Deanna Van Buren: How to Unbuild Racism

“To unbuild racism, we have to build what we believe,” said Deanna Van Buren, an architect, urban developer, and founder of Designing Justice+Designing Spaces, in a powerful keynote speech at the Congress for New Urbanism’s 2021 Virtual Gathering.

Van Buren believes that unearthing and rooting out “ingrained racism and patriarchy” requires daily practice because these issues are so embedded in our society. “There have been hundreds of years of displacement and disenfranchisement — redlining, ‘urban renewal,’ and reverse redlining in the form of predatory lending.” In too many communities, “there is a continued manifestation of racism through the co-location of toxic waste sites, freeways that cut through cultural hearts, inadequate housing, and food deserts.”

To bring equity to the built environment, architects, landscape architects, planners, and developers need to “stop creating prettier versions of racist systems.” Instead, planning and design professionals should focus on restorative justice, a system of justice “not anchored in enslavement, but in indigenous processes.”

Restorative justice is a process in which those who have created harm can make amends and heal the people they have hurt. In many communities, restorative justice is increasingly becoming a viable alternative to the conventional justice system. Cases are being steered out of court to mediators trained in restorative justice.

“The process involves Native American peace making approaches,” Van Buren explained. Peace making is led by a trusted elder figure, a “circle keeper,” who can facilitate the addressing of wrongs. Someone who stole a car or committed a theft at gunpoint sits in a circle across from the person they have wronged. Peace making has to be “hyper local but also happen on neutral ground.”

Her planning, design, and development projects all aim to replace the conventional justice system with a new holistic approach rooted in community needs.

In Syracuse, New York, her organization designed the Center for Court Innovation, a peace making center out of an abandoned house, creating a space that feels like a home, not a court, and include circles of chairs, sofas, a kitchen, and gardens. The center is a safe place and has become a true community mecca that offers food and drink and space for other events, even engagement parties.

Near Westside Peacemaking Project, Syracuse, NY / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces
Near Westside Peacemaking Project, Syracuse, NY / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces

Van Buren hopes restorative justice system will become the primary way to provide justice. She envisions a network of restorative justice centers distributed in neutral places, outside of gang zones, across communities.

In Oakland, California, she has been realizing this vision through Restore Oakland, which will host a “constellation of non-profit organizations” that provide both restorative justice and economics. In addition to peace making spaces, the center will include community organizing spaces and a restaurant on the ground floor that trains people to work in fine dining. “It will be an anchor for this entire community.”

To create more equitable and safe communities in the Bay Area, Van Buren and her team are also co-organizing pop-up villages with custom-crafted wood stalls. “These are temporary projects designed for impact.” Visitors can have everything from a breast cancer screening to an AIDS test to a haircut. “These villages help build community relationships, which is how we keep people safe and also support local businesses.”

Popup Village, Bay Area, California / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces
Popup Village, Bay Area, California / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces

In another project, Van Buren’s organization re-imagined a re-entry center for incarcerated women. “When they get out of prison, they are confronted with so many barriers.” Her team collaborated with women just released to design a mobile refuge that provides a safe space to get oriented before moving to transitional housing and its dormitory living. The mobile refuge provides therapy and social services.

Women’s Mobile Refuge / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces
Women’s Mobile Refuge / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces

Another goal is repurposing hundreds of downtown jails that have closed in recent years. “These are toxic holes in downtowns that can be re-imagined as community centers,” she said.

Van Buren has worked with community groups to re-imagine the Atlanta City detention center as a community center with co-located city services and new revenue streams. One option is to daylight the old jail, creating daycare space and meeting rooms. With the right broadband infrastructure, the dark spaces in the bowels of the building could be rented out as server farms. Another option is to simply tear the existing building down and distribute restorative justice centers across the city.

Reimagining the Atlanta City Detention Center / Designing Justice + Designing Spaces
Reimagining the Atlanta City Detention Center / Designing Justice + Designing Spaces

And over the long-term, Van Buren wants to see more wealth come to underserved communities. This can happen if more low-income residents can purchase their own homes or earn profits from development projects.

In Detroit, Van Buren’s team and a number of partners are working on an ambitious community land trust — the Love Campus, which aims to “build the infrastructure to end mass incarceration by creating re-investments that can divert funding from criminal justice into restorative community assets.”

Love Campus, Detroit / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces
Love Campus, Detroit / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces

Retrofitted buildings will become an arts and culture hub, with low-cost gallery space, digital fabrication tools, and industrial design spaces. The community development will also include housing; job training, because “people don’t kill each other when they have jobs;” and a youth center, because “youth have no place to go.” The project will be crowd-funded so people who don’t meet minimum real estate investment thresholds can participate in wealth generation. “Affordable housing is a poverty trap; people need to own their own homes.”

These projects demonstrate that designers play an important role — they can “ignite radical imagination, create a co-learning process and democratic tools for change.”

New Research: The Built Environment Impacts Our Health and Happiness More Than We Know

ASLA 2020 Urban Design Honor award. Yongqing Fang Alleyways: An Urban Transformation. Guangzhou, China. Lah D+H Landscape and Urban Design

People living in dense cities are among the least happy. Their rates of depression are 40 percent higher than other populations; and their rates of anxiety are 20 percent higher. Why? Because the built environment is directly linked with happiness and well-being, and too often urban environments fail to put people at ease.

In a session at the American Planning Association’s virtual conference, Justin Hollander, professor of urban and environmental planning and policy at Tufts University, said planners, landscape architects, and architects have a responsibility to design a built environment that increases well-being. Through his fascinating research on cognitive architecture, he has found “we are deeply influenced by our surroundings” — even more than we know.

“We have an automatic (non-conscious) response to shapes, patterns, and colors. Our minds are like icebergs — we are only aware of less than 5 percent of our responses to our environment,” Hollander said. These findings, which are covered in greater detail in his book Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment, co-authored with Ann Sussman, have significant implications for the planning and design of communities.

Hollander argued that “humans are wall-hugging species. Well-defined corridors and streets encourage our walking.” (see image at top)

On an innate level, humans are also “programmed to look for faces everywhere.” This may be why many traditional or vernacular buildings almost look like faces, with a central door and windows on either side.

A building that looks like a face / Ann Sussman, Tufts University

Humans connect with these forms because they help us tell stories about buildings and places. “We go to places because of stories we tell ourselves. We can imagine identities in these places. Tourist attractions always tell a story.”

Given nature is our original context, humans also have an innate biophilia — a deep attraction to and affinity for nature. “It’s an artifact of evolution.”

ASLA 2020 Landmark Award. Millennium Park — A Fortuitous Masterpiece. Lurie Garden by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol / P. Psyzka and City of Chicago

As we now understand, humans are drawn to landscapes that provide a refuge, a sense of safety, and prospect, a view of the entire scene, which supports that sense of safety. Storytelling is also important in landscapes, whether they are gardens, parks, or streetscapes. Humans are drawn to landscapes that provide clear sequences.

ASLA 2018 Professional Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park: A Twenty Year Transformation, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Juliane Schaer

At Tufts University, Hollander is examining students’ cognitive responses to a variety of images of the built environment. Through eye-tracking software, “we can see the unseen — we can see what our minds are looking at an unconscious level.”

In his lab, Hollander uses 3M’s visual attention software to map the path students’ eyes take across an image — where they fixate and experience an unconscious response to visual stimuli. In a study of 30 students, Hollander found they universally looked at the entrance and windows on a traditonal building first, ignoring the blank areas. And when he showed students’ eye tracks of a contemporary all-glass library, they fixated briefly on the edges, but the glass facade itself seemed faceless, almost invisible. They just looked at the sky because the image simply caused too much cognitive stress. (In the image below, the areas of highest fixation are in red, followed by orange, with blue indicating the least attention).

Eye tracking of a traditional building and a glass library / Justin Hollander and Ann Sussman, Tufts University

Hollander said eye tracking software shows that New Urbanist-style communities, which have homes closer to the street; traditional architecture that mimic faces; and sidewalks all “encourage walking.” If a pedestrian can see a sequence — one, two, three, four homes in a row — they are more likely to want to walk down that row. He knows this because he could see the students unconsciously looking at all the facades down the street in a sequence.

In contrast, an image of a row of parking garages, with no clear doors or windows, caused students to scan for windows, quickly give up, and again look at the sky. “There was far less visual intensity, and it’s a less walkable environment.”

Flags and columns succeed in grabbing attention, which has been known for millennia. Flags predate permanent settlements, and the ancient Greeks and Romans used columns in their architecture.

Why does this matter? Hollander argues that environments that are easier to fixate on cause less cognitive stress.

Megan Oliver, an urbanist based in Baltimore, Maryland, and founder of Hello Happy Design, said the research of Hollander and others is critical, because there is a “mental health crisis” in the U.S., particularly American cities.

People are constantly responding to the built environment and in turn trying to shape it in order to reduce the impact of environmental stressors, such as blank glass or concrete building facades, crowds, noise, and air pollution. These stressors combine to make people anxious, sick, and unhappy.

In contrast, happy places are designed to encourage pro-social behavior. This is because “people need social connections in order to thrive.” Happy places help create layers of social relations, including “weak ties,” which are actually very important. “Weak ties create a sense of belonging and identity. They build trust, which helps pull communities through challenges.” Communities with higher weak ties and trust fought the COVID-19 pandemic better.

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Honor Award. Walker Art Center Wurtele Upper Garden, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Inside | Outside + HGA / Theodore Lee

Oliver argued that communities with pro-social behavior are also more inclusive and participatory and therefore better at shaping the built environment to meet their needs. The ethos in these communities is “change ourselves by changing the city.” These communities shape their spaces, creating shared identity through gardens, public art, and other improvements that help reduce stressors. Happy places then go beyond “places we inhabit and become extensions of ourselves.” These places enable us to “bond with the environment around us.”

A related conversation, also with Hollander, occurred at the Congress for New Urbanism’s 2021 Virtual Gathering. In a rapid-fire Zoom roundtable, the debate about what makes people happy or not in the built environment continued.

Architect Don Ruggles, CEO of Ruggles Mabe Studio, argued that “humans are always looking for safe spaces. We think about survival every minute of the day. But beauty is equally as important. We have an intuitive response — it creates a sense of pleasure.”

The problem, he argues, is that “our survival instinct is about five-to-seven times stronger than our pleasure instinct,” so anything in the built environment that is a stressor overwhelms our ability to experience beauty. He called for designers to focus on projects that engage our parasympathetic system that create deep relaxation so that pleasure can be experienced.

According to Nikos Salingaros, professor of mathematics, architecture, urban, and complexity theory at the University of Texas at San Antonio, architects today are wed to a style rooted in 1920s Germany — the Bauhaus — that creates an unhealthy built environment. “Trillions of dollars are wasted on creating stylistically irrelevant glass boxes that are essentially invisible to people. Whole cities — districts, neighborhoods, and downtowns — have become invisible, because of the geometries and math of the structures built.” Given humans are cognitively stressed by Modernist or contemporary glass buildings, these places are “close to malpractice, based on the medical evidence.”

Instead, Salingaros called for privileging human connections through walkable, bikeable places. “Start with network connectivity. No giant blocks. Create intimate networks that are comfortable to humans.” Furthermore, all urban spaces should be “continuations of those people-centric networks. Use the correct dimensions, apply pattern languages, and make the boundaries of buildings and spaces permeable.”

Urban designers, architects, and landscape architects should be “applying mathematical symmetries at multiple scales. The urban, landscape, architectural, and ornamental scale should all be aligned through sub-symmetries” — or the entire design will fail. “The measure of success will be the flow of people.”

He especially cautioned against contemporary buildings that purposefully try to be disharmonious — “these place intentionally violate symmetry laws,” creating stress in their attempt to grab attention.

For Ann Sussman, an architect, author, and researcher, designers can retrofit environments that create stress and anxiety, but only to a degree. She pointed to a project in Somerville, Massachusetts, where the negative impact of the blank concrete wall of a parking garage was mitigated through public art and greenery. Students shown the blank wall and then an image of the redesigned wall while wearing eye-tracking monitors experienced higher visual fixation on the art.

But in the case of a car-centric suburb, with a wide road with few houses along it, even adding in sidewalks would do little to reduce the impact of its inherent car-centric nature. “As people look down the street, they can’t fixate on the sidewalk and therefore safety. There are some suburbs built in the 1950s and 60s that just will never be walkable. These places are too foreign to our brain architecture.”

Unfortunately, new developments can have the same problems. Sussman asked: “Why is the Seaport district in South Boston so loathed? It’s because people can’t focus on it — they can’t anchor their sight on the glass buildings, so their fixation is anchored to the sky.”

Seaport District, Boston / Signature Boston

Moakley Park: The Inclusive, Resilient Park That Prepares South Boston for the Future

Stoss Landscape Urbanism, led by Chris Reed, FASLA, has produced a fascinating 40-minute video about their new design for Moakley Park in South Boston, which vividly conveys how to create next-generation waterfront parks in the era of sea level rise, social and environmental injustices, and COVID-19.

Through Stoss’ inventive resilience plan and landscape design, which was created in partnership with a range of community groups, Moakley Park will be transformed into an inclusive, resilient, biodiverse, and accessible recreational hub for diverse nearby neighborhoods, including the predominantly Black Roxbury and Dorchester communities.

Stoss states that updates to the 60-acre park, which were just approved by agencies in Boston, present “a rare opportunity to address pressing climate change needs while also prioritizing social, cultural, economic and environmental equity.”

Stoss led a large multi-disciplinary team for the project. Their design builds in climate resilience by creating multi-layered solutions for coastal flooding, stormwater, and extreme heat. The planning and design team proposed a landscape berm that will help protect the park and surrounding neighborhoods from a “predicted sea level rise of 21-40 inches in the next 50-60 years.” Constructed coastal marshes, tree orchards, and stormwater meadows help with both stormwater management and storm-related inundation from the coast. Some 500 new trees will help cool the space.

The video makes the science very clear — it models where sea level rise, exacerbated by heavy storms, would inundate the park and surrounding neighborhoods. This is planning and design rooted in the Boston city government’s latest climate projections.

Petra Geiger with Stoss, who produced and narrated the video, explains how Stoss and its team, which includes local Boston landscape architecture firm Weston & Sampson, delved into the complex legacy of the park. She explains Moakley Park’s rich history — from a garbage dump in the early 20th century to the site of protests against racial injustice in the mid-1970s.

Stoss also reframes the site — as a node in a larger waterfront Harborwalk network; as part of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace, his grand system of parks; as part of a new coastal bulwark against seal level rise; and as a crucial recreational space for nearby communities that are expected to double in population over coming decades.

The new park is designed to increase public health and well-being, and therefore social resilience. As a first step, Stoss and team analyzed all the physical and non-physical barriers to access. A highway, busy streets, and dangerous rotaries that surround Moakley Park all prevent older residents and those with disabilities from accessing the space. Some 55 percent of the current park is dedicated to sports, which is great, but there aren’t many alternatives for people who want to just enjoy nature or take an interesting walk.

Given the predominant sports focus, “the park is largely dormant in winter,” explained Amy Whitesides, ASLA, director of resilience and research at Stoss. And while Carson Beach is just over the other side of William J. Day Boulevard, which bounds the eastern edge of Moakley Park, relatively few go there because they can’t see it and it is difficult to access.

The planning and design team’s strategy for building climate and social resilience is to layer in an amazing set of multi-functional amenities. In an effort to create a more inclusive and equitable recreational center, there will be even more sports areas, including for basketball, skateboarding, and street hockey.

But the park will not just be about sports any longer. Amid the fields and courts are relaxing (and resilient and biodiverse) green spaces filled with native plants, playgrounds, picnic and BBQ areas, and more. All of these are made much more accessible through new safe routes into the park.

Moakley Park / Stoss Landscape Urbanism
Moakley Park / Stoss Landscape Urbanism
Moakley Park / Stoss Landscape Urbanism

Stoss and team have also forged a greater connection with Carson Beach, better integrating the park and beach into the Harborwalk and surrounding neighborhoods. There are now more accessible pathways under the boulevard that take visitors back and forth between the park and beach.

Moakley Park / Stoss Landscape Urbanism

In the video, the design team reiterates how “deep community engagement,” including open houses, in-person and web-based surveys, virtual tours, free movie night events, and countless interviews with residents of the area informed the planning and design process. Stoss and team also worked closely with community advocacy groups and even hired an equity consultant.

Reed said: “the goal has been to create a safe place for everyone.” Everything from the protective coastal berm, to the safer street-level access points, to the trees, which help cool the air, help achieve that mission. “This is what a new 21st century park looks like.”

The video was released as part of the American Planning Association (APA)’s virtual national conference.

Conversations with Olmsted: His Visions for Reform

Map from the 1862 edition of Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom by Frederick Law Olmsted. / Courtesy of the PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography at Cornell University

Social justice, equity, and reform are not new topics for landscape architecture — rather, they are at its origin. Frederick Law Olmsted’s prominent role in shaping public opinion on social reform in the period leading up to and during the Civil War still impacts practice today.

As part of Olmsted 200, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) will host a free online conversation on May 18 that re-centers the way we tell the story of Olmsted’s work and the origins of landscape architecture.

A group of scholars from Harvard University — Sara Zewde, founding principal, Studio Zewde, and assistant professor, Graduate School of Design; John Stauffer, professor of English and African and African American Studies; and Charles Waldheim, Hon. ASLA, John E. Irving professor of landscape architecture and director of the office for urbanization, Graduate School of Design — will delve into a few key areas.

The speakers will outline the conditions of 19th century cities, including intense rural-to-urban migration, industrialization, and immigration, and how these conditions impacted the discipline of landscape architecture. They will explore how — through his writing — Olmsted confronted the institution of slavery and the cotton economy.

Bringing Olmsted into the present, Zewde, Stauffer, and Waldheim will explore how Olmsted’s values and advocacy for social reform translate to today’s urban and cultural challenges. And they will also discuss how landscape architecture, from its inception, aimed to address societal and environmental conditions through design — and how racial equity and environmental justice issues continue to shape what landscape architects design today.

Conversations with Olmsted: His Visions for Reform is free and will be hosted virtually on May 18 at 3pm EST.

Please register today.

For landscape architects: this webinar will provide 1.0 PDH (LA CES/HSW).

Conversations with Olmsted is the first in a series of Olmsted 200 programs. Olmsted 200 is a national celebration spearheaded by a coalition of national organizations marking Frederick Law Olmsted’s bicentennial birthday on April 26, 2022.

Help us preserve and share Olmsted’s legacy by visiting Olmsted200.org, subscribing to the Olmsted Insider newsletter, and following Olmsted 200 on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

A Vision for Truly Inclusive Public Spaces Rooted in Olmsted’s Core Values

Reimagining Frederick Law Olmsted’s 527-acre Franklin Park in Boston’s Roxbury, Dorchester, and Jamaica Plain neighborhoods as an inclusive and accessible “country park” in the city. ASLA 2020 Student General Design Honor Award. Breaking Barriers. Xiao (Phoebe) Cheng, Student ASLA. Faculty Advisors: Gina Ford, FASLA; Maggie Hansen, University of Texas at Austin

By Roxanne Blackwell, Jared Green, and Lisa J. Jennings

Olmsted was committed to democratic access to public space, which is one of the foundations of inclusion. Communities can re-imagine this core value to plan and design more inclusive places.

Frederick Law Olmsted believed universal access to nature and beauty in designed landscapes would help elevate community health and in turn social discourse. He was guided by the belief that public spaces should be accessible and inclusive. He believed public parks would serve as a democratizing force, bringing many communities together to forge a new American society.

In the lead-up to the Civil War, Olmsted was a political reporter who explored the slave states of the South and wrote influential pieces on what he experienced for The New York Daily Times and in a series of books. During his southern journey, Olmsted witnessed the impact of African and African-American slaves on the American landscape.

According to Austin Allen, ASLA, PhD, associate professor of landscape architecture emeritus at the Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture at Louisiana State University, “Olmsted became more aware of the way African and African American slaves were shaping the American landscape.” Slaves had an “untold and impactful influence” on Olmsted’s early conception of American landscape architecture.

However, when Olmsted began his career as a landscape architect with the commission to plan and design Central Park in New York City, he also advocated for parks to have a homogenizing and “civilizing” influence on whom he described in his writings as “Negroes,” “immigrants,” and “the working class.” In his view, parks would elevate these groups by enabling them to participate in public spaces with white Americans, whom he considered to be the upper classes even after the Civil War. Classes would converge towards a particular vision of how society should exist, one set by white elites.

As contemporary American communities plan and design networks of public parks that serve as common ground for an increasingly diverse society, it is important to maintain Olmsted’s core values – democratic access to public spaces – but to also imagine what true inclusion in public spaces looks and feels like for all communities.

For public spaces to be truly inclusive and accessible, they must be comfortable for all visitors. This can only happen if diverse communities have the opportunity to guide the planning and design process; see their identities, ideas, and cultures reflected in designed spaces; and enjoy these spaces in comfort and safety.

Public spaces must also be designed for users of all abilities. Everyone navigates the built environment differently, with abilities changing across a person’s lifespan. The population of people with physical, auditory, or visual disabilities, autism or neurodevelopmental and/or intellectual disabilities, or neurocognitive disorders will face greater challenges navigating public spaces until they are fully included in the planning and design process.

Public spaces cannot be planned and designed as a homogenizing force that seeks to elevate some of us towards one version of an ideal society. Parks should not erase histories or voices to fit a single narrative. Instead, they must be more nuanced places where multiple stories can be told; where gender, racial, ethnic, and other forms of diversity can be celebrated; where racial and class reconciliation can be facilitated; where everyone has a safe connection to a messier but more real shared history and culture.

Roxanne Blackwell, Hon. ASLA, is Director of Federal Government Affairs at the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). Jared Green is editor of THE DIRT at ASLA. Lisa J. Jennings is Manager, Career Discovery and Diversity at ASLA.

This article was re-posted from Olmsted 200, the celebration of the bicentennial of Frederick Law Olmsted’s birth. To get involved, visit their website, subscribe to their newsletter, and follow Olmsted 200 on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (April 16-30)

The Nation’s Capital Welcomes Its Newest Memorial, Dedicated to American World War I Troops — 04/30/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“The proposal, designed by architect Joe Weishaar with sculptor Sabin Howard, grew into a collaboration with architects-of-record GWWO and the Philadelphia-based David Rubin Land Collective as landscape architect, resulting in the new memorial through years of iterative agency review and adjustment.”

Activists Want to Restore Tampa’s Kiley Garden, Once a Landscape Marvel — 04/29/21, Tampa Bay Times
“A downtown resident and photographer who uses Kiley Garden for shoots, Stehlik is on a mission to add shade to the 4 1/2-acre checkerboard of grass and concrete located next to the Rivergate Tower at 400 N. Ashley Dr.”

The Weitzman School of Design Will Ponder the Fate of a Fragile Planet at the Venice Architecture Biennale — 04/27/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Richard Weller, professor and chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture and co-executive director of Penn’s Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology, will present three new works as part of the As One Planet exhibition at the Central Pavilion at the Giardini.”

Modi’s Sprawling Delhi Makeover Fuels Anger in Virus-hit India — 04/26/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Current plans suggest that many open spaces around India Gate that are visited by thousands daily may no longer be accessible to the public. ‘We common mortals will have no reason to go there, as government offices replace the quiet spaces of art, history, performance, leisure,’ Narayani Gupta, a Delhi-based historian said.”

Can City-owned Vacant Lots Fill the Need for Park Equity in Houston? — 04/21/21, Rice Kinder Institute for Urban Research
“The residents of University Village in Greater Third Ward made a very strong case for turning a vacant lot into a pocket park in their neighborhood — and the city listened.”

Midtown’s Highway-capping Park Boosters Release New Video, Continue Outreach — 04/21/21, Urbanize Atlanta
“The goal of the park’s green elements is to recapture the character of the land, as it was in the late 1800s, when Georgia Tech was a single building, Midtown just a series of stately homes along Peachtree Street, and the rolling landscape still bucolic, with Tanyard Creek slicing through.”

To Create a Better California, These Landscape Architects Design Inclusive Public Spaces for All — 04/20/21, University of Southern California News
“The Landscape Justice Initiative unites USC students and faculty with community organizations to tackle big social and environmental challenges in Los Angeles and beyond.”

Find New Resilience by Telling Your Story

Manzanar War Relocation Camp in the Owens Valley, California / istockphoto.com

By Masako Ikegami, ASLA

Sometimes the news will shake your core beliefs. The recent rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans has been one such example. Conversations with friends veer towards safety tips, punctuated by talk of harrowing moments when being a visible minority made us feel “othered” and uncomfortable. Feeling hopelessness and despair for your cultural and ethnic background is a shattering experience.

To find resilience and hope despite these incidents is difficult. And truth be told, our collective worries about health and safety had already become heightened as we remain vigilant against the global pandemic that has upended our daily lives. On the tailwinds of a year like this, what can we do as landscape architects to contribute to racial and social justice?

Some landscapes tell the story of injustice, so as to guard against its re-occurrence. A few summers ago, as I drove through the Eastern Sierras to a weekend camping trip, the Manzanar National Historic Site, a Japanese internment camp in Owens Valley, California, emerged against the desert sun. The barracks and fencing can be seen from afar, imposing and starkly inhuman against the splendor of nature. Yet other landscapes show us a more subtle display of the same history.

During a visit to the Descanso Gardens a few years ago, I noticed a fragrant bloom of camellias drawing a crowd of admirers. Planted under an impressive stand of oaks, the delicate flowers looked as if to float in space. These two landscapes struck me in their historic connection.

Camelia collection at Descanso Gardens / Masako Ikegami

The origin of the Camellia Collection at Descanso Gardens is tied to the year 1942, when approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated by the U.S. government. It is said that the founder of Descanso Gardens purchased nursery stock from at least three Japanese American nurseries. The camellia plants, including rare ones, constituted the life’s work of the Japanese owners who had been forced into incarceration.

The blooming camellias seemed to echo the scale of lives upended, but also the resilience of the Japanese American families who came after. Is it wrong to admire a plant collection connected with such a history?

For better or worse, throughout my career, I have always described my passion for landscape architecture in terms of concerns for the environment, health and recreation, and promoting the public realm as a physical space for our democratic ideals. But what about our personal narratives, the experiences that shape us, and the cultures we value? How can we bring more of ourselves to our design work?

My commitments are the following:

  • To seek out opportunities to introduce young students to the field of landscape architecture, particularly in communities that are currently under represented in our profession.
  • To nurture relationships with professionals in all stages of their career and create a culture of acceptance for our individual priorities and passions.
  • To be open to sharing my own challenges past and present as a way to better the experiences of future professionals.

For many of us in the past year, we have seen significant change in the way our firms have addressed racial justice and the persistence of violence and disenfranchisement in communities of color.

These are unprecedented times. We may not have the answers, but without more individuals stepping forward, we cannot move the whole.

Masako Ikegami, ASLA, is a marketing associate with SWA Group in Los Angeles.

Let’s Destroy the Myth of Asian Americans as the Model Minority

Stop Asian Hate protest in Chicago’s Chinatown / Ernie Wong

By Ernie Wong, FASLA

Asian hate crimes have grown an alarming 150 percent over the past year. While other forms of crime are declining, this phenomenon is leading to real fear and anger in Asian communities throughout the country.

Landscape architecture is a part of the broader society, so the field is also directly impacted. From overseas students in landscape architecture education programs to the Asian communities that design firms serve, landscape architects are entrenched in dealing with society’s woes, especially when they occur in the public realm.

The demographics of our own profession have also shifted over the years, with a steady increase of Asians in the workforce and a conscious effort by many firms to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion as part of their company values. In our own diverse firm, Asians constitutes about one-third of our total employees, with the majority of our leadership fitting into this category.

The murders in Atlanta shook us to the core and was deeply personal to many of us. Even while many of our staff know that I advocate on behalf of all communities of color, gender, religion and beliefs, I felt to the need to reach out with some reassurance of safety and care. It also was a time to again reflect on our own personal experiences and thoughts about race and this country, while allowing our staff to reveal any bias they had encountered. Interestingly but expected, nobody came forward.

There has always been a level of resentment against Asians throughout our history in America. Whether overt or subversive, the sentiment has always put a label on Asians as weak and submissive, or the “model minority,” a term that infuriates us. The term “Asian American” loops all of these extremely diverse communities into a single pool, absent of our nationalities, languages, religions, traditions, and experiences. The complexities and nuances are ignored, and our histories are made insignificant.

Ping Tom Park in Chicago, Illinois by site design group (site) / Scott Shigley
Ping Tom Park in Chicago, Illinois by site design group (site) / Scott Shigley
Ping Tom Park in Chicago, Illinois by site design group (site) / Scott Shigley
Ping Tom Park in Chicago, Illinois by site design group (site) / Scott Shigley
Ping Tom Park in Chicago, Illinois by site design group (site) / Scott Shigley

The history of Asians in America is largely unknown to most Americans, let alone the hundreds of Asian students flocking to the U.S. for a prestigious education. According to ASLA’s data, in 2017, at accredited landscape architecture programs in the U.S., the enrollment of international students over a five-year period grew 52 percent, and a majority of these students were from Asia. Those are significant numbers and a boon for the universities that can profit from these students.

What’s missing is the orientation and cultural diversity training that can help overseas students integrate into American culture. Suddenly, these students are thrust into a world defined by race and ethnicity, religion and gender identity. Unless they have a high fluency in the English language, engagement — and the initiation of such — remains the onus of the student. Thus, we find the clustering and isolation of overseas students struggling to understand “diversity.” Unfortunately, the characterization of race and culture in most media outlets only adds to the stereotyping, leaving their imaginations jaded.

When you add the experiences of expatriates throughout Asia who receive preferential treatment, those images further re-inforce the social hierarchy of white colonialism and Asian subordination and inferiority. Given the hypersexualization and fetishization of Asian women and the desexualization of Asian men — who are characterized as being passive, effeminate, and weak — the incident in Atlanta could’ve occurred anywhere.

We are all struggling with diversity, equity, and inclusion in this country. The discussion is starting, but the results are distant. As fellow landscape architects, I am calling on you to be more sensitive to Asian experiences.

I’m calling on you to help destroy Asian stereotypes and the MYTH of the “model minority,” which is simply a lie to pit other people of color against Asians. I’m calling on you to disperse the fear that we have of each other — fear that some group will take another group’s jobs, or one type of people will harm another type of person. I’m calling on you to stand in solidarity with the #StopAsianHate movement.

Stop Asian Hate protest in Chicago’s Chinatown / Ernie Wong

Most of all, I’m calling on you to see the world as bigger than ourselves and continue to engage with people who are different than you.

Ernie Wong, FASLA, is a founding principal of site design group, ltd. (site) based in Chicago, Illinois. He is an Asian American male born and raised on the Southside of Chicago and continues to resolve his own identity issues.

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.

Asian Hate Didn’t Start with the Pandemic; It Will Not End with It Either Unless Everyone Acts

AAPI & BIPOC Coalition 5K run at Bryant Park in New York City / Star Max, AP Images

By Yujia Wang, ASLA

For the past year or so, we have witnessed a historic period of widespread, record-level aggressive rhetoric and attacks on the Asian community — the Atlanta shootings being the most severe of all. The Asian community seems to have become a punching bag and scapegoat, at least for a part of American society.

For Asians in the United States going about their daily life, there are increased risks and a growing sense of anxiety about basic safety and well-being. For those whose lives perished during these violent events — ordinary people who worked to provide for their family, just like any of us — the future is no more, and their families are now shattered. This is both sad and infuriating.

To solve any problem, we need to face it with great honesty. This proves difficult for some, because it means self-criticism and sharing more moral responsibility. The xenophobia and hatred against Asians did not start recently: Its history, as many people will tell you, can be traced back to the 19th century — the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; the massacres of 1871 and 1885; Japanese internment; the list goes on.

The problems Asians living in the United States face have not been fully recognized in the past. In fact, the problems are often sidelined and ignored. And while there has been some recent positive momentum, I would say it is still far from enough. Recognizing the problem fully and sincerely and standing in solidarity are the very least that can be done. Silence is noted and taken personally.

I have outlined additional steps that need to be taken:

We must all acknowledge that xenophobia and hatred are categorically wrong. There is no excuse — not tension in international relations, not domestic party politics, and certainly not the character of the victims. The term Asian American is problematic too, because it neglects the expatriates, students, and visitors who deserve equal inclusion. In a healthy and law-abiding society, no one should need to worry about their life and dignity, regardless of their ethnicity. However, in one of the most advanced countries, I get calls from family and friends who are understandably worried about my safety. I think the absurdity is self-apparent.

When we oppose racial hatred, we must oppose not only acts of hatred, but also the seeds of hatred — the seemingly conditional and temporary acceptance of Asians, the rumors and scapegoating that are tolerated and allowed to spread openly online because not many voice their opposition, and so on. Concluding that it is some politicians’ fault and moving-on is simply not enough. This is a societal problem that needs to be responded to as a society. Everyone needs to play a role and share the moral responsibility of preventing hatred.

The landscape architecture profession is in a unique position. With regards to race and equity, it has done well in some respects, but the shortcomings are also apparent. Landscape architecture has one of the most diverse communities, including a vibrant Asian community, especially in many undergraduate and graduate institutions. However, the Asian landscape architecture community should not be taken for granted.

Unless students and emerging professionals have confidence they are safe and supported in the profession and in the society, we will eventually lose the continuous influx of talented people in our universities and practices in the United States, which has strongly propelled the discipline forward.

A social event at the vegetable garden at Sasaki Associates Watertown office. Asian Americans and expatriates make up an important part of landscape architecture workforce. / Yujia Wang

Change need to happen. It’s important to empower Asian voices, support their growth and celebrate their achievements and give them platforms to share personal stories, cultural perspectives, and professional insights. A fuller, richer storytelling of Asian experience is long overdue. A healthy level of representation will turn into long-term and profound support of the foundations of our discipline.

Landscape practices commonly operate across cultures, regions, and countries. Today, as I tell my students and prospective students about my passion for landscape architecture, I am reminded of the multi-cultural nature of our work, and the kind of diversity and open-minded attitude we embrace as a profession.

When teaching, we also expose students to abundant cross-cultural design and learning opportunities. From my observations, I can see how much the ideal of diversity and cultural richness resonates with our young generation of students. This comes from the nature of human kindness and curiosity, which we can protect and encourage. This is the same for landscape architecture professionals. In classrooms and our practices, we should actively embrace the symphony of different cultures and the cross-pollinations of them.

In practice, this means strengthening the inclusion of our Asian students and colleagues in domestic projects teams, and, more importantly, increasing and supporting their presence in managing clients, hosting community events, and other engagement opportunities. These steps have often been lacking based on likely implied racial preferences. The effect limits the voice and growth of Asian landscape architects.

We can also support a mixture of backgrounds on international project teams, as a way to strengthen cultural understanding and exchange. Using our knowledge and cultural sensitivity, we can contribute as general members of the society in demystifying Asia and debunking and stopping the spread of rumors and offensive or aggressive messages. We should all take these steps not because they are the easy, but because we know they are right, and we trust they will enhance the diversity and inclusion of our field, and make our society a better place. This is how real changes begin.

Many of us have a strong belief in the ideal of globalization, which thrives on inclusion everywhere. On a personal level, I find it incredibly fortunate to have grown up in China; lived, studied, and worked in four countries across three continents; and visited more than 40 countries. Almost all of my work is international in nature.

View of the East Wetland area at Dongguan Greenline Park, a major urban park in Dongguan, China designed by Yujia Wang and his office Yi Chang Landscape and Planning, getting ready to open to visitors May 1st, 2021. An important portion of landscape architecture market is international, with the Asian market being the most significant. / Yujia Wang, Yi Chang Landscape and Planning
A landscape bridge at Dongguan Waterfront Park. / Yujia Wang, Yi Chang Landscape and Planning

It is so great to witness a mostly peaceful and thriving world, and the appreciation of, exchange of, and respect for the knowledge, culture, history, language from people with vastly different backgrounds. When young people try to work out their future path, as I did years ago, I want to see that their choice is made based on the merit of content. I want to see that they will be treated with the same level of inclusion wherever they decide to join as a member of the society, and that the safety and well-being are the least of their concerns.

That is the future that we, regardless of race and background, owe to our next generation – a more equitable, inclusive, and beautiful world. But this will not become a reality unless we all work towards it. And I think we must.

Yujia Wang, ASLA, is a landscape architecture professor of practice at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and founding partner at Yi Chang Landscape and Planning. In 2020, he became the first landscape architect to be listed on Forbes China 30 Under 30. Yujia is a Harvard alumnus and previously practiced at Sasaki.

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.

ASLA Testifies Before Congress on Green Infrastructure

Kevin Robert Perry, FASLA, Senior Landscape Architect, Toole Design, and Principal, Urban Rain Design, testified on behalf of ASLA to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment.

His full testimony below:

Thank you Chair Napolitano, Ranking Member Rouzer, and Members of the subcommittee for the opportunity to testify on the valuable work being done by landscape architects in the water and stormwater management space.

My name is Kevin Robert Perry and I am a licensed landscape architect and an internationally recognized leader in successfully integrating stormwater management with high-quality urban design.

I work as a Senior Landscape Architect at Toole Design Group with a specific expertise in intertwining green infrastructure with innovative multimodal streetscape design. I am also the founder of Urban Rain Design, a small design studio based in both California and Oregon that specializes in using Tactical Green Infrastructure to rapidly implement simple, cost-effective, and beautiful public space stormwater projects.

I am here today on behalf of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), where I have been a Fellow since 2017.

ASLA believes that water quality is essential to our economy, communities, and environment. By working to protect it, our membership of landscape architects plays a critical role in community sustainability and public health.

Landscape architects address water quality through ecologically-based practices that help reduce or remove pollutants in urban, rural, and conservation areas. To help protect water quality and conserve valuable water resources, ASLA encourages planning, design management, and policies that are science-based, collaborative, creative, and equitable.

The Value of Green Infrastructure

Ample clean water supplies are necessary to help preserve health, sustain quality of life, support economic stability, and maintain environmental quality.

Unsustainable development practices, poorly designed infrastructure, population growth, and other factors continue to threaten water quality and emphasize the need for the wiser and more creative use of resources. Urban sprawl and the expansion of paved surfaces increases volume and speed of storm flows, carries pollutants into streams, prevents groundwater recharge, and drastically reduces the landscape’s ability to respond to everyday storm events, much less the current and future challenges of climate change.

In much of the country, especially in older cities and towns, stormwater is funneled into our wastewater systems. During intense rain events, these systems can become overwhelmed resulting in stormwater overflow being released into nearby waters — along with all of the untreated sewage, debris, pesticides, and anything else caught in the underground pipe system.

While the United States has generally had success in protecting water quality, EPA research has found that nonpoint source pollution, the type of water pollution I just described, remains the leading cause of water quality problems.

This is where landscape architects are stepping up and playing a key role. We are at the forefront of developing innovative design strategies that promote sustainability, resiliency, and a balanced vibrancy between our built and natural environment. By incorporating cost-effective and innovative green infrastructure methods into our projects, we plan and design landscaped-based systems that reduce the impacts of flooding, contain the movement of pollutants and other debris, help infiltrate stormwater on-site, increase biodiversity, and integrate these nature-based solutions seamlessly into our cities and towns.

SW Montgomery Green Street, Portland, Oregon / Kevin Robert Perry

In areas where drought and inadequate water supply is of top concern, green infrastructure may also be a viable solution, helping to replenish local groundwater reserves and recharging aquifers. We also promote and incorporate the use of sustainably-designed greywater systems and other water capture measures to help reduce the need for external water sources.

In general, the landscape architect’s multi-functional, multi-purpose design solutions allows for a less destructive human relationship with the natural environment.

Landscape architecture practices also provide a key equity and environmental justice solution. One such practice is performing meaningful community engagement during the design and planning process. Often, the communities that stand to benefit the most from our work are the low-income and racially diverse communities that have been damaged by years of underinvestment and disinvestment. This includes communities located in small towns, large cities, and all areas in between. ASLA and its members are committed to utilizing our trade to directly improve lives in underserved communities; and community engagement and green infrastructure can be important tools to aid in this effort.

Planned Green Street Improvements in Colma, California / Kevin Robert Perry

Green infrastructure also leads to job creation. According to Green For All, a national organization working to build an inclusive green economy, a $188.4 billion investment in stormwater management would generate $265.6 billion in economic activity and create close to 1.9 million jobs. Furthermore, green infrastructure is good for small businesses, as many landscape architects work for or run their own small firms, as I have for nearly a decade.

Green Infrastructure Across Scales

One of the greatest benefits of using green infrastructure is that it can be implemented across a wide range of scale and community contexts. Resilient coastlines/riverfronts, regional parks, and interconnected green transportation corridors can be realized at the large citywide-scale; while rain gardens, pervious paving, and a robust use of street trees can grace nearly any neighborhood-scale space.

With thousands of our schools, roads, parks, and other civic space infrastructure either breaking down or inefficiently designed, there is an incredible opportunity to boldly retrofit our built environment with long-lasting green infrastructure strategies.

Washington D.C. Green Street / Kevin Robert Perry

Tactical Green Infrastructure

One avenue of green infrastructure that is starting to take root on the West Coast is the concept of Tactical Green Infrastructure. While many infrastructure projects can take years to be fully implemented, Tactical Green Infrastructure is a specialized design-build methodology that allows professional design practitioners, students, and/or volunteers to work together to identify, design, and construct expedited green infrastructure projects at public schools, parks, and even some street locations. These small-scale projects convert either existing paved or underutilized green space into highly functional rain garden landscapes within a couple of months – and directly involve the local community through the process. This kind of low-cost, effective, and quickly built Green Infrastructure can be a simple national model but with near-term and tangible results realized at the neighborhood level. While conceived in both Oregon and California, we believe a coordinated Tactical Green Infrastructure approach, led by landscape architects, has immense potential to expand throughout the United States.

Tactical Green Infrastructure groundbreaking, led by landscape architects / Kevin Robert Perry

The Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act of 2021

ASLA and its members appreciate the committee’s support for legislation promoting green infrastructure, including H.R. 1915 – the Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act of 2021, which would help states and local communities fund green infrastructure projects that protect water.

We are also appreciative of the committee’s support for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, and specifically the Green Project Reserve, which mandates that at least 10% of funds are used by states for green infrastructure projects. Since states and localities typically do not have their own funding mechanisms to keep their water infrastructure safe, up to date, and within the requirements of the Clean Water Act, many landscape architecture projects would not be possible without the help of this program.

For these reasons, ASLA is supportive of increased funding to the Clean Water SRF, as well as making the Green Project Reserve permanent and increasing its minimum percentage. To make projects even more sustainable and resilient, the Clean Water SRF should also be adjusted to allow for the funding of long-term maintenance projects as well.

Conclusion

With that, I thank the committee for inviting me to testify today. ASLA looks forward to working with you and your colleagues to ensure that Congress leverages the field of landscape architecture when striving for its climate adaptation and sustainability goals.