The demographics of the U.S. are changing, leading to a majority minority country by 2045. “Who will be in this room in the future?” wondered Marc Miller, ASLA, president of the Black Landscape Architects Network (BlackLAN) at the Oberlander Prize Forum II on Landscape Activism organized by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas.
Miller, who is an assistant professor of landscape architecture at Penn State, highlighted data from the 2021 ASLA Graduating Student Survey, which shows current Black landscape architecture students make up just 1 percent of the total student population, while white students account for 69 percent.
For Miller, this shows that “thirty years down the road, when these students are our leaders and will be presenting at events like this, the profession will still be predominantly white.” Diversification of the profession needs to significantly increase today, so landscape architects can better engage with more diverse communities in the future.
BlackLAN organized its first meeting of Black landscape architects in 2018 and incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization in 2020. “Our goal is to advance voices and create opportunities for others in the future.” Today, its 240 members worldwide focus on “education, community, and service” through symposia, events, online networking, and a new scholarship.
Their Edward Lyons Pryce Scholarship, which was inaugurated this year, honors the first Black fellow of ASLA. “At the ASLA Conference in San Francisco this year, we’ll have our 13th Black Fellow.” Pryce became a fellow in 1979 “because he stood out and went above and beyond as an activist and leader.”
The practice of landscape architecture also needs to expand to better accommodate neurodivergent communities and designers, argued Danielle Toronyi, research and development manager at OLIN. Neurodiverse or neurodivergent people may include those with autism or other sensory differences, who have a range of strengths and abilities.
With her colleague Alexa Vaughn, ASLA, a deaf landscape architect and accessibility designer now at MIG, Toronyi has focused on advancing a “social model of disability,” which focuses on “what a person can do and how the built environment limits us.”
A social model of disability “doesn’t seek to fix disabled people but instead puts disabled people and their experiences at the center.” Applying this approach, landscape architects need to increasingly “design out barriers and make social life more inclusive.”
Toronyi and Vaughn both shaped ASLA’s guide to universal design and have moved forward universal design in landscape architecture. OLIN Labs, a community of practice at her firm, includes a series of labs that coordinate project-based work, partner-led initiatives, fellowships, and areas of emerging research, including designing for neurodivergence.
Making public spaces more inclusive for LGBTQIA+ people is another area of focus for OLIN, with their “Pridescapes” community of practice, explained Max Dickson, a landscape designer there. “We are focusing on untold queer histories and new queer futures.”
Dickson said the identities of queer people have been historically linked to places, but this has often gone unrecognized. Many queer landscapes were in marginal areas. “These were marginal places for marginalized people.” With gentrification and new development, these places lost their queerness.
For decades, the pier landscapes of Hudson River Park on the west side of lower Manhattan were safe spaces for the community, but with new development were erased. And Belmont Rocks along the lake shore in Chicago, which was a gay mecca in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, lost its sense of place since a reconstruction by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
At the same time, many queer landscape architects also went unrecognized, given they had to live closeted lives. Phil Winslow and Bruce Kelly, who were central to the restoration of Olmsted’s Central Park, both succumbed to AIDS. “They couldn’t be out in the workplace.”
“Queer spaces were once closed, dark spaces — discos, bathhouses, and clubs.” But the protest movements from the late 60s through to the 90s made these spaces public. In 1969, gay people at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York City rose up, protesting decades of harassment by the police, sparking the modern gay rights movement. In 2016, these historic protest spaces became the first significant LGBTQIA+ place protected in perpetuity as a National Monument.
Today, Black transgender people are among the most vulnerable among the broad LGBTQIA+ community. In 2021, 50 Black trans people were killed in the U.S., and 33 percent of these crimes happened in public spaces. “We need to ensure all people can experience safe, accessible places. We need to protect queer existence in public space.”
April De Simone, principal at the architecture firm Trahan Architects and co-founder of its Designing with Democracy initiative, argued that designers of all disciplines need to “reshape practice in order to reshape consciousness.”
Growing up in the Tremont neighborhood of the Bronx, New York City, De Simone experienced the impacts of redlining and urban renewal driven by racism. The legacy of these “spatialized inequities” continues. “Systemic, structural inequities stay very rooted in.” And redlining is alive and well. “I still can’t get a loan today.”
In New York City and other cities, the New Deal programs created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt further institutionalized redlining, creating a “geographic footprint of hierarchy and home values based on race. It codified the value of humans in the built environment.”
To combat these legacies and create a more democratic built environment, Victor F. “Trey” Trahan III, FAIA, and De Simone founded Designing for Democracy, an independent non-profit research and design group, last year. “We believe people in communities have agency as well. Harnessing that agency leads to equity.”
By empowering communities’ sense of agency and in turn equity, landscapes and communities can be “radically reshaped so that communities can share the full potential of democracy. There is a collective humanity in this cause,” De Simone argued.