Landscape architect Karen Verpeet: Resilient landscapes
After 18 years with ecological consulting firm H. T. Harvey & Associates, landscape architect Karen Verpeet, ASLA (MLA ’03) decided to make a career move—largely inspired by the effects of climate change. She now serves as the Resilient Landscapes Program Managing Director at the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI).
In this interview, Verpeet shares the kinds of impacts she hopes to make through her work at SFEI, and recounts a project that she found especially rewarding while in her former position. She also recalls her time at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS), and why the Master of Landscape Architecture program (MLA) was a “perfect fit.”
What attracted you to your current position as the Resilient Landscapes Program Managing Director at SFEI? What do you find most exciting about your new role?
My time at H. T. Harvey & Associates was very rewarding, and I learned so much from my co-workers and from the project work, which ranges from habitat restoration in wildland settings to the integration of ecology in urban settings. That said, over the last several years, with the effects of climate change ever more obvious throughout the West (drought, wildfires, etc), I felt a pull back to my original love of the environment on a broader scale. At SFEI, I am hoping to create better linkages between scientists and practitioners, including landscape architects, planners, arborists, horticulturalists in the plant nursery trade, engineers, policy makers, etc. They are making on-the-ground decisions every day that affect land use—and it’s critical that they have the science/data/tools they need to create change within their industry to move towards more sustainable, nature-based, multi-benefit solutions. And the development of these solutions needs to fundamentally include communities, especially historically underserved communities, to ensure equitable, inclusive, and just outcomes. I am very much looking forward to working collaboratively with SFEI staff, communities, and external partners to identify and pursue opportunities, and to work through the inevitable challenges…all hopefully resulting in positive change.
Can you tell us about the kind of work that SFEI does?
SFEI’s mission is to deliver visionary science that empowers people to revitalize nature in our communities. We provide independent science to assess and improve the health of the waters, wetlands, and wildlife in rural and urban landscapes of the San Francisco Bay, the Delta, and beyond. SFEI is a boundary organization at the interface between science and policy, recognized nationally for our ability to build consensus to support effective decision-making. We deliver data, technology, and tools that empower government, civic, and business leaders to create cost-effective solutions for complex environmental issues.
The Resilient Landscapes Program, which I co-manage, includes approximately 30 scientists (ecologists, geomorphologists, hydrologists), GIS specialists, and a few landscape architects, planners, and engineers. As an interdisciplinary team, we develop innovative ecosystem restoration and management strategies to re-establish and sustain essential ecosystem functions and services. In collaboration with SFEI’s other programs—Clean Water and Environmental Informatics—these strategies help integrate natural and human infrastructure to create systems that are more adaptive to climate change and other stressors. We work on projects addressing urban heat island remediation, flood risk reduction (at the shore and along riparian corridors), access to nature and the corresponding health benefits, etc.
Is there a project you’ve worked on that may have been particularly challenging—but ultimately rewarding?
One of my favorite projects at H. T. Harvey & Associates was the Charleston Retention Basin, which included marsh and riparian habitat expansion and improvements to a nature trail surrounding the basin. The project was a public-private partnership between Google and the City of Mountain View, and included a high level of engagement with local nonprofit organizations. The large number of stakeholders, with differing agendas and opinions, required multiple years of planning and design. The collaboration ultimately resulted in a great blend of expanded/improved habitat quality and public access (the latter including pedestrian bridges, a boardwalk, an overlook, and an interpretive program). Overall, it was a wonderful example of both a successful process and outcome for a multi-stakeholder, multi-benefit project.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience at SEAS? Do you feel the MLA program prepared you well for your career?
I had a wonderful experience at SEAS—I knew as soon as I visited U-M and learned about the MLA program that it was the perfect fit for me. I was looking for a way to link my interest and background in environmental science and ecological restoration to real-world, tangible projects. I learned how to think critically and apply knowledge learned to other design studios, and ultimately to my professional career. Approaching graduation, I was connected with Joe Howard, a program alum from several years prior, and I joined the newly created landscape architecture group at H. T. Harvey & Associates just several weeks after graduating.
Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?
SEAS is a wonderful program, and I have been fortunate to keep in touch with former professors and peers (many of whom serve as leaders in the public, private and nonprofit sectors throughout the Bay Area and the country). Keep up the good work!