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one firm, many voices // susan cita

Susan Cita

Not many people can say they have run 12 marathons, are a recipient of the President’s Volunteer Service Award or survived close contact with a mama bear and cub, but TBG’s Susan Cita can say she’s done it all.

Susan was born outside Chicago, grew up in Indiana, and has her family to thank for many of her major passions, like philanthropy and horticulture, that were instilled at a young age. Her grandmother was a gardener and introduced Susan to the world of plants early on; while her mom taught her, by example, how to give back to the community through volunteering.

Susan has been at TBG for over 20 years, and during her time in the landscape architecture world she has witnessed an evolution from strictly hand drawing and tight scope limits to a wild wonderscape of solving environmental, social and community challenges using myriad approaches and communication tools. She is a significant and joyful presence within TBG’s Houston office, as well as the city itself! October 1st was officially designated as Susan Cita Day by Mayor Annise Parker in 2013. Keep reading to learn more about the incomparable Susan Cita.

1. How did you find landscape architecture?
At the age of 12, I started working evenings and summers at a retail nursery to help supplement my family’s income. Even though it was more of a sales job, it was wonderful because I really enjoyed working with people and caring for the plants. When I was 16, a landscape architect came to my high school and introduced me to the profession. That evening I went home and told my mother I was going to be a landscape architect. She asked what it was, and I explained to her it involved people, drawing and plants – all things that are my passions.

While still in high school, I was very lucky to have a vocational horticulture mentor, Mr. Pitts, who had a degree in horticulture from Purdue University. When I was 17, he took me to Purdue for a campus visit to investigate the landscape architecture program and potential scholarships. That experience paved the way for me to become a Purdue BSLA graduate ‘86 myself.

2. What inspires you?
The natural environment! My travels and experiencing the cultures around me inspire me the most. Design and construction techniques and working with others during the design process are also inspiring.

I try to travel twice a year to experience a new place or adventure – usually including a visit to a World Heritage Site. Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska and Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Australia are two of my favorites, as well as the San Antonio Missions here in Texas.

3. How is the role of landscape architecture evolving?
During my career the field of landscape architecture has evolved immensely from hand drawing to technology, especially in terms of production and the transfer of information. We used to have to print out hard copies of plans and FedEx them across the world. With my international work, for instance, and it would take weeks for drawings to be in the hands of a client. Now, information is transferred almost instantly. We can easily have multiple layers removed or added through Revit, CAD, etc. These changes have made things so much easier, but we do still have the challenges of encouraging pen to paper early on in the process. That is a skill that is so vital to design evolution and communication.

4. How does good landscape architecture improve the world?
Landscape architecture is a great profession because it incorporates art, science and culture. It’s taking aspects of creative design, a given space, client vision, budget, community input, and then figuring out how to benefit the end user. The most rewarding thing to me is seeing a client smile at the end of a project, shaking a contractor’s hand and witnessing someone connect to nature in a space we’ve created.

5. What are the biggest challenges facing our industry today?
The challenge we’re facing right now has to do with the continued decrease in the number of students in landscape architecture programs. And while there is a limited number of landscape architecture graduates every year, the demand is growing. Let’s just say it’s a supply chain issue. Additionally, explaining to the public what landscape architects actually do is a challenge to create that initial career interest in landscape architecture.

6. What is the most common misconception about landscape architecture?
The most common misconception about the field is that we “shrub it up.” That we’re glorified gardeners. One time in the Heathrow airport while being questioned by customs security, I mentioned “I’m a landscape architect”. His demeanor immediately switched from being no-nonsense to friendly, and he began to ask me about a struggling rose bush in his backyard. I often explain my work to people as “we design places” or “we design parks and trails.”

7. What motivates or excites you at work?
Working with a wonderful variety of professionals! I also appreciate that no two days are the same which really motivates me. Some days I am meeting with a client, helping to facilitate a design, and other days I’m working with a contractor trying to solve a field issue. Mentoring the younger staff, answering questions and sharing my knowledge excites me, too. A benefit of being long in the tooth is that I’ve most likely ‘been there done that.’ I can teach others from my own bumps and bruises.

In the more senior years of my profession, I really enjoy mentoring individuals. I’m so happy to see new faces with aspirations and a plethora of creativity. I’m energized by the people around me and their enthusiasm. Although I do still have my grumpy days with dealing with some construction issues.

8. What are you passionate about outside the office?
I’m passionate about volunteering. I serve on multiple nonprofit boards including Houston Community ToolBank and The Houston Area Road Runner Association. I’m very involved in charity races for Autism awareness, the Houston Marathon and serve as Volunteer Chair for the Bayou City Classic – the oldest 10k in the state of Texas that benefits Houston’s parks and trails.

I’m also involved with Homeless & Orphaned Pets Endeavor and have been a foster mom. Felines are another passion of mine. I have three spoiled cats, from 4-years old to 21+.

As for travel, I went to Katmai National Park in Alaska this year. It started with Bear School 101, a 15-minute bear safety class. I spent four days photographing and hiking trails in Coastal Brown Bear country and watching how they live and interact amongst each other. There were a couple of very close bear trail encounters, one where I came around a corner about only 30’ away from a very large mama bear and her cub, but I got out okay by following my Bear School 101 training.

9. What is the most important thing a landscape architecture project can contribute to a community?
We need to listen to the community and their needs, and work in conjunction with them through design to create something that solves a need and addresses any issues. I think bringing art and the environment to a project is so important. The best thing we can do is listen and really care.

10. What is a challenge you have experienced in your career and how did you face it?
I faced challenges working as a young woman in landscape architecture. I learned to make sure my voice was heard – not necessarily by shouting but using my voice in thoughtful, fair, and intentional ways.

There is a funny story from when I was in Jamaica doing construction observation for a resort hotel and 2 golf courses. One afternoon, I was doing my daily field report for the hotel, when the security chief ran into the office and told me all women were being evacuated because of a labor riot on the construction site next door. I told him directly, “I’m not a woman, I’m the landscape architect” so that he would leave me alone to complete my report. But, after the second volley of gunshots, I realized I could probably finish my report back at the hotel where I was staying. We then jumped in a JEEP with armed guards to evacuate cross country to safety. And yes, I did finish my daily field report shortly after getting back to my hotel.

11. What has been a pivotal project for you?
Early in my career, I spent 8 years working on the planning, design, and construction observation of the mixed-use complex of Portomaso in St. Julians, Malta. It’s rewarding to see Portomaso become a vibrant destination which includes a marina, beach club, international hotel, condos, commercial area, and the first high-rise building in Malta.

In the 90’s, I also worked on the planning and landscape design for several Egyptian hotel, resort, golf, and mixed-use community projects and was fascinated with respecting the ancient history verses the process of modernization of the country. Dealing with establishing nurseries, working with local contractors, learning desert plant communities, and trying new construction techniques was especially memorable.

In Texas, The Groves has been one of my favorite projects to be involved with from the conception. Throughout the design to construction process, I utilized my knowledge of landscape architecture, horticulture, and arboriculture to best see the design come to reality. I can’t put into words how rewarding and incredible it has been to witness an arbor-centric community grow, from when it was just a twinkle in the developer’s eye and design team’s inspiration to a new neighborhood based on nature to provide a great quality of life for all those living in The Groves.

*images sourced from Onboard Online, Tripadvisor and Voyages Aqua Terra