The institution of slavery shaped landscapes on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. And in turn enslaved and free Africans and their descendants created new landscapes in the United States, the Caribbean, and Sub-Saharan Africa. African people had their own intimate relationships with the land, which enabled them to carve out their own agency and culture.
Thaisa Way, FASLA, director of the garden and landscape studies department at Dumbarton Oaks, said the symposium was the fourth in a series meant to “curate a people’s history of landscape.”
African slaves in the United States’ Southern states and the Caribbean were forced to work in their owners’ plantations. They were seen as cogs in an industrial farming system driven by a trans-Atlantic capitalist market economy. But many owners also set aside land slaves could use to grow, trade, and sell food. “This was advantageous for the slave owner,” said C.C. McKee, a professor at Bryn Mawr College and the University of Copenhagen, as it meant having to spend less on feeding them.
McKee is intrigued by a painting by the artist simply known as Le Masurier, created in the French colony of Martinique in the 1770s (see image above). It clearly shows slave children eating sugar cane, the result of the plantation monoculture, but also the “Afro-Caribbean ecologies,” the many African and native trees and plants slaves planted at the edges of plantations, including cashew and tamarind, pea, and starfruit.
According to historical accounts of plantation life during that time, slaves also planted potatoes, yams, cabbages, herbs, and melons. They blended native Caribbean and African plants, taking a “creolized approach to food production.”
The edges of plantations were places where African social structures could be asserted. In these remnant spaces, slaves could decide how to parcel and cultivate the land. And while slave ownership of these areas was impossible, in some communities, hereditary claims were made on parcels, and kinship structures could play a role. In some communities, they functioned as a slave commons. They were “sites of resistance” to the slave owner’s world.
What isn’t seen in the painting McKee highlights is a depiction of the important role indigenous Caribbean peoples played in cultivating trees and plants, and on many islands, their role in teaching Africans how to harvest and prepare food from them. “The indigenous people have been ghosted because they were completely expelled by the 18th century. They were exterminated and exported; it was genocide.”
Slave children also had a complex relationship with the landscapes of the American South, explained Mikayla Janee Harden, a PhD student at the University of Delaware. They were put at greater risk by a dangerous landscape but also “knowingly imprinted on that landscape,” she said.
Children were left on their own or in the care of an elder while their parents worked the fields. Depending on their age, many were also tasked with clean-up and other responsibilities.
On plantations, slaves lived near untamed landscapes. Children who worked and played in these places without shoes were at great risk from snake bites. The few references to slave children in historical records relate to the medical knowledge gleaned from these bites. Children’s lack of “experience, wisdom, and judgement increased their risk of environmental harm.”
But children could also benefit from their “tacit knowledge” of the landscape. While still enslaved, some apprenticed at a young age to learn important trades. Harden highlights the example of Edmond Albius. Enslaved as a child on the French island colony of Reunion, he discovered a highly efficient way to cultivate vanilla that is still used today.
Landscape was a source of “pain and pleasure” for enslaved children. Untended by their working parents, they could be bitten by snakes or have accidents but could also learn, play, and imagine. Harden is next exploring the material culture — the corn-husk dolls and games enslaved children created — and how these objects transmitted African folklore and culture to the next generation.
The conversation then shifted to the other side of the Atlantic. The landscapes of the Falémé Valley in western Sub-Saharan Africa are a source of deep interest for Jacques Aymeric-Nsangou, a professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada. The valley provides insights into how African people avoided the process of enslavement and commodification.
Aymeric-Nsangou decided to research the hinterlands because most Africans captured and enslaved came from the interior, not the coasts. “Many had never seen the ocean before” when they were loaded into slave ships at coastal ports.
The Falémé River spans approximately 250 miles and flows south to north — from northern Guinea, through Mali and Senegal. It flows through mountains, forests, and deserts, and experiences dramatic seasonal changes. It is a tributary of the Senegal River, which flows east to west, so it could be used by slavers to carry captured people to ports on the western coast.
The landscape of the valley included both independent kingdoms and villages of the varied Madinka (otherwise known as the Manlinke or Mandingo) people, who are of similar ethnic origins. They were targeted by the Muslim Fulani (or Fulu) kingdom for capture as part of jihad (holy war). Enslavement had a long history in this part of the world. For centuries, captives were taken as a product of war. People could also be enslaved if, after a trial, they were deemed criminal or for other reasons.
Aymeric-Nsangou explored the few remnants of Tatas, the fortified defensive homes and landscapes of the region, with a team of archeologists. “The Tatas didn’t appear before the 18th century; they increased because of the slave trade,” Aymeric-Nsangou said.
There are no remaining, intact Tatas in the region, because the French colonial government largely destroyed them. But historic photographs show they were made with raw mud cement and stone.
The interiors of the Tatas were labyrinthine and had multiple layers of walls. Noble families occupied the innermost Tata, which also had the strongest walls. Outside, wood palisades, which are still seen in many communities today, provided an extra layer of security against slavers. And these communities also sometimes “weaponized African bees.” These insects are famously aggressive. And “there are stories that villagers could command them to attack.”
While the Tatas could offer defense, they could also be a trap. Another strategy villagers in the region took was to keep their community small so they could quickly relocate.
Now in its second year, the program will provide 10 women of color with a two-year, personalized experience that includes up to $3,500 to cover the cost of sections of the Landscape Architectural Registration Exam (LARE), along with funding for and access to exam preparation courses and resources, and mentorship from a licensed landscape architect. Applications are due June 30.
Program eligibility requires the individual to:
Be a current ASLA member in good standing or eligible for ASLA membership at the associate, full, or affiliate membership levels
Identify as a woman and be a person of color
And be eligible to sit for the LARE in the state where they are pursuing licensure.
According to the U.S. Census and ASLA data, approximately 18.5 percent of the U.S. population identifies as Hispanic or Latino, while only 6 percent of ASLA members do. 13.4 percent of the U.S. population identifies as African American, but only 2.14 percent of ASLA members do. 1.3 percent of the U.S. population identifies as American Indian or Alaska Natives, but only 0.45 percent of ASLA members do. And 6.2 percent of the U.S. population identifies as Asian and Pacific Islander while 13.5 percent of ASLA members do, but ASLA doesn’t separate Asian from Asian American members in its data.
The statistics are telling, and as outlined in the Racial Equity Plan of Action, ASLA is committed to fostering equity and inclusion within the profession and making significant strides to ensure that the makeup of the profession closely mirrors the communities landscape architects serve.
“Boston needs to ramp up its heat adaptation strategies, because two summers ago, the city had 40 days of temperatures over 90 degrees. This was a major problem because no one in the city has air conditioning,” said landscape architect Diana Fernandez-Bibeau, ASLA, deputy chief of urban design at the Boston Planning and Development Agency, during the Living Future conference in Washington, D.C.
Fernandez-Bibeau and Tamar Warburg, director of sustainability at Sasaki, outlined Boston’s innovative new plan for addressing extreme heat, which is part of its Climate Ready Boston effort. The plan promotes strategies ranging from parks to street trees, green roofs to library cooling centers, and offers “multiple layers of benefits.”
“The city is centering people in the resilience process. We’ve completed [sea level rise and flooding] planning for all the city’s coasts. And now with the heat plan, we are ahead of the ball,” Fernandez-Bibeau said.
Heat is a priority for the city because it is “the number-one cause of weather related deaths,” she said. “Children and older adults are at risk, along with those with pre-existing conditions like asthma and diabetes. Construction workers, athletes, the unhoused, and those without air conditioning are also at risk.”
Through the 350 plus-page plan, the city argues that heat depends on how someone experiences it, rather than the actual temperature. “Age matters, as does someone’s adaptive capacity, which relates to level of access to cooling. In built-up environments with no trees, parks, or splash pads, perceived heat can have a greater intensity.”
Fernandez Bibeau emphasized that the data used in Boston’s plan is rooted in perceived heat, which she called “revolutionary.” The city decided not to use federal data, instead creating new climate datasets and modeling that they argue tell a truer picture of what heat feels like on the ground in different conditions.
The city brought together a multidisciplinary team, which was led by Sasaki, a landscape and planning firm, and includes All Aces, a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultancy; Klimaat, which provided heat data, modeling, and visualizations; and WSP, which examined how to finance heat solutions.
Equity was a major focus for the team. Boston has a dark racial past, and “many areas of the city were redlined and subject to disinvesment by the Boston city government,” said Warburg. When the Sasaki team identified the hottest areas of the cities, they found they almost perfectly lined up with the communities that had been subject to racist policies in the past.
The city focused on these previously redlined areas, what they call “environmental justice communities” — Chinatown, Dorchester, East Boston, Mattapan, and Roxbury.
According to Fernandez-Bibeau, these are not what have been described as vulnerable communities. “There are vulnerable conditions and infrastructure, not vulnerable communities. These communities are actually incredibly resilient, but their environment doesn’t serve them.”
In the five neighborhoods, temperatures can be up to 7.5 degrees hotter, which means the difference between 83 and 90 degrees. And the communities are even hotter at night. “They have 70 percent less parks and open space and 30 percent fewer street trees than communities that weren’t redlined,” Warburg said.
Chinatown was found to be Boston’s hottest neighborhood. “89 percent of it is impervious, and there is little greenery or shade.” The community is a heat island, which is caused by paved streetscapes and the thermal masses of buildings. “Those buildings radiate heat at night, reducing the ability of the community to cool down.”
To kick-start the work in the neighborhoods, the city and the planning team set up advisory boards, hosted open houses, sent out surveys, and hosted youth charrettes.
Sasaki also asked Bostonians to mark on a map where they felt hot. “In the comments, recurring themes came up — the lack of shade and trees, the impacts of pollution, and affordability issues,” Warburg explained. And the comments also outlined where Bostonians go for cooling relief.
City residents could use a website to create their own three-panel comic strip, choosing colors to indicate how uncomfortable they are. “It was qualitatively helpful.”
And with each neighorhood, the team also drew possible solutions on top of a transect, showing how trees, parks, shade structures, and green roofs could be woven in.
Sasaki and Klimaat tested the cooling benefits of a range of strategies, including converting streets to parks, planting street trees and tree groves, and adding shade structures. They also examined the different cooling benefits of green roofs; cool roofs, which are painted white; and shaded green roofs.
The team looked at how to make transportation systems more heat-resilient, too. Through pocket parks and cool streets, walking to the bus or subway will be made a cooler experience. So will “cool bus stops” with shade canopies. All these strategies together form an implementation toolkit.
The plan also covers how to increase equitable access to cooling. In the past, the city had opened up cooling centers but asked for personal information, such as name, phone number, and health insurance information.
Warburg said the unintended effect was to drive away many prospective visitors. “This was asking too much info,” particularly for the unhoused; immigrants, who may not have documentation; and others concerned with their privacy. Warburg learned that many instead “went to public libraries, which have water, bathrooms, wi-fi, and a place to sit.”
As a result of the research, the city will “move away from asking for IDs” at the cooling centers in the future, Fernandez-Bibeau said.
The city government and Sasaki piloted the creation of new outdoor cooling areas at a few public libraries, which provided free wi-fi, shade, and misters. “At the East Boston public library, the plan was to keep up the temporary outdoor cooling pop-up for a few weeks; it ended up staying for four months,” Warburg said. (see image at top).
To increase resilience, the plan calls for operationalizing heat management, including heat risk notifications through the city’s 311 system.
Other priorities include: mobilizing city government workers with heat wave resources; and targeting utility assistance programs and long-term home energy retrofits towards at-risk community members.
Building community capacity to manage heat solutions is another focus area. “Neighborhood champions can help ensure older residents are using fans and drawing their shades,” Warburg said.
“Heat resilience is layered. All solutions are needed to mobilize communities,” Fernandez-Bibeau said.
Now the hard part. Implementation challenges will need to be addressed, such as securing the capital budgets to develop new cooling nature-based solutions and the maintenance budgets to support that work.
And some underserved communities are already concerned that adding trees will have a gentrifying impact. “What if by adding trees we make it less affordable to live here?” Warburg worried.
Tree maintenance issues are a factor. Cities like Philadelphia and Boston have planted thousands of trees but seen many of them die because neighbors didn’t have the time or resources to take care of them.
“During drought and heat waves, trees need extra care; without that, it impacts their ability to thrive,” Fernandez-Bibeau said. The city now has four arborists on staff who can help watch over the canopy.
And to ensure future development doesn’t cause more heating, projects not only need to include energy and carbon modeling, but also thermal comfort modeling as a matter of course. “Any development’s impact should be understood relative to existing heat conditions.”
Fernandez-Bibeau said more planning will be needed to advance the heat plan as well. “Heat adaptation will require studies involving the city’s urban forest plan, open space and recreation plans.”
“Boston faces some extreme challenges. Inequities and climate climate are interconnected,” Fernandez-Bibeau said. And to date, the city has been “hindered by old systems and structures, which are not enabling communities to grow in an equitable way.”
While the heat solutions are rolled out over the coming years, Fernandez-Bibeau urged policymakers and landscape architects to use projected weather data for 2050 and even 2070 and “design for the future.”
According to the producers, the film “underscores the profound inequality that persisted for decades in the number, size, and quality of state park spaces provided for Black visitors across the South. Even though it has largely faded from public awareness, the imprint of segregated design remains visible in many state parks.”
“O’Brien’s balanced research on Black self-help to achieve some measure of recreational access in the face of Jim Crow is one of the book’s crowning successes,” LaRue Smith writes. “There are many other well researched elements relating to the history of the ‘Negro Problem,’ park planning and politics, post-World War II ‘separate but equal’ policies, and court battles primarily brought by the NAACP to dismantle park segregation. Together, these research areas build a much-needed historical record of Jim Crow and the exclusion of African Americans in southern state parks.”
The film features commentary by O’Brien, who is a professor of environmental studies at Florida Atlantic University, and architect Arthur J. Clement, who attended a segregated state parks as a child. “Dramatic images and live footage bring this painful history into contemporary focus,” the film producers write.
In collaboration with the National Building Museum, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) is presenting this event free of charge. The Olmsted Network and Library of American Landscape History are co-sponsors. And the program is supported by the Darwina L. Neal Cultural Landscape Fund for adult programs focusing on cultural landscapes.
5:30 pm – Doors open
6:00 pm – Film screening
6:30pm – 7:15pm – Panel discussion with William E. O’Brien, Arthur J. Clement, and Wairimũ Ngaruiya Njambi, moderated by ASLA CEO Torey Carter-Conneen.
7.15 – 7.30 pm – Remarks by Bronwyn Nichols Lodato, president of the Midway Plaisance Advisory Council, on behalf of the Olmsted Network
7.30 – 8.30 pm – Reception
Design Workshop, a landscape architecture, planning, and urban design firm, created a foundation in 2002. The foundation has now launched a new Community Capacity Building Initiative, which they describe as a “comprehensive technical assistance process designed to advance community action and overcome built environment challenges.” The foundation seeks applications for technical assistance from underserved communities in Roaring Fork Valley, Colorado; Piedmont region, North Carolina; and the Houston Metroplex, Texas.
The initiative aims to address the “systemic under-funding of projects in historically under-represented communities.” The foundation will provide “no-cost support for community teams.” Each project will be staffed with “teams of 3-4 landscape architects and planners,” which will have weekly hours assigned to the projects. The teams will organize workshops and charrettes with communities to create action plans.
“The Community Capacity Building Initiative goes far beyond simply donating our design and planning services. The work done on the selected projects is strategically designed to fill a gap in the design ecosystem in support of historically marginalized communities,” said landscape architect Sarah Konradi, ASLA, executive director of the Design Workshop Foundation.
The initiative aims to help communities with a range of projects. These could include developing strategies and planning documents to move forward fundraising and implementation; designing events and programs; or organizing “tactical” or “pop-up” projects, such as “painted bike lanes, crosswalks, parklets, temporary parks and installations.”
“One project will be selected for each of the three regions,” Konradi said. “We intentionally selected areas near a few of our office locations so that our teams can be hands-on throughout the entire project. It also allows us to draw on our first-hand understanding of the area’s distinct culture, diversity, opportunities, and challenges to co-develop outcomes that fit the needs of the communities.”
Through this national partnership, NPS-RTCA staff identify projects that would benefit from the expertise of licensed landscape architects and recruit ASLA members who can volunteer their time and skills. Together, we pair the planning skills of NPS-RTCA staff with the design expertise of ASLA members to help communities plan and manage their natural, recreational, and cultural resources.
We provide pro-bono facilitation and planning assistance to neighborhoods, nonprofit organizations, tribes, and state and local governments – helping them turn their visions into a reality. Our partnership focuses on bringing everyone to the table to ensure the long-term success of the project and its benefits to the community.
Each project extends the missions of the NPS and aligns with the Biden-Harris Administration’s “America the Beautiful” initiative. In collaboration with ASLA, NPS-RTCA supports locally led projects focused on conserving, connecting, and restoring lands and waters across the nation to build healthy neighborhoods, power local economies, and help communities become resilient to a changing climate.
A few projects that have resulted from our partnership:
Inclusive Recreation on the Saluda River Blueway
Winding calmly toward the Atlantic Ocean from the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Saluda River makes its way through northwestern South Carolina, brushing past old mill towns, rolling countryside, and historic landmarks. Once a vital piece of the area’s textile industry, the river became a source for hydroelectric power while its potential for outdoor recreation went unnoticed.
Together, NPS-RTCA and ASLA organized a design charette to develop a solution for getting canoes and kayaks around a dam. Residents, planners, historians, and 15 volunteer landscape architects worked together to design river access points that are accessible to all. The design process further expanded outdoor recreation opportunities by connecting the Saluda River Blue Trail to existing parks along the river.
With assistance from the partnership, Anderson County exceeded ADA expectations – installing portable, floating kayak launches that give people with disabilities an opportunity to get on the water despite the issue of constantly fluctuating water levels.
“This has been all about inclusive access on the river… to give some people a river experience that they would have never gotten otherwise,” said Matt Schell, the director for Anderson County’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
Restoring Sacred Lands: Tásmam Koyóm Maidu Cultural Park
After more than a century of displacement, the Mountain Maidu people returned to their homeland − Tásmam Koyóm (the Maidu name for Humbug Valley) which is a 2,300-acre alpine valley in California’s Sierra Nevada.
With a vision to develop a cultural park dedicated to education, healing, and traditional ecosystem management, the Maidu Summit Consortium requested assistance from NPS-RTCA. In collaboration with the California Sierra and Nevada chapters of ASLA, NPS-RTCA supported the Mountain Maidu tribe in developing conceptual plans for a park entry site to welcome visitors, identified public access opportunities for a trail network while protecting special cultural sites that only tribal members can access, and developed a 40-acre visitor zone that includes improvements to the Yellow Creek Campground.
“It gives us a chance to bring back our culture, and the way we live,” said Beverly Ogle, a Maidu elder, author, and activist. “It’s given us a land base to bring back our plant life, the botany, the wildlife, and reconnect with the landscape.”
Today, the Mountain Maidu tribe continues to work on developing the Tásmam Koyóm Maidu Cultural Park where they will be able to share their history and heritage with visitors and care for the land.
Conservation and Outdoor Recreation on North Beach Eco Park
Migratory birds aren’t the only ones flocking to Corpus Christi, Texas. With a goal to expand recreational and educational opportunities, the city is implementing plans for a 30-acre ecological and birding park in North Beach that will cater to both their human and avian visitors.
In 2019, the city requested assistance from NPS-RTCA on the park’s design and asked for support in building organizational development for community partners. In collaboration with the Houston/Gulf Coast Section of the ASLA Texas Chapter, NPS-RTCA held public meetings to identify community ideas and generate feasible designs for a migratory bird habitat with recreational opportunities for visitors.
Three park designs were developed from community input, resulting in a master plan for a park that will be home to healthy wetlands and wildlife as well as trails, boardwalks, observation decks, interpretive signs, and educational resources for outdoor programming.
Improving Access to the Sacramento River
The River District in Sacramento, California has a rich cultural and natural history and is located at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers. The Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency applied for assistance to develop placemaking
concepts for the Sacramento River waterfront.
In 2020, NPS-RTCA partnered with the ASLA California Sierra Chapter and UC Davis’ Department of Landscape Architecture to host three virtual design workshops with the community to explore, envision, and re-think the concept of place along the waterfront.
More than 60 community members and stakeholders participated, including local
tribal members and residents of a low-income housing development. The workshops focused on developing a vision to improve access to the riverfront and expand existing recreational and educational opportunities by creating welcoming spaces that reflect on the history, identity, and legacy of the residents that call the area home.
In addition to creating safe access to the waterfront, the planning and design effort was seen as an opportunity to promote a sense of place and ownership for community members. Concepts generated from the design workshops were shared with stakeholders and city and county officials to identify concepts for funding and implementation.
Evelyn Moreno is a writer and editor with NPS-RTCA.
Deb Guenther, FASLA, LEED AP, SITES AP, is a partner and landscape architect at Mithun, based in Seattle, Washington. She was a Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Leadership and Innovation Fellow from 2021-2022 and awarded the President’s Medal by the American Society of Landscape Architect in 2010.
Equity is increasingly being seen as central to landscape architects’ climate action work. How do you define equity in your planning and design work? And what about terms like climate equity and climate justice?
We spend time discussing equity for each project, even if the project doesn’t explicitly have equity goals. It’s different for each community.
We focus on understanding the historical injustices that have happened over time and how those show up in day-to-day lives today. Disproportionate underinvestments in communities have impacts. We try to understand how those show up in power dynamics of not only race and gender but also income and class. We want to be able to understand the power dynamics before we come in the room.
Climate injustices have disproportionately affected communities of color. Often these communities have been redlined, are lower lying, and experience more flooding, or have less trees and experience more intense summer heat. These communities often don’t have the infrastructure to prevent flooding.
We need to build trust with communities to be able to do effective work and learn with community members. I think the big takeaway for me from the fellowship was that I was just catching up to a lot of the things that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color have known for a long time.
People with the lived experience in the community are the greatest resource for finding the solutions. We can’t do work that is meaningful to communities without first investing time. So all of that comes back to: how can we build a design process that is more relational and less transactional? How do we do the pre-design work that leads to greater trust?
Community design centers are ready to do this long-term, place-based work. Partnering with a community over time is a different exercise with different results than coming in and out of a community. Staying with a community builds understanding.
I have also heard about flood control districts and park districts that are starting to band together regionally because they know they can’t address all the climate adaptation needs individually as agencies. So we need to take a broader or regional view, and at the same time, look at what community leaders know about their specific neighborhoods. It’s a back and forth, regional and local.
We can’t move climate justice work forward and do our best work without building trust first. Climate work is so urgent that we have to go slow to go fast. We have to take the time to build the trust in order to be able to move quickly enough to respond to climate in effective way.
You’re a partner at Mithun, a mission-driven integrated design firm that began in Seattle, Washington, and later expanded to offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In Washington State and elsewhere, Mithun is partnering with tribes on a range of planning and design projects. What have you learned working with tribes and their approaches to long-term sustainability and resilience? And what are some examples of how their ethos has been translated into landscape architecture projects with your firm?
We are so grateful for the relationships we have with First Nations. Twenty years ago we were learning about co-design and co-creation through our engagements with First Nations.
We were going to their events. We were having meals with the elders. We were getting to know sites together by sleeping overnight in the sagebrush steppe in eastern Washington while working with the Wanapum on their Heritage Center. We were invited to share in some very special ceremonies. We were getting to know each other and each other’s culture in a deeper way.
We also learned about holding the capacity for difficult conversations. As facilitators of these conversations, we’ve learned a lot over the years about how to allow those uncomfortable conversations to happen, how we can have those together in a room and still walk out together at the end and be better for it. That’s a big lesson learned over the years.
The importance of investing in youth is another area where we’ve learned so much from First Nations. The canoe journey is a multi-tribal event that happens every other year among many of the tribes in the Pacific Northwest. Youth are reclaiming their connection to traditional lifeways through a canoe journey where they travel to a hosting tribe. They come together for a major gathering at the end. Preparing for these journeys influences many youth.
And it had a direct result creating the House of Awakened Culture that we designed with the Suquamish tribe. They built that project in anticipation of hosting a canoe journey. Now they can also host future canoe journeys and larger gatherings as a tribe.
The Sea2City Design Challenge in Vancouver, Canada led to an exciting re-imagining of False Creek, a central inlet in the city. Mithun worked with representatives and cultural advisors from Host Nations, including the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh, and the community to envision a decolonized approach to coastal climate adaptation planning. What do decolonized landscapes look like? And how did you leverage traditional tribal communications forms, including spoken word and storytelling, to envision this decolonization process?
We went directly to the Host Nation cultural advisors, Tsleil-Waututh Nation knowledge keeper Charlene (Char) Aleck, and Squamish artist Cory Douglas and asked: what does a decolonized landscape look like to you? They wanted to imagine a place where they feel like they belonged. Right now, the way the False Creek area is set up, there aren’t many places where they feel they belong.
One of the places on seawall promenade that resonated with Cory was this cluster of cedar trees peeking out of the asphalt. So we built on the idea of the cedars, harvesting plants and food for cultural uses, and being able to be in a place where land and water is nourishing. Those are the ways of belonging they were speaking to.
A significant moment in this project is when went on a boat ride up and down False Creek with Char and Cory and the team. During that boat ride, we heard from Char about reciprocity and exchange, what is given and what is taken, and how that all influences their cultural outlook on what it means to have a place they belong in.
Afterwards, we threw out all of our design work and started again with this idea of going back to the historic natural shoreline. We have to go back to where things were taken. Not only does that make sense from a sea level rise protections, flooding, contamination standpoint, but it also makes sense from a reciprocity standpoint. Decolonized landscapes are about finding the ways to ensure people feel like they belong.
It is interesting to think that our next experiences as landscape architects may be about deconstruction rather than construction. The return to the historic shoreline is predicated on buildings that are aging out. Instead of replacing buildings that have aged out, we can rezone upland areas that can take more development and not displace people or businesses. We can plan for the gradual movement of people and businesses and housing up slope. This is a way of building in protections against sea level rise and allowing for marine life to flourish. It’s also a way to clean a contaminated waterway over time.
As part of Bay Area Resilient by Design Challenge, Mithun led an interdisciplinary team of ecological, design, planning, economic, and social justice organizations to create ouR-HOME, a comprehensive planning effort in Richmond, California, a low-income community that has experienced a range of environmental injustices and is facing significant sea level rise and flooding impacts. The Resilient by Design effort sought to envision what structural equity looks like, how to protect the community from gentrification and displacement, and create new wealth, while also using nature to increase resilience to future climate impacts. It’s a great example of equity-based climate adaptation work. How did those ideas came together and how they are being pursued in projects that have evolved from the planning effort?
This is a very special project and place with a lot of wonderful people. There’s such a strong environmental justice history in North Richmond. This community has had to build their sense of self-determination because they were ignored, redlined, and subject to disinvestment.
So there are multiple generations of community leaders, like Whitney Dotson, Cynthia Jordan, Dr. Henry Clark, Annie King-Meredith, Princess Robinson who have led and are leading significant change. They are working in so many ways to advance locally-driven solutions.
The Bay Area tends to approach things regionally. A lot of Resilient by Design was happening at the regional level. But that wasn’t going create change in North Richmond because of its history.
As part of the shoreline collaboration plan, we’re now working on what the governance strategy can be with the community. The goal is to evaluate how to connect immediate benefits from the work they’re doing on nature-based solutions. We’re designing a living levee there that will allow marine life to transition and protect the wastewater district facility that serves the entire West Contra Costa County. We’ve also co-designed with a community advisory group a five-mile strategy of collaboration between property owners that would protect a much larger swath of the neighborhood and other infrastructure.
Some of those direct benefits are building up community knowledge through a co-design process, workforce development, and land trusts that guard against gentrification. And there are projects that will provide more access to the shoreline through trails and destinations, like interpretive centers and overlooks.
A lot of the residents that were involved in the co-design process during Resilient by Design have remained involved as champions of various projects. Folks really grabbed on to the pieces they were interested in and shepherded those forward.
In the co-design process as part of Resilient by Design, we had public agency folks in the room with community residents, business leaders, various nonprofit organizations. They all knew each other before Resilient by Design. But they knew each other in the context of presenting information to each other, not really working shoulder to shoulder. During the process we conducted, they were working shoulder to shoulder to solve issues, having more casual dialogue. This is the main thing we heard at the end of the process — that resident advisors wanted this kind of work to continue.
What we noticed is that there is cyclical process with funding, right? There wasn’t a convener that could keep the group going until West Contra Costa County Wastewater District stepped up to do their work on the levee. They were able to bring a similar group together again.
As designers, we need to think about how we keep shoulder-to-shoulder dialogue going with communities, even when there isn’t a project driving it. So many relevant projects come out of those kinds of processes.
Mithun states that it uses affordable housing developments to create “active social hubs,” and it leverages its “integrated design approach” as a vehicle for social equity. Your firm’s landscape architects are often involved in these projects, weaving in green spaces, play areas, rooftop gardens, pedestrian bicycle access, and public art. A few projects — the Liberty Bank Building in Seattle, Washington, and Casa Adelante at 2060 Folsom in San Francisco — seems to highlight the value of landscape architects in these projects. Can you talk about how landscape architects on your team are shaping these projects?
Common space in affordable housing projects is such highly valued space. You can imagine when the goal is to house people, every square foot is going to be carefully scrutinized.
At the beginning of these projects, the landscape architect’s role at Mithun is to do that massaging, that working back and forth between the indoor and the outdoor space, to not only program the shared spaces outside but also the spaces inside.
We look at those adjacencies where people can run into each other naturally, where are they going to get their mail, where are they going to for daily life experiences. Running into each other causes people to know their neighbors and builds a stronger sense of community.
Those are the two areas where we’re shaping these projects the most. The first is being present at the beginning to do that shaping of how the common space is tied to the lifeways of the residents. And the second is figuring out how those adjacencies are built into the framework of the design. All the other stuff is gravy if you get the adjacencies right.
Mithun has invested in being a responsible design firm. It has offset all its emissions since 2004, offers bike parking at its offices, and finances employees’ home energy efficiency retrofits. It donates pro-bono design services, raises funds for local community groups, and its leaders are involved in the boards of civic organizations. How does Mithun plan to further evolve to address the climate crisis?
We are looking at the North Richmond work and thinking about how we can work geographically like that in other areas and build long-term relationships. We’ve been there now for seven years continuously and built a more relational way of working. Ultimately, we feel that is the most equitable way to work, because we have that deeper understanding and a shared sense of reciprocity.
We’re participating in conversations happening in communities that we’re a part of. And then we bring those ideas to our projects. We’re tying ideas together and building momentum. This is just how we live as a community, right?
We never want to underestimate the value of social resilience. The greatest predictor of survival in a crisis is how well you know your neighbors, your community. In a climate justice context, we want to model what we think is valuable for all communities. We want to design places where people can get to know each other, where they can practice adaptation together, and therefore be better prepared to work together when they need to respond to climate impacts.
“We heard from the community that they want the city to take better care of the park — to pick up trash, improve the bathrooms, reduce the pressure of invasive plants, and restore the landscape to optimal health in a thoughtful and steady way,” said Kristin Frederickson, ASLA, a principal at Reed Hilderbrand.
What the landscape architecture team created is a bold plan that balances immediate maintenance and restoration needs with steps to achieve a long-term vision of improved access, resilience, and equitable benefits. The 450-page plan will take multiple decades and more than $150 million to complete. “And the plan suggests that the city and community can’t pick and chose between addressing climate change, equity, historic preservation — these are synergistic elements, key principles meant to operate together.”
The revitalization of Franklin Park has been a long time coming. For decades, one of the city’s largest parks received little government investment and was instead left to the Franklin Park Coalition to steward and maintain. “They deserve a lot of credit — they have been holding this park together. There were times when visitors were actually driving through the park lawns,” Frederickson said.
The city’s history of racial inequities factors into this. Franklin Park is bordered by some of Boston’s most historically marginalized communities — Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roslindale — along with Jamaica Plain, a wealthier community.
Boston’s 2030 plan highlighted the need to invest in Franklin Park. “There was a realization that we need to stabilize the park in order to save it,” said John Kett, ASLA, principal in charge at Reed Hilderbrand.
The first step was to build trust with communities that have been promised support in the past, but didn’t see that translate into action. The first community engagement meeting, pre-pandemic, brought out more than 300 community members. “There was a lot of excitement but also skepticism,” Kett said.
These meetings brought up issues of representation. “Three-fourths of the surrounding neighborhoods are historically underserved. Residents from Jamaica Plain were very active and showing up, but we weren’t hearing much from the underserved communities at first.”
The Franklin Park Coalition, which had established community support and connections over decades, was key to increasing the involvement of these communities, particularly during the pandemic when the team relied on Zooms and online surveys. The coalition helped the team get hundreds of survey responses.
To build trust, Reed Hilderbrand, Agency Landscape + Planning, and MASS Design Group also participated in playhouse in the park, a long-running summer series. For years, community members have brought their lawn chairs and coolers to watch free performances.
“We set up a pop-up photography booth with Sahar Coston-Hardy, who was able to print portraits in the park, and put them up on clotheslines. People looked good, so by the end there was a line. It was a trust-building exercise with the community — and for them. They shared their stories about the park with us, too.”
Brie Hensold, Hon. ASLA, co-founder of Agency Landscape + Planning, explained that additional community engagement strategies included walking tours in the park and in-depth conversations with key constituencies — the groups that cared most about improving the golf course or tennis courts, restoring the woodlands, or enhancing the playhouse and its amphitheater. And to overcome the digital divide among community members, “we also went canvassing door to door to gather input.”
The result of this equitable community engagement is a plan that calls for spreading investments throughout the park, so that all the communities bordering the park see both immediate and long-term benefits.
In her announcement of the new plan to revitalize Franklin Park, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu highlighted two priorities.
“She focused on the need to restore the ecosystems in the park and also the need to appoint a dedicated park superintendent,” Kett said.
A slew of Boston and state agencies are involved in the park and its boundary areas. Establishing a leader who can move the plan forward was a key goal for the planning and design team.
The plan explored how the park could support affordable housing protections, and build capacity, create more local jobs, and develop the workforce, particularly through city government contracts to nearby vendors. These efforts will require multi-agency partnerships across the city government, which a superintendent can help facilitate.
“Given that trust with surrounding communities has been broken for decades, rebuilding that trust will be a slow process. We focused on only promising what we could deliver,” Kett said.
“The community wants to see continuous maintenance improvements and capital investments over time,” Hensold said. “Trust is a longer-term project.”
Through their journey with the community, the team learned that Olmsted’s design is still deeply appreciated. Even with a clear lack of maintenance and investment, the park still has a “rough beauty,” Frederickson said.
“People love this park; they just want it to be a better version of itself. At the core, people want the park to be taken care of.”
Olmsted’s design still resonates despite the insertion of a hospital, zoo, golf course, widened circuit road, and a four-lane road that diagonally cuts through the park.
“There is the sense that Olmsted reached a logical conclusion in Franklin Park, which is one of his later parks. He did less here; it’s more about putting the land forward,” Frederickson said.
Inspired by the rock outcroppings of the area, he reinforced the edges with stone walls and slopes, creating an “interior haven.” Today, that means that some of the park boundaries are “not super porous.” The plan focuses on “improving porosity where we can” through new accessible entrances better aligned with well-lit crosswalks and supported by new street improvements, parking, and bicycle infrastructure.
The core design of the park remains though. Olmsted followed the flow of “whale-shaped drumlin fields, lacing circulation through them.” The design team recommended reducing or eliminating vehicle access in parts of that circulation system to ensure the park feels safer for pedestrians and cyclists. “But the plan is not anti-car. We actually increase parking in areas,” Frederickson said.
And restoring the varied ecosystems in the park, including its marshes, meadows, and woodlands, remains a top priority for the community and the landscape architects. “It’s an incredible, moving place to be. Its rough beauty is its power. It just needs support.”
Historically marginalized and underserved communities are facing multiple challenges at once: a climate crisis; a health crisis exacerbated by COVID-19; and a racial equity crisis, driven by structural inequities.
One solution to these interconnected challenges is a Black Commons, which involves pooling collective land and resources to stabilize and empower Black communities and support their efforts to generate wealth, argued Kofi Boone, FASLA, the Joseph D. Moore Distinguished Professor at NC State University, during a lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
After experiencing decades of redlining, urban renewal, gentrification, and displacement, Black communities can combat systemic issues by envisioning new communities that are mutually supportive.
Boone outlined a few key pillars that can bolster Black communities in their efforts to create commons:
“Recognition: recognizing and respecting another human, their status, and rights.
Reconciliation: acknowledging responsibility for harm and accelerating healing.
Reparation: restoring and sustaining the capability to live a fulfilling life.”
He then outlined some of the impacts on Black communities that have led him to push for bottom-up, community-driven solutions.
Growing up in Detroit, Michigan, “I thought going to church and using proper English could carry you through systemic forces. But I have learned through research there were policies and decisions made so that some would benefit from the degradation of other people.”
For decades, in the 20th century, the federal government enabled the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation to “map every home in major cities, coding them by color.” Communities marked in red would “receive absolutely no loan. These redlined communities were also predominantly Black.”
In addition to being denied the ability to own property and grow generational wealth, members of redlined communities also didn’t benefit as much from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs in the 1930s.
These programs led to street trees being planted across American cities, creating the deep shade canopies that characterize many neighborhoods today, along with significant investment in infrastructure. Boone said redlined communities didn’t receive that government investment, leading to hotter, more polluted places a century later.
Redlining also made these communities more vulnerable to top-down redevelopment schemes. They became the target of waves of federal policies: urban renewal, de-industrialization, planned shrinkage, mass incarceration, and gentrification. Over the decades, this has led Black communities to experience serial displacement, or “root shock,” as described by Dr. Mindy Fullilove, a psychiatrist and professor of urban policy and health at The New School.
This history leads us to 2020, which was the culmination of health, economic, and environmental crises — and also a racial equity crisis. “The murder of George Floyd led to the largest protest movement in human history. Racial equity came to the foreground because people were seeing a lynching in real time.”
Boone outlined projects he and landscape architecture colleagues at North Carolina State University have undertaken to advance a Black Commons:
The Bennehan and Cameron families once owned the largest plantation in North Carolina, with some 1,000 slaves on 30,000 acres. Much of that land, which Black Americans had involuntarily invested in for generations, has now been preserved as conservation easements on what was formerly the Stagville Plantation. That in effect has excluded Black communities from the opportunity to “own plantation land as a path to liberation.”
Working with Urban Community Agrinomics (UCAN), NC State is helping the Catawba Trail Farm on the former Snow Hill IV Plantation develop a vision for collective community stabilization and wealth generation through urban farming.
At the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum and State Historic Site in Sedalia, North Carolina, NC State landscape architecture professors and students have focused on how to revitalize a campus that was recently identified by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a most endangered site. Charlotte Hawkins Brown was a native of Boston who came to North Carolina and opened the largest college prep school for Black students in the south.
As part of their work with the museum, Boone and his students mapped the web of relationships emanating from the school, which included W.E.B Dubois and Booker T. Washington. “If we don’t value these stories, then we can’t continue telling them.” Their designs outline a way to revitalize the campus as an artists’ retreat while also supporting on-going restoration efforts.
And in Princeville, North Carolina, NC State’s Coastal Dynamics Design Lab, led by Andy Fox, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning, has partnered with a historically Black community that took root in an area that regularly floods.
This was common: Whites would settle on high grounds, while Blacks often settled nearby in lower lying areas, often to be close to plantations where they worked. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Black communities often camped next to Union Armies for protection. One encampment became Freedom Hill, which is more of a symbolic name given it’s not on high ground. After the Freedom Hill community experienced catastrophic flooding, they needed a “long-term strategy to become resilient and thrive.”
Boone said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) came in to assist the community, but ended up “overloading them when they were in crisis, in a bad state.” NC State began facilitating conversations and created an accessible guide to help them better understand their options, which won an ASLA 2018 Professional Communications Honor Award. This grew into broader design-build project that involved landscape architecture students at the Princeville Elementary School, which then won an ASLA 2022 Student Community Service Award of Excellence.
And opportunities arose for a new mobile museum, after the Princeville Museum was damaged by flooding. Partnering with NC State architecture professor David Hill, architecture program students created a welcome center on wheels.
While Boone highlighted a number of inspiring projects that share land ownership and management and support wealth generation and cultural empowerment, one powerful example stood out: Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas.
In 1872, Reverend John Henry “Jack” Yates and other members of the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church and the Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church bought 10 acres of land for $800 in Houston, Texas. They sought to create a public space to celebrate Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery, Boone explained.
In 1916, the park was donated to the city of Houston and turned into a public park. From the 1920s to the 1940s, it was the sole park for the Black community in the city. The park fell into disrepair in the 1970s, but in the 2000s the revitalization process began. In 2013, the Freelon Group and M2L Associates, along with Perkins + Will, started $33 million in renovations, which were completed in 2017.
Emancipation Park is just one example of the positive ripple effects of shared ownership for community benefit.
“Can we sustain our intentions while also expanding our profession?”, asked Sandra Nam Cioffi, ASLA, founding principal, Ink Landscape Architects, at this year’s Cut|Fill, a participatory and collaborative “unconference” on landscape architecture.
In a wide-ranging discussion, five women design leaders delved into how to design with intention and empathy amid the pandemic, inequities, and economic pressures — and preserve mental health and well-being in the process.
According to Maura Rockcastle, ASLA, principal and co-founder of TEN x TEN, sustaining intentions in a mission-driven firm can only be achieved through “radical transparency” — both within the firm and in interactions with clients.
To achieve this level of transparency, TEN X TEN “has adopted a flat-flex leadership model and shared information on salaries. We have undertaken decolonizing, non-violent communications training. We have hosted team retreats on hiring, marketing, and management to refine our vision.”
But maintaining a commitment to mission-driven work while growing a firm is also challenging. “Where do we reinvent ourselves and evolve and where do we save time? How do we focus on health, happiness, and joy, but also balance that with efficiency? Where do we push boundaries and how do we also keep things manageable?”
Maintaining intentions may mean looking outside conventional landscape architecture practice, said Maci Nelson, Assoc. ASLA, a podcaster, educator, designer, and host of The Landscape Nerd Podcast. She often felt like she “didn’t know where she belonged” in the landscape architecture profession. “As a mother of a child with special needs, I didn’t see others in private practice given time off. I saw my friends easily discarded and laid off.”
To “keep her foot in the profession,” Nelson began researching, discovering new perspectives, and finding the connections that weren’t often discussed. “I began focusing on media and storytelling that is accessible for everyone.” To sustain her purpose, she created a podcast designed to “bring out everyone’s inner nerd and connect the nerdoms.”
“In 2010, the economy was bad, and I was struggling to find my place. As a single mom, I needed a flexible work schedule. I hopped around — doing design-build work, public art, and teaching CAD as an adjunct faculty,” said Linda Chamorro, co-founder of the Tierra Media Project, and assistant professor in landscape architecture, environmental, and urban design at Florida International University.
Then, during the height of the pandemic, she became a tenure-track faculty member at Florida International University. In her new role, “I felt pressure to define an academic agenda,” to set her intention.
“Attending the first Cut|Fill event in 2020 in the wake of the murder of George Floyd was an impactful moment for me and helped me find my calling in the field. I have been rethinking so much since 2020, learning and unlearning.”
One learning opportunity was a Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Leadership and Innovation Fellowship, which Chamorro undertook as part of a collective of Latinx landscape architects. Their fellowship explored Latin American conceptions of tierra (land). For a group of expat designers “not fully of the U.S. or Latin America, who exist in a hybrid, in-between space,” it was an opportunity to explore “beautiful and fascinating rabbit holes.”
“When I worked at an architecture firm, there were only three people of color, and we were the only ones working late and on the weekends,” said Fauzia Khanani, founding principal, Studio Fōr. She then realized her intention: “I could practice on my own, address issues for other people of color, and create a community focused on impactful work.”
Now twelve years after founding the studio, Khanani thinks design professions are still “white male-dominated fields, but that’s shifting.” Prior to the pandemic and George Floyd, “I didn’t speak publicly about race and inequality,” but there has been a “fork in the road” with the “mass recognition of police violence against people of color” and that too has changed.
Khanani joined Design as Protest, a design advocacy non-profit organization, which is focused on “making change at the larger scale.” But increasingly, she sees the for-profit and non-profit sides of her work merging. She thinks values are aligning among more young designers of color.
Conversation then shifted to how it’s important for landscape architects to maintain a sense of empathy with the communities they serve. This was viewed as key to preserving a sense of intention and advancing mission-driven work.
However, in some cases, a firm’s client may not fully understand what a community needs or wants. It’s increasingly the role of the landscape architect to start those difficult community conversations and create support for the collaborative, community-led processes needed for projects success.
The added challenge is that many of these approaches may be a “bit unprecedented” with clients and requires “showing up differently,” Rockcastle said. “Empathy is now required. But how can we advocate differently? How can we push projects towards different goals and outcomes?”
“As designers, we need to model the ways that don’t currently exist,” Chamorro said. “We need to model different ways of doing things and push back on expectations.”
“Not everyone speaks and hears in the same way. Observe closely how your client communicates, and how you communicate, and what resonates or not. If you start that process, you can reduce misunderstandings about new design processes,” Nelson argued.
Pursuing mission-driven work during a pandemic, increasing workloads, and rapid economic and social change has led to mental health challenges, including anxiety, depression, and burn-out among designers. “Where can landscape architects go for mental health support?,” Nam Cioffi asked.
“I go inward. If I am not going to take care of myself, who will? I go on walks — if I can interact with my child or pet, a plant or tree, I can connect and find myself again,” Chamorro said.
“I share challenges with my team and make them part of the decision-making process. But I also make sure the workplace is not adding to the stress of their lives,” Khanani said.
“I am empathetic so I absorb and feel the struggles of others. It’s important to be honest and model healthy ways of interacting and not be too emotional. You can have, feel, and name emotions. And then we can bring our empathy to the table with clients,” Rockcastle said.
“Landscape architecture created traumatic experiences for me. It’s important to focus on mental wellness, value your feelings, and share them. I monitor what I say but am honest,” Nelson explained.
Panelists then discussed the value of self-care — seeing a therapist or personal coach; listening to motivational podcasts or audio books; and enjoying cooking, art, and other restorative, creative pastimes.
And amid all the flux, the future remains filled with possibilities. “If you looked at the top 50 professions 50 years ago, you will see most don’t exist today. The job you may want to do may not exist yet, but you still have time to create it,” Nelson said.