Today we’d like to introduce you to Cheri Ruane.
Cheri, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
Tenacity. It’s a word my college rowing coach used to throw around often. I believe it is a good place to start in describing how I got to where I am today. As an angsty teenage girl in New Jersey (yep, big hair and all) I was searching for a connection beyond my homogeneous suburban environment. I found my older cousin, Dave, who owned his own landscape maintenance company in Framingham, MA. Each summer I would make my annual pilgrimage to escape my parents and other angsty New Jersey teens to live with my aunt and work for Dave.
It was there, through my comrades in the trenches, what LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE even was. I use all-caps intentionally because it is different than landscape maintenance, contracting or “landscaping”. Not better, just different. A few of them were attending UMass Amherst and getting their degree in landscape architecture and earning money over the summer trimming bushes, mowing lawns and installing irrigation systems.
My undergraduate studies (at UMass Amherst) taught me to love the practice of design and the craft of meaningful landscapes that created the environment in which we all live, work, and play. As a living, breathing medium, the landscape continues to fascinate me through seasonal changes, magical experiences and the beauty of nature. My first job out of school was with the City of Boston Parks & Recreation Department.
I was assisting the project manager for historic parks with millions of dollars of improvements throughout the Emerald Necklace. When I was ready to join the private sector five years later, I had a great network but I didn’t have the basic production skills one needs to be a marketable emerging professional. So back to school, I went this time in Cambridge.
At the Graduate School of Design, I took my very pragmatic beginnings from UMass and Boston Parks and pushed the boundaries of design research. It was there I realized that my passion was improving quality of life for as many people as I could. This leads me to consciously focusing my studies and my career on public landscapes. Parks, playgrounds, athletic facilities, bike paths, urban plazas, waterfront promenades; you name it, I wanted to design them, and design them I did.
I started out working on public housing developments for the Boston Housing Authority where existing conditions were mostly paved and downright depressing. Through a series of public engagements I was able to translate the resident’s desires into plans for improvement that separated cars and people, only paved where it was absolutely necessary and added moments for active and passive recreation. Each building received a “drying yard” near the front door where people dried their laundry. This was a really important social component to this dense community living that people wanted to be formalized.
It was an amazing opportunity to see the immediate benefits of my work on hundreds of people in the city. It was incredibly satisfying and deeply fulfilling. From there I built up my portfolio of work with many of the other landscapes I listed previously. With each one, I gained confidence, expanded my professional knowledge and my personal network. Now, 20 years into my career I could not be more proud of the work I have done over the last two decades and the lives I have impacted. From those humble beginnings I have been able to build a career that includes being the Principal-in-Charge of a very talented team of landscape architects and engineers who have designed Boston’s first inclusive playground at Mayor Thomas M. Menino Park in Charlestown and climate resilient waterfront parks like Langone Park in the North End, McConnell Park in Savin Hill, and Draw Seven Park in Somerville.
Menino and Draw Seven also happened to be brownfield sites with contamination from their industrial pasts. Weston & Sampson’s comprehensive design and engineering services allow us to tackle all of the demands of increasingly complex projects in dense urban environments without the need for sub-consultants. We’ve created an agile team of interdependent professionals who work together regularly, have developed a high level of affinity for one another, work hard, get it done, and have fun while doing it.
I’ll often tell younger professionals and students that I don’t believe in work/life balance. It’s all just life. Work and life should not be diametrically opposed, implying that if one is going well the other must suffer. In addition to my growing body of work I am President of the Boston Society of Landscape Architects, on the Board of Directors for the West End House Girls Camp, row, box, and play hockey. I am a living kidney donor (July 2017).
Giving my extra kidney to someone in dire need is one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences of my life. I have two awesome kids who are truly good humans and a husband who supports me through it all. I have built a life that I love and it took a lot of tenacity, but it has been worth every drop of blood, sweat and tears.
Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Smooth roads are boring. Struggles have included:
– not being able to transition from public to private sector employment, so I returned to school to continue my training and education
– after graduate school, I was the first landscape architect at a firm of 1600 engineers and scientists. . . that was a huge challenge, but I made a good go of it and established a healthy landscape architecture practice there while learning to advocate for myself and the profession
– working at an interdisciplinary firm with many engineers and scientists means that most of my colleagues are male. I am working hard to climb the organizational ladder to provide a clear vision and bring more gender equity to the leadership of the firm.
– having kids and working is hard (hell having kids is a hard period). When my two kids were little I often found myself very burnt out and going through life in a bit of a daze. Now that they are older (12 and 10) I have finally discovered the benefits and importance of self-care which includes making time for myself and a regular meditation practice.
Please tell us about Weston & Sampson’s Design Studio.
Weston & Sampson has been around forever. . . or at least close. Founded in 1899 by Robert Weston, the company started out as a water/wastewater consulting firm. In about the 80’s (when hair bands and acid wash denim were hitting their stride) Weston & Sampson started to add services in order to better serve their robust portfolio of municipal clients like environmental services and solid waste engineering. The 90’s brought survey, geotechnical, structural, and civil engineering, along with landscape architecture through acquisitions and strategic growth.
Public facilities design (think: DPW buildings, fleet management, truck washes and salt sheds), renewable energy (solar, wind, geothermal, etc.) and resiliency planning (rising tides, more frequent storm events, etc.) all came to be in the mid 00’s. We are a truly interdisciplinary design firm that focuses on integrating the various practices into interdependent design solutions. Interdependent meaning each discipline is dependent on one another to ensure the design solutions are technically sound, sustainable, and will address all of the complex factors that affect our public infrastructure today.
We are proudly employee owned and have a mission to continue handing the company down from generation to generation. In a time when many large firms are gobbling up smaller companies and globalizing their presence, we pride ourselves on remaining agile, responsive, and masters of our own destiny. Strategic planning, leadership training, and personal mastery are integral at all levels of the organization to ensure healthy, sustained growth and continued opportunity for our people.
If you had to go back in time and start over, would you have done anything differently?
I would have been born a man. I’m only partly kidding. For as much as I am proud of my ability to overcome gender bias and sexual harassment in the workplace, it is also kind of exhausting. A friend of mine who had just been jeered at on the street by a passing truck of men asked the question, “what would be possible if we didn’t have to spend our energy defending, worrying, protecting and armoring ourselves from that type of abuse?” Well, cancer would be cured, obviously, world peace, and maybe even climate change. Still only partly kidding.
It has long been proven that women add a much-needed diversity for innovation, creativity, problem-solving, and team building in the workplace. Yet we’re still catching up on equal pay, positions of leadership, and seats at the boardroom table. I’ve had the pleasure of working with many incredible men who have advocated, supported, and elevated me not only because I have earned it, but also because they too want to see more women engaged at a high level, informing our direction, and expanding the firm’s capacity to be awesome.
In hindsight, I think I’d have kept my gender assignment at birth. Being a woman is fabulous, hard, amazing, and trying at times, but totally worth it.
- Address: 85 Devonshire Street Boston, MA 02109
- Website: www.spurrstudio.com www.westonandsampson.com
- Phone: 617-412-4480 x 7701
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Facebook: @westonandsampson
Gene Bolinger, Anthony Chrisafulli