Using Tarot Cards to Understand the Spirit of Place

Fairy Hills of Scotland / Elizabeth Boults

“The idea that big data will be the generator of design in the future is very depressing,” said Elizabeth Boults, ASLA, a landscape architect and educator, at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego. She instead called for “alternative methods that incorporate a more spiritual perspective.”

With her husband Chip Sullivan, FASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, who is a passionate proponent for honoring and designing with the unseen forces that shape landscapes, Boults outlined how one method that sounds a bit woolly at first — tarot cards — can actually be a thoughtful design tool for understanding the genus loci (spirit of place), which is so central to landscape architecture.

Boults believes that landscape architecture is a mix of art and science. Art relates to the “mysterious, non-linear, subjective” process of design, while science is about “rational structures, categories, and typologies.”

Beyond art and science though, there is also the spiritual aspect of landscapes. “Across cultures, people shape landscapes based on their beliefs.” Many cultures have had “gods and goddesses who are guardians of the spirit of places.” For example, Romans believed each home had a genius, who were honored through a shrine.

Roman shrine to the genius of the home / Household Gods by Alexandra Sofroniew

Prehistoric peoples were attuned to the “atmosphere, the flora, animal life, and geological formations; they listened to the trees, wind, and moon.” Boults wondered: “Are we still listening today?”

Enduring ancient beliefs are still alive and well in modern practices such as Feng Shui in China, Vastu Shastra in India, and landscape cosmologies among Native people and across many cultures. Within these cultural approaches to the landscape, it’s always important to “consult the genus loci of a place before starting a design process.”

Sullivan then steered the lecture towards the use of tarot cards, which he had previously “never paid attention to.” But then one day he began to wonder, “what are they about? When we have our cards read, what are we putting our value in?”

Examining historical and contemporary decks, he discovered they are “all about the landscape,” with their “Pre-Raphaelite imagery that compresses natural information.”

Antique Italian tarot card deck / Elizabeth Boults

During a studio project with his students to define core landscape design principles, he discovered what they were creating were essentially tarot cards, depicting sacred archetypal elements like the tree of life, the enchanted forest, the well. His students then began using the tarot decks in order to actively divine new designs; the result were “amazing.”

Like conventional decks, the genus loci tarot laid out core elements such as “the journey of the hero, the call to adventure, facing trials and tribulations, finding resolution, crossing the threshold, and achieving enlightenment.” Sullivan believes people are attracted to tarot cards because they depict life as a journey.

He also believes it’s no coincidence that tarot cards and mysticism are so popular in highly creative Silicon Valley, which is home to companies like Oracle (another sacred symbol).

In the last third of what was one of the most unusual and fun ASLA conference sessions ever, Sullivan and Boults offered glue, collage materials, watercolors, pens, and index cards so that attendees could create tarot cards depicting their own conception of genus loci.

Genus loci tarot card / Edith Drcar
Genus loci tarot card / Fred Ogram
Genus loci tarot card / Jessamyn Lett

Two attendees from different parts of the room realized they drew the nearly-exact figure of a wellspring, the source of life, showing that natural archetypes remain real in our disconnected digital world.

Best Books of 2019

The Architecture of Trees / Princeton Architectural Press
The Tree Book / Timber Press

Whether you are looking for the perfect gift for your favorite landscape architect or an immersive read for yourself, explore THE DIRT’s top 10 books of 2019, our picks for the best on the environment, cities, and landscape:

The Architecture of Trees and The Tree Book: Superior Selections for Landscapes, Streetscapes, and Gardens
Princeton Architectural Press, 2019, and Timber Press, 2019

These are two useful and beautiful books on how to design with trees. The Architecture of Trees — first published by Cesare Leonardi and Franca Stagi, two versatile Italian furniture, landscape, and architectural designers, in 1982 and now reprinted in 2019 — features 212 trees species depicted through 550 intricate quill-pen illustrations, each drawn to 1:100 scale. The Tree Book, written by arboreal guru Michael A. Dirr and Keith S. Warren, director of product development for the tree nursery J. Frank Schmidt and Son Co., includes images, botanical and common names, and the range and climate adaptability of some 2,400 species and cultivars. Read the full review of The Architecture of Trees.

An Atlas of Geographical Wonders / Princeton Architectural Press

An Atlas of Geographical Wonders: From Mountaintops to Riverbeds
Princeton Architectural Press, 2019

This vivid collection of comparative maps and tableaux from the 19th century, organized by French researchers Jean-Christophe Bally, Jean-Marc Besse, Phillipe Grande, and Gilles Palsky, show how explorers, scientists, and artists imagined fantastical landscapes in order to better understand the true scale of the natural world. Their drawings and paintings laid the foundation for today’s geographical data visualizations.

A New Coast / Island Press

A New Coast: Strategies for Responses to Devastating Storms and Sea Level Rise
Island Press, 2019

Jeffrey Peterson, who was recently senior advisor responsible for climate change policy at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s office of water, has written a comprehensive new national policy approach to dealing with sea level rise, a roadmap for reforming the U.S.’s broken flood insurance system and steering development away from increasingly risky coastal areas.

Choked / University of Chicago Press
Clearing the Air / Bloomsbury Sigma

Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution and Clearing the Air: The Beginning and the End of Air Pollution
Bloomsbury Sigma, 2019, and University of Chicago Press, 2019

At the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego, former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Gina McCarthy argued that telling the story of the dangerous health impacts of climate change will motivate greater public action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Air pollution, which causes the premature death of 7 million people worldwide each year, will only worsen with climate change. As Tim Smedley explains in Clear the Air and Beth Gardiner in Choked, the solutions to the climate and air pollution crises are largely the same: renewable power, clean cook stoves, electric vehicles, and green infrastructure.

Design with Nature Now / Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

Design with Nature Now
Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2019

Design with Nature Now is an accessible and well-designed companion book to the University of Pennsylvania’s Design with Nature Now symposium and exhibition, which marked the 50th anniversary of Ian McHarg’s seminal book Design with Nature. Edited by Frederick Steiner, FASLA, Richard Weller, FASLA, Karen M’Closkey, and Billy Fleming, ASLA, this collection of essays and projects should inspire any environmental policymaker, planner, or landscape architect to forge broader coalitions and act regionally and globally to save our fragile ecosystems and protect the future of humanity.

Designing a Garden / The Monacelli Press

Designing a Garden: Monk’s Garden at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
The Monacelli Press, 2019

Designing a Garden, written by Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, is a lucid and candid examination of the process of designing and constructing a single intimate project. Van Valkenburgh intends the book as a sort of how-to guide to landscape design, not unlike a cookbook in terms of detail and clarity. Read the full review.

Planting the Natural Garden / Timber Press

Planting the Natural Garden
Timber Press, 2019

An expanded and updated new edition of a now-classic book that launched the New Perennials movement, fundamentally changing landscape design. Edited by Noel Kingsbury, the book features the works and writings of High Line plant designer Piet Oudolf and late plantsman and designer Henk Gerritsen.

Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide / Penguin Press

Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide
Penguin Press, 2019

Journalist Tony Horwitz’s book on Frederick Law Olmsted is difficult to classify. It is a biography of Frederick Law Olmsted and a history of his America. It is also reportage from rural America and a thoughtful reflection on our times. Read the full review.

Buying these books through THE DIRT or ASLA’s online bookstore benefits ASLA educational programs. And if you are based near Washington, D.C. we also recommend checking out the National Building Museum’s fantastic book store.

Gina McCarthy: Keep up the Fight Against Climate Change

Gina McCarthy

A few decades ago, when you thought of Orange County in California, “you didn’t think of the citrus growing here, you thought of the color of the sky,” said Gina McCarthy, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), at the opening general session of the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego.

Air pollution grew worse and public pressure increased on government at all levels to solve the problem. Then, finally, in 1970, the Clean Air Act was passed, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed. Since then, “air pollution has been reduced by 75 percent, while we have tripled gross domestic product (GDP).” This led McCarthy to state: “So don’t tell me solving climate change is beyond our reach.”

The technological side of fixing the climate crisis — renewable energy, a clean power grid, electric vehicles — are easy to envision and within reach. “The clean energy train has left the station, and there’s no way it’s turning back.”

The harder problems to solve are the greenhouse gas emissions from the built environment, and the “loss of the sense of community.” The solution to both problems is to build communities that can be “the foundation for a more sustainable tomorrow.”

Sustainable communities create opportunities for children to get outside and play, which is why McCarthy was one of the first to create a No Child Left Inside program in Connecticut when she served as commissioner of environmental protection.

When McCarthy was commissioner, she remembered meeting school children in Hartford who lived a few miles from the Connecticut River, but had never seen it. “No one drove them there.” And “there was no green space to connect them to the river.”

“How can children love nature if they don’t see it? How can they become the next environmental stewards if they don’t care about nature?”

To achieve sustainable communities, green infrastructure must also be interwoven throughout the built environment. “By moving away from concrete pipes to green infrastructure, we can also make our cities finally look good again.”

McCarthy called for “transforming the built environment to integrate nature into everything.” For this, she said landscape architects play a crucial role, as they are experts on how to design with nature.

Landscape architectural solutions like urban forests and green roofs will reduce the impacts of extreme heat. “Heat stress will kill more people than all other climate impacts put together. Heat is a silent killer — it kills people in their homes and on the streets.”

McCarthy believes “climate change is the most significant public health, security, economic, and environmental challenge of our time.” And all progress made on the environment and climate change under the Obama administration is now under assault.

While some 92 percent of EPA regulations formulated under the Obama administration withstood legal and other challenges, “all our life-saving efforts to reduce air and water pollution and clean-up contaminated sites are under attack.”

The Trump administration also recently initiated the formal process to pull the United States out of the UN climate agreement forged in Paris in 2015. “We are now the only nation who has not signed on. And we are the second largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Still, she found hope in the fact that some 25 states and hundreds of cities have stated they are still abiding by the terms of America’s contribution to the agreement. Together, this coalition of states and cities represents 55 percent of the U.S. population. If this group were a separate country, it would the third largest economy on Earth.

Regardless of party, “Americans want a stable, clean environment in which they can live, work, and play. I’ve worked under six governors, five of which were Republicans, and not one said to me, ‘we really need more pollution.'”

And that is why the attacks on environmental regulations are particularly galling for her. “The EPA really isn’t an environmental agency; it’s a public health agency. The EPA is focused on fewer asthma attacks and heart attacks.”

Phasing out dirty power sources like coal in favor of clean, renewable energy means cleaner air. In the U.S. some 4,000 kids develop asthma each year. “If you have seen a child having an asthma attack, you never forget it.” And thousands die prematurely from bad air quality.

Climate change is also about people’s health, perhaps more than nature. “No one relates to glaciers. What they relate to is the health and well-being of their children and grandchildren. Health is the best way to get people to care about climate change. Communications must be personal, and health is incredibly personal. Focusing on health impacts will create action.”

She exhorted the crowd of landscape architects to fight the good fight: “Do not sit on the couch. Stop being angry and anxious. Taking action is what being adult is all about. And we must demand action. We can’t turn our backs on our children and grandchildren.”

“Stop following the latest dramas in Washington, D.C. The Beltway isn’t the real world. Have you ever heard of an innovative idea that was initiated at the Federal level?”

She urged landscape architects to “speak up, challenge the status quo, and make your families proud. Design the future; show people what it looks like; tell the story.”

“We need landscape architects to design a world that is healthy, safe, and beautiful — and more just. Landscape architecture can kindle hope in all of us.”

The Landscapes of Enslavement (Part 1)

Stewart Castle Estate, 1835, JB Kidd / Inside Journeys

There has been an evolution in public education about historic landscapes where people were once enslaved. Just a few decades ago, the story of African American slaves would have been brushed over, sanitized, or, even worse, left blank. Now, a few brave public educators, academics, photographers, and historians are showing how complicated, layered stories can be told that honor the truth and dignity of those who were enslaved. They show that landscapes can tell the story of American history in all its beauty and horror.

Thaisa Way, FASLA, the new director of garden and landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. assembled a group who are at the cutting-edge of reinterpreting landscapes of enslavement. Over the course of a day, African American, Latinx, and Caucasian scholars, landscape architects, and curators waded into some of the toughest conversations. The conclusion was that a new inclusive approach to educating the public is being forged, even when the reality of American slavery remains hard to hear for those brought up on Gone with the Wind.

The colloquium, which was held in preparation for a two-day symposium in spring 2020 on the legacy of segregation on cities, delved into studies and projects related to landscapes of enslavement in the U.S. and Caribbean. Way explained these academic conferences are part of a broader three-year investigation financed with grants from the Mellon Foundation.

The Daily Life of Enslaved People in Jamaica

Jillian Galle, project director, Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, is coordinating a collaborative research study on 85 sites in the U.S., Jamaica, Nevis, and St. Kitts, and other countries that have yielded 4 million artifacts.

Through her archeological research, Galle found that the global trade in sugar, cocoa, spices, and coffee resulted in a “new material culture” of luxury products. Excavations of slave dwellings in Jamaica yielded fragments of porcelain from southern China. “Slaves were active participants in the consumer revolution.”

Analyzing 33,000 artifacts from Stewart Castle in Jamaica, Galle and her team found “costly objects from Europe” while excavating slave structures, including “glass beads, metal buttons, furniture ornaments, iron pots, shells, and utensils.” Machetes and hooks, which were used by slaves as weapons during rebellions, were also found.

Over three centuries, some 9 million Africans were kidnapped and brought to the Caribbean to plant and harvest sugar, citrus, lumber, cocoa, and other products on plantations overseen by white workers. Due to the incredible violence of slavery, “there was no natural increase,” meaning slaves weren’t able to have children. As the enslaved Africans were worked to death, one million new slaves were imported.

Instead of feeding slaves well, portions of plantations were given over to them as “a system of Negro provisioning grounds.” So in addition to their work, there was the stress of having to “cultivate gardens, fish, grow livestock to meet their own food needs.” Famine was a regular occurrence and constant threat.

Unearthing shellfish shells, fish bones, and other food remains from these sites gave insight into their diet. While slaves often sold fish they caught in markets, clams and other shellfish made up a large portion of their diet, which was partially foraged. Galle hypothesized that African slaves who were stolen away to Jamaica brought their “Gold Coast fishing culture,” which has been passed down to Jamaicans who live there today.

Inside the ruins of Stewart Castle / Digital Archeological Archive of Comparative Slavery

After the British abolished the slave trade in 1807, the life of enslaved people in Jamaica improved somewhat, at least on a relative basis. Some gained access to island-wide Sunday markets where they could purchase or trade those luxury consumer products. With the ability to participate in commercial life, “they achieved a margin of economic and reproductive success in a brutal environment.”

Telling the Story of Slavery at the Whitney Plantation

Dr. Ibrahima Seck, director of research of the Whitney Plantation Slavery Museum and a member of the faculty at the University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar (UCAD), Senegal, said the 2,000-acre Whitney Plantation, which is about a one hour drive west of New Orleans, Louisiana, is dedicated to explaining the history of slavery in the South. The museum opened to the public in 2014 and receives around 100,000 visitors annually, a number growing 10-15 percent each year.

Attorney John Cummings purchased the land for $8 million, spent 15 years restoring the site, and commissioned life-sized clay sculptures of enslaved Creole adults and children that humanize them and breathe life into the history. Many of the sculptures, which were created by artist Woodrow Nash, are found within the historic African American Antioch Baptist Church, which was moved to the property.

Children of Whitney sculpture / Whitney Plantation Facebook
Children of Whitney sculpture / Whitney Plantation Facebook

Over a 90-minute tour, mostly outdoors, visitors get a sense of what life was like for the enslaved laborers, “who spent most of their lives outside, whether it was very hot or cold.”

Seck said some 13 percent of the slave population in Louisiana died each year. “There were also large numbers of children who died — either stillborn or due to disease.”

What makes the Whitney different from other Southern plantations is the Wall of Honor, where Seck and his team have listed the names of enslaved people they discovered lived there over the 18th and 19th centuries. “There are 400 names, African names.”

Wall of Honor at Whitney Plantation / Slavery and Remembrance

Also, Rush more recently created an art piece to honor the slaves who led and participated in the German Coast uprising on January 8, 1811. By June 13, the slaves had been defeated by the local militia. “And they had to pay the price of failure.” Those captured were shot, decapitated in front of their families, and then their heads were put on spikes. “The artwork represents this but also presents them as an army.”

1811 Slave Revolt Memorial by Woodrow Nash / Yelp

Ashley Rogers, who is the executive director of the museum, said “many visitors have an idea in their mind of what slavery was like that doesn’t line up with reality. It’s a bucolic, beautiful setting, with cypress swamps and egrets, but the landscape is deceiving — it obscures the hard labor and violence.”

Rogers emphasized the industrial nature of the plantation. “The fields were like factories.”

Starting in the 1820s, steam-powered mills and conveyor belts led to a “methodical division of labor.” Then, beginning in the 1840s, field work became mechanized through machines first sold as “iron slaves.” These machines were marketed as “better than human, the ideal slaves.”

After slavery was abolished, a system of bonded labor developed that “was similar to slavery in so many ways.”

Many of the plantations along the Mississippi River were later purchased by oil and chemical companies, which were attracted by easy access to water and transportation. On top of the violence and trauma came “toxicity and environmental degradation.”

Today, St. John the Baptist Parish is the most polluted in Louisiana. “And the energy and chemical companies still receive tax-free status.”

A Bold Re-Interpretation of Slavery at Montpelier

Restored Montpelier / Wikipedia

Elizabeth Chew, executive vice president and chief curator at Montpelier, President James Madison’s home in Virginia, which is about 90 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., said Madison owned enslaved people, who grew tobacco and grain on his property.

After being purchased by the Montpelier Foundation in 2000, the home was restored to near-original condition as part of a $24 million multi-year effort. As the restoration neared completion, one member of the community of descendants of Madison’s slaves asked Chew: “where are my people?”

The realization that the story of the enslaved had been largely omitted led to archeological excavations, architectural studies of slaves’ quarters, and the eventual recreation of their quarters in the south yard of Montpelier. A $10 million gift from David Rubenstein made that work possible.

Archeological excavations at Montpelier / Montpelier Foundation
Reconstructed slave quarters at Montpelier / National Trust for Historic Preservation

Montpelier Foundation made a concerted effort to engage the descendant community in the creation of new interpretation program and telling personal stories about Madison’s slaves. “Their advice was to emphasize the humanity of their ancestors, and don’t leave slavery in the past.” The main message the Foundation wants to convey now is: “slavery happened to one person at a time.”

Through inventive exhibitions, the forms of slaves are projected on walls while recordings of oral histories of descendants play in the background. “You feel human presences in the spaces.” Chew said they hoped to convey the “psychological torture of slavery; that loved ones could be sold and stolen away at any moment.”

With support from multiple grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, the Montpelier Foundation has also created new curriculum for teaching slavery in schools and engaged visitors and descendants in the excavations and discovery of the past. Chew seemed proud that the descendants are now a “major stakeholder.”

Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, the Merrill D. Peterson professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, who moderated the session, said Montpelier, through its thoughtful interpretative work, powerfully expresses “the magnitude of loss and horror, and the persistence of the intangible and invisible impacts” of slavery.

Chew said once visitors “see the evidence and experience the spaces with their own bodies, it overrides any concern” that the reinterpretation is too threatening to “white fragility.”

There are growing numbers of visitors of color. For many, “Montpelier is a pilgrimage; it’s a stand-in plantation.” And about “40 percent of our visitors thank us every day for what we are doing.”

Their concern now is remaining relevant amid declining visitor numbers. “Older white folks make up the largest demographic of visitors, and that has to change.”

Read part 2 of the Landscapes of Enslavement.

The Landscapes of Enslavement (Part 2)

Monticello / Wikipedia

At a day-long colloqium at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., Thaisa Way, FASLA, the new director of garden and landscape studies, assembled a group who are at the cutting-edge of reinterpreting landscapes of enslavement. Over the course of a day, African American, Latinx, and Caucasian scholars, landscape architect, and curators waded into some of the toughest conversations. The conclusion was that a new inclusive approach to educating the public is being forged, even when the truth of American slavery remains hard to hear for those brought up on Gone with the Wind. (Read Part 1 in this series).

Monticello: Liberty and White Supremacy

Before moderating the discussion on Monticello, the plantation of Thomas Jefferson in Virginia, Eric Avila, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, took at tour there. He said his guide started with a joke: “Monticello, it’s complicated.”

Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the U.S., is considered a founding father but he also owned 600 slaves at his 5,000-acre estate. His beliefs and writings helped lay the foundation for American liberty but only for white males. He was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence but fathered six children with Sally Hemmings, one of his mixed-race slaves.

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation manages Monticello and employs Fraser Nieman, who is head of archeology. At the historic estate, “the landscape of slavery has vanished.” Instead, he and his team have had to deduct what the past looked like from available data, in this case, oral histories, documents, and layers of sediment.

Jefferson grew both tobacco and grain, but they required “radically different” agricultural methods. To grow tobacco, enslaved workers would kill trees, leaving the stumps. Then, they would abandon a plot 4-5 years later and cut down more trees starting the cycle over again. “Tobacco required a gang labor system; everyone was at the same time at the same place.”

In contrast, wheat production required all tree stumps to be dug up and removed so that fields could be plowed by livestock. Wheat production demanded an elaborate divisions of labor: slaves to manage livestock, fertilizers, mills, and then blacksmiths to make the plows. “Wheat production required spatially-dispersed task groups.” Nieman thinks the experience of slavery may have differed based on what was being grown. “Tobacco production required more control, while there was slightly more freedom with wheat.”

Without any physical remains of slave dwellings or farmland, Nieman and his team decided to investigate the accumulated layers of sediment, which are an “encapsulation of history.” Pollen samples from those many layers tell the story of the transition from tobacco to grain.

Branden Dillard is an anthropologist who oversees interpretation and the instruction of tour guides at Monticello. While he said “no one can recreate the landscape of enslavement at Monticello,” which was a “forced labor camp in a botanical garden,” his job is to convey “an understanding of what it was.”

Monticello’s landscape / Monticello, Thomas Jefferson Foundation

Interpretation involves bringing historical data and facts to life for diverse, contemporary audiences, making information relevant on a personal level. One important way the foundation does that is by using facts from documentary records to tell the stories about individual slaves.

Dillard acknowledge that tours can become very tense, particularly when visitors hear things they perhaps don’t want to. “Staff have been yelled at; fights can break out among visitors.” He said “about 15 percent of the reviews of the tours basically say ‘how dare you;’ another 15 percent accuse us of white washing; and 70 percent say we are doing a good job.”

For Niya Bates, who manages the oral history projects at Monticello, it’s important to have “up-front conversations with visitors who have been miseducated on the history of slavery and its legacy.”

She said Jefferson was “obsessive about taking notes, marking the weather twice a day.” From all these records, they were able to piece together the names of the 600 slaves who lived there, and then trace descendants, who have become critical stakeholders in Monticello.

Oral history interviews with descendants about the lives of their ancestors at Monticello and after slavery, and the after-shocks of slavery among the descendants themselves, helps enrich the story of this historic landscape. “Monticello is really a black space, even though it is not thought of as such. We can re-frame it as a black history site.”

The foundation has organized events where descendants plant trees to honor their ancestors. Visitors can sleep overnight in rebuilt slave quarters. Through the incredible Getting Word project, they can hear the stories themselves both online and in exhibitions. And there are also grants available to descendants to pursue their own projects and development.

The Legacy of Slavery in East End Cemetery

Introduced by landscape architect Sara Zewde, Brian Palmer, a photographer, journalist and professor gave a heart-felt talk about his explorations in the South, both photographing white supremacist rallies and exploring abandoned African American cemeteries.

In 1892, Jim Crow, which was a system of laws and regulations that enforced racial segregation across Southern states, “followed people to the grave.” African Americans had to be buried in their own cemeteries. The fact that many of these places are so neglected today plays into “our community’s residual shame.”

East End Cemetery, which is near Richmond, Virginia, is a historic 16-acre site where an estimated 17,000 African Americans are buried. It was one of many neglected African American cemeteries in the South.

After discovering the site through a photography assignment, Palmer and his wife later returned to volunteer, clearing out invasive plants, making the cemetery more visible and accessible, and posting images of gravestones on “Find a Grave” in an effort to identify descendants. Palmer went on to become the president of the non-profit managing the clean-up.

East End Cemetery / Church Hill People’s News

Reviewing microfiche of old newspapers, Palmer also discovered some of the famous African Americans buried at East End, including a doctor who became a bank president. “Reclaiming the cemetery is about reclaiming the history there.”

He called out the injustice that continues today in Virginia, noting that the state has provided over $9 million over the past 100 years for the upkeep of Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond, where many Confederate figures are buried, but exactly zero for the maintenance of African American cemeteries. “There’s affirmative action for Confederate cemeteries.”

Through a number of grants, East End Cemetery has been able to create a community for descendants and an ambitious preservation plan. Palmer said it’s slowly becoming a tourist destination, along with Evergreen and Woodland cemeteries nearby, which are also being restored. Read more in Palmer’s op-ed in The New York Times.

Uncovering the Truth of Slavery at Universities

Nathan D.B. Connolly, a historian and professor at Johns Hopkins University moderated a discussion on how universities are dealing with complicated pasts intertwined with slavery. Given we now know that “slave money built many American universities,” including Ivy League institutions, how can universities create an inclusive community? Donnolly believes that “racism is still rampant in higher education,” adding to the challenge.

Adam Rothman, a professor of history at Georgetown University, has worked to uncover the full story of slavery at his university, which has been in the news because Jesuits sold some 275 slaves in 1838 for $115,000 to get out from under “crushing debt.” While this information was publicly known at least since the 1960s, it has been “rediscovered” and taken on a new life.

Frank Campbell, an enslaved person sold by Georgetown University / Robert Ruffin Barrow, Jr., Papers, Archives and Special Collections, Nicholls State University, Thibodaux, La., Public Domain

To date, the university’s official response has been to offer a formal apology, institute a new process for engaging descendants of those slaves, and give descendants privileged position in admission considerations. However, current students recently found this didn’t go far enough and voted for giving reparations to descendants, arguing that one dormitory paid for with proceeds from the sale of slaves generates more than $1 million in revenue annually.

Rothman served on Georgetown’s working group on slavery, memory, and reconciliation, which generated a set of “steps” for justice after discussions with faculty, students, and descendants, who are represented by the Georgetown Memory Project. One result of the work has been the renaming of two halls on campus for slaves sold by Georgetown. There is now the Isaac Hawkins Hall and the Anne Marie Becraft Hall. But Rothman complained that “these names have no meaning for students; they need additional interpretation.”

As the Georgetown Memory Project calls for more research and students demand reparations, Georgetown is “seriously wrestling with the facts of history.”

Hilary N. Green, an associate professor of history at the University of Alabama, who runs the Hallowed Grounds project, a walking tour of slave history on campus, said her university has a “dismal retention rate for diverse students and faculty” perhaps in part because the past there hasn’t been fully acknowledged.

Hilary Green giving Hallowed Grounds tour / The Crimson White, University of Alabama

While the university created a marker honoring slaves and their legacy on the campus, Green decided to dig deeper, looking into the archives, and uncovering personal stories of slaves on campus. All this information has been presented in a walking tour to over 4,300 people, in rain or shine.

Hallowed Grounds / Hilary N. Green

Her efforts have yielded progress: the university has formed a new commission to study race, slavery, and civil rights. Green has also created a pop-up museum on racial history at the university and is seeking a dedicated space.

And Elgin Cleckley, assistant professor of architecture and design thinking at the University of Virginia, described how he brings his empathetic design approach to complex sites on campus and in Charlottesville.

He said the walking tour on enslaved African Americans at the University of Virginia inspired him to work with students to create a new project and exhibition called Mapping, which is now on view in the Rotunda until 2020. The project features documentation from the University of Virginia president’s commission on slavery and an orientation model laser-etched in slate roof tiles that enslaved workers on campus created.

Mapping / University of Virginia

UVA recently commissioned Howeler+Yoon to create a new monument to enslaved labor on campus, which will feature 973 names. (Some 4,000-5,000 workers were enslaved on the campus). Cleckley participated in the monument’s planning and design, stating that it adds an African form that contrasts with axial structure of the traditional campus. The monument is expected to open in 2020.

Memorial to Enslaved Laborers / Howeler+Yoon, University of Virginia

Cleckley said UVA is a complicated place to work because it “has produced both white supremacists and African American civil rights leaders.”

In the Q&A, conversation veered towards what to do with the Confederate statues that still take center stage in many Southern parks, plazas, and streets, serve as daily reminders of the “Lost Cause,” and are major flash points in race relations.

Some cities like Baltimore and Austin have removed all Confederate monuments, while other cities are moving cautiously, deliberating over whether to reinterpret the sites for a contemporary audience. The conclusion seemed to be to go slowly in removing them and focus on building new monuments to enslaved people first, rather than tearing down the old.

Another question arose about how to represent the influence of African slaves in historic American places like Monticello through design. The landscape isn’t just a white landscape, but also a black one.

Bates at Monticello said one way would be to contrast the “Western, rigid, grid forms” with something antithetical and African, “with movement, color, asymmetrical and curvilinear forms.” Intervening in the symbolic Western forms can “disrupt the landscape of white supremacy.”

Read part 1 of Landscapes of Enslavement.

Beth Meyer: Natural Beauty Has a Ripple Effect

Beth Meyer / National Building Museum

Beth Meyer, FASLA, the Merrill D. Peterson professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, is this year’s recipient of the Vincent Scully Prize, which is bestowed by the National Building Museum (NBM) in Washington, D.C.

Just the second landscape architect to receive the prize, after Laurie Olin, FASLA, in 2017, Meyer is widely viewed as one of the most influential landscape architecture professors teaching today. Scully Prize jury chair Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk said: “she has left an indelible mark on theories of aesthetics, sustainability, culture, and social impact.”

In a wide-ranging, dynamic conversation at the NBM with her friend Thaïsa Way, the resident program director for garden and landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks, Meyer demonstrated her ability to enlighten and create a sense of wonder. She helped the audience better understand the deep impact beauty has on us, particularly natural beauty in the public realm.

A few highlights from the conversation:

On how she formed her ideas: “I grew up in Virginia Beach as a Navy brat. I spent endless hours on beaches and boardwalks, walking the promenades and public spaces. There was every body shape and size imaginable.”

“I came to landscape architecture sideways. Visiting Norfolk, Virginia, in the mid-60s, I saw urban renewal projects demolish buildings and communities, and what was created as a replacement was not great stuff. I became interested in design really through demolition. I wanted to make cities better. I later discovered cities involve dynamic processes that result from political and social factors.”

“I found a niche between historian and designer. In landscape history, there had been an over-emphasis on ecology. I wanted to focus on cultural and social aspects and human agency.”

“I left my suburban life to study, work, and live in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Boston. Suburbia is so segregated, but I discovered that urban parks are outdoor living rooms where you encounter people who are not like you. By recognizing the humanity of a stranger different from you in public spaces, you develop empathy and tolerance, which is the basis of community and democracy.”

“Sitting outside alone is also an act of self care. There is an intimacy to being alone in public, which allows you to quiet the usual busyness and see each other. That intimacy creates conviviality and moments of connection, which is an act of self care.”

On how to understand the social, cultural, and political aspects of landscapes: “In Southern cities and towns, there is a racialized topography. Wealthy and white live up on the ridges; poor and black live in the bottoms, the bowls, which leads to temperature, health, economic, and social disparities. Analyzing power and race topographically provides a lens for understanding public space. Landscape is a text for reading issues of power and privilege.”

“I think a lot about who has the right to the city? Who has the right to linger in public spaces? How do you define lingering versus loitering? What if a park is the only place someone has to go to during the day?”

“I’m not into the theory of landscape urbanism. It doesn’t engage with the social and political. Landscapes are a framework.”

On the importance of natural beauty: “There is a real pleasure and joy in the experience of — and interaction with — plants that are changing. Places with plants can cause people to become distracted, to pause and wonder. Princeton University professor Elaine Scarry calls this ‘wonder in the face of beauty.’ It arrests time and causes us to care. When something beautiful happens, when the mist rises, there is a ripple effect on others.”

On why we need to design with nature: “Public spaces are more than human when we recognize the agency of soil, microbes, plants, and critters. There is this constellation of life in it together. We co-construct public space with other species. Interacting with the biophysical world also alters our mood and sensibility — and our ethos and ethics.”

On climate change: “To combat the threat, landscape architects can care for materials and small things; people’s need for public space and the ability to self care; and beauty. Design matters because it alters the ethos of people who use the spaces.”

“It’s not only humans that are feeling the threat of climate change. I saw a Dogwood tree outside of Dumbarton Oaks the other day that was blooming with browning leaves.”

On how positive change can happen: “I understand now that the aggregated experience of natural beauty among many people can change our collective mood and create a cultural shift.”

Now more than ever then, natural beauty is needed in our public spaces.

The Reach at the Kennedy Center Blends Architecture and Landscape

The Reach at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts / Richard Barnes

For landscape architect Edmund Hollander, FASLA, the monumental form of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., which opened in 1971, evokes images of former First Lady “Mamie Eisenhower wearing pearls and a mink stole.” The towering white marble facades architect Edward Durell Stone created represent “architecture for the wealthy elite.”

That imposing building is now complemented by perhaps its opposite: a lyrical new extension, The Reach, which architect Steven Holl’s firm designed with Hollander after winning the competition for the project six years ago. Defined by its curving white titanium concrete walls and open lawns and gardens that also host performances and events, “it’s not for the elite; it’s for everyone.”

The Reach at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts / Edmund Hollander

In a tour organized by the American Institute of Architect’s DC chapter, Chris McVoy, a senior partner at Steven Holl’s office, and Hollander, explained how the building and landscape were designed as one. “The experience is inside and outside simultaneously.” The buildings shape the landscape and vice versa; their forms riff off each other. “There is music, dance, theater in the building and the landscape,” Hollander added.

The Reach at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts / Richard Barnes

The Reach has seven entrances and five stairways, creating multiple ways to access the 10 interior stages, performance spaces, and practice areas, which are buried under sloping green roofs. McVoy and Hollander said the goals was to create a sense of “porosity” or openness to the surrounding landscape.

And indeed almost all the performance spaces within The Reach have massive windows that not only pour in light but provide views of the gardens and Potomac River beyond. McVoy said it has taken the opera and ballet performers some time to adjust to all the light, as they are used to practicing in black boxes. But they have taken to the windows that face into hallways and allow visitors to peer in. “Performers love to be seen.”

Steven Holl is from Seattle and is inspired by the Puget Sound, so all of his projects incorporate water in some form, Hollander said. As visitors descend the terraces into the landscape, either through steps or paths, or meander down the lawn through the buildings, they discover a fountain meant to be a “mirror to the sky” that also connects visitors to the experience of the river just below.

The Reach at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts / Edmund Hollander
The Reach at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts / Edmund Hollander

Hollander believes his role was to “help Steven Holl’s vision grow.” That vision was to use the landscape to create a “living memorial to Kennedy,” who was assassinated in 1963. Through seasonal change, the landscape itself gives a performance imbued with meaning.

For example, a grove of 35 prehistoric Gingkos trees — 35 because Kennedy was the 35th president — at the far end of the landscape turn a bright yellow in autumn and drop all their leaves at once around the time that Kennedy was assassinated.

Aside from that poetic arboreal piece, there are redbuds that burst out in spring; waist-high, immersive meadows of perennials, such as verbena, echinacea, rudbeckia and heptacodium that attract bees and butterflies in the summer; and red maples, gingkos, and sweetgums that overlay warm layers of color in the fall. The meadows are perhaps the most effective draw, pulling you into the landscape and out of the city. In the winter, the trees and grasses “keep their form.” Sprinkled throughout the gardens are works of public art.

The Reach at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts / Edmund Hollander
The Reach at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts / Edmund Hollander

To keep The Reach as accessible as possible, there are no obvious security elements. McVoy said the space is open to the public from 10AM to midnight year-round, and ample use of cameras means the security is largely invisible. “The goal is to make an open and inviting space that reflects Kennedy and his ideals.” Any issues identified by camera result in a drop-by from one of the Kennedy Center’s red jacketed ushers or the nearby patrols of the National Park Service and DC Metro police.

For Hollander, perhaps the toughest design and technical challenge was creating a lawn that essentially continued up one side of the main pavilion. As the “warped plane” becomes more vertical it turns into a sedum green wall that had to be carefully structured and planted. Creating an irrigation system that keeps both the upper and lower parts of the swoop well-hydrated year-round was challenging.

The Reach at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts / Richard Barnes
The Reach at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts / Edmund Hollander

Hollander writes that “the irrigation system has an advanced web-based system with the ability to confirm water flow, water pressure, water temperature, ability to self-empty prior to frost, and refill right after temperatures warm up, so that the irrigation can effectively run 24/7, 365 days a year.” The swoop has been there about a year now and is “acclimating well.”

The team behind The Reach also addressed major connectivity issues as well. A much-needed pedestrian and bicycle connection between the upper levels of the Kennedy Center and the Potomac River below has finally been forged. Bicyclists can now wind through the new landscape and use the bridge to connect to Georgetown.

But there are few issues: the new bridge is perhaps too narrow, and there was an absence of bicycle parking anywhere in The Reach. I doubt the design team wants bicyclists locking their bikes to the beautifully-crafted handrails in the gardens, which is now happening.

To note: BNIM Architects partnered with Steven Holl Associates to design and build The Reach. And architecture firm KieranTimberlake is now working on a new master plan for the Edward Durrell Stone building that also seeks to make the now-dated center more open and democratic. This shift is already reflected in the new Kennedy Center logo, which adopts the curved forms of The Reach.

Security Is a Design Problem

Dr. A.H. McCoy Federal Office in Jackson, Mississippi, Schwartz/Silver / Tex Jernigan, copyright Zahner

Equitable access to public spaces is central to our civic life and democracy. We can’t let the threat of terrorist attacks or mass shooters turn our public spaces into inaccessible fortresses. To protect our people and economy, cities instead need thoughtful, designed security solutions that balance the need for openness with the management of risk.

At Open to the Public: Rethinking Security & Access in Public Space, an event organized by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) at the Navy Memorial museum in Washington, D.C., Roxanne Blackwell, co-interim CEO of ASLA, said “it’s important that we live safely yet still feel free.”

In a presentation, Susan Silberberg, an urban designer and lecturer at MIT, said there is ample research on what makes good public spaces — they are designed for the human scale, beautiful, create connectivity and access. “So how does the need for security impact that?”

With her graduate urban planning students at MIT, Silberberg decided to find out. Undertaking a study of security measures in the Boston Financial District in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, she found “there was loss of use of some public space.” Slowly, “temporary, permanent, designed, and ad-hoc” security barriers accrued over time to “erode movement through public spaces.”

Silberberg said there were mass shootings in 253 American cities in the first 8 months of 2019 alone. Most of these occurred in “third places,” which are defined as neither home or work. These are the public and private places where people congregate.

One result of these attacks is a growing security arms race among cities. There is the perception that “if New York City is more secure than Boston,” for example, companies may be more likely to move operations there. “There is a sense of peer pressure.”

Lawyers want to reduce any liability, so more and more security measures go in. Security is also “big business.” Public and private entities are “blitzed with security products,” and the message from them is “if you don’t do this for your clients, you are at fault.”

For Silberberg, the issue is there are many actors working on securing the public realm but not in a coordinated way. The result is a hodgepodge of private and public measures that reduce access.

Instead, she called for “all security measures to improve the design and experience of public spaces.” As an model, she pointed to the Dr. A.H. McCoy Federal Office in Jackson, Mississippi, which is both safe and aesthetically appealing (see image above).

Other recommendations included: pedestrianize the public realm to reduce car access, so that terrorists can’t drive vehicles or vehicular bombs into crowds. Use street ambassadors, like you find with some local business improvement districts, who can keep an eye on things, rather than unwelcoming security or police officers. Design spaces that invite engagement through public art and technology, which encourage people to notice their surroundings and other people more.

Richard Cline, principal deputy director, Federal Protective Service, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is in charge of guarding one million federal employees across the federal government. Cline said in the past year there have been some 130 attacks on federal buildings, resulting in more than 100 injuries. Some 50 serious plots have been averted.

In the Pacific northwest, political demonstrations turn violent. “Some 30-plus climate change related protests have resulted in demonstrators throwing rocks at windows of federal buildings.” In the Northeast, the primary threat comes from foreign terrorist organizations. And across the country, there is a threat from lone shooters who are angry with the government for some reason, perhaps for a denial of benefits.

For each federal government facility, which are managed by the General Services Administration (GSA), his team will conduct a threat assessment and determine the appropriate security needed. Level 5 security is reserved for facilities like the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon, while level 1 could be applied to a local Social Security Administration or postal office.

Cline said particularly in Washington, D.C., “we can’t help people by just setting up more jersey barriers; we need better solutions. People are coming to D.C. to see democracy.”

Jersey barrier / Wikipedia

Landscape architect Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, principal at Reed Hilderbrand, and a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, presented some of those smart design solutions that both ensure access and create safety.

Working with architects at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and artist Maya Lin, Reed Hilderbrand has been designing a new 14-acre site for the GSA, which will be used by the U.S. Department of Transportation: the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The security assessment called for a 75-foot set-back for the building, which had the effect of creating a suburban campus-like environment. Reed Hilderbrand is using that ample space to create a welcoming park. In addition to a range of “clever tactics” and hardened access points, security comes through undulating mounds that depict the Doppler Effect, crafted by artist Maya Lin. The mounds were in part designed to block anyone trying to attack the building with a vehicle.

John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center / Skidmore Owings Merrill, Reed Hilderbrand, Maya Lin
John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center / Skidmore Owings Merrill, Reed Hilderbrand, Maya Lin

Hilderbrand said the landscape is purposefully “multi-functional.” And the stringent security requirements, which he couldn’t discuss in much detail, were accomplished through a two-year multidisciplinary design process.

Another project of Reed Hilderbrand’s that artfully integrates security is a new master plan for The Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, an important site that is a center of civic life in a city of 1.5 million, receives some 7 million tourists annually, is a place that is “central to Texans’ creation myth” and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Alamo is currently “compromised and unwelcoming.” Half of the original mission complex has been “eroded” by surrounding development; the historic core itself has been “mistreated over the years.” A 20-year process involving many stakeholders with competing interests has finally culminated in a plan that has been approved by the San Antonio City Council and Texas General Land office.

The new plan for The Alamo will expand the boundaries of the historic precinct, ban vehicle traffic in front of the mission and garden, instead turning Alamo Plaza Street into a pedestrian-only plaza. Pedestrian traffic will be channeled via the surrounding streets and Riverwalk. A gate at the north edge of where Alamo Plaza Street now is will be closed during the day but open at night.

The Alamo masterplan / Reed Hilderbrand

Behind the garden, Reed Hildebrand calls for 4-feet-tall walls that will be hidden amid greenery to lessen their visual impact. Crossing the streets and buildings surrounding The Alamo, the boundary of the original Mission will be preserved through a slight depression that lowers the entire historic landscape. Access will be provided through sloping walkways and steps. For Hilderbrand, the visitor experience came first and security is designed to enhance that experience.

The Alamo masterplan / Reed Hilderbrand
The Alamo masterplan / Reed Hilderbrand

In a Q&A moderated by Jess Zimbabwe, principal at Plot Strategies, conversation veered towards the now-ubiquitous use of cameras, as well as the growing use of artificial intelligence-based facial recognition technology, and what these technologies mean for privacy in the public realm. As protesters in Hong Kong use face masks, hats, projectors, and other tactics to evade identification by street and building cameras, the question is how to balance security with personal privacy.

According to Kline, the department of homeland security isn’t using facial recognition technologies in federal buildings. But that doesn’t mean that isn’t coming sometime soon. The United Kingdom and Israel are currently leaders in “sophisticated invisible security,” and other countries are studying how they do it.

In some cases, the technology-based security measures are integrated into other systems. For example, London’s congestion pricing system, which uses cameras to track vehicles that enter into London’s inner core and then charge vehicle owners for access, is really “about monitoring vehicles” and tracking people, said Zimbabwe.

Silberberg then made a final point worth highlighting: “we must stop reacting to the last threat.” Many cities design and implement security solutions for what crisis has just happened, perhaps overreacting and reducing freedom of movement in the process. As communities navigate a world of changing threats, public and private partners must work together to create “flexible and adaptable public spaces” that can meet shifting security requirements.

As Cities Grow, Remember the Communities That Were Destroyed

Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza / Perkins+Will

In the past few decades, there has been urban renaissance. As the populations of cities grow and change, in part through gentrification, we must honor the communities whose “opportunities were denied” due to redlining, urban renewal, and other discriminatory practices based on race. Urban planners, architects, and landscape architects can help communities unearth and then preserve this history through “remembrance design,” a process that can tell the story of “historically disenfranchised and negatively impacted communities,” said Kenneth Luker, with Perkins + Will, at a session at the Urban Land Institute (ULI)’s fall meeting in Washington, D.C. This is the way to “reconcile with the past and use history to create an inclusive future.”

Zena Howard, principal and managing director, and Michael Stevenson, urban designer at multidisciplinary design firm Perkins + Will; Cynthia Lau, a planner with the Vancouver city government; and Kofi Boone, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University, explained how to plan and design that shared future.

Howard said “curiosity about the past can drive a process of remembrance. We can research and dig into communities to recover memories of removed or destroyed areas.” Through connecting with African American communities that have experienced a history of urban displacement, designers can help “build community awareness, foster memorable experiences, embrace cultural identity, celebrate memory, and honor unique assets.”

She called for undertaking a true discovery process with communities that have been impacted by urban renewal, redlining, or other forms of racism. “Discovery is not just community engagement — it is the process.”

Kofi Boone argued that the architecture and planning community hadn’t been asked to take responsibility for the disproportionate social impact on African American and Latinx communities of redlining, which involved a federal, state, and local system of purposefully denying mortgages to African Americans and walling off entire neighborhoods from investment, and urban renewal, which involved clearing existing communities to make way for Modernist urban designs and highway infrastructure. That is until African American civil rights activist Whitney Young gave a keynote address to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) conference in 1968. In his address, Young called on the built environment community to stop contributing to social displacement.

Whitney Young at American Institute of Architects / Now-what Architexx.org

As Richard Rothstein explained in his book Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, redlining impacted some 160 urban and suburban communities across the U.S. for many decades. Given home ownership is the primary source of wealth accumulation for most Americans, the result today is African Americans have far lower amounts of wealth than Caucasian Americans. Little accumulated wealth through home ownership meant little for future generations to inherit. “Today, the average white family has $122,000 in wealth; Latinx family $1,600; and African American family, just $1,300,” Boone said.

Home Owner’s Loan Corporation redlined map of Philadelphia, 1936 / Wikipedia

Urban renewal compounded the impacts of redlining. Communities that had suffered from years of disinvestment were highly vulnerable to redevelopment. Modernists saw places with rich histories as clean slates that could be re-made. According to Boone, some 200 communities were “renewed,” which in social terms meant displaced. The result was “root shock,” a term coined by Mindy Thompson Fullilove in her book, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, And What We Can Do About It. For many African American communities, there wasn’t just one displacement either: “serial displacements created long-term disruption.” And generation after generation experienced these “major shocks to the system.”

In Greenville, North Carolina, Perkins + Will worked with remnants of the once-vibrant African American Sycamore Hill community, which was displaced by urban renewal in the 1960s. As the community hollowed out, the Sycamore Hill Baptist Church burned to the ground from suspected arson. “There was nothing left,” Michael Stevenson, a partner at Perkins + Will, said.

Urban renewal demolished Sycamore Hill / Perkins + Will
Sycamore Hill Baptist Church / Perkins + Will

In the footprint of where the church once stood, Howard and her team partnered with the community to plan and design the Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza, which will feature a prominent tower to honor the history of the destroyed spiritual center. Pew-like benches are set amid a one-acre park separated by plinths with inspirational messages and depictions of local history. The project is part of a broader master plan for a new park called Greenville Town Commons on state and city land. “It’s a place of learning, remembrance, and reflection.” Its development has been a “meaningful process for the community.”

Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza / Perkins + Will

African American architect Phil Freelon, who was a partner at Perkins + Will and passed away earlier this year, partnered with the community to plan and design the 1-acre Freedom Park in Raleigh, North Carolina in a symbolic space between the State general assembly and capitol buildings. “Honoring the history repressed in history books, the plaza park will celebrate the significant contributions of African Americans from the Raleigh area, including jazz great Thelonious Monk, author Maya Angelou, John Coltrane, and others,” Stevenson said. The park features a grove of Oak trees but also their roots, which “make life possible.” The park’s paths, which radiate out from the Oaks, symbolize those roots — “the hidden history.” The park is designed to be a “beacon of freedom and a representation of a better future for everyone.”

Freedom Park, Raleigh / Perkins + Will

Canada has its own fraught racial history as well. In Vancouver, the historically-Black Northeast False Creek neighborhood, which includes the Hogan’s Alley area, suffered from the Canadian version of redlining and then further destruction with the construction of a highway. “In the process, the community was displaced and erased from history,” said Cynthia Lau, a planner with the Vancouver city government. “It’s like they were never really part of the city.” Today, the black community makes up just 1 percent of Vancouver.

After a conventional planning process failed to account for the voice of Black Vancouverites, the city tried again with a new set of consultants, including Howard’s team at Perkins+Will, which undertook a “co-design process that helped people tell their stories.” The end result, Lau said, is a “meaningful community development plan” rooted in the goals of “reconciliation and cultural redress.” Viaducts will be replaced with street-level transportation networks. Some 32 acres of new parks are planned, along with affordable housing for 3,200 residents. The new development is expected to create 6,000-8,000 new local jobs as well.

Hogan’s Alley design proposal / Perkins + Will

At the close of the session, Boone reiterated that architects, planners, and landscape architects “can’t do remembrance design processes alone. Success comes from partnerships with policymakers, community leaders, and activists. You have to bring in people who haven’t been heard before.” For authentic engagement, “the most historically disenfranchised communities should have the loudest voice.”

Designers can help communities “reclaim their narrative and identify what is important to them.” They also have a responsibility to ensure those long-unheard voices don’t “get lost in translation.”

For Boone, remembrance design isn’t just superficial social justice-washing. “These projects can catalyze political, social, and economic organization.” Howard reiterated that the process itself is what’s important. The stories unearthed through the co-design process are really the basis for “accessible, inclusive spaces.”

Remembrance design isn’t just for co-designing with African American communities either. Boone said he knows of designers working with Latinx communities to help them “dream and visualize change,” even through many of these visions haven’t taken real form, largely because these communities now feel so unsafe due to President Trump’s rhetoric and the threat of ICE raids. “These communities are now in the process of gathering stories and empowering themselves.”

And Chinese American communities have also organized to create positive change. In Seattle, plans were underway to remake and expand the underused and unloved Hing Hay Park. In 2012, the Friends of Hing Hay Park formed, demanding a more contemporary and culturally-resonant public space. Chinese landscape architecture firm Turenscape, led by Kongjian Yu, FALSA, partnered with MIG|Svr to create a new design that reflects China’s many diverse cultures and created space for night markets.

Hing Hay Park / Miranda Estes Photography, Landscape Architecture Magazine

The Case for Complete Streets 2.0

Delivery vehicles run amok / Alta Planning + Design

Complete streets are designed to create safe access for all people — pedestrians and bicyclists, motorists and public transit riders. But at the Urban Land Institute’s fall meeting in Washington, D.C., Brad Davis, a principal at Alta Planning + Design, argued we really need “Complete Streets 2.0” that deliberately enable both physical and online connections and make room for “micro-mobility” systems, such as e-scooters, and the rise of autonomous vehicles and delivery robots. Otherwise, we could have autonomous mayhem, as amusingly depicted above.

“Micro-mobility involves small, human-powered vehicles, such as dockless bikes and e-bikes, skateboards and e-skateboards, and scooters and and e-scooters,” Davis said. In cities like Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., micro-mobile transportation, particularly e-scooters and dockless bikes, are now ubiquitous. In 2018, there were 84 million trips made with micro-mobile options, with e-scooters accounting for almost half of all trips.

Bird electric scooters in Santa Monica, California / Madeline Eskind Twitter

Davis said the explosive growth of popular e-scooters raises questions about public safety. According to a recent study by Consumer Reports, e-scooters have been tied at least 1,500 injuries in 2018; another analysis found they caused 11 deaths over the same time frame. E-scooter users can injure both themselves and pedestrians who happen to be in the way on sidewalks. As a result, cities are attempting to limit their use to designated zones or to day times only. Other regulations aim to limit their use on sidewalks or reduce their speed. Like many major city governments, Davis wondered “should e-scooters be allowed on sidewalks?”

If cities relegate e-scooters to bike lanes, it will certainly increase traffic in those narrower corridors. As such, Davis called for bike lanes to be expanded into protected “personal mobility ways.” Both micro-mobility users and bicyclists would then be protected from vehicles; and pedestrians would be protected from all of higher speed forms of transportation.

Davis also raised the idea of creating “micro-mobility hubs,” perhaps around subway or bus stations, where these app-based on-demand transportation services could be clustered.

Complete Street 2.0 / Alta Planning + Design

However, there is also a need to “spread or distribute access” to these services to ensure equitable access to low-cost transportation options. Oakland, California and Philadelphia have made strides in expanding access to new technology-enabled micro-mobile transportation systems.

Rutt Bridges, founder of Understanding Disruption, reiterated the need for Complete Streets 2.0 to include dedicated, protected two-way bike lanes with flex post or planted buffers, stating that 860 bicyclists were killed in 2016 because of collisions with vehicles.

Two-way protected bike lane on 15th Street in Washington, D.C. / Green Lane Project

The percentage of trips by bicycle haven’t increased beyond 10 percent in many of the top bicycling cities because of the still-widespread perception that bicycling near vehicles is unsafe. “The number-one concern is getting hit by a car.”

Some 30 percent of bicyclist deaths were at intersections. Bridges believes many of these could have been prevented with the latest Dutch intersection design, which allows for clear sight lines for both motorists and bicyclists as they are turning. This model could also protect other micro-mobility users.

For Bridges, another reason we could need Complete Streets 2.0: autonomous delivery robots.

Instead of plodding down sidewalks, as they have been in London and Washington, D.C., delivery robots could be assigned to their own tight two-way lane, perhaps adjacent to bicycle lanes. “This would reduce accidents with pedestrians and bicyclists.” Given they use LiDAR, 3D mapping, and artificial intelligence in ways to similar to autonomous vehicles, they would require very little space on either side to make their way. “They can lane keep within an inch,” Bridges believes.

A surprising number of robot delivery vehicles are being tested in urban and suburban settings. On one end of the spectrum are the many small Wall-E-like robots that can make small package deliveries. Test robots by Starship Technologies have been awkwardly starting and stopping and looking a bit confused at crosswalks in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C. for the past two years.

Starship Technologies delivery robot in Washington, D.C. / Wikimedia Commons

In the middle are a bit larger autonomous delivery vehicles like Cleveron’s, which could deliver packages to a storage unit in a homeowner’s driveway, protecting goodies from Amazon from thieves.

And at the other end of spectrum are van-like autonomous deliver vehicles, such as Stop&Shop’s Robomart, which is like a mobile grocery aisle.

And there is also the “mothership” approach: Mercedes-Benz has partnered with Starship Technologies to create a system in which small delivery robots would be driven to a neighborhood in a van, otherwise known as a “mothership,” then fan out to make deliveries. After the robots returned to the van, the mothership would then move on to the next neighborhood.

For many, micro-mobility represents more autonomy and freedom than slower, dedicated, shared subway or bus but they could also help speed the collapse of mass transit. Ubiquitous delivery robots could cause people to stay at home more instead of venturing out to grocery stores and local markets, putting more pressure on retail. These technologies may meet short-term, individual needs but further separate us from shared community infrastructure like buses and local markets where human connections are made.

In another session on how to create “‘authentech’ relationships in the smart city,” Chandler Hogue with Gemdale, said there is a new movement underway to develop “human-focused technology, instead of technology that leads us.” These technologies are aimed at tackling the epidemic of loneliness and depression correlated with increased social media use.

Chris Bledsoe, a founder of Ollie, which has built app-enabled “all inclusive co-living” facilities geared mostly towards Millennials, said there is a widespread feeling that “technology has connected our phones but not us.” He said: “we are now more digitally connected than ever, but do we feel better off?” Residents of Ollie’s 422-bed co-living building in Long Island City pay not only for rent but also an app that helps identify roommates they would likely gel with best, along with access to inclusive activities organized around topics such as “wellness, sustainability, and discovery.” For example, Ollie organizes kayaking trips for residents, which could be tied to a beach clean-up, or a snowshoeing expedition, followed by a whiskey tasting event. “We are filtering human to human connections in order to foster community.”

And urban planner Kevin Clausen-Quiroz explained how the Anaheim city government started Fran, a new free, app-driven ride share service that offers rides around its downtown. In comparison with the isolation of riding alone in Uber or Lyft, the service is meant to enable serendipitous meetings and help build community connections. During certain events, Fran operators host “Fran pool karaoke.” Clausen-Quiroz was quite persuasive on the case for more free neighborhood rideshares like Fran. “These micro-transit systems serve a need: it’s community-oriented transit.” It’s also technology that purposefully pushes people together instead of further into their own self-curated little bubbles.