Interview with Patricia O’Donnell on Revitalizing Cultural Landscapes

Patricia O’Donnell / Heritage Landscapes, LLC

Patricia O’Donnell, FASLA, AICP, Fellow, US/ICOMOS, is founder of Heritage Landscapes LLC, Preservation Landscape Architects and Planners, winner of the ASLA 2019 Firm Award. Her works and contributions sustain and revitalize our shared commons of public historic landscapes and advance the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 2030 Agenda, and the New Urban Agenda.

Interview conducted at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego.

Over your career, you’ve worked on more than 500 cultural landscape projects. You have highlighted Pittsburgh’s $124 million investment in revitalizing its public spaces, such as the Mid-Century Modern Mellon Square, which you restored, as a model. What does Pittsburgh know that perhaps other cities need to learn?

In the 19th century, Pittsburgh had a vision of setting aside major green spaces in order to shape the city. Neighborhoods grew up around the green spaces. Since Pittsburgh is still today a neighborhood-based city, everyone cares deeply about their green assets. Pittsburgh has a history of understanding the value of parks.

Pittsburgh looked at their historic parks and said, “This has value for the city.” The revitalization effort was initiated by the very bright Meg Cheever, a lawyer by education and a publicist by application who founded the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. She knew she needed to grab attention so she built up the Conservancy as a real partner to the city. She was very savvy about not having an adversarial relationship with the city, instead creating a true partnership. We’ve worked in a number of conservancies, and that coin can flip both ways. The first thing is you need to be a partner; the second thing is you have got to recognize value.

When I started my firm in the late-80s, we did a project in Gilford, Connecticut. I told them there are four groups of tools for improving the public realm: community engagement, plans or advisory tools, law or regulation, and finance. As landscape architects, we’re good at community and planning, not necessarily so good at legislation or finance. If we recognize those are the four things we need, we can figure out who to partner with and what skill sets and mindsets are needed to move forward.

Pittsburgh started with its 19th century legacy. They had three big parks: one that was gifted to the city in the early 20th century by Henry Clay Frick; Mary Shenley’s property, which the city had bought and then added to Shenley Park; and Highland Park, which was around a reservoir and then grew into a park. So each park had a different vector. Then, they focused on the Mid-Century Modern pieces: The Point and Mellon Square, which were the two iconic public spaces built in the 50s and part of the first Pittsburgh Renaissance. Those spaces became elements of a national model for urban renewal. They knocked down 25 percent of the core of the city in a 10-year period and rebuilt it.

Restored Mellon Square, Pittsburgh, originally designed by John O. Simonds / Ed Massery
Restored Mellon Square, Pittsburgh, originally designed by John O. Simonds / Jeremy Marshall

Now there’s good and bad there. There was some environmental injustice and other problems, but they also renewed the core of the city and rebranded Pittsburgh. A number of other cities followed that path of renewal. (We called it urban renewal but often it was urban destruction). But the initiative worked for Pittsburgh. They were able to lift up what was a gritty steel city where industrial workers had to bring a minimum of two shirts to work because the air quality was so bad.

Your firm, Heritage Landscapes, partnered with HOK on the restoration of the National Mall in Washington D.C. What was involved in that process?

We were asked by the National Park Service (NPS) to track the history of Mall, which they framed as from L’Enfant’s 1792 plan to the present. The NPS asked us to framed it by the plans, but the plans did not reflect what the Mall actually was. We carried out this project as part of a NEPA compliance process.

Through a mapping effort, we overlaid all the soil disturbance over time — deep subsurface, shallow subsurface, surface — in CAD and made this very fun color map that showed probably a couple of teaspoons of the Mall were not altered over time. While we met NEPA compliance, we also now had the background, understood what the design was, and how the design of the Mall evolved to what we love today.

That evolution happened because of the strength of the personality and the stature of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.. He served on the McMillan Commission, the Commission on Fine Arts (CFA), and what is now called the National Capital Parks and Planning Commission (NCPC). He persuaded the NPS to do the plan for the Mall. The linear quality of the green panels was key.

We focused the HOK team on getting the grading right. The Mall had been slightly domed and tipped northward because the Tiber Creek and the Washington Canal — the drainage — were to the north. The Capitol, the White House and the Smithsonian were set on three hills, and so the Mall, the space in between, was kind of mushy. The new shape of the Mall needed to respond to that topography. The original lawn panels had a vertical curve to help drainage.

The NPS wanted the new panels accessible, under a five percent grade and, if possible, under two percent. We had to balance access, sustainability, and history. In addition, the soils were as hard as concrete. And as a result, the most common plant was a small knotweed. Soil experts, James Urban, FASLA, and others, and I thought that grading it under 2 percent wouldn’t work. The lawn panels would continue not drain well and tend toward compaction. We got the NPS to go with at least 1.8 percent, but at the edges we were up at about 4 percent and then 3 percent and then domed, but tipped northward.

To reduce compaction, soil must have open air pores. The team found the best soil for defending against compaction is sandy loam. Investigations addressed whether or not there should be additives in the soil; these little crunchy things that spring back and keep the soil open. The NPS didn’t want to go down that road, so they approved a very good sandy soil mix. The first phase they decided they had a little too much organic matter. They changed it up a little bit on the second phase. We achieved what L’Enfant and Frederick Olmsted, Jr. were after: the long green corridor.

Restored National Mall, Washington, D.C. / Adam Fagen, Flickr

You just completed a cultural landscape report for Woodstock and have begun design work to reinterpret the landscape, so its story becomes more accessible to future generations. What did you unearth through your research? Where has that led your planning and design work?

The Woodstock project is a lot of fun because it’s such recent history. We developed the Cultural Landscape Report by looking at the main field where the concerts happened. We found information digging into the archive at the Museum at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. They had been gathering material for years, including all these low-flown, oblique aerials from a plane and ground photography.

It turned out that just barely digging into the research we found the envelope is a lot bigger. There’s the main field, Filippini Pond, where everybody went skinny dipping, and Bindy Bazaar in the woods between the main field and the hog farm where food was made. The hog farm tells the story about the commune movement. They provided the food at Woodstock, so everyone saw how a commune worked.

Hippies enjoying Filippini Pond / C. Alexander, 1969, Bethel Woods Archive

In opening up the land base envelope, we compared what we saw being used to what was actually leased to the concert organizers by the farmer Max Yasgur. The event was held on an alfalfa field, which was mown for the event. I happen to have an old alfalfa field and know what they look like. So when I saw the photos, I thought: “Oh, this is an old alfalfa field with people in Indian prints striding across it.”

There was a guy in one of the trailers who was drawing plans. He drew one plan of the Bindy Woods with the trails, so we used that to figure out that interesting area. Hippies had set up 20 something booths to sell tie dye, Indian prints, roach clips, or whatever. They put up hand-painted signs on the trees naming the paths — highway groovy path, etc.

Woodstock’s organizers planned very well for 100,000 people. They had medical officers and police; they were actually well-organized. But when the crowd hit 400,000 or 500,000, they didn’t have enough bathrooms or food.

The cultural landscape report investigation has informed where design interventions might be. The stage configuration was very interesting. The 60 by 70-foot stage was warped because of the plane of the slope of the hill. They made a turntable so they could swing the acts. When it rained, the platform wouldn’t turn anymore. They never finished the fencing but had this gorgeously shaped batwing fence.

Woodstock stage and batwing fences amid the crowds / Pinterest

We developed schematic designs of the footprint of the stage; the batwing fence; the performers’ bridge, which went over the road; and the posts at the height where the bridge occurred. We have a series of design options in front of the client that are very fun. We’ve already started to build the Bindy Bazaar paths and signs to interpret the vendors.

Bindy Bazaar paths and signs / Heritage Landscapes, LLC, Preservation Landscape Architects and Planners

What makes a successful cultural landscape report? How are these reports evolving?

When we started doing cultural landscape reports, they were called historic landscape reports. There weren’t rules. We sat on committees and helped frame cultural landscape preservation and management standards and guidelines for the National Park Service and Secretary of Interior. There are a set of steps: history, existing landscape condition, analysis of continuity and change, treatment exploration and recommendations. The goal is to find out if you are going to just preserve a landscape as-found, restore it to some earlier documented time; reconstruct missing pieces; or rehabilitate the landscape, adapting to current needs. These reports help us to suit contemporary and future needs while preserving what has been inherited.

We’re now up to over 110 cultural landscape reports or assessments. The New York Botanical Garden and Longwood Gardens really wanted the history because they sought to understand how their property had evolved. That was all they wanted. So sometimes it’s just a piece. When we worked at Dumbarton Oaks, they wanted analysis as well, so they could understand continuity and change, the evolution of the designed landscape of Mildred Bliss and Beatrix Farrand.

Bloedel Reserve asked for a heritage landscape study. They came to us and said: “We understand Prentice Bloedel’s words, but what do they mean?” And we said, “You have the artifact. We can interpret the artifact to get at the meaning.” Cultural landscape reports are customized for each place. For the second phase of analysis at Bloedel, we told them: “Okay, now you actually need to dig deeper.” They have an amazing landscape that has four character areas and 26 component landscapes. The genius of this landscape is the differentiation between the individual components, but part of the practices they were employing in their daily management were blurring those unique aspects. We helped them really hone in on the character of the moss garden versus the Japanese garden versus the woodland paths so they can manage by area.

Bloedel Reserve / Heritage Landscapes, LLC, Preservation Landscape Architects and Planners

For our work at Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village, we made sure we researched the African American contribution to shaping the landscape. This kind of analysis depends on the place and the client, but there is a heightened sense of social justice today. That framework led us to understand whose labor actually created a place. At the Academical Village, we found the way of life for enslaved peoples did not change after the Civil War. What changed their way of life was technology. When water and sewer systems were connected to every building and lighting came, the daily life within the core of the campus shifted. These changed the back breaking labor of daily life — hauling water, chopping wood, and gardening — by enslaved peoples, who were freed at that point, but whose life and daily activities had not substantially changed from the evidence we saw on the land.

University of Virginia / Heritage Landscapes, LLC, Preservation Landscape Architects and Planners

You have said that “culture and nature are entangled and inseparable.” How did you reach that conclusion?

While we have protected areas on the planet, there isn’t place on Earth that hasn’t been influenced by humanity. We’re in an era of human influence if you look at climate change and, hopefully, our greenhouse gas draw down vectors. If we envision ourselves as a part of nature, and we see humanity as one species of many, rather than the dominant species, and we see the planet as the place where we all live, it changes our perspectives on how to proceed. Nature and culture, place and people are completely interconnected, interrelated, and interdependent.

The big issue with climate change is finding ways to draw down greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere. I was fascinated with Paul Hawkins’ book Drawdown, which ranked the top hundred ways to reduce emissions. Most people would think the answer would be more solar energy or carbon sequestration. But society needs to get up to speed with its needs. Actually, some of the most effective carbon reduction solutions are the empowerment of women, education for girls, and birth control for women, so we don’t overpopulate the world, and women can take a real role in the future.

You’ve been an advocate for cultural landscape preservation, equitable access to public spaces, and inclusive planning and design in international organizations such as UN-HABITAT, UNESCO, and ICOMOS. At the same time, you have also advocated for greater landscape architect participation in these organizations. How can we bridge the gap between policy bodies and the design world?

I have had rewarding engagements with peers and related professionals in working groups that build international doctrine. You gain a broadened sense of where your work can fit because the picture is expanding for you. In my opinion, all of us can benefit from global engagement — from meeting with peers face to face and engaging in committees to participating in the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA), which has a very strong new policy that they passed in September on climate change, and ICOMOS, which is a curator of world heritage, the culture advisor to UNESCO World Heritage. I am constantly contributing to ICOMOS to strengthen our global heritage.

In these international bodies, I learn from others, share what I know, and the result is we all lift ourselves up together. We also bring forward emerging professionals. I’m currently the president of the ICOMOS-IFLA International Scientific Committee on cultural landscapes. We have about 212 members worldwide. We’re strengthening and coalescing our membership in Latin America to do a better job there with cultural landscapes. We’re adding a number of emerging professionals to begin to address the wealth of cultural heritage in Africa. We gain a lot by uplifting everyone, all boats rise together.

Most Popular DIRT Posts of 2019

Jewel Changi Airport / PWP Landscape Architecture, Safdie Architects

While we are always looking ahead to what’s new in the built and natural environments, it’s also valuable to look back at what grabbed our attention last year. Here’s a review of the 10 most popular DIRT posts of 2019.

Readers were most interested in how to plan and design universally-accessible landscapes; how communities are increasingly looking to landscape architecture as a solution for the climate crisis; examples of inventive multi-use infrastructure, like the Jewel Changi airport terminal in Singapore and Amager Bakke in Copenhagen; and the on-going debate about the changing roles of landscape architects and urban planners.

ASLA members: send us your original op-eds on topics that inspire you. And tell us about your new projects and research. Please email us at info@asla.org.

Singapore’s New Garden Airport

International airports are in fierce competition for passengers and regularly one-up each other with new wow-factor amenities, shops, and restaurants. But Singapore decided to raise its game by going another direction: a plant-filled haven, a gateway consistent with its moniker — “the city in a garden.” The result is an inventive model other airports should copy, if not in form, then certainly in spirit.

Landscape Architects Must Become Planners

Landscape architects need to become urban planners and work “upstream” in policy and regulatory processes to ensure public space leads urban placemaking efforts. That is the argument Michael Grove, ASLA, chair of landscape architecture, civil engineering, and ecology at Sasaki; Brian Jeneck, ASLA, director of planning at HOK; and Michael Johnson, ASLA, principal at SmithGroup made at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C.

Book Review: The Architecture of Trees

The Architecture of Trees was first published by Cesare Leonardi and Franca Stagi, two versatile Italian furniture, landscape, and architectural designers, in 1982. This “scientific tome” and “original ‘labor of love and obsession’” has been re-issued by Princeton Architectural Press in all its arboreal glory.

Why Bicycling Has Flatlined

About 830,000 Americans biked to work in 2017, down from a high of 904,000 in 2014. Given communities large and small have made major investments in bicycle infrastructure — and bike share now seems ubiquitous — why haven’t the numbers of bike commuters dramatically increased?

Nature-based Solutions Are Our Best Defense Against Climate Impacts

Today in New York City, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres will convene the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit to, in his words, “hear about how we are going to stop the increase in emissions by 2020, and dramatically reduce emissions to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century.” This Summit comes on the heels of the Youth Climate Strike last week, and kicks off Climate Week in which people in New York and across the country will demand action to mitigate the ongoing climate crisis.

We Are Designing the Earth, Whether You Like it Or Not

This purpose of this article is to reflect on the Design with Nature Now exhibition that ran over this past summer at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania. The exhibition marked the 50th anniversary of Ian McHarg’s 1969 tome Design with Nature and was curated by Fritz Steiner, FASLA, Karen M’Closkey, Billy Fleming, ASLA, Bill Whitaker, ASLA, and myself.

In Copenhagen, You Can Ski Down this Power Plant

Eight years ago Danish architect Bjarke Ingels came up with a fantastical idea — build a ski slope on top of a power plant. Well, now, it has actually happened — the $660 million Amager Bakke is preparing to welcome adventurous ski bunnies in Copenhagen. Known to locals as Copenhill, this cutting-edge renewable energy system converts waste into energy while giving sports lovers access to a 2,000-feet-long ski slope, a 295-feet-high climbing wall, and hiking and running paths. The project is the most visible demonstration yet of Copenhagen’s determination to become the world’s first carbon neutral city by 2025.

ASLA Publishes Guide to Universal Design

ASLA’s guide provides a comprehensive view of which communities are underserved by the built environment. It also offers a set of new universal design principles that address the needs of deaf or hard of hearing, blind or low vision, autistic, neurodevelopmentally and/or intellectually disabled, and mobility-disabled adults and children, as well as concerns for older adults. These include: accessible, comfortable, participatory, ecological, legible, multi-sensory, predictable, and walkable/traversable.

Faced with Climate Impacts, Communities Turn to Green Infrastructure

Climate change is causing seas to rise, flooding to worsen, and hurricanes and wildfires to become more destructive, all of which puts our infrastructure at greater risk. On top of that, America’s current infrastructure received a D+ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in their latest scorecard. Increased risk from climate events and the massive backlog of maintenance projects means that our infrastructure has never been more vulnerable.

Gallaudet University Designs for the Deaf Community, But Everyone Benefits

At Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., DeafSpace, a concept developed by campus architect Hansel Bauman, is now guiding the development of buildings and landscapes in order to better address the needs of the deaf and hard of hearing people, which also results in better spaces for everyone. Gallaudet University — the oldest university for the deaf community in the country and the only university in the world where all programs and services are designed with deaf and hard of hearing people in mind — is creating a new 2020 campus master plan that expands DeafSpace beyond the buildings and into the historic campus designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and the surrounding neighborhood.

Defining Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Public meeting on the Spirit of Charity Innovation District, New Orleans / Reddit

“When we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, what are we actually talking about?,” asked Thaisa Way, FASLA, program director of landscape and garden studies at Dumbarton Oaks, in a session with Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, director of landscape architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington; and Mitchell Silver, NYC commissioner of parks and recreation, at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego.

“Diversity means difference but it’s complex. Diversity has been described as bringing different people to the table, but that’s not real diversity. We actually have to change the table. Equity is about fairness, but it’s also complex. Fair for whom? And inclusion is about creating spaces ‘for all people,’ but how do we design for all people?”

Way made these points to say that “our language really matters.”

She applauded the efforts of ASLA and its members to make landscape architecture a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive profession. “The ASLA diversity summits have been an important project.” But what needs to happen next is for Caucasian landscape architects to “give up some of our privilege and power.”

“Landscape architects can provide a voice and be a tool for vulnerable communities,” Allen said. Through her work with vulnerable communities in New Orleans, Louisiana, she found that diversity, equity, and inclusion is “what happens on the ground.”

After Hurricane Katrina, Charity Hospital, which was a crucial community teaching hospital, was shut down by Louisiana State University and instead merged into city’s new medical center in the lower Mid-City neighborhood. “The community was upset. This is the place you went with an emergency, like a gun shot wound, and where the indigent went for care.”

The Greater New Orleans Foundation stepped in, leading a new master planning process for a Spirit of Charity Innovation District, with the goal of redeveloping the old hospital as a new mixed-use district. “If this was to be an inclusive process, participation is needed.”

Allen coordinated the engagement effort, which involved using both online and on-the-street surveys at transit stops and food trucks, events specifically tailored for kids and families, and reaching out directly to the homeless. Her team also organized community workshops, both large and small planning and design charrettes. At a second set of charrettes, the results of the surveys and feedback were then presented back to the community. Local residents saw the need for a pharmacy, clinic, and steps to address homelessness.

Findings from the community listening process were compiled in a summary report, which proposed steps to achieve “continual engagement,” and then given to the design team and developers.

In another project — the Claiborne Cultural Innovation District — Allen and her team helped local stakeholders better understand the needs of the community that had been split by the insertion of Interstate 10 through New Orleans. “We learned they didn’t want to take the highway down, because they feared gentrification would then happen, and the space they had claimed underneath the highway would be gone.”

Through a comprehensive engagement process, her team learned the community also didn’t want the underpass turned into all green space. “You can’t second line or have a parade through green infrastructure.” The goal instead became “how to stabilize the cultural activities that were already happening and better connect the site to the community’s Moorish, French, and Spanish histories.” The result was a master plan for 19 blocks that included a Garden of the Moors and a marketplace. “We didn’t want to over-design; we wanted to reinforce what they were already doing.”

Claiborne Cultural Innovation District / DesignJones

Allen believes engagement summary reports are a “critical prerequisite” for any project.

For Silver, the problem is that “diversity, equity, and inclusion are too often merged together, like they are the same thing. They are not the same thing. If we are going to use the words, we need to better understand the emotion and intent behind them.”

He traced the history of the social equity movement from the Suffragettes, who advocated for women’s right to vote at the beginning of the 20th century, to the African American and LGBT civil rights movement in the 1960s, the social and environmental justice movements of the 1990s, and then national debates on fairness, affordability, and gentrification that began in the wake of the 2008 “Great Recession.”

For Silver, “equity is about fairness. Whether you are 5 or 50, you know what is fair or not.”

When Silver came on board, New York City had spent more than $6 billion to improve parks over a 20 year period. But still too many neighborhood parks throughout the five boroughs were in such poor condition that “you wouldn’t let your children or grandchildren go in at anytime of day.” Through an in depth analysis, Silver’s team found that 215 parks had seen little or no capital improvements over those 20 years. “That wasn’t fair and had to change.”

With some $300 million, Silver initiated a program that has redesigned some 67 parks, turning decrepit places into multi-functional green spaces with adult fitness equipment, spray parks, playgrounds, and green infrastructure to capture stormwater. The new parks were also redesigned to be multi-generational. “Seniors like to sit at the periphery, so more seating was added to the perimeters of parks.”

Lafayette Playground, Brooklyn / NYC Parks and Recreation
Lafayette Playground, Brooklyn / NYC Parks and Recreation
Lafayette Playground, Brooklyn / NYC Parks and Recreation
Lafayette Playground, Brooklyn / NYC Parks and Recreation

Furthermore, earlier regulations didn’t allow adults, except in the company of a minor, to access play spaces. For many seniors looking for shade on a hot summer day, that rule could cause them to walk another 10 blocks to find a seat. Silver’s team did away with the regulation.

Of the 67 parks targeted for redevelopment, some 45 have been completed. In the new parks, “usage rates are up 15 percent” on average.

Other inclusive public space programs include: the Creative Courts program the city has undertaken to bring in artists to paint basketball courts across the city; the AfroPunk festival, held in Commodore Barry Park in Brooklyn each year; and the incorporation of BBQs and picnic spaces across public parks and plazas, which allows people of all colors and ethnicities to “go eat, connect, and have fun.”

Creative courts. Art in the Park. Robert Otto Epstein, 5b9k3q@^tg6!+2F<%O, Chelsea Park, NYC / NYC Parks & Recreation

Mitchell argued that the broad case for planning and designing for diversity can’t be economic, a marketing ploy, or a scheme to win more business. “Diversity is about the value of having different perspectives and being socially and morally responsible.” The reality is that by 2030, the majority of U.S. households will be single persons; and by 2040, majority-minority.

In the Q&A, discussion veered towards how to make room for multiple histories in a landscape. Allen said she is “always looking to history as it’s the source of inspiration and transformation.” But she also acknowledged that reintepretations of public spaces can bring up conversations like: “whose history are you going to use — African American, or Native American, or Caucasian?”

“There’s a real tension, which is the exciting part. Things change; history is in flux.” But conflict can arise when there is the feeling that “you are erasing our history to talk about their’s.”

Mitchell believes “demographic change is making a lot of people uncomfortable.” Communities need to learn there are “multiple histories side by side.” But they have to go through this process of reaching a new understanding together.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (November 16 – 30)

Anaheim,California,USA._-_panoramio_(1)
View down Main Street USA at Disneyland / Photo Credit: Roman Eugeniusz [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Walter Hood Digs DeepArchitectural Digest, 11/18/19
“The Oakland, California–based landscape designer, fresh off a string of prestigious design prize wins, has an approach that embraces the eccentricities of people and place.”

Podcast: Culture and Race Within Landscape ArchitectureAuthentic F&F, 11/18/19
“Listen to Ujijji discuss how she aims to promote change through landscape architecture, urban design, and an awareness of African American history across landscapes.”

10 Questions: Napa Landscape Architect Makes The Outside Look Sharp – Napa Valley Register, 11/19/19
“Susan Heiken said one of the best things about being a landscape architect is that “you are always learning something new.”

New Renderings Show 72,600-square-foot Public Park Coming to Brooklyn’s Pacific Park Development – 6sqft, 11/19/19
“Developer TF Cornerstone this week released new renderings for two sites within Brooklyn’s long-delayed Pacific Park development that have yet to break ground: 615 and 595 Dean Street.”

Dreaming Up Disneyland – The New York Times, 11/25/19
“Those who knew Walt Disney often described him as an uncomplicated man of conventional 20th-century sensibilities: a lover of model trains, farm animals, lunch-wagon food, hard work, evening belts of scotch and endless Chesterfield cigarettes. One of his rituals upon coming home from his movie studio was feeding his poodle, Duchess, a cold frankfurter, or “wienie,” by leading her from room to room while throwing pieces on the floor.”

Prospect Park Tackles Toxic Algae Blooms With Nature-Based Technology – Gothamist, 11/26/19
“For years people have walked by NYC’s urban lakes and ponds without knowing what the green stuff in the water really is. But dog owners in Prospect Park may know all too well: It’s toxic algae bloom.”

How to Reintegrate the Homeless into Their Communities

UrbanAlchemy
Urban Alchemy practitioner / Urban Alchemy

A survey of homeless individuals by Downtown Streets Team yielded one overwhelming response: they felt completely ignored as human beings. At the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego, Brian Elliott, policy analyst for San Diego Councilmember Chris Ward; Brandon Davis with the California-based Downtown Streets Team; and Lena Miller with Urban Alchemy, discussed strategies to reintegrate homeless individuals into their communities, ranging from top-down policy decisions to empowering local unsheltered populations through employment options.

California is ranked number 1 in homelessness, with nearly 130,000 homeless individuals, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and numbers only continue to rise.

Elliott expressed a commitment to reduce the number of unsheltered people in San Diego County, which he cited as at least 4,476 people, nearly 55 percent of the at least 8,100 homeless residents of San Diego County. Councilmember Ward is the chair of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, an “integrated array of stakeholders committed to preventing and alleviating homelessness.”

Dispelling myths about who the homeless was paramount to all three speakers, but Elliott highlighted that in San Diego, the cause is primarily economic. He noted that “a hospital bill they could not pay, a utility bill they could not pay, balanced with housing, especially in a high-cost market with low vacancy rates, leads to homelessness.”

The City of San Diego unanimously passed the Community Action Plan on Homelessness, a body of policy focused on helping the existing homeless population, preventing future homelessness, and ensuring that homelessness is an experience that is brief and non-recurring. Davis made clear that “homelessness is an experience, not an identity.”

The plan looked at three short-term goals to be achieved in three years: end youth homelessness; end veterans homelessness; and decrease unsheltered homelessness by 50 percent. Building community and state level buy-in is central to achieving these goals. As can be seen below, veterans homelessness spreads across generations.

Veterans.jpg
2018 We All Count Survey / Regional Task Force on the Homeless

The first step of the plan calls for transitioning away from using the police as a first point of contact and instead reaching out to social workers. In order to combat the housing issue, the city council has committed to at least 140 new units of permanent support housing in all 9 council districts to be built over two years. To achieve this, Elliott encouraged landscape architects to continue to design for everyone, not specific populations.

Miller started Urban Alchemy in 2018. The organization birthed out of Hunter’s Point Family, an earlier non-profit Miller founded that focused on public housing.

Miller became interested in public toilets, specifically their importance in ensuring the dignity of the homeless, but also their potential for jobs. The organization has created 24 safe and clean public toilets in Tenderloin and other parts of San Francisco with high homeless populations and given homeless individuals jobs cleaning and maintaining those toilets, BART stations, the Civic Center area, downtown streets, and parks.

Urban Alchemy works with long-term offenders, integrating them back into society in order to prevent them from experiencing homelessness. Miller pointed to their high levels of emotional intelligence, their ability to read people, and their ability to interact with different kinds of people. All of these skills help them to establish and maintain social norms in the public places they work.

Urban Alchemy practitioner / Urban Alchemy

The police are brought in to offer deescalation training, helping to establish a relationship between law enforcement and employees of Urban Alchemy. Miller said this “transforms the paradigm of how the police see us, and how everyone in society sees us.”

Miller noted how the work provides not only an income but also a sense of pride, remarking on an anecdote where one employee called the Governor of California into a bathroom stall he had just cleaned to show him how clean it was.

Urban Alchemy saved 85 lives in 2018, through Narcan deployment, which brings back people from drug overdoses, and providing water to dehydrated people.

Downtown Streets Team employs local homeless populations to clean community spaces in San Jose and San Francisco. Instead of an hourly wage, they offer a non-cash basic-needs stipend, case management, employment services, and a support network within their community. The program offers people who have been out of work for a few years a platform to build their resume and eventually re-enter the workforce.

Volunteers wear bright yellow shirts, denoting them as members of the community and part of the Downtown Streets Team. The simple action of donning a yellow shirt and cleaning the community restores their dignity as people and members of their community.

Downtown Streets Team.jpg
Downtown Streets Team yellow volunteer shirt / Downtown Streets Team

The marginalization of homeless individuals often leads them to ignore the social norms of public space. Including them as part of the community helps ensure norms are met.

Each Tuesday, Downtown Streets Team hosts a town hall where people can participate in public life, share in each other’s successes, and be together. For Davis, “we are all here to hold each other accountable to be our better selves.”

To date, Downtown Streets Team has secured over 1,900 jobs and homes for people.

The Landscapes of Enslavement (Part 1)

Stewart Castle Estate, 1835, JB Kidd / Inside Journeys

There has been an evolution in public education about historic landscapes where people were once enslaved. Just a few decades ago, the story of African American slaves would have been brushed over, sanitized, or, even worse, left blank. Now, a few brave public educators, academics, photographers, and historians are showing how complicated, layered stories can be told that honor the truth and dignity of those who were enslaved. They show that landscapes can tell the story of American history in all its beauty and horror.

Thaisa Way, FASLA, the new director of garden and landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. assembled a group who are at the cutting-edge of reinterpreting landscapes of enslavement. Over the course of a day, African American, Latinx, and Caucasian scholars, landscape architects, and curators waded into some of the toughest conversations. The conclusion was that a new inclusive approach to educating the public is being forged, even when the reality of American slavery remains hard to hear for those brought up on Gone with the Wind.

The colloquium, which was held in preparation for a two-day symposium in spring 2020 on the legacy of segregation on cities, delved into studies and projects related to landscapes of enslavement in the U.S. and Caribbean. Way explained these academic conferences are part of a broader three-year investigation financed with grants from the Mellon Foundation.

The Daily Life of Enslaved People in Jamaica

Jillian Galle, project director, Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, is coordinating a collaborative research study on 85 sites in the U.S., Jamaica, Nevis, and St. Kitts, and other countries that have yielded 4 million artifacts.

Through her archeological research, Galle found that the global trade in sugar, cocoa, spices, and coffee resulted in a “new material culture” of luxury products. Excavations of slave dwellings in Jamaica yielded fragments of porcelain from southern China. “Slaves were active participants in the consumer revolution.”

Analyzing 33,000 artifacts from Stewart Castle in Jamaica, Galle and her team found “costly objects from Europe” while excavating slave structures, including “glass beads, metal buttons, furniture ornaments, iron pots, shells, and utensils.” Machetes and hooks, which were used by slaves as weapons during rebellions, were also found.

Over three centuries, some 9 million Africans were kidnapped and brought to the Caribbean to plant and harvest sugar, citrus, lumber, cocoa, and other products on plantations overseen by white workers. Due to the incredible violence of slavery, “there was no natural increase,” meaning slaves weren’t able to have children. As the enslaved Africans were worked to death, one million new slaves were imported.

Instead of feeding slaves well, portions of plantations were given over to them as “a system of Negro provisioning grounds.” So in addition to their work, there was the stress of having to “cultivate gardens, fish, grow livestock to meet their own food needs.” Famine was a regular occurrence and constant threat.

Unearthing shellfish shells, fish bones, and other food remains from these sites gave insight into their diet. While slaves often sold fish they caught in markets, clams and other shellfish made up a large portion of their diet, which was partially foraged. Galle hypothesized that African slaves who were stolen away to Jamaica brought their “Gold Coast fishing culture,” which has been passed down to Jamaicans who live there today.

Inside the ruins of Stewart Castle / Digital Archeological Archive of Comparative Slavery

After the British abolished the slave trade in 1807, the life of enslaved people in Jamaica improved somewhat, at least on a relative basis. Some gained access to island-wide Sunday markets where they could purchase or trade those luxury consumer products. With the ability to participate in commercial life, “they achieved a margin of economic and reproductive success in a brutal environment.”

Telling the Story of Slavery at the Whitney Plantation

Dr. Ibrahima Seck, director of research of the Whitney Plantation Slavery Museum and a member of the faculty at the University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar (UCAD), Senegal, said the 2,000-acre Whitney Plantation, which is about a one hour drive west of New Orleans, Louisiana, is dedicated to explaining the history of slavery in the South. The museum opened to the public in 2014 and receives around 100,000 visitors annually, a number growing 10-15 percent each year.

Attorney John Cummings purchased the land for $8 million, spent 15 years restoring the site, and commissioned life-sized clay sculptures of enslaved Creole adults and children that humanize them and breathe life into the history. Many of the sculptures, which were created by artist Woodrow Nash, are found within the historic African American Antioch Baptist Church, which was moved to the property.

Children of Whitney sculpture / Whitney Plantation Facebook
Children of Whitney sculpture / Whitney Plantation Facebook

Over a 90-minute tour, mostly outdoors, visitors get a sense of what life was like for the enslaved laborers, “who spent most of their lives outside, whether it was very hot or cold.”

Seck said some 13 percent of the slave population in Louisiana died each year. “There were also large numbers of children who died — either stillborn or due to disease.”

What makes the Whitney different from other Southern plantations is the Wall of Honor, where Seck and his team have listed the names of enslaved people they discovered lived there over the 18th and 19th centuries. “There are 400 names, African names.”

Wall of Honor at Whitney Plantation / Slavery and Remembrance

Also, Rush more recently created an art piece to honor the slaves who led and participated in the German Coast uprising on January 8, 1811. By June 13, the slaves had been defeated by the local militia. “And they had to pay the price of failure.” Those captured were shot, decapitated in front of their families, and then their heads were put on spikes. “The artwork represents this but also presents them as an army.”

1811 Slave Revolt Memorial by Woodrow Nash / Yelp

Ashley Rogers, who is the executive director of the museum, said “many visitors have an idea in their mind of what slavery was like that doesn’t line up with reality. It’s a bucolic, beautiful setting, with cypress swamps and egrets, but the landscape is deceiving — it obscures the hard labor and violence.”

Rogers emphasized the industrial nature of the plantation. “The fields were like factories.”

Starting in the 1820s, steam-powered mills and conveyor belts led to a “methodical division of labor.” Then, beginning in the 1840s, field work became mechanized through machines first sold as “iron slaves.” These machines were marketed as “better than human, the ideal slaves.”

After slavery was abolished, a system of bonded labor developed that “was similar to slavery in so many ways.”

Many of the plantations along the Mississippi River were later purchased by oil and chemical companies, which were attracted by easy access to water and transportation. On top of the violence and trauma came “toxicity and environmental degradation.”

Today, St. John the Baptist Parish is the most polluted in Louisiana. “And the energy and chemical companies still receive tax-free status.”

A Bold Re-Interpretation of Slavery at Montpelier

Restored Montpelier / Wikipedia

Elizabeth Chew, executive vice president and chief curator at Montpelier, President James Madison’s home in Virginia, which is about 90 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., said Madison owned enslaved people, who grew tobacco and grain on his property.

After being purchased by the Montpelier Foundation in 2000, the home was restored to near-original condition as part of a $24 million multi-year effort. As the restoration neared completion, one member of the community of descendants of Madison’s slaves asked Chew: “where are my people?”

The realization that the story of the enslaved had been largely omitted led to archeological excavations, architectural studies of slaves’ quarters, and the eventual recreation of their quarters in the south yard of Montpelier. A $10 million gift from David Rubenstein made that work possible.

Archeological excavations at Montpelier / Montpelier Foundation
Reconstructed slave quarters at Montpelier / National Trust for Historic Preservation

Montpelier Foundation made a concerted effort to engage the descendant community in the creation of new interpretation program and telling personal stories about Madison’s slaves. “Their advice was to emphasize the humanity of their ancestors, and don’t leave slavery in the past.” The main message the Foundation wants to convey now is: “slavery happened to one person at a time.”

Through inventive exhibitions, the forms of slaves are projected on walls while recordings of oral histories of descendants play in the background. “You feel human presences in the spaces.” Chew said they hoped to convey the “psychological torture of slavery; that loved ones could be sold and stolen away at any moment.”

With support from multiple grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, the Montpelier Foundation has also created new curriculum for teaching slavery in schools and engaged visitors and descendants in the excavations and discovery of the past. Chew seemed proud that the descendants are now a “major stakeholder.”

Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, the Merrill D. Peterson professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, who moderated the session, said Montpelier, through its thoughtful interpretative work, powerfully expresses “the magnitude of loss and horror, and the persistence of the intangible and invisible impacts” of slavery.

Chew said once visitors “see the evidence and experience the spaces with their own bodies, it overrides any concern” that the reinterpretation is too threatening to “white fragility.”

There are growing numbers of visitors of color. For many, “Montpelier is a pilgrimage; it’s a stand-in plantation.” And about “40 percent of our visitors thank us every day for what we are doing.”

Their concern now is remaining relevant amid declining visitor numbers. “Older white folks make up the largest demographic of visitors, and that has to change.”

Read part 2 of the Landscapes of Enslavement.

The Landscapes of Enslavement (Part 2)

Monticello / Wikipedia

At a day-long colloqium at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., Thaisa Way, FASLA, the new director of garden and landscape studies, assembled a group who are at the cutting-edge of reinterpreting landscapes of enslavement. Over the course of a day, African American, Latinx, and Caucasian scholars, landscape architect, and curators waded into some of the toughest conversations. The conclusion was that a new inclusive approach to educating the public is being forged, even when the truth of American slavery remains hard to hear for those brought up on Gone with the Wind. (Read Part 1 in this series).

Monticello: Liberty and White Supremacy

Before moderating the discussion on Monticello, the plantation of Thomas Jefferson in Virginia, Eric Avila, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, took at tour there. He said his guide started with a joke: “Monticello, it’s complicated.”

Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the U.S., is considered a founding father but he also owned 600 slaves at his 5,000-acre estate. His beliefs and writings helped lay the foundation for American liberty but only for white males. He was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence but fathered six children with Sally Hemmings, one of his mixed-race slaves.

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation manages Monticello and employs Fraser Nieman, who is head of archeology. At the historic estate, “the landscape of slavery has vanished.” Instead, he and his team have had to deduct what the past looked like from available data, in this case, oral histories, documents, and layers of sediment.

Jefferson grew both tobacco and grain, but they required “radically different” agricultural methods. To grow tobacco, enslaved workers would kill trees, leaving the stumps. Then, they would abandon a plot 4-5 years later and cut down more trees starting the cycle over again. “Tobacco required a gang labor system; everyone was at the same time at the same place.”

In contrast, wheat production required all tree stumps to be dug up and removed so that fields could be plowed by livestock. Wheat production demanded an elaborate divisions of labor: slaves to manage livestock, fertilizers, mills, and then blacksmiths to make the plows. “Wheat production required spatially-dispersed task groups.” Nieman thinks the experience of slavery may have differed based on what was being grown. “Tobacco production required more control, while there was slightly more freedom with wheat.”

Without any physical remains of slave dwellings or farmland, Nieman and his team decided to investigate the accumulated layers of sediment, which are an “encapsulation of history.” Pollen samples from those many layers tell the story of the transition from tobacco to grain.

Branden Dillard is an anthropologist who oversees interpretation and the instruction of tour guides at Monticello. While he said “no one can recreate the landscape of enslavement at Monticello,” which was a “forced labor camp in a botanical garden,” his job is to convey “an understanding of what it was.”

Monticello’s landscape / Monticello, Thomas Jefferson Foundation

Interpretation involves bringing historical data and facts to life for diverse, contemporary audiences, making information relevant on a personal level. One important way the foundation does that is by using facts from documentary records to tell the stories about individual slaves.

Dillard acknowledge that tours can become very tense, particularly when visitors hear things they perhaps don’t want to. “Staff have been yelled at; fights can break out among visitors.” He said “about 15 percent of the reviews of the tours basically say ‘how dare you;’ another 15 percent accuse us of white washing; and 70 percent say we are doing a good job.”

For Niya Bates, who manages the oral history projects at Monticello, it’s important to have “up-front conversations with visitors who have been miseducated on the history of slavery and its legacy.”

She said Jefferson was “obsessive about taking notes, marking the weather twice a day.” From all these records, they were able to piece together the names of the 600 slaves who lived there, and then trace descendants, who have become critical stakeholders in Monticello.

Oral history interviews with descendants about the lives of their ancestors at Monticello and after slavery, and the after-shocks of slavery among the descendants themselves, helps enrich the story of this historic landscape. “Monticello is really a black space, even though it is not thought of as such. We can re-frame it as a black history site.”

The foundation has organized events where descendants plant trees to honor their ancestors. Visitors can sleep overnight in rebuilt slave quarters. Through the incredible Getting Word project, they can hear the stories themselves both online and in exhibitions. And there are also grants available to descendants to pursue their own projects and development.

The Legacy of Slavery in East End Cemetery

Introduced by landscape architect Sara Zewde, Brian Palmer, a photographer, journalist and professor gave a heart-felt talk about his explorations in the South, both photographing white supremacist rallies and exploring abandoned African American cemeteries.

In 1892, Jim Crow, which was a system of laws and regulations that enforced racial segregation across Southern states, “followed people to the grave.” African Americans had to be buried in their own cemeteries. The fact that many of these places are so neglected today plays into “our community’s residual shame.”

East End Cemetery, which is near Richmond, Virginia, is a historic 16-acre site where an estimated 17,000 African Americans are buried. It was one of many neglected African American cemeteries in the South.

After discovering the site through a photography assignment, Palmer and his wife later returned to volunteer, clearing out invasive plants, making the cemetery more visible and accessible, and posting images of gravestones on “Find a Grave” in an effort to identify descendants. Palmer went on to become the president of the non-profit managing the clean-up.

East End Cemetery / Church Hill People’s News

Reviewing microfiche of old newspapers, Palmer also discovered some of the famous African Americans buried at East End, including a doctor who became a bank president. “Reclaiming the cemetery is about reclaiming the history there.”

He called out the injustice that continues today in Virginia, noting that the state has provided over $9 million over the past 100 years for the upkeep of Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond, where many Confederate figures are buried, but exactly zero for the maintenance of African American cemeteries. “There’s affirmative action for Confederate cemeteries.”

Through a number of grants, East End Cemetery has been able to create a community for descendants and an ambitious preservation plan. Palmer said it’s slowly becoming a tourist destination, along with Evergreen and Woodland cemeteries nearby, which are also being restored. Read more in Palmer’s op-ed in The New York Times.

Uncovering the Truth of Slavery at Universities

Nathan D.B. Connolly, a historian and professor at Johns Hopkins University moderated a discussion on how universities are dealing with complicated pasts intertwined with slavery. Given we now know that “slave money built many American universities,” including Ivy League institutions, how can universities create an inclusive community? Donnolly believes that “racism is still rampant in higher education,” adding to the challenge.

Adam Rothman, a professor of history at Georgetown University, has worked to uncover the full story of slavery at his university, which has been in the news because Jesuits sold some 275 slaves in 1838 for $115,000 to get out from under “crushing debt.” While this information was publicly known at least since the 1960s, it has been “rediscovered” and taken on a new life.

Frank Campbell, an enslaved person sold by Georgetown University / Robert Ruffin Barrow, Jr., Papers, Archives and Special Collections, Nicholls State University, Thibodaux, La., Public Domain

To date, the university’s official response has been to offer a formal apology, institute a new process for engaging descendants of those slaves, and give descendants privileged position in admission considerations. However, current students recently found this didn’t go far enough and voted for giving reparations to descendants, arguing that one dormitory paid for with proceeds from the sale of slaves generates more than $1 million in revenue annually.

Rothman served on Georgetown’s working group on slavery, memory, and reconciliation, which generated a set of “steps” for justice after discussions with faculty, students, and descendants, who are represented by the Georgetown Memory Project. One result of the work has been the renaming of two halls on campus for slaves sold by Georgetown. There is now the Isaac Hawkins Hall and the Anne Marie Becraft Hall. But Rothman complained that “these names have no meaning for students; they need additional interpretation.”

As the Georgetown Memory Project calls for more research and students demand reparations, Georgetown is “seriously wrestling with the facts of history.”

Hilary N. Green, an associate professor of history at the University of Alabama, who runs the Hallowed Grounds project, a walking tour of slave history on campus, said her university has a “dismal retention rate for diverse students and faculty” perhaps in part because the past there hasn’t been fully acknowledged.

Hilary Green giving Hallowed Grounds tour / The Crimson White, University of Alabama

While the university created a marker honoring slaves and their legacy on the campus, Green decided to dig deeper, looking into the archives, and uncovering personal stories of slaves on campus. All this information has been presented in a walking tour to over 4,300 people, in rain or shine.

Hallowed Grounds / Hilary N. Green

Her efforts have yielded progress: the university has formed a new commission to study race, slavery, and civil rights. Green has also created a pop-up museum on racial history at the university and is seeking a dedicated space.

And Elgin Cleckley, assistant professor of architecture and design thinking at the University of Virginia, described how he brings his empathetic design approach to complex sites on campus and in Charlottesville.

He said the walking tour on enslaved African Americans at the University of Virginia inspired him to work with students to create a new project and exhibition called Mapping, which is now on view in the Rotunda until 2020. The project features documentation from the University of Virginia president’s commission on slavery and an orientation model laser-etched in slate roof tiles that enslaved workers on campus created.

Mapping / University of Virginia

UVA recently commissioned Howeler+Yoon to create a new monument to enslaved labor on campus, which will feature 973 names. (Some 4,000-5,000 workers were enslaved on the campus). Cleckley participated in the monument’s planning and design, stating that it adds an African form that contrasts with axial structure of the traditional campus. The monument is expected to open in 2020.

Memorial to Enslaved Laborers / Howeler+Yoon, University of Virginia

Cleckley said UVA is a complicated place to work because it “has produced both white supremacists and African American civil rights leaders.”

In the Q&A, conversation veered towards what to do with the Confederate statues that still take center stage in many Southern parks, plazas, and streets, serve as daily reminders of the “Lost Cause,” and are major flash points in race relations.

Some cities like Baltimore and Austin have removed all Confederate monuments, while other cities are moving cautiously, deliberating over whether to reinterpret the sites for a contemporary audience. The conclusion seemed to be to go slowly in removing them and focus on building new monuments to enslaved people first, rather than tearing down the old.

Another question arose about how to represent the influence of African slaves in historic American places like Monticello through design. The landscape isn’t just a white landscape, but also a black one.

Bates at Monticello said one way would be to contrast the “Western, rigid, grid forms” with something antithetical and African, “with movement, color, asymmetrical and curvilinear forms.” Intervening in the symbolic Western forms can “disrupt the landscape of white supremacy.”

Read part 1 of Landscapes of Enslavement.

Beth Meyer: Natural Beauty Has a Ripple Effect

Beth Meyer / National Building Museum

Beth Meyer, FASLA, the Merrill D. Peterson professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, is this year’s recipient of the Vincent Scully Prize, which is bestowed by the National Building Museum (NBM) in Washington, D.C.

Just the second landscape architect to receive the prize, after Laurie Olin, FASLA, in 2017, Meyer is widely viewed as one of the most influential landscape architecture professors teaching today. Scully Prize jury chair Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk said: “she has left an indelible mark on theories of aesthetics, sustainability, culture, and social impact.”

In a wide-ranging, dynamic conversation at the NBM with her friend Thaïsa Way, the resident program director for garden and landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks, Meyer demonstrated her ability to enlighten and create a sense of wonder. She helped the audience better understand the deep impact beauty has on us, particularly natural beauty in the public realm.

A few highlights from the conversation:

On how she formed her ideas: “I grew up in Virginia Beach as a Navy brat. I spent endless hours on beaches and boardwalks, walking the promenades and public spaces. There was every body shape and size imaginable.”

“I came to landscape architecture sideways. Visiting Norfolk, Virginia, in the mid-60s, I saw urban renewal projects demolish buildings and communities, and what was created as a replacement was not great stuff. I became interested in design really through demolition. I wanted to make cities better. I later discovered cities involve dynamic processes that result from political and social factors.”

“I found a niche between historian and designer. In landscape history, there had been an over-emphasis on ecology. I wanted to focus on cultural and social aspects and human agency.”

“I left my suburban life to study, work, and live in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Boston. Suburbia is so segregated, but I discovered that urban parks are outdoor living rooms where you encounter people who are not like you. By recognizing the humanity of a stranger different from you in public spaces, you develop empathy and tolerance, which is the basis of community and democracy.”

“Sitting outside alone is also an act of self care. There is an intimacy to being alone in public, which allows you to quiet the usual busyness and see each other. That intimacy creates conviviality and moments of connection, which is an act of self care.”

On how to understand the social, cultural, and political aspects of landscapes: “In Southern cities and towns, there is a racialized topography. Wealthy and white live up on the ridges; poor and black live in the bottoms, the bowls, which leads to temperature, health, economic, and social disparities. Analyzing power and race topographically provides a lens for understanding public space. Landscape is a text for reading issues of power and privilege.”

“I think a lot about who has the right to the city? Who has the right to linger in public spaces? How do you define lingering versus loitering? What if a park is the only place someone has to go to during the day?”

“I’m not into the theory of landscape urbanism. It doesn’t engage with the social and political. Landscapes are a framework.”

On the importance of natural beauty: “There is a real pleasure and joy in the experience of — and interaction with — plants that are changing. Places with plants can cause people to become distracted, to pause and wonder. Princeton University professor Elaine Scarry calls this ‘wonder in the face of beauty.’ It arrests time and causes us to care. When something beautiful happens, when the mist rises, there is a ripple effect on others.”

On why we need to design with nature: “Public spaces are more than human when we recognize the agency of soil, microbes, plants, and critters. There is this constellation of life in it together. We co-construct public space with other species. Interacting with the biophysical world also alters our mood and sensibility — and our ethos and ethics.”

On climate change: “To combat the threat, landscape architects can care for materials and small things; people’s need for public space and the ability to self care; and beauty. Design matters because it alters the ethos of people who use the spaces.”

“It’s not only humans that are feeling the threat of climate change. I saw a Dogwood tree outside of Dumbarton Oaks the other day that was blooming with browning leaves.”

On how positive change can happen: “I understand now that the aggregated experience of natural beauty among many people can change our collective mood and create a cultural shift.”

Now more than ever then, natural beauty is needed in our public spaces.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (October 16 – 31)

Citi_Field_and_Arthur_Ashe_Stadium
The Oakland A’s Citi Field /  Dicklyon, Creativecommons

As Waters Rise, So Do Concerns For Sports Teams Along Coast The Washington Post, 10/16/19
“A number of American pro sports venues could be vulnerable to rising waters brought on by climate change.”

The Gentrification Effect of Urban Parks Planetizen, 10/21/19
“New research finds that different types of parks correlate with different gentrification effects, adding to the complexity of urban change.”

The Parks That Made the Man Who Made Central ParkThe New York Times, 10/30/19
“Frederick Law Olmsted’s tours of English parks shaped his vision of landscape design. You can see his inspiration in three dimensions by touring five of them.”

Pier 55’s Thomas Heatherwick-Designed Park Is Taking Shape Curbed NY, 10/30/19
“The futuristic Pier 55 park designed by Thomas Heatherwick and financed by billionaire mogul Barry Diller is taking shape on the Hudson River.”

Columbia Pitches $18 Million Plan to Overhaul Finlay Park The Free Times, 10/31/19
“Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and other city officials announced on Thursday an $18 million plan to revamp battered, aging Finlay Park.”

As Cities Grow, Remember the Communities That Were Destroyed

Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza / Perkins+Will

In the past few decades, there has been an urban renaissance. As the populations of cities grow and change, in part through gentrification, we must honor the communities whose “opportunities were denied” due to redlining, urban renewal, and other discriminatory practices based on race. Urban planners, architects, and landscape architects can help communities unearth and then preserve this history through “remembrance design,” a process that can tell the story of “historically disenfranchised and negatively impacted communities,” said Kenneth Luker, with Perkins + Will, at a session at the Urban Land Institute (ULI)’s fall meeting in Washington, D.C. This is the way to “reconcile with the past and use history to create an inclusive future.”

Zena Howard, principal and managing director, and Michael Stevenson, urban designer at multidisciplinary design firm Perkins + Will; Cynthia Lau, a planner with the Vancouver city government; and Kofi Boone, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University, explained how to plan and design that shared future.

Howard said “curiosity about the past can drive a process of remembrance. We can research and dig into communities to recover memories of removed or destroyed areas.” Through connecting with African American communities that have experienced a history of urban displacement, designers can help “build community awareness, foster memorable experiences, embrace cultural identity, celebrate memory, and honor unique assets.”

She called for undertaking a true discovery process with communities that have been impacted by urban renewal, redlining, or other forms of racism. “Discovery is not just community engagement — it is the process.”

Kofi Boone argued that the architecture and planning community hadn’t been asked to take responsibility for the disproportionate social impact on African American and Latinx communities of redlining, which involved a federal, state, and local system of purposefully denying mortgages to African Americans and walling off entire neighborhoods from investment, and urban renewal, which involved clearing existing communities to make way for Modernist urban designs and highway infrastructure. That is until African American civil rights activist Whitney Young gave a keynote address to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) conference in 1968. In his address, Young called on the built environment community to stop contributing to social displacement.

Whitney Young at American Institute of Architects / Now-what Architexx.org

As Richard Rothstein explained in his book Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, redlining impacted some 160 urban and suburban communities across the U.S. for many decades. Given home ownership is the primary source of wealth accumulation for most Americans, the result today is African Americans have far lower amounts of wealth than Caucasian Americans. Little accumulated wealth through home ownership meant little for future generations to inherit. “Today, the average white family has $122,000 in wealth; Latinx family $1,600; and African American family, just $1,300,” Boone said.

Home Owner’s Loan Corporation redlined map of Philadelphia, 1936 / Wikipedia

Urban renewal compounded the impacts of redlining. Communities that had suffered from years of disinvestment were highly vulnerable to redevelopment. Modernists saw places with rich histories as clean slates that could be re-made. According to Boone, some 200 communities were “renewed,” which in social terms meant displaced. The result was “root shock,” a term coined by Mindy Thompson Fullilove in her book, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, And What We Can Do About It. For many African American communities, there wasn’t just one displacement either: “serial displacements created long-term disruption.” And generation after generation experienced these “major shocks to the system.”

In Greenville, North Carolina, Perkins + Will worked with remnants of the once-vibrant African American Sycamore Hill community, which was displaced by urban renewal in the 1960s. As the community hollowed out, the Sycamore Hill Baptist Church burned to the ground from suspected arson. “There was nothing left,” Michael Stevenson, a partner at Perkins + Will, said.

Urban renewal demolished Sycamore Hill / Perkins + Will
Sycamore Hill Baptist Church / Perkins + Will

In the footprint of where the church once stood, Howard and her team partnered with the community to plan and design the Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza, which will feature a prominent tower to honor the history of the destroyed spiritual center. Pew-like benches are set amid a one-acre park separated by plinths with inspirational messages and depictions of local history. The project is part of a broader master plan for a new park called Greenville Town Commons on state and city land. “It’s a place of learning, remembrance, and reflection.” Its development has been a “meaningful process for the community.”

Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza / Perkins + Will

African American architect Phil Freelon, who was a partner at Perkins + Will and passed away earlier this year, partnered with the community to plan and design the 1-acre Freedom Park in Raleigh, North Carolina in a symbolic space between the State general assembly and capitol buildings. “Honoring the history repressed in history books, the plaza park will celebrate the significant contributions of African Americans from the Raleigh area, including jazz great Thelonious Monk, author Maya Angelou, John Coltrane, and others,” Stevenson said. The park features a grove of Oak trees but also their roots, which “make life possible.” The park’s paths, which radiate out from the Oaks, symbolize those roots — “the hidden history.” The park is designed to be a “beacon of freedom and a representation of a better future for everyone.”

Freedom Park, Raleigh / Perkins + Will

Canada has its own fraught racial history as well. In Vancouver, the historically-Black Northeast False Creek neighborhood, which includes the Hogan’s Alley area, suffered from the Canadian version of redlining and then further destruction with the construction of a highway. “In the process, the community was displaced and erased from history,” said Cynthia Lau, a planner with the Vancouver city government. “It’s like they were never really part of the city.” Today, the black community makes up just 1 percent of Vancouver.

After a conventional planning process failed to account for the voice of Black Vancouverites, the city tried again with a new set of consultants, including Howard’s team at Perkins+Will, which undertook a “co-design process that helped people tell their stories.” The end result, Lau said, is a “meaningful community development plan” rooted in the goals of “reconciliation and cultural redress.” Viaducts will be replaced with street-level transportation networks. Some 32 acres of new parks are planned, along with affordable housing for 3,200 residents. The new development is expected to create 6,000-8,000 new local jobs as well.

Hogan’s Alley design proposal / Perkins + Will

At the close of the session, Boone reiterated that architects, planners, and landscape architects “can’t do remembrance design processes alone. Success comes from partnerships with policymakers, community leaders, and activists. You have to bring in people who haven’t been heard before.” For authentic engagement, “the most historically disenfranchised communities should have the loudest voice.”

Designers can help communities “reclaim their narrative and identify what is important to them.” They also have a responsibility to ensure those long-unheard voices don’t “get lost in translation.”

For Boone, remembrance design isn’t just superficial social justice-washing. “These projects can catalyze political, social, and economic organization.” Howard reiterated that the process itself is what’s important. The stories unearthed through the co-design process are really the basis for “accessible, inclusive spaces.”

Remembrance design isn’t just for co-designing with African American communities either. Boone said he knows of designers working with Latinx communities to help them “dream and visualize change,” even through many of these visions haven’t taken real form, largely because these communities now feel so unsafe due to President Trump’s rhetoric and the threat of ICE raids. “These communities are now in the process of gathering stories and empowering themselves.”

And Chinese American communities have also organized to create positive change. In Seattle, plans were underway to remake and expand the underused and unloved Hing Hay Park. In 2012, the Friends of Hing Hay Park formed, demanding a more contemporary and culturally-resonant public space. Chinese landscape architecture firm Turenscape, led by Kongjian Yu, FALSA, partnered with MIG|Svr to create a new design that reflects China’s many diverse cultures and created space for night markets.

Hing Hay Park / Miranda Estes Photography, Landscape Architecture Magazine