Diverse Firms Will Have Competitive Advantage

ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting general session / ASLA
ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting general session / ASLA

“The United States will be a majority-minority country by 2043,” said Kona Gray, ASLA, a principal at EDSA, at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans. Unfortunately, landscape architects have been slow to adapt to this new reality, as the profession is still overwhelmingly white. Soon they must realize that “diverse firms will hold the competitive advantage.” This is because increasingly-diverse clients want to see someone who looks like themselves on the other side of the table.

ASLA’s plenary hosted a dynamic and diverse panel, with Gray, a firm principal and African American; Ron Sims, a former deputy secretary of the department of housing and urban development and African American; Mark Rios, FASLA, a founder of Rios Clementi Hale, and a “hybrid” gay man of European and Mexican heritage; Diana Fernandez, ASLA, a landscape architect with Sasaki Associates and a Dominican who emigrated to the U.S. at a young age; and Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, a principal at OLIN and Caucasian.

Each panelist brought a unique perspective on diversity:

“Diversity is what makes life interesting,” Rios argued. Much of his work is in Los Angeles, where 54 percent of the population doesn’t speak English at home; instead they speak one of 224 languages. He said diversity can be celebrated through “authentic, genuine, appropriate, complex, layered, rich stories.” These stories can be told through ecological and cultural diversity in landscapes.

Fernandez, who “grew up in the ghetto,” said “landscape architects haven’t caught up. A diversity of design means a diversity of creative experiences.” Diverse landscape architects can “better relate to the diverse people they serve.” She wants more diverse firms to step up their engagement in underserved multiracial communities.

Landscape architects “should embrace other cultures because other cultures have something to share,” said Gray, who grew up in Liberia, western Africa. His firm, EDSA, encourages diversity and finances a scholarship for minorities. This is all part of an effort to better “respect other cultures and mirror the people we serve.”

Diverse firms may do even more to help diverse communities. For Sims, it’s critical that landscape architects help those communities most in need, which are also those with the least amount of green space and trees. “Zip codes are a life determinant. We can map tree canopies, and the places with more trees have improved life outcomes.”

Sanders, who perhaps acted as a bridge to the largely-white audience, argued that “embracing change is hard. We retreat to habits of the mind. We are not separate from each other, but it takes work for most people to see others as the same. It’s vitally important that we connect with the common core of humanity. Every life matters and everyone deserves respect.”

Asked by Gray what firms can do to boost diversity right now, each responded:

Rios: “Diversity has to be a deliberate decision. Figure out what you can do to contribute. Write it down like a business plan. Set goals to make your practice more diverse and act on them.”

Sanders: “The opportunity to be on this panel has been transforming for me. I’ve signed up for a course at the university on hidden bias. Every firm needs to do something.”

Fernandez: “Sasaki conducted a survey on diversity and discovered it had a lot of work to do. Our profession realized it didn’t reflect the people it serves. There was a lot of candid conversations. There needs to be conversation around implicit bias.”

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