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Get to Know Kate: Principal and Landscape Architect

Kate Tooke, ASLA, PLA, is a principal leading impactful landscape architecture projects across the country, including the Boston City Hall Plaza renovation, Copley Square, and The Boston Children’s Museum, as well as Wilmington Waterfront Promenade in Los Angeles, Town Branch Park in Lexington, Kentucky, and Market Landing Park in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Kate’s focus on community engagement, intergenerational playscapes and environmental resilience are evident in the popular landscapes at Smale Riverfront Park in Cincinnati, Ohio and Alabama’s Gulf State Park.

Kate is known as an thoughtful, collaborative design leader, who regularly delights clients and inspires teams, making her someone people want to work with again and again. With a background in education, Kate brings curiosity and a teaching orientation to all of her work. She listens to learn, brings her teams and clients along in her design process, and taps into the many talented team members around her to bring about designs that answer complex needs for diverse audiences.

Sasaki is delighted to congratulate Kate on her recent promotion from associate principal to principal.

Learn more about Kate’s background and what drives Kate in her work:

Q: Why do you do what you do?

As a kid I got a reputation for tinkering — taking apart the vacuum cleaner or the old rotary phone to explore the mechanism and patching together “inventions”out of whatever loose parts I could get my hands on. This deep curiosity about the way things work led me to study engineering as an undergrad, and a passion for iterative experimenting is still fundamental to my being. Simply-put, I get energized by open-ended and creative design processes. To me, Sasaki’s interdisciplinary studio environment, collaborative ethos, and uber-talented practitioners are a kind of magic growth media for innovation and ideas. Being part of bringing that energy to our clients and communities lights me up. 

Q: What are you most excited about in regards to your new role as a principal at Sasaki?

As a landscape architect focused on civic and public realm, I view the role of principal as a platform to advocate for the clients and communities we serve. I look forward to continuing the collaboration with many talented minds, at all levels of our firm, to advance a human-oriented and environmentally-responsible civic design practice. Now, more than ever, it’s clear that well-designed urban open space is critical to our well-being – our health, our social cohesion, our connection to the environment and our ability to engage in democratic dialogue all depend on our access to quality public realm. I’m excited to facilitate authentic conversations among urban residents of all backgrounds to understand how we can collectively shape the future of our cities. 

Looking internally, the role of principal is an opportunity to help shape the direction of the firm. I’m excited to use my voice at the table to continue advocacy for women and other minorities in our practice and to lead our collective efforts around operationalizing our values. 

Q: Who or what has had the greatest influence on your approach to design/planning? In what ways?

I had a bit of a winding and interdisciplinary career path on my way to landscape architecture. With a degree in engineering, studio art and geology, I spent the bulk of my twenties teaching math and physics in the Boston Public School system. My students lived in neighborhoods all over Boston, and told incredible stories about their lives in the city. They taught me to ask good questions, to listen and to follow up – and I discovered that these informal conversations were usually much more meaningful than the curriculum. Pieced all together over many years, the varied descriptions of the urban spaces they offered gave me a window into the ways in which BIPOC teens experience the built environment, and sparked my interest in pursuing an urban landscape architecture practice rooted in whole-hearted listening. 

Q: Hideo Sasaki once said, “Contribution is the only value.” What do you contribute?

In the children’s book, “The Most Magnificent Thing”, a little girl is trying to make a scooter sidecar for her dog. She makes a dozen “wrong” versions and explodes with frustration. After she takes a break, she is able to see all the small elements of each attempt that did work and she crafts a new invention from the wreckage that functions perfectly for her pup. 

Channeling this little girl, I love to bring this kind of perspective and perseverance to the design teams I work with. I believe that there is something worth learning in each sketch, even the ones that feel awkward, ugly, or tangential.  I appreciate when we can “fail” spectacularly together, look again with fresh eyes and collaboratively pull intriguing ideas into a solution that feels good. I hope that my simultaneous patience for and joy in the natural twists and turns of a design process is infectious. 

Q: In retrospect, what advice would you give yourself ten years ago?

Ten years ago I was simultaneously on the precipice of two new journeys: I was finishing up my Masters degree in Landscape Architecture (about to embark on a new-to-me career), and I was pregnant with my first child. I wish I could help that younger self appreciate that both designing with communities and parenting are inherently messy, organic processes that demand your whole heart every day. Put them together as a working mom, and it can trend towards constant chaos! Over the years I’ve learned not to spend too much energy trying to keep it all ordered, but instead to be present where I can, and to embrace the messiness for all its unexpected beauty and joy. 

Q: Where is your favorite place in the world?

Mountaintops. All of them. Everywhere my feet can get me. I’m at my happiest breathing fresh air while hiking or trail-running and taking in new long views. 

Q: Whom do you admire?

This life is busy and complicated. And I’ve learned that for me it is usually only possible with a lot of helping hands and support. I admire those who look up from their own lives to offer encouraging words, hugs, opportunities and humor. I rely on these friends, colleagues and partners every day, and I have benefitted enormously from the patient sponsorship of those who placed their trust in me. I aspire to be the kind of person who always has time to help others — to listen, to offer a shoulder to cry on, to cheerlead, to share tools, to sponsor and mentor. 

Q: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?

My first gig in landscape architecture was working as a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club trailcrew in New Hampshire. I spent a high school summer hiking from one gorgeous remote location to the next – felling trees, hefting boulders into rock stairs, setting water bars and building bridges. It remains one of the most satisfying jobs of my life. I continued to work trail crew through college, using it as an excuse to explore New England’s trails, and applied the skills to building fieldstone retaining walls in Amherst during grad school. I can still wield an axe and wrestle a boulder as well as any lumberjack!

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