EMPLOYEE SPOTLIGHT: George Olguin, Landscape Associate
Landscape Associate George Olguin has been with District 7â€™s Landscape Architecture Unit for almost 21 years â€“ longer than anyone else in the unit. Inside 7 sat down with him to find out how he got started in the field, the key to his success, and where the best looking landscape in District 7 is located.
[Click on photos to enlarge and read captions.]
Inside 7: How did you get interested in landscape architecture?
George Olguin: I’ve always been interested in plants. From a young age I would grow plants from seeds, and like any kid, I loved playing with dirt, which is where the transportation interest started. I would spend endless hours playing with my Tonka motor-grader shaping dirt into roads. My father worked for the Los Angeles County Road Department, which also influenced my interest in roads. Often on weekends when he got called out, I’d go with him. I had to stay in the truck of course, but I thought, hey, this is neat.
I7: How did you come to work for Caltrans?
Olguin: Early in my career I took some classes in botany at the local community college, passed the contractor licensing exam, and started a business doing high-end residential and commercial landscapes. It was difficult at times, because it was tied to the boom and bust cycles of real estate. I sold the business, went back to school and earned a degree in landscape architecture at Cal Poly Pomona. After I graduated, I went to work for an engineering company. While I was there, a friend told me Caltrans was hiring landscape architects. I had never really considered working for Caltrans before, but the stability made the position attractive.
I7: What was it like going from the private sector to the public sector?
Olguin: I was shocked by the mountain of manuals and policies we had to follow. I spent the first three years learning what a Caltrans landscape architect does. At the time, there were no textbooks on the practice, theory, or methods of landscape architect practice on roadsides. The knowledge was passed down from one person to the next. So, I had to seek out those in the office with the knowledge. That’s changed now – we have resources that allow new hires to get up to speed quickly.
I7: What exactly does a Caltrans landscape associate do?
Olguin: It’s a broad range of responsibilities – planning, design, erosion control, water management, agreements with local agencies, safety, vista points, conservation, and of course, construction and maintenance projects. In everything we do, we value environmental stewardship, innovative ideas, use of new technology, and the integration and balance of community values with transportation goals.
I7: What are you most proud of?
Olguin: Three projects come to mind. One was a highway planting project on the Foothill Freeway (I-210) near Claremont a few years ago. Over 2,500 trees were planted in a two-mile stretch. The trees are about six years old now and are becoming a dramatic part of the roadside. Another project involved moving a 200-year-old Joshua tree for roadwork on Pear Blossom Highway (SR-138) east of Palmdale. It's survived a few growing seasons, so chances are it will continue to live. The last project was a bioswale using mostly native grasses on the Terminal Island Freeway (SR-103). [A bioswale is living plant material used to reduce sediment, heavy metals and stormwater run-off from the roadway.] It’s been three growing seasons without any water from an irrigation system, so chances are it will survive. This is good news because we need more low-maintenance, cost-saving landscape solutions.
I7: Give us your expert opinion – where’s the best looking landscape in District 7?
It would have to be the Ronald Reagan Freeway (SR-118) near Porter Ranch, between Desoto Avenue and Balboa Boulevard. This was done many years ago before I came on board. The landscape architects at the time used a mix of natives and ornamentals and many trees.
I7: You’ve been with District 7 for more than two decades. How do you keep your job fresh and interesting?
Olguin: One, I’m constantly trying to learn something new and apply it to the work, so I never get bored. Two, I now have the opportunity to mentor the younger landscape associates in the office. At this stage of my career, it’s a role that suits me well.
I7: What advice would you give to someone just starting out as a District 7 landscape associate?
Olguin: First, be flexible. You can’t always get things your way. Also, you have to give up some creativity. Safety, along with costs and other tangibles, takes precedence over creative vision. Also, keep in mind that projects are never about one person. Everything is a team collaboration – and that extends beyond the Landscape Architecture Unit. A landscape project can involve professionals from hydraulics, electrical, traffic, right of way, project management and drafting services. It takes everyone to make the project successful.
I7: What do you like to do when you’re not designing landscapes for Caltrans?
Olguin: I’m a bookworm. I like to read about history, travel and – surprise – plants.
I7: Does your yard at home look amazing?
Olguin: It’s well known in the profession that landscape architects have the worst home landscaping because they’re too busy making other people’s landscapes look beautiful.