Designers of Color on How to Combat Erasure

Cut|Fill / The Urban Studio

Over two days, approximately 500 online participants together set the agenda, formed and dissolved discussion groups, and shared knowledge and resources. With the assistance of an “open space” facilitator, this is how Cut|Fill, a virtual “unconference” on landscape architecture, unfolded.

Organized by the Urban Studio and Ink Landscape Architects, Cut|Fill was meant to “raise questions we all want to discuss,” explained Andrew Sargeant, ASLA, a founder of Urban Studio. One of those important questions: “how can landscape architects design with empathy and end dismissive behavior towards people of color?”

The goal of these questions was to get designers to think harder about how to stop intentionally or unintentionally erasing communities of color, which are often purposefully made invisible, and instead get them to truly see these communities, co-design with them, and empower them.

“Imagine the place you love is erased. This has happened to people of color for generations,” said Justin Garrett Moore, executive director of the New York City Public Design Commission, during the opening panel.

Moore said that erasure, which has taken the form of urban renewal, displacement, and gentrification over the past few decades, “takes work.” Some group of people need to invest time and money to make a community disappear.

He also spoke of the pain of feeling personally erased. A video was produced of a planning and design panel he was on with a number of white speakers. “The organizers cropped the video so only the white panelists remained. It took work to do that — it was done with intention.” He called these erasures, both personal and communal, “death by a thousand cuts.”

For Maria Arquero de Alarcon, an associate professor of architecture and urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan, erasures of communities can be combated through new ways of teaching planning and design. One important methodology is “co-creating and co-producing knowledge together in spaces of inclusion.” Online technologies also now offer opportunities to become “radically inclusive” with marginalized communities.

In many places, erasure has been happening for many generations, but there are cultural remnants if you know how to see. For example, “there is so much of Africa in the landscape of South Carolina,” commented Austin Allen, a founder of DesignJones, LLC and associate professor of landscape architecture practice at the University of Texas at Arlington. Slaves brought from Africa also brought their rice farming knowledge, which shaped the southern American landscape. Allen said landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, on his tour of the South, traveled through South Carolina’s rice plantations and wondered, “what is this place?”

Despite erasures, the legacy of marginalized peoples remains waiting to be rediscovered. Allen said this upcoming generation of landscape architecture students is exploring intersectional issues related to race, landscape, and memory with a “new level of openness.”

In the next panel, the discussion moved from erasure and invisibility to empowerment.

“If you inhabit a black body or are disabled, you are so invisible. That is until you’re not. In an instant, anything you do can be the focus of critical feedback. You could be eating skittles or going on a jog and be made very visible,” explained Tamika Butler, director of planning in California and director of equity and inclusion with Toole Design Group.

She added that Black people are used to “sliding in and out of a space invisibly,” but to “stay where we are, we need to claim space.”

For Ulysses Sean Vance, an associate professor of architecture at Temple University, who focuses on universal and inclusive design, the planning and design world has created massive “voids of erasure.” Too often, “involvement is done to a community; engagement is done to them.” He added that places that experienced generations of erasure aren’t ruins, but places to be inhabited and re-inhabited.

In these communities, “we can instead intentionally unbuild disenfranchisement.” To accomplish this, communities must be real participants in the planning and design process, and their input must be reflected in outcomes. Through inclusive processes, the feeling of being invisible and marginalized can be overcome, and “people can feel comfortable and confident.”

Butler elaborated on the concept of intersectionality, which came up a lot during Cut|Fill and is a key framework for creating more empowered visibility. “On streets, intersections are where conflict, friction, and struggle happen.” If there is a poorly designed street intersection that is leading to pedestrian deaths, “we aren’t like, this is just too complicated. No, we go in and solve the problem.” To solve intersectional social and environmental justice issues, diverse designers and planners need to create “brave spaces, not safe spaces” that open up the difficult conversations.

Architect Steven Lewis, a principal at ZGF, offered a meaningful perspective on the entire discussion. “There is self-realization as a young Black person that jars you. You realize you are not like the white characters you watch on TV. You become aware that you are different. You realize that there is a parallel Black universe and you now need to navigate between white and Black universes.”

George Floyd’s death created a “wormhole in which everyone was sucked into the Black universe,” Lewis said. “The walls crumbled, and we’re all in one place right now.” (Butler added that “constantly transitioning between these two universes can be exhausting. We are tired and can make some mistakes.”)

While “white people have work to do and need to become comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Black people can be “sherpas or guides in the Black universe,” Lewis said. “If white people have their heart in the right place, we can be patient and loving.”

He believes “empathy and caring” can lead to “learned and gained familiarity and then love for each other.” But he cautioned that this process of developing empathy and understanding requires life-long effort; there is no quick “prophylactic or therapy.”

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