Landscape Architects as Activists

ASLA 2020 Professional Analysis and Planning Award of Excellence. Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture (RICA). Bugesera, Rwanda, Africa / MASS Design Group

A growing number of landscape architects are running mission-driven practices meant to advance social, equity, and political goals through planning and design work. For landscape architects who take this approach, the questions often are: “How do we decide to take a position? What does that look like?,” said Gina Ford, FASLA, founder of Agency Landscape + Planning, at the Oberlander Prize Forum II on Landscape Activism, organized by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) in Dallas, Texas.

For Sierra Bainbridge, ASLA, senior principal and managing director at MASS Design Group, making these kinds of decisions needs to be both rooted in “the head and the heart.” To get to the right position, “you have to ask the right questions, and you have to ask together with your client — what is the mission of this project?”

Bainbridge said MASS seeks out projects in Rwanda and elsewhere that can help shift policies and create structural change. “Our goal is to always hire locally, source regionally, invest in training, and uphold dignity.”

“Landscape is a way of seeing natural and cultural environments. Landscape architecture can be used to unlearn, disrupt assumptions, spark creativity, and catalyze innovations,” said Maura Rockcastle, principal and co-founder of Ten x Ten. “It’s an open-ended process.”

Too many communities have been impacted by the “slow violence of erasure, racism, injustices, fear, and intergenerational traumas.” Designers need take a compassionate approach, which requires more time, but it’s necessary to build trust in damaged communities.

ASLA 2021 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Indian Mounds Cultural Landscape Study and Messaging Plan. Saint Paul, Minnesota. Quinn Evans, Ten x Ten, Allies, Inc. / Quinn Evans

Landscapes that are described as free, inclusive, and accessible often aren’t in reality, said Chelina Odbert, ASLA, CEO and co-founder of the Kounkuey Design Collaborative (KDI), which won the Cooper Hewitt 2022 National Design Award for landscape architecture. “Landscapes are often intimidating, exclusionary, and inaccessible for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and LGBTQIA+ communities.”

This is a significant issue, because communities that either can’t access public space or don’t feel comfortable doing so experience real health impacts. “Just look at Los Angeles: In Malibu, California, which has a healthy public realm, the average life expectancy is 90 years old; in Watts, it’s 75. That’s a difference of 15 years of life. We need to do long-range planning to ensure the future is inclusive.”

How do you know if your projects are advancing your goals, Ford then asked.

“You have to start small and then leverage well. In communities with a legacy of broken promises, there is success in getting a single project done. Then you can leverage individual projects to do more,” Odbert said.

ECV Shade Equity, Oasis, California / Kounkuey Design Collaborative

In a similar vein, Bainbridge argued that success is building long-term local capacity. In Rwanda, MASS Design Group has been planning and designing projects for more than a decade, and success has taken the form of local networks and organizations who can move the work forward.

For Rockcastle, success has been about “creating multiple conversations through a multiplicity of projects. We have started to get at the bigger conversations.”

Driving forward mission-based work can lead to burn-out. “How do you maintain your energy?,” Ford wondered.

“There is a joy in committing to things. There’s also a responsibility that comes with collaboration. I’m learning all the time,” Rockcastle said.

“You have to be comfortable with struggle. Dissension and discord is part of the process. But it can push you towards your goal,” Odbert said.

“We need to resist physical, structural, and cultural violence; it’s not a choice. Resistance is a fuel. We have to keep pushing — just for some people to live. If we don’t resist, we can’t move forward.”

The Oberlander Prize Forum II on Landscape Activism began with a powerful keynote from Jane Edmonds, a co-founder of Jane’s Way and former Massachusetts Secretary of Workforce Development and Chair of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

In her talk, Edmonds relayed how she was inspired by Mel King and the Tent City movement he led to protest gentrification and displacement in Boston’s South End in 1968. In what was a prime example of “landscape activism,” King demonstrated the “power of presence,” a tactic that would later be adopted by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

She called on all landscape architects to “cultivate an activist’s mind and perceive and acknowledge all the truths.”

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