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Landscape Architect/Ecologist Interview

Meet Tory Christensen, a landscape ecologist and project manager for Great River Greening.

Please share your name, title, and a description of your job duties.
My name is Tory Christensen. I'm a landscape ecologist and project manager for Great River Greening, a non-profit based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Great River Greening specializes in ecological restoration, primarily in the Twin Cities metro area. We do a lot of work with endangered species habitat and clean water projects. We also focus a great deal on educational and volunteer aspects. For instance, we have over 2,000 volunteers who assist with our restoration projects. That's really how we got a lot of our work done — through volunteer engagement, so it's really important. We not only get the help of volunteers, but we're also able to educate the public about the importance of this work through our volunteer events. They give us the opportunity to explain why these endangered species and rare plant and animal communities are important to our state and to our well-being in general.

As a landscape ecologist, I'm responsible for the day-to-day restoration activities related to my projects, which involves scoping out which restoration work needs to get done on a particular project, whether that's prairie restoration or woodland restoration. I'm the one outlining the processes and deciding what needs to get done. So, I make maps and design habitats, such as outlining which trees or shrubs need to be planted and what's appropriate for that particular plant community. In my other role, as a project manager, I use Microsoft Office and Excel to determine the scope of a project, come up with a budget, get funding allocated, and then follow that budget as the project unfolds. A big part of what I do as a project manager is staying within the budget and making sure the client is happy at every stage of the process as we restore a particular site.

I have a master's degree in landscape architecture, which a lot of people associate specifically with landscaping, but that perception is often far from the truth. Landscape architecture is a very diverse profession. It includes everything from urban design — such as designing a plaza in downtown St. Paul — to residential design work. Although residential design work is a portion of what some landscape architects do, there are also people like me who focus more on activities like environment and ecological restoration. This work focuses on doing work on rivers, prairies, wetlands, and woodland restoration.

I also consider myself an ecological designer because I actually design habitat for rare and endangered species. I implement practices that improve water quality, such as designing rain gardens that capture storm-water run-off before it gets into a lake or stream where it might negatively impact aquatic life and habitat.

What is a typical day like at your job?
I usually get into the office around eight or nine in the morning, and I typically work an eight-hour day. If I'm up against a project deadline, I may end up working a longer day than that, but that's rare. I usually work 40-hour work weeks.

Over the course of a year, I spend about 50 percent of my time indoors in front of my computer answering e-mails, making phone calls, writing proposals, soliciting funding, and doing things like that. I spend the other 50 percent of my time in the field. Some days, I might spend the whole day in the field; sometimes just an hour or two. But generally my time is split between the office and the field. When in the field, I might be working alongside my crew or doing a vegetation analysis — identifying plants — or scoping out a project and determining which species of plants and animals exist at a particular site and outlining restoration strategies that we'll use to actually do the restoration work. When it comes time to actually install a project, I'm usually out with the field crew determining where trees should be planted or — in certain circumstances — where trees should be cut down to open up a prairie for certain grassland species.

How did you get started working in this field?
I grew up in a rural community in Northwest Iowa, and my father was an avid fisherman and hunter. I was around a lot of wildlife growing up, and I grew up on a lake, so I spent a lot of time as a kid catching turtles and frogs. That's how I became interested in the environmental field. I knew from an early age that I wanted to work outside. That led me to an undergraduate degree in environmental science and ecology.

When I completed my undergraduate degree, I traveled for a while. I bought a VW camper-van, drove to California, lived out of my van, and just tooled around for a couple of years. Eventually, I ended up in Duluth, Minnesota and realized I was at a point where I wanted to use my degree. So I decided to look for a job in Minneapolis. Around that time, I saw an orange construction fence near Minnehaha Creek where a crew was doing river restoration work, and I had known right from the beginning that that's the kind of work I wanted to be doing. So I walked up to the crew, asked about the project, and asked who they worked for. Then, I called the company, introduced myself, got an interview, and two days later they offered me a job. So that was my first job in the field.

I started as a laborer who planted trees and shrubs, and it was a union position. I ended up going from a laborer to a foreman in a very short time primarily because I had the degree, but I think I also won the respect of the people I worked for. So they gave me my own projects to install. For the next two-and-a-half years, I was doing everything from prairie restorations to stream bank restoration plantings to erosion control practices to creating rain gardens. So I was in the field installing those types of projects. It was hard work. We worked 12 to 14-hour days, working hard all summer and getting laid off in the winter. During that time, I was in contact with several professional landscape architects. I quickly realized that landscape architecture was the field I wanted to be in, and that I needed to go back to school to get a master's degree. So, I took the time to get a master's degree. And since I had a background in ecological science and experience working in the field, it really helped me get my first job once I left the graduate program. And the firm that hired me was the landscape architecture firm that first hired me to work along the banks of the Minnehaha Creek!

What sort of training or education do you have?
I have an undergraduate degree in environmental science and ecology — a double major — with an emphasis on water resources science. And then I worked for four years in the field before getting my master's degree in landscape architecture. I also have two primary certifications. I'm a certified arborist through the International Society of Arboriculture. I took that test to add credential to what I do within landscape architecture since I do a lot of work with trees and woodland restoration. And that certification helped make me more marketable to potential employers. My other certification is that I'm an accredited professional in LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It's a certification offered through the U.S. Green Building Council. This certificate is helpful to me because as a landscape architect/ecologist, I do a lot of work alongside engineer and architects. I'm heavily involved in the outside aspects of buildings in terms of how the building is placed in the landscape: its stormwater impact (taking into consideration the impervious surfaces of the roof and parking lot since they impact water quality downstream) as well as the general layout of the site (such as not putting a new building in an ecologically sensitive area like a wetland). Landscape architects can have a huge role in the green building process.

What sort of tools, machines, or equipment do you use regularly?
Microsoft Office is a staple of everything I do. I use Word, Excel, and PowerPoint a lot. I also do work with Arc-Map GIS to look at large landscapes. Often, we're dealing with large acreages of habitat — maybe 10 to 300 acres of restoration areas at a time — so we need to be able to create maps in order to strategize about where we'll do the restoration work. We'll use Arc-Map to delineate these areas to communicate graphically what we're going to do at a particular site. Along with that we also use Auto-CAD, a drafting program, to delineate areas and dimensions. It enables us to save a drawing over time. With turnover in an office, drawings and maps that have project information recorded over time are useful to ensure continuity of projects. I also use Adobe Creative Suite a lot as well — Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign — which are also graphic illustration programs. I find that those are particularly helpful for me as a designer who has a landscape architecture background. It's really a useful niche to have experience with those programs, because it's not something a lot of master's programs cover — the design aspect. Many programs focus more on the science aspect. So the design skills are really useful because graphic communication on paper — or a map — is hugely important to communicate your ideas and get others on board for projects. For instance, sometimes I'll take an aerial photo of a site I'm working on, import it into Illustrator in order to create an easy-to-understand map with arrows, symbols, and text explaining the project to stakeholders.

Tools that my crew uses while in the field include — for instance, for a prairie restoration — a tractor, a seeder behind the tractor, and a whole spectrum of other implements. We may have tilled the site to prep it for planting. We also put the seed in a seed drill designed specifically for prairie seed. We do some controlled burning that has a whole suite of tools and gear like an all-terrain vehicle, drip torches for the fuel, and protective gear. And a lot of the work is simply good old-fashioned, back-breaking manual work with shovels, rakes, and hand tools. Not necessarily glamorous work, but the end product makes it all worth it.

What skills or personal qualities are good for this job?
One important skill is problem-solving because — rain or shine — at the end of the day, the project needs to go forward. We're always dealing with weather conditions when we're working outside — rainy days, lightning, tornadoes, thunderstorms — so we're always trying to figure out how to get things done efficiently. And we have a schedule that we need to follow, so we're always moving things around on the schedule to stay on-track. We call it adaptive management. So problem-solving is one of the most valuable assets.

Also, you need to be able to work with people. We often have projects that have two or three partner organizations, and a lot of these partners have backgrounds that are different from our own, so everyone has different ideas about how things should be done. And everyone brings their own personality to the project. So I find that — and this is true for every job I've ever had — that being able to work with people is a very beneficial quality. You need to be able to communicate with people who may communicate differently than you do.

Also, there's a fundamental base of knowledge-based skills that every landscape architect needs to know. I need to know my plant and animal communities, and it's taken me years to learn them. It's not something you pick up in a year or two or even in school. A lot of the knowledge I have came from working on the job, and working alongside people who shared that information. Skills with computer programs are also important. Being able to write in Word and Excel. Using the mapping software, GIS, and AutoCAD. These are all important, practical skills to have.

What do you enjoy most about your job?
By far, the most enjoyable part of my day is when I'm outside. Being outside was important to me coming into this profession. I also really enjoy the people I work with. I'm really lucky that I get to work with such a diverse group of people including engineers, architects, and scientists. It's a big plus. It's beneficial to me because I get to learn how other people think: how an engineer thinks or how an architect thinks, which is sometimes much different from how I think. For instance, landscape architects are often creative and holistic. We tend to look at the big picture whereas the engineers are often more linear and calculating and thinking about the nuts-and-bolts of the details. So I enjoy that and learn from that. It's fun and interesting.

How does your job benefit the environment?
We're working on ecological restoration projects that have a direct benefit on plant and animal communities — often rare and endangered animal communities — that need our help to keep them on this planet. A lot of my projects in the St. Croix River Valley are woodland restoration projects that have a direct benefit on rare and endangered bird species. Other species our work benefits includes turtles, small animals, some spider populations, and butterflies. I have a project in Zimmerman, which has a sand dune ecosystem, and we're restoring habitat for rare skipper butterflies and jumping spiders. So almost every project has a direct link to a particular animal species: maybe turtles, spiders, fish, or birds. Or the projects have a direct link to water quality like our rain garden projects or stormwater infiltration projects.

Additionally, Great River Greening as a non-profit is actively engaged with the community. We have about 2,000 volunteers a year who help with our restoration projects, so a lot of what I do is educating the public — kids and adults — about why restoration is important for these species. A lot of people don't even know we have so many rare, threatened, and endangered species in Minnesota. So teaching people about these topics is important to ensure these species continue to survive.

Are there any common misconceptions about this type of work?
The biggest misconception about landscape architects is that we're all landscapers. Every landscape architect has probably been asked 20 times if they can design someone's backyard. I got into the field because I was interested in ecological restoration from an early age. I was lucky enough to work with many landscape architects who helped me understand how broad the field actually is. Although landscaping is one aspect of what we do, the field includes everything from urban design to urban planning to historic preservation. So it includes an incredibly diverse number of professions that are directly linked to landscape architecture. I may be somewhat on the fringe with my specialization as a landscape ecologist, but every landscape architect deals with some aspect of the environment in some way.

What changes in this field do you expect to see in the future?
One of the biggest changes I've seen in my field is the bio-energy field. I've had quite a few projects I've worked on at Great River Greening that have linked habitat restoration to bio-energy. We call them woody biomass projects. I've had several projects where we've had a high-quality prairie oak savannah ecosystem that has been overgrown with invasive trees. Prairies initially spread because the Native Americans would burn prairie grassland habitat to encourage elk and bison into their hunting grounds. This proliferated the amount of prairie in Minnesota and throughout the Midwest. A lot of our rare and endangered species have evolved with this prairie grassland ecosystem. Now that the land is segmented by roads and buildings, we've broken this habitat into little isolated sections that will never experience natural fires. And fire had the process of eliminating tree species, which, in turn, promoted the grasslands. Since natural burns don't take place anymore, we have to actively manage these areas including doing controlled burns at a lot of our sites. So these woody biomass projects are about removing trees from these prairies so the grasses can flourish.

When removing trees, we sometimes hire a contractor that has heavy equipment, big tractors, and sometimes a tree shearer — it's a hydraulic clamp on the front of a skid loader and they wrap the tongs around the tree, push a button, and the tongs cut right through the tree. Then they "skid" the tree out using a tractor and chains. And after they remove the trees, they use a back-hoe to put them into a giant tub grinder and grind them into wood chips and spit them into a semi-truck. The semi takes the chips to St. Paul where they're used as biomass fuel.

What is your advice to someone interested in this field?
It's difficult to get a job in this field without an educational background, so you really need to go to college. Minimally, you generally need at least an undergraduate degree. But there's not a right way to do it. Several of my coworkers have degrees in wildlife biology and another coworker has a degree in botany — so there's no one right path. One of the fundamental things I've had since I graduated is just a passion for what I do — and passion goes a long way towards accomplishing the projects I work on, and having a good time while doing it.

Volunteering is a good way to get experience in this type of profession. Great River Greening sponsors 10 or 12 different volunteer events a year, and you can look at our webpage to see which might events might interest you. Volunteering is an easy way to see some of the practices I've talked about first-hand and to meet someone like myself or other project managers who can offer advice.

Internships are also a great way to get involved, learn about an organization, and get hands-on experience. At Great River Greening, I've had three interns that I've worked with this year. Our internships are unpaid. As much as we'd love to be able to pay people, we're a non-profit so we can't pay interns. But we regularly take on interns, and we often look for interns who are undergraduates or in master's programs. We usually don't take people right out of high school. We prefer people who are in school and can apply the skills they're learning. In particular, we look for skills like GIS, AutoCAD, Illustrator, and Photoshop.

Any final thoughts you'd like to add?
This field is really going to grow as people begin to understand how important some of the practices that landscape architects/ecologists do actually are. For instance, the oil spill in the Gulf is an example of how important it is to be able to restore habitat. Our culture — our way of living — has had a tremendous impact on the environment. And we're finally beginning to realize we need to mitigate that impact, to do things to help endangered species survive, and to ensure better water quality.

There is no doubt these types of careers will grow in the future. We have no choice: either we put people to work in restoration work or we risk losing species of animals and rare plant habitats. And I think, in Minnesota, there's a huge push by the public to fund and support these types of projects, and that's encouraging.