Working With The Rain

Each year, the State of Texas requires landscape architects to complete 12 hours of training and education, rightfully thinking it will improve the practice of the profession.

Don't let the engineers rain on your parade!

So recently, I spent nearly an entire day continuing that professional education. The training on that day was about storm water management through bioretention, a.k.a. "rain gardening".

And I left knowing I was just afforded an opportunity to learn and apply a new practice in the latter half of my career.

But is this rain gardening concept really that new?

Please know I hope to restrain many of my comments on the bioretention concept, but this I will offer: Get ready--the storm water management concept is coming to a watershed near you very soon. And to that I say, "It’s about time."

That became apparent after listening to instructors from the Extension Services of two universities explain the workings of rain gardens. They spoke to a room full of professionals, enthusiasts, and activists.

The day also reinforced the same take-away opinion gathered from two prior seminars attended on the same subject over the past 18 months. My concluding question after each of these sessions is this: Why are engineers teaching this to landscape architects?

Over lunch with an engineering colleague, I shared my professional concerns of landscape architects not being more active and visible in promoting this concept. After all, it is a technique our profession has practiced for more than a century--that of dealing aesthetically and functionally with storm water through the landscape.

Indeed, the idea is not new to many of us, but documenting the mechanics of it all perhaps is. My friend just gave me a deserving "well, what are you waiting for" look.

In a somewhat related example, last year I served on a steering committee for a regional LID (Low Impact Development) design competition that would incorporate many of the rain garden and bioretention concepts. The volunteer committee was comprised of a diverse group of professionals, each of us bringing unique experiences to the table.

But when the competition got under way, we found it was engineers--and their engineering firms--that took the predominant role in the solution presentation of the competition. Again I ask, why are engineers taking the lead in this practice?

My questions are not so much about engineers doing what might typically be considered a landscape architect's work, as it is about noting that landscape architects are being lackluster in pursuing obvious opportunities to showcase our professional worth in the public's eye (at least around these parts of Texas).

Is having a reservation that the academic folks are seemingly making all this bioretention process complicated attributing to landscape architects accepting a subsidiary role at the design table? Perhaps the complication fits too well with the engineering persona, thus effectively stiff-arming landscape architects.

It may be a questionable attitude I tote in caring less about “exceedance probability”, “irreducible concentrations, “depressionable characteristics” or “saprolite conditons” of bioretention design than just wanting to know the layman's version of how the dang thing works!

I will challenge my fellow landscape architects to be more assertive in this emerging industry. As a profession, we have history on our side and vast experience steeped in non-technical practicality (I like to call it our common sense when dealing with nature).

If landscape architects settle for a complementary role in bioretention design, engineers might very well ask for a planting plan that even those creative designers amongst us will be unable to lessen the drab aesthetics of a functionally engineered drainage solution.

And based on this recent seminar, the engineers will not just ask for that planting plan, but will dictate to us the what, where, and how many plants are needed for "their" garden. If we are passive in serving this industry and opportunity, we are at risk of becoming nothing more than a drafting service with a seal to our esteemed engineering professionals.

So rest assured, I am not starting an engineering conspiracy theory against the landscape architects with this post. Most of my engineering associates have no interest in taking my job...I think.

No better time than now to start planning our role in responding to the next rain event on each of our professional horizons. Let’s rain garden; let’s bioretain!

Have a great weekend, everyone.

Tim May is a professional landscape architect and LEED AP for TNP in Forth Worth, Texas. He can be reached via email at or by twitter at @TMay82