University of Minnesota

Degrees: 1-year MSLA (non-prof), 3-year MLA, 2.5 – 3 year MLA/MURP | City: Minneapolis, MN | School: College of Design
Date Visited: 10.11.12

Average Graduate Class Size: 24-27
Program Size: 66
Female to Male Ratio: 1 : 1

Ringed by lakes and green open space, the natural abundance of beauty in Minneapolis makes the city a great place to live. Add to that Minneapolis’ urban park system, which was not only designed by landscape architect Horace Cleveland, the protégé of Frederick Law Olmsted, but has also been “held up as a paragon of design innovation, community involvement and administrative efficacy” (PDF), Minneapolis suddenly becomes a great setting to study landscape architecture as well.

I visited the University of Minnesota’s landscape architecture department shortly after my studio visit to Oslund and Associates to meet with Professor Joe Favour, who incidentally, works at Oslund and Associates as well. Housed within Rapson Hall, an unassuming building from the outside–named after the prolific architect and head of the university’s architecture program for over thirty years, Ralph Rapson–the building exterior belies the impressive modernist design within the building. Recently renovated with a new x-shaped addition in 2002, Rapson Hall is home to both the architecture and landscape architecture programs and houses a rich library, rotating art and architecture exhibitions by well-known artists and architects, a number of workshop and resource labs, and large studio spaces.

In the early 1990s, the University of Minnesota dropped their Bachelor of Landscape Architecture (BLA) in favor of pursuing the MLA track. Now, with around twenty years under its belt, the MLA program at Minnesota accommodates the largest class sizes of the universities I’ve visited thus far with counts up in the high twenties.

And before I even visited, I had already heard about their strong reputation for focusing on sustainability; however, during my visit, I was pleasantly surprised by their great emphasis on travel in their curriculum.


Traveling is a core component of the curriculum. Students usually have the opportunity to travel at least once every semester to different places. According to Professor Joe Favour, the program views travels as a means to break out from a potentially parochial attitudes, broaden horizons, and stay better connected with the world and contemporary issues.

Here is a rough summary of the travel experiences throughout the program:

1st Year Fall Semester:
Students are taken on bicycle trips into town to become familiar with Minneapolis and the Minnesota landscape.

1st Year Spring Semester:
Students go on a four to five day overnight trip in cabins at the Jens Jensen-designed ‘The Clearing’ reserve and work on conservation projects as part of a service-learning trip.

2nd Year Fall Semester:
The travel destination changes depending on the instructor, but the main focus is on looking at contemporary work and how we dwell, in the Heidelberg sense of the word. While I was visiting, the students were on their trip to Seattle, WA. Previous trips have included cities such as Portland, OR and Chicago, IL.

2nd Year Spring Semester:
There are two studio options during this semester, a travel abroad option and a community design studio based in Minneapolis.

(1) Community Design Studio: Students work with a non-profit in Minneapolis and study the development of public spaces in lower income neighborhoods, particularly those in northern Minneapolis. There is also a five-day trip to New York City to study the city’s urban public spaces as well. During this term, students take traditional course work.

(2) Cities on Water: Students travel to two cities (on water) over the course of this study abroad semester. The twelve to fourteen credits are all rolled into one overarching, intensive class that covers a wide range of topics, from landscape systems to cultural studies. The semester starts with six weeks of travel prep in Minneapolis, where students first research the cities they will be visiting before departing.

This study abroad program currently focuses Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Venice, Italy for a total of eight weeks, with a one-week long spring break. In each city, students work on a studio project based upon a local site.

3rd Year Fall Semester:
The instructor decides on the travel location, however, students typically stay in North America. This is the semester where students are expected to begin developing ideas for the Capstone Project.

There are additional J-Term and M-Term trips, which take place during school breaks and are typically three weeks long. These elective courses occur every semester and are always a five-day long trip.


The program follows a three-pronged approach: art, community and ecology. With these three areas in mind, the program also tends to focus more on contemporary issues and applications in the landscape. This has largely been facilitated by its location in Minneapolis. The focus on contemporary issues is reflective of the Minneapolis’ dedication to infrastructure, water quality, stormwater management, and the arts. In addition, Minneapolis is a huge research institution and the landscape architecture department’s ability to collaborate on the departments of conservation ecology offer a rich set of resources that students can tap into.

Representation Courses

The representation courses are the skill-development courses taken throughout the program. There are four technical courses in total: detailing, grading, plants, and stormwater management.


Other than the aforementioned wealth of resources in research and backdrop of the park system by landscape architect Horace Cleveland, the city is also a great place to study how the landscape functions, particularly in winter. The program also has a strong relationship with local firms and professionals. Like Columbus, OH, a strong network of local professionals often leads to many educational opportunities, such as local, contemporary adjunct professors.

Professional Practice

Research, Assistance, & Practice

Still in its infancy, this is a new initiative by the department to help pair students with local internships. In this program, local firms hire students as research assistants through the College of Design, who act as the middleman. To encourage more firms to accept a student internship, the College takes it upon themselves to solicit local firms to see if they’d like to hire a student research assistant. As part of the agreement, the College will also take care of the payroll, taxes, and other benefits so that the design firm doesn’t have to worry about the paperwork of a temporary employee—they just pay the College, which in turn, pays the student. Thus, as part of this program, students are employees of the university and can enjoy additional benefits such as reduced healthcare.


Minneapolis is fairly rich for local internship opportunities, from the Army Corp of Engineers to transportation planning; Oslund and Associates often has an intern every year. The strong relationship between the department and working professionals has helped facilitate connections for students.

Professional Practice Class

Made up of solely landscape architects, this course has traditionally covered the usual topics from entrepreneurship to business management by bringing local practitioners in to speak as a way for students to understand the different models of practice. People from three main groups are targeted: the ‘bottom,’ which are fresh graduates new to the working world; the ‘middle’, designers who are often project managers with eight to ten years of experience; and the ‘top,’ the principals of a firm.

Student Organizations

There are two active student groups, the ASLA MN Student Chapter and the Students for Design Activism. The ASLA MN Student Chapter recently hosted their first-ever student picnic, inviting all the MLA students as well as undergraduates pursuing a Bachelors of Environmental Design—a degree that easily leads into a MLA—at Minnehaha Falls, where they also hosted a successful Design Olympics.

Students for Design Activism is an organization originally founded by landscape architecture students, however, it is run collaboratively with architecture students and students of other design disciplines. The aim of this organization focuses on volunteer work and community design/build projects, such as their recent Bicycle Pasture project, in which they received a grant to turn a vacant piece of land into a social hub and bicycle gathering space.

Building Resources

One of the major benefits of being housed within the College of Design is the access to resources. Nowhere else have I seen the same amount of digital resources available—from the 3,500 square foot wood workshop to the imaging lab to the digital fabrication lab and computer lab to even the library housed in the new addition, there is an abundance of shared resources.

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