By Andrew Sargeant, ASLA
Over the past few weeks, I asked myself hard questions to better understand my role and my profession’s role in tackling the compounding issues of the contemporary world:
Are we in a moment of extreme opportunity or inability?
In the wake of COVID-19, there was a rapid response by landscape architects through articles, webinars, and forums, imagining a future post-pandemic. In fact, those pieces keep coming every day.
However, the landscape architecture profession’s response to calls for social change and racial justice did not have the same sense of urgency. It seemed as though the previously zealous fighters for public safety and well-being couldn’t see the correlation between widespread civil unrest and their jobs. The combination of unfavorable responses to calls for change or just lack of responses was inexplicable to many.
This caused people to quickly voice opinions of dissatisfaction on social media aimed at specific organizations, firms, and even people within the profession. Some were based on personal experience and some just anonymous attacks, but all seemed to incite more of the latter.
Weeks later, I saw revised statements and commitments from firms and organizations seemingly bullied into action. Then came webinars, articles, and shared stories. The needle felt like it was moving, but it now feels like momentum has slowed.
I started to question if the complexities of racialized manifestations in the built environment are just too difficult for landscape architects to tackle and if we are equipped with the knowledge and tools to make a difference. I believe the future success of the profession depends on our ability to provide service to our colleagues and clients that address this new paradigm shift in social awareness.
How do we move forward with no master plan? Are there no experts in the room?
“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.”
Unfortunately, while there is knowledge within the profession working with minority communities, it simply cannot be the only foundation for us moving forward. The intersectionality of the issues the landscape architecture profession is trying to combat cannot be tackled with a one size fits all approach. It’s clear there is no expertise within our field to tackle these interconnected issues (not to say there isn’t true expertise outside our discipline or at the margins that still remain unrecognized). The ramifications of COVID-19 only exacerbate the threats facing disenfranchised communities.
Can we afford to push any design agenda without thinking of these issues in their totality and their adjacencies? At the Urban Studio, we are asking new questions and hope that many of our colleagues in firms and other organizations are as well.
Can we create real change in our profession without diverse voices present?
We want to challenge who is seen as an expert in the room. Conferences on landscape architecture are where the typical rotation of “thought leaders” talk to people. We started to imagine a different type of conference — a conference not for one group to talk at another, but for everyone to talk and work with each other.
With most people quarantined to their homes, one might think this impossible. Fortunately, video has helped fill the void and enables us to converse and also see each other. The matrix style of communication has been used for quick conversations to full-length discussions.
As a proponent of the benefits of technology in our field, I see something unique here, a new medium for communication. I see a way to democratize discourse in a way that is unfamiliar to our profession. There is no posturing when you are a floating torso. It is harder to forcefully speak over someone and naturally feels wrong in that interface.
Over the last month or so, we at the Urban Studio along with Ink Landscape Architects have used this technology to create a platform, celebrate, and listen to the critical underrepresented voices in the design industry. We invite all voices to the first ever unconference in landscape architecture aptly named Cut|Fill, July 23-24.
This conference will be different from traditional professional conferences you have attended. Over the past few decades, the alternative conference format was made popular in the technology industry as a response to more rigid meeting formats that minimize interpersonal connection and communication necessary to generate bigger and better ideas. The unconference will open with brief panel discussions to set the stage for a participatory discussion. The remainder of the event will be guided by a professional Open Space facilitator who will encourage and guide participants to ensure safe and inclusive conversation.
In order to encourage that participants walk away with action-oriented next steps, we will provide tools within the event for collaborative documentation. Participants will be able to record their thoughts, strategies, and propositions in real-time through QiqoChat, a specialized interface for robust online conferencing. The platform provides autonomy for participants to not only propose and lead discussions but also move around freely between them. We imagine this will be a transformative experience for those who attend and the profession.
We would like to give a special thanks to Permaloc, Anova, and Landscape Forms for sponsoring this event. We would also like to recognize Sasaki, MNLA, GGN, Reed Hilderbrand, and Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects as well for not only sponsoring the event but also supporting and encouraging their staff to attend.
We have an opportunity to change. Let us be intentional about it. Let us make the most of this opportunity.
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.