Executive Summary

Facing environmental and social crises on a global scale, how can landscape architecture education prepare students to become changemakers in meeting these challenges? With the support of the Landscape Architecture Foundation Fellowship for Innovation and Leadership, this project presents a framework of actions to reposition and transform landscape architecture education for social change. Working with a group of educators around the United States, the study draws from discussions at workshops from national conferences, an online survey, and interviews with practitioners and program leaders in the United States.

In this study, we use design as a vehicle for social change as a working definition of design as 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 its living systems. Furthermore, we see the engagement of vulnerable and underserved as an important part of the social change, from a system the privileges the few to one that strives for equity and justice.

This report begins by situating design activism in the context of the grand challenges facing the society and the planet, followed by sketching a genealogy and trajectory of activism in landscape architecture through which we argue that activism has been in the DNA of the profession since its beginning days in the 19th Century with efforts to transform the landscapes of the growing cities, using design as a vehicle to address critical social and environmental challenges.

Based on the results of two conference workshops that engaged both educators and students, we explore the skills and knowledge required for design activists and the challenges and opportunities facing the integration of design activism into landscape architecture education. To learn from the existing efforts in the field, we further examine the current models of engaged learning that include community design centers, community-university partnerships, and service-learning programs.

Building on the findings, we then develop and present a framework for actions for programs and educators to adopt with the goal of transforming landscape architecture education in the face of the critical challenges facing the society and the planet:

  • Politicize – Develop the ability and capacity in students to engage in the political process to effect change; understand better the language and systems of power; accept the responsibility of professionals as engaged citizens and as members of a democracy.
  • Hybridize – Build knowledge and capacity beyond the traditional core of the profession; engage in collaboration on research, teaching, and service with other disciplines; learn from how other fields generate, disseminate, and apply knowledge, and how they engage the public and advance their agenda.
  • Globalize – Think and act both locally and globally; build connections with stakeholders, including communities, public agencies, civic organizations, and the professional community locally and across borders; examine the intersections between local and global challenges.
  • Improvise – Make use of what already exists, including courses, curriculum, programs, and other resources; utilize strengths and assets already in place in a program or a community, including existing connections and relationships; be tactical and creative with opportunities and circumstances.
  • Problematize – Question assumptions and challenges facing an institution or a community; develop a deeper understanding of issues and take a critical stance; make issues of equity, justice, and resilience in a current program, curriculum, institution, or community the focus of education and actions.
  • Authenticize – Create opportunities for self-discoveries through experiential learning; develop and support long-lasting relationships for collaboration with community stakeholders; work with communities and stakeholders in the actual context with real issues.
  • Entrepreneurize — Provide students not only with technical skills but also entrepreneurial knowledge; develop partnerships with programs on campuses and organizations in the profession to offer courses and workshops; provide students with skills and opportunities to pursue alternative practices.
  • (Re)organize – Examine critically how education and professional practices in landscape architecture are organized; collaborate with the movement organizations and find critical intersections of our work; identify allies and build coalitions and greater capacity for the profession.
  • Democratize – Begin by reexamining the power structure within our educational institutions; fully engage students, faculty, and the professional community in program decision and implementation; ensure that all voices are included in courses, projects, and initiatives; build capacity in the community we work with.

As educational programs in landscape architecture vary in their focus, size, and organization, and as they respond often to different contexts and constituents, the proposals here are not meant to be one-size-fits-all. Instead, we ask each program and school to assess its own mission and goals and develop appropriate strategies and actions together with students, faculty, and the professional community. Undertaking a system-wide change requires patience, strategies, and mobilization at multiple levels.

While the framework and suggested actions are specific to education, we envision that a strong intersection between education and profession is essential. In other words, while the focus of this study is on landscape architecture education, we do not see the actions as limited to the context of educational institutions. Rather, we see the need for a broader transformation to occur through critical intersections and collaboration between education, practice, and social engagement.