Lets Broaden the Definition of Environmental Justice

Protesters gather at Black Lives Plaza, the intersection of I and 16 Streets / Brian Hustvedt-Camacho

By Glenn LaRue Smith, FASLA

Tragedy, protest, insurrection, and political turmoil have led to a renewed awareness of racial injustice and democratic instability. These issues create new challenges for users and designers of public spaces in America. Cultural spasms have resulted in contested public spaces — sites of killings, protests in streets and parks, and forgotten burial grounds. These spaces need a new form of environmental justice.

While environmental justice is most often viewed from the perspective of the impacts of pollution on people, land, water, and air, the spaces stained by the killing of Black Americans and soiled by a history of slavery and white supremacy require environmental justice too. Because they also disproportionately affect Black and brown communities.

As a result, landscape architects, architects, urban designers, and planners are now at the center of a shifting racial, political, and spatial dialogue. Designers are called to examine their place in a country built on systemic racism. There are new opportunities to defeat bias and work toward spatial equity as “designer citizens.”

The murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota changed the American and global discourse on race and justice. The protests that followed this tragic event set in motion the removal of Confederate monuments and marches at the White House. There were multicultural marches against police brutality and extensive grassroots and academic discussions about racism in America. There are far more Black victims of racism at the hands of police, but the brutal imagery of George Floyd’s murder sparked a collective humanity within the American and global public.

Due to the unnecessary death of yet another Black man, the veil of white supremacy and entitlement has been again uncovered. The outpouring of support was swift and protest marches included people of all colors for the first time in decades. However, the ferocity of the government’s response in the form of more police brutality, protester arrests, and the labeling of the Black Lives Matters (BLM) organization as a negative, socialist, left-wing group were just as swift.

Protest signs posted at Lafayette Park during BLM protest in June 2020 / Brian Hustvedt-Camacho

During protests in Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser fought this false narrative about BLM by designating the Black Lives Matter Plaza as a multi-block-long street mural directly in the face of the White House. The plaza, in a sense, has become one of the first physical protest responses in the form of public art and place. Mayor Bowser reflected on her reason for taking this action. “We had the opportunity to send that message loud and clear on a very important street in our city. That message is to the American people that Black lives matter, Black humanity matters, and we as a city raise that up.”

Black Lives Matter Plaza / Photo By Bill Clark, CQ Roll Call via AP Images, Assisted by City of DC

The dialogue that arose from George Floyd’s murder has included public protest rights, public space creation and appropriation, and, most importantly, the disposition of Confederate monuments. Black Lives Matter Plaza and Confederate monuments led to a robust discussion within the landscape architecture, architecture, and planning professions concerning race and place. How does one memorialize places of protest and also de-memorialize places of incomplete historical interpretation?

Environmental justice typically involves reducing the inequitable distribution of pollutants and hazards in communities of color. But we need to recognize that police killings and other homicides also disproportionately impact communities of color. A broader definition of environmental justice can then also include efforts to memorialize tragic events in public spaces and secure and honor these spaces. While designs for these issues will continue to evolve, the need to use public space to advance environmental justice will never change. There will always be a need to better represent a true reading of history.

In a Smithsonian article, Peter Schwartzstein speaks of the connections between urban space and successful public protest. He suggest that “what’s notable, perhaps, about the ongoing protests in the U.S. and many [countries] abroad is the extent to which differing urban designs can determine a movement’s success and sometimes even propel different outcomes for the same grievances.” He further speaks of the role of designers and the history of public space. He indicates that “after decades of tightening constraints, in which public space has shrunk, shifted, or vanished, scholars suggest that urban design itself will only become even more of a protest influence in the coming years.”

On the other hand, the honest recording of history cannot be subjected to changing facts. Historians such as Carl Becker suggest “that history is what the present chooses to remember about the past. Historical monuments are, among other things, an expression of power — an indication of who has the power to choose how history is remembered in public places.” In this sense, landscape architects can be advocates of a more complete history in the design and redesign of public spaces. In the case of Confederate monuments, the authentic history is clear and not fluid.

Karen L. Fox clarifies this authenticity argument in The New York Times, when she states that “the heyday of monument building, between 1890 and 1920, was also a time of extreme racial violence, as Southern whites pushed back against what little progress had been made by African-Americans in the decades after the Civil War. As monuments went up, so did the bodies of black men, women, and children during a long rash of lynching.”

Two projects reflect how environmental justice can be achieved for places where loss have been experienced. The Tamir Rice Memorial in Cleveland, Ohio illustrates how a space can evoke memory. The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville, Virginia illustrates how a space can acknowledge slavery and servitude.

These contemporary projects highlight the challenges ahead for designers as America deals with police violence, protest, a history of systemic racism, and other social issues. The U.S. Capitol Grounds is the next test facing landscape architects, because of the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol and the need for increased security.

A Memorial of Protest and Pain

Changing understandings of social, cultural, and political injustice provide new opportunities for landscape architects to participate as citizens. The increased awareness of racial injustice creates opportunity for landscape architects to acknowledge this systemic problem that disproportionately affects Black and brown communities. The deaths that occur from these police incidents leave not only broken families and communities, but also places and spaces of pain and conflict. The challenge for designers is how to create spaces that acknowledge the life of those killed, respect the context of the place, speak to racial injustice, and create a sense of resolution.

The November 22, 2014 death of Tamir Rice by police officers in Cleveland is a questionable incident that did not result in charges against the police officers involved. An article in The New York Times by reporters Shaila Dewan and Richard A. Oppel, Jr. poignantly describe Tamir’s playful visit to the park with a friend, including the toy airsoft-style gun he carried.

After a neighbor called police to report a child in the park with a gun, which the caller described as perhaps a toy gun, Dewan and Oppel indicate that “with the gun tucked away, he walked to the edge of the gazebo. He might have been wandering aimlessly, or he might have been attracted by the sight of a squad car barreling across the lawn. Seconds later, the boy lay dying from a police officer’s bullet…But the boy, Tamir Rice, was only 12.” The death of this Black child validates the protest that followed and justifies the memorial that his mother worked so hard to realize.

Tamir’s mother, Samaria Rice, has since created the Tamir Rice Foundation to advance social justice and remember her son through a memorial within the Frank E. Cudell Recreation Center and park area. The memorial will be located at the site of the gazebo where Tamir was killed. These memorials are becoming far too common, but they can create a place or remembrance within a new type of landscape.

In 2020, the Tamir Rice Memorial project began moving quickly with the solicitation for designers and the hiring of the Black landscape architecture firm, Design Jones, LLC, to design the memorial. The Cleveland-based firm Deru Landscape Architecture is the team landscape architect of record. Samaria Rice and her daughter, Tajai, as well as community members, were fully engaged in the development of all memorial design concepts.

As outlined by the design team, “the Tamir Rice Memorial makes sacred a space of devastating injustice in the remembrance of a vibrant young Black child full of possibilities. It uses the forms of the butterfly and the box to signify what Tamir was, the flight of freedom, and what society assigned for him, the darkness of confinement.” The heart of the memorial is an engraved granite stone with Tamir’s image and text that memorializes his life. The butterfly garden was originally built with the help of Tamir’s sister, Tajai, and her friends as a 2016 memorial to her brother. Funding for the garden was provided by the Cleveland City Council.

The pathway leading to this memorial stone embodies the evolution of Tamir’s life and incorporates and revitalizes the existing butterfly garden, which also becomes a creative beginning to the memorial space. The curved pathway and dry creek establish a sustainable mitigation area for stormwater runoff. As the years pass, there will be time to understand if and how this memorial heals a community and, in particular, a family that remains in pain.

Tamir Rice Memorial Site Plan / Design Jones, LLC
Tamir Rice Memorial Perspective view of the design selected by the Rice Family / Design Jones, LLC

The original gazebo where Tamir was killed was dismantled and moved to Chicago with the assistance of the Rebuild Foundation. Artist and activist Theaster Gates, the CEO and founder of the foundation, was instrumental in assisting Samaria Rice with this pivotal relocation and memorial.

“The reconstructed gazebo with the original concrete picnic table now sits on the north lawn of 6760 S. Stony Island Ave., rededicated as a platform, a stage, a prospect from which to reckon with, argue over, and jointly heal,” said Adam Green, associate professor at the University of Chicago Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture in The Chicago Tribune. A spokesman for the Rice family has indicated that the Chicago gazebo site will not be its final location: “the gazebo [is] going back to Cleveland and finding a permanent home.”

Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, principal at Design Jones LLC and professor and director of landscape architecture at University of Texas at Arlington, states that “I was inspired and moved by Samaria Rice’s speaking to me of the beauty of her son and the horrific tragedy of this event. Her words clearly shaped my hand while designing the memorial.”

A Memorial of Acknowledgement

The murder of George Floyd not only created a global racial justice protest movement, but also reignited the decades long debate over how to address the removal of Confederate monuments and symbols around the country. However, history is clear relating to why Confederate monuments exist and why monument removals are necessary. Southern pride is most often used as the rationale for not removing Confederate monuments.

However, Keisha Blain, associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, suggest that these defenders “fail to acknowledge that Confederate monuments and symbols emerged in an effort to intimidate Black Americans and uphold a revisionist-and racist-version of history. In effect, these monuments and symbols already do the work of erasing history — the very thing their defenders now accuse protesters of doing by demanding their removal.”

Against the backdrop of a Unite the Right rally on August 11-12, 2017 organized by white supremacist protesting the removal of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, a team of designers and community members were busy at work designing the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at UVA.

The juxtaposition of these two activities — a revisionist protest to preserve remnants of the Confederacy and a historical acknowledgement of slavery’s damages to Black Americans — is striking. During the Unite the Right rally, there were clashes between the protesters, which resulted in the tragic death of 32-year old woman, Heather D. Heyer, a Charlottesville resident, by an irate white supremacist driving through a crowd of protesters. Conversely, the enslaved laborers memorial team efforts resulted in the April 11, 2020 dedication of a memorial that acknowledges the lives of enslaved laborers who were owned and rented by UVA.

The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers stands in honor and recognition of a buried history that has been honestly brought to the surface and stands in stark contrast to the General Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation Park. The memorial was designed by Höweler + Yoon Architecture, including Eric Höweler, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and Meejin Yoon, Dean at Cornell University College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. They collaborated with historian and designer Dr. Mabel O. Wilson, professor at Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and founder of Studio&. They also collaborated with Gregg Bleam, FASLA, a landscape architect, community facilitator Dr. Frank Dukes, and artist Eto Otitigbe.

The memorial responds to the fraught history of UVA with an open form, a sweeping gesture in stone that is welcoming and inclusive as if waiting for the visitor to complete the memorial. It is a form that is open in terms of meaning, alluding to the African ”ring shout” and is space of shelter and gathering.

Aerial view of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers and UVA Grounds / Alan Karchmer, Courtesy: Höweler + Yoon Architecture

“The Memorial is also open ended in that it is unfinished, with the list of names remaining conspicuously incomplete. The unfinished nature of the memorial also alludes to the historic legacy of slavery and the ongoing work in the present that needs to be done to address questions of bias and anti-Black racism today,” said Eric Höweler. This memorial reminds us that history may be reinterpreted based on biases. But the true reading of history guards against revisionist rhetoric and personal bias.

The discussion of acknowledging systemic racism and the ownership and sale of slaves to sustain personal or institutional wealth was started within the academy. Brown University, Georgetown University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, UVA, and other universities have led this reconciliation with historical reviews and action plans, which is the beginning of a model for corporations, cities, and other seats of power.

In 2013, Dr. Marcus Martin, Vice President and Chief Officer for Diversity at UVA, proposed the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University to further study the history of slave ownership by the university. The Commission’s core goal was to “explore and report on UVA’s historical relationship with slavery, highlighting opportunities for recognition and commemoration.”

The design team described this history in this powerful statement:

“An estimated 4,000 enslaved persons worked on the Grounds of UVA between 1817 and 1865, when the Union Army liberated the enslaved of Albermarle County. Owned and rented by the University, they created and maintained its famous grounds, pavilions, and Rotunda. The memorial’s commemorative forms and historical inscriptions acknowledge the dualities of enslavement — the pain of bondage and hope for the future. It celebrates the bonds of community that nurtured resistance and resilience to the dehumanizing violence that shaped the everyday experience of enslaved life at UVA. In doing so, the memorial creates a vital public place to understand, learn, and remember their contribution to the University.”

Visitors at the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers / Alan Karchmer, Courtesy: Höweler + Yoon Architecture
Visitors at the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers / Alan Karchmer, Courtesy: Höweler + Yoon Architecture

This particular memorial in the front yard of Thomas Jefferson’s vision is indeed environmental justice on a grand scale. The project is bold, and its form grounds the memorial in a way that creates a sense the circular form rises from the Earth as the voice of the forgotten slave laborers.

As Dr. Mabel Wilson at Columbia University states in the team design statement, “this memorial confronts a campus whose very architecture was conceived to express the highest aspirations of our democratic society yet, at the same time, was literally designed to obscure the oppression of the enslaved individuals who realized Jefferson’s vision and sustained life on campus for nearly 50 years. [The Memorial] provides a much-needed space for active engagement with the grim reality of slavery and systemic racism, the repercussions of which the nation is still wrestling with today.”

Details of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers inner wall, with names and memory marks / Alan Karchmer, Courtesy: Höweler + Yoon Architecture

The Future

Only eight months after George Floyd’s murder on May 25, the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. became another shocking bookend to the May 25 incident, creating a cultural tsunami. Americans and the world have awakened to the reality that the authenticity of democracy in the country is, in fact, a conceit. There is an inauthenticity of citizenship that again forces America to acknowledge its past and the present history of racial injustices.

David Brooks, a columnist with The New York Times, reflected on January 6 in terms of morality when he writes “human beings exist at moral dimensions both too lofty and more savage than the contemporary American mind normally considers. The mob that invaded that building [the Capitol] Wednesday exposed the abyss. This week wasn’t just an atrocity, it was a glimpse into an atavistic nativism that always threatens to grip the American soul. The rampage reminded us that if Black people had done this, the hallways would be red with blood.” Brooks provides a nuanced argument that even when there is democratic protest by a mostly Black group, as opposed to undemocratic insurrection by a mostly white group, there is inequality and obvious bias.

The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol presents yet another spatial challenge — how to protect the Capitol and also provide a space of democratic movement for Americans. For many months, the U.S. Capitol Police took the position that the seven-foot-high fencing should stay in place. Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and many Congressional Representatives, along with ASLA, successfully argued that the fences were undemocratic. There is no doubt that landscape architects will be called into creative action to craft a long-term spatial mediation.

The Tamir Rice Memorial and the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at UVA are linked. They seek to resolve issues of race and place, specifically addressing the lives of Black Americans. These places continue to bring attention and a degree of reconciliation to police violence and the buried history of slavery in America. As these projects show, there is a great need to design more solutions to racial injustice. Similar sites will only increase in number, requiring the need to sensitively provide creative solutions that uplift and educate the public.

January 6 shows us that environmental justice related to race and space will be dominant for some time to come. This new environmental justice offers landscape architects opportunities to demonstrate their citizenship through a honest acknowledgment of the continuing racial and spatial disparities and ugly racial history of the United States. If we want to design more democratic public spaces across America, we must pledge to achieve authenticity rooted in history and facts.

Glenn LaRue Smith, FASLA, is cofounder and principal of PUSH studio in Washington, D.C., and founder and former president of the Black Landscape Architects Network (BlackLAN). His landscape architecture projects include garden designs, urban waterfronts, community redevelopment, playgrounds and memorial monument design. He has directed graduate landscape architecture programs at two Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) — Florida A&M University and Morgan State University.

This article is adapted and reprinted by permission of Avenues, a publication of the Urban Design Committee of the Washington Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

2 thoughts on “Lets Broaden the Definition of Environmental Justice

  1. Eric Fisher 03/29/2022 / 12:19 pm

    Glenn LaRue Smith’s article is a great example of professional victimology currently ruining landscape architecture. “Environmental justice” based on white guilt, revisionist history – instead of substantial focusing on cleaning up Creation for the benefit of all – is as unconvincing as saying looting a store in ‘protest’ is simply undocumented shopping..

  2. Byron Sampson 03/30/2022 / 11:58 am

    There is a great episode in the podcast, Code Switch (Episode 320 – 4 Jan 22) that features Nikole Hannah-Jones speaking about the 1619 Project and the comments from that publication in the NYT. Very similar premise and insights. Thank You, Glenn.

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