Cal Poly Landscape Architecture Student Wins LAF’s Olmsted Scholar Award

by Simeon Johnson

Cal Poly’s landscape architecture program continues to produce exceptional students dedicated to creating sustainable and socially impactful designs. Recently, Maryam Abutabikh earned the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s prestigious Olmsted Scholar Award. She was recognized for her exceptional leadership throughout the program and her commitment to advancing sustainable design for societal benefit.    

Abutabikh’s journey into landscape architecture began with a passion for design and the built environment. While initially considering a career in architecture, her interest gradually shifted towards creating spaces encouraging people to spend time outdoors and fostering community engagement in public spaces. This realization led her to pursue landscape architecture, where she found the perfect avenue to merge her design aspirations with her desire to impact communities positively.    

Throughout her studies, Abutabikh experienced a supportive and collaborative environment at Cal Poly. Faculty members Ellen Burke, Miran Day and Cesar Torres took active roles in nurturing her critical thinking skills and teaching her to analyze the environment through a lens of scale and interactions. Learning from her peers’ work was instrumental in her growth as a landscape architect.  

Through her time in the program, Abutabikh honed her style and developed a deep understanding of what was meaningful to her in the profession. With the guidance of faculty, she set a course for herself that focused on creating spaces that brought people together and made them feel included, appreciated and validated.  

For her capstone project, Abutabikh took a personal and impactful approach. Drawing inspiration from her family’s background as Iraqi immigrants settling in San Diego, she sought to create interventions that would aid in the assimilation of Iraqi and Syrian refugees in the community of El Cajon.   

Throughout the development of her project, Abutabikh demonstrated her ability to think critically and approach problem-solving with care. She conducted extensive research on existing refugee resettlement services in the San Diego area, identifying gaps that she could address through landscape architecture. The result was a physical design proposal for El Cajon, utilizing modular elements to promote inclusivity and meet the unique needs of the refugee community.    

Abutabikh’s recognition as an Olmsted Scholar Award recipient reflects her personal character and design skills. She explained that for the application, she was initially nominated by faculty and later was required to submit two essays and some additional materials. Several months later, she was surprised and honored to learn she was selected. 

“It was very exciting, and it really made me feel happy that I actually was being taken seriously to have a chance to actually implement some of the stuff that I proposed in my capstone project into the city, especially because I am from San Diego and it’s just such a special place to me, and it’s a special community. It really took my breath away honestly, that I would win that. It just felt so real, and it made me feel like I have learned and grown so much in the program to the point where I have gotten here,” she explained.  

Looking ahead, Abutabikh plans to reach out to the city to explore opportunities for implementing elements of her capstone project. While the $15,000 budget may limit the scope of her endeavor, she aims to focus on small but tangible interventions such as outdoor kitchens and signage that guide people to essential services. She hopes to create a meaningful impact by collaborating with the city and inspiring further community-based design projects.  

Abutabikh’s journey exemplifies the quality of Cal Poly’s landscape architecture program. Her passion for creating spaces that foster inclusivity and improve communities reflects her character and the guidance of the faculty that mentored her over the past five years.   

As she moves forward with her career, Abutabikh will undoubtedly continue to leave a lasting impact on the landscape architecture field and those who benefit from her innovative designs. 

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