“When we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, what are we actually talking about?,” asked Thaisa Way, FASLA, program director of landscape and garden studies at Dumbarton Oaks, in a session with Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, director of landscape architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington; and Mitchell Silver, NYC commissioner of parks and recreation, at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego.
“Diversity means difference but it’s complex. Diversity has been described as bringing different people to the table, but that’s not real diversity. We actually have to change the table. Equity is about fairness, but it’s also complex. Fair for whom? And inclusion is about creating spaces ‘for all people,’ but how do we design for all people?”
Way made these points to say that “our language really matters.”
She applauded the efforts of ASLA and its members to make landscape architecture a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive profession. “The ASLA diversity summits have been an important project.” But what needs to happen next is for Caucasian landscape architects to “give up some of our privilege and power.”
“Landscape architects can provide a voice and be a tool for vulnerable communities,” Allen said. Through her work with vulnerable communities in New Orleans, Louisiana, she found that diversity, equity, and inclusion is “what happens on the ground.”
After Hurricane Katrina, Charity Hospital, which was a crucial community teaching hospital, was shut down by Louisiana State University and instead merged into city’s new medical center in the lower Mid-City neighborhood. “The community was upset. This is the place you went with an emergency, like a gun shot wound, and where the indigent went for care.”
The Greater New Orleans Foundation stepped in, leading a new master planning process for a Spirit of Charity Innovation District, with the goal of redeveloping the old hospital as a new mixed-use district. “If this was to be an inclusive process, participation is needed.”
Allen coordinated the engagement effort, which involved using both online and on-the-street surveys at transit stops and food trucks, events specifically tailored for kids and families, and reaching out directly to the homeless. Her team also organized community workshops, both large and small planning and design charrettes. At a second set of charrettes, the results of the surveys and feedback were then presented back to the community. Local residents saw the need for a pharmacy, clinic, and steps to address homelessness.
Findings from the community listening process were compiled in a summary report, which proposed steps to achieve “continual engagement,” and then given to the design team and developers.
In another project — the Claiborne Cultural Innovation District — Allen and her team helped local stakeholders better understand the needs of the community that had been split by the insertion of Interstate 10 through New Orleans. “We learned they didn’t want to take the highway down, because they feared gentrification would then happen, and the space they had claimed underneath the highway would be gone.”
Through a comprehensive engagement process, her team learned the community also didn’t want the underpass turned into all green space. “You can’t second line or have a parade through green infrastructure.” The goal instead became “how to stabilize the cultural activities that were already happening and better connect the site to the community’s Moorish, French, and Spanish histories.” The result was a master plan for 19 blocks that included a Garden of the Moors and a marketplace. “We didn’t want to over-design; we wanted to reinforce what they were already doing.”
Allen believes engagement summary reports are a “critical prerequisite” for any project.
For Silver, the problem is that “diversity, equity, and inclusion are too often merged together, like they are the same thing. They are not the same thing. If we are going to use the words, we need to better understand the emotion and intent behind them.”
He traced the history of the social equity movement from the Suffragettes, who advocated for women’s right to vote at the beginning of the 20th century, to the African American and LGBT civil rights movement in the 1960s, the social and environmental justice movements of the 1990s, and then national debates on fairness, affordability, and gentrification that began in the wake of the 2008 “Great Recession.”
For Silver, “equity is about fairness. Whether you are 5 or 50, you know what is fair or not.”
When Silver came on board, New York City had spent more than $6 billion to improve parks over a 20 year period. But still too many neighborhood parks throughout the five boroughs were in such poor condition that “you wouldn’t let your children or grandchildren go in at anytime of day.” Through an in depth analysis, Silver’s team found that 215 parks had seen little or no capital improvements over those 20 years. “That wasn’t fair and had to change.”
With some $300 million, Silver initiated a program that has redesigned some 67 parks, turning decrepit places into multi-functional green spaces with adult fitness equipment, spray parks, playgrounds, and green infrastructure to capture stormwater. The new parks were also redesigned to be multi-generational. “Seniors like to sit at the periphery, so more seating was added to the perimeters of parks.”
Furthermore, earlier regulations didn’t allow adults, except in the company of a minor, to access play spaces. For many seniors looking for shade on a hot summer day, that rule could cause them to walk another 10 blocks to find a seat. Silver’s team did away with the regulation.
Of the 67 parks targeted for redevelopment, some 45 have been completed. In the new parks, “usage rates are up 15 percent” on average.
Other inclusive public space programs include: the Creative Courts program the city has undertaken to bring in artists to paint basketball courts across the city; the AfroPunk festival, held in Commodore Barry Park in Brooklyn each year; and the incorporation of BBQs and picnic spaces across public parks and plazas, which allows people of all colors and ethnicities to “go eat, connect, and have fun.”
Mitchell argued that the broad case for planning and designing for diversity can’t be economic, a marketing ploy, or a scheme to win more business. “Diversity is about the value of having different perspectives and being socially and morally responsible.” The reality is that by 2030, the majority of U.S. households will be single persons; and by 2040, majority-minority.
In the Q&A, discussion veered towards how to make room for multiple histories in a landscape. Allen said she is “always looking to history as it’s the source of inspiration and transformation.” But she also acknowledged that reintepretations of public spaces can bring up conversations like: “whose history are you going to use — African American, or Native American, or Caucasian?”
“There’s a real tension, which is the exciting part. Things change; history is in flux.” But conflict can arise when there is the feeling that “you are erasing our history to talk about their’s.”
Mitchell believes “demographic change is making a lot of people uncomfortable.” Communities need to learn there are “multiple histories side by side.” But they have to go through this process of reaching a new understanding together.