Flanked by three design colleagues and a guest architect, Elaine Kearney is listening to her team refine a presentation about proposed campus landscape improvements for San Antonio College (SAC). As happens in preliminary client meetings, some ideas resonate and others need tweaking. “What we’re doing today is taking a quick step back to look at the big picture,” she says.
The team is charged with creating a sense of place at a community college attended by commuter students who would benefit from new outdoor spaces, like a leafy pedestrian mall, outdoor dining terraces, and thoughtfully placed seating.
It is full circle in some ways for Kearney, an economics major, who enrolled briefly at SAC after graduating from Trinity to take courses in design and drafting as a way to transition into architecture. She ultimately enrolled in graduate school at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, one of only 20 students accepted in 2001 into the landscape architect program. She says her choice of master’s program was inspired in part by one of her minors, environmental studies. (The other was German.)
Now the San Antonio-based managing principal of TBG Partners, a landscape design and planning firm headquartered in Austin with practices in six cities, Kearney loves the variety and the challenges of her life as a landscape architect.
“I feel lucky to have found a profession that I am so passionate about,” she says. “Every single day, we are designing spaces that are important to people. If you could be transported anywhere, where would you go? Most people would say the beach, the mountains, or a favorite park. People connect with outdoor spaces because they are memorable.”
She articulates her field in this way: Architects design buildings, and landscape architects design the connective tissue. “We are designing interstitial spaces,” Kearney says. “A lively park or a great street environment doesn’t happen by itself. How much buffer and landscaping should there be? What are the right trees? How wide should the sidewalk be? If there’s an outdoor café, what is the street furniture that gives it a sense of place?”
All of this is done with an eye toward what is ecologically appropriate and sustainable, Kearney says. She adds that living in Portland, Ore., for a decade after grad school honed the ethos of caring deeply about the environment and designing spaces that honor and celebrate sustainability.
San Antonio turned out to be the perfect place for Kearney and her husband, an architect, to relocate after having two sons and seeking professional opportunities not too far from her family’s ranch in Weimar, Texas. She says she feels a “latent potential” in San Antonio because of its good building stock, historic neighborhoods, and quality of life.
A bonus was being able to reach out, as one of the “Butler Alumni,” directly to Trinity economics professor emeritus Richard Butler upon her return to the Alamo City. She also serendipitously met art history professor Kathryn O’Rourke, and they connected Kearney with Trinity’s urban studies program, where she taught a class in the spring of 2016, “Introduction to Landscape Design.”
The course was cross-listed with art history but also appealed to other liberal arts students, so her class consisted of majors from urban studies, art and art history, geosciences, and political science. “It made for an interesting seminar because there were aspects everyone could engage with. When we were discussing ecology, the geology student could talk about the Edwards Aquifer in greater depth than I could. When we talked about spaces of public protest and civic dialogue, the political science student could add to that,” she says.
Her objective was to get the students out into the city and, for example, to consider HemisFair as a vehicle for reshaping downtown and to think about the ecology of San Pedro Creek and the greenway trails system. For their final project, students took part in a design competition for the reimagining of Broadway.
The exercise shaped the future of at least one student who has since applied to graduate school in landscape architecture. “It has been rewarding to stay in touch with that student and others, and it helped me to appreciate the mentorship of Butler, who obviously isn’t a landscape architect, but nonetheless provided guidance when I set my sights on this career path,” Kearney says. “To be on the other side and to be able to give back was fantastic.”
Kearney made another Trinity connection, that of Gordon Bohmfalk, director of Campus Planning and Sustainability, who offered her a courtesy briefing on the University’s new master plan. As a landscape architect, she is pleased that Trinity will once again embrace the campus history of being located on a former quarry.
In San Antonio, Kearney is proud of a pro bono project to reimagine two parks east of downtown into a vibrant space with a nature-based playground, modern swings with breathtaking city views, a kiosk where paletas and coffee could be served, a neighborhood community center, and possibly a farmer’s market. The work at Dignowity and Lockwood Parks represents a “grassroots passion project” that she says has galvanized community support and engagement and was approved by voters in May as part of an $850 million bond package.
Joining creative forces with others embodies what Kearney does. “Landscape architecture is inherently collaborative,” she says. “As much as we are creative designers, we are also communicators and collaborators with other disciplines so our visions for outdoor space can be realized.”