of politically motivated attacks have put professional licensure at risk. Now, the design professions and their allies are banding together to protect it.
The state of Virginia has regulated landscape architecture as a profession since 1980, certifying practitioners through its professional occupational agency. In 2010, landscape architecture became a licensed profession in the state.
A few bills attempted to deregulate or lower the level of regulation back to certification, but none of them made it out of legislative committee. Around 2011, Republican then-Governor Robert McDonnell set up a commission to eliminate regulations in general, including of professions such as landscape architecture and interior design. Members of the Virginia chapter of ASLA persuaded the governor to remove landscape architects from the list.
Robert McGinnis, FASLA, an associate principal at Kennon Williams Landscape Studio and a member of the Virginia ASLA chapter’s government affairs committee, says that interior designers and landscape architects get targeted because people don’t know what they do. “They see the word landscape and think we put trees in the ground.”
In 2017, Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission issued a report questioning the need for licensing of 11 occupations, including landscape architecture. The Virginia chapter of ASLA submitted a justification of continued licensure along with evidence, prepared alongside the national ASLA office and the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards (CLARB). When the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation completed its report in December 2020, it concluded that licensure was the minimal level of regulation needed to protect public health, safety, and welfare.
“Once we show them what we do, they usually back off,” McGinnis says. “We believe that our defense of our licensure in Virginia is important not just to our licensure but to the entire licensure status of all landscape architects, because once you pull that one licensure out, it will be identified by another state—particularly nearby abutting states—as an example.”
McGinnis has been active in the profession for 35 years and engaged in advocacy for licensure for more than 20 of them. “It is exhausting,” he says. “I never wanted to do it. I wanted to just practice. But once your license or regulatory status is threatened, somebody has got to do something.”
Led by right-of-center advocacy organizations and often funded by private interests, state legislatures have increasingly been writing bills to restrict licensing requirements for professions and occupations. With legislative titles such as the “Right to Earn a Living Act” and “Consumer Choice Act,” the laws are put forward under the premise that professional licensing imposes an unfair barrier to entry into certain types of work, infringes on individual freedom, and increases the costs of services to the consumer.
Lawmakers have included landscape architecture in “right-to-work” bills reflexively, without clearly understanding the nature of the practice or its difference from other kinds of landscape work. Conservative and libertarian lobbying groups such as the Institute for Justice, the Goldwater Institute, and Americans for Prosperity—the latter funded by the libertarian Koch brothers, heirs to the commodities-production-and-trading conglomerate Koch Industries—began pushing these laws around 2016; by now, nearly every state has voted on some version of a law rolling back or limiting licensing requirements.
In License to Work: A National Study of Burdens from Occupational Licensing, the Institute for Justice, which pursues lawsuits on a variety of subjects, states:
Licensing laws now guard entry into hundreds of occupations, including jobs that offer upward mobility to those of modest means, such as cosmetologist, auctioneer, athletic trainer, and landscape contractor. Yet research provides scant evidence that licensing does what it is supposed to do—raise the quality of services and protect consumers. Instead, licensing laws often protect those who already have licenses from competition, keeping newcomers out and prices high.
ASLA, other professional design associations, and licensing boards argue, on the other hand—with decades of jurisprudence as evidence—that the rationale for licensing professional practices and occupations derives from the idea that their work can have significant impact on public health, safety, and welfare. The public has an interest in ensuring that someone calling themselves a doctor, engineer, or an architect—or, for that matter, a beautician using chemical agents on clients’ bodies—has adequate education, knowledge, and experience to perform their job without causing injury or harm.
One of the first direct assaults on landscape architecture licensure was in Arizona in 2016. Licensure came up for sunset review, a routine process in which programs, regulations, or agencies are reviewed for relevance. The Arizona ASLA chapter hired a lobbyist, went to legislative committee meetings, and then the licensing board, which makes decisions about licensure applications, passed the renewal through the legislative committee in a unanimous vote. (To get passed into law, a bill has to be approved by the relevant legislative committee, then put on the floor for a vote of all members of the legislature.) In February, a bill came up, introduced by Representative Warren Petersen, a surrogate of Republican Governor Doug Ducey, that included landscape architects with occupations such as geologists, citrus packers, and athletic instructors as licensed work that should be deregulated. The chapter had to scramble to figure out how to respond, with help from ASLA national.
Because the bill was being sponsored by the Republican governor, it was going to be difficult for Republican-majority legislators to vote against it. The chapter’s lobbyist advised a strategy of simply getting landscape architects removed from the bill. Then they notified their membership, called on state universities with landscape architecture programs, and engaged ASLA national and chapters in adjoining states. Students showed up en masse to speak and explained to the governor’s aides that, if the bill passed, they’d have to leave the state to practice after investing in a four-year degree. Within 24 hours, landscape architects were removed from the bill.
Galen Drake, ASLA, a senior landscape architect at J2 Engineering and Environmental Design, was president of the Arizona chapter of ASLA. “After this experience it became clear, especially in 2016, talking to legislators, that they had no clue—no clue—what landscape architects did,” says Drake. “At one point they said, ‘Why do we need registration? Why can’t we just go on Yelp and see who’s good?’ So, our focus became education: Let’s educate them as to what we do.”
Elizabeth Hebron is the director of state government affairs at ASLA, and she has led the fight to protect licensure as attempts to deregulate landscape architecture have proliferated in statehouses over the past five years. Hebron oversees the tracking of licensure bills and coordinating the response to educate lawmakers and the public on the importance of clear, responsible licensing standards for landscape architecture—a highly skilled, technical profession with a direct public impact.
ASLA and the state licensing boards operate independently of each other, but ASLA has been engaging them in recent years through quarterly joint webinars with CLARB, sharing information about what’s happening with legislation, organizing in-person summits, and encouraging closer communication between the state chapters of ASLA and licensing boards.
Hebron gives as examples a boy who nearly punctured his heart because of a spear-like thorny bush on the edge of a playground, and larger-scale flood mitigation failures in Louisiana. In presentations she gives to various groups about the importance of licensure, she offers images of unnavigable driveways laid abnormally steep at nearly 45-degree angles and playground slides that literally run into tombstones.
Anti-licensing advocates invert the logic of harm prevention: Occupations and professions should have to prove a continuing need for regulations. In some cases, they argue for mandating a periodic review or automatic sunsetting of licensing requirements. In the most extreme cases, they claim the free market will weed out the incompetent players and that wrongs can be pursued through the justice system.
In Wisconsin, the battle against deregulation started with a November 2016 report by the libertarian think tank Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, Fencing Out Opportunity, which argued that occupational licensing creates barriers to employment and identified landscape architecture among the target professions. Republican legislators moved to study an approach to professional licensure involving “self-certification.” Instead of licenses, a Yelp-like review platform would allow consumers to choose self-identified professionals based on evaluation by past clients.
Jonathan Bronk, ASLA, a landscape architect in the campus planning department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, was the president of the Wisconsin ASLA chapter at the time. He spoke at the hearing, gathered others to speak, and coordinated with lobbyists to fight the bill. Among the occupations listed for the study, landscape architects turned out in the largest numbers to defend licensure, and the profession was removed from the list for the study. In the end, the bill passed committee but never made it to the floor for a vote; it was not prioritized by legislative leadership.
Recently, ASLA has joined a coalition to defend professional licensure alongside architects, engineers, civil engineers, accountants, and surveyors. Founded in 2019, the Alliance for Responsible Professional Licensing (ARPL) has an office at and receives most of its support from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). The other members of the coalition along with ASLA are the American Society of Civil Engineers, CLARB, the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, and the National Society of Professional Engineers.
To support its defense of licensing, ARPL commissioned a study, published in January, to examine the value of the licensure process and its outcomes from Oxford Economics, a business consulting and forecasting firm. The report found that, as of 2019, nearly a quarter of workers in the United States held a certificate or license, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The report cites a public opinion survey finding that 75 percent of the public recognizes the importance of the distinction between trades and “highly technical professions that have a direct impact on public health and safety.”
Oxford also surveyed studies of the impact of licensure on salaries, which indicate that, on average, unlicensed workers earn wages that are 10 to 15 percent lower than those of licensed workers with similar education, training, and experience. Although this figure suggests an increased cost to the consumer, the report cited studies to show that two-thirds of the increase is because a license signals higher productivity on the part of workers. A plumber or an electrician earns more not only because the consumer is captive to licensed workers but because the requirement to have a license—and the specialized nature of the knowledge necessary to perform the job—ensures the consumer a higher value of work. The report also noted that for women and people of color, licensure led to significantly higher wages and earnings, even narrowing the wage gap between them and white men in professions, especially among highly trained professionals. One study found that college-educated women with licenses earned 20 percent more than their non-licensed counterparts, whereas college-educated men earned only 8 percent more than their non-licensed counterparts.
Marta Zaniewski, the executive director of the Alliance for Responsible Professional Licensing and vice president of state regulatory and legislative affairs at AICPA, notes that it isn’t just libertarians and industrial lobbyists who push for limiting licensing. “What we saw that began with the Obama administration and carried on with the Trump administration was suggesting legislation that would take a broad brush to everyone from your manicurist to your engineer, looking at deregulating these professions,” she says. “There was just too much risk [to the public] to say that everyone should reform regulation across the board, and they were fixing something that didn’t need to be fixed.”
Hebron says that ASLA doesn’t necessarily oppose all of the features of the bills when legislated in a careful, responsible way that does not have the potential to affect public health, safety, and welfare. Some of the bills mandate reciprocity of licensing among states, also known as universal licensure, which allows professionals to move and work fluidly across state borders without additional testing, certification, and fees. Some state boards restrict licenses for people who have defaulted on their student loans, a practice that 13 bills have sought to limit. Many boards prohibit licenses for people with criminal records, which could be regarded as further punishing and ostracizing formerly incarcerated persons who have already paid their debt to society. Legislation known as Second Chance Acts limits the use of criminal histories in hiring and eligibility for a license: Sixty-three bills have attempted to limit use of criminal histories in hiring, with 15 of them so far passing and 23 others yet to be voted on.
For some landscape architects, there is also a concern with the barriers licensing creates to the profession, particularly as they impede those who are historically shut out of design fields. The licensing process became particularly arbitrary and onerous in the case of Sara Zewde, the founding principal of Studio Zewde and assistant professor of practice at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.
By the time she began her licensing exams in 2016, Zewde had already become fairly recognized in the field. She had topflight credentials, having studied sociology and statistics at Boston University and earning master’s degrees in landscape architecture from the Harvard GSD and city planning from MIT. Zewde started her exams in the state of Washington, where she lived at the time. After she moved to the East Coast in 2018, even though all states use the same exam—the Landscape Architect Registration Examination, developed and administered by CLARB—she had to fly back to Washington at significant expense to finish the examinations where she had originally begun them. By 2019, her exams complete, she then submitted her paperwork for licensure in Pennsylvania, where she had most of her ongoing work. Then came the multiple reference letters and the requirement to undergo a criminal background check in every state where she had lived in the previous five years, involving hundreds of dollars in additional fees. A gap in her timeline in which she was traveling for research raised additional questions with the licensing board, leading them to ask her for additional background checks in those states or an FBI check, which she followed through on.
By this time, it was 2020 in the early months of the pandemic. Zewde’s work had already been published in this magazine, Harvard Design Magazine, and Topos, among other places, and she had been working and teaching in the field for more than five years. Yet the state board rejected her license, saying she should have asked for permission from Pennsylvania to apply for licensure there before she began taking the tests five years earlier—before she knew where she would be working, and something that she says was stated nowhere in any available public information.
During the appeals process, Zewde, who is Black, says she had to submit samples of work to demonstrate her proficiency and was told to prepare for questions from the all-white board in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to prove her credentials, though she had already passed all of the exams. Finally, in the spring of 2021 she received the approval.
“I feel like I stand in a position of privilege, knowing that I am a professor and show some level of competence there,” she says. “Being put in that situation to be voted on by this board is a harrowing experience that I don’t wish on anyone, but I especially don’t wish it on young Black people or young people of color, or young people at all. Knowing that there are [so few] Black women licensed in landscape architecture in the country, it seems like something is wrong with this process. I never even questioned the idea of licensure, but in the form that it exists right now, I cannot defend it.” (In response, the Pennsylvania State Board of Landscape Architects cited the relevant regulatory statutes mandating its requirements.)
CLARB represents the state licensing boards that set policy and developed the universal examination that is used in every U.S. jurisdiction. Veronica Meadows, CLARB’s chief strategy officer, agrees that some reforms in the process could be helpful but defends the public interest in licensing.
“We know that landscape architecture does have a profound impact on people [and] the environment, and so we do push to defend the integrity of licensure in the public’s interest,” Meadows says. “We have obviously seen in the last six years much more significant movement for licensure reform.” She allows that reforms are needed but cautions, “Reducing barriers to entry of a licensed profession that doesn’t have a direct public safety outcome is a good thing. Smart, targeted licensing improvements are important, but those have been hijacked and taken to extreme.”
CLARB joined ARPL as a founding member, and ASLA joined soon thereafter. ARPL provides support to local chapters and boards when proposed legislation would undermine the board’s authority to protect the public interest and works with ASLA and other member organizations to track, monitor, and respond to the legislation. As of today, no landscape architecture licensing restriction has passed in any state, but several sunset regulations, reviews, and studies of the issue have been approved. ASLA and its local chapters remain vigilant, engaging in outreach, activating advocacy networks, and educating legislators about the profession and what landscape architects actually do.
In a sense, professional licensure belongs to a legacy of good multinational and transregional governance and oversight that suffers from being misunderstood and underappreciated, quietly preventing harm without fanfare.
“I have not ever seen what I have seen in the last 10 years,” Robert McGinnis says. “It’s scary to see how this may play out in the future. We don’t know how long we’re going to have to deal with wrong-minded, uninformed individuals who hate government and just simply want to destroy it.”
Stephen Zacks is an advocacy journalist, architecture critic, urbanist, and organizer based in New York City.