2016 National Grant Competition for Emerging
Professionals in Landscape Architecture


Katie Swanson Katie Swanson
Big Muddy Workshop, Inc. | Omaha, NE
University of Texas at Austin

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What made you become interested in Landscape Architecture?
I grew up on a farm, and have always had an interest in plants. My family was always very ecologically-minded, letting the grasses and wildflowers go to seed before we mowed the ditches, and using chemical fertilizers and pesticides very sparingly. My grandfather stewarded a remnant prairie near our farm for nearly 50 years, before it was taken over by the Wachiska Audubon Society. From an early age I wanted to go into Biology or Architecture, and landed on Landscape architecture as the best of both worlds. I received my undergraduate degree in Architecture, but took some Landscape Architecture classes, and decided to get my master’s degree in Landscape Architecture.

What one thing inspires you and your designs?
I try to look at site analysis and the client’s needs before coming up with a concept, rather than impose a concept onto the site. The design should relate directly to the site. In general, I am inspired by patterns in nature, such as the Golden Ratio, Fibonacci Sequence, and fractals. The structure and order in the natural world is amazing.

What do you think is the biggest challenge Landscape Architects face today?
The biggest problem that I see for Landscape Architects is that the general public doesn’t know what we do. People hear ‘landscape architect’ and they imagine someone planting shrubs in their yard. Landscape Architects can do so much more, and we need to educate people, even some architects and engineers, on all the different aspects of site design we are capable of working on.

What is the most important lesson you have learned so far in your career?
The most important thing I have learned is to be willing to listen and learn from criticism. So much of our skills and knowledge are learned on the job, from people who have been working in this field longer than we have, or who have a different viewpoint. If we are not willing to embrace criticism, we will never grow professionally.

Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
I can see myself working at a similar firm to where I am now, a small firm with mostly public or quasi-public clients, working on public projects such as parks, bike trails, campuses, green infrastructure, etc. I could also see myself transitioning into a public role, such as in a community Parks department.


Katie Swanson
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What change would you make to your region if money were no object?

Create 'pocket prairies' in the corners of center pivot irrigated farm fields, to recover up to a fifth of our native prairie ecosystems.

Farming is a way of life in the Great Plains region. The Jeffersonian grid divides the landscape into a patchwork of fields, crisscrossed by rivers, railroads, and highways. To keep the fields green and the crops growing, farmers draw irrigation water from the Ogallala Aquifer and from nearby rivers and streams. The fields are irrigated in one of two ways: irrigation pipe at the ends of crop rows or center pivot irrigation.

Center pivots are fixed at one end, in the middle of the field, and travel a circular path through the field. This creates a circle of well-irrigated crops inscribed within the square of the field. Farmers often plant the entire field in crops, but the crops in the corners often suffer from inadequate irrigation, and produce lower yields. On an average quarter-section field (160 acres), over a fifth of the planted crops are outside of the pivot's irrigation area. What can be done to better utilize these inadequately irrigated corners?

My proposal is that these underutilized corners be turned into 'pocket prairies!' planted in native grasses and forbs. These pocket prairies would serve as habitat for beneficial insects and wildlife, contribute to ecological diversity within the region, and perform essential ecosystem services that have been lost with the growth of industrialized agriculture. Since native grasses and forbs require less water than row crops, they would thrive in the drier areas the center pivots are not able to irrigate. During times of excess rainfall or over-irrigation, the deep roots of the prairie plants would help to infiltrate the excess water into the soil and recharge the groundwater. In addition, the native plants would help to filter out suspended solids and some dissolved nutrients from the water that passes through the layer of thatch near the surface of the ground. Combined with the vegetated swales at the edges of the fields, these pocket prairies would create migration corridors for wildlife, as well.

This project is something that could be implemented on a local level, or scaled up to a regional program. Many local groups are already working towards restoring cropland to prairie across the region, and would be an invaluable resource. The pocket prairie project could be incorporated into the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays farmers a yearly rental fee to plant their fields with plant species that improve the quality and health of the environment. The long-term CRP contracts could easily be adapted to the smaller pieces of land at the field corners.

With the help of local farmers, environmental groups, and government programs, the Great Plains could reclaim up to 20% of its irrigated crop land to be returned to native prairie. The improvements to wildlife habitat, ecological diversity, and ecosystem services like groundwater recharge and erosion control could profoundly impact the region as a whole. With pocket prairies, we can help bring the benefits of native ecosystems back to the Great Plains.