October 18, 2010
Landscape Architect Brings Breadth of Experience to Lead Department
As an undergraduate searching for a direction, Elizabeth Brabec, chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, wanted to find a way to marry science and art. “My focus on the environment was strong, due largely to my grandmother’s influence,” Brabec says. “Because I’d grown up on a farm, my love of animals and nature was strong, too. But it wasn’t until I met a landscape architect that I had that eureka moment. Suddenly, it all fell into place and my path into landscape architecture was set.”
Brabec’s interests are focused on land conservation and the design and planning of sustainable open space, complemented by a strong interest in culture and the historical basis of landscape form. However, she didn’t start off in academia.
In 1984 with her MLA in hand from the University of Guelph, Canada, Brabec joined the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission in West Springfield, where she worked on historic preservation and community development for two years. Then in 1986 she contracted with the Center for Rural Massachusetts, which is part of the department Brabec now leads, and was involved with conservation and development in various Connecticut River Valley towns. In 1988 the design manual that she co-authored out of this project won the New England Chapter Award from the American Planning Association, the Year’s Best Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the National Planning Merit Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects.
For family reasons Brabec moved to the Washington, D.C., area in 1988 and launched her own company, Land Ethics, Inc. This landscape architectural and land-planning firm focused on land and resource conservation strategies. “We did a lot of strategic work with municipalities and focused on innovative ways to achieve land conservation and sustainable development,” Brabec says. “We also had contracts with the Nature Conservancy, working on buffer areas around biosphere reserves; with the National Park Service, developing a landscape conservation strategy for Waterford, VA; and even with the Mount Vernon Ladies Association to protect the view from President Washington’s home.”
It wasn’t all as romantic as it sounds. “Often situations would arise when I’d be told that a proposal couldn’t move forward because the law wouldn’t allow it—or wouldn’t support it,” Brabec recalls, noting that she wasn’t willing to believe everything she was told. “So, I decided to go to law school and learn for myself what could and couldn’t be done—mostly to prove the naysayers wrong!” Brabec earned her JD in 1992, having attended classes at night while continuing to run her business. Although she was quickly admitted to the Maryland Bar Association, Brabec never practiced law, but the degree, she says, has proved invaluable many times over.
Her company continued to grow, eventually engaging 12 landscape architects. By 1996 Brabec, who had over the years offered various certification and continuing ed courses and taught a few courses at George Washington University and Prince George’s Community College, decided to take a part-time lecturer position at the University of Maryland.
“I really liked teaching a lot, so I started looking for something more permanent,” Brabec says. The following year she became an associate professor at the University of Michigan. “I took my business with me, but started pulling back from it more and more due to the intensive time commitments of teaching.”
In 2004 Utah State University asked Brabec to lead their Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning. “It was a great opportunity to shape a program,” she says. “Utah is very strong in working with issues specific to the Intermountain West, while at the same time dealing with practical and theoretical dimensions of sustainable natural and cultural systems, social and behavioral concerns, aesthetic sensitivities and engineering implementation.”
Still, when asked to lead the Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning department at UMass in 2007, Brabec couldn’t resist coming back to Massachusetts. “I love living in the Connecticut River Valley,” she says, “and the department is very strong. I’m at a point in my life where my wide range of experience has become a really important asset. By bringing this knowledge into the classroom and to my advisees, I can offer students an overview to help them get where they want to go. In academia, experience usually brings depth in a specific area. My experience, unlike most academics, also offers breadth.”
Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning at UMass is particularly strong in addressing global issues of development, climate change and the greening of the environment. Brabec also points to the department’s interest in and new focus on developing an international perspective for students. “It is really important for students to get out of their familiar surroundings and experience something new in another culture,” she says. “When they come back, they see with new eyes.”
The department is working diligently to develop contacts with international universities for more study abroad opportunities for juniors and seniors. Some courses include “field studies,” taking students (at their own expense) for one or two weeks to Europe or Central America. To date groups have traveled to Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Belize, and Guatemala and Budapest. The department is also beginning a four-year student exchange program with Brazil.
“We’re also developing connections with China, but this is still in the development process,” Brabec says. “As the economy has become difficult, students truly are focused on getting the best education they can. They want to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible, and I’m determined to help them do that.”