It’s Time to Get Political

Earth Day political rally, National Mall, Washington, D.C. / Earth Day
Earth Day political rally, National Mall, Washington, D.C. / Earth Day

Social justice. Environmental stewardship. Enduring aesthetic beauty. An expanded role for landscape architects. These were the predominant themes in the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)’s Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

These goals are admirable and worthy of the profession’s best efforts. But what many of the speakers at the summit neglected to discuss – as did the authors of the original declaration 50 years ago, upon which LAF was established – is that landscape architects must increase their access to power if their hope of a society more reflective of their core values is to be realized. The act of envisioning alternative futures – something landscape architects excel at – is a political act. It’s time we build upon our design acumen by participating directly in the legislative landscape.

So when the LAF asks what we need to prioritize over the next 50 years, my answer is the continued development of design intelligence through research and practice is a necessary but insufficient means of achieving the profession’s lofty ambitions. We also need a strategy for placing more landscape architects into the elected, appointed, and bureaucratic offices where the big decisions about how to plan, design, and manage the land are made. This is how we construct a positive feedback loop between private and academic practice, which can bring invention and creativity, and government, which offers a tremendous scale of impact.

Building this electoral infrastructure won’t be easy, but it should become a core component of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)’s and the LAF’s post-summit work. These organizations can create a mechanism for identifying and supporting potential candidates for public office from within the profession.

Though the profession is not in the same financial position as, say, trial lawyers, the good news is many of the most impactful elected positions are not prohibitively expensive to pursue. There are 7,382 state legislative offices, most of which are part-time and would allow landscape architects to remain in their private practice or academic positions. The same is true of the nearly 1,500 city council positions that are spread across the nation’s largest 250 cities. Surely our profession can muster a handful of worthy and willing candidates for at least a few of the nearly 9,000 positions available to our members.

In addition to putting some of our established and emerging voices forward as candidates for elected office, the ASLA and LAF should partner with academic departments of landscape architecture to build a pipeline for placing our new graduates in the state and federal agencies responsible for regulating and financing the bulk of our professional work: the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Bureau of Land Management, among others.

Fortunately, much of this work has already been done for us. The Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) program, a two-year leadership development program aimed at recruiting and grooming the next generation of public servants, is readily available to anyone who has recently earned a graduate degree. The ASLA and LAF are already planning to host a series of webinars aimed at guiding landscape architecture graduate students through the PMF application process. They should now look for ways to provide incentives for students who are interested in pursuing this path, including travel scholarships to and from the PMF interview sites.

ASLA should also create professional and student award categories that recognize excellence in policy-related work. And our academic departments should better prepare our students for this option by broadening the scope of design education to include coursework in policy analysis and, where appropriate, dual-degree offerings in landscape architecture and public policy.

Our colleagues in architecture and urban planning blazed this path decades ago, and their dominance in professional staff ranks of the HUD, DOT, and EPA reflect the success of their strategy. HUD’s award criteria for its Choice Neighborhoods grant program is nearly identical to that of the LEED Neighborhood Development (ND) rating system developed by architects and planners in the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU). Their influence on this vital program is not the result of boisterous or pleading rhetoric. It is because the Choice Neighborhoods program, and many others like it, was designed by the CNU’s own architects and planners — people like Shelley Poticha, Polly Trottenberg, and Shaun Donovan. Ceding this professional space to CNU planners and architects is akin to sitting at home on Election Day and complaining about the results.

As a junior staffer in the White House Domestic Policy Council during President Obama’s first term, I worked alongside many of these professionals. I remain convinced that for landscape architects to achieve a level of success commensurate with the scale of their stated ambitions, they must wade directly into the muck and mire of electoral politics. CNU became the conduits for channeling the creativity and intelligence of planning and architectural practice into the rule-making and regulatory power of the federal government. It’s time that ASLA and LAF do the same.

This guest post is by Billy Fleming, Student ASLA, doctor of city and regional planning candidate, University of Pennsylvania.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s