Throughout the Congress for New Urbanism’s Virtual Gathering, landscape architects, planners, architects, and developers struggled to figure out how the pandemic is impacting communities and the built environment — and tried to foresee what changes are coming in the near future.
Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities will experience disproportionate negative impacts in the form of higher mortality rates, illnesses, bankruptcies, and evictions. Some also foresee a significant decrease in public financing for affordable housing developments.
There is also the fear that people are retreating to their cars, which are now viewed as “armored bubbles,” and to the suburbs — a trend that could lead to greater suburban sprawl, increasing transportation costs, and a steep rise in greenhouse gas emissions.
A few optimists argued that dense cities and communities, along with affordable and subsidized housing, multi-family housing, and transit-oriented development, will weather the storm. People will still be drawn to walkable communities and being near one another. Resilient communities will find a way, like during other recessions.
Low-income Communities Are at Greater Risk
In a session that looked at low-income neighborhoods in cities, Kit McCullough, an urban designer and lecturer at the University of Michigan, emphasized the need to protect and invest in communities where hospitality and restaurant workers live — places where COVID-19 is already exacerbating existing economic strain.
Small affordable housing property owners facing financial problems are increasingly at risk of being bought out by large Wall Street-backed development firms. This would result in more “wealth extraction in low-income communities” in the form of higher rents and increased evictions.
Many people who used to rely on transit to get to work must now use a car, which is a more expensive transportation option and “adds economic pressure.”
John Sivills, lead urban designer with Detroit’s planning department, added that “if you can decamp from the city, that says something about your income level.” In Detroit, the community has “rediscovered the value of public spaces” given most don’t have the funds to leave.
COVID-19 Requires New Urban Models
In another session, Mukul Maholtra, a principal at MIG, focused on how COVID-19 is impacting BIPOC communities much more than others.
“Black Americans die from COVID-19 at three times the rate of white Americans.” In tribal lands in New Mexico and elsewhere, “there are much higher fatality rates among Native Americans.” He called for investing in “healthy density” that works for everyone.
Christopher Leinberger, a land use strategist, developer, and author, said correlations between COVID-19 and metropolitan area density are “spurious and unproven.” He said “walkable urbanism has been through this before — crime, terrorism, and now the pandemic.”
There are three challenges to a rebound in cities: “lost jobs in the ‘experience economy’ — retail, restaurants, sports, and festivals — which is what makes ‘walkable urbanism’ special; transit safety; and land costs.”
He blames zoning and not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) forces for skyrocketing land costs and gentrification in cities like Washington, D.C. The answer is allowing greater density where land prices are high and making walkable, mixed-use development legal in more places.
Public Financing Will Be Increasingly Unavailable
Andrés Duany, an architect, planner, and one of the most influential New Urbanists, said a total “rethink of New Urbanism is needed,” because the public funds that make many walkable developments possible have disappeared.
The pandemic is expected to have a negative impact on city and state budgets into the near future, which means far less public funds available for transit, affordable and subsidized housing, transit-oriented development, and the public portions of public-private partnerships. “Everyone is broke. There will be no capital budget and no tax credits anymore.”
Demand for walkable communities as currently defined will decrease. “Home deliveries are way up because neighborhood ‘third places‘ [such as coffeeshops, book stores, grocery stores, etc] have become toxic. And transit now equals death.”
Duany also foresees a rise in social instability in the U.S., and perhaps gangs of “marauders.” This is because “110 million Americans have no savings” and are facing rising healthcare costs and unemployment and failing social safety nets.
He proposed rapidly expanding mobile home communities, given they are subject to fewer regulations and therefore lower cost. Abundant and cheap old shipping containers could be used as the base of new modular mobile home reached via a staircase.
Through her research into 2,000 suburban developments that have been retrofitted for other uses, she has found that “urbanism is the new amenity.”
In the suburbs, people increasingly want walkable, mixed-use developments that offer “experiential retail.” Dead malls have meant growth for small town main streets. Dead strip malls are being reused as offices or healthcare centers. Big box stores have been converted into markets with small vendors.
“The pandemic could mean more urbanites return to the suburbs. Office parks could be refilled, instead of infilled. There could also be more experimental suburban public spaces.” In this scenario, the car is an “armored bubble” that offers a sense of safety in a world filled with dangerous viruses.
But ultimately, she thinks the pandemic will mean walkable places will become even more valuable. If you can live and work from anywhere, “the quality of place will matter even more.”
Demand for Different Residential Amenities
In a session focused on how home design may change with COVID-19, Paul Whalen, a partner at Robert A.M. Stern Architects, said with many people cooped up at home, “visual and audio privacy, cross-ventilation, and multiple rooms that provide space for extended family” are becoming more important.
Homeowners and renters also now want separate spaces for making the transition from street to home, a “clear entrance where they can change out of clothes and take off shoes.”
Interior designer Kiki Dennis sees a changing relationship between public and private spaces within homes. Home offices are becoming semi-public domains that co-workers can see on Zoom, so they are being expanded and re-configured.
There is also much greater demand for residential outdoor spaces. “Underused outdoor spaces are being converted.”
“Ultra-luxe residential fixtures” like automatic sliding doors, face and hand readers, and personal elevators may trickle down to the masses, said Brian O’Looney with Torti Gallas + Partners. In some buildings in the Middle East, when an elevator is in use, it is locked and can’t be accessed by others in the building. This technology could become more widespread in denser cities.
Bill Gietema, a developer with Arcadia Realty Corporation, said people are buying homes online without seeing them in person.
“People want double ovens so they can bake more, expanded kitchens, home offices, workout spaces, and porches.” Some are simply lifting their garage doors to create a porch-like environment.
Multi-family housing complex designs are also shifting to include much more outdoor space and larger balconies.
A recent survey of developers that create large-scale community developments found that 16 percent are adding more shade; 22 percent, more parks; 23 percent, more trails; 57 percent, more bike lanes; and 42 percent, more playgrounds, which are now incorporating natural materials rather than steel and plastics. “There is a new desire to create a sense of community.”
In the end, though, Whalen believes many people who have fled cities will return to them. “People all want to be together. That’s why people live in cities.”
Once a vaccine has been developed, “there will be a joy in coming out of this together.”
COVID-19 has brought significant complexities to cities. Protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd and countless Black lives have filled our streets and public open spaces. Community leaders and designers, who are already scrambling to solve immediate public pandemic-related health issues, must take a hard look in the mirror and finally address systemic racism.
As the design professions investigate the way forward, many cities and communities are heading towards an uncertain future without a roadmap for addressing the pandemic and urban inequality.
In Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, a new normal has emerged through a center of protest against racial injustice, known as the Capitol Hill Occupy Protest (CHOP). The site organically formed as a result of protester standoffs with Seattle police officers in the streets, even while the pandemic has closed most of the city.
In an unexpected twist, the City of Seattle closed the police station and essentially gave the streets to the protesters. Nearly six blocks of city streets and Cal Anderson Park, a large Olmsted-designed park, have been occupied by hundreds of people who are redesigning the community.
Cal Anderson Park now includes freshly dug communal gardens and campers. The nearby streets are hosting bands, documentarians, speakers, and a shared food coop, art, and volunteer aid stations.
The creation of CHOP did not involve typical community meetings, street use permits, planning, and design. But the space galvanized Seattle’s historic undercurrent of resistance to expose injustices in Seattle.
CHOP is unlikely to survive long term but still demonstrates how quickly communities are re-organizing.
In April — prior to Mr. Floyd’s murder and the spontaneous creation of places like CHOP — seven University of Washington (UW) College of Built Environments Ph.D. students engaged community leaders, educators, urban planners, and landscape architects in a discussion on their predictions for a post-pandemic urban future. This conversation resulted in the Pandemic Urbanism Symposium held in May.
One panel discussed the importance of public space in the context of the pandemic and within the framework of equity, justice, and resilience. The panel was opened by UW faculty members Jeff Hou, ASLA, moderated by Catherine De Almeida, and featured four panelists: Jesús Aguirre, superintendent of Seattle Parks and Recreation; Cary Moon, citizen activist; Brice Maryman, FASLA, a principal landscape architect with MIG; and Cary Simmons, program director at the Trust for Public Land.
Of primary concern to all panelists was equitable access to public spaces from a social, economic, racial, and ethnic perspective.
The pandemic will further exacerbate inequalities in cities like Seattle, with a particular impact on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. One question lingered: how will the design professions simultaneously cultivate pandemic-resilient cities and break down the barriers of systemic racism?
Panelists discussed both long- and short-term solutions.
One important long-term solution, which could be similar to the New Deal of the 1930s, is to make a significant and equitable investment in public infrastructure — parks, housing, healthy ecosystems, and sanitation access. Greater investment in public infrastructure can help ensure prosperity for all citizens.
Other solutions include the Seattle Street Sink, which was designed and installed by a team of local architects and landscape architects. The innovative system creates immediate and equitable public access to hygiene, which can help stop the spread of disease. The simple act of washing one’s hands should be available to everyone.
Public park parking lots can be used as space for temporary housing, providing a place to live that has access to natural and recreational opportunities.
With the pandemic and protest movement, the door to address injustice, inequality, and the unhealthy nature of cities has been thrown wide open, creating opportunities for imaginative actions.
Kristi M. Park, ASLA, is a lecturer at University of Washington, an adjunct faculty member at Western Washington University, and principal of BioDesign Studio. Additional contributors include Jeff Hou, ASLA, and Erin Irby, Student ASLA.
As a first-generation Latina, I’m a person of color who believes in the significance of Black Lives Matter and expanding diversity in the field of landscape architecture.
An individual’s journey shapes their professional life. But having a profession is not always the case for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), who live daily with implicit bias resulting from systematic racism.
The “there’s no one to hire” response doesn’t cut it anymore. The good news is you are already creative designers and planners who champion solutions every day. Now you can champion change within your workplace and industry.
Early education is the key to spreading awareness of landscape architecture. Commit to mentoring K-12 students. With the recent shift to virtual meetings, mentoring a student anywhere in the United States is possible. Collaborate with your local ASLA, AIA, and APA chapters that have established K-12 outreach programs. Ask your firm to attend high school career fairs. Volunteer for ASLA’s Virtual Career Day and openly express your support to welcome and embrace diverse voices and life experiences.
During my master of landscape architecture education at North Carolina State University, I was fortunate to have a Latino professor, Fernando Magallanes, ASLA, who I related to not only because we looked alike but also because we freely and openly expressed our Latin selves. Rodney Swink, FASLA, was also pivotal in my engagement with ASLA.
Kofi Boone, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at NC State, continues to inspire. Reading Kofi’s Black Landscapes Matter, I’ve learned about Black landscapes in North Carolina that I was not aware of — and I grew up in North Carolina.
I’m very fortunate and proud to work for a company that is committed to equity and embraces my boisterous cultural identity. For several years, they have demonstrated their ongoing support by sponsoring panel speakers, webinars, and workshops that elevate diversity in the landscape architecture community.
Use your company’s voice and platform to share the work your colleagues are doing. This is a great way for BIPOC to get a glimpse into your company culture.
Do your project renderings and photo shoots include BIPOC, people of a variety of ages, and people with disabilities? Have you considered the inclusive or exclusive message these images portray?
Aprende Español! The ASLA Activity Book en Español is a great resource to learn the fundamental vocabulary of landscape architecture. Make the effort to communicate with your Latinx colleagues and employees en Español.
As we endure the COVID-19 pandemic that is literally wiping out BIPOC, the country has exploded with protests that call for safety and socio-economic equity.
I know what it means to feel afraid for the safety of my Black loved ones because they are identified by the color of their skin, not by their contribution to society, educational aspirations, smiles, love, and joy they bring to the world.
During a protest in Austin, Texas, I was in awe and bewilderment to discover protesters had shut down Interstate 35, the same interstate that divided Austin to create a “Negro District” via the 1928 master plan and subsequently was segregated by design to create a “ghetto for African Americas.”
During the protests, as I stood there in my truth, in my brown privilege, I felt a tremendous sadness for the lack of diversity in the landscape architecture profession.
Have you ever had to consider the lack of diverse representation of your race in your office, company, or profession? And the pain and sense of injustice it causes?
Walter Hood, ASLA, is the creative director and founder of Hood Design Studio in Oakland, California. He is also a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and lectures on professional and theoretical projects nationally and internationally. He is a recipient of the 2017 Academy of Arts and Letters Architecture Award, 2019 Knight Public Spaces Fellowship, 2019 MacArthur Fellowship, and 2019 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize.
What change do you think can result from the killing of George Floyd by the police and the Black Lives Matter protest movement against racial injustice and police violence? The movement has become global and supported by millions of people.
That’s a hard question. My first response is that we’ve been here before. In light of the pandemic and other things, I’m really hesitant to say there’s going to be some major changes in the way black people are regarded and accepted in our society. We’ve had these moments before.
What makes it really hard, as a person of color, is understanding our history. In my short life — I’m in my early 60s — I grew up in a segregated neighborhood. My school was integrated when I was in junior high. For the first time, at age 13 or 14, I started living with other people who didn’t look like me.
That’s the hardest and most difficult thing we’re not talking about: the racial construction of this country. We’ve only had 50 plus years where we’ve actually lived together in an integrated way. We have close to 300 plus years of living separately. So the idea that we can just all of a sudden flip the switch and people will change and accommodate the “other,” it’s a really tough one.
I don’t think we’re asking the right questions. You’ve listed these facts and metrics. Why are these numbers so high? When one looks back, why are we still policed in similar ways? Why are people of color harmed at a greater frequency?
In a country that was “separate but equal,” there had to be an institution to keep that separation and keep people in their place. We have had close to 100 years of the Jim Crow institution, keeping us in a subservient place. This is U.S. culture. Even post integration, we still have to look at these institutions, which go back to the founding and the development of the country. You can’t separate the two. We would like to, but they’re inextricably tied together.
It’s important to allow these issues and histories to come to a greater light and clarity, because now more people are interested in trying to understand this predicament than I’ve ever seen in any point in my life. The pandemic has a lot to do with it. People are thinking about the future. Everything is unsettled at this moment, and all the pieces have come together. It’s the perfect storm.
Black Landscapes Matter, a book you co-edited with Grace Mitchell Tada, which will be published November, came out of a lecture series you initiated in 2016 following police killings. In your book, TED Talk, and other writings, you have called for planning and designing landscapes that allow for a diversity of narratives and perspectives, instead of homogenized landscapes that just say one thing to one group of people. How do you bring out these different memories and histories in a landscape?
After the spree of police killings in 2016, we wanted to bring together people who could articulate different voices in the black community. I wanted the book to articulate what’s missing in how we design for other narratives, which is about difference. I say difference, not diversity — it’s about different ways of interpreting the world. When one puts out multiple narratives, they challenge the singular and its maintenance.
I’m thinking a lot these days about difference and sameness. Colonialism is about sameness. It takes difference and makes it into sameness. It does that to promote and maintain its construction. W.J.T. Mitchell talks about a double reading of landscape, a double semiotic.
Colonization is happening inside the colony, as ideologies are projected outside the colony. Our projection — America, home of the free, and the brave, diversity for all, “all men are created equal” — is sent out to the world. The Statue of Liberty, “give me your tired…” — all of these things. But inside, we’re being re-colonized to keep that narrative intact.
But that narrative is being torn. People are looking for other ways to see themselves and others around them. So in Black Landscapes Matter, we talk about different story lines.
If more people are aware of what is part of their environment, not just today but yesterday, and possibly even tomorrow, we’d have a different way of thinking about the world. In so many spaces in this country, something happened! It has not always been vacant and desolate, places exist! Placemaking is re-colonizing. Something is always there if you are interested in it.
Many of your projects are specifically focused on unearthing hidden layers, creating spaces for multiple consciousness. The International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, tells the story of slaves arriving in the port of Charleston and their descendants. A master plan for the Rosa Parks neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan, explores the history of the movement for racial equality. Double Sights, a public art piece at Princeton University, expands the interpretation of the many sides of former Princeton and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Navigating through all these layers of history, how do you get to the essentials and make planning and design decisions that really resonate?
For me, it’s the willingness to want to unearth. Your previous question had to do with memory and history, which is a little different than unearthing.
Sometimes places are palimpsests, meaning part of the brick and mortar, and some of them are based in memories, the passing of time. For people of color who are marginalized, stories get lost. Each project is fraught with chance. I am not trying to solve a problem, per se. I’m trying to put something out in the world that has been covered up, erased, which might allow people to see the world and themselves in a different way.
Privilege at times only produces singular narratives, which is what happened with the Woodrow Wilson project. The students at Princeton still want his name off the building, so the piece has not resolved the issue. But what I hope the piece does is allow that issue to always be there. If someone at Princeton University said “remove the name of Wilson,” then the piece wouldn’t exist.
With the International African American Museum, there are clear, bold design statements. How do you really focus in on certain aspects of history and tell a broader story through design?
The design decisions for the landscape are very personal and I am consciously having conversations with those before me. I approached the Woodrow Wilson project through the narrative of W.E.B. DuBois, who has always been part of my thinking as a black man, and his idea of double consciousness. That gave me a point of view to criticize Wilson.
As for the International African American Museum in Charleston, the final was not the boldest design. We developed 29 different designs and worked through each one with the community. From my personal point of view, I wanted to put out imagery that had never been put out before. I took it upon myself to push the community. The Black Body in Space is something that really intrigued me conceptually.
For the Rosa Parks neighborhood in Detroit, I approached the project, again through history and identity. I’ve spent years with my peoples’ history. My research and design work has lived with these histories — not just American history but the history of black America.
Returning back to your larger question: I could have gone through practice with no interest in black history. I could have just accepted the privileged position of the designer. I could just work in the very homogeneous/standardized manner in which the profession trained me.
In my early years, that was really all I had to rely on, until I got to a point where it felt like something was missing. What was missing was myself. I did not see myself anywhere in landscape architecture, architecture, or planning. At the offices I worked, these ideas just didn’t exist. I had to create a context for my ideas to bear fruit, so I situated myself in the rigorous, intellectual world of academia and developed an art practice. This is what I’ve been doing the last 30 years.
Do you think because you’ve found yourself in your work, people can find themselves in it, too? Is that what creates a sense of resonance, when someone sees your work and connects with it?
No, they actually hear a different voice, which again, is playing off the homogeneous. Early on, I noticed the design decisions I was making were different than the decisions other people were making. I didn’t acquaint them because I’m black. It’s because of my advocacy for and interest in people and the particular places that they live, which comes from my experience of being black.
Very early, one of my projects in a disinvested neighborhood involved planting an allee of a hundred and fifty flowering trees at one time along a decomposed granite walkway. This was 30 years ago, and people weren’t doing stuff like that. To me, I wanted color to manifest in a bold way in a place that didn’t have color.
Those design choices came out of me seeing a black community in need of something. As a person making landscapes, that is what I could give them. I always go back that very simple act — that purity of impulse one has in a place where you’re engaged but also giving of yourself. And this relates to the questions: what are you feeding yourself? Where’s the inspiration coming from?
I try to bring in as much culture as I can to the work, which can offer multiple narratives and layers. I’m really not interested in singular gestures, but multiplicities.
People are yearning for difference. I just recently stopped using diversity and started using difference, because diversity is not really about difference. Difference is about opposition. Opposition is good. Double negatives are good. They exist in our world.
The doubles begin to tell stories we don’t tell. We see it in the language that is manifest over time by culture. You’ll see spaces given double negative terms, like Plaza Park. I was in San Jose, California, when Hargreaves was working on Plaza Park. I was like, “Plaza Park? Oh, this is interesting. Why does it have both?” If you go and look at the history, you know why it has two. These are the kinds of things people create over time through naming, adopting. Landscapes have a language.
If we’re critical enough, we can begin to read the landscape in different ways. Once you do, it changes you forever. There’s no way to go back.
Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and the city government have painted “Black Lives Matter” in street-bounding yellow letters down 16th Street, NW in front of Lafayette Square and the White House. This was widely viewed as a response to President Trump’s order to teargas protesters and close off Lafayette Square — a key protest space and site of a former slave market — from public access. How do you unpack everything going on in that space? What is the role of public space in the protest movement?
In the history of this country, streets have been that number one space for protests. We can go back to women’s suffrage and civil rights. The streets are the public domain. In D.C., what’s public and what’s federal? That’s the interesting dichotomy in D.C. Lafayette Square, which is federal, gets acted upon differently than the city public. When I heard that, I was like, wow, I didn’t know the President had dominion over that particular space.
Protesting has always taken place in the public realm. You can go back to Kelly Ingram Park and the Edmond Pettus bridge. These are my first memories: people protesting in the streets. This is nothing new. The marking, particularly with the branding, might be something new, a kind of guerilla tactic. I applaud the mayor for doing it, because she was able to demark a space. People are calling it the plaza, but again, this it is about nomenclature. I applaud her for marking a space that was taken away from her.
Lafayette Square, like a lot of public squares, was among the first public parks in our country. They were also places where atrocious things happened in our country like slavery auctions, so they’re on hallowed ground to a degree. If we’re interested in changing how we think of ourselves, we can also be critical of the places where we’re actually protesting. To me, that could give credence to, or help articulate, issues we’re facing, particularly with the pandemic.
We know most low-income areas have higher cases of COVID, which you could also probably correlate to redlining policies and expulsive zoning, which was an institutional pre- and post-war planning practice. Redlined landscapes are still the same today if we are still in them.
Public safety is important. People should be allowed to use the spaces we have seen over the past few weeks, whether it’s the I-5 in L.A. or bridges in Minneapolis. These are spaces the public pays for.
You have equated the value of environmental diversity with that of social and racial diversity. Just as land comprised of diverse ecosystems are more sustainable and resilient, racially diverse or different communities also increase social sustainability and resilience. How can the fight for racial equality and justice support efforts to combat climate change and vice-versa? What are the connections?
The first connection one might think about is duplication. There really are two Americas, and we’re actually trying to support both of them, not equally though. There’s one America for one group of people and another for the other. It’s just not sustainable, because we’re having to spend more money on communities that are different, which is a result of the after-effect of not investing in these places in the first place. How to make communities more racially diverse is our next challenge.
We’ve been talking recently about a few new mixed-income housing projects in Oakland, California. When we think of mixed incomes, we think race, right? We can think of brown people, low-income; non-brown people, higher incomes. What might allow them to share the same space? That’s the question we’re beginning to ask. It comes back to public space, right?
We can develop parks and other types of landscapes that are more integrated into peoples’ patterns and practices, so they can begin to share space. The architectural question is a bit more difficult, because a lot of that is driven through the market.
As for environmental diversity, I’ve lately returned to reading Olmsted and early Central Park history. In Go Tell It On the Mountain, written by James Baldwin, he describes an experience in Central Park one day. He goes to this hill. It’s his favorite hill. When he gets to the top of that hill, having walked from Harlem to Central Park, with all the white eyes upon him, he’s king of the world. He could do anything. He’s standing there looking out to Manhattan. He’s on this hill in the middle of nature, and he could do anything, and then slowly reality comes back to him. He descends the hill and runs into an older white guy. Immediately, he’s about to apologize, but instead the man smiles. That moment is how I think about what landscape can do. In a certain way, how do we put ourselves together in a place where there is no label or stereotype of the other? That’s really tough to do, as we recently saw with that woman in the Ramble.
Gentrification of urban Black and brown communities most often results in their displacement. Some communities have viewed efforts to add new green space and trees to their communities as a gentrifying agent. So one response has been the “just green enough” design movement, which calls for adding green amenities but not to the extent that they would raise property values. What is your take? What approaches work best to stop displacement? And how do you think the protest movement can change conversations in communities where gentrification is happening?
All communities should be healthy. If we have the opportunity to increase biomass and improve the public-realm facilities in any community, we should do it. The fear of making something better particularly for those most vulnerable — really.
We should look at the issues that create the vulnerability. In many places, you have a high percentage of renters and low ownership. Some places you have little to no tax base. You have these institutional issue that don’t help. The first steps in some places are to figure out new and diverse housing types, increase ownership, and stabilize communities.
When communities were most healthy, successful, richest — whatever word you want to use to characterize them– they were diverse places. West Oakland has the moniker of having always been an African-American neighborhood. If you review its early formation, people came here because it was the western terminus of the railroad. Different communities of people worked and lived here: Latinos, Hispanics, African-Americans, Portuguese, Italians, etc. Post-war we see white flight, and then desegregation. First immigrant and then middle-class African Americans had opportunities to move into the places that whites had left. We then abandoned those redlined neighborhoods and left the most vulnerable.
That’s the dynamic of the city. We have to articulate these dynamics to communities in which we work and help them understand these processes.
I live in an area that was once redlined. There are single-family houses mixed with light industrial. It’s a pretty diverse, mixed neighborhood. Next to my building, there was no green space at all. People reacted to vacantness in various ways, which was to tag the walls, dump garbage or leave abandoned elements. I took it upon myself and started planting trees and shrubs adjacent the building. My little piece is the greenest part of the block.
What’s been refreshing and a reminder is watching how people reacted. Almost every day, the neighbor across the street tells me how great it is to see the green. People walk on my side of the street, and the behavior has changed. These are just little things that I just think we forget.
Part of our job is to help educate communities in which we’re working, based on shared knowledge. We can build an infrastructure to help with change, because change is going to happen. Cities are dynamic.
Very early in my career, I had a conversation with a black family here in the East Oakland neighborhood about moving out of the city. They wanted to move to the suburbs because the schools were better, and the crime was lower. I couldn’t change any of that from my position.
So the issues become more structural. We have to improve these basic infrastructures like public education and environmental factors. In many of the places where gentrification happens, they’re so easy to topple because all of the infrastructure is eroded.
In 2013, ASLA’s member leadership made diversifying the profession a top organizational priority. The number of diverse people entering the profession remains stubbornly low. The high cost of landscape architecture degree programs and lack of alternative degree programs are issues. So is the lack of diverse landscape architects who can advocate for the profession in diverse communities. What do you think are the most important steps that can be taken to bring more black and brown young people into the profession?
Landscape architects: just set the example. Make it interesting for people of color, so they want to come into the profession. This means you have to change the narrative. Reach out, do the work. Approach the way we make things through a cultural lens. Look for difference, so people might get excited by seeing and experiencing something that has them in mind.
Throw away the stereotypical and the feel good tropes — basketball, barbeques, community gardens. It would be attractive for people to say, “wow, this is how I can improve my neighborhood. Look at what they’re doing,” rather than settling. Really dig deep and contemplate these histories, the years of living separate.
How do we talk about living together? If enough of us are out making change and having a different conversation, the idea of attracting a diverse group becomes secondary.
Years ago, I was part of a landscape group that was pushing for diversity. You can’t expect to attract people if there is no interest in change.
I get excited when people of all persuasion get excited by the work we’re doing. It’s not about whether the project gets into a magazine and wins awards. To me, the best reward on any project is to get people excited, empowered, bringing them in, and making them part of the project.
I had recalled years ago as an undergraduate, I met a black landscape architect, Everett Fly, who had uncovered some of the histories of these towns that were built during Reconstruction. That experience stayed with me, and when I had the opportunity to have a conversation with that work, I immediately began to ponder the semiotics of this term used to describe black and brown people. What does it mean to be F-R-E-E-D!
It took a lot of nerve for me to start this conversation since it was something I had never entered into a conversation with a community about. I can’t describe the kind of excitement and conversation that began from there.
We can bring more voices to the table when we discuss, gender, race, and difference. Tell the truth about colonization and its impact not just on native and immigrant communities, but on the black and brown communities as well. If we don’t talk about it, we are reinforcing a post-colonial view.
This will bring difference into our profession, so it’s not simply just about making beautiful things. It can become about what those beautiful things mean. Once we can attach diverse meanings to the things we make, our profession could be much more inclusive.
For maybe two-thirds of my projects, race never comes up. To me, that’s where we should be heading. I don’t want the moniker of “black designer.” I can design for anyone, because I’ve had to learn how to. This skill came from being the “other,” and having to learn about white America and how to navigate, which is what we (others) don’t see happening from white America, right? I don’t see that kind of investment in me.
All I hear is, “Walter, help me. I’m working in a black community. I need you.” No, you don’t need me. You need to do the work for yourself. You need to learn about us. You need to get in there and roll up the sleeves. This is not my (our) problem. Until it changes, we’ll be back in the same position 20 years from now, asking why we’re not a diverse profession.
“I want to express my discomfort that we, as privileged white people, are discussing racial injustice without African American speakers on this panel. I want us to reckon with that,” said Allison Arieff, research and creative director at SPUR and op-ed contributor to The New York Times, during a plenary at the Congress for New Urbanism’s Virtual Gathering.
The non-diverse panel comprising Arieff, Emily Badger, a reporter for The New York Times‘ The Upshot blog, and moderator Todd Zimmerman, principal at Zimmerman/Volk Associates, reached the conclusion that the twin crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustices are inextricably linked.
The pandemic and racial injustice protest movement are “exposing how poorly our systems work,” Arieff argued. As SPUR outlined in its recent Letter to White Urbanists, “the city is under strain because these places are not safe and healthy for everyone. White people are the problem and have to fix it.”
Badger, who covers all facets of urban policy for the Times, has been wrestling with a number of questions related to the pandemic when she realized the impacts of COVID-19 were connected with structural racism.
At first, she sought to answer big questions about the pandemic, such as: “Can we reconcile the benefits of density with its risks? Will a fear of density cause people to move to the suburbs? Will a fear of transit cause people to use cars more? Will transit agencies survive the collapse in funding? Will people working from home stay there permanently?”
With the understanding that racial inequalities in housing, education, transportation, land use are all connected, questions shifted to: “How does the police fit in with all of this? They are a part of this ecosystem of inequality and maintain racial segregation. What is their role? Why have segregation and poverty levels hardly budged since the 1960s? Why have income and racial inequalities become even worse? Should we spending more on housing than the police?”
Badger found that “COVID and race are not separate stories. Racial disparities and inequalities are feeding COVID and driving the protests.” Furthermore, COVID is likely to leave “lasting damage in the movement for racial equality,” as everything from deaths from the virus to evictions due to loss of jobs will be disproportionately higher in communities of color.
“Many of us working from home are protected and isolated. We don’t need to acknowledge how poorly the system works for most people,” Arieff said. “But the pandemic shows how fragile the social safety net is. Unemployment insurance doesn’t cover a huge set of workers. We can’t shut off evictions. Many didn’t realize schools feed a vast number of low-income students. Homeless people are now of interest because they could be carrying disease. All our structures are inadequate and need to be deeply rethought.”
One structure that many are calling for a total rethink is the police force. A recent analysis of police budgets in 150 cities by the Times found that police departments on average account for 8 percent of city budgets, and those numbers have gone up over the past 40 years even as crime has declined.
As police forces have grown, they have taken on more responsibilities. “They are now working with homeless populations and in schools. They have become mental health counselors and intervene in domestic abuse,” Badger explained. There is growing debate in many cities about taking away some of their responsibilities or defunding them. “Now that we know the jobs that they are doing, do we want them doing them?”
The ever expanding responsibilities of police forces is linked with the reduction in federal funds for social services and anti-poverty programs. Given there are no other groups mediating what is acceptable behavior in public spaces, “police have by default taken on the role,” Badger said. Instead, “community groups could take over some of the roles police are now playing.” Arieff commented that perhaps defund the police movement could be rebranded as “lightening the load.”
The debate turned to how the built environment professions — planners, architects, landscape architects, engineers — need to change how they work. Arieff said that “there is no easy, pat answer. Design is a top-down, white male-dominated field. But these issues aren’t limited to the design industry.”
The power structures in the built environment “controlled by white people have benefited them. White neighborhoods benefit from exclusionary zoning laws. Property values increase when there is no affordable housing near you,” Badger said.
Arieff argued that critical next steps are to “listen more and make greater effort to recruit panels of color for design conferences.”
To survive and grow, the design world needs to diversify. As an example, she pointed to Next City, a publication focused on cities, that changed the make-up of its editorial staff, significantly diversifying its team of writers. The result was that “readership massively diversified and grew.”
The conversation then veered to whether the concept of “eyes on the street,” and crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) in general, unjustly target people of color.
Arieff argued that “it’s not all or nothing. I’m not ready to dismiss the concept. There are different contexts and behaviors. We can’t homogenize all places. Different people of color use public space differently. We must be more open to how different cultures use public space.”
Zimmerman, the moderator, added that a once common description of a healthy city was that it was safe for a 7 year old. He thinks this should be changed to “safe for a 7 year old black child.”
The Bicycle as a Vehicle of Protest — 06/15/20, The New Yorker
“A week ago, on Wednesday night, the third night of a citywide curfew in New York, police officers were seen confiscating bicycles.”
After COVID-19, What’s Next for Landscape Architecture? — 06/09/20, Metropolis
“Parks, plazas, and other outdoor urban assets are no longer being seen as superfluous, but instead finally being recognized as essential. And so are the masterminds behind them. Since the start of the pandemic, landscape architecture has become one of the few areas for cautious optimism within the wider architecture, engineering, and construction sector, which is poised for a downturn.”
The Mimetic Power of D.C.’s Black Lives Matter Mural — 06/09/20, The New Yorker
“The idea for the mural was conceived late on Wednesday, when Bowser asked her staff to find a way to reassure protesters that the space would be safe for them, in advance of the larger protests planned for the weekend.”
Racism Is Built into U.S. cities. Here’s How Architects Can Fight Back — 06/03/20, Fast Company
“In America today, we can predict that a person from a zip code in a black or Latino community will have a lower life expectancy than a person from a zip code that represents a primarily white community. How can we ensure that more communities extend their life expectancy?”
Christo’s Billowy Visions, Fleeting but Unforgettable — 06/01/2020, The New York Times
“I’m sorry I never got to ask Christo about Gabrovo, the Bulgarian city where he was born in 1935. He died this weekend, at 84, a dreamer with a cultish following to rival the Grateful Dead’s and a legacy that has always seemed a wry, humane retort to the cultural diktats of the Soviet bloc.”
Accurate geospatial data is needed to plan and design coastal resilience efforts. Landscape architects use elevation representations to understand flooding, storm surges, and sea level rise. But what happens when there is no unified elevation data?
Karen M’Closkey, ASLA, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, discovered this was the case for the Galápagos Islands during a studio she conducted exploring the island chain. Together with Keith VanDerSys, her partner at PEG Office of Landscape + Architecture and the director of digital media at the University of Pennsylvania, the duo contacted INOCAR, the Ecuadorian oceanography agency, about the lack of data.
Ultimately, INOCAR requested help in creating the data and digital models for the community and designers. To sort out the technological and engineering challenges of the project, Michael Luegering, senior associate at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, and Michael Tantala, adjunct professor at The City College of New York, were brought onto the team.
The Galápagos, while typically considered first and foremost a biodiversity hotspot, is also home to some 34,000 residents living on four islands.
A growing ecotourism industry over the last forty years has resulted in the “Galápagos Paradox” — the advertised pristine wilderness of the archipelago increases the flow of goods and people into the chain of islands, resulting in greater pressures on the naturalized world and labor demands to maintain it. Furthermore, revenue from ecotourism is used to fund and protect the national parks, limiting the amount of public funding for the local population and infrastructure. To aid urban growth planning, PEG decided to create detailed 3D models of the town’s waterfront.
Data collection began in the town of Puerrto Baquerizo Moreno, located on the island of San Cristóbal, which has the second highest population and only fresh water source in the Galápagos and is the location of Charles Darwin’s first landing.
There, PEG noted that “water demand and building have increased dramatically, causing major challenges in water management.” Accurate accurate topographic and bathymetric, or underwater topographic data, was needed to propose solutions.
Puerto Basquerizo Moreno is continuing to expand upland without regard for the impact it is having on the town’s water management. PEG identified four principles to guide urban growth for the town: prioritize mixed development over the recent trend towards single family homes; offer flexible multi-use community space within the development blocks of the urban fabric; work with existing water flow patterns and areas with significant vegetation within the urban fabric; and, lastly, bring the natural beauty of the national park into the urban environment through a connective ravine setback.
These principles were developed to help protect existing open spaces within the urban fabric. The geospatial data collected was used to communicate the value of the principles to local community members and INOCAR officials as they craft future development plans for the area.
PEG’s hope is this landscape framework offers a “vital social and ecological resource” for local leaders, one that will encourage development that avoids low-lying areas.
PEG established a vertical datum against which tide levels can be accurately and consistently measured, as well as topographic and bathymetric models of the town. INOCAR had a water level gauge at this location, but its measurements were not tied to a unified vertical datum, making it impossible to compare with the other gauges in the archipelago or globally.
Off-the-shelf drones were used to run Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) surveys of the areas shoreline and ravines. UAVs offer data capturing precision down to a centimeter, far superior to Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) produced by satellites. The drone is measured against pre-determined ground control points scattered throughout town to achieve this high level of resolution. The ground points were established with GPS/GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) survey equipment.
Overlapping data points helped further ensure the accuracy of each data point collected, which can then be aggregated into a high density point cloud and turned into a digital model of the topography and bathymetry of the region.
In fall 2019, PEG delivered this model to INOCAR, which will be instrumental in modeling past and future storm surges and seas-level rise and planning tsunami scenarios.
PEG plans to return to Santa Cruz, the most populous island in the archipelago, to complete the surveying process of the area surrounding the remaining two tidal gauges.
Climate change will increasingly threaten coastal communities in the global south. Digital models based in accurate geospatial data is paramount to helping these communities become more resilient. With the democratization of drone technology, landscape architects can play a larger role in creating needed geospatial data sets, rather than just consuming them.
Two days before I saw the footage of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, I headed out for a quick walk to the local gas station mini-mart. I realized I forgot my mask and returned home to grab it. On my way home, I was greeted with yet another reminder that, as a black man, my movements are constantly policed by everyone.
I was approximately 100 feet from my front door when a pick-up truck with two Latino men approached me. The driver asked me if I was lost. I responded, “No, I’m not lost. Are you lost?” He said “No, I live in the neighborhood. Do you live around here?” At this point, telegraphing my annoyance, I replied “Yeah, man, I live right there,” pointing at my house. “I’m going home because I forgot my mask.” Having successfully checked in with total strangers, I continued home.
Later that day, I mentioned the encounter to my roommate, who is also a black man. Although my retelling was dispassionate, he responded with concern. My roommate wanted us to tell our neighbors because he feared for our safety. He wanted to leverage our social capital for community protection. He wanted what everyone wants — for us to feel safe in our own home. I shrugged off his concern. To my thinking, we lived in Latinx neighborhood and had a great relationship with our immediate neighbors. We were good.
Two days later, I saw the video of Ahmaud Arbery being murdered, chased down and shot by two armed white residents of his neighborhood while out for a jog. The video shook my soul. Arbery and I were about the same age, the same skin color, and enjoyed the same activity. Since the pandemic started, my roommate and I started jogging around our neighborhood at least 3 times a week, usually by ourselves. I just turned 27 years old. Arbery will never have that opportunity because his check in with total strangers didn’t go as well as mine did.
I share this story in hopes that this will be the last time I have to recall these events. I share this story knowing it won’t be.
As landscape architects, we understand that our imagination gives shape to the future. Our creative power manifests in the world and creates change. This same imagination is necessary for the liberation of people, and our role in that liberation.
With the increased global awareness of violent over-policing of black people by officers of the law and citizens governed by unwritten social laws, we are all being pulled into an essential and complicated discourse around race. The people demonstrating in cities across the world are taking us to task. Now is the opportunity to create a new and more just world that has never existed outside our imagination.
We know creating this new world will be hard work. I believe that most of us want to do this work. Yet I recognize there is and always has been opposition from people who benefit from the systemic discrimination against black people or from those who have the privilege to believe that the status quo is not deeply unjust. Even amid the din of protesters taking to the streets demanding justice, I hear the hushed complaints of people wanting to return to the world as it was or at least how we pretended it was. For me, the stakes are high. I have no recourse but to act because my survival depends on it.
In recent years, ASLA and the Landscape Architecture Foundation made a concerted effort to transform our discipline by making diversity a priority. However, firms have made little progress in diversifying their staff or creating cultures where diversity hiring isn’t seen as a forced obligation.
Black, Latinx, and Asian people working in majority white firms still must subscribe to and endure the predilections of white culture even when designing for diverse users. The compulsory need to change our speech, dress, hair and appearance in order to not disrupt the status quo, amounts to a suppression of our being for 40+ hours a week.
If we are to design a new, more just world, we need to start by designing a new, more just workplace. We need to do the hard work of examining our own bias and recognizing that our colleagues are not truly comfortable, yet are expected to endure the trauma of racism outside of the workplace and racial bias while at work. The first step is to have landscape architecture firms write an informed public statement against racism for the world to see.
Furthermore, I implore you to help create lasting change. No matter what your race, if you are unhappy with your firm’s response to current events or their hiring practice, let them know. Or quit. Choose to work elsewhere and share your perspective with other colleagues and perhaps the world. We must no longer be complicit in helping to advance institutional bias or apathy.
If you are a student and you want a more diverse faculty and student body, petition your school to make lasting change. Consider transferring to a university that has a more diverse curriculum, more diverse perspectives, and more diverse faculty. Surrender your education to professors and institutions who share your values.
We must change the narrative about investing in black landscape architects and other minority designers as “helping them.” Investment in diverse people and communities is investing in the future of the profession. I don’t want “help.”
I want you to recognize that our ideas have the potential to be as influential as our contributions to other aspects of culture. I want you to understand that the culture of our firms, the culture of our educational systems, and the culture of our profession is missing critical perspectives that are essential in building a better future.
White culture has become normative in our work and education. Without a deep and open-minded discussion of that problem, our work will grow stagnant, our imagination will be ill-suited to shape a better future, our creative power will die. We have no recourse but to act. Our survival depends on it.
Andrew Sargeant, ASLA, is a landscape designer and pioneer of design technology in the field of landscape architecture. He is the vice president of The Urban Studio, a Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Olmsted Scholar Fellow, and a part of the ASLA’s Digital Technology PPN Leadership.
The Urban Studio: Expanding how students of color are educated and engaged around design. Our mission is “to advance design thinking for equitable + sustainable urbanism.” Please visit theurbanstudio.org and donate.
Levers for Change, an affiliate of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, has announced a $10 million competition for bold solutions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the building, transportation, or industrial sectors.
According to the organizers, the “vast majority of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from a small set of countries and sectors. In fact, only 20 countries produce 75 percent of GHG emissions, and three-fourths of GHG emissions land in four energy sectors: electricity, transportation, buildings, and industry.” Of those 20 countries, U.S. has “historically been the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter and currently has the second highest amount of emissions in the world.”
Levers for Change sees the U.S. building, transportation, and industrial sectors as critical in the global fight against climate change. “If the U.S. decarbonizes at scale in the next ten years –i.e. by 2030—then we have a chance to land at a decent future. Failure in the U.S. almost guarantees global failure.”
Another opportunity worth exploring: the McEwan School of Architecture in Greater Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, has announced an ideas competition for revitalizing the urban core. The city, which has a population of 160,000, has hundreds of lakes and becomes a sports mecca in winter, with a 1.5-mile-long ice skating path.
The city occupies the crater of a meteorite that hit 1.8 billion years ago and left large deposits of copper, gold, platinum, palladium, and nickel. As a result, Sudbury is known as the “nickel capital of the world.” The goal is transform a mining city for the next generation of digital workers.
After hearing feedback from our membership and after much reflection, the American Society of Landscape Architects issues the following statement regarding the killing of George Floyd:
The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) joins millions of people around the world in mourning the death of George Floyd, a black man who was murdered by a police officer.
ASLA recognizes that the brutal systems of slavery and Jim Crowism have dehumanized black people and weakened their communities. We also acknowledge that the planning and design of the built environment, including landscape architecture, has often had a disproportionate adverse impact on black communities. Systemic racism in the built environment has taken many forms, including redlining, urban renewal, and disinvestment. Environmental injustices, including lack of equitable access to clean air and water and greater concentrations of pollution, continue to plague these communities. Further, gentrification and displacement make it impossible for black communities to continue to exist. The landscape architecture profession can play a critical role in reversing these trends.
Public spaces have always been a critically important platform for the protest movement and democratic change. They have also become sites of violent confrontation and oppression against the black community. It is important that ASLA and others amplify the black narrative of these spaces.
ASLA stands in solidarity with black communities in the fight against racial injustice and police violence against black people. Moving forward, ASLA will deepen our partnership with the Black Landscape Architects Network (BlackLAN) to create a meaningful, sustainable plan of action to help guide the profession in addressing the wants and needs of black communities—no matter how much work and time it takes. Black Lives Matter.