Interview: Jason Prior, president, EDAW/design and planning at AECOM

There's a revolution happening in commercial masterplanning and landscape design.

Jason Prior. Image: HW
Jason Prior. Image: HW

The days when it was enough for a major client to throw piles of cash at a high-profile project and ignore the surrounding area are all but forgotten.

For Jason Prior, president of EDAW - which has been newly rebranded as Design and Planning at AECOM - the priority in any scheme is the vulnerable section of society that is most affected by development.

The client may be interested in spectacular city-centre high-rise development, but the designer needs to consider the people on the periphery of that world, Prior argues.

In some of the latest major work taking place in the Middle East and beyond, that means giving real thought as to how development might affect the disadvantaged. Those people who are living in hand-to-mouth poverty are most likely to feel the effects of flooding, pollution and noise, for example.

Prior explains: "The most vulnerable people are poor people from rural areas moving into the urban environment, so we are looking at projects that engage with that. It is critical for us to be able to run up and down the spectrum of what we can do, particularly as climate change becomes more important.

"Climate change will be the biggest policy driver in any of our careers. It will be a philosophical challenge and we need to understand how all the different bits fit together."

These environmental issues are so significant for Prior and the rest of his team that this year the firm's annual student competition programme is focused on those themes. Called Urban SOS, the scheme is an international design contest based on "challenged urban environments".

"There are students from the Middle East and Asia working on projects that show us what is going on," Prior says.

"There are places in the world we work now where the security planning might take longer than the flight. It becomes really apparent that if it takes your team five hours to get through a border crossing, what the hell must it be like to live there?

"It is a reflection of how extremely tough it is to live in these environments and all the more reason we should be there."

Although the Olympic Park is the big UK scheme, the firm has been known for during the past few years, its overseas work has boomed, sparking the name change which takes effect from October.

"To some extent our view was that we had pretty much outgrown the EDAW brand because it was so clearly identified with a particular type of work," points out Prior.

"The reason we went into AECOM in the first place was to put ourselves on a much bigger global platform. We had reached the stage where we were the most global of the landscape architecture firms, but we weren't very happy with that being the end state.

"Being a global architecture firm doesn't get you into the projects."

The nature of the AECOM brand means that EDAW is able to emphasise all the different aspects of its work, he adds, which include elements as diverse as creating carbon management policies for the city of Seattle, analysing the impact of whale-hunting by Inuits on the Alaskan coast or delivering a national park in China.

As the 'face' of projects that will be under intense scrutiny, Prior remains committed to a pragmatic approach that prioritises constant learning and development of ideas.

The team - which include ecologists, economists, planners, landscape architects and IT specialists - are now working on the West Bank in Palestine. Difficult territory maybe, but all of the team members believe in pushing boundaries, reveals Prior.

"The idea is around building proper Palestinian housing in the West Bank and trying to stabilise the community," explains the father of one child, who is married to fellow landscape architect and conservation biologist Sally Martin.

"It is a difficult scheme but this is the kind of stuff that really interests us."

Next on the cards is the landscape architecture for a sustainable city in the Middle East. Working with Fosters on the architecture, it is set to be a "very exciting project", says Prior.

Add to that a book out this summer - called The Bigger Picture: Designing Better Places - and the omnipresent Olympics projects, Prior is continually busy. "I find separating work from the rest of my life difficult," he laughs. "I really enjoy my work life and I'm passionate about the issues we deal with."

With work intensifying on the Olympic Park legacy masterplan, now is a critical time for the firm to get to grips with the detail of the site.

"There will be nearly all green roofs," he reveals. "Although everyone is very interested in the idea of the Games, if you live locally you are much more interested in the long-term.

"It is about housing, jobs, high-quality parklands and transport, as well as economic issues. It will be massively different from the site during Games time."


Early 1980s Trains as a landscape architect at the University of Manchester

1984 Joins Milton Keynes Development Corporation

1986-88 Works at Lovejoy

1988-93 Employment with David Jarvis Associates

1994 Joins EDAW

2007 Becomes president of EDAW


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