“It’s not a question of whether to do it nor not, but how to do what we do, […], and learning how to do it better.” Joern Langhorst, University of Colorado, Denver
To embrace and position design as activism in landscape architecture education, we propose the following framework of actions based on the challenges and opportunities identified in this document. While the framework and suggested actions are specific to education, we envision that a strong intersection between education and profession is also 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 only. Rather, we see the need for a broader transformation to occur through such intersections.
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 reassess its own mission and goals and develop appropriate strategies and actions together with students, faculty, and the professional community. Undertaking systemic changes requires patience, strategies, and mobilization at multiple levels. We envision these changes to occur locally, regionally, nationally, and transnationally, starting from the bottom, top, and sideways, through both acupunctural pressures as well as layered approaches. The change we envision requires creativity, innovation, and sustained efforts by faculty, students, administrators, and professional allies.
“Every design action is a political act.” Randolph T. Hester, University of California, Berkeley56
The social and environmental challenges facing our society and the planet today are in essence political, in the sense that they reflect exercises of power and struggles. To be effective in meeting these challenges, landscape architects need to be engaged with the political—the process in which different forces and struggles converge in the public realm. We must understand better the language and systems of power. We need to have the ability and capacity to engage in the political process to effect change. To politicize is not to align necessarily with partisan interests and viewpoints. It’s not “politicizing” as conventionally or commonly understood. Rather, to politicize is to accept the responsibility of professionals as engaged citizens and as members of a democracy. To be effective participants in a democracy, we must acquire the skills in communicating, mobilizing, and advocating for the public (demos).
To politicize is also to understand that the built environment has always been an ongoing product of social, economic, and political processes. The work that we do as professionals and the materials that we teach and learn in school are shaped by systems and history of social movements as well as oppression and colonialization. In the book, Design for the Real World, published more than thirty years ago, designer and educator Victor Papanek argues, “The main trouble with design schools seems to be that they teach too much design and not enough about the ecological, social, economic, and political environment in which design takes place.”57 Although Papanek was addressing more specifically the field of industrial design, the same criticism could be applied to landscape architecture, not just 30 years ago, but also today. There is much work to be done to engage with the “real world” we live in.
- Approach history and theory of landscape architecture with a political lens.
- Integrate politics and political processes into community engagement methods.
- Consider political processes and political actions in studio projects.
- Engage in planning and policy debates at local, regional, national, and international levels.
“We must go beyond landscape architecture practice in order to broach this critical environmental crossroads.” Martha Schwartz, Martha Schwartz Partners58
The scale and complexity of the social and environmental challenges today require landscape architecture to build knowledge and capacity beyond the traditional core of the profession. One of the advantages of higher education is that we reside in institutions with other areas of expertise, including arts, environmental sciences, ethnic studies, geography, gender studies, health, human-centered design, law, planning, social work, etc. There are abundant opportunities to explore collaboration in research, teaching, and service that can mutually benefit students, faculty, the professional community, and the public if we are willing to invest in building the connections and taking the initiatives.
By connecting and working with other disciplines, there are also opportunities to reflect critically on how we operate as a field. For instance, we can learn from the methods that the other fields use to generate, disseminate, and apply knowledge. We can also observe how they test ideas and verify results. We can draw from the way they engage the public and advance their agenda. Through these interactions, we can learn about our strengths and limitations and find ways to advance our profession. Conversely, by hybridizing, we can also make others aware of landscape architecture and what we can bring to the table. Rather than taking on the challenges on our own, hybridizing allows us to join forces with others.
There are different ways in which hybridization can occur. In programs that are housed together with planning programs, for instance, students already can benefit from the availability of courses and the company of cohorts often with a strong social justice focus and sensibility. At the graduate level, students can develop specializations, participate in joint projects, or even pursue concurrent degrees. At the undergraduate level, we can encourage students to pursue minors in other fields to broaden their perspectives and acquire additional knowledge and skills. At the program level, in addition to developing relationships with other units, steps must also be taken to reduce barriers including tenure and promotion criteria and process.
At the program level and as a profession, we must also hybridize our ranks by recruiting more diverse students and faculty into education. 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 the society.
- Develop joint degree programs and interdisciplinary opportunities, including joint courses and studios.
- Recruit students and faculty with diverse professional and disciplinary backgrounds.
- Reduce barriers for interdisciplinary collaboration, including course requirements, faculty tenure and promotion criteria, etc.
- Recruit diverse students and faculty particularly those from underserved and underrepresented communities.
Just like landscapes and ecosystems, today’s social and environmental challenges are also interconnected across scales. To be effective in meeting these interconnected challenges, we must think and act both locally and globally. Starting with the local, one thing that educational programs can do immediately is to build connections with local stakeholders, including communities, public agencies, and civic organizations, not to mention the local professional community. These connections are important for developing a service-learning curriculum and providing students and faculty with opportunities to develop working relationships and gain insights into the issues and challenges facing the local communities. These insights allow students and faculty to understand how issues facing the planet and the global society are manifested locally and how we can begin to undertake actions in communities and places where we live and work, particularly the vulnerable communities.
“Our call or declaration must be global because much of the environmental impact and urban growth is happening in the developing world.” Mario Schjetnan, Grupo de Diseño Urbano/GDU59
Developing local ties needs not to be done at the expense of global connections. In fact, by working both locally and globally with partners and communities abroad, landscape architecture programs can explore the interconnectivity of global and local issues, broaden the horizon for students and faculty, and prepare students to become global leaders and citizens. As demographic compositions diversify in communities across the globe, institutions are increasingly required to address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Cultivating the local and global connections and exploring curricular and pedagogical opportunities can also help build the cultural and intercultural capacity for the next generation of landscape architects.
- Develop connections and partnerships with community organizations, professional groups, and public sector agencies both locally and globally.
- Develop service-learning studios to address issues faced by communities and agencies.
- Develop capacity in supporting and sustaining long-term partnerships.
- Work with on-campus units or organizations that support partnerships and collaboration.
“I think the biggest opportunities are in studios—the biggest part of our program.” Mark Boyer, Louisiana State University
With fiscal uncertainty or declining financial support (and now with the impact of COVID-19), most landscape architecture programs in the United States are likely not in a position to grow rapidly. As such, the most effective way to move forward with the agenda of integrating design activism into design education is to make use of what already exists. For instance, studios present an excellent opportunity to integrate design activism into a curriculum. Given the common problems of crowded curriculum and systems that are already overstretched, using a design studio to introduce and embed design activism can be done with the least cost and disruption to a curriculum. The project-based approach and the significant stretch of time assigned to design studios also makes it an appropriate venue. Similarly, contents related to design activism can also be layered or inserted into existing courses whenever it’s appropriate.
Aside from the coursework, a program can also build on an existing lecture series to introduce new themes and substance focusing on critical issues of our time. It can offer workshops/charrettes on an annual or biennial basis providing opportunities to engage not just students and faculty but also the professional community and members of the public. Summer programs provide yet another opportunity to utilize existing resources, in this case the availability of space and time during the summer. Improvising, or working with what you have, also means utilizing strengths and assets that are already in place in a program or a community. These may include existing community-university partnership programs on campus, community-based organizations that one can develop partnerships with, and city agencies that can use resources and support from university programs.
- Undertake an audit of the existing programs and curriculum to identify opportunities for introducing design activism.
- Consider using studios and studio projects as the platform to introduce and integrate design activism into the curriculum.
- Leverage existing strengths and resources, including courses, lecture series, summer programs, and connections with on-campus and outside organizations.
To improvise with existing resources and strengths, one doesn’t need to go far than to look at an existing program, curriculum, university, and the nearby city or communities. There is arguably no better way to address issues of equity, justice, and resilience than to look at what’s immediately around us. Starting with the courses, what if we take a social justice lens to re-examine the history of our profession? Rather than following the typical narrative in the literature, what if we revisit it from the perspectives of the subaltern groups, including the indigenous communities and marginalized groups whose lands were expropriated to make ways for some of the most iconic works of our profession? What if we take on the disparities that exist already in our communities, such as access to fresh food and green spaces? What if we look at how university campuses are addressing issues of sustainability and resilience?
To problematize our assumptions and existing systems is also to develop a deeper understanding of issues and take a critical stance that is in essence the source of activism. There is an abundance of issues that we can take on at our doorsteps if we are able to problematize them and make them the focus of actions. These actions are in turn provide the opportunities through which design activism can be introduced and integrated into the curriculum. Starting in one’s own programs, institutions, and communities also presents opportunities to be engaged and to connect theories and concepts to realities. Beyond one’s own immediate surroundings, problematizing the societal institutions and challenges facing the planet is also a critical step toward developing holistic and innovative solutions. One must develop appropriate solutions by first asking the right questions.
- Revisit existing courses, course materials, and curriculum with a critical lens and identify issues and materials relevant to design activism.
- Re-examine issues facing one’s own programs, institutions, and communities and identify issues and problems as a starting point for actions.
- Challenge assumptions and norms of actions when it comes to social and environmental challenges.
Design activism is best learned and understood in actions. An authentic experience including, but not limited to, meeting and working together with community members, tabling or speaking in a rally, and staying in a community, can go a long way in instilling a sense of purpose, empathy, and understanding by being immersed. Rather than indoctrinating students or simply delivering content and expecting the students to accept and digest on their own, it’s often more powerful to provide opportunities for self-discoveries through experiential learning. Providing opportunities for actions and experiences is thus a critical component of design activism education.
Authenticize, or creating an authentic experience for students, involves working with people in the actual context with real issues. The reality is the best material for students to learn about the complexity of issues and challenges as well as the opportunities and pathways for solutions. Creating opportunities for experiential learning, therefore, needs to be integrated into landscape architecture education, either through service-learning studios and field classrooms or other innovative mechanisms. Long-term investment of time and commitment is needed to ensure an authentic and long-lasting relationship for collaboration. The collaboration can only be as authentic as the relationships that enable the collaboration to occur in the first place.
- Focus on providing opportunities for experiential learning through collaboration with community stakeholders and working in the field.
- Use a project-based approach to courses and curriculum, focusing on hands-on activities and engagement.
- Encourage and support student initiatives in design activism rather than providing prescriptive programs.
For alternative practices to be viable and successful in the market economy or the competitive nonprofit ecosystem, landscape architecture education needs to provide students not only with technical knowledge but also entrepreneurial skills. Even in the public sector, understanding of funding and fund management is critical to program effectiveness and success. Again, one advantage of higher education institutions is their proximity and access to a variety of resources and expertise, including programs that support businesses, entrepreneurship, nonprofit management, and grant writing. Programs can develop partnerships with their counterparts on campuses that offer appropriate courses and workshops and can become partners in potential initiatives.
Having the additional skills in entrepreneurship can open the door for graduates to pursue alternative forms of practice, the lack of which has been identified as a barrier to design activism. Stronger entrepreneurial skills can also help existing practices to become more successful financially by developing new business models and revenue streams. With greater financial resilience, firms will have more ability to pursue projects and initiatives with greater social impacts and environmental contributions. The entrepreneurial skills can also potentially translate into a stronger and more creative way of governing public assets and resources and for the profession to become more capable of supporting the revitalization of local communities that struggle in today’s economy.
Lastly, entrepreneurizing also needs to happen at the scale of the profession, not just individual practitioners or firms. We can begin to do so in education.
- Partner with other programs on campus that provide training in business, entrepreneurship, and nonprofit management.
- Work with the professional community to identify and leverage resources for training in entrepreneurship.
- Support student and faculty involvement in community entrepreneurship initiatives which in turn provide learning opportunities.
“How do we match the scale of operation with the scale of problems?” Brice Maryman, landscape architect, MIG
To take on the scale and complexity of the critical challenges today, we must “scale up” our practice by collaborating with other professions, by pursuing different models of practice, and through different ways of organizing. Landscape architects are far from being alone in addressing the critical changes facing the society and the planet. To say the least, our capacity is modest compared to the number of people and organizations that are already mobilized to fight the systems that produce climate change and social and environmental injustice. Take the American Environmental Movement as an example, it is a movement with a collective membership of millions of people, a sophisticated web of organizations, and providing job opportunities for many professional organizers and staff, engaged in a wide variety of issues ranging from wildlife conservation to toxic waste.
Rather than re-inventing the wheel, we can collaborate with these movement organizations and find critical intersections of our work. Instead of producing new skills and knowledge from scratch, we can learn from these organizations and the work they have done successfully already. Beyond learning from and participating in the work that other movement organizations are doing, pursuing these intersections also means finding allies and building coalitions and capacity for the profession. Rather than training the students on our own, we can collaborate with others in developing practicum and internship programs to build skills and knowledge in organizing and advocacy. By joining coalitions of movements and organizations, we can better identify opportunities for the field to contribute and assert our presence and influence. By working with others, we also make the work of landscape architects more visible to a broader audience.
Working with others is certainly a way to begin. But at some point, we also need to reflect critically on the way our profession and educational programs are organized. Are the profession and the education system organized in a way that addresses the scale and complexity of the challenges at hand? What are the alternatives? Can we emulate the success of other movements and disciplines? Where can we have the largest impact? What is missing from our practice model? These are some of the questions that we need to address as a profession as we move forward.
- Develop collaborative relationships with movement organizations that provide learning opportunities for students, faculty, and professionals.
- Partner with movement organizations on internship and practicum programs for students to acquire skills and knowledge in organizing.
- Engage in critical reflections on how the profession of landscape architecture is organized and whether the way we are organized is meeting the challenges of our time.
To take on the power structure in society, we must also reexamine the power structure within our educational institutions. This includes how decisions are made, how resources are allocated, whom we are accountable to, and even how educational institutions are funded. Starting with developing strategies to make our programs more responsive to the critical challenges of our time, we must make sure that students, faculty, and even the professional community are fully engaged in the process of deliberation and implementation. Without their input and support, the strategies would risk being misinformed or lacking the ability to sustain.
In partnering with communities outside the university, we must also ensure that all voices are included in the process and that we do not end up sustaining the structure of injustice through our work. More than just design assistance, our involvement must help build capacity in the community we work with. In developing solutions for projects, we must ensure that they address equity, diversity, and inclusion at different scales, from local to global. As a profession and as educational institutions responsible for training future generations of professionals, we must hold ourselves to the same set of values and principles that our work is intended to embody.
- Match our actions with our values.
- Re-examine the system of hierarchy within education and the profession.
- Develop mechanisms to include all voices in the program and curriculum deliberations and decisions.
- Build capacity in communities we work with and not just providing solutions.
- Hester, Randolph T., “Declaration of Interdependence: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Sustainable Happiness,” The New Landscape Declaration: A Call to Action for the Twenty-First Century, The Landscape Architecture Foundation, ed. (Los Angeles: Rare Bird Books, 2017), 117
- Victor Papanek, Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, Second Edition (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1984), 291.
- Martha Schwartz, “Beyond Practice: Landscape Architects and the Global Eco-Crisis,” The New Landscape Declaration: A Call to Action for the Twenty-First Century, The Landscape Architecture Foundation, ed. (Los Angeles: Rare Bird Books, 2017), 26.
- Mario Schjetnan, “Evolution and Prospective Outlook,” The New Landscape Declaration: A Call to Action for the Twenty-First Century, The Landscape Architecture Foundation, ed. (Los Angeles: Rare Bird Books, 2017), 38.