Kongjian Yu Wins 2020 Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe Award; Read His Full Speech

Kongjian Yu, FASLA / Turenscape

By Kongjian Yu, FASLA

I am honored to be chosen as this year’s recipient of the Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe Award. I would like to extend my sincere thanks to the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA), the members of the nomination committee and the jury, and to everyone else who has made this possible.

It is especially gratifying to be recognized on the 120th anniversary of the birth of the man who established landscape architecture as “the mother of all arts”—Sir Jellicoe himself.

My Roots in the Village

I’d like to begin by talking a bit about my childhood, which ultimately had a profound influence on the way I’ve come to approach my work. I was born to a peasant family in Dong Yu village in southeast China’s Zhejiang Province. The village is located where White Sand Creek and the Wujiang River meet.

I swam in the creek during the summer and caught big fish when the monsoon season came. When I was small, I took care of a water buffalo, which grazed along the waterways and between the paddy fields. There were seven ponds, a patch of sacred forest and two big camphor trees in front of the village, under which many legendary stories about my ancestors were told.

The land was extremely productive. We planted three crops throughout the year, including canola, wheat, buckwheat, rice, sugar cane, peanut, sweet potato, corn, soybeans, carrot, turnip, radish and lotus.

Dong Yu Village in the 1980s / Kongjian Yu
Dong Yu Village in the 1980s / Kongjian Yu

The land and water were precious, but the weather could be unpredictable, so we had to design and manage our farm fields wisely, following nature’s cycle and wasting nothing, and adapting in order to make a living.

We worshipped the Earth God, Water God, and Yu the Great, the legendary king who knew how to manage water and plan the land. We also worshipped our ancestors, who had the wisdom of adapting to nature and cultivating the land.

In all likelihood, I would have followed in the footsteps of my father, who taught me how to cultivate the land, manage water, and be a productive farmer.

But it was a difficult time. Although we were a peasant family, we had also been landowners. During Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, my family was labeled as members of the “landlord class.” Our land was seized and redistributed to communes, after which we collectively farmed it. More significantly for me, children from the landlord class were prohibited from attending school.

Kongjian Yu, FASLA, at far right, with his family / Kongjian Yu

But in 1978, an army veteran who came to teach in my village, Mr. Zhou Zhangchao, caught up with me one day while I was riding my water buffalo home. He told me that Deng Xiaoping had reversed the policies that barred the children of the landlord class from going to school. I immediately enrolled in school and began studying hard to catch up.

In 1980, after 17 years working on the commune, I passed the national university entrance examination. I was the sole lucky university entrant out of 300-plus students in our rural high school.

On the Shoulders of Giants

By chance, I was chosen to enroll in Beijing Forestry University as one of 30 students in the entire nation to study gardening, which had been cancelled for ten years during the Cultural Revolution. I was fortunate to have some of the best landscape gardening professors in the nation as my mentors, including Wang Juyuan, the founder of the Landscape Gardening Program at the Beijing Forestry University; Chen Youming, my Master’s thesis advisor; and Sun Xiaoxiang and Chen Junyu.

In a certain sense, leaving the dusty countryside to make beautiful gardens in the city was a dream for me and my parents.

But when I finished college and was starting my career of teaching and making beautiful gardens for the city, I returned home to find that my village had been destroyed. The sacred forest and the camphor trees had been cut and sold off. The creek itself had become a gravel quarry, and the fish disappeared.

I began to ask myself: Was there something more I should be doing? What about my village and my fellow villagers? What about the land beyond the garden walls and beyond the city walls—where, at the time, almost three-quarters of a billion Chinese lived?

At this same time, I began looking abroad to learn more. In 1992, I was accepted at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. I spent the next four years working with Carl Steinitz, Hon. ASLA, along with landscape ecologist Richard Forman and GIS and computing expert Stephen Ervin. I would often encounter Ian McHarg, Michael Van Vulkenburgh, FASLA, Peter Rowe, and others in the hallways.

For me, it was a tremendously exciting time. It was a chance to meld the village-level concepts of the Earth God, Water God, and Yu the Great, from my childhood, with the ideas of the great Chinese “gardening” masters—and some of the best minds in the West.

The concepts of landscape and urban ecology, people-oriented urbanism, landscape perception and revolutionary anthropology, landscape and architectural phenomenology, etc., enlightened the left side of my brain. Design works by contemporary masters including Peter Walker, FASLA, Laurie Olin, FASLA, Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, Richard Haag, FASLA, Maya Lin, Martha Schwartz, FASLA, Peter Latz, Bernard Tschumi, and so on, inspired the right side of my brain.

It happened to be a time of great debate within academia, and I found myself fascinated by the tensions between design as political procedure versus design with nature, and art versus ecology.

I was captivated by two questions, which have subsequently driven my entire career:

Conservation vs. Development: Spatial planning based on the idea of balance –when land and space are limited, how can we balance ecological protection with development?

Sustainability vs. Beauty: The creation of Deep Form — what is the relationship between sustainability and beauty, how can we unite ecology and art?

After graduating, I was recruited by SWA in Laguna Beach, California. There, I was able to work with Richard Law, FASLA, on luxury properties, new urban development, and projects in the booming Asian market. Life on the beach was pretty good.

But while I was happily designing luxury properties and imagining the grandeur of new cities, I found that the land at home was under assault. Old buildings were torn down; hills were leveled; lakes and wetlands filled and polluted; rivers channelized and dammed; and public squares and boulevards were built at gargantuan size. It was the opposite of everything I had learned about how to create livable cities and landscapes.

And it turned out to be a national-scale challenge. Over 80 percent of Chinese cities suffer air pollution, which kills 1.2 million people each year. Flooding causes some US$ 100 billion in damage. Four hundred of 662 cities suffer water shortages. Seventy-five percent of the nation’s surface water is polluted, and 64 percent of cities’ groundwater is polluted. 50 percent of wetlands have disappeared in past 50 years, resulting in tremendous losses of wildlife habitat.

Meeting the challenges

(1) Start with Education and a New Identity

I landed at Peking University as a professor in 1997 and was immediately joined by my lifelong friend Li Dihu. Together we started the landscape architecture program in the Department of Geography. We hoped to help an important new profession establish a foothold across a vast landscape. But we had humble beginnings: We started with a grand total of 3 students. (Today, we have 200 students enrolled, with more than 600 graduates.)

But people still tended to see me simply as “a gardener,” with no relation to urban development, land and water management, flood control, or ecological restoration.

In China, there’s a legend about “The Land of Peach Blossoms,” a magical realm of peace, a sort of Shangri-La. To a certain extent, I have always thought of Dong Yu village, where I grew up—with the two big camphor trees under which I heard the stories of my ancestors and the sacred forest where they rest–as the Land of Peach Blossoms. And landscape architecture, to me, seemed a way to recover the lost Land of Peach Blossoms.

So I felt compelled to reclaim the importance of landscape architecture itself and began describing it as “The Art of Survival.” In doing this, I was inspired by Ian McHarg’s pugnacious call to arms: “Don’t ask us about your garden. Don’t ask us about your bloody flowers …. We’re going to talk to you about survival.”

We launched a new magazine, Landscape Architecture Frontiers, to promote our new approach. We brought in top thinkers in the field to lecture and held over 15 landscape architecture conferences to educate a young generation and begin creating a consensus.

(2) Trying to reverse the damage and inspire policy change

We felt that immediate action had to be taken to reverse the damage, so we launched the concept of “Inverse Planning” (反规划 fǎn guīhuà), which emphasizes the protection of existing natural functions and prioritizes what is not built—what should be protected instead.

I also realized that the only way to reverse the damage caused by conventional planning procedure was to convince decision makers to change the policies. So I kept writing and talking and lecturing to decision makers, from top authorities to township leaders. I delivered over 300 lectures to municipal decision makers and ministers.

In 2006, I made a proposal to then-Premier Wen Jiabao that, to my surprise and gratification, initiated the process of national security pattern planning and ecological red line regulation.

These two concepts help identify and protect critical landscapes to safeguard natural, biological, cultural and recreational values and functions, thus securing this wide range of ecosystems services essential for sustaining human society. The State Council has since issued four state regulations to safeguard national ecological security.

China ecological security plan / Turenscape

(3) The “Big Foot” Revolution

I also realized that bad decisions were being made simply because of a misguided mentality about civilization and misguided aesthetic sensibilities. For thousands of years, the “civilized” urban elite worldwide has insisted on the privilege of defining civilization, beauty, and good taste. Bound feet, deformed heads, and twisted bodies are only a few such expressions of cultural practices that, in trying to elevate city sophisticates above rural bumpkins, have rejected nature’s inherent principles of health, survival, and productivity.

In China, for more than a thousand years, young girls were forced to bind their feet in order to be able to be considered beautiful enough to marry urban elites. Natural, “big” feet were considered rustic and rural. The obsession with “little feet” sacrificed function and dignity for ornamental value.

Today, landscaping and city building, by far, are the most visible and extensive manifestations of the folly of civilization and aesthetic standards defined from above—what I think of as “little foot” urbanism and the “little foot” aesthetic.

On one hand, the “manicured little foot” grey infrastructure simply lacks resilience and is a waste of energy and materials. On the other hand, urban elites with “little foot” aesthetics trying to elevate city sophisticates above rural peasants have rejected nature’s inherent goals of health and productivity.

These kinds of “little foot” grey infrastructure and aesthetics are not only expensive, but also wasteful and unsustainable. China’s carbon emissions in 2017 accounted for 28 percent of the world total. And according to 2018 figures from the World Economic Forum, China consumes 59 percent of the world’s cement and 50 percent of its steel and coal.

So I began advocating for what I call a Big Foot Revolution. This movement begins with questioning some of the basic values I have mentioned above, and my hope is that it will mirror an earlier revolution in the way Chinese thought about their own bodies and culture.

In the early 20th century, The New Cultural Movement was launched by teachers and students at Peking University, and ultimately led to the rejection of foot binding and a re-embracing of the natural beauty of the human form.

I believe the Big Foot Revolution will happen at three levels of action:

  1. Planning the Big Feet (planning ecological infrastructure across scales)
  2. Creating Working Big Feet (creating nature-based engineering models inspired by ancient wisdom)
  3. Making Big Feet Beautiful (new aesthetics to create deep forms).

“Planning the Big Feet” or planning ecological infrastructure across scales, is critical for securing ecosystems services, and weaving green infrastructure together with grey infrastructure. Inspired by the ancient concept of sacred landscape—and by modern game theory¬—I developed the concept of the Landscape Security Pattern, which focuses on protecting the critical landscape patterns needed to ensure that natural processes can continue.

“Creating working Big Feet” means creating nature-based engineering models inspired by ancient wisdom, particularly from agriculture. We have developed replicable modules based on traditional farming techniques of terracing, ponding, diking, and islanding to address climate change and related problems at a massive scale in a cost-effective manner.

In China, all rivers are dammed and channelized with concrete flood walls. China has more than half of the world’s dams greater than 15 meters in height. More than US $20 billion is invested to control flooding each year, but US $100 billion is lost and 10 million people are affected every year. We need to accept and embrace flooding as a natural phenomenon, and turn grey infrastructure into green to help temper the damage of inevitable floods.

Due to the monsoon climate, over 62 percent of Chinese cities suffer from urban flooding. How much more flooding could be managed better if nature-based solutions were implemented nationwide? Using sponge city concepts would greatly increase water resilience.

In China, 75 percent of surface water is contaminated. Globally, 85 percent of sewage goes untreated. But the landscape can be a living system to clean water. Terraced, constructed wetland can be used to remove nutrients through biological processes.

We have already incorporated many of these ideas at several parks throughout China. In Zhejiang Province’s Taizhou City, we redesigned the Yongning Park as a “floating garden” with ecological embankments that can reduce peak flood flow by more than half, and create a seasonally flooded natural matrix of wetland and natural vegetation that sustains natural processes. This park demonstrates an ecological approach to flood control and stormwater management, while also educating people about new and forgotten solutions to flood control beyond engineering.

ASLA 2006 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Floating Gardens — Yongning River Park, Taizhou City, Zhejiang Province, China. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

In Zhejiang’s Jinhua City, water-resilient terrain and planted vegetation were designed to adapt to monsoon floods. A resilient bridge and path system was designed to adapt to the dynamic flows of water and people. The river currents, the flow of people, and the gravity of objects are all woven together to form a dynamic concord. This is achieved through meandering vegetated terraces, curvilinear paths, a serpentine bridge, circular bioswales, planted beds, and curved benches.

In Harbin, in the far north, we turned the Qunli Stormwater Park into a “green sponge” that filters and stores urban stormwater while providing other ecosystem services, including the protection of native habitats, aquifer recharge, recreational use and aesthetic experience, which together help foster sustainable urban development.

ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. A Green Sponge for a Water-Resilient City: Qunli Stormwater Park. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

At Dong’an Wetland Park on Hainan Island, off the coast of southern China, creating a green sponge in the center of the urban environment was an essential adaptation strategy for increasing resilience to climate change, particularly in an area where tropical storms can easily overwhelm conventional drainage systems.

In this case, a heavily polluted 68-hectare site was filled with non-permitted buildings and illegally dumped urban debris. Inspired by the ancient pond-and-dike systems and islanding techniques in the Pearl River Delta, and using simple cut-and-fill methods, a necklace of ponds and dikes was created along the periphery of the park that catches and filters urban runoff from the surrounding communities.

In the central part of the park, dirt and fill were used to create islands that are planted with banyan trees to create a forested wetland. Both ponding and islanding will dramatically increase the water-retention capacity of the park and increase the eco-tones between water and land to speed up the removal of nutrients. The constructed wetland can accommodate 830,000 cubic meters of storm water, dramatically reducing the risk of urban inundation.

Along the Huangpu River in Shanghai, we designed Houtan Park as a regenerative living landscape on a former industrial brownfield. The park’s constructed wetland, ecological flood control, reclaimed industrial structures and materials, and urban agriculture are integral components of an overall restorative design strategy to treat polluted river water and recover the degraded waterfront in an aesthetically pleasing way. The 10-hectare park, which is 1,700 meters long, filters phosphorous and other nutrients from 2,400 cubic meters of water per day, which is enough water for 5,000 people.

ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Shanghai Houtan Park: Landscape as a Living System. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

The Meshe River in Haikou has suffered flooding due to the monsoon climate and water pollution caused by sewage and non-point source pollution from urban and suburban runoff. The river had been channelized with concrete for the sole objective of flood control, which destroyed its ecological resilience.

We used nature-based solutions to create resilient green infrastructure that has revived the river. The concrete flood walls have been removed and the river was reconnected to the ocean so that tides could once again enter the city. Wetlands and shallow river margins were reconstructed so that mangroves could be restored. A terraced mosaic of wetlands along the banks of the river was designed as natural water-treatment facilities that catch and cleanse nutrient-laden runoff, and a significant amount of wildlife habitat has been recovered in the dense city center.

The Mangrove Park in Sanya City, on the island of Hainan, is another example of nature-based climate resilience. To mitigate urban flood risk caused by climate change, it was critical to restore mangrove along the waterways and coastal shorelines. One of the key challenges was finding an efficient and inexpensive method to reestablish the mangrove habitat that had been extensively destroyed due to rapid urban development. To that end, fill composed of urban construction debris and concrete from the demolition of the flood wall was recycled on site.

ASLA 2020 Professional General Design Honor Award. Deep Form of Designed Nature: Sanya Mangrove Park / Kongjian Yu

Cut-and-fill techniques were subsequently used to create a gradient of different riparian eco-tones for diverse fauna and flora, particularly different species of mangroves. An interlocking-finger design was used to lead ocean tides into the waterways, while also attenuating the impact of both tropical storm surge and flash floods originating in the urban and upland area upstream, both of which can harm establishment of mangroves. This also maximized habitat diversity and edge effects, which increase the interface between plants and water; this, in turn, enhances ecological processes such as nutrient removal from the water.

The dynamic aquatic environment that follows the rise and fall of tides and provides several aquatic species with the daily water-level fluctuation they need for survival. Terraces between city streets and the river have been augmented with bioswales to catch and filter urban stormwater runoff. In just three years, an area of lifeless land fill within a concrete flood wall in the center of the city was transformed into a lush mangrove park. This type of mangrove rehabilitation can be implemented at a large scale efficiently.

In China, 60 percent of urban soil is contaminated, and conventional remediation is usually very expensive. In Tianjin’s Qiaoyuan Park, I wanted to show how we can let nature do the work, by using nature-based soil remediation techniques. Through regenerative design and by sculpting land forms and collecting rainwater, the natural process of plant adaptation and community evolution was introduced to transform a former shooting-range-turned-garbage-dump into a low maintenance urban park. The park provides diverse nature-based services for the city, including retaining and purifying storm water to regulate pH, providing opportunities for environmental education and creating a cherished aesthetic experience.

Making Big Feet Beautiful means promoting the new aesthetics to create deep forms. In this, I was inspired by Anne Whiston Spirn’s New Aesthetics that “encompasses both nature and culture, that embodies function, sensory perception, and symbolic meaning, and that embraces both the making of things and places and the sensing, using, and contemplating of them.”

The timeless interdependence of culture and nature is most visible in the bond between peasants and their farmlands, and practices such as cut and fill, irrigate and fertilize, frame and access, grow and harvest, recycle and save — all of which embody some of the principles of new aesthetics that inspired my design.

In Qinhuangdao, I put a ribbon on the river to frame and transform the messy nature into an ordered urban park. Winding through a background of natural terrain and vegetation, the “red ribbon” spans five hundred meters and integrates lighting, seating, environmental interpretation and orientation. This project demonstrates how a minimal design solution can dramatically improve the landscape, while preserving as much of the natural river corridor as possible during the process of urbanization.

ASLA 2007 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Red Ribbon – Tanghe River Park, Qinhuangdao City, Hebei Province, China. Turenscape and Peking University Graduate School of Landscape Architecture, Beijing, China / Kongjian Yu

China has 20 percent of the world’s population, but only 8 percent of the world’s arable land—10 percent of which has been lost in the past 30 years due to urban development. Our project on the Shenyang Jianzhu University Campus uses rice paddies to simultaneously define the structure of the landscape design and introduce a productive landscape into the urban environment. It is a demonstration of a method to resolve the tension between urban development and food production in today’s developing world.

In Quzhou’s Luming Park, we embraced the concept of agricultural urbanism. On a site surrounded by dense new urban development, we created a dynamic urban park by incorporating the agricultural strategy of crop rotation and a low-maintenance meadow. An elevated floating network of pedestrian paths, platforms and pavilions creates a visual frame for this cultivated swath and the natural features of the terrain and water. Using these strategies, a deserted, mismanaged landscape was dramatically transformed into a productive and beautiful setting for urban living, while preserving the natural and cultural patterns and processes of the site.

ASLA 2016 Professional General Design Honor Award. Framing Terrain and Water: Quzhou Luming Park. Turenscape. / Kongjian Yu

I have also tried to show the possibilities of reusing and recycling. While China has been on an incredible building boom, it has also demolished large parts of its cities. In 2003, for instance, some 325 million square meters of new buildings were constructed, while 156 million square meters was demolished. Thousands of villages and factories were wiped out.

The Zhongshan Shipyard Park near Guangzhou, inaugurated in 2002, was an effort to show that existing building and other structures can be incorporated into new development. The park reflects the remarkable 70-year history of socialist China and has been lauded as a breakthrough in Chinese landscape architecture. The original vegetation and natural habitats were preserved and only native plants were added. Machines, docks, and other industrial structures were retained not only for functional purposes, but also to educate and because of their aesthetic appeal. The park demonstrates how landscape architects can create environmentally-friendly public places full of cultural and historical meaning on sites not previously designated for attention and preservation. Its design supports use by the common people, as well as the environmental ethic that “weeds are beautiful.”

Zhongshan Shipyard Park / Turenscape

For over 20 years, we have tested and built over 500 projects in 200-plus cities and showcased numerous replicable models for healing and transforming our land at various scales.

Looking back, I have a better understanding of how my village-level landscape experiences, melded with modern concepts of landscape and urbanism, sustainability and aesthetics, which were developed by my many teachers and mentors, have helped me to address some of the common challenges that our profession is facing today.

I find myself thinking often of my roots in Dong Yu village. I think of King Yu the Great, who had the vision of healing the earth and living with nature. I think of the peasants who transform the landscape in which they live with their own hands. And I want to think like a king, but act like a peasant.

This is an incredibly sobering time to contemplate the relationship between humans and the natural world. The global pandemic is a powerful reminder that any belief in the conquest of nature is pure folly. We are all living in a new era of humility.

Yet I also believe that the pandemic—together with climate change—is also highlighting how important it is to create landscapes that can not only heal bodies and minds, but also the planet itself.

It is such a great honor to be in the company of the many great and thoughtful landscape architects who come together under the banner of IFLA. As former IFLA president Martha Fajardo said in 2005: “Landscape architect is the profession of the future.”

Thank you, and I wish everyone the best in collectively keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe.

Reducing Wildfire Catastrophies Is About Common Responsibility, Not Mismanagement

A home destroyed by wildfires in Mill City, Oregon / AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus

By Rob Ribe, FASLA, PhD

I recently joined with landscape architecture faculty colleagues Bart Johnson, David Hulse, and Chris Enright, along with other scientists, in a study of wildfire risks in the southern Willamette Valley of Oregon. Our National Science Foundation project employed complexity science to simulate prospective landscape change and wildfire scenarios over fifty years. We simulated landscape change scenarios many times across an actual large area. The factors that influenced the simulations were different climate projections, consequent vegetation changes, likely behaviors landowners told us they would engage in, and fire behavior.

Very few of our numerous 50-year simulations suggested the likelihood of as many simultaneous, intense, and extensive wildfires as were seen in western Oregon in the first two weeks of September. This suggests the incidence of large and severe wildfires in the West is not linearly related to advancing climate change, as we and others have thought. With a warming climate, there may be more of an exponential, but still variable, growth in the incidence of large, and often simultaneous, very costly wildfires.

The extensive intensity of increasingly frequent wildfires promises to consume ever more forests, lives, and property in out-of-control ways, overpowering conventional wildfire prevention, amelioration, and suppression measures.

Outbreaks of multiple hazardous and simultaneous wildfires happen when several regional factors converge to produce “blowtorch” conditions. These can include extremely dry fuels (after months of drought), high temperatures, very low humidity, high winds, accumulated fuel loads, and forests stressed by advancing diseases and mortality. The resulting wildfires often exceed those of historically natural ones. Those natural wildfires tended to foster forest health because they often burned with less intensity, more variable intensity across landscapes, and less average overall acreage.

The only effective long-term solution is to reverse climate change, which will not slow down in the near term. But in the meantime, forests can be managed to be more resilient to fire.

Fuels reduction is the only known option to increase forests’ resilience. Prescribed portions of young or smaller trees, dead wood, and shrubs could be reduced in hundreds of millions of acres in the American West, and again, later on, in the forests of the eastern states. This is happening at a growing pace, but piecemeal, wherever funding and political support coalesce. It’s not enough to meet the larger challenge.

Sporadic projects tend to occur near suburban or exurban areas where risks are appreciated due to recent wildfires. In national parks, legal mandates promote the restoration of native, low-fuel ecosystems by prescribed fire, another method of fuels reduction. Badly burned forests must be replaced by more fire-adapted forests, but this is rare.

The implementation of an adequately extensive forest fuels reduction program is beset by ideological blame-shifting and politically prohibitive costs. There is also a shortage of well-trained professionals dedicated to this task, who can manage risks and build support for projects by sensitively and creatively engaging with local landowners and communities.

Conservatives deflect blame to scientific managers and conservationists by asserting that most forests have been “mismanaged” because they have not been freely and widely commercially thinned and harvested for wealth production at no cost to taxpayers. Ecologically-oriented environmentalists deflect blame to conservatives by asserting that most forests have been “mismanaged” because they have not been managed to emulate natural processes, like prescribed fire, as opposed to ecologically-destructive management geared only toward short-term profits. Everyone else is to blame in such incendiary partisan narratives: No one takes responsibility to fix the problems or bear the costs.

This broad, divisive notion of “mismanagement” is vexing. People dealing with real forests in real places can rarely identify a simple and obviously correct management approach. There are always questions of what, why, where, and when in decisions about budgets, biological systems, interacting and conflicting goals, alternative techniques, public and logger safety, wildlife, amenities, and the politics of local and regional stakeholders. Fuels reduction must be a major goal, but the best way to achieve this must be carefully tailored to each forest in its social and ecological context.

Learning about forest fuels in an Oregon forest / Rob Ribe

Learning about forest fuels in the Oregon forest / Rob Ribe

There will be forests where commercially profitable fuels reduction is appropriate, but there are many where this will be impossible, because costs exceed the value of marketable products.

There will be forests where prescribed fire is appropriate and efficient, but not everywhere. Numerous homes have been built within many forests. This makes prescribed fires more difficult to execute. Homeowners are often averse to perceived or actual risks, the intentional production of smoke, and changes to landscape amenities.

Climate change is also reducing the frequency and duration of weather conditions and fuel moisture levels required for safe prescribed fires. Prescribed fire is also difficult to safely control in increasing areas of forest with many weak or dead trees. If poorly planned, fuels reduction can impose risks to long-term forest health, net carbon sequestration, wildlife habitats, soils, biodiversity, and long-term sustainability of local timber or recreation economies; and it can’t be universally implemented.

A national program of extensive, well-planned forest fuels reduction and increased carbon sequestration would be very costly. Forest landowners are already shouldering growing insurance costs. It would require bipartisan, constructive, sustained, and large investments in public forest capital.

A complete, valid, and public GIS database of forest conditions in all western states must be rapidly created and maintained.

A private-public partnership with a clear mandate to foster forest health and resilience would need to award funds and coordinate and enable work across states, localities, landowners, and agencies. New, well-crafted rules would need to set fuels reduction and carbon sequestration goals with strong performance standards. These must clarify how projects must not be cheap and quick, but locally-appropriate to produce long-term forest health and beautiful, diverse forests.

Professional local planning, public participation, honest environmental reviews, and carefully proficient implementation would all be imperative.

Rob Ribe, FASLA, is professor and director of the master’s of landscape architecture program in the department of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon. He holds a master’s degree in landscape architecture and a PhD in land resources. Ribe was a lead scientist in studying the social acceptability of timber harvests and forest planning in the Pacific Northwest following the spotted owl controversy. He has also studied private landowners’ forest management choices.

A New Generation of Memorials Can Help Reset Our Understanding of Racism

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice by Mass Design Group / copyright Alan Karchmer

By Richard Jones, ASLA

Contemporary memorials can be powerful tools for resetting historical narratives around racism in our country. Embracing our true past — the horrors and the triumphs — will give us the space to accurately frame the American story, so that we might accept a more accurate accounting of where we really are on the path to equality.

Americans must create new memorials that are deep and resonate and omit the hyper-simplified token gestures of the past. Let us show the world, through new places of honor and memory, the maturity of a nation that has taken ownership of its past and is resolved in stamping out inequality. Only then can our nation’s core value — that all men are created equal — be held in truth in the hearts of all of its citizens.

Denying the truth enslaves us. Accepting it sets us free.

It might be said that the problem of addressing issues of racial equality in America in 2020 is as much a matter of refusing to take responsibility for one’s actions and changing them as it is racism itself. We struggle to move past our own legacy of hatred and discrimination because we have never fully accepted the truth of it.

Instead, we have rewritten the most vile, the most evil chapters of our past, carefully molding them into neat packages that one could argue resemble scary bedtime stories rather than the graphic and horrible truth. We know the narrative: slavery to freedom, oppression and inequality to the civil rights movement. Civil liberty and voting rights to President Barack Obama and the myth of a free and just America that we live in today; and along the way, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, maybe John Brown, then Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Kennedy brothers. This may be an oversimplification, but it is far less than our chosen selective collection of right-sized stories portrays.

Most everyone will know the names above. They have been memorialized countless times across our nation, revered (and in some cases reviled) for their contributions in the fight for equality. But how many of us know Daniel Hale Williams, Garret Morgan, or Anne Lowe? How many of us know the horror beset upon the slaves known only as Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsy?

Similarly, we know the stories of Selma, Alabama. We know of Birmingham, Alabama, and pride ourselves in being able to recount the significance of all that occurred in those now hallowed places. But how many know of the massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma or Ocoee, Florida? How many know the outright treasonous coup that saw a legally-elected American government overthrown in Wilmington, North Carolina?

Some of us might know the name of Emmett Till. But how many know Jesse Washington or the unimaginable horror visited upon the thousands of blacks that were lynched from the late 19th century to the 1960s? I’d wager that comparatively, very few of us do. And that is by design.

This is because the stories of these people and places were never meant to be examined. The events were never meant to be revealed. The names, like so many other notable Black figures who gave of their lives and talents either willingly or by violent force snuffed out, remain all but omitted from our nation’s history. Their stories are erased, so the favored narrative might prevail.

This narrative states that our forefathers committed regrettable acts, but acts from which we have, through a long and drawn out, reluctant, and only partial admission finally “moved on” from. In minimizing our past, we have all but absolved ourselves of any responsibility we might shoulder today for the inequality that exists from the lowest gutters of our main streets to the highest reaches of our government. As a result, we remain mired in a past that will never truly be past unless it is reckoned with in our collective attitudes and actions.

This denial of the truth threatens to tear the moral fabric of our nation. Today, I see a benign indifference to inequality and the fallout of our continued legacy of racism as much as I do the proliferation of neo-racist ideas or beliefs. In so many cases, that indifference to inequality can be attributed to the lack of will or ability to find the hard reality of our past so that we might understand who we truly are as a nation. Our history has been so carefully cleansed of the truth — so tangled in webs of deceit and distraction, misdirection, and mis-characterization — that a person seeking to understand why Black wealth, incarceration, or education levels are what they are would require a degree of investigative rigor reserved for scientific research.

Some might say to not put in the effort to understand is simply lazy. I don’t disagree, but it also shouldn’t be as hard as it is. Amid the blaring voices and opinions of the multitudes, who share their own takes on social media, and the doubling-down on old racist tropes by some of those in power, it is no surprise that some 155 years after the abolition of slavery, we are as divided as we have ever been. At times it seems a hopeless fight, but it’s one we must have.

Our footprints mark our past, but also point in the direction of our future.

The land upon which we walk marks the footprints of our history just as surely as our history books. And like those books and the stories within them, the tales we read upon that land contain only the degree of truth we choose to till into it.

When we scrape the land to create a hollow within which to build a fire, the action is recorded, unless we meticulously erase all traces of the action and allow the passing of time to heal the wound. The ground is pitted, the coals remain after the fire is spent, the ashes scattered across the ground.

But the how, the who, and for what of the fire: those are facts left for the author (or victor) to record. Such as it is for the roads we’ve built: Highways and their legacies of connection but also division. So it is with the buildings and railroads that sprang from the virgin beauty of native American lands. Land scraped of one history so that another could be written. Structures erected and hailed as symbols of American might. White houses built by Black hands — hands which belong to a people for which the ideology of a nation carried not hope and freedom, but pain and despair. The darkness was often deliberately forgotten, leaving only triumphant stories of struggle, regret, and perseverance over the land, our enemies, and ourselves.

We have achieved remarkable feats as a nation but also created fairy tales from horror stories. What we have done to the land and built upon it is in a way a memorial to who and what we are as a society. The land records only part of the story. The rest, we script to our needs.

Who we are is evident in what we build.

We erect markers to commemorate the actors and moments of our history. There are monuments and memorials that record battles won and lost that honor lives and hallowed grounds. And as with the land we’ve marked in America, the stories we choose to tell in these places speaks to who we are and what we believe in as a people.

Those stories that speak to us from bronze and granite become solidified in our individual and collective conscious. They become symbols of our belief system. But when truth and fact are not the priority of the memorial designer, what becomes made concrete in our conscious is little more than myth. Myth informs a set of beliefs that inform attitudes and dictate actions. These actions result in policies that chart the path for our future. Recalling the past is necessary to accurately feel our present and chart our future.

The ongoing controversy over what should become of the nation’s many confederate monuments highlights that struggle. We must now design a new foundation upon which we might write a new narrative about who we are, where we have been, and with a proper accounting of those things, the path we might walk in the future. But this task is not as easy as it may seem.

Following the tragedy in Charlottesville in 2017, Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh acted quickly to remove the Confederate monuments in the city. It was a decision that was largely applauded for preventing violence and unrest. In the months following the removal, design charrettes and community-based discussions were held to discuss what stories should replace the old racist confederate narratives.

In March 2018, there was a re-dedication of the most significant of the four locations. The space that was once the home to a Confederate memorial to Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee would now be designated Harriet Tubman Grove. If the goal is to take down a symbol of an evil and replace it with one of good, Harriet Tubman is a universal symbol of all that that word describes.

Confederate monuments were removed in Baltimore, leaving marble plinths. / AP Photo/Juliet Linderman

However, taken in context, in a country that counts sincerity and simplicity as two of its of its greatest virtues, one might also argue that despite the seeming sincerity of actions like the dedication of another Tubman memorial, or the 1,000-plus streets and boulevards named after Martin Luther King Jr, we are oversimplifying the story of our past — a story of overcoming prejudice and succeeding in spite of it.

In fact, as a society, we are in a way complicit in upholding the illusion that there were but a few Blacks of note throughout American history. Or worse, we may be minimizing the atrocities and oppressive policies pushed onto Blacks from the inception of the slave trade through slavery, failed reconstruction and the Antebelum South, segregationist policies of the early 20th century, and race-based housing and lending practices through modern day poll taxes.

To acknowledge a select few individuals while ignoring the complete picture of the marred historical record relegates the suffering and contributions of so many Blacks who fought for the advancement of our nation to the most remote corners of our history — the place they were designated by the flawed beliefs of previous generation to remain.

Today, in the midst of a worldwide movement to bring awareness to the validity of black lives, when all the eyes of the world and the nation are watching, we must assure that what they see and what we show ourselves — the stories and the images of our past — are more reflective of our truth. Like the pages upon which we have documented our American history, our American landscape can serve as a place to document story.

Our public spaces are a means to tell our true story.

Landscape architects, planners, artists, and policy makers must take part in and, when we can, lead dialogue around the way in which we tell our nation’s story.

We can view our landscapes, plazas, monuments, and memorials as opportunities to re-educate current and future generations about the truth of who we are and how we came to be. We can do this in a way that is reflective, honest, and accurate, so the tragedy of our past is not repeated. On our own, we can’t retool the civics and history curricula in schools across our country, but we can assure that the narratives that people take away from the experiences they have in the landscapes we build are informative, enlightening, and ultimately encourage others to think more deeply about our place in the world and the inequities they might see in it.

Pedestal and statuary will always have a place in the act of memorialization, but if what we seek is a gesture that ultimately brings about togetherness, we should try to embody that aspiration in the fabric of the spaces we create.

If the historical intent of Confederate memorials and the empty spaces they have left behind was in large part to remind Blacks of their low position in American society, should not the opposite action be to create spaces that remind us that we SHOULD all be equal but have not been treated so, extinguish the myth that we are not, and shine a light on the realities that in our past and present contribute to ongoing inequality?

Would not a better use of the spaces that once held figures in granite and bronze be to not simply replace one figure with another or one name for another but to create spaces that evoke powerful emotion, teach lessons of “never again,” enhance the public realm, and encourage us to question contemporary life experiences?

Shouldn’t they assure that heroes and victims are appropriately cast and engage the public in a broader ongoing dialogue about racism and inequality?

And shouldn’t they also serve as a vehicle to tell stories that to date have been omitted from the pages of our history? It is not difficult to make the case that the answer to all of those questions should be yes.

We cannot veil the horror of the atrocities we have committed in our past. To understand the suffering of others, we must ourselves get as close as we can to the pain they have endured. It must be there for us to see, touch, hear, and feel. Truth. Clarity. Awareness. Change.

Contemporary memorials abroad and here in the U.S. are striking new chords. They offer a new way of shaping not only how and what we remember, but also assure that the emotions we draw from them and the awareness they create deeply resonates.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, a collaboration between the Equal Justice Initiative and MASS Design Group, challenges us to not only learn the horrific reality of slavery and Jim Crow-era racism, but to feel the oppressive weight of it, twist our minds to try to understand its breadth, and grip our hearts in a pain that reaches deep in the soul of any human being, regardless of color.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice by Mass Design Group / copyright Alan Karchmer

Too little has been documented of the facts and scope of the lynchings of Blacks in our history. For 88 years between 1880 and 1968, there were more than 4,700 documented cases of lynchings, which equates to approximately one Black life taken per week. One murder per week for 88 years. And those are only the murders that were recorded.

Yet, until the completion of the National Memorial to Peace and Justice, there were no sites that provided a means to interpret these atrocities so they might be appropriately set in the context of our history and serve as a sobering warning for future generations to stamp out the embers of hatred and violence. Located on six acres within the city of Montgomery, the scale of the memorial is impressive, and the experience is varied, employing a range of powerful interpretive methods.

Inspired by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, the focus of the memorial is a large, central court with 805 suspended boxes, roughly the size of coffins, suspended from steel rods. Each box represents a county in the U.S. in which a lynching was recorded. Visitors slowly descend to the courtyard floor, the boxes suspended above them. The simple descent is a powerful design move, meant to evoke the unsettling feeling of walking among the dead. The boxes list the names of those souls whose lives were taken and whose stories, until now, have been all but lost.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice by Mass Design Group / copyright Alan Karchmer

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice by Mass Design Group / copyright Alan Karchmer

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice by Mass Design Group / copyright Alan Karchmer

It is an experience that is powerful; one that is free from any veiled attempt to mute the reality of what it memorializes. The horror one might feel is intentional, and one might argue, necessary in order to make one more aware of contemporary acts of social injustice and crime. The pain is one that should touch all of our souls, for there is a clarity in our tears that is unaffected by the color of the cheek upon which they fall. A clarity that can create unity and awareness, without blame or fault.

We should all remember those who have gone before us. To let the memory of the names and places of suffering fade into darkness is to allow the evil that brought it about to be reborn.

There are times when a story is meant to be told in a designated place, one that either has an inherent significance, or one that is assigned. With experiences like the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, there is a power in the symbolism bestowed upon the place that is rooted in the act of honoring and remembrance. As a result, they become the destinations for school and family trips. They are the holiest of destinations in our religious pilgrimages. However, when the stories are few and locations fewer, the challenge of maintaining awareness derived from the physical connection to the experience can be difficult to overcome.

Stolpersteine (Stumbling stones) designed by German artist Gunter Demming provides a decentralized, daily reminder of the ever looming threat of racism. Commissioned in 2001, the memorial consists of more than 75,000 bronze blocks set within the sidewalks of towns and cities across Europe. The blocks, placed in front of the homes of murdered or exiled Jews, read simply “Here lived…” followed by the name of the individual or family.

Stumbling stones / Flickr

This form of expression creates a moment of recognition that endures the passage of time, for as long as the streets and homes remain. In this way, Demming’s stumbling stones have brought awareness and the space to remember to anyone who sees its markers. The experience is impactful and is observed both in its intimate, direct connection to the individual honored, and the enormous scale of the atrocities committed against so many Jewish citizens. One cannot discount the power of connection through time and place such a memorial creates.

Stumbling stones / Wikipedia

Stumbling stones / German Embassy in UK Twitter

Such a memorial, if it were to be installed in the U.S., might provide a means to bring awareness to many of the crimes committed against Blacks that are seldom brought to light. Acts like the bombing of homes belonging to Black citizens in the first half of the 20th century. These attacks, meant to terrorize Black families, so that they were discouraged from moving into more affluent, White neighborhoods, were an unsanctioned partner to the practices of redlining and racial covenants. The records of these acts are few or often discounted, but the marks they have left on the land and in our society are evident. Evident, but without a true accounting of how they came to be.

One might argue that the invisible boundaries that have resulted from these actions in America have been every bit as effective in restricting the freedom and mobility of those behind them as the Berlin Wall in Germany and other literal barriers we have chosen to memorialize. Imagine for a moment how less coherent the fabric of the city of Berlin might be if the story of the Berlin Wall was treated as though it had never existed? To what would a lay-person attribute the differences and disparities that existed from East to West if they were not provided the truth? How will future generations in America attribute racial disparities that are often starkly evident in our cities if they not offered new markers that provide insight into their root cause? New methods of recalling this past can embed the opportunity to reframe attitudes around racial injustice into the fabric of our daily experiences.

History is not the past; it is the present.

One of the obvious challenges in telling the story of racism in America is that even when we are successful in accurately capturing the truth of our past, the belief among many persists that the past is just that. The reality that the legacy of systemic racism lives on in this country is often lost.

The challenge then becomes one of telling a story that enlightens through a lens that is contemporary, nimble, and tethered to the zeitgeist; a story that seeks less to explain what “has occurred,” than what is occurring every day, or that sets historical fact in a contemporary context. Spaces that can tell these stories have the potential to bridge the divide between the wrongs of the past and the effects of those wrongs on contemporary society. They are also important in bridging the generational gap so that the stories are presented in a way that resonates with current generations.

One example of such a memorial space is the recently unveiled Society’s Cage, which was initially installed in August, 2020 at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and is intended to travel to multiple locations across the country. The memorial, which was designed by a team of mostly Black architects at SmithGroup, asks the question: “What is the value of a Black Life in America?”

Society’s Cage / SmithGroup

The memorial’s perfect cube form symbolizes the aspiration of our American values. However, the internal volume of the cube is constructed of uneven conduit pipes that protrude from the ceiling and floor, symbolizing the uncomfortable and fractured reality that many Blacks in society are greeted with on a daily basis.

Society’s Cage on the National Mall / DCist

Visitors are invited to move through the cube’s aesthetically violent interior. Through symbolism, text, and audio, they are offered a glimpse into an all-to-real and all-too-common Black experience in America via four statistical datasets representing different forms of racism and state violence: mass incarceration, capital punishment, police brutality, and lynching.

Society’s Cage uses unique and artful execution and its temporary nature to deliver a lesson on racial injustice within a must see experience. In doing so, it pulls at the levers of our viral social media culture to shine a powerful light on the often brutal realities of racism today. Hopefully, Society’s Cage and memorial experiences like it also push our society forward — better informed, more aware, more united.

Let us now create the spaces to remember the names, places, and events we might have forgotten, and tell those stories we have yet to hear.

Richard Jones, ASLA, is CEO and founder of iO Studio, Inc. and former president of Mahan Rykiel Associates.

References:

Books: The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein, and The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power by Diedre Mask.

Documentary films: Jim Crow of the North, 2019, Twin Cities PBS, and The Uncomfortable Truth, 2017, Taylor Street Films.

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Last Chance to Protect Greater Chaco from Oil and Gas Drilling

Chaco Culture National Historic Park / Wikipedia

By Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA

September may mark the end of the latest efforts to protect the Chaco Culture National Historical Park against encroaching oil and gas production. A draft resource management plan for the area, which was released by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) earlier this year, fails to guarantee a 10-mile protective zone in lands bordering the park. The plan is open for public comment until September 25.

During a recent webinar organized by US/ICOMOS, Ernie Atencio, the southwest regional director of the National Parks Conversation Association, stated that “this really could be our last chance to save one of the most important cultural landscapes in the US.”

Allowing development as close as possible to the park depreciates the site’s beauty and integrity as world heritage. More gravely, it also introduces health and safety risks to vulnerable Pueblo and Navajo communities while further cleaving them from their sacred homelands. These lands include the Greater Chaco region in the northwestern corner of present-day New Mexico and the historic national park, which is also recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site for its outstanding Puebloan cultural complex.

Opening oil and gas leasing next to the national park would mar the landscape with roads, well pads, pumpjacks, and processing facilities. Oil extraction would cause air and noise pollution and prompt methane to leak from the ground. Bright lights and nighttime flares would taint its International Dark Sky Place designation. Already, 92 percent of the BLM surface lands in the district (among the state’s “most scenic,” according to the BLM) are leased and subjected to these damages.

Existing oil and gas operations scar the Greater Chaco landscape / Archaeology Southwest

The Chaco cultural sites are significant to the Navajo Nation and Puebloan peoples. “I myself have gone on pilgrimages during my time in office and throughout my lifetime to these sacred sites,” says Kurt Riley, former governor of the Pueblo of Acoma. But sometimes, in order to visit these places, Riley and other tribal members must receive permission from the BLM or the US Forest Service.

The existing protection afforded by both UNESCO and the National Park Service is critical to the area’s preservation, but it far from encompasses all sacred sites. The ancient Puebloan peoples occupied territories stretching across the American Southwest, and evidence of their presence can be seen today at Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde National Park, and Bear’s Ears National Monument. Sacred sites dot the landscapes in between; over 300 occupy the Chaco landscape alone.

Riley reiterates the words of an Acoma lawyer: “All archaeological sites are sacred, but not all sacred sites are archaeological.” Any additional protections, like the 10-mile buffer around the Chaco Culture National Historic Park, contribute to preserving a network of sites largely overrun by centuries of settler colonialism.

Significant sites of the Chaco World / Archaeology Southwest

Riley and Paul Reed, a preservation archaeologist with Archaeology Southwest, argue that the Trump administration has exercised an energy dominance policy at the expense of cultural, environmental, and human health concerns. In the Chaco area, projects such as resource management plans and environmental impact statements have been railroaded forward in Washington, DC, without appropriate stakeholder consultation. Frequently, local directives from, for instance, state BLM actors, are overridden. Processes that previously involved tribal members have been fast-tracked and executed out of usual sequence, catching the tribal authorities off guard. The tribes do not have the staff or legal or financial resources to respond to the onslaught of quarterly land sales.

Oil and gas drilling surrounding the Chaco Culture National Historic Park / Archaeology Southwest

The National Parks Conservation Association and its partners — including Pueblo and Navajo groups as well as numerous conservation and preservation organizations — had been waiting years for the BLM’s draft plan for the Chaco region. At the end of February, BLM finally released it.

According to the groups opposed to the plan, the draft fails to evaluate health and safety effects of the proposed drilling. It does not include assessments from federally funded cultural resource studies. It violates numerous federal environmental and preservation laws. And just when BLM disseminated it, Covid-19 was beginning to creep across the US.

The virus especially devastated Navajo Nation and Pueblo communities near Chaco, and their focus turned inward to protecting their health. Concurrently, BLM arranged a host of virtual meetings as public engagement. For tribal leaders dealing with unreliable Internet access and cell service and a public health crisis, these already culturally insensitive meetings were unrealistic. According to Atencio, the BLM efforts amounted to “a farce of public participation.”

After months of silence and just before the comment period ended, Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt extended the comment deadline until September 25. Stakeholder requests to pause the process until the end of the pandemic were ignored.

Local tribes and others are asking for a version of the plan that retains the 10-mile protection area. “But we really feel that the plan is so deficient in its analysis of the impacts that BLM needs to revise the entire thing,” said Atencio.

President Trump signed a Presidential Memorandum in early September discontinuing new offshore oil and gas development around Florida, citing that the state’s residents “just don’t want it.” Critics argue this is an another example of discriminatory prioritization by the Trump administration that implicitly ranks the wants of different groups of people.

Through public outcry, perhaps it too can be made clear that the people of the greater Chaco region do not want oil and gas in their landscape either.

Submit your comments to the BLM directly or via Protect Chaco or the National Parks Conservation Association by September 25.

This guest post is by Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA, with Hood Design Studio and co-editor of the forthcoming book Black Landscapes Matter.

When Planning Conferences, Start with Diversity

By Daniel Rodriguez, Associate ASLA

Landscape architects, urban planners, and architects can build solidarity with the social and environmental justice movements by creating conferences that use diversity, equity, and inclusion as a guiding framework. This is what we did with the 2019 ASLA Florida Chapter Conference in Orlando, Florida, where I was given the privilege to lead a diverse team of ASLA Florida volunteers as the 2019 conference chair.

As a member of the Puerto Rican diaspora residing in Orlando, I focused the conference team on the role landscape architects can play in moving forward social and environmental justice. ASLA members and allied professionals were invited on Common Ground (the theme of the conference) to discuss these issues. With the support of the ASLA Florida Chapter executive committee, we partnered with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and women leaders in landscape architecture who could guide us through the hard conversations.

During his keynote speech at Common Ground, Walter Hood, ASLA, a landscape designer, artist, and founder of Hood Design Studio, said, “some words are hard to hear.” But it was the words of these diverse leaders that increased member attendance by 25 percent and vendor participation by 27 percent in comparison with previous state conferences. These gains in attendance and engagement are evidence that national planning and design organization need to commit to a diversity, equity, and inclusion framework.

I have highlighted three commitments that you can adopt in your conference planning process:

Commit to Creating a Platform for Diverse Voices

BIPOC designers are not a monolith. We cannot check a box for diversity and assume diversity, equity, and inclusion has been achieved. Including the voices of Latinx, women, and Black landscape architects and educators was a conscious choice that we understood would enrich the conversation.

However, the four days we had for the conference was not enough. When we talk about inclusion and diversity, we cannot add one or two people of color to a panel and think we have accomplished our goal. This is why the majority of our keynote speakers needed to be people of color and women.

Meghan Venable-Thomas, Gina Ford, FASLA, Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, Kofi Boone, FASLA, Walter Hood, FASLA, Christina Hite, ASLA, Kimberly Garza, ASLA, Kona Gray, FASLA, and Emily O’Mahoney, FASLA, represented different perspectives as keynote speakers. They nourished our hunger to learn about our roles in social and environmental justice, but their voices weren’t drowned out.

Commit to Making Our Leaders Accessible to BIPOC Students

Conferences often highlight gaps between us. But a conference planned around diversity, equity, and inclusion bridges those divisions, especially for BIPOC students. A big step is removing financial barriers for students by making conferences free for student members. We committed to making it free for all registered students to attend.

Just like the fight for curb cuts in 1972, which increased access to people with different abilities, we needed to fight for a conference culture that cuts through the invisible barriers that separate BIPOC students from accessing leadership.

To address those invisible barriers, we created a volunteer position within the conference committee for a mentor to train student volunteers ahead of the conference. Students were eager to volunteer even though the conference was free. With professional training and access to leadership within ASLA, the students saw the incentive to attend the conference and volunteer. The result was record student turnout.

Commit to Stewardship

When I was a student, perhaps the idea that most attracted me to ASLA was, by joining, I too could become a “steward of the land.” In my student chapter, we co-opted this title and called ourselves “stewards of the land in training” because we understood that as aspiring stewards, we had to facilitate the change we want to see.

Now, as an emerging professional, I believe conferences are an opportunity to practice stewardship in a contextual manner. The conference committee reached out to local Black artists — two painters and one poet. We hired them to interpret who we are through their art. Jamile B. Johnson and Genevieve DeMarco painted eight scenes depicting the Black experience in our parks and public spaces. Blu Bailey, the poet, gave the gift of words with a powerful recital for Walter Hood (see video above).

The threads that binds these commitments are leading by stepping aside, elevating marginalized voices, and empowering the future leaders of our profession. Planning conferences with diversity, equity, and inclusion will help us do just that.

Daniel Rodriguez, Associate ASLA, is a landscape designer with Destination by Design, a multi-disciplinary economic development firm based in Boone, North Carolina.

The ADA at 30: The Battle for an Accessible and Inclusive Future Continues

UC Berkeley protest in the 1970s / Photo by Raymond Lifchez. From his book “Design for Independent Living,” co-authored with Barbara Winslow.

By Alexa Vaughn-Brainard, Assoc. ASLA

July 26 marks the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA grew out of the collective activism of the widely diverse American disabled community, which fought a long and often exhausting battle for access to public space, education, accommodations, transportation, and more. Today, their battle is still ongoing.

As a Deaf woman and as a landscape designer, I have experienced public space in the post-ADA era both personally and professionally. I believe it’s time to examine whether, after three decades, both the ADA and the design professions have done enough to guarantee our right to fully access the public realm.

For architects and landscape architects, the main design guide for access is the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. The most recent version of the standards was released in 2010 and has not been updated since, and, significantly, was not created directly by disabled people. The most recent version of standards were created and are enforced by the Department of Justice under the advisory and maintenance of the U.S. Access Board, which does include disabled members.

A major deficiency of the ADA Standards is that it does not address the broad spectrum of disabilities. It focuses primarily upon physical disabilities (predominantly wheelchair users) and blindness. For example, the standards largely ignore Deaf and hard-of-hearing people or autistic and neuro-divergent people.

Additionally, the guide applies principally to architecture and interiors, rather than for the larger public landscape that disabled people must navigate every day. Today, landscape architects often refer to the Landscape Architectural Graphic Standards. Although these standards contains specific guidelines for outdoor facilities, it takes directly from the ADA Standards and remains a set of baseline minimum requirements lacking in diverse design opportunities.

Despite the legal obligations under the law and the application of ADA Standards, the design professions often operate within the dominant medical model worldview, which infers that disabled people are the problem and that they must “fix” themselves in order to fit seamlessly into our society. And far too often, designers and planners treat ADA standards as an afterthought, a hindrance to creativity, or a headache in construction.

Instead, designers need to switch to a social worldview and recognize that the built environment itself is the real problem, preventing disabled people from being able to fully access and enjoy public spaces. Designers and planners have been directly responsible for the creation of barriers that hinder the estimated one billion people globally who experience some form of disability from being able to comfortably use public space. We can no longer consciously (or sub-consciously) choose to exclude disabled people in our designs. We need to fix and cure the built environment itself, not the people who use it. Access to public space is meant to be a civil right, not a privilege.

Dilworth Plaza in Philadelphia, designed by OLIN / Sahar Coston-Hardy

Universal design is, by definition, flexible and has the capacity to help shape livable and usable cities for everyone, yet it is still not treated as common sense. This is likely due to a reluctance to think about accessibility requirements outside of the narrow legal obligations of the ADA. We need to recognize that although a primary goal of universal design is to provide access to the built environment for disabled people, its benefits go far beyond the disabled community and extend to the broader population. The key is its provision of flexibility and a plethora of options for each user.

Legible Sydney, Sydney, Australia / City of Sydney

Despite the ADA Standards’ limitations, designers and planners have the chance to rethink access and what it means in the public realm. We must open our minds to understand the needs of a large diversity of people and tap into our creativity to think outside the box of the formal standards. ASLA has taken a step in the right direction through its guide to universal design, which sets out principles for the creation of an inclusive public realm that is accessible to as many people as possible.

Today, universal design applications require more thought, practice, and trial (and error), but they must be developed in direct partnership with disabled stakeholders and disabled design experts. We must learn to treat disabled people’s lived experiences as expertise and to trust their needs over our assumptions and intuition.

If we choose to open our minds to universal design’s potential, not only will we honor the ADA on its thirtieth anniversary, but we will take it a step further into a more accessible and inclusive future. We can then begin to dare to dream of a world where disabled people are honored, accepted, and embraced by designers, planners, and the cities they call home.

Alexa Vaughn-Brainard, Assoc. ASLA, is a landscape designer at OLIN in Los Angeles. As a Deaf woman, she has chosen to use identity-first language when talking and writing about disabled people. She feels that claiming a disabled identity is empowering and portrays the disabled community as a distinct and valuable community, worthy of recognition and pride.

CUT|FILL 2020: An Unconference on Landscape Architecture

Cut|Fill / The Urban Studio

By Andrew Sargeant, ASLA

Over the past few weeks, I asked myself hard questions to better understand my role and my profession’s role in tackling the compounding issues of the contemporary world:

Are we in a moment of extreme opportunity or inability?

In the wake of COVID-19, there was a rapid response by landscape architects through articles, webinars, and forums, imagining a future post-pandemic. In fact, those pieces keep coming every day.

However, the landscape architecture profession’s response to calls for social change and racial justice did not have the same sense of urgency. It seemed as though the previously zealous fighters for public safety and well-being couldn’t see the correlation between widespread civil unrest and their jobs. The combination of unfavorable responses to calls for change or just lack of responses was inexplicable to many.

This caused people to quickly voice opinions of dissatisfaction on social media aimed at specific organizations, firms, and even people within the profession. Some were based on personal experience and some just anonymous attacks, but all seemed to incite more of the latter.

Weeks later, I saw revised statements and commitments from firms and organizations seemingly bullied into action. Then came webinars, articles, and shared stories. The needle felt like it was moving, but it now feels like momentum has slowed.

I started to question if the complexities of racialized manifestations in the built environment are just too difficult for landscape architects to tackle and if we are equipped with the knowledge and tools to make a difference. I believe the future success of the profession depends on our ability to provide service to our colleagues and clients that address this new paradigm shift in social awareness.

How do we move forward with no master plan? Are there no experts in the room?

I think many of us want someone to have it figured out. The idea of best practices is ubiquitous in our profession. In The Dirt’s recent interview with Walter Hood, ASLA, he states:

“All I hear is, ‘Walter, help me. I’m working in a black community. I need you.’ No, you don’t need me. You need to do the work for yourself. You need to learn about us. You need to get in there and roll up the sleeves. This is not my (our) problem. Until it changes, we’ll be back in the same position 20 years from now, asking why we’re not a diverse profession.”

Unfortunately, while there is knowledge within the profession working with minority communities, it simply cannot be the only foundation for us moving forward. The intersectionality of the issues the landscape architecture profession is trying to combat cannot be tackled with a one size fits all approach. It’s clear there is no expertise within our field to tackle these interconnected issues (not to say there isn’t true expertise outside our discipline or at the margins that still remain unrecognized). The ramifications of COVID-19 only exacerbate the threats facing disenfranchised communities.

Can we afford to push any design agenda without thinking of these issues in their totality and their adjacencies? At the Urban Studio, we are asking new questions and hope that many of our colleagues in firms and other organizations are as well.

Can we create real change in our profession without diverse voices present?

We want to challenge who is seen as an expert in the room. Conferences on landscape architecture are where the typical rotation of “thought leaders” talk to people. We started to imagine a different type of conference — a conference not for one group to talk at another, but for everyone to talk and work with each other.

With most people quarantined to their homes, one might think this impossible. Fortunately, video has helped fill the void and enables us to converse and also see each other. The matrix style of communication has been used for quick conversations to full-length discussions.

As a proponent of the benefits of technology in our field, I see something unique here, a new medium for communication. I see a way to democratize discourse in a way that is unfamiliar to our profession. There is no posturing when you are a floating torso. It is harder to forcefully speak over someone and naturally feels wrong in that interface.

Over the last month or so, we at the Urban Studio along with Ink Landscape Architects have used this technology to create a platform, celebrate, and listen to the critical underrepresented voices in the design industry. We invite all voices to the first ever unconference in landscape architecture aptly named Cut|Fill, July 23-24.

This conference will be different from traditional professional conferences you have attended. Over the past few decades, the alternative conference format was made popular in the technology industry as a response to more rigid meeting formats that minimize interpersonal connection and communication necessary to generate bigger and better ideas. The unconference will open with brief panel discussions to set the stage for a participatory discussion. The remainder of the event will be guided by a professional Open Space facilitator who will encourage and guide participants to ensure safe and inclusive conversation.

Panelists at Unconference / The Urban Studio

Possible topics at Cut|Fill / The Urban Studio

In order to encourage that participants walk away with action-oriented next steps, we will provide tools within the event for collaborative documentation. Participants will be able to record their thoughts, strategies, and propositions in real-time through QiqoChat, a specialized interface for robust online conferencing. The platform provides autonomy for participants to not only propose and lead discussions but also move around freely between them. We imagine this will be a transformative experience for those who attend and the profession.

Qiqo platform / The Urban Studio

We would like to give a special thanks to Permaloc, Anova, and Landscape Forms for sponsoring this event. We would also like to recognize Sasaki, MNLA, GGN, Reed Hilderbrand, and Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects as well for not only sponsoring the event but also supporting and encouraging their staff to attend.

We have an opportunity to change. Let us be intentional about it. Let us make the most of this opportunity.

Andrew Sargeant, ASLA, is a landscape designer and pioneer of design technology in the field of landscape architecture. He is the vice president of The Urban Studio, a Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Olmsted Scholar Fellow, and a part of the ASLA’s Digital Technology PPN Leadership.

The Urban Studio: Expanding how students of color are educated and engaged around design. Our mission is “to advance design thinking for equitable + sustainable urbanism.” Please visit theurbanstudio.org and donate.

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The Pandemic Offers an Opportunity to Re-Wild Our Communities

Re-wilded park / Illustration by Sarah Welch; courtesy SWA Group

By Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA

As the pandemic has worn on, the American public has adopted parks and neighborhood streets as safe spaces. This will not be a short-lived phenomenon – bikes have been repaired, running shoes purchased, and puppies adopted. People are growing accustomed to spending time in the outdoors to exercise, spend time with family, enjoy nature – and take that growing puppy for walks.

As landscape architects, we understand that engaging with nature and green space is an innate instinct for city dwellers during times of illness. While those using parks and streets today are not expecting a nature cure, they do experience a renewed comfort in these spaces.

At the same time, city and state budgets are being ravaged by COVID-19-imposed economic shutdowns. Hotel and restaurant taxes are not being collected. Sales taxes are miniscule. Property taxes will likely drop as high unemployment numbers linger. All of this is happening while governments are increasing spending on health-related costs and managing their response to the pandemic.

Parks and recreation are typically among the first government departments to have their funding cut when budgets get tight. At a time when the public will rightfully be demanding more open spaces, our parks departments will be unable to marshal the funds to maintain existing open spaces, much less deliver new parks.

I believe that this disconnect will be resolved through the rewilding of the American city. A lack of public dollars for parks will result in an unkempt, rambling, and wild style of park “design” created in an organic, vernacular character.

Like the home-made masks worn by Americans working to “flatten the curve,” our rewilded lands will create a new urban aesthetic born out of found land that is low-design and has a local do-it-yourself appeal. This new aesthetic will provide more comfort and delight than current design trends offer. The result: lively and wild.

Flirting in a re-wilded space / Illustration by Sarah Welch; courtesy SWA Group

In some ways, this transformation is already beginning with the conversion of public infrastructure to socially-distanced outdoor dining and socializing space. Cities across the country have closed streets and allowed merchants to colonize spaces once dedicated to cars. Makeshift dining terraces and outdoor bars – some stylish, others functional; all cheap, fast, and locally inspired — are transforming the streets. Parking lots have become everything from gyms to outdoor clothing boutiques. Is this the beginning of a tipping point where cities will invite communities to use the same “can-do” spirit within their parks and open spaces?

My view is that feral green agglomerations will pop up across cities and suburbs. Residents will benefit from their habitat patches, stormwater storage, carbon sequestration, and makeshift community gathering areas.

A re-wilded round-a-bout / Illustration by Sarah Welch; courtesy SWA Group

As viral hot spots continue to require work-from-home or reduced hours, workers with new found free time will spend it in the community gardens and on neighborhood exercise trails. Pandemic survivors will find solitary comfort in forest bathing rituals as they enter these spaces for a moment of stress relief and sanitary sanity. Native opossum and raccoons will colonize these spaces and thrive; children will build forts and clubhouses; and communities will co-opt them as gyms and meeting space.

Re-wilded parks will attract people and wildlife. / Illustration by Sarah Welch; courtesy SWA Group

The benefit of this new breed of make-shift open space starts with the sense of ownership that communities will feel for them and the functional programming and features they create. The benefit to cities expands exponentially by just getting out of nature’s way.

Lands that are released from traditional maintenance regimes will quickly begin to cleanse stormwater, sequester carbon, reduce the heat island effect, improve habitat, and become a low-tech but important part of a new infrastructure that is needed now more than ever.

Crumbling parking lots and parks released from maintenance will take time to rewild, but once that transformation occurs, cities will feel greener and like a true respite. Families will go outside to exercise and feel comforted by nature. Desk-bound office workers will take strolling meetings through visually inspiring landscapes. And our streets have taken on a new life.

The longing for wild places have been growing for some time now. Maybe the pandemic will be the catalyst for more therapeutic, nature-rich public spaces and lead to a new found interest in the healing and wellness that small natural spaces can bring.

Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA, is managing principal of SWA Group’s Houston studio. He has traveled the globe over the past 30 years creating places that are culturally and ecologically resonant.

New Urban Solutions Needed for COVID-19 and Racial Injustice

Sign within CHOP, Seattle / UW College of Built Environment

By Kristi M. Park, ASLA

COVID-19 has brought significant complexities to cities. Protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd and countless Black lives have filled our streets and public open spaces. Community leaders and designers, who are already scrambling to solve immediate public pandemic-related health issues, must take a hard look in the mirror and finally address systemic racism.

As the design professions investigate the way forward, many cities and communities are heading towards an uncertain future without a roadmap for addressing the pandemic and urban inequality.

In Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, a new normal has emerged through a center of protest against racial injustice, known as the Capitol Hill Occupy Protest (CHOP). The site organically formed as a result of protester standoffs with Seattle police officers in the streets, even while the pandemic has closed most of the city.

In an unexpected twist, the City of Seattle closed the police station and essentially gave the streets to the protesters. Nearly six blocks of city streets and Cal Anderson Park, a large Olmsted-designed park, have been occupied by hundreds of people who are redesigning the community.

Cal Anderson Park now includes freshly dug communal gardens and campers. The nearby streets are hosting bands, documentarians, speakers, and a shared food coop, art, and volunteer aid stations.

The creation of CHOP did not involve typical community meetings, street use permits, planning, and design. But the space galvanized Seattle’s historic undercurrent of resistance to expose injustices in Seattle.

CHOP, Seattle / UW College of Built Environment

CHOP, Seattle / UW College of Built Environment

CHOP is unlikely to survive long term but still demonstrates how quickly communities are re-organizing.

In April — prior to Mr. Floyd’s murder and the spontaneous creation of places like CHOP — seven University of Washington (UW) College of Built Environments Ph.D. students engaged community leaders, educators, urban planners, and landscape architects in a discussion on their predictions for a post-pandemic urban future. This conversation resulted in the Pandemic Urbanism Symposium held in May.

One panel discussed the importance of public space in the context of the pandemic and within the framework of equity, justice, and resilience. The panel was opened by UW faculty members Jeff Hou, ASLA, moderated by Catherine De Almeida, and featured four panelists: Jesús Aguirre, superintendent of Seattle Parks and Recreation; Cary Moon, citizen activist; Brice Maryman, FASLA, a principal landscape architect with MIG; and Cary Simmons, program director at the Trust for Public Land.

Of primary concern to all panelists was equitable access to public spaces from a social, economic, racial, and ethnic perspective.

The pandemic will further exacerbate inequalities in cities like Seattle, with a particular impact on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. One question lingered: how will the design professions simultaneously cultivate pandemic-resilient cities and break down the barriers of systemic racism?

Panelists discussed both long- and short-term solutions.

One important long-term solution, which could be similar to the New Deal of the 1930s, is to make a significant and equitable investment in public infrastructure — parks, housing, healthy ecosystems, and sanitation access. Greater investment in public infrastructure can help ensure prosperity for all citizens.

Other solutions include the Seattle Street Sink, which was designed and installed by a team of local architects and landscape architects. The innovative system creates immediate and equitable public access to hygiene, which can help stop the spread of disease. The simple act of washing one’s hands should be available to everyone.

Seattle Street sink / UW College of Built Environment

Seattle has permanently closed 20 miles of streets to vehicular traffic. Street closures provide safe recreational opportunities and support community development.

Public park parking lots can be used as space for temporary housing, providing a place to live that has access to natural and recreational opportunities.

With the pandemic and protest movement, the door to address injustice, inequality, and the unhealthy nature of cities has been thrown wide open, creating opportunities for imaginative actions.

Kristi M. Park, ASLA, is a lecturer at University of Washington, an adjunct faculty member at Western Washington University, and principal of BioDesign Studio. Additional contributors include Jeff Hou, ASLA, and Erin Irby, Student ASLA.

My Brown Privilege

Melissa Henao-Robledo, ASLA

By Melissa Henao-Robledo, ASLA

As a first-generation Latina, I’m a person of color who believes in the significance of Black Lives Matter and expanding diversity in the field of landscape architecture.

An individual’s journey shapes their professional life. But having a profession is not always the case for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), who live daily with implicit bias resulting from systematic racism.

Instead of continuing to watch and navigate white privilege and fragility, it’s time for everyone to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable” and partner with the Black design movement.

The “there’s no one to hire” response doesn’t cut it anymore. The good news is you are already creative designers and planners who champion solutions every day. Now you can champion change within your workplace and industry.

Early education is the key to spreading awareness of landscape architecture. Commit to mentoring K-12 students. With the recent shift to virtual meetings, mentoring a student anywhere in the United States is possible. Collaborate with your local ASLA, AIA, and APA chapters that have established K-12 outreach programs. Ask your firm to attend high school career fairs. Volunteer for ASLA’s Virtual Career Day and openly express your support to welcome and embrace diverse voices and life experiences.

During my master of landscape architecture education at North Carolina State University, I was fortunate to have a Latino professor, Fernando Magallanes, ASLA, who I related to not only because we looked alike but also because we freely and openly expressed our Latin selves. Rodney Swink, FASLA, was also pivotal in my engagement with ASLA.

Both he and Fernando have introduced the landscape architecture profession at the Hispanic Educational Summit hosted by the North Carolina Society of Hispanic Professionals.

Kofi Boone, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at NC State, continues to inspire. Reading Kofi’s Black Landscapes Matter, I’ve learned about Black landscapes in North Carolina that I was not aware of — and I grew up in North Carolina.

I’m very fortunate and proud to work for a company that is committed to equity and embraces my boisterous cultural identity. For several years, they have demonstrated their ongoing support by sponsoring panel speakers, webinars, and workshops that elevate diversity in the landscape architecture community.

Firms can invest in a diversity, equity and inclusion strategic plan and hire a facilitator to guide your company through the process. Read the ASLA Diversity Summit reports and elevate the voices of the LGBTQIA community. Are you familiar with LEED’s project team checklist for social impact?

Use your company’s voice and platform to share the work your colleagues are doing. This is a great way for BIPOC to get a glimpse into your company culture.

Do your project renderings and photo shoots include BIPOC, people of a variety of ages, and people with disabilities? Have you considered the inclusive or exclusive message these images portray?

Aprende Español! The ASLA Activity Book en Español is a great resource to learn the fundamental vocabulary of landscape architecture. Make the effort to communicate with your Latinx colleagues and employees en Español.

As we endure the COVID-19 pandemic that is literally wiping out BIPOC, the country has exploded with protests that call for safety and socio-economic equity.

I know what it means to feel afraid for the safety of my Black loved ones because they are identified by the color of their skin, not by their contribution to society, educational aspirations, smiles, love, and joy they bring to the world.

During a protest in Austin, Texas, I was in awe and bewilderment to discover protesters had shut down Interstate 35, the same interstate that divided Austin to create a “Negro District” via the 1928 master plan and subsequently was segregated by design to create a “ghetto for African Americas.”

Protest at Texas State Capitol, Austin, Texas / Melissa Henao-Robledo, ASLA

Protest at on I-35 in Austin, Texas / Melissa Henao-Robledo, ASLA

During the protests, as I stood there in my truth, in my brown privilege, I felt a tremendous sadness for the lack of diversity in the landscape architecture profession.

Have you ever had to consider the lack of diverse representation of your race in your office, company, or profession? And the pain and sense of injustice it causes?

By the year 2043, the U.S. Census Bureau projects the nation to become a majority-minority nation.

My hope is practitioners will seize the moment and cultivate the future voices of landscape architecture that reflect the communities we serve.

Melissa Henao-Robledo, ASLA, is the Landscape Forms Business Development Representative for Central and South Texas. She is the Texas ASLA Chair of the Committee on Student Organizations. She has participated in National ASLA Diversity Summits and has served as the Chair for the Central Texas ASLA and the AIA Austin Latinos in Architecture.