CUT|FILL 2020: An Unconference on Landscape Architecture

Cut|Fill / The Urban Studio

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?

I think many of us want someone to have it figured out. The idea of best practices is ubiquitous in our profession. In The Dirt’s recent interview with Walter Hood, ASLA, he states:

“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.

Panelists at Unconference / The Urban Studio
Possible topics at Cut|Fill / The Urban Studio

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.

Qiqo platform / The Urban Studio

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.

ASLA seeks to facilitate open, respectful dialogue in its public forums. Opinions expressed in the comments section are not necessarily those of ASLA. By participating in ASLA’s websites, blogs, and social media accounts, the user agrees to the Terms of Use.

2 thoughts on “CUT|FILL 2020: An Unconference on Landscape Architecture

  1. Veritas 07/15/2020 / 10:25 am

    COCKFIGHT: Destroying America
    Illegal in many places, Cockfighting is a cruel and brutal sport with a long tradition in some cultures. It is a betting, blood sport from which rooster owners/handlers profit. The point: two handlers each have a rooster and will set the roosters against one another, in a small arena, surrounded by betting fans, in a brutal contest, often to the death. It may be two white roosters or two black roosters or one white and one black – but the handlers don’t really care about color – the point is to instigate a savage, brutal, and destructive fight, and wager on and benefit from the outcome.

    The roosters are in their athletic prime, with long, sharp spurs on their legs and sometimes their handlers enhance the lethality of these spurs by attaching small, very sharp, steel blades. To kindle the fight, the handlers will repeatedly and violently push the birds at one another until the birds each come to believe that the other intends him harm. Finally, enraged, adrenaline pumping, and ready to kill, both are thrown, one last time, violently into one another, and the battle begins. The bloody, exhausting, and sickening battle will continue, until one rooster is finally rendered incapacitated or dead.

    What is most sinister and sickening is that these two roosters had no grudge and no reason to fight until they were misled and provoked by their handlers – each tricked into each believing that the other was a deadly threat.

    Today, Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and a number of other non-profits are funded by and represent the destructive interests of a few very-influential handlers that are busy pitting us against one another in order to create unrest, friction, and even hatred, between races, genders, economic classes, etc. – with the end goal of tearing apart the very fabric of our society.

    Burning down our heritage, our freedoms, law and order, and destroying social harmony – knowing that a house so divided cannot stand. They aim to bring down the best and freest nation in the history of this world. What motivates these handlers isn’t always clear: perhaps it’s money or perhaps it’s just an incomprehensible desire to destroy.

    One thing is clear: we are being manipulated into self-destruction – if we are to survive as a free people, we must be smarter than those roosters.

  2. Lucas Cioffi 07/15/2020 / 4:01 pm

    Hello Veritas, thank you for taking the time to write a comment.

    I am the software engineer creating the software to support this event. I’m also an Iraq War veteran, a West Point grad, and a graduate of the US Army Ranger School.

    I am tremendously excited about Cut/Fill, because it will create space for Americans in landscape architecture (and related fields) to actually speak with each other about the future of the field. Landscape architecture has a tremendous impact on public space and therefore our society.

    This is the first open space unconference in landscape architecture. It is the the right tool for this moment, because no one of us has all the answers. As with all open space events, the agenda will be entirely created by the participants.

    Diversity of thought is extremely important. You are absolutely invited to attend. This is a place for tough (and respectful) conversations about our shared future.

    Everyone can RSVP here: http://cutfill.live

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