Towards a New Landscape of Racial Justice

Hunts Point Riverside Park, South Bronx, NY / Rudy Brunner Award

“We need to take a hard look at the racial injustice that has poisoned American society. This is an issue for all professions — it’s not unique to landscape architecture,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, the new CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), during the first general session of reVISION ASLA 2020.

“Racism has played a role in countless development and design decisions, environmental injustice, and disinvestment in many communities.” To start on a new path, ASLA, as a professional society, and landscape architecture firms need to have an “essential dialogue that can help us all move forward,” Carter-Conneen said.

Carter-Conneen brought more than a thousand virtual attendees through a wide-ranging discussion with Majora Carter, an urban revitalization strategist who led the creation of Hunts Point Riverside Park, the first new park in the South Bronx in 60 years; and landscape designer and artist Walter Hood, ASLA, who is designing the landscape of the International African American Museum (IAAM) in Charleston, South Carolina, and co-editor of the new book Black Landscapes Matter.

Instead of focusing on diversity, Hood argued the best way to move forward is to celebrate our differences, which can be “empowering.” As part of this, we need to “create broader definitions of landscapes” and move past “colonial landscapes in which everything is the same.” He stated that “everything is not the same — that is the fiction of the colonial landscape.”

Underserved communities of color can also move past tired conversations around gentrification and development. Instead of seeing all new community-driven development as bad, it’s important to understand the nuances rooted in history.

“The communities that are now being gentrified were once redlined and created out of inequality. These places have largely stayed the same, because they were once where they stuck Black folks and all the crap, devaluing these neighborhoods.”

Prior to being devalued and redlined, these communities were actually “historically very diverse, with a mix of working class people.” So, for Hood, the solution is not to further maintain the “ghetto,” but to “reshape it, dismantling segregation through amazing artistry and advocacy.” Planning and designing neighborhoods that restore historic diversity will lead to places “where people can live together.”

But Hood also noted that after some neighborhoods integrated in the 1960s, “many white people fled to the suburbs.” It’s unclear what the future will bring: “To live together or not — this is the big conundrum of the 21st century.”

Carter has called for historically “low-status” communities like the South Bronx to “self-gentrify.” This is driven by her desire to retain talent in these communities. “You don’t have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one. In the past, it has been about growing up and getting out. But there is already lots of value in these communities.”

In fact, predatory real estate speculators have long seen the value, which is why perhaps so many historically marginalized and underserved communities fear development. Self-gentrification is different though: it’s about communities seeing the value and making improvements for themselves, reaping the rewards in the process.

Carter said she has recently stopped using the term self-gentrification because it is “too triggering for some.” While some people “get it right away,” others may see nefarious motives. “But I stand by the concept. The idea that there is no value in these communities is untrue. I want to mess with that idea.”

Hood largely concurred, arguing that he has purposefully kept his studio in West Oakland, a predominantly Black community, because “I’ve been here 25 years. This is my place, people here look like me, and it’s key to establishing self.” Plus, he added that “I can’t trust my future to someone else.” The future of West Oakland needs to be protected by the people who have deep roots there. They can beautify and improve it best.

2020 is the year of the pandemic. And in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by the police, it’s also the year of reckoning about racial injustice. When asked what the turmoil of this year means for low-status communities in the future, Carter said “I am hopeful and pray that the changes will turn into something real.”

She believes there is a great opportunity to help revitalize “low-status communities, including inner-city communities, poor white communities that have seen the loss of manufacturing, and indigenous reservations.” This can be realized through renewed investment in green infrastructure, which creates good-paying green jobs.

Hood argued that with the pandemic, “more people now see the value of the working class. We even came up new terms for them” — essential workers or first-line defenders.

Hood’s new book Black Landscapes Matter, co-edited with Grace Mitchell Tada, offers a way to further understand how landscapes have shaped race relations in the U.S. The book came out of a series of lectures Hood organized after a series of police killings of Black people in 2016. For him, the killing of Michael Brown was particularly impactful.

“The landscape where he was killed was familiar, outside a liquor store. I know that store, that street.” After Brown was gunned down, he was left in the middle of the road for hours.

Places enable or disable these kinds of behaviors. “Certain back drops make you afraid that someone could kill you there. These places look a certain way and give people the right.” Hood pointed to George Floyd and the check cashing store he went into. “These places have signs and symbols.”

One way to change the deadly narrative of these places for people of color is to change the narrative of the landscapes. As an example, he pointed to his project — 7th Street Dancing Lights in Oakland— that created towering 8-foot-tall images of African Americans over a road. “When people see the images, they wonder, ‘what is that?’ They may see the place differently” — and then interact with the people there more respectfully.

7th Street Dancing Lights / Hood Design Studio

This is why for Hood it’s so important to undo the homogenizing impact of colonial landscapes, which make all places seem the same, even though they aren’t. “Through post-colonial landscapes, we can articulate different origin stories — and futures. We can make change by changing the narrative.”

Carter said: “that is so brilliant. We can create agency by creating places that speak to us. This kind of work opens up all sorts of new possibilities, and it doesn’t take anything away from anyone else.”

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