Harvard’s “Black in Design” Conference: Addressing Social Injustice with Design

Black in Design / Harvard Graduate School of Design’s African American Student Union
Black in Design / Harvard Graduate School of Design’s African American Student Union

This year’s ASLA graduating student survey shows that for the third continuous year only 1 percent of graduates are African American or Native American. So Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD)’s first Black in Design (BiD) conference, which sold out, is a particularly important event.

The student organizers argued that addressing social injustice through design starts with two steps: revealing “the histories of under-represented groups in design,” and acknowledging that designers have a responsibility to “repair our broken built environment.” Four hundred designers, including landscape architects, architects, and planners, met to discuss these ideas in panels focused on changing design education and how we design buildings, neighborhoods, cities, and regions.

Sara Zewde, a 2014 National Olmsted Scholar and designer at Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, and Dr. Sonja Dümpelmann, associate professor of landscape architecture at GSD and senior fellow at Dumbarton Oaks, spoke about race and landscape architecture.

Zewde presented her work in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which combines drawn and animated interpretations of cultural events with neighborhood feedback. Her goal is to translate black experiences into designed spaces.

In response to an audience member’s concern that she is designing as an outsider to the community, Zewde asserted, “my design process is about re-establishing trust with black communities, because the system has failed them so many times before.” This resonated, and the audience of emerging and established designers loudly applauded.

Meditating on the conference’s meaning, Zewde observed that “the chasm between the words ‘black’ and ‘design’” is related to the treatment of “black and urban” as synonyms. The contributions of black people to the built urban environment are too often “unrecognized.”

Dümpelmann spoke of the need to revise landscape history to include African-Americans and women, and topics like segregation, emancipation, and multi-racial landscapes. “Survey classes,” she stated, “need to address race.” She cited just a few topics worthy of study, including Frederick Law Olmsted’s “Negro Parks” in Birmingham, Alabama; park as tools of racial segregation; and the spatial layout of plantations.

Expanding the definition of designer while revising history can also help undo the marginalization of blacks’ role in the built environment, Dümpelmann asserted.

For example, she showed a children’s book illustration depicting a Brooklyn grandmother, who while white, organized a multi-racial coalition to protect a rare Magnolia tree (Magnolia grandiflora) in the face of a 1970s’ federal urban renewal project. This is the true story of Bedford-Stuyvesant resident Hattie Carthan, who coordinated a grassroots movement that convinced developers to preserve the tree and three brownstone apartments.

Hattie Carthan Community Food Circle / Hattie Carthan Community Food Market
Hattie Carthan Community Food Circle / Hattie Carthan Community Food Market

Revising history also allows black designers to expand their knowledge of what is possible when designing future landscapes.

After graduating this summer from Cornell University’s masters of landscape architecture program, I worked on reforestation planning in Cleveland. I thought about what it means to practice in the United States as a white American landscape architect. The parallel realities of racial segregation in Cleveland and the lack of diversity in the profession of landscape architecture were inescapable.

The Racial Dot Map: One Dot Per Person for the Entire U.S. Colored Dots represent 2010 Census Block Data, where blue, green, orange, red, and brown represent White, Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American/Other/Multi-Racial, respectively / Cable, Dustin A. University of Virginia, Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.
The Racial Dot Map: One Dot Per Person for the Entire U.S. Colored Dots represent 2010 Census Block Data, where blue, green, orange, red, and brown represent White, Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American/Other/Multi-Racial, respectively / Cable, Dustin A. University of Virginia, Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

ASLA’s graduating student survey provides a quantitative benchmark from which the landscape architecture field can work towards a more balanced reflection of American society. While African American and Native American students remain at 1 percent of the landscape architecture student body and the share of Hispanic students dropped to 8 percent, these populations make up 32 percent of the general population, according to recent census estimates.

The under-representation of black designers is apparent, but for two days, BiD created a unique and necessary platform — it invited designers of all races to the table, rather than designers of color alone.

This guest post is by Petra Marar, Student ASLA.

One thought on “Harvard’s “Black in Design” Conference: Addressing Social Injustice with Design

  1. Urban Choreography 10/26/2015 / 4:17 am

    Reblogged this on Urban Choreography and commented:
    There is a very high need in Southern Africa for black professional graduates to bring a balance of cultures and approaches to the field, but it seems that there is a lack of interest on the part of students to enter a discipline that pays its interns and employees so poorly, and has so few opportunities for scholarships and bursary support.

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