1. What is Design Activism?

The policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change 5

Activism as a concept has long been associated with advocacy and agonistic actions to produce change. Those actions, including organizing and protests, have played an important role historically in making social and political advancements in our society. In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement succeeded in ending legalized racial discrimination and segregation in the United States. In the 1960s and 1970s, the growing environmental movement in the United States led to landmark legislation such as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act that are critical to the quality and protection of our environment today.

By linking design to activism, “design activism” considers design as a vehicle for activism. Rather than viewing design as a technical exercise, “design activism” or “design as activism” recognizes the potential and capacity of design as a tool for social and environmental progress. As a profession founded in a movement to remake the urban environment in the 19th Century, design activism is arguably in the DNA of landscape architecture. Since the very beginning, the practice of landscape architecture has long been an exercise of activism, as evident in its attempt to improve the livelihood of people through ideas and methods that transform the built environment.

As the profession grew and matured and as the once-novel or even revolutionary practice became normalized, the early activism has been subsumed by institutionalization and the establishment of professional codes and standards, to the extent that activism and the desire for transformative changes seem to go against the notion of professional. A comment left by a survey respondent as part of this project was particularly revealing—“Activism should not be promoted or encouraged by taxpayer-funded institutions because it is divisive […].”

The above comment suggests that activism is often viewed as biased and serving only one-sided interest, rather the welfare of the public. While activism and contestation can indeed be divisive, we disagree with this narrow notion of activism. Instead, we argue that activism and the actions to produce change can be done with the broad interests of the public in mind. We do recognize, however, that activism is a contested concept and requires further clarification and exploration, hence the development of this work.

In the face of the urgency of environmental and social challenges at the present moment, it is time for the profession to reflect on the mission and modalities of its practice through the lens of activism. It is also time for the accredited professional degree programs to re-examine their curriculum and pedagogy in the face of current challenges.

Let us ask ourselves: Are we doing enough as a profession to address the critical challenges of our time? What specific actions are needed beyond business as usual? Are we providing our students and graduates with the skills and knowledge needed to address the complex challenges? What tools and preparation are needed for them to become leaders of movements and progress?

In light of the current challenges, there is not a better time for us to reconnect with the premise of our profession. It is time for us to see beyond the limited and even biased notion of activism as divisive politics. Instead, we must recognize the power of design to bring about critical changes to protect the safety and welfare of diverse living communities on the planet. We must see design activism not simply as a rebranding of our work, but as a way to be true to what we do as landscape architects.

An online roundtable hosted by the McHarg Center of the University of Pennsylvania in 2017 provided one of the most insightful and pertinent discussions on design activism to date:

Kian Goh, a roundtable participant and a planning faculty at UCLA, reminds us that design activism is design that challenges power structures and expands “the agency of practice in the face of social and ecological exigencies.” Lizzie Yarina of the MIT Urban Risk Lab argues, “Design is political, and ignoring these larger facets makes us complicit in perpetuating uneven geographies and power structures.”

Artist and designer Kordae Henry sees design activism as a form of survival, “We hold the power to choose between design that harms and continues to divide us or design that creates spaces that will uplift, connect, and distribute power to those who have been marginalized.” On a similar note, Lucinda Sanders argues, “the designer must be willing to engage in these broader, and often unfamiliar, systemic failures to operate as an activist – design through activism.”

On the political and contentious nature of design, landscape architect Susanne Drake notes that “design of cities is a political circus, played out in multiple rings simultaneously.” She cautions, “the danger of uninformed activism is that projects will lack effectiveness or worse—do harm.” Similarly, landscape architect Joanna Karaman states, “truly engaging in design activism means more than just having the loudest voice in the crowd. The quieter, yet still powerful acts of uplifting new ideas, supporting existing community groups, and visioning potential scenarios in the built environment can have a lasting impact on people’s day-to-day lives.”

Finally, on design education, planning scholar Barbara Brown Wilson notes, “activism often requires skills not all designers are taught in school, such as cultural competency, peace negotiation, community organizing, knowledge of other fields (e.g. ecology or economics), deep listening, and a desire to de-center one’s individual ideas toward a collaborative outcome.”

One of the earliest published references on design activism appeared in the inaugural issue (2005) of Framework, a publication of the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley. In a leading article in the volume, Randolph T. Hester makes an important distinction between five types of “design postures,” ranging from the blissfully naïve—those who are “spatially talented and contextually ignorant,” to catalysts—“agents of change.”

He wrote, “Catalysts see design not only as a symbolic and utilitarian end but also a stimulus to bring about political transformation.”6 For Hester, all design is design activism, “Every design action is a political act that concretizes power and authority.”7 The more important question, he argues, is “design activism for whom?” or for whom is design activism serving.

“Every design action is a political act that concretizes power and authority.” Randolph T. Hester, University of California, Berkeley.8

In a 1999 issue of Places Journal that revisits the practice of participatory design, Mark Francis proposes a proactive approach to professional practice, one in which professionals “use skills in risk-taking, negotiation and entrepreneurial enterprise, base their thoughts and actions on social and environmental values, employ advocacy as part of their approach […] employ sound research and analysis, and are involved long-term […] to realize a vision.”9 What Francis has proposed is essentially the work of design activists or activist designers.

More recently, in her book Toward an Urban Ecology, Kate Orff notes that climate change requires us to imagine a different scale of action, “to scale up our work to effect larger behavioral modifications.” She further notes that this type of action is not usually commissioned by a specific client or through an RFQ process. “Rather, a pervasive, activist stance needs to be consciously brought to bear on all our endeavors to effect change.”10

While we are making the case for activism through design, it’s important not to overlook the polemics and even fallacies of activism. Denise Hoffman Brandt from the City College of New York had this to say in our interview: “Activism suggests being outside of what is normal—It is oppositional.” It tends to be “more a reaction, rather than a continuum,” she argues. Hoffman Brandt’s caution and critique are well taken. Rather than momentary disruptions, we must aim for sustaining changes.

In the online Design Activism Education Survey, we asked the respondents what “design activism” means to them. Among a range of options, “design for social change” received the most votes, followed by “socially engaged design practice,” “design in the public interest,” “proactive design practice,” and “design that disrupts the status quo.”11 “Just another ‘-ism’” received the least votes.

We also encouraged the respondents to provide their own definitions. Among the inputs we received, versions of “design for climate justice and climate resilience” were mentioned multiple times, so was the addition of “environmental/ecological dimension” to the listed definition that mentions only social change. A few others also put emphasis on serving the underserved/vulnerable populations.

In this document, we use design as a vehicle for social change as a working definition of design activism. By social change, we don’t mean to exclude the environmental or ecological dimensions of design. Rather, we argue that social (including political) change is fundamental to how society approaches and safeguards the environment, including living systems. Furthermore, we see the engagement of the vulnerable and underserved as an important part of the social change, from a system that privileges the few to one that strives for justice and equity.

By having a working definition, it’s not our intention to exclude other possible definitions or interpretations. Rather, the working definition is intended to provide a focus for this work and to articulate a position and a point of departure.

  1. Source: https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/activism
  2. Randolph T. Hester, “Design Activism… For Whom?” Frameworks 1 (Spring 2005): 8-15.
  3. Hester, “Design Activism… For Whom?”, 8-9.
  4. Hester, “Design Activism… For Whom?”, 8-9.
  5. Mark Francis, “Proactive Practice: Visionary Thought and Participatory Action in Environmental Design,” Places Journal 12, 2 (1999): 60-68.
  6. Kate Orff, Toward an Urban Ecology (New York: The Monacelli Press, 2016), 12.
  7. The respondents could choose multiple answers.