GREEN PLAY TO GREEN PAY: How a Child's Outdoor Experiences Helped Shape a Young Woman's Nature-Rich Future

About the Author

Erin Lau, 31, is the owner of Erin Lau Design, in Seattle, WA. Erin considers landscape design from an artistic, architectural and ecological perspective. She believes that landscapes, however large or small, should be designed as a whole system. She has studied permaculture and is an advocate of urban farming and edible gardens. She holds a degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Southern California.

The definition of green jobs is broadening. New nature-rich, nature-smart careers are emerging. Among them: architects and builders using biophilic design to transform cities into engines of productivity, health and biodiversity; urban agrarians challenging the rules of food production; and landscape architects like Erin Lau, helping homeowners integrate native plants and beauty into their yards, homes and lives. Here, Erin describes how an early path through the woods led her to a creative career and calling. — Richard Louv

When I was young, the things that really captivated me were outdoor explorations, basic wilderness survival, and stories set in nature. I yearned to live in the countryside or the forest as a child, and made the best of what I could in our stucco suburbia.

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What Erin imagined when she was younger.

I was fortunate to live in a San Diego neighborhood that was crisscrossed by eucalyptus canyons, which linked various streets with a ravine-like green space. These were my stomping grounds.

I was always building forts with my friends in the canyons that surrounded my house, trying out new building methods, being inspired by Native American huts and lifestyles that I would see on field trips or in books.

In the Eucalyptus canyons there would be soft-bottom culverts that transferred surface runoff from one pipe to another, these became streams after it rained, and were the coolest thing to me, though they were merely flowing with stinky storm water. But what could I expect in the desert climate of San Diego?

As far as I was concerned, this was all I needed to supplement my fantasy of a wild woods in my own backyard.

Nowadays, I think my ideal state is somewhere outdoors, which is something I have to work a little harder for where I live in Seattle, with its permanent drizzle.

But that innate childhood desire to be outside did inspire me to pursue a profession as a landscape architect. I realized, just before college, that landscape architecture was the perfect combination of both of my main interests — nature and architecture. I wanted to be able to have the outdoors be my work environment and my focus.

Not to say that I wanted to modify and shape wild habitats — no, I instead wanted to bring it to places where the concentration of concrete and steel has overwhelmed plant species. My work is creating spaces in the built environment for natural life to flourish where it otherwise would not. Nature itself has inspired this work by its ability to regenerate, recycle and use what it already has.

Before deciding I wanted to be a landscape architect, I was interested in Scenic Design. In tenth grade, I worked during summers as a scenic artist at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. I kept seeing how all the sets we worked on were just trashed at the end of the show run, maybe a few pieces salvaged or recycled, but mostly just trashed.

I realized I wanted to be a part of something that survived longer and that was part of the real world outside the stage.

When I heard about landscape architecture I was entranced by the thought that I could use plants as my medium; my palette would be living things. What better way to create something that could inspire awe, yet also eventually go back into the earth?

When I look back at my childhood, I realize that I didn’t need a fully wild natural surrounding to inspire me. I took what I had, the dry canyons growing with a monoculture of non-native Eucalyptus trees and an understory of succulents that neighbor ladies had planted from cuttings. We don’t always need to bring children into the most untouched and biodiverse landscape for them to experience nature. Just the basics can do: trees, water ways, some insects and birds, and imagination can do the rest.

I’m grateful that my imagination was strong enough to fill in the blanks with a more idealized nature, back then, because now that’s what I do everyday as my job!


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What Erin Lau creates today.


More Reading and Resources

New Nature-Smart Careers: 11 for a Nature-Rich Future and Right Now

It’s Time to Redefine Green Jobs: Thoughts Following the First-Ever White House Summit on Environmental Education

How to Create a Butterfly Zone and a Homegrown National Park

Don’t Tear Down that Fort: Ten Lessons (and more) that Kids Learn from Building Their Own Tree Houses and Forts — if Adults Let Them

Hope by Design: Five Great Examples of Nature-Rich Places

 A New Role for Landscape Architecture: Robin Moore



  1. Great article, Erin. I’m forwarding it to a recent college graduate who wants to work outdoors but is not sure in what capacity.

  2. My daughter is 3 years-old and we decided to make a concerted effort to introduce her to weekly outdoor school on Vashon Island for the same reasons you describe as your childhood experiences that inspired you to pursue this career path. We’re in the midst of moving from Seattle to 5 acres across the water, so that she can build forts in her backyard just like I did growing up. I am so encouraged to see that you are carving this wonderful career path for others to follow and I hope my daughter’s everyday exposure to the outdoors will inspire her to do the same. Best wishes on the continued success of your career!!

  3. We all need to allow our children the time and opportunity to interact creatively with whatever part of the natural world they can on a daily basis. My kids followed my lead outdoors to the big dog made mud puddle in the middle of the grass lawn, to the tree house hidden from view, to the rope swing, to the sand box, and into the endless wilds of our inner city backyard that they were encouraged to play and get dirty in. They pretended they were on a lost island,or orphaned in the woods, cooking berries and bark to feed themselves, only yards from the front door that didn’t exist in their deep imaginings.
    These are the same minds now that are relaxed and knowing themselves, comfortable in the world around them, open to the world beyond. As children they conquered the vast wilderness of a hilltop lot in downtown L.A. ..what could be more dangerous and wonderful than that?


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