Emerging Landscape Architecture Leaders Offer “Next Game-Changing Ideas” (Part I)

Collective Action Model / Deb Guenther

“Transformational leadership by landscape architects can help heal our post-traumatic world,” said Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, CEO of OLIN, in her introduction of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)‘s fifth class of Leadership and Innovation Fellows.

She told the in person audience of hundreds in downtown Washington, D.C. that the foundations of the landscape architecture profession feel like they are now “shaking,” but a path to a more diverse, equitable, and sustainable profession is in development. This path will be forged by continuously “cultivating the next game-changing ideas” and “removing obstacles in order to design effectively.” Over the course of a year-long research project, the six fellows, which include both emerging and established professionals, were asked to “transform themselves in order to transform others.”

Deb Guenther, FASLA, a partner with Mithun in Seattle, explained that this year’s class worked as a collective to explore ideas about transformational leadership. Guenther’s project focused on the need to create a greater sense of kinship between landscape architects and the community leaders they partner with. Sharing the thoughts of community leaders she interviewed through video clips, Guenther highlighted one key idea: “if we want to achieve the transformational, then we need to build or rebuild the relational, and then experience the transactional together.”

Over the course of her fellowship, Guenther interviewed over 300 community leader and designers on how to build trust. In videos shown to the audience, community leaders explained the need to view communities as ecosystems, how advocacy around shared goals can create a sense of solidarity, how shared values resonate, and the importance of building community wealth in the form of stronger relationships, a sense of belonging, and improved health and well-being.

Her “collective impact model” explained how community projects led by a core group, rather than a single champion, have a greater chance of success (see image at top). She called for greater investment by landscape architects in building trust through community design centers, more professors of practice in landscape architecture educational programs, and more designers in residence in non-profit organizations. In addition, other key goals include investing in community organizations that advance equity and finding opportunities to shift policy upstream.

Landscape architects building trust with communities / Deb Guenther

Olivia Bussey, a landscape designer with Curtis + Rogers Design Studio in Miami, explored the landscapes of prisons and half-way houses. She said the U.S. prison system has “systemic issues,” and new landscape design standards are needed. Her research focused on the impact of inmates being exposed to unhealthy landscapes of incarceration, which are characterized by “lots of paving, few trees, sometimes a few shrubs.”

Conventional prison yard / unsplash, larry farr

According to Bussey, research by Dominique Moran finds that Nordic prisons that include forests inmates can access provide a “sense of calm, spaces for reflection, and connection with the world.” Other research has been conducted on Rikers Island, a prison complex in New York, which includes one of the oldest inmate-managed gardens in the country. One inmate who worked in the garden was quoted as saying “it is the only place I feel like a human being.” Importantly, Rikers inmates that gardened had a 40 percent lower recidivism rate than the general population of the prison.

Morten hugging a tree in a restricted area of the Nordic prison during a walked interview / Dominique Moran

The prison system doesn’t end once sentences have been completed. Bussey focused much of her research on half-way houses, which provide formerly incarcerated people with career, health, and social service support. “These spaces are like hallways, transitional spaces before re-entry into society.” Most half-way houses aren’t required to have outdoor spaces, but some do. She hopes to further research the correlation of recidivism rates with access to landscape amenities in these places, but getting information out of prison system administrators is a major challenge. “We currently design for people who we think deserve punishment, but we can instead design for public health and safety. 95 percent of people in prison will be back in society one day. What do we want them to experience?”

For Linda Chamorro, ASLA, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at Florida International University in Miami, the Cut|Fill unconference, which was organized in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020, was an awakening experience. There, she met other Latin American landscape architects who were wrestling with the ideas brought out by the event: “What do we need to cut away and what do we need to add?” As part of a collective effort with other designers — including Alexandra Burgos, Carolina English, Robert Colón, Assoc. ASLA, Jason Prado, ASLA, Sofia Charro, Jessica Arias, Ishaan Kumar, and Daví Parente Schöen — Chamorro sought to broaden labels of the Latin community to represent its true “diverse, multi-cultural, and multi-lingual” character. They proposed a new term to expand beyond the limitations of terms like Latin and Hispanic: “Latine/x/a/o*.”

Tierra Media Project team

In her talk, Chamorro also explored how the term “landscape” is loaded with meanings that don’t resonate with Latin audiences. Landscape is derived from land and property and elicits ideas related to ownership, colonization, and resource extraction. In contrast, the ancient term “Tierra” brings up a whole other set of ideas. “Tierra is living, breathing, and open.” Tierra is a “palimpsest of living histories and speaks of kinship with Pachamama. Tierra is about awareness and moving forward.”

Over the course of her independent study, Chamorro recorded video interviews with Latin Americans expatriates living in the U.S. about their feelings about Tierra. Through a poetic tour of memories of displacement, food, and family, the narrators explained how “Tierra is a protagonist, a character in our stories.” As part of the project, Chamorro and her colleagues launched the Tierra Media Project. The collective’s goal is to “encourage a deeper way of being with the land — to engage both the material and the spiritual.” They believe that “healing happens in communion with each other.” Instead of seeking to “add value and redesign places, what if we led with healing and the spirit of reciprocity with Tierra?”

Tierra Media Project

Read Part II in this series.

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