For many, the word “landscape” evokes an idyllic pastoral scene with rolling hills and thick forests in the distance. Others might imagine a sunny, quaint suburban backyard with birdbaths, roses, and open lawn. Beauty is subjective. That is not hard to agree on.
So when I ask you to think about landscapes in general, you’re probably imagining a semi-safe, attractive, and groomed place—like a university campus or a place like Central Park, NY. Maybe you learned about a place called Seneca Village, which was an African-American settlement in the space that would be developed by Frederick Law Olmstead into the iconic Central Park we know today. And what you’re probably not imagining are just how many landscapes you encounter today, where lanes of interstate divide a low-income and minority neighborhoods from the heart of their cities—a landscape where there are physical barriers to resources. Policies have created landscapes where people and public space are largely forgotten by the mainstream and labeled as blight by the very people with the power to make real change in the lives of those who live, work, and play in these spaces. In some places there is little or no public transportation, no grocery stores within a 5-mile radius, and no hospitals within a 1-hour drive. These are the landscapes which require the most care and attention; and they need landscape architects now more than ever to spearhead revitalization and restoration in service to those communities.
There is no doubt that the discipline of landscape architecture has helped create some of the most beautiful, inclusive, and people-environment oriented places that the world has ever seen. At the same time, we have created and allowed the creation of countless terrible places. Because of this, landscape architecture as a profession needs to come to terms with its complicity in a racist system that too often neglects and abuses society’s most vulnerable. It is here where the ugly underbelly of division and exclusion exists. Landscape architects, scholars, and professionals have a responsibility to People and Place to right these wrongs.
Urban sprawl has created a landscape of same-ness across the United States that was designed for and caters to those with access to personal transportation. “It’s the American way” – a retort I have actually heard before when making my argument for democratic, walkable communities and public space. In many places, there is no infrastructure in place that would even suggest that it is a human landscape: no sidewalks, no crosswalks, no shade trees or planting designs, no waste baskets, no benches, no focal points, no opportunities for chance interactions with others, and absolutely no Sense of Place. These sprawling landscapes are characterized by their lack of community planning and atrocious design aesthetic. Our nation can be described by a network of interstate and highways dotted with identical clusters of big-box stores and strip malls from coast to coast. Arterial roads fronted with parking lots for miles and miles and not a person in sight. Where is the humanity in our landscapes? And even more disturbing: where is the ecology? Looking around, there is scarce evidence that there is actually an ecosystem at work. These landscapes completely lack consideration for the people who live in and around them and the ecosystems which they disturb.
As cities sprawl, they require more roads for connectivity. It is no secret that they often will blatantly separate racial groups with impassable infrastructure. I saw it growing up in Jackson, MS. I have seen it with my own eyes in every metropolitan area I have ever visited. You name a big city and I will show you the landscape divide. Confounding this is the evolution of city walls–physical barriers to access and views of “private” places; all the while, public places are under-designed, few, and far in between. Our landscapes today are strewn with structural and systematic barriers to access that exist to separate the privileged from the Others. Walls offer a sense of protection and security for those who can afford to live inside, but for the rest of us, they represent a physical barrier in the landscape that must be circumnavigated. These are the landscapes of oppression: designed to exclude, to divide, and to be guarded—and damn anyone who has a problem with it.
By now, you may be asking yourself, in this “free” country of ours, where are the opportunities if the landscape itself is designed to favor those in power over others? Where is the equal opportunity if you are born in a place where there are no facilities or infrastructure that supports you? Landscapes of oppression exist nearly everywhere in the United States, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
We live in a country whose lands were illegally seized from the Indigenous peoples who lived here first, fought, died, and were forced from their lands to make room for the colonization and migration of white immigrants seeking freedom and opportunity in this virgin landscape. When the founding fathers developed the United States Constitution, they were working together to create a system which would free them from the oppression of colonial rule and would establish them rights—rights which they denied to certain groups in a move that would establish the power regime for the next two hundred years.
In the Constitution, Amendments 4 and 5 establish the concept of property and private property rights—which is a major zone of contention today where we see complex, deadlocked disputes between private landowners, corporate entities, governmental interests, indigenous peoples, and the scientific community. The belief that a person is entitled to do what they want, when they want, and how they want on their lands still dominates the psyche of United States citizens in positions of power. Never mind that the land itself is stolen and the accumulation of wealth and influence was often accomplished on the backs of enslaved labor. It is a hard, ugly, and inconvenient truth that many choose to ignore. Landscape architects have the power to turn this narrative on its head through thoughtful, inclusive, anti-racist, sustainable, and resilient landscape design.
The Tipping Point
While we as a country have come a long way socially since the Revolutionary War, up through the Civil War, Jim Crow South, and the Civil Rights Movement, but we still have a long way to go. Our first Black, female Vice-President, Kamala Harris, was elected to the nation’s second highest office; yet scarcely a day goes by without the news of yet another Black person being wrongfully killed by police. Activism and speaking out against oppression and injustice is vital to the healing that so many communities in this country are owed. The part of the United States’ history that includes slavery is still painful for many—as is the history of wrongdoing against the Indigenous peoples. Black Lives Matter, the Human Rights Campaign, and the March for Science are but a few of the modern social movements that are gaining ground and raising awareness of life or death issues that underrepresented and marginalized groups experience. This also includes issues of ableism and disability, gender and sexuality, and intersectionality. One solution for the structural inequalities in our society would be first, to acknowledge these issues and how society at large is not meeting the needs of the most vulnerable; second, vow to do something about them; and third, to go out and make good on those promises.
For landscape architects, this means responding to the moral responsibility to look after the health and well-being of the people and environment that are both impacted by their designs. Good, holistic design may be more expensive, and thus, less attractive on the front end; but the consequences of bad design far outweigh any dollar amount that could be quantified. We have a responsibility to our communities to do everything in our power to promote a better quality of life for everyone. We have to promote and defend the tenants of social justice, where individuals and communities are seen and heard through the whole process of design engagement. Adaptive leadership should be utilized to shift power into the hands of those who we serve and design for. It is imperative for a future that is just and equitable.
My interests in landscape architecture are rooted in ecology and community engagement. As I have written in other places, I study managed retreat, which is the intentional relocation of people and assets away from hazards. Specifically, I study how sea level rise and tidal flooding are impacting Virginia’s Hampton Roads Planning District by researching the perceptions of community members who are facing managed retreat. I am interested in their perceptions of community engagement, their role as stakeholders, and how they view flood resilience, ecosystem services, and blue-green coastal infrastructure. So in my research, one piece involves understanding the drivers of landscape systems and processes (tidal flooding, subsidence, and sea level rise); another is about understanding people’s needs, including how they impact and interact with their landscapes (the opportunities and constraints that bind people in place). The last is about understanding how people make landscape design choices and the ecosystem services (or disservices) that result from them. I believe that the answers to these questions in this particular community will not only help at a local level, but will serve as a case for other communities facing managed retreat and help stakeholders and policymakers move forward on landscape designs that serve those communities and the environment.
I stand by the land-grant mission for my research and work to first and foremost serve the people. During my time in the academy, I have an opportunity to do some recruitment for the discipline of landscape architecture (LAR), talking to students about LAR for their major, minor, and graduate studies. Recruitment is important to me for advancing the discipline—because a majority of practitioners and professors are White men, I am especially interested in talking to people of color and women in general to try and encourage them to pursue their education and career in landscape architecture if that is something they are interested in. I will continue active recruitment by developing relationships with the communities where I will work. This means establishing a connection with guidance counselors at high schools, developing relationships with the first-year studio professors, finding promising students from interdisciplinary backgrounds who are interested in pursuing graduate studies in landscape architecture, and continuing to develop relationships with students by making myself available and open to all in need of a strong mentor.
In design, one of the most important things to have on your side is the trust of the client. This comes from establishing a relationship with them—through active listening and building their confidence in a shared vision. As landscape architecture leans deeply into social and cultural issues, engaging the community and stakeholders is of utmost importance for the successful planning of any project. When positive relationships can be developed with the client and community, more can be accomplished as there will be more buy-in and ownership from stakeholders. In my academic and professional experience, I have seen first-hand how important this piece is for the success of a project working on national-scale projects for the National Park Service and the Organization of American Historians as well as regional non-profits like Wetlands Watch in Hampton Roads, Virginia.
Because I am interested in helping students learn to see the world through the lens of resilient and sustainable landscape architecture practices, I look for opportunities to show my students the power of design through case studies and field trips. Teaching for these values in the classroom, I will contribute to a revolution of thought and practice, where future designers are thinking holistically about the environment, land use, health, and well-being for all people and the environment.
Because students are more than repositories for theory, I take time to get to know them and look out for opportunities to help them with their personal success. As a teaching assistant, I have worked with students who couldn’t afford their own books or equipment. To help students in need I have loaned out my materials, I have purchased them equipment, and I have given my time and attention to help meet their needs: no questions asked and with no expectation of payment or reciprocity. It is important to be sensitive to the needs of our students when they fundamentally lack the resources to accomplish their coursework and projects. Especially now that we are in a pandemic. If there is one thing we have learned from a year into the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that there are a multitude of ways to meet students where they are and to create quality course content that can be delivered synchronously and asynchronously. Every semester, I reevaluate my pedagogical stance and practices and make changes so that my learning environments are more accessible and inclusive for all students, so we can create learning communities where students thrive.
In the end, the power that educators and designers hold is a force for transformation that should bring positive change to the communities we serve. We must listen to minority and marginalized voices, the voices of the powerless, and those individuals who the dominant has ignored and abused in this country now for hundreds of years. We must look to a future where we are leaders in the design discipline: where the landscapes in which we live, work, and play are places where people want to be because they offer hope, access, and equity through social justice.