Socially Just Public Spaces Are Crucial to Flourishing Societies

Why Public Space Matters / Oxford University Press

By Grace Mitchell Tada

One of the most radical instances of public space transformation happened recently. During the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, public space transformed into “a medical resource, a distribution hub, an overflow space, a center of protest and resistance, a gym, a senior center, a community center, a daycare center, a schoolyard, a night club, a transportation corridor, an outdoor restaurant, a shopping mall, a children’s playground, an outdoor theater, a music venue, a nature center, and a place of belonging and ‘being at home.’”

As Setha Low writes in her book Why Public Space Matters, “public space mattered.”

Why do public spaces matter? For Low, an anthropologist by training and distinguished professor of environmental psychology, geography, anthropology, and women’s studies at the City University of New York, their importance lies in their social value and their role in establishing socially just communities.

They are places of social interaction and community building. They are places where people learn to live with difference. They offer a stage for political and social protest and can encourage democracy and equality. They are crucial to the flourishing of people and their greater societies.

Public space encompasses all sorts of spaces: the typical parks, plazas, and libraries, but also streets and sidewalks, social infrastructure, and “environmental linkages.” Yet the definition of public space varies according to who is defining it. A landscape architect, for instance, centers spatial form and people’s interactions with the environment, while a social scientist focuses on social relations.

To establish a more uniform understanding of public space, Low proposes six characteristics that people across disciplines can use to define any public space:

  • Physical aspects
  • Ownership
  • Governance or management authority and funding
  • Control and influence, rules and regulations, and access
  • Symbolic/historical meaning
  • And political activity

Determining these six characteristics shows that “there are many kinds, not one ideal type” of public space.

Throughout the book, Low draws on her decades of public space research, which began in 1978. Since that time, issues including racial injustice, socioeconomic inequality, and climate change, among others, have always been important, but are even more acutely so now. It’s on these issues that she focuses her book.

Low points to Jones Beach, 20 miles from New York City and one of the most popular state parks in New York, as a public space where park visitors experience social justice. Her two years of research showed how many diverse groups of people frequent a space where they feel they are accepted and belong, especially in a context where surrounding towns restrict beach access.

Jones Beach State Park, New York / Wikipedia, Chanilim714, CC BY-SA 3.0

The site’s design accommodates and welcomes different people through physical design and markers—smooth boardwalks and ramps, ample benches, signs that speak to the historic Lakota Village, and so forth. But, furthermore, Jones Beach, has so “many kinds of people, environments to experience, and things to do that most people find a place for themselves and thus feel represented and welcome.” They also feel recognized and respected.

Low argues that places like Jones Beach are key to a democratic society and public space—and, as a result, so is evaluating social justice in public spaces. She offers the Social Justice and Public Space Evaluation Framework to both examine and design just spaces, which is useful to designers and community members alike.

Parks sites like Jones Beach, as well as other sites Low studies, such as Walkway Over the Hudson Historical Park in Poughkeepsie and Highland, New York, and Lake Welch Beach at Harriman State Park, New York, embody stereotypical public spaces, especially in the minds of landscape architects.

Another type of public space she examines is less often considered: the streets, sidewalks, plazas, bridges, and other public spaces used as part of the informal economy. This economy can be as much of 70 percent of the workforce in urban sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Working in these public spaces — including in neoliberal societies like our own that have few safeguards for poorer and unhoused people — makes workers especially exposed to physical violence, theft, police surveillance, and incarceration.

Dabbawallas delivering lunches as part of Mumbai’s informal economy / Wikipedia, Joe Zachs from Pune, India, CC BY 2.0

Selling, delivering, waste collecting, care-giving: all these activities unfold in public spaces. In the landscape profession where glamorous park designs often grab the most attention, it’s important to remember that “for much of the world, public space is a place of work or looking for work and building social capital to find a better or more stable job.” Low’s ethnographic case studies from around the world demonstrate how these spaces are adaptable and empowering to the people who use them as their workplaces.

In Paris, the ecologically sensitive Jardins d’Eole emerged from a brownfield site due to the activism of the surrounding West African and Maghrebi neighbors / Paris Government

As a medical anthropologist by training, Low consistently makes clear that social dynamics are at the heart of her understanding of public space. Yet she sees environmental sustainability as an integral thread of that understanding. Her first teaching job, in the department of landscape architecture and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania, was to instruct “human and environmental health as an outcome of ecological planning.”

For Low, elements like community gardens and urban agriculture are ecological boons not in themselves, but because they “[build] stronger communities, [support] social reproduction, and [promote] environmental justice.” She highlights the words of a Detroit resident: “Environmental justice is not just about the distribution of bad stuff….It’s also about the distribution of power among communities that have historically only been subjects and experiments of power structures.”

The book’s various chapters showcase Low’s systematic ethnographies that undergird her findings. She observes, talks, maps, and writes field notes which ultimately reveal patterns of behaviors and interests. Low appreciates this methodology of ethnography because, rather than, say, counting the number of people in a space, “it focuses on why people are doing what they are doing from their own point of view.”

Ethnography also means that the perspective of the researcher—by nature subjective—plays a significant role in the research. To illustrate her reflexivity, the book is scattered with excerpts from Low’s field notes about children creating play spaces in Nairobi, improvised workplaces on the streets of Varanasi, her ecological planning work on Sanibel Island, Florida.

It’s these sharp, empathetic observations of public spaces—what makes them work, the people that activate them, and the diversity of ways in which they use these spaces—that animate the book and so vividly illustrate her assertion that public spaces are crucial to flourishing societies.

Low writes of her decades of research in a way that makes her work seem effortless. Her evocative field notes reveal the pleasure she takes in experiencing and doing her work understanding urban landscapes. Yet it’s also clear that she dedicated much effort and time to each of her case studies. She acknowledges that certain projects took years as she observed participants and conducted extensive interviews.

She knows this is an impractical span of time for landscape architects wishing to conduct similar research or evaluation. But they nonetheless require a rigorous way to study interactions between humans and their environment. So the book’s final chapter offers toolkits, methodologies, and resources for designing and evaluating public spaces. Most notably, Low provides a blueprint for how readers can achieve less time-intensive public space ethnographies in the same vein as her own.

Low calls this method the Toolkit for the Ethnographic Study of Space (TESS), which she developed in conjunction with her colleagues. She co-opted some techniques from the Rapid Ethnographic Assessment Procedure, a methodology used by medical anthropologists that takes only months, as well as other behavioral techniques.

Ultimately, TESS consists of five steps:

1) Mapping
2) Participant observation
3) Interviewing
4) Historical documentation
5) Analysis

“It is not a design toolkit,” she writes, “but an ethnographic one developed to enable you to become your own social scientist and get directly involved in public space activism to improve cities for the future.”

Tompkins Square Park in East Village, Manhattan, New York City. Low created a case study of the park using the TESS method / Wikipedia, David Shankbone, CC BY-SA 3.0

Low believes in the power of socially just public space to have transformative effects. While a park or sidewalk or plaza may not resolve issues of social injustice alone, she believes they can be places to start. She has presented the framework, and her own examples, to empower the reader to begin transformation of their own effort, in their own community.

Grace Mitchell Tada, ASLA, is with Hood Design Studio and PGAdesign and co-editor of the book Black Landscapes Matter.

The Very Personal Impact of Community Green Spaces

ASLA 2020 Professional General Design Honor Award. Naval Cemetery Landscape Honor Award. Brooklyn, New York. Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects / Max Touhey

By Alden E. Stoner

While landscape architects’ work touches people’s lives every day, they rarely get to hear from the people who interact with their work. Designing outdoor spaces and using those spaces are two distinct phases. But what if there were a way to get a glimpse into how people feel about landscaped green spaces, years or even decades after they were designed?

At Nature Sacred, we believe nature offers powerful benefits for health and mental well-being, particularly in urban areas, where it can be hard to connect to the natural world. We’ve spent the past 25 years supporting green spaces that are nearby and integrated into the communities that use them, open to all, and designed to encourage contemplation and peace. We call them Sacred Places.

When we built our first Sacred Place, we tucked a waterproof journal under the wooden bench that serves as a centerpiece of the space. We were surprised and moved by the volume and breadth of writings that visitors added to it. Nature emboldened people to share their ideas, loves, losses, gratitude, and encouragement with great vulnerability – and sometimes a bit of humor.

As we developed more Sacred Places – now over 100 across the U.S. – we added a journal to each one. Our archive of journals grew, and we realized the wisdom contained in them was too valuable to keep to ourselves. We collected the most touching, memorable, and thought-provoking entries in a book that was published last year titled BenchTalk: Wisdoms Inspired in Nature.

BenchTalk is not only a testament to the power of nature but also to the work of the landscape architects who bring each Sacred Place to life with the help of a community-led design process. Throughout the book, a constant theme is people’s gratitude for a small pocket of nature where they can reflect.

“Never knew of this space – little sanctuary amid the rubble of the BQE. Boy do we need more spaces like it – to allow ourselves a moment to connect with the infinite, with the silent rhythms within – even as the traffic hums unabated, and planes fly overhead.” – Naval Cemetery Landscape in Brooklyn, New York

We worked with Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects and Marvel Designs to transform a 1.5-acre former cemetery into an award-winning green space that’s filled with life while honoring the site’s history and the community’s needs. A partnership with Brooklyn Community Housing and Services offers formerly homeless residents a chance to interact with nature in their community. And a local high school has developed a science curriculum based on the Sacred Place’s meadow, sparking an appreciation for nature among a new generation.

“Looking up at these towering trees, I am overcome with the feeling of being blessed. I am also keenly aware that these arching trunks and branches are only half the picture. I thus ask these deep roots to give me strength. Thank you for this space.” – The Green Road at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland

The Green Road at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland / Courtesy of Nature Sacred

The Green Road was designed with the help of Jack Sullivan, FASLA, to provide a place for veterans to heal from PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. Featuring a forested area with paved, accessible trails, the space intentionally retained “wild” and natural elements to mirror the wild and chaotic realities of war that these veterans have lived through.

“Today is the day Baby K is trying to start his life of greatness. Mark these words that the world has a new warrior with passion, heart, and power!” – Terrace Garden at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland, Oregon

Terrace Garden at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland, Oregon / Courtesy of Nature Sacred

The Terrace Garden is a therapeutic garden filled with plants to mark the changing seasons, connected to the Family Birth Center and Cardiovascular ICU at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center. Designed in collaboration with Brian Bainnson, ASLA, of Quatrefoil, the space bears witness to the highs and lows of life, offering serenity for laboring mothers and recovering cardiac patients, as well as the doctors and nurses who work tirelessly to help them.

“Tough times never last but tough people do. #JoplinStrong” – The Butterfly Garden and Overlook in Joplin, Missouri

The Butterfly Garden and Overlook in Joplin, Missouri / Courtesy of Nature Sacred

The Butterfly Garden and Overlook is part of our Landscapes of Resilience Project, which aims to show how green spaces can support community resilience and recovery in the wake of a tragedy – in this case, the tornado that killed 161 Joplin residents in 2011. We collaborated with Traci Sooter and students from Drury University, city officials, psychologists, and community members to design this healing garden. The result is a Sacred Place with design themes related to the mourning process and a butterfly pavilion referencing children’s reflections that butterflies helped them during the storm.

In every corner of the country, in neighborhoods, universities, hospitals, prisons, and more, we’ve seen that creating restful green spaces with community input has a profound impact on people’s lives. If you’d like to join us in this work, please reach out.

Alden E. Stoner is the CEO of Nature Sacred.

70 Questions Landscape Architects Can Ask Industry Partners to Move Forward Climate and Biodiversity Goals

Collaborating with Industry Partners on Climate Action and Biodiversity: A Guide to Conversations Among Landscape Architects, Vendors, and Product Manufacturers / ASLA. Cover image: ASLA 2023 Professional Urban Design Honor Award. Town Branch Commons: An Urban Transformation in Lexington, Kentucky. SCAPE, Gresham Smith / SCAPE and Ty Cole

ASLA Releases Comprehensive Conversation Guide with Questions on Product Materials, Manufacturing, and More.

ASLA and the ASLA Fund have released Collaborating with Industry Partners on Climate Action and Biodiversity: A Guide to Conversations Among Landscape Architects, Vendors, and Product Manufacturers.

The ASLA Climate Action Committee and Corporate Member Committee curated more than 70 questions landscape architects can ask vendors and product manufacturers about:

  • Product:
    • Carbon data
    • Low-carbon material content
    • Recycled material content
    • Hazardous material content
    • Biodiversity protections
  • Use of products in landscapes
  • Location of product manufacturing
  • Manufacturing facilities
  • Company operations
  • Equity programs
  • Advocacy efforts

There are also additional questions for plant and tree nurseries.

The guide was jointly authored by landscape architects, vendors, and product manufacturers. It incorporates goals outlined in the ASLA Climate Action Plan and Field Guide, the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), and by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI).

“With this guide in hand, landscape architects can ask industry partners the right questions and move the conversation forward. Getting on the same page will lead to deeper collaboration on how to reduce our collective impacts and improve benefits,” said ASLA CEO Torey Carter-Conneen.

“The guide will enable us to expand the dialogue on embodied carbon in materials, the sustainable use of products in landscapes, and supporting equity goals in communities,” said April Phillips, FASLA, Chair, ASLA Climate Action Committee.

ASLA 2006 Professional General Design Honor Award. Small is Beautiful. Michael Van ValkenburghAssociates Inc. / Elizabeth Felicella

The guide builds on the ASLA Climate Action Plan and the Climate Action Field Guide for ASLA Members, which chart a pathway for landscape architects to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions in their projects and operations and increase carbon sequestration by 2040.

In 2022, the Climate Action Plan was developed by a high-profile Task Force of five landscape architects chaired by Pamela Conrad, ASLA, founder of Climate Positive Design, and a 17-member Advisory Group. It outlines a bold vision for 2040 and 71 actions to be taken by 2025.

Our Vision for 2040:

All landscape architecture projects will simultaneously:

  • Achieve zero embodied and operational emissions and increase carbon sequestration
  • Provide significant economic benefits in the form of measurable ecosystem services, health co-benefits, sequestration, and green jobs
  • Address climate injustices, empower communities, and increase equitable distribution of climate investments
  • Restore ecosystems and increase and protect biodiversity

ASLA also has clear goals for global biodiversity. ASLA has committed to advancing the global movement to protect and restore at least 30 percent of terrestrial, coastal, and marine ecosystems by 2030 (30 x 2030).

Confronting the Racist Legacy of Urban Highways

Justice and the Interstates: The Racist Truth About Urban Highways / Island Press

By Diane Jones Allen, D.Eng., PLA, FASLA

Highways, in their inanimate state, cannot be racist. However, the forces that located them and the consequences of their placement are inextricably connected to race. Deborah Archer, a law professor and civil rights lawyer, captures the central concept: “Highways were built through and around Black communities to entrench racial inequality and protect white spaces and privilege.”

In the new book, Justice and the Interstates: The Racist Truth About Urban Highways, editors Ryan Reft, Amanda Phillips du Lucas, and Rebecca Retzlaff explore racial injustice and the interstate highway system. They collect essays that address the dislocation caused by interstates. The book came out of a series of articles in Metropole, a publication of the Urban History Association.

The editors explain the mechanisms used in concert with the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, including federal, state, and local housing legislation, that limited housing and economic opportunities for Latinos and Blacks. They outline how racial zoning maps adopted by municipalities across the U.S. in the early twentieth century established legal boundaries of segregated neighborhoods, making it easier to target these neighborhoods for disinvestment, demolition, and highway location.

The first part of the book brings together three chapters that explore the myths constructed by politicians, transportation planners, builders, and engineers to support building the interstate highway system despite the high costs to communities. One significant myth — the marginalization and destruction of Black and Latino communities were unpredictable consequences of highway development.

Case studies in the book show that the interstate highway system’s negative impacts on urban neighborhoods were known. And any legislation enacted to lessen the adverse effects provided little help to Black and Brown communities but often privileged the interests of their white counterparts.

Sarah Jo Peterson states that the common perception was highways were a system for interstate travel. Unintended impacts on cities were caused by their misuse for travel within cities. And everything terrible that happened in cities due to the development of interstates was the fault of city leaders and urban renewal.

Peterson offers a firm counter argument: racial injustices and the process of transforming urban transportation into highways are connected. Furthermore, these forces still influence American transportation policy and practice today. So it is imperative to articulate what occurred in the past to examine how the past still impacts current transportation development.

There has been a historical accounting of transportation in the U.S. — Edward Weiner’s Urban Transportation Planning in the United States: A Historical Overview, written in 1997. But Peterson points out that this history ignores the impacts of transportation planning and urban expressway construction on Black communities, offering little social analysis. Weiner’s book attributes the clearing of communities and the negative impacts of highway development to federal programs that had unintended consequences.

But contrary to previous historical accountings, impacts of highway development were anticipated by urban leaders. Highways weren’t developed for urban commuter travel demand; they were more suited for rural to urban commutes, especially as car ownership increased. Urban residents moved to the expanding bedroom communities of the suburbs. Urban communities were in the way. The massive acts of eminent domain required for urban expressways were barely acknowledged.

Peterson reveals a significant point: the Federal Highway Administration and highway industry knew. They anticipated the problems for urban transportation, including the dismantling of neighborhoods and the relocation that came with highway expansion, and claimed that these issues were outside of the highway planning process.

Additional citizen participation, which could have provided communities a voice in solving these problems, was mainly used to support highway projects, especially in the 1960s during the height of highway development.

In another chapter, Retzlaff and Jocelyn Zanzot, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at Auburn University, look to Alabama to explore the complexities of highway removal in the face of their racist legacy.

They view interstate highways as monuments to the American racist past, similar to the confederate statues being removed. However, unlike this public statuary, highways cannot quickly be taken down because they underpin the automobile-oriented American transportation system.

How could highways been built without awareness or concern for negative impacts? Impacts include: higher asthma rates, heart disease, mental health risks, noise pollution; increased risk of premature death, neighborhood instability, and community trauma.

Highways were placed to create convenience for some groups at the expense of others. Through the political process, highways were planned in direct alignment with urban areas, near downtowns, and through low-income and minority neighborhoods. State and local highway directors and engineers had significant input into these decisions as they were familiar with local communities, land use, and social and economic conditions.

These local decision-makers found it politically beneficial to avoid white neighborhoods when possible and route highways through neighborhoods lacking political power, which were most often those of color. Using the excuse of removing urban blight, this dark destruction was allowed as it coincided with other tools of oppression, such as redlining and urban renewal.

Alabama provides Retzlaff and Zanot the opportunity to explore a case where the legacy of interstate planning is reckoned with, resulting in reconciliation, transportation access, and community health equity.

Under Sam Englehardt, who was director of highways in Alabama in the late 1950 and early 1960s, race was a critical factor in highway planning. The Montgomery, Alabama, interstate system designed by Englehardt and the Alabama highway department offered no off-ramps from I-65, disconnecting thirteen streets of the neighborhood from the rest of the city. In 1972, African American business people on the west side of Montgomery requested that their community be declared a federal economic disaster zone due to urban renewal projects and interstate construction.

The construction of Interstate I-65 and I-85 in Montgomery displaced 1,596 families and dismantled 74 small businesses. The highway system also impacted African Americans in rural areas of Alabama as they were excluded from gaining access to the services and economic development that freeways connect to.

Retzlaff and Zanot lay out a way forward in repairing the harm caused by interstates.

Transportation and urban planning professionals who design and route interstates need to be on the side of reparative justice for neighborhoods that continue to be harmed by destructive planning and engineering of highways. Planners must actively seek policy and funding opportunities provided by government agencies that address infrastructure investment, holistic revitalization, capacity building, historic preservation, affordable housing, and economic opportunity.

An example of reconciliation: in 2021, West Jeff Davis Avenue in West Montgomery, named after the president of the Confederacy, was renamed Fred D. Gray Avenue in honor of the African American Civil rights attorney who fought against and overturned Montgomery’s segregated public bus system.

Mayor of Montgomery Steven Reed stated at the dedication that the renaming of the street was symbolic. However, concrete reconciliation would be reinvestment in the community, resulting in community health, economic opportunity, and joy.

The book then delves into how the tools engineers, planners, and civic officials used to construct the interstate highway system led directly to racial impacts.

Politicians’ planners and engineers knew the political targets of highway routing; they were communities of color. They created methods that ensured targeting and the predicted consequences.

These methods included leaving democratic and meaningful public engagement out of the highway planning process, segregating highway planning from local land use planning processes, and connecting slum clearance with highway planning and development.

As described by Ruben L. Anthony Jr. and Joseph Rodriguez, communities also used tools to fight freeway expansion. Today, freeway opponents in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, are strategically using history to oppose freeway expansion.

The history of freeways in this city is long and devastating. Between 1960 and 1971, urban renewal and highway development destroyed 20,000 homes in Milwaukee. Much of this displacement happened before the federal government instituted programs to assist communities with housing raised by highway expansion. These communities also lost jobs that went to the suburbs.

Suburbanization affected working-class Black residents who needed public transportation to access to suburban employment and other services. Those who remained in the community saw their property devalued. And the health of those remained were also affected. Many suffered lead poisoning and respiratory conditions from the building of freeways near their homes.

Gilbert Estrada and Jerry Gonzalez describe the displacement of thousands of ethnic Mexicans from their homes. The authors tell a history of forced relocation, neighborhood loss, and disregard for communities by civic officials in greater Eastside neighborhoods throughout Southern California. As with impacts on other communities, consequences were due to cold, technocratic planning.

In the case of Mexican communities, highway development displaced them from their segregated neighborhoods. It pushed them into a local suburbanized housing market, expanding the geography of Latinos in Los Angeles. The authors posit that this phenomenon resulted in delayed redress for displacement.

This demographic shift — or submerged migration, as author Michael Eric Dyson termed it — resulted in more Spanish-surnamed residents in the suburbs surrounding East Los Angeles than in East Los Angeles by 1970. A significant migration of Latinos from Mexico and Central America also contributed to this demographic shift.

Although Latinos live across Los Angeles, they have been most linked to the Eastside. During freeway construction in East Los Angeles in the 1950s and 60s, approximately 2,844 dwelling units were removed, displacing 10,966 residents. The freeways have also increased travel time for residents and restricted movement of Eastside pedestrians through 35 new barriers to local streets.

Eastside Los Angeles Interchange / formulanone, CC BY-SA 2.0

Why did such targeted destruction occur in Eastside? Estrada and Gonzalez cite a lack of financial resources, little-to-know political representation, gerrymandering, and voter suppression.

One byproduct of the new freeways was the diversification of suburban Los Angeles, like the way many urban communities were before segregation and devaluation methods were employed. Another product was the adoption of Eastside highways as their own canvas for expressing their identities, similar to how New Orleans Tremé and Seventh Ward communities have adopted the space beneath the I-10 freeway in New Orleans.

The editors of Justice and the Interstates describe community-led efforts to restore torn communities and address the harm and injustices of freeway building. Amy Stelly eloquently describes the beauty of the Tremé neighborhood and the devastation and racial injustice that it endured with the building of the Claiborne Avenue Expressway.

Stelly describes her efforts to have the freeway removed and stop the Claiborne Corridor Innovation District, a plan to stabilize the uses that community members currently undertake beneath the freeway. She provides valuable techniques in this chapter for community action, including:

  • Galvanizing like-minded allies to coalesce around a shared mission
  • Publishing position papers
  • Connecting to other organizations with needed expertise
  • Working with political representatives
  • Using effective lobbying
  • And, most importantly, communicating with impacted residents through public awareness campaigns.

The District is in its first phase of construction. It doesn’t run counter to Stelly’s goal of removing the freeway and restoring Claiborne Avenue. It activates the space beneath the freeway, claiming and defying this structure in preparation for the time when the freeway comes down. It also forces planners of a post-freeway future to recognize this land as the community’s own.

Claiborne Corridor Innovation District / Diane Jones Allen, FASLA

Justice and the Interstates challenges readers to grapple with the problematic history of interstate development in America. It calls upon citizens, scholars, planners, lawmakers, and all concerned about urban infrastructure, mobility, health, and the equity of our cities to look at the unjust past so as not to repeat it.

The book exposes the intentional methods to remove citizens from their homes and level neighborhoods in the name of progress. Importantly, this text also reveals methods for reconciliation, healing urban scars — literally and figuratively — and planning a path forward. In this effort, landscape architects can play a major role.

Landscape architects dwell well in the space of community healing. We can lead and contribute to environmental and social-cultural reclamation and the renewal of places once devastated by highway infrastructure. Biden-Harris administration funding of highway removal signals that federal and state agencies are now working with local governments. There is a need to remove highways and increase climate mitigation and resilience. Landscape architects can use their unique skills and expertise.

Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, is director and professor of landscape architecture, University of Texas at Arlington College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs, and principal landscape architect at DesignJones, LLC. She is author of Lost in the Transit Desert: Race, Transit Access, and Suburban Form (Routledge, 2017).

Landscape Architects Grow Program to Address Systemic Inequities

2023-2025 class of the ASLA Women of Color Licensure Advancement Program / ASLA

ASLA announces the new class of its Women of Color Licensure Advancement Program

The ASLA Fund announced today the second class of the Women of Color Licensure Advancement Program.

The program, which launched in February 2022, is designed to support women of color in their pursuit of landscape architecture licensure and provide mentorship opportunities that position women for success. The program aims to increase racial and gender diversity within the profession and was inspired by ASLA’s Racial Equity Plan of Action, which was released in 2020.

The new class of the program includes 10 women who identify as Black, Latine, Indigenous, South Asian, and East Asian – groups that are the most statistically underrepresented among licensed landscape architects.

The class includes women based in Florida, Washington, California, Texas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Colorado, and Washington, D.C. who are involved in private practice and landscape architectural education.

  • Patricia Matamoros Araujo, ASLA, Senior Associate, Savino & Miller Design Studio, Miami, Florida
  • Shaunta Butler, Adjunct Instructor, Boston Architectural College; Lecturer, University of Washington; Designer and Partner, 6B Workshop, Seattle, WA
  • Elizabeth Luc Clowes, ASLA, Principal, Luc Clowes Landscape Design, Boston, MA
  • Patricia Fonseca Flores, ASLA, Owner and Founder, San Francisco, CA
  • Kendra Hyson, ASLA, Associate Urban Designer and Planner, SmithGroup, Washington D.C.
  • Clementine Jang, Co-founder, SOFT STUDIO, Oakland, CA
  • Miloni Mody, ASLA, Job Captain, Gates + Associates, Fremont, CA
  • Kontessa Roebuck, Landscape Designer, Rodgers Consulting, Baltimore, MD
  • Fatema Ali Tushi, ASLA, Civil Designer, Civilitude Engineers & Planners, San Antonio, TX
  • Allyssa Williams, ASLA, Designer, DHM Design, Durango, CO

“ASLA is committed to growing a more diverse profession – and that means improving access to licensure. With this new class, we continue to build on the successes of the inaugural class and elevate women of color in our landscape architecture community,” said ASLA President Emily O’Mahoney, FASLA. “These 10 amazing women contribute to their communities, have overcome obstacles, and are committed to the profession of landscape architecture.”

“ASLA has steadfastly supported and defended licensure across the country, and the Woman of Color Licensure Advancement Program is a natural extension of this commitment,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, ASLA CEO. “The program not only reaffirms the profession’s role in protecting the public’s health and safety, but also advances the economic benefits of licensure to more people. As The Alliance for Responsible Licensing concluded in its 2021 report, among technical fields like landscape architecture, a license narrows the gender-driven wage gap by about a third and the race-driven gap by about half.”

The program will provide each of the women with a personalized experience that provides more than $3,500 to cover the cost of sections of the Landscape Architectural Registration Exam (LARE), along with exam preparation courses, resources, and mentorship from a licensed landscape architect.

The new class was selected by a committee of women of color:

  • Valerie Aymer, ASLA, Associate Professor of Practice, Landscape Architecture, Department of Landscape Architecture, Cornell University
  • Aida Curtis, ASLA, Principal, Curtis + Rogers Design, Inc.
  • Alexandra Mei, ASLA, Director of Landscape Architecture, Christner Architect

The ASLA Women of Color Licensure Advancement Program was initiated with a generous $100,000 donation by former ASLA President Wendy Miller, FASLA, and James Barefoot; Marq Truscott, FASLA; Rachel Ragatz Truscott; and Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards (CLARB).

Vista Hermosa Natural Park in Los Angeles Wins Landmark Award from ASLA

ASLA 2023 Landmark Award. Vista Hermosa Natural Park, Los Angeles, California. Studio-MLA / Tom Lamb

The 15-year-old park has become a cornerstone of the neighborhood

By Lisa Hardaway

ASLA announced that Vista Hermosa Natural Park in Los Angeles, designed by the landscape architecture firm Studio-MLA, has won the ASLA 2023 Landmark Award.

The Landmark Award is bestowed upon a distinguished landscape architecture project completed between 15 and 50 years ago that retains its original design integrity and contributes many benefits to the surrounding community.

Completed in 2008, Vista Hermosa was the first public park built in downtown Los Angeles in over 100 years. Previously an oil field located in an urban area without much green space, the park provides residents of a dense, primarily working-class Latine neighborhood with “a window to the Mountains,” opportunities for recreation, access to nature, and quiet reprieve. The project was a partnership between Studio-MLA and their clients Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“Mia Lehrer and Studio-MLA have always been on the leading edge of landscape architecture,” said ASLA President Emily O’Mahoney, FASLA. “Fifteen years ago, Vista Hermosa Natural Park was ahead of its time in both community social benefits and environmental benefits. Those contributions continue today.”

“Vista Hermosa Natural Park is a perfect example of the impact landscape architects can have for a community—transforming a toxic brownfield to a beautiful community asset.” said ASLA CEO Torey Carter-Conneen. “This park is indeed a landmark of significance.”

“From an environmental perspective, the park is far ahead of its time and full of firsts for Los Angeles. We have a water collection system under the meadow, a cistern beneath a permeable pavement parking lot, green roofs on the restrooms and offices, a synthetic turf soccer field, and drought-tolerant native species throughout the site, organized into three specific habitat areas,” said Mia Lehrer, FASLA, founder of Studio-MLA. “There is a sense of place here, ‘a window to the mountains’ for community and families, quinceañeras, yoga classes, weddings, and a vista of downtown that’s really beloved and featured in films and photos. It was a forgotten oil field in a park-deficient neighborhood, and it has been reimagined into a thriving 10-acre wonderland. In every way, Vista Hermosa is a landmark that has changed the city and the experiences of people who live here.”

The Landmark Award was announced as part of the ASLA 2023 Professional Awards. Thirty-four winners in multiple categories showcase innovation and represent the highest level of achievement in the landscape architecture profession.

Award recipients and their clients will be honored in person at the awards presentation ceremony during the ASLA 2023 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Minneapolis, MN., October 27-30.

The 2023 Professional Awards Jury includes:

Jury 1- General Design, Residential Design, & Urban Design

Chair: Kimberly Garza, ASLA, ATLAS Lab Inc.

Michel Borg, AIA, Page Think
Shuyi Chang, ASLA, SWA
Chingwen Cheng, PhD, ASLA, Arizona State University
Jamie Maslyn Larson, FASLA, Tohono Chul
Garry Meus, National Capital Commission
Jennifer Nitzky, FASLA, Studio HIP

Jury 2 – Analysis & Planning ASLA / IFLA Global Impact Award, Research & Communications

Chair: Maura Rockcastle, ASLA, Ten x Ten

Camille Applewhite, ASLA, Site Design Group
Stephanie Grigsby, ASLA, Design Workshop, Inc
Mitchell Silver, Hon. ASLA, McAdams
Michael Stanley, FASLA, Dream Design International, Inc.
Michael Todoran, The Landscape Architecture Podcast
Yujia Wang, ASLA, University of Nebraska

Joining the professional awards jury for the selection of the Analysis & Planning – ASLA / IFLA Global Impact Award category will be a representative on behalf of the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA).

Monica Pallares, IFLA Americas

Also, joining the professional jury for the selection of the Research Category will be representatives on behalf of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) and the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA).

Sohyun Park, ASLA, University of Connecticut, CELA Representative
Jenn Engelke, ASLA, University of Washington, LAF Representative

Urban Parks Should Be a Greater Part of the Healthcare System

ASLA 2022 Professional General Design Honor Award. Riverfront Spokane. Spokane, Washington. Berger Partnership / Miles Bergsma

Each year, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) issues its ParkScore, which ranks the park systems of the 100 most populous cities in the U.S. This year, the organization also explored the positive health outcomes of top-scoring cities, looking at more than 800 innovative programs and practices that integrate park and healthcare systems.

Their findings are collected in a new report, The Power of Parks to Promote Health, which offers smart strategies for making parks a more formal part of community health programs. Their inclusive, equitable approaches can help ensure more communities experience the physical and mental health benefits of public green spaces.

TPL finds that in the 25 cities with the top ParkScore rankings, “people are on average 9 percent less likely to suffer from poor mental health, and 21 percent less likely to be physically inactive than those in lower- ranked cities. These patterns hold even after controlling for race/ethnicity, income, age, and population density.”

And in 26 cities, efforts are underway to deepen connections between parks and healthcare systems. In these cities, “a healthcare institution is funding, staffing, or referring patients to health programs in parks as part of efforts to improve patient and community health.”

TPL wants to see even more cities make these connections. “Park administrators and health professionals should think of parks as part of a holistic public health strategy,” said Dr. Howard Frumkin, senior vice president at Trust for Public Land (TPL), co-editor of Making Healthy Places, and one of the co-authors of the report.

Free bike rides in the park. ASLA 2022 Professional Urban Design Honor Award. Shirley Chisholm State Park. Brooklyn, New York. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Etienne Frossard

Numerous studies by landscape architecture researchers and other scientists have demonstrated the health benefits of spending time in green spaces, even if it’s just 20 minutes. Dr. MaryCarol Hunter, ASLA, and William Sullivan, ASLA, and others have done much to quantify those benefits.

Studies have found that exposure to nature in cities can improve “hormone levels, heart rate, mood, the ability to concentrate, and other physiological and psychological measures,” TPL writes.

Specific benefits include: “lower blood pressure, improved birth outcomes, reduced cardiovascular risk, less anxiety and depression, better mental concentration, healthier child development, enhanced sleep quality, and more.”

Other research has demonstrated the long-term benefits of spending time in nature on “body weight, cardiovascular disease risk, and life expectancy.”

ASLA 2022 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Palm Springs Downtown Park. Palm Springs, California. RIOS / Millicent Harvey

“If we had a medicine that delivered as many benefits as parks, we would all be taking it,” Frumkin said. “And they do those things without adverse side effects and at minimal cost.”

But park inequities, and therefore health inequities, are also real. TPL states that “neighborhoods where most residents identified as Black, Hispanic and Latinx, American Indian/Alaska Native, or Asian American and Pacific Islander had access to an average of 43 percent less park acreage than predominantly white neighborhoods. Similar park-space inequities existed in low-income neighborhoods across cities.”

“Over 100 million people across the country, including 28 million kids, don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk of their home. In California, 42 percent of low-income parents report that their children have never participated in outdoor activities.”

The report brings together a range of scientific findings that clearly show why all communities need nearby access to high-quality parks. With inclusive parks spread more equitably throughout cities, health programs can better reach historically underserved communities.

These findings can help landscape architects, planners, policymakers, developers, and community advocates make the case for more parks and the new public health programs that can amplify their benefits:

  • “Close-to-home parks are associated with lower obesity rates and improved health in both young people and adults.”
  • “Staffed programming, such as fitness classes, dramatically increased physical activity. Each additional supervised activity increased park use by 48 percent and moderate to vigorous physical activity time by 37 percent.”
  • A 2014 study in the journal Preventive Medicine, which relied on five years of data on individuals’ body mass index (BMI) and characteristics of nearby parks in New York City, found that “greater neighborhood park access and greater park cleanliness were associated with lower BMI among adults.”
  • A study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, which examined children ages 6 to 12 in Valencia, Spain, found that “park and playground access was ‘significantly associated’ with increased physical activity, especially on weekdays, and contributed to lower BMIs overall.”
  • A 2022 study in the journal Health & Place explored the rates of depression and anxiety among older people during the pandemic. “It found that those with access to neighborhood parks were much less likely to report symptoms of depression or to screen positive for anxiety than those without.”
  • “A 2023 study conducted in Philadelphia and published in the journal PLOS ONE found that those who lived closest to green space reported better physical health and less stress than those who lived farther. Actually visiting green spaces during the pandemic was linked to better mental and physical health and less loneliness.”

In their report, TPL also outlined the climate benefits of parks and how they can reduce the dangerous health impacts of extreme heat. Assembling the “highest-resolution heat data” available in the U.S., they found a “stark difference in temperature between neighborhoods that have parks nearby and those that do not.”

Analyzing “thermal satellite imagery for 14,000 cities and towns,” TPL researchers found that areas within a “10-minute walk of a park can be as much as 6 degrees cooler than neighborhoods outside that range.”

The report offers examples from leading park and health coalitions in cities, outlining how public agencies, non-profit community organizations, and healthcare providers came together to leverage public park space to improve health outcomes.

“In New York City, for example, a program called Shape Up NYC offers free classes in everything from yoga to Zumba to Pilates in easy-to-access locations: libraries, public-housing complexes, recreation centers, and, of course, parks. In Columbus, Ohio, doctors at a local hospital prescribe 11-week fitness programs, provided for free by the city’s parks department, to patients struggling with obesity and high blood pressure,” TPL writes.

A set of 14 recommendations then outline how park and healthcare systems can better integrate. Many of their recommendations can inform the planning and design work of landscape architects.

One recommendation worth highlighting — “ensure that everybody lives within a 10-minute walk (about a half mile) of a park.” TPL states that proximity is important but so are “quality, activation, and safety.” And “creative place-making initiatives that incorporate local character through cultural elements, such as public art and bilingual signage,” are also key.

ASLA 2022 Professional Urban Design Honor Award. Midtown Park. Houston, Texas. Design Workshop, Inc. “Wild Wonderland” mosaic by Dixie Friend Gay / Brandon Huttenlocher – Design Workshop, Inc.

More recommendations:

  • “Prioritize park investment in historically underserved communities
  • Develop transit connections and guided tours, like youth programs
  • Bring parks to the people through pop-ups and mobile offerings
  • Offer all-ability or ‘try before you buy’ fitness and wellness programs [in parks] explicitly designed for beginners.
  • Encourage park visitors to try something new with low-commitment offerings such as drop-in sports (e.g., adult recess) or free or low-cost gear rentals.
  • Make it easy for community groups to use parks and recreation facilities as their primary gathering venues.
  • Refer, prescribe, or host patients with health programming in parks and recreation facilities.
  • Sponsor the costs of wellness programs, sports leagues, and other health classes as part of any free fitness membership benefit.
  • Invest in capital improvements in parks as community health investments.
  • Work with parks and recreation agencies to map and identify park deficits as part of Community Health Needs Assessments.
  • Continue to partner with parks and recreation agencies to reach key patient populations with health services and education.
  • Partner with parks and recreation agencies to evaluate the impact of park initiatives on key patient and community health outcomes.”

Read the full report

Next Generation of Landscape Architecture Leaders Focus on Climate, Equity, and Technology (Part II)

Image created in Photoshop using generative AI / Phillip Fernberg

“Our fellows have shown courage, written books, founded mission-driven non-profits, created new coalitions, and disseminated new tools,” said Cindy Sanders, FASLA, CEO of OLIN, in her introduction of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Fellowship for Innovation and Leadership program at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

Sanders highlighted the results of a five-year assessment of the LAF fellowship program and its efforts to grow the next generation of diverse landscape architecture leaders. The assessment shows that past fellows are shaping the future of the built environment in key public, non-profit, and private sector roles.

And she introduced the latest class of six fellows, who focused on climate, equity, technology, and storytelling:

Artificial intelligence (AI) will bolster, break, and transform the process of landscape architecture,” said Phillip Fernberg, a designer and PhD student at Utah State University. Many kinds of artificial intelligence have been developed over past decades. But what has recently caught our collective attention is ChatGPT, an “artificial general intelligence.” He said ChatGPT “isn’t as magical as you may think” — it’s machine learning from patterns of data. But it shows the range of transformative and disruptive technologies to come.

AI will bolster landscape architects’ work by making it far easier to find images of different species of trees and plants. It will also help landscape architects and community groups better analyze landscapes, particularly at the large scale, and advance efforts on climate change, biodiversity, and equity.

But it will also break landscape architects’ conception of their role and value as designers. AI tools have already demonstrated they can create renderings that look nearly human made. This raises questions for landscape architects, like: “What is it that I really do?”

Renderings created by Midjourney AI / Jeff Cutler

Fernberg thinks renderings won’t become fully AI-driven, but designers’ jobs will be rethought to better integrate with AI. He said a host of privacy, ethical, and intellectual property issues will also need to be addressed.

Ultimately, AI will transform how landscape architects work, changing the data, models, and processes used by designers. He called for landscape architects and ASLA to catch up to where architects and planners are. These professions have formed networks and working groups and developed research to explore the implications of AI. “Landscape architects need to imbue their value system in these tools.”

For Daniel Winterbottom, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, access to gardens and nature in prisons helps inmates heal from abuse, trauma, and addiction and prepare for a healthier life after their incarceration.

Worldwide, there are currently 10.3 million people imprisoned. Approximately 25 percent of those people — 2.2 million — are incarcerated in the U.S. In America, prison is “oppressively bleak” and “designed to be demoralizing.” Prison practices are also rooted in a history of racism and social injustices. These environments are typically “austere and efficient.” Most often, there is very little access to nature.

In contrast, many European countries have “open prisons” that provide inmates access to wild nature. Inmates have responsibilities tending gardens and earn trust that prepares them to be responsible citizens post-incarceration.

Halden Prison Garden, Halden, Norway / Daniel Winterbottom, FASLA

Through a series of powerful recorded interviews, Winterbottom found that inmates involved in garden programs experienced a range of benefits. They experienced reduced stress and conflict. They harmed themselves and others less and cared for themselves and others more. “Working on the garden helped them work on themselves. Outer gardening led to inner gardening — weeding and pruning their defects and shortcomings,” one interviewee said. Correctional officers, which also suffer from high rates of PTSD and suicide, saw benefits.

Garden at San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, California / Insight Garden Program

Winterbottom sees the need for a national policy to enable restorative prison gardens, but acknowledged it will require long-term advocacy to achieve. He pointed to “pockets of change” in California, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Washington. He urged landscape architects to partner with prisons to develop gardens, volunteer or teach in prisons, mentor formerly incarcerated people, and advocate for reform.

“Landscape architects deal with massive social and environmental problems but we are nearly absent in popular culture. We need new vehicles to bring people in,” said Joseph James, ASLA, founder of Eponymous Practice. One promising vehicle is graphic novels, which are “the fastest growing section of the library.” These visual books are increasingly popular because they are “really approachable and accessible for struggling readers.”

Building on his love of comics, James spent his fellowship drawing and writing his own graphic novel focused on the power of place. He said places become meaningful for people when they are tied to memories and emotions. And he wanted to convey how landscape architects purposefully design places for people to connect to.

His graphic novel features teenagers who had transformed a park into a magical world, a place of adventure, with ruins and a wizard. They learn their beloved landscape is being threatened by a renovation, but then with the help of a neighborhood landscape architect become involved in the redesign process. They learn how landscape architects plan and design communities.

Landscape Architecture Graphic Novel / Joseph James
Landscape Architecture Graphic Novel / Joseph James

James is also developing a companion teacher’s guide for the graphic novel, with recommendations on how to use the book to teach earth and life sciences and design thinking. He argues that “place-based storytelling” is one of the best ways to reach young people and introduce them to landscape architecture.

And he called on landscape architects to develop strong relationships with K-12 schools and use hands-on drawing exercises in classes. His graphic novel is rooted in his work with teachers and students in Boston at the Boston Green Academy and explorations of Franklin Park.

The tree wizard of Franklin Park. Boston, Massachusetts / Joseph James

Read Part I

Interview with Sara Zewde: “I Find a Lot of Creative Inspiration from People and Place”

Sara Zewde, ASLA / Studio Zewde

Sara Zewde, ASLA, is founder of Studio Zewde, a design firm practicing landscape architecture, urbanism, and public art. She is an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Over the past few years, you have led the reinterpretation of Frederick Law Olmsted as part of Olmsted 200. You just signed a contract for a new book on Olmsted and his journeys through the South, which he documented in The Cotton Kingdom. Your book is tentatively entitled Finding Olmsted and will be published by Simon & Schuster. Can you tell us about your interest in him?

To be honest with you, I did not pursue landscape architecture because of Olmsted, nor did I have a burning desire to work on Olmsted after learning about him. What happened was that I learned about Olmsted’s time in the South, writing about the conditions of slavery as a correspondent for The New York Times, in passing. I grew up in the South, and while I studied urban sociology, city planning, and landscape architecture, the South wasn’t very present in the curriculum formation. And yet, “the South got something to say,” to quote Andre 3000, if I may.

From there, I started to investigate Olmsted’s travels through the South, finding that he returned from his travels just prior to embarking on his career in landscape architecture. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that there must be a connection between what he saw in the South and his conception of landscape architecture, so I tried to figure what that connection might be.

Retracing Olmsted’s journey through the South / Sara Zewde

I would go on to learn that Olmsted’s travels south pulled many of his interests in land, political economy, and civic society together for him, propelling him towards a practice of landscape architecture. He returned from the South with a clarified conviction in the significance of public space in a postbellum society. He translated that conviction into a landscape design for Central Park together with Calvert Vaux, which consequently, would go onto influence the larger American public park project. There’s a chain of influence that stems from the South.

At the ASLA 2022 Conference on Landscape Architecture, you guided landscape architects through the history of Seneca Village, the predominantly black community that was displaced by the New York City government to make way for Central Park. Then, you said “communities and their histories aren’t erased; they exist in plain sight, if you look.” How can landscape architects partner with communities to better show what exists but may be unseen?

I revisited the places Olmsted visited when he traveled to the South 165 years ago. Among the things that I found across these sites were the ways landscape architecture has been used to obscure the presence of slavery. So, in an ironic twist of fate, Olmsted’s profession has become the tool for untelling the stories about America that Olmsted wanted to tell in his writing. So it occurred to me: Can Olmsted’s landscape architecture also be the tool to tell those stories?

Seneca Village, in a sense, has not been erased. The landscape doesn’t lie. Remnants of people’s daily lives are still present in the park, and moreover their descendants walk among us. It’s up to us to acknowledge that. I believe landscape architecture can be a tool for heightening the presence of what is already there.

Map of Seneca Village / NYC Municipal Archives, via NY1

Your work seems largely focused on strengthening communities’ connection to their own histories, thereby empowering them and increasing their resilience to future challenges. Instead of taking a design-first approach, you take a community-first approach. In a video with PBS, you said your goal is to ensure your body of work, in totality, doesn’t say anything. Why take this approach?

There are so many cultures underrepresented in design pedagogy and practice. Part of the insistence on my part about not having a design signature so to speak is that our office really tap into the particular place, people, ecology, and cultural context. It helps us challenge some of the quiet constraints we’ve inherited about space and design.

There is a latent genius expressed in the spatial patterns of their daily lives. I find a lot of creative inspiration from people and place, and I challenge myself in my practice to tap into that more than anything else. It unravels creative approaches to designing landscapes that are unique, that support ecological systems, and are affirming for people.

This is important particularly for groups who have not been served by the design professions historically. It is of critical value to have your presence honored, and your way of life supported by the environment around you. Many of us live in a society that wasn’t designed for us to flourish in. What does it look like if it is?

In Philadelphia, you have been working with community groups and graffiti artists to protect Graffiti Pier from climate change. You purposefully framed your planning and design work with the community using that language. How did you overcome community fears that you would alter the character of a beloved community arts space? How is Graffiti Pier a model for other urban climate justice and adaptation work?

Graffiti Pier is feeling pressure from all sides. From the land, it’s coming from intense development pressure and land value appreciation. From the sea, it’s sea level rise and increasingly severe storm events. On the pier itself, the structure is decaying.

We communicated early with folks: “This project is your chance to save Graffiti Pier. If you do nothing, all of these pressures are going to collapse on this thing.”

We have been having one-on-one conversations with graffiti writers, or in small groups, and fielding anonymous emails, phone calls, and representatives, wanting to respect the fact that many graffiti writers and street artists have been criminalized for their use of the site.

(Before) Graffiti Pier, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Client: Delaware Waterfront Corporation / Studio Zewde

In the Graffiti Pier context, there was an opportunity to introduce this intertidal landscape, remove the bulkheads, and allow the shift of the park upland as the tides continue to rise. That really offers the artists an opportunity, with new sea walls, to engage the rising tides while expanding available surfaces for art.

But that idea’s very specific to this context, and that’s the takeaway for me. I wouldn’t go into any situation and say “here’s how to do it.” I go into every situation working to tailor an approach that feels appropriate to its place.

For other communities facing managed retreat from climate impacts, we need to understand the specific conditions, complexities, and nuances of each place. Within those places, we need to learn what’s important and what’s not important and understand the ways in which a community already lives dynamically and adaptively and design for that.

(After) Graffiti Pier, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Client: Delaware Waterfront Corporation / Studio Zewde
(After) Graffiti Pier, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Client: Delaware Waterfront Corporation / Studio Zewde

In addition to your design work with Studio Zewde, you’re an assistant professor at Harvard Graduate School of Design. There, you are the first-ever Black voting faculty member in landscape architecture. And as of 2020, you are one of 19 Black landscape architecture professors at accredited programs in the U.S. Since the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, how have you seen landscape architecture academia evolve? And what do you think still needs to happen?

Conversations about race and politics didn’t have as much room to breathe in the landscape architecture discipline before 2020. Students have become more politicized in their work, curricula have also evolved to some degree, the discourse around practice and engaging community is more present. But no meaningful change can happen in three years. This is a long struggle, and it didn’t start in 2020.

One of the ways I hope to see the profession grow is in our ability to work with policymakers and think about the impact of our work at various scales. Some of Olmsted’s work can be seen as an example of this. His book, The Cotton Kingdom, represents a model of seeing the landscape at many different scales, smaller and larger, politically and ecologically, and he often was an advocate for his projects.

Design is parallel to other major forms of change. Landscape architecture cannot be inward looking in this regard. We can’t design our way out of climate change or wealth inequity. It’s not just about design as an end, but it’s about design as a tool for change.

We need the language and tools to understand the relationship between power and what we do as landscape architects. We should really be thinking about ourselves in relationship to the outside world.

You grew up in Louisiana, the daughter of Ethiopian immigrants. Ethiopia has thousands of years of rich landscape architectural and architectural history. How do you think your New Orleans upbringing and Ethiopian heritage is reflected in your work?

I grew up in Slidell mostly. I lived in New Orleans as an adult. I saw life on my street and on my block. We closed down the block to have crawfish boils. I grew up seeing the parades, the festivals, the Second Lines. We had parks. We had yards. We had canals. We had levees. We had neutral grounds. That’s my understanding of landscape. This system of pieces of urban landscapes. I saw the ways in which these pieces can come together to form a theater for civic life and culture.

While I didn’t grow up in Ethiopia, my parents often would share stories about Ethiopia. I think absorbing the fact that Black people have thousands of years of history from those stories, coupled with the fact that I was living in a place so celebratory about its own Black culture, inspired a deep well of pride, a sense of self, in me as a kid.

I think there’s probably somewhat of a straight line from what my upbringing offered me in that regard and how I see the world and therefore practice landscape architecture today.

The Landscapes of the Black Atlantic World (Part II)

Domino Sugar Refinery. Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NYC /, J2R

The institution of slavery shaped landscapes on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. And in turn enslaved and free Africans and their descendants created new landscapes in the United States, the Caribbean, and Sub-Saharan Africa. African people had their own intimate relationships with the land, which enabled them to carve out their own agency and culture.

At Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., a symposium — Environmental Histories of the Black Atlantic World: Landscape Histories of the African Diaspora — organized by N. D. B. Connolly, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, and Oscar de la Torre, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, sought to highlight those forgotten relationships between people and their environment.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, slaves brought from Sub-Saharan Africa were central to the production of many U.S. and Caribbean commodities, including cotton, tobacco, rice, rum, and sugar, and the industrialization and financial markets that resulted from them. The success of the Domino Sugar Company and its refinery on the waterfront of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was a direct result of enslaved labor. As such, “Brooklyn is a part of the Black Atlantic,” said Emily Holloway, a PhD student at Clark University. “Slavery in the south and Caribbean underwrote industrialization in the North.”

Holloway uses multiple academic disciplines to disentangle the “messy reality of racial capitalism,” which runs from Africa to Haiti, Cuba to the Northeast. This economic system relied on slaves and the accumulation of capital, which took the form of buildings and infrastructure.

The success of the Domino Sugar Company can also be understood as a result of a slave rebellion, which drove major changes in the sugar cane economy of the Caribbean. “The beginnings of the Domino Sugar Company leads back to the Haitian revolution,” Holloway said.

Self-liberated Haitians rose up and defeated the French colonial army, which caused sugar plantation owners on the island to flee to eastern Cuba. There, they clear-cut the land and reinstalled their slave-based sugar cane economy. This sugar was then sent to New York City for processing as the granular table sugar consumers bought in stores.

William Havemeyer, the founder of a company that later grew into Domino Sugar Company and later Domino Foods, Inc., formed a sugar refinery in lower Manhattan in 1807. Fifty years later, his firm moved to Williamsburg, where they built a larger refinery.

After that burnt down, the company built a colossal building in 1883 that could produce a million pounds of sugar a day. The company took up four city blocks and created a “densely populated industrial ecosystem.” Today, the building is being redeveloped as an office building, and the Domino waterfront has become “gentrified” and transformed into a park.

Domino Sugar Refinery and Domino Park. Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NYC /, Ingus Kruklitis

This industrialization process was mirrored in the sugar cane plantation landscapes of Cuba. Small farms multiplied and grew in size. Enslaved and then free laborers were still needed to harvest the cane but the processing at the farms became increasingly mechanized. “This history has been largely erased in the archives,” Holloway said, and a “more creative approach to research is needed.”

Holloway said the artist Kara Walker spoke of these relationships with her monumental, 75-foot-tall sculpture, A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, created in 2014 for then derelict Domino sugar factory space. “This was the Black Atlantic answering back in defiance.”

Justin Dunnavant, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, approaches the history of the Caribbean through multiple academic lenses as well.

He said there are researchers exploring the ideas of Black ecology, which examines the unique ways Black people interact with nature and how they are also erased from the environment. And there are also researchers focused on historical ecology, looking at how relationships between societies and environments have changed over time.

His goal is to synthesize these approaches into the new study of Black historical ecology, which can explore how ecological relations changed because of the slave trade. This will involve weaving together multiple narratives to examine the plantation system’s impact on both terrestrial and marine ecosystems. His hope is it can result in “a call to action to redress.”

Dunnavant has focused on the island of St. Croix, which was part of the Danish West Indies and is now part of the U.S. Virgin Islands. As part of an archeological research collective, he and his team are investigating the ecological impacts of slavery and plantations, including the deforestation that occurred to clear lands for sugar cane; the soils that were degraded by agriculture and development; and the coral mined for buildings. His work is also a part of the Estate Little Princess Maritime and Terrestrial Archaeology Field School, which trains Crucian high-school students in archaeology while investigating the remnants of Danish slavery.

At the same time, he is also uncovering the little known legacy of the maroons that claimed isolated areas of the island. Maroons were Black slaves who freed themselves by escaping, and some were their descendants. They formed self-sufficient communities throughout the Caribbean and southern United States. They often mixed with Indigenous peoples, forming new creole communities. In St. Croix, they led a slave rebellion that ended slavery in 1848.

The part of the island where the maroons found sanctuary was “unmapped” in Danish historical records, but it was actually a “rich area of Black freedom.” Using Lidar data and other archeological tools, Dunnavant’s team is uncovering the remnants of what he calls a “Black geography.” He is interested in how the maroons terraced the land for agriculture and created fortifications and leveraged the dense landscape to protect themselves. “Uncovering their stories is a form of redress.”

Maroon Ridge, St. Croix / Building a Better Fishtrap, WordPress site

Matthew Francis Rarey, a professor at Oberlin College, then took the audience to Brazil to focus on the Portuguese colonial empire and its deadly campaign against maroons.

Approximately 80 fugitive slaves had made a home at Buraco do Tatu, on the coast of Bahia in Northeast Brazil. Their quilombo, or fugitive community, was destroyed by colonial forces. And that destruction was documented in a unique map that accompanied a letter to the viceroy.

Map of Quilombo at Buraco do Tatu / Capoeira Online

The map was meant to provide evidence of the colonial power’s success in suppressing maroons, but it has become an “icon of scholarship,” as it is one of the few comprehensive aerial perspectives on how maroons organized themselves.

The map depicts a community nestled in sand dunes and blended into surrounding trees and shrubs. At its outer perimeter are fields of surrounding wood spikes. There are spiked trap holes. And there’s also a single path to the sea. The inner sanctum, the community itself, is organized on a grid, with homes arranged by streets. And there are food gardens and a trellis for growing passion fruit. “It shows a rebellion landscape,” Rarey said.

The maroons would use the path to reach roads where they would rob wayfarers. “They were fighting against inequality and capitalism.” The maroons would also target enslaved Black people going to market in an attempt to strike a blow at the plantation economy. “Their goal was to dismantle plantations from the inside” by “weaponizing blackness” and making plantation owners “look foolish,” Rarey said. They also participated in informal exchanges to build their supply of guns and gunpowder.

The map includes a legend that explains how the maroon community were killed in the onslaught by Portuguese colonial forces. One maroon woman was labeled a sorceress and “defamed after her death.” Many others killed themselves instead of risking re-enslavement. In the map, the corpses become “part of the subjugated landscape.”

Map of Quilombo at Buraco do Tatu / Matthew Francis Rarey

The Portuguese process of mapping the community is an attempt to reinstate colonial order on a free Black landscape. Rarey said you can sense the “anxiety of the cartographer” as they had “no reference point.”

Read Part I