4. Challenges Now

Design as Activism: A Framework for Actions in Landscape Architecture Education

If activism is indeed in the DNA of landscape architecture, what are the barriers and challenges for integrating design activism into landscape architecture education? This was another question posed to our audiences at the CELA and EDRA conferences and the program administrators and activists/practitioners that we interviewed. Here is a summary of our findings.


“There is a common skepticism against activism that it’s not associated with good design.” Robert Ryan, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Despite the role of activism in the history of the profession, activism is often viewed in opposition to professional practice as commonly understood. In contrast to practice, activism is often considered as biased or serving a particular interest whereas professional practice is often believed to operate on a neutral ground. The misconceptions that apply to not only activism but also professional practice present a major barrier for the acceptance of activism as a legitimate mode of practice and a focus in education. Activism can indeed be one-sided and can serve the interest of the public as well as the few. Similarly, the professional practice can also knowingly and unknowingly do harm to society and the environment. These negative connotations aside, there is also not a strong consensus on what activism in design entails. Overcoming these misconceptions is one of the intentions of this project.

Crowded Curriculum?

In interviews with educators around the United States, many identified crowded curricula as a major barrier for integrating design activism into design education. To meet the standards of professional accreditation, landscape architecture curricula are packed with many required courses, covering a wide range of subjects from history and theory to planting and grading. They present a particular challenge at the undergraduate level where there are additional university requirements. The need to teach a growing list of digital tools, including fabrication, demands additional space in the already crowded curriculum. As one academic administrator said, “fitting it all in is the biggest challenge.” For others, however, the crowded curriculum serves more as an excuse for maintaining the status quo or favoring foundational design skills at the expense of other materials.

Overstretched System

Besides possible crowded curricula, both faculty and students are also faced with crowded commitments and limited time which can present a barrier for pursuing community-based projects or engagement outside the classroom. As one program administrator noted, due to budget cuts, “there is an increasing need for every faculty to have a full teaching load.” Many tenure-track faculty are already conscious of time commitment due to the tenure and promotion clock. When community engagement and public service are not recognized in the tenure and promotion process, it becomes an even stronger barrier for engagement. For students, with high tuition and living costs especially in large metropolitan areas, many must take on part-time employment that also limits their time and availability outside the classroom. Coupled with the need to pay back student loans, job security becomes a primary concern following graduation, which limits their ability to explore other career opportunities.

Faculty Tenure & Promotion

As aforementioned, the lack of recognition for public service and community-engaged work can present a barrier for tenure-track faculty in research universities where the criteria for promotion and tenure are primarily based on traditional research outputs such as competitive grants and peer-reviewed publications. In some programs, faculty are specifically told not to take on community-focused projects before tenure as they are seen as competing with traditional research activities. As such, many faculty have shied away from or have been advised to not take on community-based projects prior to getting tenure, and choose instead to focus on projects that lead to quicker research outcomes. Even for those who are initially interested in community-engaged work, by the time when tenure is granted, their research agendas may be entrenched in the traditional research model.

Timing & Commitment

Even for programs with a stronger focus on teaching, community-engaged courses often take more time to prepare and coordinate with community and agency partners. Building longer-term relationships also require a commitment beyond the classroom and one’s typical work schedule. As rewarding as it can be, such additional commitments present a barrier especially for junior faculty and those with family commitments. Even when community-university partnerships are in place, the impact or outcomes from a project can still take a longer time to realize, particularly as it involves capacity building or long-term engagement. In working with community partners, the academic calendar presents yet another challenge as community processes don’t often align with the fixed academic schedule and thus require additional efforts by faculty and in some cases students.

Studio & Community Dynamic

The studio power dynamic was brought up in our session at the 2019 CELA conference as a barrier for incorporating activism in design education. Specifically, our session participants pointed to the traditional studio model in which the instructor dictates the parameters and expectations of studio projects with little room for critical thinking. Service-learning studios have their own issues and challenges as well. For instance, students may not be adequately prepared to enter a community and develop a working relationship with community stakeholders. In other instances, they may confront long-standing conflicts within a community or between different stakeholders. Without adequate preparation and guidance, the service-learning courses may end up causing more harm than good, with unfulfilled promises, false expectations, and/or further entrenchment of existing issues and challenges.

Institutional Barriers

The way educational institutions are structured and supported today can present yet another challenge. In recent decades, public higher educational institutions in the United States have experienced a steady and sometimes drastic decline in funding support from state governments. For private institutions not tied to state funding, enrollment and costs present other concerns. Lacking sufficient funding, it’s not surprising that, in the Design Activism Education Survey, “budget and resource” was identified as the top key challenge in implementing changes to programs and curriculum. Even if resources are available, the decision to invest often rests solely with program and institution leaders. In educational institutions governed by a top-down hierarchy, different priorities under changing leadership can also be disruptive. Furthermore, the rise of activity-based budgeting at many universities may pit one program against another in competition for student enrollment which works against cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Capacity to Teach

“The culture of educators has to change. They have to be more open and concerned.” Mark Boyer, Louisiana State University

Even with institutional support through funding, teaching assignment, and outreach coordination, faculty members must be interested and prepared in taking on projects or initiatives related to activism. Lack of appropriate faculty expertise was brought up in our interviews with program administrators as another barrier. In other words, even if program leaders are supportive and students are interested, there may not be adequate faculty expertise or instructional capacity to deliver the content. One program director mentioned, “for some […] faculty, even if they have the best intentions, they may not be up to date with current theories or the kind of critical thinking necessary to address contemporary issues.” Another program leader pointed to faculty continuity as another problem especially for small programs, or programs with high turn-over of instructors.

Limitations of a Service Industry

Are we doing enough in landscape architecture education or profession to address challenges such as climate change, social justice, and disparities in society? This was the first question we asked each of the activists/practitioners interviewed for this project. As expected, the answer from everyone was a resounding “no.” Asked what they think the barriers are, one practitioner highlighted the nature of our profession as a service-based industry, “Our traditional role is to solve problems for our clients, not setting the agenda.” Landscape architecture, as historically practiced, is indeed a service industry, which brings values to the society, and it will be unrealistic for the industry to transform overnight. However, for landscape architecture to have a broader and more critical impact in the society, the predominant practice model does need to be examined as it influences how the profession is defined, how professionals are licensed, and how professional programs are accredited.

Lack of Alternative Pathways

With the profession structured primarily as a service industry, its ability to engage in social change is necessarily limited. In the Design Activism Education Survey, “underdeveloped models of alternative practices” was ranked among the top key challenges, behind only “budget and resource” and “crowded curriculum.” The lack of alternative practice models and career paths is indeed a barrier especially as students graduate from schools and enter the workforce. Lacking other options, saddled by debts, and faced with licensing requirements, most students choose to enter the private sector. The preparation to enter the private sector set the students on a path with particular interests and focus. As one program leader commented, “Students tend to look to professional work as examples. There is little focus on social justice there.” Another program leader suggested, “We need to change or expand the practice model we have currently […] and even create a new profession if necessary.”

Design as Activism: A Framework for Actions in Landscape Architecture Education