Landscape Architect to Watch: Nina Chase

“Landscape architecture needs to make a bigger splash,” Nina Chase says confidently. She should know. Chase is already making waves in the industry, having earned her bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture at West Virginia University (WVU), her master’s degree in the same at Harvard University and having joined Boston’s Sasaki Associates in November 2012. Her work of better integrating the natural landscape with the urban world is making her a frontrunner in her field. Oh, and there’s one other thing. She’s 25 years old.

gb&d: What drew you to landscape architecture?

Nina Chase: As a kid, I was interested in design and spaces. My family always took notice of good design. We would drive around neighborhoods, and my parents would say, “That’s a nice house,” and I would mimic, “nice house, nice house,” from the backseat.

When I got to WVU, I thought I wanted to go into restoration and preservation. Then, I enrolled in “Introduction to Landscape Architecture.” It merged architecture, ecosystems, biology, engineering, hydrology—I was hooked.

gb&d: Why go on to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) after earning your bachelor’s degree at WVU? The two programs are so different.

Chase: WVU did a great job at teaching and showing its students how to design landscape architecture for people, communities, and spaces. I knew I had a good base coming out of WVU. I specifically wanted to learn more about theory, and I was interested in urban systems, but I wanted to stay in landscape architecture because of ecology. The GSD gave me the chance to dive into all three areas. I learned so much from the incredibly intelligent people who are there.

At Harvard’s Graduate School of Design,  Nina Chase’s final studio explored the creation of a “Slip District” along the Chicago River’s South Branch. A new edge condition includes a riverwalk, kayak lanes, riparian buffer, and restored habitats.
At Harvard’s Graduate School of Design,
Nina Chase’s final studio explored the creation of a “Slip District” along the Chicago River’s South Branch. A new edge condition includes a riverwalk, kayak lanes, riparian buffer, and restored habitats.

gb&d: Sasaki Associates, much like the GSD, takes an interdisciplinary approach to design. What do you enjoy most about working there?

Chase: The level of collaboration is amazing. It’s a big firm, which is intriguing to me, but also very intimidating. Everybody works together and brings their expertise to the table. I work alongside engineers, planners, architects—the collaborative approach pushes all the fields forward.

Sasaki also supports individual research and encourages teaching, which is very exciting. Right now I’m working with Ruth Siegel and Chris Merritt on a project that examines sea-level rise in Boston and its impact on the built environment. This past summer, we worked with Sasaki’s interns to propose design solutions for the city.

gb&d: Have you always been interested in hydrology?

Chase: My senior year at WVU was the first time I investigated hydrology. My thesis focused on storm-water management, and I made hydrology my topic of interest at the GSD. For my final studio, led by Phil Enquist at SOM, the class looked at the south branch of the Chicago River. Chicago has all these industrial spaces along the river that are no longer in use, so we asked, “How can we repurpose the land?” I chose the Pilsen industrial corridor and designed a water research center where people could come and study fresh-water resource management. I reversed the old shipping slips to accept storm water. Each slip became an example of a different storm-water filtration system.

At Sasaki, I’m researching water’s place in an urban context. It’s a key issue for our generation of landscape architects. Sea levels are rising, and as we continue to expand our cities, we have to make room for water. Hydrology must be considered in plans for new spaces and where infrastructure already exists.

gb&d: Aside from hydrology, what most excites you when you think about landscape architecture’s future?

Chase: Advocacy. Landscape architects have the engineering, ecological, and cultural know-how to help lead urban design conversations and to advocate for landscape urbanism. The American Society of Landscape Architects has been pivotal in advocating for the profession. Landscape architecture is becoming better known, and we’re coming together and engaging other professions, like urban design, environmental science, and real estate development. Landscape architects are breaking down professional barriers, and the community is only growing stronger.