07 May 2024

Longtime Charleston landscape architect helps create responsible built environment

By Jenny Peterson

For the past 27 years, Amy Chico has had a hand in helping shape Charleston’s built environment.

She has worked her way up to Senior Vice President with HLA, a prominent Charleston surveying, land planning, civil engineering, wetland permitting and landscape architecture firm.

When she started, she was a minority in the male-driven field in the late 1990s. Last year, however, she was part of a strong woman-led team that planned and designed the City of North Charleston’s Park Circle project, with one of the world’s largest inclusive playgrounds that opened late last year and includes an inclusive baseball field, a farmers market pavilion, nature garden, open green space and walking trails.

“I love seeing a project come to life from when you see it on a plan and then see it in person,” Chico said. “Recently I was driving around Oakfield on Johns Island and, as I drove, I knew exactly where all the streets were laid out because I worked on the master plan.”

Chico grew up in Columbia, Maryland, in the suburbs between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., in a 1970s-era planned community.  Chico enjoyed village centers, neighborhood pools and interconnected bike paths.

At West Virginia University, a freshman-year introduction to landscape architecture class led to a passion for the profession and she earned a bachelor of science in landscape architecture, with a focus on planning.

“Our program had a strong focus on design theory — a lot of people think landscape architecture is all about landscaping your backyard, but we were studying art and site engineering and how to apply it as environmental design to improve the quality of life.  The upfront site research and master planning is what I really like,” Chico said.

After graduating in 1995, Chico worked for a female landscape architect and then a larger engineering firm in Maryland before deciding to move to Charleston along with a sorority sister.

Chico began sending out her resume locally, including sending a letter to a very famous Charlestonian—longtime mayor Joe Riley, asking about job opportunities.

“I didn’t know who he was, but saw he was an honorary landscape architect and was listed in the American Society of Landscape Architects and I sent him my resume,” Chico laughs. “They were not hiring for the city, but I got a very nice letter back from him.”

Chico’s first job in Charleston was for a small firm that focused only on civil engineering. She then saw an ad in the newspaper for a job at HLA that would allow her to focus more on landscape architecture. The rest is history.

“I will be celebrating 27 years with HLA in May,” Chico said.

The firm has surveying, civil engineering, and landscape architecture experts in-house and a reputation to be a true partner with developers and land owners building large and small-scale projects in the Charleston area in industrial, commercial, and residential markets.

“HLA’s focuses on community betterment, it's great to have all three disciplines under one roof as we work together on a project right from the start,” Chico said.

As senior vice-president and director of the landscape architecture department, her job involves working with clients from the beginning, gathering information about the scope of their desired project, identifying any environmental constraints and working through city and county ordinances and regulations including evaluating the existing conditions, setbacks, buffers, water and sewer feasibility, parking, wetlands and much more. After nearly three decades, Chico is an expert at the preparation and work that goes into permitting the Charleston environment.

“It's doing due diligence and site analysis research,” Chico said. “It’s creating a vision for a client and determining the potential for their property.”

Despite the tedious work that goes into seeing these projects to fruition —including navigating the city’s and county’s extensive permitting process—the reward is a carefully-planned and well-enjoyed development that adds to the Charleston landscape, a place she holds close to her heart, where she found her lifelong career, met her husband and raised her two daughters.

The large and expansive inclusive playground in North Charleston’s Park Circle neighborhood was a groundbreaking project in many ways—including that it happened to have a predominately women-led leadership and design team deeply involved in the project that included Kathy Kackley, the Deputy Director of the Recreation Department at the City of North Charleston, Emma Souder and Joellen Rogers from Red Iron Architects, Adriana Carson and Kat Stafford from HLA and Denise Badillo, Director of Procurement for the City of North Charleston.

Trends in Development

Chico is excited that there has been a push in the Charleston area to bring a larger variety of housing products to the market to hopefully start creating more affordable housing options.

“It can be achieved by increasing density, mixing housing types, and offering developer incentives,” Chico said. “To improve housing affordability, it does not require subsidized housing by the government. It can be improved by bringing more housing options to the market, through well-designed policies and reduced permitting delay.”

Chico regularly volunteers for Charleston Habitat for Humanity and serves on their Board, where their mission is to build homes for purchase by a homeowner making between 35 and 80 percent of the median income (AMI) and are selected based on their need.

“Homeownership can change someone's life and the life of their generations to come,” she said.

Other design trends by developers are to thoughtfully include more green space and gathering spaces, like adding promenades and open space for events like outdoor movie nights. Chico has worked with many developers and landowners, including applying for grant money that can be used for adding green space. She said there has also been a stronger focus on using native plants in landscape designs for long-term sustainability.

“Developers aren't putting in community pools (as much), but they're putting in gathering spaces, whether it's for playing bocce ball or a picnic pavilion. One project we did on Johns Island even involved a community garden,” Chico said. “Having open plazas in a commercial center has been a trend, like the one under design at Southwind Station on Johns Island.”

A new Low Tide brewery relocation and expansion project on Johns Island, that HLA is working on, will have expansive green space and event space and will allow for an interconnection to future greenways to surrounding neighborhoods, perfect for bicycles and golf carts.

“They are adding amenities that are attractive for young families and there will be space for a future playground,” Chico said. “In this development world, it’s exciting to hear about and work on a wide range of projects before they are known to the general public. These are projects that have a positive economic development impact or smaller affordable housing projects that could change lives in our Charleston community.”


Amy Chico

Senior Vice President, Director of Landscape Architecture at HLA

Hometown: Columbia, Maryland

Education: Bachelor of Science in Landscape Architecture, West Virginia University

Family: Warren Chico (Husband), two daughters, Amelia, (20) & Julia (17)

Hobbies: volunteering at Charleston Habitat for Humanity- I am fortunate to serve on their board of directors, listening to books on tape and podcasts, working out with friends

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