Andy Bowden: Changing landscapes

By Kristin Smith-Ely

His four-decade career dedicated to landscape design has allowed him to work on many large projects, and he’s still going strong.

If I were to sum up any Andy Bowden’s career in two sentences, it would be these: “He likes his job,” and “He doesn’t like change.”

That combination has worked in his favor, and two sentences hardly capture everything he’s accomplished. He’s designed landscapes for some of the largest residential developments in Southern California during his 43 years with Land Concern Ltd., and he’s not stopping anytime soon.

“I’ve always said that if I ever got to the point where I no longer loved coming to work, that I’d stop. Well, I’ve been doing this since 1970 and I’m still loving it, so I am hoping to continue working as long as I can.” At 65 years old, he’s still got the same enthusiasm for what he does as when he first discovered the profession as a senior in high school.

La Floresta, a project in Orange County, California, that took 14 years to complete, is one of the highlights of Andy Bowden’s career.

He joked about his disdain for change in early May when he was inducted to the Green Industry Hall of Fame. “I’ve worked at Land Concern for almost 43 years. I’ve been married to my incredible, amazing wife for 42 years. I’ve been a licensed landscape architect for 40 years. I’ve lived in the same house for 40 years. I guess you could say that I just don’t like change.”

Indeed that’s not a lot of change, but “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” he says.

In reality there have been some changes over the years. His hair is a little grayer. He’s also a father to two grown sons and has a grandson. Professionally, he’s weathered many economic ups and downs in the business and lived through the rise of computers that revolutionized how landscape architects design.

First draft

Bowden still remembers how he first became interested in landscape design. It was the first day of his easy senior year at Point Loma High School in San Diego. He arrived a little early that day. “All I really had to take that year was my senior English and then I was done. So I signed up for two art classes, two drafting classes, PE and senior English.”

When he got to his first class that morning, there was one other student sitting across the room with a set of plans that were stretched over a couple of tables. He was counting something up on them. Bowden was intrigued and walked over to see what he was doing. He looked at the plan. It was a landscape plan, and the title on it was, “Royal Inn of Disney World, Orlando, Florida.”

Disney World hadn’t even opened yet. The student worked for a landscape architect that won the contract for the hotel. He had drawn up the plans and was counting up the plants.

“The plan was really impressive. It was beautifully drawn,” Bowden recalls.

“Wow, I’d love to be able to do something like that,” he said to the student.

The classmate replied, “Well, we just had our draftsman quit, so we have an opening for somebody. Can you draw?”

“Yeah,” said Bowden.

“Why don’t you bring some examples down to the boss tonight and you can apply for the job?” the student asked.

La Floresta’s perimeter streetscape

He was hired that evening by Fred Akers and started working immediately at Blue Pacific Landscape, a design/build contractor with a retail nursery. While he was there, the firm did the landscape design for 17 Bob’s Big Boy restaurants in Southern California. Bowden got to draw the planting plans. From his success drawing trees and shrubs, he was also given the opportunity to help design some garden areas and homes.

Drawing was always a love of Bowden’s but he wasn’t sure what kind of career path he was going to be able to take with it. The work he was doing was interesting enough that he decided to stay with it. He researched landscape architecture and discovered that the only school in California that was accredited at the time was Cal Poly Pomona.

While saving up money to attend, he enrolled at San Diego Mesa College, earning an associate’s degree in Nursery and Landscape Technology.

“I think it was really helpful once I became a landscape architect because at Cal Poly Pomona they focused strictly on landscape architecture and not the horticulture end of things,” Bowden says.

His first boss, Fred Akers, was a licensed landscape architect who was grandfathered in when the state of California started its licensing law in 1953. Bowden’s path to practice was much more involved.

“I had to go to college and get my degree in landscape architecture. Then I had to complete my two-year internship, then had to take and pass the national exam and pass that. After I did that, I had to take the state oral exam and pass that, and after all that, I received my landscape architect’s license,” he says.

Landing at Land Concern

Bowden was in his senior year at Cal Poly Pomona when he was referred to Robert Sawyer and Associates for a landscape design job in Costa Mesa. At the time it was just Rob Sawyer, Mike Imlay and Bowden. “We started off doing a lot of model home complexes and residential communities. Our clients consisted mostly of home builders and developers.”

Bowden commenting on the student submittals while serving as a juror for student work at UCLA Extention

The firm continued to grow from those initial three to four, then six. By the time it got to 12 employees, the firm had outgrown its Costa Mesa location. Sawyer and Imlay formed a partnership and changed the name of the firm to Land Concern. They relocated the business to Santa Ana in 1980, and it’s been there ever since. So has Bowden.

“I started out as a draftsman and became a project manager and senior associate and then finally became a principal in 2000.”

Business really started taking off after the company entered the first MAME (Major Achievement in Merchandising Excellence) Awards contest held by the Building Industry Association of Southern California. All the area homebuilders were in the audience when Sawyer accepted the award. The next day the phone was ringing off the hook.

“We started off doing model home projects and then it evolved,” Bowden says. “We started doing the entire community, and then we were doing everything that goes with the community, the internal street scenes, perimeter of the project, the slopes, the entry monumentation, the recreation facilities.”

From the recreation facilities, people hired Land Concern to design swim complexes. That evolved into tennis centers and parks. “It just started growing exponentially, and each project got larger and larger.” Land Concern was now designing landscapes for master plan residential communities.

Standing up for the industry

Andy Bowden’s deep involvement with industry goes beyond his role as principal at Land Concern. He’s also been active in California’s Landscape Architects Technical Committee under Govs. Schwarzenegger, Brown and Newsome, serving as chair under Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown.

After he was appointed by Schwarzenegger to the LATC, the governor issued a proposal that would have eliminated the committee and turned all duties and responsibilities over to the California Architects Board.

“I testified before the California Business and Professions Committee and presented information and facts that showed the importance of the LATC in protecting the overall health, safety, and welfare of the public, views which were contrary to the governor’s proposal. In essence, I along with a number of other dedicated individuals and professional colleagues had to take on the ‘Governator’ in order to save the LATC and maintain licensure for landscape architects in California,” says Bowden.

He says after a long, hard fought battle, the governor ended up taking the LATC out of the proposal, thus ensuring the continuance of the committee and licensure.

“Even though it ended up costing me my appointment (I was not reappointed by Gov. Schwarzenegger as he was leaving office), I felt that the result was worth the sacrifice.”

He had to wait until Gov. Brown came into office and reapply to the LATC. He was appointed and served two terms under him. His official term came to an end after 12 years of combined service on June 1, but he will continue to serve for one additional year or until a replacement is named.

Gaining a reputation

Many major housing developments in southern Orange County were designed by Land Concern. Ladera Ranch, Las Flores, Rancho Santa Margarita and portions of Aliso Viejo are among its impressive portfolio. Rancho Mission Viejo has been Land Concern’s largest client. Today, there’s easily 60 to 70 trophies in the trophy case for all of the firm’s awards.

Bowden’s largest and longest project was for Chevron Land and Development Co. in Brea, called La Floresta. It began in 2004 and included 1,200 homes and a golf course. Bowden considers it one of the most fulfilling projects of his career.

“I’ve had a lot of fun projects, but that one took about 14 years. It is a labor of love when you start off with an original site,” he says.

The site was a former Unocal research facility with contaminated soil that needed to be cleaned up and reclaimed. Unocal decided to become the master developer for the property and hired a land planning firm to assist with the layout and overall planning.

After Chevron acquired Unocal, it decided to continue with the project. “We were in right on the ground floor of that project. We took it all the way from its inception to the end.”

Land Concern had 45 employees in the 1990s, but the company has scaled back to around 15 today.

“Our main focus has always been and will probably always continue to be residential housing, especially large-scale master planned residential developments,” says Bowden, though the high costs and lack of buildable land in California has more of Land Concern’s clients looking outside of the state.

A new market opportunity Land Concern has been trying to capitalize on is 55-plus housing for seniors, along with assisted living and memory care housing. “With the aging baby boomer population, this is a market that is very underserved at the moment and the potential for growth in this area is pretty high,” Bowden says.

A great ride

Bowden’s dedication to design work goes beyond his office walls. He currently serves as the vice chair for the California Landscape Architects Technical Committee, California’s regulatory authority for the practice of landscape architecture. He served under Govs. Schwarzenegger and Brown three times as chair.

Land Concern doesn’t settle for being “good enough,” according Bowden.

“We are not interested in taking on projects that don’t want the best results. We want to go that extra mile it might take to take a project that is ‘just another landscape’ to one that is memorable, enjoyable and sustainable.”

It’s those types of projects both past, present and future and love for the industry that make Bowden deserving of his latest honors, being elevated to Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects, a Green Industry Hall of Fame inductee and being featured as Irrigation & Green Industry magazine’s July’s Close-Up Profile.

The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at