The Dirt: Katy Svalbe

Katy Svalbe is a landscape architect. She lives in a rented terrace house in Newtown, Sydney, with a hills hoist in the backyard. Score! Katy and her sister Yasmine own a design company called Amber Road. Yasmine does the interiors, and Katy does the exteriors, but the lines are often blurred.

Katy and Yasmine have owned Amber Road for a couple of years now and undertake a range of work from small residential properties to large public space projects. Having previously worked for landscape architecture studios like Aspect Studios and Hassell, Katy knows her stuff and is clearly passionate about her profession, which she inadvertently stumbled upon whilst flicking through a university handbook;

The things I was passionate about at high school were art and biology. I didn’t even know the degree existed until I was leafing through the university handbook and there was this thing that combined both my passions. I decided to study it at university and I haven’t looked back. I’ve been doing it ever since.

Whilst on holiday in Sydney from a six-year stint living in Spain, a design project arose, giving Katy and Yasmine the opportunity to work together. Katy delayed her plane ticket and eventually decided to return from Spain permanently to work with Yasmine. Amber Road was born!

I could be biased but I reckon landscape architecture is one of the most important professions around. Naomi Stead, Senior Research Fellow in the School of Architecture at The University of Queensland seems to agree, stating in a recent article in The Conversation:

“The diversity and scale of work in landscape architecture is huge, and the mix of skills and expertise required shows real promise for dealing with the pressing issues facing Australian cities. Whether climate change or urbanisation, population growth or densification, landscape architects have ideas for how to make our future cities liveable, workable and beautiful.”

Katy Svalbe is one of the ideas people Stead mentions above. Not only is she pondering new ways of living in increasingly urbanised environments; she’s actively experimenting with design solutions to make it happen.

This translates into experimenting with edible and ornamental plants in her own backyard, designing considered and honest solutions in her clients homes and gardens, and working on large public space projects, encouraging people to engage with the natural world.

What Katy has nailed is the integration of environmentally sustainable principles as a mainstay of her practice, not an afterthought. Aesthetics are hugely important, and often, for one reason or another, solutions based on environmental sustainability can be a bit clunky. Designers have a role to play in taking such solutions and making them attractive as well as functional for use in small, urban environments. As Katy states:

Our job is to integrate holistic, environmentally responsible thinking into the design narrative. It’s not something that is added on later, as an afterthought – its how we think, right from the start.

Obviously a highly creative designer, Katy also has a permaculture design certificate and a passion for urban food production under her belt. She’s president of the Sydney City Farm community group and is constantly exploring new ideas involving sustainable, holistic and socially responsible development.

It’s clear Katy is passionate about exploring better ways of existing and is inspired by the potential the future holds. This is a great thing, because as Naomi Stead suggests, landscape architects might just save the world…. For this reason alone I’m pretty chuffed there’s people like Katy about. Thinking, questioning, and most importantly, acting on ideas and visions of a sustainable, holistic, and more socially equitable future. Phew. So people, be nice to landscape architects, your future could well be in their hands!