2. Looking Backward to Move Forward

Roots in Activism

To envision the role of landscape architects as changemakers, one needs not to go far than to look at the origin of the profession in the United States. The typical narrative begins with the early pioneers of the profession serving not only as skilled practitioners but also movement leaders and advocates of ideas through prolific writings. Andrew Jackson Downing, for example, wrote the first book of its kind on landscape design in the United States and served as an editor of a horticultural journal and as a spokesperson for the parks movement12. Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. was a writer, former journalist, designer, and public administrator at a time when public park was still a novel concept.

The making of Central Park itself mirrored much of the contemporary open space activism. Without the call by Downing and William Cullen Bryant, a newspaper editor-poet, the city would not have acted in time to purchase the large tracts of land before development occurred13. Apart from the unfortunate displacement of the Seneca Village, a precursor to today’s green gentrification, Central Park stands as a remarkable achievement that embodies the vision and ideals of the American Parks Movement. More than just a picturesque backdrop, projects like Central Park were envisioned to address broad health, social, and political concerns at the time and to serve the “great body of citizens.”14

At the turn of the century, landscape architecture was among the few professions considered acceptable for women to enter. A network of women landscape architects, including Beatrix Jones Farrand, worked for both public and private clients to design home gardens and neighborhood parks15. There were other early pioneers as well. David A. Williston was the nation’s first African-American landscape architect who received his degree from Cornell University in 1896 at a time when a large part of the country was still under segregation. By becoming professionals, they overcame gender and racial biases and opened the paths for others to follow. As early pioneers, their work and actions alone embodied activism.

Activism was not the exclusive domain of pioneering professionals. Members of the public also helped shape the development of landscape architecture in the early era. Before the City Beautiful movement became associated with large-scale civic projects, the municipal art movement in the United States was led by local civic groups and activist women16. Before the movement became synonymous with architects such as Daniel Burnham and the tendency toward grandiosity, it has existed mostly as small-scale local efforts, promoted through thousands of civic improvement associations across the country.17

Other movements not led by landscape architects per se also played an important role in shaping the profession and built environments in the United States. Parallel to the American Parks Movement focusing on alleviating problems facing the cities, a wilderness preservation movement emerged to protect the wilderness landscapes as sanctuaries, led by those such as John Muir who founded the Sierra Club in 1892. The movement has led to the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, Yosemite National Park in 1890, and the creation of the National Parks Service in 1916, creating a model of land management and protection that influenced the rest of the world.

These early developments—municipal parks and national parks—provided the foundation for the expansion of the profession under the New Deal program during the Great Depression. The profession officially founded only in 1899, became indispensable to the “reorder of the land” under the New Deal18. “From the state camps of the Civilian Conservation Corps, from the Division of Suburban Resettlement to the Tennessee Valley, the landscape architect was omnipresent,” writes Phoebe Cutler19. The work under the New Deal addressed two critical crises at the time: unemployment and land degradation due to abuse by farming and logging practices20.

The New Deal also provided the opportunity for early experiments in design with a strong social agenda. Garrett Eckbo’s work with the Farm Security Administration (FSA), where he held a position in San Francisco from 1939 to 1942, brought modern design to farmworker housing with a focus on landscape and site planning to produce “an indigenous and formally innovative lexicon for the migrant camps.”21 The schemes incorporated private subsistence plots as well as parks, sports, and recreational facilities that complemented the communal buildings22.

Emerging Practices

Fast-forward to the 1960s, faced with a new set of crises and challenges, including urban sprawl and the pollution of air and water, that recalled in part the conditions of industrial cities in the 19th Century, a new approach to landscape architecture was proposed by Ian McHarg and his contemporaries. McHarg’s “ecological methods” became influential in repositioning the profession based on the emerging understanding in ecological sciences. Concerned not with ornaments or form-based design, the method brought systems and processes into the language and repertoire of the profession and became the basis for the development of the Geographical Information System (GIS).

More than a typical academic or armchair scholar, McHarg pursued his vision for landscape architecture through public activities in addition to teaching, research, and practice. Specifically, he was a talk show host on CBS, The House We Live In, in the early 1960s, a program that featured interviews with many scientists and luminaries. McHarg also served on public commissions and panels, including the White House Commission on Conservation and Natural Beauty in 196623. The rise of the ecological method coincided with the growing American environmental movement in the 1960s, another instance in which our effort became more successful when it was aligned with larger movements in the society.

As McHarg’s ecological method opened a new front for the profession, there were also projects that set new paths for design and transformation of urban spaces in North America. In Seattle, landscape architect Rich Haag designed the Gas Works Park that retained parts of the industrial facilities for their “historic, aesthetic and utilitarian value,” and incorporated bio- and phytoremediation strategies into its 1971 master plan. To convince the skeptical public and political leaders of the proposal, Haag organized a slideshow and gave one presentation after another to demonstrate the aesthetic beauty of the industrial ruins. The result was one of the most original and iconic works of design.

As a city, Seattle became a testing ground for new projects, including Gas Works Park, Discovery Park (designed by Dan Kiley), and Freeway Park (designed by Lawrence Halprin), that would not have been possible without an ambitious civic investment approved by Seattle voters in 1968. The Forward Thrust ballot initiatives provided funding for youth service centers, multipurpose stadiums, parks and recreation, and neighborhood improvements. Advocated by a group of civic leaders, the initiatives envisioned more open spaces, parks, and greater public waterfront access, to ameliorate urban sprawl.

Also in Seattle, Jones and Jones, a multidisciplinary firm started by Grant Jones, Johnpaul Jones, and Ilze Jones, became a pioneer in ecological design, design for wildlife, working with tribal communities, and large-scale bioregional plans, such as ILARIS the Puget Sound Plan. The firm also played an active role in the creation of the Mountain to Sound Greenway, a 1.5 million-acre landscape in the Pacific Northwest shaped by watershed boundaries and woven together by an extensive network of trails. Led by citizen activists, the plan was envisioned to halt urban sprawl from encroachment into natural land.

Activism in landscape architecture involves not just practitioners but also citizens. The practice of community design that emerged in the 1960s should also be recognized as a part of the long arc of activism in design. Influenced by the movement within architecture and urban planning, landscape architects also began to incorporate participatory design into their practices. Karl Linn was one of the first landscape architecture educators to work on small-scale improvements focusing on inner-city neighborhoods. Through what he called “urban barn-raising,” Linn engaged neighborhood residents, volunteer professionals, students, youth, and activists in design and building gathering spaces24.

With a growing number of landscape architecture programs around the country, education has played an important role in pushing boundaries in the profession. Since 1987, Anne Whiston Spirn’s West Philadelphia Landscape Project became a model for addressing issues of environmental justice and green infrastructure. Students at Penn and later at MIT have mapped the Mill Creek neighborhood, carried out action research, and worked with residents, engineers, and city staff to develop plans to address the issues faced by the community built on a buried floodplain, including stormwater management. The students have taken what they learned to other parts of the city and beyond.

At the University of California, Berkeley, Randolph T. Hester, Jr. and Marcia McNally led teams of students in working on a range of projects involving citizens and residents during their career at Berkeley. In 1997, they took on a project to protect the wintering habitat of the critically endangered black-faced spoonbill on the Southern coast of Taiwan. Working with scientists, planners, and activists, they developed alternative economic development plans based on ecotourism and wildlife conservation25. In schools throughout North America, service-learning studios, extensions programs, and university-based community design centers provided opportunities for similar kinds of partnership and engagement.

Design Activism Now

Today, a new generation of designers are pushing the boundaries and accepted norms of participatory design through activism. Rather than following the institutionalized procedures, they explore guerrilla tactics to test ideas and engage the public. Instead of the typical public meetings, they explore fun and informal ways to engage the public26, including interactive games27. Unlike the shallow forms or formality of participation, they engage in capacity building and facilitate community-driven placemaking to empower communities28.

Activism is not the exclusive domain of North American practitioners nor is it happening only in North America. In China, for instance, Turenscape founder Kongjian Yu has developed a distinct form of design activism by appealing directly to mayors and political leaders29. Elsewhere in East Asia, including Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, landscape architects worked with communities and citizens to build democratic capacity through direct engagement in planning, design, programming, and management of open spaces, ranging from neighborhood gathering spaces to large urban and regional parks30.

Internationally, initiatives in design activism have served as a platform for experiments in cross-cultural exchanges and collaboration between Global North and South. In Peru, faculty and students from the University of Washington, Seattle worked with residents and professionals to improve school ground, infrastructure, and the household environment in informal settlements to address issues of health, sanitation, and capacity-building31. In Nigeria, the Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) has worked in informal settlements and built a network of project sites as places for learning, mobilization, capacity-building, and a starting point for improvement of livelihood32.

Back in the United States, the advocacy for the Green New Deal presents an opportune moment for the profession of landscape architecture to re-engage with activism. In his Places Journal essay, Billy Fleming brings the arc of landscape architecture activism in full circle by noting that early success of the profession in the 19th Century was not just the work of landscape architects alone but also the work of civic organizations and social movements emerging at the time. He argues that, for the profession to have a true systemic impact, “we must rethink how landscape architecture engages with social and political movements.”33

An Incomplete and Imperfect Account

The brief account above on the history of the profession is by no means complete or exhaustive. It also does not account to the full extent the work of individuals outside the profession who built and shaped the landscapes with their own hands, which in the United States, for instance, included communities in first nations, railroad workers, plantation farmers, and freed resident builders of Black Towns.34 In its incomplete form, nevertheless, the narratives here illustrate the many instances in which activism and design for social change constitute an important part of the field of landscape architecture.

As we explore the role of activism in design and how design can serve as a vehicle for social change, past achievements, and setbacks in landscape architecture serve as a source of inspiration and cautions. While we trace the premise of our endeavor, we must also recognize the many injustices that took place in history and to this day, including the displacement of indigenous and subaltern communities through the establishment of parks and green spaces, urban renewal projects, construction of freeways through inner-city neighborhoods, and other forms of evictions and erasure.

As society has evolved and as the profession becomes institutionalized, we must reexamine the assumptions of our practice, including those that govern our educational programs and pedagogy. Let’s also recognize that while the profession might have been rooted in activism, it also has a long tradition of primarily serving the interests of the rich and powerful. These troubled pasts and continued barriers are reminders of our challenges as a profession and lessons for the future.



  1. Catherine Howett, “Andrew Jackson Downing,” in American Landscape Architecture: Designers and Places (Washington, DC: The Preservation Press, 1989), 31-33.
  2. Rutherford H. Platt, “From Commons to Commons: Evolving Concepts of Open Space in North American Cities,” in The Ecological City, eds. Rutherford H. Platt, Rowan A. Rowntree, and Pamela C. Muick (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), 21-39.
  3. Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., “Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns,” in The Urban Design Reader, Second Edition, eds. Michael Larice and Elizabeth Macdonald (London and New York: Routledge, 2013), 41.
  4. Thaïsa Way, Unbounded Practice: Women and Landscape Architecture in the Early Twentieth Century (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2009).
  5. Michael Larice and Elizabeth Macdonald, eds., The Urban Design Reader, Second Edition (London and New York: Routledge, 2013).
  6. Jon A. Peterson, “The city beautiful movement: Forgotten origins and lost meanings,” in Introduction to planning history in the United States, ed. Donald A. Krueckeberg (New Brunswick, NJ: Center for Urban Policy Research, 1993), 40-57.
  7. Phoebe Cutler, The Public Landscape of the New Deal (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985), p. 5.
  8. Cutler, The Public Landscape of the New Deal, p. 5.
  9. Phoebe (1985) also noted that although landscape architects’ influence expanded during the New Deal, such influence also subsided when the program ended.
  10. Marc Treib and Dorothée Imbert, Garrett Eckbo: Modern Landscapes for Living (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 122-123.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Frederick Steiner, “Healing the earth: the relevance of McHarg’s work for the future,” Philosophy & Geography 7, no. 1 (2004): 141-149. https://mcharg.upenn.edu/ian-l-mcharg
  13. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Linn.
  14. Randolph T. Hester, Design for Ecological Democracy (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006).
  15. See Blaine Merker, “Taking place: Rebar’s absurd tactics in generous urbanism,” in Insurgent Public Space: Guerrilla Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary Cities, ed. Jeffrey Hou (London and New York: Routledge, 2010), 45-57; John Bela, “User-Generated Urbanism and the Right to the City,” in Now Urbanism: The Future City is Here, eds. Jeffrey Hou, Benjamin Spencer, Thaisa Way and Ken Yocom. (London and New York: Routledge, 2015), 149-164.
  16. See, for example, the work of James Rojas — http://www.placeit.org
  17. Jeffrey Hou and Michael Rios, “Community-driven Placemaking: The Social Practice of Participatory Design in the Making of Union Point Park. Journal of Architectural Education 57, no. 1 (2003): 19-27.
  18. See Terreform, ed., Letters to the Leaders of China: Kongjian Yu and the Future of the Chinese City (New York: Terreform, Inc., 2018).
  19. Jeff Hou, “Emerging Spaces of Citizenship,” in The Big Asian Book of Landscape Architecture, eds. Jillian Wallis and Heike Rahmann (Berlin: Jovis, Forthcoming)
  20. See Jeffrey Hou, Benjamin Spencer, and Daniel Winterbottom, “Whole-Systems Public Interest Design Education: Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Washington,” in Public Interest Design Education Guidebook: Curricula, Strategies, and SEED Academic Case Studies, ed. Lisa A. Abendroth and Bryan Bell. (London and New York: Routledge 2019), 8-21; Benjamin Spencer, Susan Bolton, and Jorge Alcaron, “The Informal Urban Communities Initiatives: Lomas de Zapallal, Lima, Peru,” in Now Urbanism: The Future City is Here, eds. Jeffrey Hou, Benjamin Spencer, Thaisa Way and Ken Yocom. (London and New York: Routledge, 2015), 206-223.
  21. Chelina Odbert and Joseph Mulligan, “The Kibera Public Space Project: Participation, Integration, and Networked Change,” in Now Urbanism: The Future City is Here, eds. Jeffrey Hou, Benjamin Spencer, Thaisa Way and Ken Yocom. (London and New York: Routledge, 2015), 177-192.
  22. Billy Fleming, “Design and the Green New Deal,” Places Journal, April 2019. Accessed 11 Feb 2020. https://doi.org/10.22269/190416
  23. Kofi Boone, “Black Landscapes Matter,” Ground Up: The Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning Journal of University of California, Berkeley, 6 (2017): 8-23.