By Masako Ikegami, ASLA
Sometimes the news will shake your core beliefs. The recent rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans has been one such example. Conversations with friends veer towards safety tips, punctuated by talk of harrowing moments when being a visible minority made us feel “othered” and uncomfortable. Feeling hopelessness and despair for your cultural and ethnic background is a shattering experience.
To find resilience and hope despite these incidents is difficult. And truth be told, our collective worries about health and safety had already become heightened as we remain vigilant against the global pandemic that has upended our daily lives. On the tailwinds of a year like this, what can we do as landscape architects to contribute to racial and social justice?
Some landscapes tell the story of injustice, so as to guard against its re-occurrence. A few summers ago, as I drove through the Eastern Sierras to a weekend camping trip, the Manzanar National Historic Site, a Japanese internment camp in Owens Valley, California, emerged against the desert sun. The barracks and fencing can be seen from afar, imposing and starkly inhuman against the splendor of nature. Yet other landscapes show us a more subtle display of the same history.
During a visit to the Descanso Gardens a few years ago, I noticed a fragrant bloom of camellias drawing a crowd of admirers. Planted under an impressive stand of oaks, the delicate flowers looked as if to float in space. These two landscapes struck me in their historic connection.
The origin of the Camellia Collection at Descanso Gardens is tied to the year 1942, when approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated by the U.S. government. It is said that the founder of Descanso Gardens purchased nursery stock from at least three Japanese American nurseries. The camellia plants, including rare ones, constituted the life’s work of the Japanese owners who had been forced into incarceration.
The blooming camellias seemed to echo the scale of lives upended, but also the resilience of the Japanese American families who came after. Is it wrong to admire a plant collection connected with such a history?
For better or worse, throughout my career, I have always described my passion for landscape architecture in terms of concerns for the environment, health and recreation, and promoting the public realm as a physical space for our democratic ideals. But what about our personal narratives, the experiences that shape us, and the cultures we value? How can we bring more of ourselves to our design work?
My commitments are the following:
- To seek out opportunities to introduce young students to the field of landscape architecture, particularly in communities that are currently under represented in our profession.
- To nurture relationships with professionals in all stages of their career and create a culture of acceptance for our individual priorities and passions.
- To be open to sharing my own challenges past and present as a way to better the experiences of future professionals.
For many of us in the past year, we have seen significant change in the way our firms have addressed racial justice and the persistence of violence and disenfranchisement in communities of color.
These are unprecedented times. We may not have the answers, but without more individuals stepping forward, we cannot move the whole.
Masako Ikegami, ASLA, is a marketing associate with SWA Group in Los Angeles.