At CUT|FILL, Debate over How to Expand Access to the Landscape Architecture Profession

“A pipeline is a smooth, enclosed surface that moves something from A to B as quickly as possible,” explained Marc Miller, ASLA, vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA), at the 2021 CUT|Fill Unconference. When using the term pipeline in regards to the act of moving young people into the landscape architecture profession, there are a “lot of assumptions.” A pipeline conveys the idea of a single pathway into the profession and can be associated with the historic exclusionary nature of licensure. Instead of a pipeline, Miller called for a mat with many entry points that enables people of color to more easily access landscape architecture and other design professions.

Matt Williams, ASLA, a landscape designer and planner with the city of Detroit who has a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Louisiana State University (LSU), argued that for “black people, there is no straight line into the profession.”

And in the comments during the Zoom discussion, there were lots of agreement on this point. Cindy Gilliland, ASLA, a landscape architect, noted that “there is no straight line for women either.” Instead of a pipeline, perhaps there are “chutes and ladders,” commented Ujijji Davis, ASLA, a landscape architect in Detroit. For Jeana Pearl Fletcher, Student ASLA, the concept of a pipeline “makes me question the hierarchy that exists in institutions and pedagogy in general. How do we move forward without this constructed hierarchy, which often leads to the trajectory of a pipeline?”

The kick-off session of CUT|FILL was meant to initiate “difficult conversations” around the theme: “Are we building a bridge to the future?” Panelists called for major change in how landscape architecture is taught. A core argument: the non-inclusive framing of landscape architecture and its history, particularly in K-12 educational materials and design school curricula, turns off a lot of people of color from even considering the profession.

For Miller, the challenge working with CELA, a global organization that support landscape architecture academics and students across the planet, is the different conceptions of diversity. One way around this issue is to take a universal approach to unearthing the landscape traditions that have been long buried by colonialism in so many countries.

As an example, he pointed to American landscape writings from the late 1700s. He questioned why these should be among the few texts taught from the era, given they don’t include the history of 1619, when slaves first arrived on the shores of this country. When we revisit history from the understanding that many landscape traditions make up the landscape of the U.S., “we have a radically different history” that can resonate with more diverse students.

The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) has been trying to support multiple pathways into the profession of landscape architecture, explained Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, the organization’s CEO. LAF has supported research, which is “the basis of innovation,” through more than 170 Landscape Performance Series case studies; scholarships for those entering the profession; and leadership development programs, including their Leadership and Innovation Fellows programs. Their focus is on making the landscape architecture profession even more inclusive and growing diverse leaders. “We are trying to spread out a range of efforts out and look systematically at the whole journey of becoming a landscape architect.”

Williams stated that his work in Detroit isn’t just about planning but also increasing planning and design literacy among young people in the city. A recent framework plan covering 5 square miles of the Warrendale Cody Rouge community “emphasized youth engagement and was led with a youth-centric lens.”

Chill zone at Stein Park, Detroit / City of Detroit Department of Planning and Development

In his education and career, Williams said, he has made “hundreds of maps,” but he discovered young people had never seen their neighborhood mapped or even knew how zip codes or routes to schools were formed. “I saw young people go from not understanding to wanting to become planners, designers, and policymakers.” Planners and designers in his department are now working with K-12 students to teach mapping and the legacy of redlining and the impact of gentrification in the city.

“I have taken advantage of every crack in the pipeline over my career,” said Mae Lin Plummer, co-chair of the inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility task force at the American Public Gardens Association. And instead of directing people to one career pathway, “we need to use vast networks to create success — think of the fungal networks underneath the roots of trees. It’s about building relationships.”

For her, a key question is: “why doesn’t everyone want to do garden design?” She found her experience at a public botanical garden to be welcoming and uplifting but has since discovered many changes need to be made to make the field of public horticultural design more accessible and inclusive. “Public gardens are at a crossroads. In the past, they perpetuated elitism and had a passive influence on a small group of society.” There’s a shift underway in which public garden designers are taking an active role, everywhere from public gardens to hell strips to rooftops.

She urged anyone rethinking their approaches to inclusion and accessibility to “keep asking why you are making the change; peel back the layers; interrogate reality; mine for clarity, like you would weeding a garden, which can be dirty and uncomfortable.”

Jennifer Reut, acting editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine, said that leadership and how “gatekeeping or boundary defining” occurs in the profession of landscape architecture are now evolving. Today, the profession is being challenged by “big ideas” that will shape what the field becomes in the future. She argued that different media are required for different audiences — “video, TikTok, and Twitter may be needed to reach some, while others still prefer print.” And that different media also alters the messages and stories. “It’s a major challenge to reach everyone.”

She also questioned whether images of finished plans and projects are the best ways to engage young people about the profession. “We show them projects rooted in a set of formal ideas and values about how things should look. In the magazine, we have been trying to instead show photos of community planning meetings where landscape architects and community members are building trust. I sometimes receive feedback: ‘Well, that isn’t landscape architecture.’ For me, it is, and I think that’s where we need to start in showing the design process.”

As the exchange flowed, Miller returned to the idea of a single pipeline and how it can be re-conceived for a more diverse world. American landscape history needs to more deeply explore “property, labor, and people.” Also, the “binary focus” on just white colonialists and enslaved Africans leaves out the story of indigenous people and their role in American landscapes.

In Australia, a new bi-cultural landscape pedagogy is being taught that integrates Aboriginal and white colonial histories. This approach could be a way to “take apart the entire foundation of Western frameworks” of landscape architecture education. Williams questioned whether existing Western frameworks are really Western to begin with. “We need to expand the foundations of pedagogy to attract more people.”

One thought on “At CUT|FILL, Debate over How to Expand Access to the Landscape Architecture Profession

  1. Ann Yakimovicz 08/04/2021 / 4:43 pm

    What I found most challenging entering the profession at a 4-year college were three things:
    (1) I was told I was too old at 31, that my brain had atrophied, and I’d never make it
    (2) I was told that being female, I couldn’t understand design
    (3) I saw regular demonstration of the assumption throughout the College of Architecture that creativity was innate; if you didn’t walk into the program with a portfolio demonstrating your ability to design, the professors didn’t pay much attention to you, guide, or coach you.

    That made me determined to succeed. I’ve been licensed since 1989 and now have my own residential design practice. I have chaired a corporate diversity council and heard from BIPOC council members that young people in those communities don’t know anyone who is an engineer, an architect, or a landscape architect. If they don’t know anyone in the profession, they have a hard time dreaming of becoming a professional in that field.

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