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.

ASLA seeks to facilitate open, respectful dialogue in its public forums. Opinions expressed in the comments section are not necessarily those of ASLA. By participating in ASLA’s websites, blogs, and social media accounts, the user agrees to the Terms of Use.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (August 16-31)

Redesigned White House Rose Garden / Melania Trump twitter

Landscape Architects Create New Spitzer Scholarship — 08/27/20, Real Estate Weekly
“The three-year fellowship was established by Hollander Design Landscape Architects to encourage and support New York City students from demographics and communities that are historically underrepresented in landscape architecture to pursue the field.”

The Full Story Behind the Controversial Rose Garden Redesign — 08/27/20, Architectural Digest
“Per Eric Groft of Oehme, van Sweden, Mrs. Trump prefers pastel flowers, hence the current abundance of John F. Kennedy and Pope John Paul II white roses, relieved here and there by Peace roses in pink and cream. (Seasonal bulbs and annuals will populate the zigzag borders that front the parterres’ triangular compartments.)”

Revamped White House Rose Garden Lambasted on Social Media — 08/25/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Just ahead of the Republic National Convention, Melania Trump this past weekend revealed a refreshed and redesigned White House Rose Garden. And despite some elements of the horticultural overhaul being beneficial or needing time to grow in, reactions from the architecture and landscape architecture community as well as armchair critics on social media has been decidedly not great.”

Amazon and FedEx Push to Put Delivery Robots on Your Sidewalk — 08/25/20, Wired
“In February, a lobbyist friend urged Erik Sartorius, the executive director of the Kansas League of Municipalities, to look at a newly introduced bill that would affect cities. The legislation involved ‘personal delivery devices’—robots that, as if in a sci-fi movie, might deliver a bag of groceries, a toolbox, or a prescription to your doorstep.”

The Therapeutic Power of Gardening — 08/24/20, The New Yorker
“Eight out of ten people in Britain live in a home with a private garden; one in ten at least has access to a balcony, a terrace, a patio, or a communal garden. The national affection for gardening sustains a horticulture industry that is worth about thirty billion dollars a year to the U.K. economy.”

How Decades of Racist Housing Policy Left Neighborhoods Sweltering — 08/24/20, The New York Times
“In the 1930s, federal officials redlined these neighborhoods in Richmond, Va., marking them as risky investments because residents were Black. Today, they are some of the hottest parts of town in the summer, with few trees and an abundance of heat-trapping pavement.”

Alleging ‘Environmental Racism,’ Residents Protest Plan to Remove Scores of Mature Trees in Roxbury — 08/23/20, The Boston Globe
“In a move that some residents denounce as a form of environmental racism, city officials are planning a new road project that would cut down about a quarter of those mature trees — among the largest tree removals in recent city history.”

Designers of Color on How to Combat Erasure

Cut|Fill / The Urban Studio

Over two days, approximately 500 online participants together set the agenda, formed and dissolved discussion groups, and shared knowledge and resources. With the assistance of an “open space” facilitator, this is how Cut|Fill, a virtual “unconference” on landscape architecture, unfolded.

Organized by the Urban Studio and Ink Landscape Architects, Cut|Fill was meant to “raise questions we all want to discuss,” explained Andrew Sargeant, ASLA, a founder of Urban Studio. One of those important questions: “how can landscape architects design with empathy and end dismissive behavior towards people of color?”

The goal of these questions was to get designers to think harder about how to stop intentionally or unintentionally erasing communities of color, which are often purposefully made invisible, and instead get them to truly see these communities, co-design with them, and empower them.

“Imagine the place you love is erased. This has happened to people of color for generations,” said Justin Garrett Moore, executive director of the New York City Public Design Commission, during the opening panel.

Moore said that erasure, which has taken the form of urban renewal, displacement, and gentrification over the past few decades, “takes work.” Some group of people need to invest time and money to make a community disappear.

He also spoke of the pain of feeling personally erased. A video was produced of a planning and design panel he was on with a number of white speakers. “The organizers cropped the video so only the white panelists remained. It took work to do that — it was done with intention.” He called these erasures, both personal and communal, “death by a thousand cuts.”

For Maria Arquero de Alarcon, an associate professor of architecture and urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan, erasures of communities can be combated through new ways of teaching planning and design. One important methodology is “co-creating and co-producing knowledge together in spaces of inclusion.” Online technologies also now offer opportunities to become “radically inclusive” with marginalized communities.

In many places, erasure has been happening for many generations, but there are cultural remnants if you know how to see. For example, “there is so much of Africa in the landscape of South Carolina,” commented Austin Allen, a founder of DesignJones, LLC and associate professor of landscape architecture practice at the University of Texas at Arlington. Slaves brought from Africa also brought their rice farming knowledge, which shaped the southern American landscape. Allen said landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, on his tour of the South, traveled through South Carolina’s rice plantations and wondered, “what is this place?”

Despite erasures, the legacy of marginalized peoples remains waiting to be rediscovered. Allen said this upcoming generation of landscape architecture students is exploring intersectional issues related to race, landscape, and memory with a “new level of openness.”

In the next panel, the discussion moved from erasure and invisibility to empowerment.

“If you inhabit a black body or are disabled, you are so invisible. That is until you’re not. In an instant, anything you do can be the focus of critical feedback. You could be eating skittles or going on a jog and be made very visible,” explained Tamika Butler, director of planning in California and director of equity and inclusion with Toole Design Group.

She added that Black people are used to “sliding in and out of a space invisibly,” but to “stay where we are, we need to claim space.”

For Ulysses Sean Vance, an associate professor of architecture at Temple University, who focuses on universal and inclusive design, the planning and design world has created massive “voids of erasure.” Too often, “involvement is done to a community; engagement is done to them.” He added that places that experienced generations of erasure aren’t ruins, but places to be inhabited and re-inhabited.

In these communities, “we can instead intentionally unbuild disenfranchisement.” To accomplish this, communities must be real participants in the planning and design process, and their input must be reflected in outcomes. Through inclusive processes, the feeling of being invisible and marginalized can be overcome, and “people can feel comfortable and confident.”

Butler elaborated on the concept of intersectionality, which came up a lot during Cut|Fill and is a key framework for creating more empowered visibility. “On streets, intersections are where conflict, friction, and struggle happen.” If there is a poorly designed street intersection that is leading to pedestrian deaths, “we aren’t like, this is just too complicated. No, we go in and solve the problem.” To solve intersectional social and environmental justice issues, diverse designers and planners need to create “brave spaces, not safe spaces” that open up the difficult conversations.

Architect Steven Lewis, a principal at ZGF, offered a meaningful perspective on the entire discussion. “There is self-realization as a young Black person that jars you. You realize you are not like the white characters you watch on TV. You become aware that you are different. You realize that there is a parallel Black universe and you now need to navigate between white and Black universes.”

George Floyd’s death created a “wormhole in which everyone was sucked into the Black universe,” Lewis said. “The walls crumbled, and we’re all in one place right now.” (Butler added that “constantly transitioning between these two universes can be exhausting. We are tired and can make some mistakes.”)

While “white people have work to do and need to become comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Black people can be “sherpas or guides in the Black universe,” Lewis said. “If white people have their heart in the right place, we can be patient and loving.”

He believes “empathy and caring” can lead to “learned and gained familiarity and then love for each other.” But he cautioned that this process of developing empathy and understanding requires life-long effort; there is no quick “prophylactic or therapy.”

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.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (July 16-31)

White House Rose Garden / Wikipedia

Melania Trump’s Rose Garden Redo Draws Criticism, But It’s Long Overdue — 07/28/20, The Washington Post
“The cost of the project, reportedly paid for with private donations, was not disclosed but will not be insignificant, and it entails the removal and replacement of most of the existing plantings as well as the lawn.”

Trump Repeals Rule Meant to Integrate Neighborhoods, Further Stoking Racial Divisions in Campaign — 07/23/20, The Los Angeles Times
“The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it would scrap a regulation known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, which was implemented by President Obama in an attempt to promote more integrated communities. Under the rule, cities receiving some federal housing aid had to develop plans to address patterns of segregation or risk losing money.”

SWA Group Tapped for Freedom Park Master Plan in Atlanta — 07/20/20, The Architects’s Newspaper
“Linear and lined with both temporary and permanent public art installations, the cruciform Freedom Park—more of a greenway-cum-sculpture park than anything—encompasses over 200 acres of land that links downtown Atlanta with a patchwork of historic neighborhoods on the city’s east side. ”

Bay Area of 2050 Will Be More Crowded — Planners Want to Make It More Equitable, Too — 07/20/20, The San Francisco Chronicle
“For the first time, the Bay Area’s largest planning agencies have mapped what the region might look like in 2050 — and it’s a place where new jobs and housing increasingly migrate to the South Bay.”

The A.D.A. at 30: Beyond the Law’s Promise — 07/20/20, The New York Times
“This series explores how the Americans With Disabilities Act has shaped modern life for people with disabilities in the 30 years since it was passed.”

Biden’s Climate Plan Puts Inequality and Jobs on Par with CO2 — 07/18/20, Bloomberg
“When Joe Biden released his climate plan last week, the Democratic candidate for president emphasized one overarching goal—and it wasn’t the reduction of greenhouse gases. Instead, he unequivocally linked broad climate action to employment.”

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.

Emerging Landscape Architecture Leaders Focus on Social Justice

LAF Innovation and Leadership Fellows. Clockwise from top right: Nicholas Jabs, Jeff Hou, Pierre Bélanger, Liz Camuti, Diana Fernandez-Bibeau, and Hans Baumann

The pandemic didn’t stop this year’s Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) fellows in innovation and leadership from presenting the results of their year-long investigations. In an online symposium attended by more than a thousand people, six emerging leaders in the field of landscape architecture explained how design can help create a more just world. Each fellow received a $25,000 grant from LAF to travel, conduct research, and build their leadership skills.

Liz Camuti: Bad RFPs Set Back Resilience Planning Efforts

Liz Camuti, ASLA, a landscape designer at SCAPE (and we are proud to say, a former ASLA communications intern) told the story of Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, the homeland of the tribe of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians. More than 98 percent of the tribe’s lands have been lost due to rising sea levels and coastal erosion. In 2016, the state of Louisiana received $48 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC) to resettle the Isle de Jean Charles community.

Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana / Liz Camuti

After finding their concerns were ignored during federal and state planning processes, the community eventually decided to forgo resettlement. Camuti blamed the “so-called design solution handed down through the request for proposal (RFP).” This led her to examine the “centuries of problems with RFPs” issued by federal and state governments, and the awful position many planners and landscape are forced into of simply obeying the forms and “checking the boxes.” She called for communities and landscape architects to “uncheck the box” and push back against poorly-conceived RFPs.

As part of the RFP development process, all communities, and particularly indigenous ones, should be better consulted on how they want to be identified. Public participation processes, which are often a requirement, should be designed to air conflicts instead of minimizing them. Ample time should be given to establishing community ownership of a project through the creation of working groups and steering committees. Instead of coming in as experts, landscape architects need to reframe their relationship with communities with which they work and become much more humble about what they don’t know.

Diana Fernandez-Bibeau: Diverse Communities Need Heterogeneous Landscapes

“We design places for diverse species of plants and animals. Why not design spaces for diverse people?,” asked Diana Fernandez-Bibeau, ASLA, a senior associate at Sasaki. By studying ecology, which explores species diversity, and anthropology, which delves into human diversity, landscape architects can partner with communities to design places defined by “landscape heterogeneity.” This process involves weaving diverse social, cultural, linguistic, and environmental systems into a place.

Heterogeneous places are much needed, because there are already “too many homogenized public spaces in the U.S. that were not designed for people of color,” Fernandez said. “Landscapes are not neutral ground but poignant expressions of power.” Homogenized spaces are created by a colonizing power that minimizes difference.

As far as a process for creating heterogeneous landscapes, Fernandez argued that there is “no formula,” and what matters most is having a “state of consciousness” that is based in the “acceptance of the other.” She said diverse communities are more than capable of defining themselves. She pointed to the community design process for the new Frederick Douglass Memorial in Boston, in which an African American spoken word artist helped create a safe space for community sharing and spiritual growth.

Spoken word artist during community sharing process / Sasaki
Frederick Douglass Memorial design concept / Sasaki

Nicholas Jabs: Climate Change Is an Opportunity to Revitalize Middle America

“Middle America is too often ignored,” argued Nicholas Jabs, a designer with PORT Urbanism in Philadelphia, who gave a centuries-spanning overview of the region, from the Ice Age, which resulted in rich soil deposits, to the establishment of indigenous tribal communities, and the rise of fur traders. Communities like St. Louis, Chicago, and Minneapolis formed on rivers, because rivers were the major transportation system, but by the mid-1800s, railroads began to dominate and manufacturing spread.

Over the next few decades, middle American cities were transformed from “vertically organized” communities in which manufacturing co-existed with housing to “factory warehouse cities” characterized by the rise of “horizontal, specialized manufacturing zones” separated from housing. This led to urban and suburban sprawl, corporate campuses, and science parks. An ensuing multi-decade decline in American manufacturing was in part halted in the 00s by “flexible and urban” manufacturing that creates “high-quality crafts on demand.”

Climate change offers an opportunity for middle America. With its legacy infrastructure, resources, and manufacturing and distribution know how, middle America is poised to play a leading role in the mass mobilization of people and resources to reduce emissions and adapt communities. As communities address climate impacts, “we’re going to need to make and fix lots of things.” Middle America can lead with “craft, cultivation, community, and care,” which can transform the region once again.

Photovoltaic (PV) panel trees in middle America / Nicholas Jabs

Jeff Hou: A New Network to Grow Design Activists

Amid the grave environmental, health, and social justice issues facing the world, how can landscape architects make a difference? Jeff Hou, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, formed a design activism working group across universities and landscape architecture organizations, which resulted in a 50-page framework of action based in a set of principles. There are now 800 professors and students sharing ideas in a collaborative online community.

Principles include: politicize, which calls for “understanding that the built environment is a result of a political process;” hybridize, which involves increasing cross-disciplinary collaboration; and “glocalize,” a new word combining globalize and localize as a way to encourage intercultural learning and connection. Other key principles are: improvise; problematize, which means to re-evaluate complex, interconnected issues; authentize; re-organize; and democratize, which is a call for “re-examining our systems of justice.”

Hans Baumann: The Value of Immersion in the Culture of Indigenous Peoples

Hans Baumann, an independent landscape architect in Santa Monica, California, spent his fellowship with the Torres-Martinez Indians, whose 22,000 acre reservation is adjacent to the Salton Sea, California’s largest body of water. The sea is expected to lose a third of its volume within a decade because of climate change and agricultural water use, with major impacts for the cultural and spiritual practices of the tribe.

The Salton Sea is found within the footprint of the much larger prehistoric Lake Cahuilla. The Torres-Martinez have long had a deep cultural connection to the sea and the lands around it. Baumann partnered with the tribe on a series of slow creative projects, including community workshops and other landscape interventions with the goal of building relationships and trust with the tribe.

Landscape intervention at Lake Cahuilla / Hans Baumann

After two months of coordination, the tribe and Baumann were able to organize a kayaking event for tribal youth out on the sea, so that young people could create a “more positive relationship with the water.” Surveys showed that the tribal youth changed their perspective of the sea to “cool, fun, and awesome” after the event. He concluded that he invested in long-term relationship building and is purposefully not leading the way. “I don’t have the solution.” Baumann encouraged landscape architects to research the many tribes in the U.S., their historic homelands, and get involved, but to also recognize that “work is already being done in communities.”

Tribal youth kayaking on Lake Cahuilla / Hans Baumann

Pierre Bélanger: A Call for Accountability to Indigenous Peoples

Pierre Bélanger, a landscape architect, urban planner, and “settler scholar” who founded the non-profit organization Open Systems Landscape Architecture Lab, turned his screen black and read from an email he wrote to Brad McKee, the editor in chief of Landscape Architecture Magazine. He exhorted the audience to take greater responsibility for their historical impacts on communities and the environment. “Who are we — landscape architects — accountable to?,” he asked.

Bélanger called for greater accountability to indigenous peoples and an end of “settler capitalism,” which he argued still persists. “Since every square inch of land in the U.S. and Canada is treaty land, I wrote ‘No Design on Stolen Land‘ in Architectural Design Magazine earlier this year with a group of close colleagues that I had been working with over the past decade: Ghazal Jafari, Pablo Escudero, Hernan Bianchi Benguria, Tiffany Kaewen Dang, and Alexandra Arroyo.” He explained that “the article may seem foolishly polemical or unnecessarily provocative, or totally impractical as some have shared, but at a time when profound structural and systemic change is needed, we as practitioners and educators can no longer afford to ignore, let alone deny, the inseparable nature of climate change and colonialism to change the present.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (July 1-15)

Cities for People by Jan Gehl / Island Press, via Planetizen

Jan Gehl on 60 Years of Designing Cities for People — 07/15/20, Planetizen
“The 10th anniversary of ‘Cities for People’ offers the occasion for this interview with Jan Gehl, who has devoted a 60-year career to ideas about humanistic city planning—ideas of increasing relevance in 2020.”

West 8 Withdraws from Baltimore Waterfront Overhaul After Blackface Photo Surfaces — 07/10/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“West 8, the Dutch landscape architecture firm selected last year as the lead consultant on the international Middle Branch Waterfront Revitalization Competition in South Baltimore, resigned from the project July 3, four days after a photo circulated showing a party with people in blackface at its headquarters in Rotterdam.” Also, read West 8’s response.

Can Tactical Urbanism Be a Tool for Equity? A Conversation with Mike Lydon and Tony Garcia — 07/06/20, Streetsblog
“We’re trying to ask ourselves: in process of ideation, how can we work with people to create a level of authorship and co-production, so it’s not just us imposing this project on them?”

About a Fifth of U.S. Adults Moved Due to COVID-19 or Know Someone Who Did — 07/06/20, FactTank, Pew Research Center
“Millions of Americans relocated this year because of the COVID-19 outbreak, moving out of college dorms that abruptly closed, communities they perceive as unsafe or housing they can no longer afford.”

Trump Says He Will Create a Statuary Park Honoring “American Heroes”— 07/04/20, The New York Times
“The executive order includes John Adams, Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. among those who would be honored. So would Billy Graham, Antonin Scalia and Ronald Reagan.”

How to Re-design the World for Coronavirus and Beyond — 07/03/20, POLITICO
POLITICO Magazine surveyed designers, architects, doctors, psychologists, logisticians and more, asking them what they would do to redesign the world for the Covid-19 era and beyond.”

Landscapes for Justice — 07/01/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Taken as a whole, these murals, stencils, portraits, paintings, graffiti scripts, and photographs are the most powerful grassroots public art that Minneapolis has ever seen. They grew into momentary streetscapes expressing the full range of emotions swirling at the moment.”

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.

ASLA seeks to facilitate open, respectful dialogue in its public forums. Opinions expressed in the comments section are not necessarily those of ASLA. By participating in ASLA’s websites, blogs, and social media accounts, the user agrees to the Terms of Use.

In a New Pier District, an Arc Bends Towards Justice

Bending Arc / Brian Adams

Along 2nd Avenue in St. Petersburg, Florida, an old pier launch built on landfill didn’t offer much beyond lots of parking and a long hot walk 3,000 feet out to a restaurant jutting into Tampa Bay. After a $92 million redesign, a new 26-acre walkable pier district now unites city and pier through a walkable green landscape that features Bending Arc, a sculpture with a social justice message by net artist Janet Echelman, gardens, a playground, and hundreds of newly-planted native Floridian trees.

The pier district project was planned and designed by multiple interdisciplinary teams. Barbara Wilks, FASLA, and her team at W-Architecture led the design of the 23-acre approach that brings visitors from downtown through the park space that features Echelman’s piece, her largest permanent installation to date. Architects at Rogers Partners and ASD/SKY Architect and landscape architects at Ken Smith Workshop designed a 3-acre plaza and pier found at the outer edge further into the bay.

W-Architecture started with a master plan devised by AECOM, which the team then revised by “moving things around,” including roads, bus stops, and parking lots, and then layering in multiple transportation systems. There is now a tram line, bicycle paths, and new circulatory system for pedestrians. Wilks said: “if you use Google Earth, you can clearly see we transformed the space from a car dominated place to a pedestrian park.”

As visitors meander through the new landscape, there’s a gateway lined with palm trees, a marketplace with stalls for local artisans, the striking artwork, gardens with a playground and constructed pond, and a beach. The pier district was “designed as a series of events that draw you in. We choreographed how the experience will unfold.”

Conceptual landscape design was already moving forward when city leaders alerted Wilks that Echelman has been commissioned to bring one of her giant pieces to the park. On the phone over a weekend, they reached agreement on the location for the piece, which is called Bending Arc, in reference to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Bending Arc / Raul Quintana

Echelman named the piece Bending Arc and incorporated multiple arcing forms because the site played an important role in the movement for civil rights. The place was “where local citizens began peacefully challenging racial barriers, leading to the 1957 U.S. Supreme Court case ruling, which upheld the rights of all citizens to enjoy use of the municipal beach and swimming pool without discrimination.” St. Petersburg was also later known for the sanitation workers’ strike of 1968, one of the largest in the country in the wake of the assassination of King.

Echelman’s works are crafted for their specific locations and shaped by their surroundings. Raised in the Tampa Bay area, she was inspired by the colonies of barnacles that grow on the underside of piers and the blue and white parasols that can be found on St. Pete’s beaches. Her studio writes: “The sculpture’s design in aerial view can also be read as three barnacle-like parasols nestled together.”

Bending Arc aerial plan / Studio Echelman

On the ground, Wilks worked with Echelman to fine tune the position of the artwork so it avoided existing trees. Wilks then created circular landscape forms below Bending Arc‘s three apertures where visitors can look up.

Circles are prevalent in the new pier district’s design because the local limestone landscape naturally forms round pools of water, which also result in trees forming circles around the pools’ edges.

A view of the Pier District circular forms before installation of Bending Arc / Marian Flanagan

Under one aperture, a concrete lined circle is filled with oyster shells and forms an outdoor event space.

One of Bending Arc’s apertures, and a circular sitting area below / Brian Adams

Below the two others, there are rounded grass-covered berms so visitors can more easily lie back and gaze at the pleasingly engulfing, undulating nets, which become even more dramatic at night. According to Echelman, the piece is “composed of 1,662,528 knots and 180 miles of twine, spans 424 feet, and measures 72 feet at its tallest point.”

Bending Arc / Brian Adams
Looking up into Bending Arc at night / Brian Adams

Wilks purposefully designed the perimeter of the space with native oaks and pine trees to focus attention on Bending Arc. Diagonal pathways from the gardens direct visitors to the artwork. At some surrounding edges, bioswales with native plants, which are green infrastructure systems for managing stormwater, can be crossed by low wooden bridges.

A view of the bioswales and bridge in the Pier District before the installation of Bending Arc / Marian Flanagan
Bending Arc, bioswales, and bridge at night / City of St. Petersburg

Once visitors move past Echelman’s sculpture, they encounter gardens that contain a play space overlooking a new pond. Because W-Architecture planted native trees and plants, the site has become a mecca for wildlife, something its earlier incarnation as a parking lot could never have achieved.

Pier district gardens / Marian Flanagan
Pier district playground / Marian Flanagan
Pier district constructed pond / Marian Flanagan
New pier district visitor / Marian Flanagan

From there, visitors can either veer towards spa beach or walk further out on the pier designed by Rob Rogers, Ken Smith, FASLA, and team. Pathways at the perimeters enable visitors to loop back to the central spine on bike or foot.

Wilks added that the park itself echoes the social justice message of Echelman’s artwork. “The new pier district is very much for everyone. It was designed to be free and open.”