Wal Smith, director of Place Design Group, was awarded a fellowship with the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects in 2015 for his commitment and contribution to the industry.

Smith has over 35 years’ experience in the landscape industry and over 20 years’ experience in tropical North Queensland.

Architecture and Design spoke to him about what winning awards means to him, why it’s important to listen to the client, but also respect the environment, and how today’s risk adverse society is having an impact on landscape design.

What does receiving a fellowship with the AILA mean to you?

It is certainly a great honour to receive the fellowship recognition. It is nice to be recognised by my peers for some of the significant works and contributions I have made throughout my career.

It does make me look back on the projects I have been involved with and how appreciative I am of the clients who gave me the opportunity to undertake the works. It also makes me realise I must be getting a bit old with all the projects I am lucky enough to have been involved with!

When you first started your career, did you ever dream of receiving this accolade?

Certainly not. To be honest, I didn’t dream of receiving it up until the announcement. When I started my career in private practice, after a decade in government, it was a time of great opportunity, major resorts were being built, major public parks such as Southbank in Brisbane were being undertaken and I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. Being involved in such large scale works gives you the confidence and skills to enable you to undertake similar large scale works when the opportunity arises further along in your career. 

Moving to North Queensland and settling in Townsville for the past 20 plus years has certainly provided me the opportunity for a vast range of private and public realm projects – from those that are regionally significant to the very small projects – but they all are important and I have always tried to do my best to achieve a great outcome, no matter the size.

What is your approach to landscape projects?

The most important thing is to listen to what your client wants. Sometimes they don’t know and that’s all right, because you have the experience and are there to help them along the journey. But you must first and foremost be clear about who your client is and be respectful of their wishes and their budget. 

It is important to be innovative, but equally to keep it simple and thoughtfully designed. It is uncommon these days that the project budget allows for ‘gold plating,’ so you need to carefully consider where best to spend the budget for maximum effect.

Certainly the only thing more important than your client is the environment, but today there are generally adequate laws and a desire by most clients to respect and preserve the environment wherever possible. As landscape architects we are trained to always consider and respect the environment and early on in my career that was more of a battle, but thankfully that type of thinking is more mainstream today and most clients are attuned to their environmental responsibilities.

How has this approach changed over the course of your career?

Not a whole lot, from my perspective. I ran my own company in Townsville for 14 years and thankfully when I merged with Place Design Group my philosophy meshed well with theirs and so we continue to put the client’s wishes and the environment at the top of the list. 

It is important to be innovative, but following trends is not always the correct course of action. It is far more important to ensure that your client’s project is noticed, but not at the expense of being wasteful with the budget allocation.

Is there an aspect of landscape design that has changed over the years that you wished hadn't changed?

These days there is a lot of risk analysis applied to most projects and whist there are many areas that this seems to be impacting the one that I find most frustrating is the planting of large shade trees, particularly in the dry tropics of Townsville and surrounding regions. Too many times we were required to not put trees in at all because of underground services or are constantly being requested to put in the smallest growing tree we can get away with. 

Reasons such as concerns for cyclones, initially getting in the road of signage, potential damage to infrastructure or any number of excuses are put against the very real social, environmental and visual benefits we receive from planting large shade trees. Most, if not all, the famous and many not so famous cities of the world gain a significant part of their reputation because of the planning of their forefathers in planting street trees and providing significant parkland with substantial urban forests. Yet this basic philosophy seems to be sadly diminishing these days due to an overly risk adverse society that spends too much time looking for perceived problems and not spending enough time focusing on the real benefits that shade trees provide.

If you weren't a landscape designer, what would you be doing?

It’s a bit late in my career to be thinking about changing professions, but prior to studying to become a landscape architect I spent a fair bit of time working on a farm and always enjoyed the rural lifestyle. Whilst I never went back to the land, it was certainly a varied and very enjoyable way of life. I wouldn’t have been unhappy with that type of lifestyle, but certainly have no regrets about the path I chose. I am always doing something different in the landscape profession and these days I really cherish the days, or in some cases hours, that I spend designing.