The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)‘s most recent class of innovation and leadership fellows spent the past year “unearthing assumptions and trying to find a path forward” through the “disorienting dilemmas” facing the world, explained Cindy Sanders, FASLA, CEO of OLIN, in the kick-off off LAF’s now annual symposium. Each fellow seeks to generate “ethically-motivated societal change,” which in the process required “personal transformation.” Over two days, this year’s six fellows delved into the results of their independent research and leadership building efforts, which were each supported by a $25,000 grant from LAF.
Alison Hirsch: Equitable and Sustainable Water Management for California’s Central Valley
California’s Central Valley accounts for one-fourth of the country’s food supply, but it’s a deeply troubled agricultural landscape. Alison Hirsch, associate professor of landscape architecture and urbanism and program director, University of Southern California in Los Angeles, characterized the landscape as challenged by climate change, poverty, animal waste, pollution, collapsing aquifers, and racist labor and immigration practices that are the result of the “violence of an extractive system.” But it’s also a “landscape of extreme resilience and that provide optimism.”
Hirsh brought a “longitudinal action research” framework, which was conceived by Ann Whiston Spirn, FASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at MIT, in order to conduct “investigative mapping” and find opportunities for structural policy changes.
For example, Hirsch and her team of USC landscape architecture students found that “big farms get the best and most groundwater.” These industrial farms can dig up to 250 feet deep to get at remnant pockets of groundwater. This process is increasingly leaving black and brown communities, many of which are immigrants, without access to water. Furthermore, old dry wells are contaminated with animal waste and arsenic, which then poisons other water sources used by immigrant workers. Hirsch studied local organizations and interviewed farmers advocating for more equitable and sustainable water management as part of eco-agricultural cooperatives.
Alexa Vaughn-Brainard: Going Beyond ADA to Achieve Universal Design
“I am a deaf woman, a disabled person, and a landscape designer,” explained Alexa Vaughn-Brainard, Assoc. ASLA, with MIG. “I am constantly adapting myself to the built environment but it’s not adapting to me. Enough is enough: We have been fighting the same battles since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed thirty years ago.” Vaughn-Brainard said communities need to move away from “the medical model in which the person is the problem,” to a “social model in which the built environment is the problem.” According to the World Health Organization, 1 billion people around the world are disabled, which is one-seventh the global population. In the U.S., 20-25 percent have a disability. “Disability is a spectrum; and some disabilities are invisible.” Furthermore, disabled people are a group “anyone can join at any time.”
Recounting the long fight to achieve ADA requirements for buildings and landscapes, Vaughn-Brainard argued that they are really the bare minimum. Explaining her Deafscape design guidelines, she outlined how deaf people need 10-to-12-foot-wide sidewalks so they can walk and sign; a “degree of enclosure” to feel safe so recommended tall-back seating; and broader lines of sight. She called for the use of universal design principles as a “creative tool,” because there are no “one size fits all” solutions. Vaughn-Brainard outlined approaches for designing with disabled communities and especially disabled designers — from accessible meetings and focus groups, to accessible plans and models for teams of abled and disabled to review together, to accessibility audits landscape architects can undertake with communities.
Roxi Thoren: An Introspective Journey into a World Shaped by Multiple Species
Before the pandemic struck, Roxi Thoren, ASLA, head of the department of landscape architecture at Penn State University, had planned a series of programs and a book to explore how climate change posed a threat to complex ecological relationships among species. Thoren argues that the world is full of species, and that designers must increasingly approach animals with respect and co-design with them. “How can we include animals? How can we with collaborate with them?,” she urged us to consider.
Turning towards her residential landscape and neighborhood in Oregon, and the plants and animals that call it home, Thoren instead found inspiration in nature, offering a poem accompanied by a slideshow of images.