“In the past, some faculty would say that all designers are [inherently] activists. Now there is a realization that we do need to take a more activist approach.” Stephanie Rolley, Kansas State University
Working on this project has been a journey for many of us as a working group. Not only did we travel to meet in different cities in the United States for conferences, but many of us have also devoted our entire career to design activism and issues of equity, justice, and resilience in the built environment. The project gave us a chance to put our thoughts together, first at the conferences, and then in this very document. The project does not end here. Rather, this is only a beginning. By completing the document, the real work is just about to start. In the spirit of beginning, we conclude with a few thoughts on what we can take on right away as individual educators, program leaders, and members of the profession.
Leading by Doing
“Seeing faculty and program engaged in the important issues makes a difference for students. It allows them to model behaviors and expectations.” Brice Maryman, MIG
To show students how to be leaders, we need to be leaders ourselves. We, as faculty, program leaders, and professionals need to be engaged with issues that matter to our communities and society. We must take a stance on issues that we can contribute to as professionals and as engaged citizens. We must look at the critical challenges facing the planet and society as teachable moments for our students and the public. By taking on these issues ourselves, we also become more aware of their complexity and the necessity to go beyond the normative approaches enshrined in the profession. We become reflexive and educated about possible responses and solutions.
As programs and courses take on issues that matter to local communities and society, opportunities can arise for collaboration and partnerships with those including community organizers, agency staff, elected officials, and professionals. These interactions also provide teachable opportunities for empathy, negotiation, and co-creation. As we become better at these processes ourselves, we will be more able to engage our students in navigating the complexity of change. Furthermore, we will become more capable of identifying future directions for the profession, including education. By getting our hands dirty, so to speak, we set an example for our students and create a supportive environment for engagement.
Design (Activist) Thinking
One of the ways we can begin to introduce changes in our programs and curricula, including studio projects and course content, is to engage in a kind of design activist thinking. Similar to the concept of design thinking, “design activist thinking” applies the lens of an activist to explore solutions to a complex problem. To engage in design activist thinking is to apply a social justice lens to examine the issues at hand, for example, and to develop appropriate responses that may involve more than simply design interventions in a conventional sense. To address climate change issues as a design activist, for example, one needs to examine both the root causes of climate change and adaptive strategies to changing conditions of the environment.
By thinking as activists, we explore solutions and approaches beyond the conventional repertoire of technical design and planning. We look at social, economic, political, and legal strategies as well as physical and spatial inventions. We work with allies and form coalitions and partnerships. We engage with community stakeholders to co-create and develop capacity. We build on assets that already exist in place, whether in a community or an organization. We develop both short-term responses as well as long-term strategies. We prepare in advance and find political opportunities to make progress on our agenda. As design activists, we must leverage the power of design to effect change. We ask what if’s rather than settling for excuses or inactions. In a true fashion as activists, we do not take no for an answer.
Building a Heterogeneous Profession
“There are few first-generation college graduates in the profession. But in the movement world, it’s people with these backgrounds leading the push.” Billy Fleming, University of Pennsylvania.
To develop greater capacity in equity, diversity, and inclusion in landscape architecture education, one simple and effective way is to do a better job in recruiting and providing opportunities for students from underrepresented communities to enroll in our programs. We must reach out to schools, communities, and students that are historically underrepresented in our profession. Only by bringing those from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds into the profession can we begin to have the capability of understanding and addressing issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion in society. Programs can work with local schools and alumni in outreach activities, as well as offering youth programs for students of all ages to learn about landscape architecture.
But recruitment is not enough. We must also make our programs relevant to students from diverse backgrounds and particularly underserved communities. In addition, outreach and recruitment apply to the faculty rank as well. We can begin by providing more teaching opportunities to those who come from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, the students we recruit in the first place. We can extend the invitation also to those in the practice. As students and faculty from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds are often the ones who are deeply concerned about the issues and challenges of injustice, outreach and recruitment of these prospective students and faculty present an effective way to bring change to the profession and the society.
Beyond Schools & Programs: Toward an Ecosystem for Design Activism
While actions at the program and university levels are required, leadership and support at the national level are also critical to the innovation and changes needed in landscape architecture education. There are many ways that national organizations such as ASLA, LAF, CELA, and Landscape Architecture Accreditation Board (LAAB) can do to support the actions described in this document. For ASLA, the Committee on Education (COE) can provide the leadership in setting the agenda. The ASLA award programs can create an award category, or embed into existing ones, recognition for students, faculty, and educational programs with outstanding achievements and leadership in addressing the critical challenge of our time.
For CELA, as an organization with the mission to serve landscape architecture education and led by educators, it can provide a forum for exchange and collaboration in teaching methods and program innovation. CELA can also proactively develop guidelines for tenure and promotion that recognize socially engaged teaching and research. For LAAB that sets the accreditation standard for landscape architecture degree programs, it can reexamine the current standards to make room for engaged teaching and learning. Currently, community and client engagement is listed only under “communication and documentation” rather than “design process and methodology.”60 This narrow view of engagement must change.
To provide even more coordination and leadership, there is a need for a supporting infrastructure at national and regional levels. Particularly, as an infrastructure or a network of organizations, it can serve to mobilize resources and funding to support initiatives at local, regional, and national levels. It can fundraise for resources and function as a forum or platform for sharing teaching resources and tools for engagement. It can actively work with other movement organizations to develop long-term initiatives and act on immediate issues. As an organization, it can speak on the critical challenges facing the planet and the society and add an activist voice for the profession.
Imagine and Invent What Has Yet to Exist
“We need a new narrative for what landscape architects do…” Barbara Deutsch, Landscape Architecture Foundation61
Asked about what specific skills and knowledge in landscape architecture are relevant to activism, Seattle activist and former Mayoral candidate Cary Moon responded: “being asked to imagine what does not exist.” Imagining and inventing what does not yet exist is indeed one of the most powerful skills we have as a profession as we address issues and challenges in a site, a neighborhood, a watershed, or a network of landscapes. We must bring those skills and mindset to addressing the challenges facing our own education and profession. In the face of the scale and complexity of challenges facing humanity and the planet, we need to explore methods and models that may not exist yet in the current model of education and professional practice.
Looking back more than a century ago, the profession of landscape architecture was able to emerge, grow, and make great strides because we made something that did not exist at the time. Throughout the last century, the profession continued to evolve, each time creating something new and innovative. They include new types of parks and open space, new methods for planning and design, and a new understanding of the built environment and ecological processes. To invent something new, we must also revisit and examine the past fallacies and mistakes, including the legacies of displacement and injustice. Inventing something will also require collaboration and working across social, political, and disciplinary borders. It’s important to recognize that those inventions in the past would not have been possible without the contribution of many others both within and outside the profession.
The issues facing the planet and society today present a new set of challenges and opportunities. They signal a call to actions for the profession to again invent something that has yet to exist. It’s our responsibility now to rise to the call.
- The New Landscape Declaration, 202.
- Accreditation Standards, First-Professional Programs in Landscape Architecture. March 2016.