This year is the bicentennial of Tubman’s birth, and there is renewed interest in her life. Two National Park Service sites in the U.S. were initiated by President Barack Obama in 2017 to help enshrine her story — one in Church Creek, Maryland, where she was born, escaped from, and later returned to in order to save other slaves; and another in Auburn, New York, where she lived as a self-emancipated railroad conductor and helped grow a community of freed Black Americans.
But the team found that an entire story could be told using the landscape Tubman called home, even later after she had freed herself. The park site, which is set within the 28,000-acre Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, was much like what Tubman would have experienced, with canals, wetlands, waterways, and swales.
Tubman was born near the site in 1822 and enslaved there for 27 years before escaping. She later returned 13 times, saving more than 70 people, including her parents and brothers, but never her sister, who had been sold south.
Elcock explained that the visitor center is purposefully organized into three buildings to represent the three options available to Tubman and her family: “be sold South, remain in place, or travel North.”
Views from within the new visitor center look north to reconnect visitors with that journey.
The pull of freedom is also represented in the landscape of the park site. “We oriented the entire site’s viewshed north through an expansive lawn,” said Peng Gu, president of Mahan Rykiel, who provided additional context in a phone interview. “The north meant freedom.”
And Scott Rykiel, FASLA, vice president at Mahan Rykiel, said that a looping pathway through meadows surrounding the site also purposefully direct visitors northward.
“As you are out there, you can see other visitors and can imagine others on journey through the landscape — either as someone who can help your cause or report you as an escapee,” Elcock said.
The meadows are natural, but Mahan Rykiel also incorporated native plants and brought in swamp white oaks, swamp chestnut oaks, sweetgum, birch, and bald cypress trees.
One path in the visitor center even starts near a wetland, which Tubman would have used on her route in order to leave no footprints slave trackers could follow, Rykiel explained.
Traveling north wasn’t a simple “linear” process. Escaped slaves had to take indirect routes through waterways to evade slave catchers, crossing back before heading to freedom. Before the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, slaves could find freedom by moving to free states in the north; afterwards, they first needed to travel to Canada to become free before settling in northern states.
Deanna Mitchell, superintendent of the the park, said Tubman lived a rich and long life, passing in 1913.
Shepherding slaves, “she understood the stars and could navigate.” The Union Army later discovered this and enlisted her help in Beaufort, South Carolina, where she commanded the army to free more than 700 slaves. “She was the first woman commander in the U.S.” Tubman was also a spy, nurse, and cook for the North.
Her early life in Maryland was marked by brutality. At age five she was loaned out to other households to tend to enslaved babies. “She was whipped every time they cried.” She preferred working outside where she could connect with nature.
For Tubman, the landscape was a way to “escape slavery, learn survival skills, escape domestic brutality, learn a trade, earn her own money, and learn the waterways.” It was the waterways that would help bring her north.
Mitchell quoted Tubman: “God’s time is always near. He set the North Star in the heavens. He gave me the strength in my limbs. He meant I should be free.”
For the National Park Service, which has conducted studies on natural resources of the site, preserving the landscape Tubman would have known is of critical importance. But there are major threats: sea level rise is expected to flood much of the historic site and invasive phragmites have led to tree die-off in areas. Major studies with the Army Corps of Engineers and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are underway to protect a landscape that received 100,000 visitors from 50 countries last year.
The conversation then moved to Auburn, New York, the landscape of the freed Harriet Tubman and her community. Jessica Bowes, Cultural Resource Specialist for Women’s Rights and Harriet Tubman National Historical Parks in New York, said that Tubman ended up in Auburn because it is where powerful abolitionist women lived, including Frances Seward, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State. In 1859, Seward sold a 7-acre farm to Tubman, a farm that later grew to 32 acres.
Tubman brought many of the slaves she freed from the South to Auburn, where many later settled. Auburn was also a welcoming place because it had been a long-time Black community. As freed slaves joined the existing Black community, their neighborhoods expanded and moved. A new African American school caused the community to migrate to Washington Street, and a new church created a hub over on Parker Street, near Fort Fill cemetery.
In this neighborhood, Tubman purchased a second brick home, which has become part of the Harriet Tubman National Historic Park. The AME Zion Church, where Tubman’s funeral was held, is also part of the site. The community is still home to many of Tubman’s descendants. Some homes near the church have been continuously owned by Black Americans for generations.
“While Tubman didn’t create the community, she definitely impacted it,” Bowes said. The foundation of the Underground Railroad was “church, family, and community.” And those elements are key to the cultural landscape of Auburn’s Black community.
“The boundaries of the National Park sites are fixed, but the broader cultural landscape is fluid,” Bowes also said. Those boundaries take the form of physical barriers between the sites, as well as the changing community. But these barriers also provide opportunities.
More ambitious stories about the cultural landscape in its entirety are now being told. These efforts are supported by two-hour walking tours, a restoration of the AME Zion Church, and a new bronze statue of Tubman in a small park. “Cultural landscapes are made stronger with the presence of the community.”
Ian Exposes Cracks in Climate-Readiness – 10/03/2022, Politico
“National and city officials have already begun discussing how to rebuild southwestern Florida to withstand fierce hurricanes — a conversation taking center stage across the country as climate change turbocharges extreme weather.”
The new book DREAM PLAY BUILD: Hands On Community Engagement for Enduring Spaces and Places reads like a conversation with trusted colleagues over great coffee or a memorable lunch. James Rojas and John Kamp generously share their lessons learned in many years of testing and conducting an alternative form of community engagement. Their methods are focused on using hands and heart to build abstract models and share sensory explorations with community members. They break away from a transactional mindset and create an environment for meaningful engagement with longer term benefits for communities. The book spans from inspirations to methods, project examples to logistical details, and includes plenty of encouragement to give these ideas a try. Just like a good conversation, there is positive energy throughout, and at the end you remain intrigued with the possibilities.
Starting with the Personal
The authors are walking the talk. They ground the book with personal stories of how they arrived at this work. Rojas is an urban planner and Kamp is a landscape and urban designer who were disappointed for different reasons in their crafts. They met through art events that explored the intersection with city making ideas. Rojas shares his vulnerabilities and is clearly inspired by everyday objects, friends, and family. Histories of relationships with people and place continue to inform his work. By starting with the personal, Rojas and Kamp demonstrate what their methods support – sharing experiences of belonging. Creating a shared attachment to place can be a powerful way to build a set of core values together and work with communities as they shape themselves.
Making Space for an “Emotional Language”
The methods the book describes revolve around three approaches that can be tailored to different context, timelines, and objectives — model building, pop up models, and sensory site explorations. What they all have in common is that they are abstract and open-ended, encouraging storytelling and meaning making. The work is in the conversations generated by the methods and the themes that emerge from the sets of stories. In the process of talking about their personal stories and experiences prompted by hands on work and heartfelt prompts, groups build a shared understanding of what is important to each other and what commonalities and core values they share.
The book is refreshingly jargon free. The methods and guidance are simple, yet the nuances are not overlooked. There are frequent acknowledgements that “things may not go that way” and that’s okay. The methods are designed to support an emotional, not a technical language. Moving away from the transactional outcomes of a typical community engagement process, the methods shift expectations away from quantitative outcomes. The book moves readers toward realizing the value of having “no desired outcomes other than a sense of neighborhood memories, dreams, aspirations and shared values; to build group cohesion; and set a positive tone for the project.”
Highlighting the Intangibles
The stories also referred to many moments that will have designers nodding along in recognition. Having no expectations for outcomes can easily result in clients who feel at a loss about the value of the work. The book provides specific lists of tangible and intangible results.
For me, this was the most important part of the book — calling out the value of intangibles. A tangible list of intangibles – so overdue! As James shares in his personal story, he learned from artists that the city is “comprised not only of structures, streets and sidewalks, but also personal experiences, collective memory, and narratives. These are less tangible but no less integral elements of a city that transforms mere infrastructure into ‘place.’”
Challenging the Status Quo
A good conversation challenges you a bit. This book does that in a friendly and approachable way. Through building up examples, case studies, and sharing conversations, the book makes a strong case for creating “communities of inquiry.” This is about intentionally not trying to solve a problem but rather exploring an idea together. The richness that emerges from this approach appears undeniable and yet, we struggle to implement this regularly as landscape architects. This book provides many viable pathways for trying again.
Building Relationships Across Divides
Polarization in public meetings is common. Rojas and Kamp’s methods are born out of the need to seek alternatives to predictable reactions to issues of parking, density, and “wow, that crazy traffic.” By tapping into memories and stories first, polarization is diffused and the commonalities among experiences emerge.
There are also deep divides and distrust between neighborhoods and their cities that have experienced structural racism over time. South Colton, California, located sixty miles east of Los Angeles in the Inland Empire, is a town where Rojas and Kamp have used all three methods — model building, pop up models, and sensory site explorations — over the course of two years. South Colton is both an historically redlined neighborhood that has been isolated and underserved and a place “where residents have worked to creatively and resourcefully improve their environment in the face of great odds…” South Colton is emblematic of many neighborhoods across the country. Generic engagement won’t work here. There can be healing benefits from relationship building approaches to community engagement that extend to the neighborhood and well beyond the neighborhood itself.
Holding on to Core Values and a Sense of Belonging
Near the end of the memorable conversation with a trusted colleague, one starts to realize there is a lot going on that goes beyond the words – the air was breezy, the pace was comfortable, the vibe was relaxed, and so it was easy to listen and feel heard. Setting the tone is a recurring theme in this book, which covers many project examples and methods. Not only does setting the tone result in people feeling ready to engage more deeply, it also models the relationship building work it takes to be responsible to each other and a place.
Part of the book’s appeal is its modest approach to a deeply urgent topic. These practices are deceivingly low key! When we engage in these practices of heart and hand, we are building much more than enduring spaces and places, we are building and strengthening the basics of a democracy. The book stops short of claiming this, choosing to focus on how the health of the public realm and the neighborhood are intertwined. However, it would not be hyperbole to make the link between civic health and these relationship-based practices that reduce polarization, elevate equitable approaches, and recognize the power of humility.
Deb Guenther, FASLA, is a design partner at Mithun, an interdisciplinary design practice with offices in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Her work, Design in Kinship, which was initiated during the 2021-22 Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Fellowship for Innovation and Leadership, explores the expanding role of collective impact work by community-based organizations in the context of climate change and social justice.
“Superstorm Sandy in 2012 was a wake-up call for NYC and made the city realize it needed to better prepare for climate change,” said Adrian Smith, FASLA, vice president at ASLA and team leader of Staten Island capital projects with NYC Parks. Due to storm surges from Sandy, “several people in Staten Island perished and millions in property damage was sustained.”
On the 10th anniversary of Sandy, Smith along with Pippa Brashear, ASLA, principal at SCAPE, and Donna Walcavage, FASLA, principal at Stantec, explained how designing with nature can lead to more resilient shoreline communities. During Climate Week NYC, they walked an online crowd of hundreds through two interconnected projects on the southwestern end of the island: Living Breakwaters and its companion on land — the Tottenville Shoreline Protection Project.
Sandy impacted 13 states along the East coast, causing the death of more than 100 people, power outages for 8.5 million, more than $70 billion in damages, and the destruction of 650,000 homes. In response, President Obama initiated a task force, which led to the creation of Rebuild by Design, a novel program at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Then HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan — who has trained as an architect and is married to Liza Gilbert, ASLA, a landscape architect — initiated the program to plan and design better climate resilience solutions.
With numerous state and local government, non-profit, and philanthropic partners, the first Rebuild by Design competition funded seven ambitious projects throughout the Tri-state area. One of those projects is Living Breakwaters, off the coast of Tottenville, which received $60 million in federal grants, along with significant state and city support.
“Donovan created the opportunity to do things differently, allowing interdisciplinary design teams to take a broad perspective. It really takes a village. Rebuild by Design has allowed landscape architects to shine,” Brashear said.
New York City has more than 500 miles of shoreline, and its harbor is deeply intertwined with the city’s economy and culture. But with climate change, the city’s shoreline and low-lying communities are increasingly exposed to storm surges and sea level rise.
These coastal communities are in both highly dense urban areas like Manhattan and inner Brooklyn, and in suburban or even rural areas in Staten Island and the far reaches of outer boroughs. In communities with natural shorelines, like many in Staten Island, erosion has caused a loss of one to three feet of coastline each year.
Living Breakwaters, which is now under construction, is designed to reduce coastal flood risks and erosion while improving habitat for wildlife and increasing social resilience to future climate impacts.
“It’s not designed to keep floodwaters out but to create a necklace of breakwaters combined with a layered system of adaptation on shore,” Brashear said.
SCAPE worked with coastal and structural engineers to develop a series of breakwater models. They found that just creating digital models wasn’t enough and tested physical models in a “giant wave tank” in Canada to refine the placement of elements in the water.
The breakwaters are comprised of 600 bio-enhancing “armor blocks” made of porous concrete produced by the company ECOncrete. They are set in the water at different elevations. Lower-crested breakwaters will help with erosion while the higher ones will help with wave attenuation.
The breakwaters were custom designed to include “niches and crevices” that introduce habitat complexity, creating space for a range of targeted species, including juvenile fish, oysters, and other shellfish. Brashear argued that their clients are also the wildlife of the harbor. Already, Stanley the seal has made the breakwaters a chill-out spot.
The armor blocks will create tidal pools and “reef streets,” which are underwater canyons where oysters will be installed. The careful arrangement of elements enable wildlife to thrive without being overtaken by accumulating sediment.
Back on shore, SCAPE engaged local residents to create a dialogue around the design. “Our goal was to foster awareness, help the community cope with flood risk, and engage in stewardship.”
“We also tried to steer away from formal meetings.” Instead the firm engaged residents and school children in new and often fun ways.
Tottenville was once called “the town oysters built.” The bay was so intensively harvested it was “like a farm.” SCAPE found that “oysters are the charismatic bivalve of NYC. The idea of the oyster reefs resonated with people.”
So educational programs with partners brought oysters and their history in the community to life, which helped reconnect the community to its shoreline. “This project is not just about breakwaters but a layered approach to reduce risk and fostering a local culture of resilience.”
The Tottenville Shoreline Protection Project runs parallel to the Living Breakwaters on shore and extends further along the coast. A result of federal, state, and local government investment, it’s one of the key layers in the nature-based protection plan Brashear described.
During both Hurricane Ida and Superstorm Sandy, the surge of coastal waters flooded deeper inland, causing immense property damage, Walcavage said. The Line of Moderate Wave Action (LIMWA) is a measure the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) uses to indicate the inland coastal zones that can be reached by 1.5 to 3-feet-high waves. In Tottenville, more properties have fallen inside the LIMWA in the past few decades, and the owners faces much higher dangers and insurance rates.
One goal of the Shoreline Protection Project is to move the LIMWA back so more homes are out of the highest risk zone. To accomplish this, Stantec designed a series of “sand-capped dunes with stone cores,” Walcavage said. “These look more like natural shore. The stone core will protect against wave attentuation even if the beach is gone.”
Walcavage said getting the architecture of the dunes right was tricky. The dune infrastructure is responsive to different water and coastal conditions. Some areas are designed for wave attentuation while others guard against erosion and sea level rise. They are wider in areas to ensure the sand’s correct “angle of repose.”
And the team realized that the entire shoreline protection system had to be extended because otherwise the “water would just go around it” and find another way inland.
Beyond the new dunes, earthen berms will also be built in a series of restored wetlands, marshlands, and forested areas, which will double as flood water containment areas and public parkland. A key part of the project is safe but also beautiful pathways that improve access to these amenities.
The entire shore infrastructure also required a new road for maintenance vehicles, which further added complexity.
When concerns are raised about the costs of these twinned projects, which together exceed $100 million, it’s important to understand these landscapes are “about both coastal risk reduction and ecological restoration,” Brashear said. And also, “people here in Tottenville are not ready to leave.”
Landscape architects, working together across public and private practice, want to reduce this community’s risk and send a message that storm surges and sea level rise don’t necessarily need to result in the loss of life, property, and public space. Even amid a changing climate and uncertain future, quality of life in shoreline communities can be improved through greater investment.