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Two Chinese Landscape Architecture Students

China Meets Idaho

Cultural and Design Diversity:
Landscape Architecture Master's Degree Has Global Appeal

By Joni Kirk

With a bachelor's degree in computer science, the last master's degree program Yinghao Wang expected to find a fit was landscape architecture.

"I came to America to learn more about the design area," says Wang.

But his best friend from high school, Lu Ding, who was working on his master of landscape architecture (MLA) degree in the University of Idaho's College of Art and Architecture, encouraged him to look at the advanced degree.

"Surprisingly, it fit with my interests," says Wang. "I'm full of creativity, and I have a lot of ideas for designs. This degree program was a new idea for me, but it is very good for me. I really enjoy the graphic design side of landscape architecture."

Wang's experience is not unique, according to Steve Drown, professor of landscape architecture and program chair. In fact, it fits with the University of Idaho's increasingly interdisciplinary offerings.

"People find passions or new directions at different points in their lives," he says. "We developed the master of landscape architecture to be a three year program that encompasses the basics, and develops and finesses the skills to the terminal degree."

The Idaho's MLA is different than other landscape architecture programs in the country because it focuses on the intermountain west bioregion's watershed and ecosystems as the basis for design. Students in the program benefit from studying the impact of bioregion on site design, as well as incorporating the use of technology – such as virtually technology and design – which reflects the changing profession.

Ding came to the U.S. to study because landscape architecture has been taught and implemented here for many years, while in China it's a relatively new concept. Specifically, he sought out degree offered by the university's College of Art and Architecture because it focuses on the roles of the bioregional and cultural landscape as determining factors in landscape architecture research and practice.

"People in China tend to think of landscape architecture as gardening," he says. "But landscape architecture is more than that: it's the connection between architecture, the environment and urbanism."

In addition to teaching the science and theory, the MLA program is a partner on the University of Idaho's Building Sustainable Communities Initiative, which provides hands-on community outreach and development opportunities for students, along with bioregional planning and design. As part of this initiative, students like Ding and Wang have been involved in comprehensive plan development for new waterfront areas in Priest River and Lewiston, natural habitat restoration on Moscow's Paradise Creek, and a garden for the university's Native American Student Center.

"We encourage students to build on the resources of integrated design," says Drown. "So our landscape architecture students work very closely with students and faculty in other disciplines, such as architecture, art, bioregional design and geographic information systems."

MLA students also can take advantage of specialty certificate programs in bioregional design, GIS or entrepreneurship, which may build upon a bachelor's degree in another discipline.

"Landscape architecture grows increasingly complex with new opportunities afforded through and increasing emphasis on science and technology," said Stephen Drown, department chair and professor of landscape architecture. "There are many wonderful opportunities and challenges for our students."

The MLA program also has a study abroad requirement. "The benefit is that the practice of landscape architecture is increasingly diverse," said Drown. "Exposure and immersion in other cultures is critical. An MLA student finds challenge as well as meaning through the immersive international experience particularly when the cultural experience is unlike their own."

"Furthermore current economic conditions have shifted the nexus of professional practice to other parts of the world where landscape architects partner with international consultants on complex land and urban planning projects at various landscape scales.

Wang and Ding hope to put their professional degrees to work in the U.S. prior to returning to China, but ultimately they hope to return home and share their knowledge with others, both professionally and as educators.

"Whether we stay here or go back, we benefit," says Wang. "But if we go back to China and share these new ideas and knowledge, it's good for us, the people and the country."