They like to take on bold, transformative designs. They think in terms of complex environmental issues. And whether it’s turning an empty lot into an oasis, transforming a forgotten place into a destination or addressing large regional landscapes facing the challenges of climate change, they want to make a difference. These are exactly the aspirations that define the very first graduates of the University of Calgary’s new Master of Landscape Architecture (MLA) program.

Take, for example, Alexia Caron-Roy and Ben Hettinga, who will be among the first group of MLA students to receive their diplomas, at the June 5 convocation.

A year ago Caron-Roy, Hettinga and their MLA classmates generated headlines when they helped lead a project to revitalize an ignored parcel of land beneath the Fourth Avenue Flyover in Calgary’s downtown core. Teaming up with Grade 6 students at Bridgeland’s Langevin School, they developed fresh concepts to reimagine this space, envisioning a “green” street with vibrant public art, a boardwalk with rows of trees and inviting play areas.

“In landscape architecture, you work with different environments. You can have a really big impact on the world,” Caron-Roy explains.

“You’re trying to improve public spaces and leave a positive impact,” Hettinga adds.  

Then last fall the group put together a management plan, including the use of wind and solar facilities, to address regional-scale issues in the Western Irrigation District east of Calgary. And just this past semester they explored ways to revamp Dead Man’s Flats, a tiny pitstop on the way to Banff, into a more environmentally sustainable and memorable destination.

“These graduating students have embraced every project we’ve thrown at them. They really want to make the world a better place,” says Beverly Sandalack, a professor and associate dean in landscape and planning in the Faculty of Environmental Design (EVDS).

For Sandalack, seeing this first group graduate from the MLA program is a dream come true. In fall 2015, Sandalack and Nancy Pollock-Ellwand, then EVDS dean, launched the faculty’s MLA program — the first graduate program in landscape architecture to be introduced in Canada since 1980, and the first in Alberta. The three-year program, which includes an introductory year and two years of graduate studies, takes students through specialized courses dealing with theory, environmental and land use issues, and the use of technologies. Everything in the interdisciplinary program is focused on preparing future leaders in the landscape architecture profession.

“Our MLA students are not just being locally trained. They’re taking part in training that’s been designed for the 21st century,” Sandalack says.

Emphasis is on learning by doing

Caron-Roy and Hettinga say when they first heard about the university’s plans for an MLA program, they were immediately intrigued. Caron-Roy, then working at an architecture firm in Edmonton, was interested in expanding her design abilities. Hettinga, an artist in Saskatoon, wanted to combine his love of art with a social conscience. 

“I thought it would be exciting to be part of a new program that could build on my architecture background,” says Caron-Roy, who has a Bachelor of Architecture from Université Laval.

Hettinga, a Bachelor of Fine Arts graduate from the University of Saskatchewan, adds: “It checked all the right boxes — creating design but also focused on the outdoors.”

The two say the program has been an “intensive” learning experience. Through their courses, they’ve immersed themselves in a wide range of topics, everything from computer modelling, design theory, landscape architecture history, to landscape ecology and green infrastructure. A big focus each term has been a studio course in which they’ve applied newly gained skills to real-life projects.

“The emphasis has been on learning by doing. You go through the complete design process for a project, starting by analyzing the site and considering different landscape and planning choices,” Caron-Roy says.

Looking back three years later, they say EVDS has been a great place to study. They’ve thrived in a newer, contemporary program where students get individual attention. They’ve also enjoyed the opportunity to live in a city with many interesting landscapes, with the Rockies, foothills and prairies just a short drive away.

“Moving to Calgary was an easy move. I’ve definitely enjoyed living so close to the mountains,” Caron-Roy says.

Norwegian field trip a highlight

A standout highlight has also been a recent field trip to Norway to learn about landscape architecture in another northern climate. In February, the group of third-year MLA students spent a week and a half visiting Oslo, the capital of Norway, and Tromsø, a city north of the Arctic Circle. They attended lectures, worked with Norwegian students in a studio project in Tromsø and toured the cities and landscapes to see how locals embrace winter life through outdoor cafés, public parks and cross-country ski trails. 

“It was inspiring to see landscape designs in a country like Norway that takes design really seriously,” Hettinga says.

It’s this rich experience, blending many learning opportunities in Calgary and abroad, that ultimately has been defining for the students as they get ready to begin their careers.

“It’s really broadened my perspective of the design process,” says Caron-Roy, who plans to target job opportunities in Alberta.

Hettinga adds: “We’ve learned a lot about how to balance aesthetic ideas with social and environmental issues. I think that will help us to make better decisions as future landscape architecture professionals.”