5. Opportunities Ahead

“The good news is that there are so many things to do.” Ron Henderson, IIT

The scale and complexity of challenges facing the society and planet today are immense. But these challenges also present opportunities for change. We asked a group of program leaders and practitioners around the United States and participants at the 2019 CELA conference about opportunities specific to integrating design activism into landscape architecture education. The following summarizes their insights.

Student Interest!

“It’s off the chart! This is all they want to do.” Joern Langhorst, University of Colorado, Denver

Though not universally evident across all schools and regions, design activism is enjoying a high level of student interest across the United States at the moment. In our interviews with program leaders around the country, we were told that students generally are highly concerned with issues of climate change, social justice, and disparities in society. One program leader noted, “this is what the students think about all the time these days. They are interested in how landscape architecture can deal with these issues.” In the Design Activism Education Survey, “Lack of student interest” was ranked lowest among the key challenges in implementing changes in the curriculum, reinforcing our interview findings. Student interest is indeed an important asset for curricular changes. They also have the capacity to generate their projects and initiatives. Their creativity, energy, and agency are a force for change.

Political Tidal Wave

The recent movements including the advocacy for the Green New Deal, the climate action movement, Black Lives Matter, and many more reflect the important social, political, and environmental issues of our time. They also represent opportunities for public attention and mobilizing that the profession can benefit from if it is able to engage with these issues. These movements bring up important questions concerning racial and social equity that confront professional practice. There is not a more critical moment for the profession to engage the public in critical dialogues and for educational institutions to reexamine how the degree programs and curriculum have addressed these issues and challenges and how engagements with these issues can contribute to the evolution of courses and pedagogy.

University Missions

With high tuition and the prevailing neoliberal climate, public institutions in higher education are increasingly scrutinized for their public service and contributions. Universities find themselves having to demonstrate their values to state legislatures and the public. Even private universities, especially those located in urban contexts, now look to community engagement as a way to be good neighbors and address improvement and economic development. These efforts provide an opportunity for design programs to demonstrate their unique ability to support university missions and goals. The recent push by many universities to receive the Carnegie Foundation’s Classification for Community Engagement represents another opportunity. Some programs have already been recognized by their institutions. At Kansas State University, for instance, the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional and Community Planning was recognized as among the top three units in the university with a strong focus on community engagement. Such recognition is especially important for landscape architecture programs of modest size to gain visibility in large campuses.

Public Impact Research

“Public impact research” and “broader impacts” are terms increasingly being used to describe socially-beneficial research outcomes. Public impact research is an increasing focus among many universities, especially public and land-grant institutions. The aim is to be more purposeful in carrying out publicly-beneficial research, engaging non-university stakeholders, communicating the results to different publics, and creating institutional capacity for this type of research and engagement. Public impact research is being promoted by a number of national organizations and agencies such as the Association of Public & Land-Grant Institutions and the National Alliance for Broader Impacts, as well as the National Science Foundation which uses “broader impacts” as one of the main criteria for reviewing federally-funded grants.

Public Scholarship

Public scholarship goes by different names but represents the scholarship of discovery and knowledge production, teaching, and learning, that is focused on issues of public concern. Many universities and colleges now have campus-wide units dedicated to supporting faculty and students by facilitating collaborative activities based on mutually-beneficial and reciprocal relationships with non-university constituents. Moreover, there is a national movement to deepen knowledge, share best practices, and to share resources and tools. For example, Imagining America is a national consortium that “brings together scholars, artists, designers, humanists, and organizers to imagine, study, and enact a more just and liberatory ‘America’ and world.” More broadly, the Engaged Scholarship Consortium aims “to build strong university-community partnerships anchored in the rigor of scholarship, and designed to help build community capacity.”

Community-University Partnership

As public institutions find the need to demonstrate their contributions in society and value for the public, community-university partnership serves as an important vehicle for mutually beneficial collaboration and exchanges between universities and community partners through research, teaching, and service. In many universities, community-university partnership has a long history in disciplines such as social work, law, and medicine as part of their mission and pedagogy. These programs provide opportunities for faculty and students with learning and translational research opportunities. In addition to the Carnegie Classification for Community Engagement, University Social Responsibility (USR) is another growing movement that recognizes the role of universities in society. These mechanisms can be leveraged to bring more recognition to the work of design activism in landscape architecture programs.

Collaboration & Cooperation

For schools lacking resources and teaching expertise, collaboration, and cooperation with outside organizations, including community and nonprofit groups, provide a way for students to be exposed to critical challenges and engagement with local communities. For local organizations, the involvement of and work produced by students can offer valuable support; in return, students can learn from their participation. The collaboration addresses both the constraints faced by university programs and the local organizations. For schools located in large metropolitan areas, there are typically many organizations working on a wide variety of issues and challenges. In smaller population centers without as many community or civic organizations, programs can still work directly with municipalities and agencies. At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, for instance, students work with a local group focusing on homelessness and learn directly about the challenges they face.

Funding Opportunities

For schools lacking in resources including funding, engagement in activism, leadership, and community-university partnership may offer opportunities for outside grants to support specific projects that benefit both the university and the community. The Department of Landscape Architecture at the Louisiana State University, for instance, uses a grant to bring students from underrepresented communities to tour sites in New Orleans and learn about the profession. At the University of Washington, Seattle, the Department of Landscape Architecture has a long history of partnering with community and civic organizations through projects funded by Neighborhood Matching Fund grants from the City. Examples of grants include the Community Outreach Partnerships Centers grants offered through the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and those from ArtPlace America, Kellogg, Kresge, Rockefeller, and Surdna foundations.

Advances in Allied Professions

The high level of interest in design activism is not limited to landscape architecture. In Architecture, in particular, there has been a resurgence of interest in socially responsible design as evident in the work of Architecture for Humanity, Design Corps, and the Public Interest Design movement. A long list of publications provides the resources and tools for developing competency and capacity in design activism. These include Design for the 99%, Pro Bono, Good Deeds, Good Design, Expanding Architecture, Public Interest Design Practice Guidebook, and Public Interest Design Education Guidebook. Wisdom from the Field: Public Interest Design Practice, a document produced from the 2011 Latrobe Research Prize, is another excellent resource. Rather than having to reinvent the wheels, we can build on this body of knowledge and experiences.

Cross-disciplinary Collaboration

In the face of the complex social and environmental challenges today, interdisciplinary collaboration is increasingly recognized as key to developing innovative responses. Landscape architecture is already a field that encompasses many different specializations and expertise. But there is still much more that educational programs can do in terms of reaching out and initiating collaboration with fields including health, environmental and forest sciences, law, social work, gender studies, and ethnic studies. As many university grants these days require interdisciplinary teams, collaboration becomes even more critical for programs to access funding. For programs that are already affiliated with planning or other disciplines, they can take advantage of shared resources including courses and faculty expertise.

Design Thinking

“What design schools teach and the kind of design thinking is valuable and necessary for addressing today’s challenges.” Cary Moon, People’s Waterfront Coalition

Similar to interdisciplinary collaboration, design thinking has also emerged in recent times as a way to solve complex problems. In the book Design Thinking: A Guide to Creative Problem Solving for Everyone, Professor Emeritus Andrew Pressman of the University of New Mexico describes design thinking as “a powerful process that facilitates understanding and framing of problems, enables creative solutions, and may provide fresh perspectives on our physical and social landscapes.”38 Outside the traditional design fields, design thinking has been recognized and increasingly applied in business, engineering, and general education. As a profession with design at its core, the rise of design thinking presents an opportunity for landscape architecture to provide leadership in bringing design thinking to complex and multi-scalar environmental and social challenges.

Social Design

Social design has been gaining popularity in the fields of industrial design and human-centered design. As a concept and practice, it emerged from the concerns for the designer’s role in society and the role of design in facilitating social change. It looks beyond the market-orientation of conventional design practice. In recent years, a number of new programs have been established in the United States with a focus on social design. Maryland Institute College of Art is one of the first schools to offer a Master of Arts in Social Design. It defines Social design as “a creative practice dedicated to understanding social problems and supporting positive social change.”39 Faced with common challenges and concerns, the built environment disciplines can learn a great deal from their counterparts in other design disciplines in the area of social design. There are also opportunities for greater collaboration among the disciplines.

Transferability of Skills

One important comment shared by our participants at the CELA conference was that the skills intended for design activism are highly transferrable or applicable to professional practice. The same skills that can contribute to effective design activism, including communication, public speaking, research, listening, critical and synthetic thinking, dealing with ambiguity, and working with community are also the kind of skills that are highly desirable in professional practice40. Particularly, the skills can be highly important for projects involving public engagement and negotiations. The fact that these skills are transferable makes a strong argument for them to be integrated or strengthened in accredited programs. They reinforce the notion that there is an inherent capacity and agency in design to facilitate social change.

Public Awareness & Outreach

As a profession with a relatively small membership and historically overshadowed by other built environment disciplines, landscape architecture is still poorly understood by the general public. Through design activism, the profession and the educational programs can help the public understand better about the field of landscape architecture and its contributions in addressing many important social and environmental issues. In other words, by actively engaging in these issues and by playing a stronger leadership role in the society, we can help amplify not only the issues at stake but also the public recognition and understanding of our profession. As many schools now face the challenge of enrollment, design activism could also serve as a tool to attract a new generation of landscape architects.

Studio Pedagogy

The existing curriculum and education model in landscape architecture already provide opportunities for integrating design activism into its curriculum. One of the defining features of design education is studio pedagogy. With its project-based focus and hands-on approach, design studios are an ideal environment to learn about design activism. Already, service-learning or community-based studios have become a common feature in many design programs. Studio projects address a wide variety of spatial and temporal scales, ranging from an entire regional watershed to urban districts and neighborhoods. Through studios, students developed skills and expertise in design/build, working with multiple mediums and scales, and hone an understanding of working with community partners and stakeholders. To integrate design activism into an existing curriculum, one of the most effective and expedient approaches is to simply introduce it in the studio sequence.

Program Leaderships

In schools around the United States, a new generation of faculty have begun to take on leadership roles in programs, departments, and even schools and colleges. Many have been working with faculty and the professional community to transform courses and curriculum and developing initiatives of design activism. In some programs that used to get push-back from the top, things have changed under new school or college leaderships. Although some may not identify with or explicitly characterize their focus as design activism, many of these efforts do share the same goals as outlined in this document. Leadership at multiple levels can go a long way in implementing changes. By pursuing and allocating resources, including recruiting instructors to teach specific courses, they strengthen the capacity of the programs. By supporting and encouraging faculty to integrate design activism into the courses and curriculum and to pursue innovation, they foster an environment in which new thinking and actions can emerge.

All Design is Activism

“I strongly believe that all practitioners need to be engaged in design activism, not just a small group of design activists.” Leann Andrews, Traction

As stated in the beginning, activism is arguably in the DNA of landscape architecture as we take actions to shape and protect the environment and society. As such, it is important to recognize that all forms of design can be an expression of activism in the way they lead or facilitate changes in society. By recognizing the practice of design as a form of activism, we also recognize that the opportunities to engage in activism reside in all aspects of design practice. Activism can happen in the quiet and even routine part of our work as we seek to implement large-scale changes or undertake incremental steps toward developing longer-term solutions. In the context of design education, we can embed these critical lenses into all the courses that students take, ranging from grading to professional practice. In fact, the more we address activism in an integral way, the less activism is seen as a specialized practice or actions reserved only for the “radical designers.” The more activism is integrated into education and practice, the greater the impacts we can have on producing the desirable changes in society.

Knowledge Frontiers

“The problem for the profession […] is that these pressures are shaping territories where landscape architecture has very little capacity.” Richard Weller, University of Pennsylvania41

Actions to redefine or broaden the profession needs to come from somewhere. As landscape architecture practice is still strongly connected to the market place which favors the status quo, schools and other emerging practices can be a catalyst in leading the kind of changes that need to happen. By working with innovative practitioners as well as institutional and community partners, the academic programs can be an incubator of ideas and techniques that can find their way into practice. By producing the future generations of practitioners armed with new skills and knowledge, landscape architecture programs can help reshape and reinvigorate the profession. Schools have been playing the role of catalysts and leaders. The Bauhaus School, despite its short lifespan (1919-1933), played an important role in the Modernist movement in art, architecture, and design in the early 20th Century. Ian McHarg’s ecological methods at Penn serves as another, more recent example.

  1. Andrew Pressman, Design Thinking: A Guide to Creative Problem Solving for Everyone (London and New York: Routledge, 2019), XVII.
  2. Source: https://www.mica.edu/research/center-for-social-design/
  3. Interview with Brice Maryman (December 18, 2019)
  4. Richard Weller, “Our Time?” The New Landscape Declaration: A Call to Action for the Twenty-First Century, The Landscape Architecture Foundation, ed. (Los Angeles: Rare Bird Books, 2017), 9.