Jack Sullivan, Landscape Architect

How long have you been in the Baltimore/DC area? I arrived to the DC area in 1994. I had been living in Boston, working in design practice and teaching part time until 1991, when I took a full time teaching job at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. That started as a one-year lectureship but it turned into a three-year position in the departments of Landscape Architecture and City & Regional Planning. I came here for a tenure-track position in ’94, when the University of Maryland’s Landscape Architecture program was one year old.

How did you get into design? I was always interested in art and I was encouraged at home and in school. My mother sold residential real estate to support five kids and I had always been interested in buildings of all sorts. After some trial and error in other fields, including a stint with architecture school, I received a general fine arts degree in painting and drawing. Upon graduation, I did what many art school grads do—I waited tables and tended bar. I worked as a gardener and discovered landscape architecture through my neighbor. I eventually went to the University of Virginia for the three-year MLA program. By Thanksgiving of that first year, I was a convert. I felt like this was it, I’d found my calling.

What motivates you to volunteer with NDC? I have always appreciated what the NDC does. I always liked the people who worked for NDC and I thought there might be something that I could do to give back to the community. I often participated in project reviews for our Community Design Studio, so when Jan Townshend, an alumna of our BLA program, became a project manager at the Prince George’s County NDC, I got more involved. Years later, Jan encouraged me to join the NDC Board of Directors and I jumped at the opportunity.

What do you find most rewarding about your work with NDC? I like the conversation with the community. I like the idea that I am not the expert when it comes to knowing the neighborhood and knowing the people in the neighborhood. I think it’s important for us to offer expertise but I don’t think we are the be-all and end-all. I come from a background where you’re a designer with a capital D and you solve all the problems. I think it was humbling to realize that there is a lot of information you’re missing. And the success of a park, a street, a neighborhood really depends on the community buying in to it and wanting to look after it and take care of it.

To me that conversation with the community is about the give and take—the idea that you have to stop and listen to what they are saying, and listen well enough to keep yourself from jumping to conclusions.

What is inspiring your work now? I am inspired by the people who are consistent in their efforts to improve communities. People who just keep hanging in there, you know? Volunteers, they’re not getting anything out of it except the pleasure of living in a community that is sharing the work. One of our graduates, Kevin Gaughan, who works for Campion Hruby Landscape Architects in Annapolis and lives in Baltimore, has been very much involved Baltimore through NDC. He’s a very giving person and a talented designer, just a great guy. Kevin has been inspiring to me and so have all these other people who are seeing the direction that their communities can go and the impact individuals can have.

Has working with NDC changed the way you practice design? Well, I hadn’t always been as engaged with the community in my design process. NDC brought me back to Earth. I still love doing high-end design that affords me the chance to explore new artful ideas and I have a great appreciation for that but I get much more social satisfaction when I’m working in these communities. That’s what really drives my boat—seeing things on a much larger urban scale, seeing more people learning about the value of good design. In many ways, good design is really working closely with the community members, determining how we can get the best to them, and having them realize that good design is their doing as well.