A Growing Career
Watching an idea transform from a design on paper into a beautiful and integral part of a community is what keeps Kris Sorich (M.A.S. LAND ’14) in the landscape architecture business.
In a prior life, that wasn’t the case, as Sorich constantly saw her landscape creations wither. Plugging away in the private sector, she saw meticulously planned landscaping designs fade away as owners neglected maintenance. Then in 2000, an open position with the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) provided an opportunity to ensure that her designs would remain integrated in the community for decades to come.
Now, every green space project involving CDOT, from major developments to local road changes, come across Sorich’s desk in one way or another.
You can thank her for the new urban pollinator habitats at what was once the most dangerous intersection in Chicago: at Damen, Elston, and Fullerton streets. The Wells-Wentworth Connector project, which connects Cermak Road in the city’s Chinatown neighborhood to the South Loop neighborhood along the Chicago River, is something that she’s worked on since 2013 and is planned for its opening in spring 2023.
These are only a few of the hundreds of designs touched by Sorich.
The path that Sorich took to CDOT was filled with fits and stops. After working in finance for a decade, earning a degree, and eventually becoming a senior auditor, she wanted a way out. “I was searching for the negative; I don’t think I could have done that forever,” she says.
Thus began Sorich’s search for a new chapter in life. She started writing down a list of everything that she enjoyed—down to the smallest hobby. Gardening earned a spot on the list, as she had taken to planting flowers. This idea sparked enough interest to send her back to school to become an “architect of the land.” She explained that, “If you think of a landscape painting, you see the Earth and its natural environment and man-made environments as a whole. Landscape architects work their magic within that realm.”
Sorich enrolled at Joliet Junior College and graduated with an associate’s degree in horticulture and landscape in 1996. “I quit my job, took a pay cut, and started my own business,” she says.
Sorich’s landscape architecture business didn’t last long. She was “doing more accounting than anything,” and left for Gethsemane Design Group, where she worked on residential landscaping projects. She found success, bringing in more than $1 million in project sales in her three seasons of employment.
“I try to make sure everyone understands landscape architecture, as a discipline, is not just about pretty flowers.” —Kris Sorich
But Sorich also saw the depressing aftermath of her projects: the flowers, shrubs, and trees that she hand-picked for each design would falter and die. “I would pass these houses I designed all this work for, and they were not maintained,” Sorich says.
Then she heard about the job at CDOT, which appealed to her. However, she did not have a landscape architecture registration, a title awarded solely by the state. So, she enrolled at Illinois Institute of Technology’s College of Architecture to pursue a master’s degree in landscape architecture. From 2007 until her graduation in 2014, she worked around her work schedule, co-parenting two children and caring for her father while he battled cancer to earn that degree. “It was a crazy time, and I still don't know how I managed it,” she says.
Sorich’s educational journey left a deep impact on her work. “Anyone who knows my story would mention the seven years I spent at [the College of Architecture],” she says.
Sorich now heads the landscape management section in CDOT’s engineering division; She’s also the sole employee in the department that holds the state-mandated landscape architecture title.
When she gets involved in a CDOT project early, she can guide a development team by showcasing how to incorporate landscape architectural elements in ways that are functional and aesthetically pleasing, while also building safe and complete streets. She also advises landscape architect design consultants as to what plant species thrive in the urban condition and Chicago’s hostile summer-winter weather cycle.
She advocates for environmental and renewable technologies while delving into aspects such as land grading and drainage, green infrastructure, stormwater management, and placemaking on the grand scale.
“Advocating for her involvement in a project early makes a big difference in the final project,” says Bridget Stalla, a former CDOT employee who worked with Sorich for two decades. Stalla notes that, at times, developers and subcontractors submitted project drafts to the city without consulting Sorich, to their detriment.
“In a sea of engineering and construction, Kris always sees something we don’t because it isn’t our focus. She can see the beauty in things that people wouldn’t point out,” Stalla adds.
Sorich has had to move and adapt with Chicago over the years. That meant integrating cycling into road projects as well as increasing community outreach to incorporate neighborhood desires.
Outside the office, Sorich advocates for landscape architecture in the civic sector—something she says is sorely lacking. She points out the overall lack of recognition for civic projects in the wider architectural field. While architects in other areas get their names on a plaque, landscape architects often remain unsung heroes.
“What we do in public practice is way different than working with a design firm. It’s about coordination, community outreach, and long-term ownership,” Sorich says. “I try to make sure everyone understands landscape architecture, as a discipline, is not just about pretty flowers.” •