3. Becoming Design Activists

For landscape architects to (re)engage with the social and the political, what skills, knowledge, and perspectives are needed?

We posed this question to groups of landscape architecture educators and students gathered at the 2019 CELA conference in Sacramento, CA, and at EDRA’s 50th annual conference in Brooklyn, New York, also in 2019. A similar question was also raised in our interviews with selected program administrators and practitioners around the country. Finally, in the Design Activism Education Survey, we asked the respondents to rank among a range of expertise and knowledge in meeting the critical challenges of our time. The following summarizes our findings.

Justice, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion

Understanding of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion is critical to the education of designers interested in activism and social change. The issues facing vulnerable and underserved populations require designers to challenge assumptions and normative practices. Knowing the history of bias and structural injustice in the society is at the core of this challenge, so is the need for humility, empathy, and development of cultural and intercultural sensibility in design, planning, and policy-making. In our focus to effect change, we must listen to voices of differences including those likely to be impacted. We must co-create with groups we serve and build capacity through engagement and design. To address issues of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, we must also look into our own organizations and communities to address systemic biases and injustice.

Ethics of Activism

While activism can bring about the desired changes, we must also be fully aware of its own limitations and tendencies including a savior mentality and cultural dominance when designers fail to recognize the delicate role they play in the community they supposedly serve. Additionally, it’s important to note that activism or political engagement can be a form of privilege, as not everyone can afford to take risks or accept additional burdens and responsibilities. As professionals who seek transformative outcomes through our work, we must also be mindful of the unintended harm that our work may produce. By leading a movement or advocate on behalf of others, we must also not take away the agency and subjectivity of those who are the primary stakeholders. It is critical that these ethical considerations become a part of the skills and knowledge in design activism.

Public Engagement

As design activism requires practitioners to step out of their professional comfort zone to engage with the public(s), it is important that they are well versed in the methods and ethics of public engagement. These include an understanding of participatory action research methods as a way to engage the public as active participants and not just as providers of input and information or just as an audience to seek approval from. To engage the public in a meaningful and effective way, one must develop an adequate understanding of the contemporary and historical contexts of a given project or issue. We must not assume that we have full knowledge of the issues and challenges. Engaged design professionals must develop a capacity for empathy and to see the issues from the perspectives of the community or population. The process also requires the ability to engage the public and the community in social learning to share, co-create, and expand their knowledge and perspectives.

(Inter)cultural Capacity

“We need to work with communities that are different from where students are coming from so that students can learn firsthand from these communities.” Mark Boyer, Louisiana State University

To engage constituents who are culturally and socioeconomically diverse, it is critical for landscape architects to develop cultural and intercultural capacity in communication and representation and humility in the face of multiple worldviews and perspectives. As part of an intercultural capacity, cultural competence is the ability to understand, communicate with, and effectively interact with people across cultures35. It encompasses an awareness of one’s own worldview, knowledge of different cultural practices, and skills for communication and interactions across cultures36. As designers we can develop intercultural capacity by collaborating with community stakeholders and partners. We can also learn directly from members of different cultures and work with intermediaries or ambassadors.

Asset-based Approach

One of the fallacies of the conventional model of community service and technical assistance is the sole focus on the deficiencies or problems facing the community. To the contrary, Asset-based Community Development (ABCD) is a method of community development based on the strengths and potentials residing in a community. Rather than weaknesses and challenges, it recognizes a community’s assets and resources and tries to leverage them for success. The assets may include cultural knowledge and social capital, rather than material resources only. Developed by John L. McKnight and John P. Kretzmann at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, ABCD is a model of empowerment that recognizes the agency of community members and stakeholders.

Organizing, Advocacy & Leadership

In order to engage more effectively in movements to effect change, landscape architects interested in design activism must hone their political skills and develop greater capacity in organizing, advocacy, and leadership. We must develop a better understanding of the political and legislative process to effect policy changes. Landscape architects must not shy away from tools of activism and advocacy to get things done. This includes grassroots mobilization, campaigning, petitioning, lobbying, writing op-ed articles, and participating in rallies, and engage those who are not at the table. Organizing and advocacy also involve sharing and communicating visions and ideas, persuading the public about alternatives as well as the impacts and consequences of proposed actions.

Political Opportunities & Power Mapping

For activism to be effective and impactful, one must understand and work with political opportunities that are critical to policy changes. This requires an understanding of policy-making and planning processes and the actors that are involved in the arena. It requires knowledge of the organizational structure and power dynamic that resides in our political institutions. To be effective in the political process, we must understand where the pressure points are and how to cultivate and leverage political support. We must develop our leadership capacity locally, nationally, and internationally, and not just within the profession but also in society. This means entering public services and even running for offices.

Collaboration & Partnership

The kind of systemic changes necessary to address the critical challenges we face today is far too immense and complex for landscape architects to act on alone. To facilitate the kind of change we want to achieve, it is important to team up with actors and organizations with complementary expertise and capacity. We need the support of others to accomplish our shared goals. Collaborating and partnering with others provide opportunities to inform and enrich our perspectives and to build networks and coalitions that are necessary to achieve long-term goals. In the Design Activism Education Survey, “interdisciplinary collaboration” was ranked highest together with “participation design/public engagement” as areas of expertise to meet the critical challenges of our time. In terms of changes to be incorporated into education to support design activism, “collaboration with other disciplines” received the most votes.

Communication & Storytelling

Communication came up as a prominent area of skills in our workshops at the CELA and EDRA conferences and in our interviews with the activists/practitioners. In today’s media-rich environment, the capacity to communicate issues in compelling ways and to disseminate using the appropriate platform(s) has a great impact on the extent of attention and actions that follow. Many landscape architects and landscape architecture students today already have a strong command of visual communication, including mapping, photo-realistic rendering, and data visualization. Building on such strength, practitioners, faculty, and students need to utilize the appropriate platforms, develop and implement effective messaging and storytelling, and work with the press and other allies to advance the issues.

Co-Design/Co-create

Design activists are not just facilitators in the design and planning process, nor do they act solely as visionaries without the engagement of the public. Instead, to generate public support and to engage the public in meaningful and effective ways, we must develop the capacity to co-design and co-create with the public. To co-design is to open up the design process in creative ways, to share the tools and the role of designers with others, to develop a collective understanding of issues and problems, to leverage assets in the community, including its people, to engage in social learning that expands the shared knowledge of a given problem, to empower the public with the pleasure and responsibilities of design, and to arrive at innovative solutions that would not have emerged if one were to act alone.

Multiple Leaderships

Leadership is one of the most fundamental aspects of activism. It takes leadership on the part of individuals and organizations to begin a conversation, get organized, envision solutions, and overcome obstacles and barriers that stand in the way of change. In activism, there are, however, different types of leadership. There are leaderships as manifested in team-building and through the ability to negotiate. There are leaders whose job is to empower those who have been historically marginalized and to build capacity. It takes leadership to see the larger pictures, to make connections that may not be apparent, to articulate and communicate effectively the challenges and solutions at hand, and to call out injustice when they exist. The different forms of leadership require efforts by multiple individuals and organizations, contrary to the notion of a single, heroic individual.

History, Humanities & Social Theories

“Landscape architecture is reasonably good at ecological theory, the theory of nature […]. In contrast there is a fundamental lack of political theory.” Billy Fleming, University of Pennsylvania

In order to address the root causes of injustice and the system in which it operates, we must know where it comes from historically and how it has sustained socially and institutionally. It is therefore important for landscape architects interested in design activism to be versed in the social and political history of societal struggles, including the history of race relations, settler colonialism, and forced occupations. Similarly, for professionals to be effective in the policy arena and in working with movement leaders and organizers, we need to have the vocabulary and conceptual frameworks informed by philosophical thoughts, environmental humanities, and social science theories. The responses to the Design Activism Education Survey included a few specific suggestions, such as racial history, intersections of environmental, racial, and climate justice, and design ethics.

Entrepreneurship

To pursue alternative career paths outside the established sectors of private, public, and, to a lesser extent, nonprofit practices, it is important that landscape architects interested in design activism are armed with entrepreneurial skills. New tools and platforms have emerged in recent times that enable social start-up and self-organized groups to pursue funding support. There are potentially new models of practices that can emerge from the new landscape of financial tools and organizational structures that are distinct from traditional forms of private practice and public work. They offer potentials for landscape architecture practices to break away from the predominant model of a service industry and move toward models that are driven more strongly by social and environmental agenda.

Digital Democracy

With advances in technology and telecommunication in particular, the variety of digital tools are transforming the way communities and the society are organized, how communication is supported, and how data are collected and informing design, planning, and policy decisions. As such, understanding and harnessing these digital tools have become indispensable to design activists in the digital era. As digital tools are becoming a more inseparable part of our institutions and everyday life, it is even more important that we protect the democracy of our society in the digital age by using these tools. However, as many communities may not have adequate access to the Internet, for instance, addressing the digital divide is a challenge that design activists must also address.

Lifelong & Social Learning

Given the complexity of challenges facing the society and the planet as well as the evolving nature of these challenges, our data bank of knowledge as landscape architects can never be sufficient. It is important that we engage in continued learning and acquisition of new knowledge in order to be effective in addressing a given set of issues and challenges. As such, developing skills and capacity for lifelong learning is critical for design activists. Furthermore, learning can be a social process that connects communities of professionals from different disciplines and with other sectors of society. We can learn from the communities as well as experts from other disciplines. By learning from others, we also develop empathy and humility that are critical to our practice.

Narrative & Aesthetic

Design activists are also designers. Design is a vehicle that cultivates meanings and values while conveying beauty and poetry. When connected with cultural meanings and narratives, design expressions can be powerful, persuasive, and transforming. In her influential article from 2008, “Sustaining Beauty,” landscape scholar Beth Meyer argues for the role of aesthetic environmental experiences, such as beauty, in the discourse on environmental sustainability37. The work of landscape architect and scholar Kongjian Yu is exemplary in this regard. His metaphor of Big Feet weaves together the narrative and aesthetic of the peasant landscapes (a counterpoint to high design in the Chinese tradition) and the ecological performances of nature-based systems.

Assessment & Evaluation

For activism to be successful and sustainable in the long run, one must also develop the ability to critically assess and evaluate the outcomes of an action or a project as well as the process in which it unfolds. From time to time, we must reflect on the efficacy and impact of our deeds. Are we producing the intended outcomes? Are there unintended consequences? Whose interests are being served? Are the stakeholders engaged in a meaningful way? Do the benefits outweigh the costs? Are we making progress toward the long-term goals? Because our work is often emergent and unprecedented, as we take risks and make bold moves, we must also step back from time to time to assess and evaluate what we do and make corrections and adjustments as we move forward.

Moving Forward: Skills and Knowledge to Engage in Design Activism

While some of the skills and knowledge outlined above may not appear to be central to the core of landscape architecture education, one may argue that much of what’s discussed here is already, or has the possibility to be, embedded in the landscape architecture curriculum. In particular, communication, history, theory, and humanities, and narrative and aesthetics are a common focus in almost all programs. The practices of public engagement and co-design and the emphasis of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion are also gaining recognition sometimes under university mandates. This suggests that there is already a foundation in many programs for design activism to be introduced to the curriculum.

Still, it is also important to recognize that, while new content or focus need to be introduced, the core skillsets of landscape architects are still highly relevant. This is one of the common feedback in our interviews with activists/practitioners. In other words, the focus on activism and design as social change does not necessarily mean a complete dismantling of the core substance of landscape architecture education. Specifically, in our interviews with activists and practitioners, systems thinking and spatial knowledge were identified as invaluable in addressing how social justice issues are manifested in the built environment.

One practitioner mentioned how methods and models of participatory design introduced in a studio she took became the foundation of her work today. Other highlighted skills include working in teams, listening to multiple voices, communicating visually and verbally, dealing with ambiguity, “getting used to being uncomfortable” [in design reviews], and “being asked to imagine what does not yet exist.” These experiences are highly relevant to addressing the wicked problems facing the society and planet. Design activism, in fact, presents an arena in which core landscape architecture skills and knowledge can be put to greater use.

  1. Source: http://makeitourbusiness.ca/blog/what-does-it-mean-be-culturally-competent
  2. Ibid.
  3. Elizabeth K. Meyer, “Sustaining Beauty. The Performance of Appearance: A Manifesto in Three Parts,” Journal of Landscape Architecture 3, No.1 (2008): 6-23.