Landscapes of Inequality and Oppression
For many, the word “landscape” evokes an idyllic pastoral scene with rolling hills and thick forests in the distance. Others might imagine a sunny, quaint suburban backyard with birdbaths, roses, and open lawn. Beauty is subjective. That is not hard to agree on.
So when I ask you to think about landscapes in general, you’re probably imagining a semi-safe, attractive, and groomed place—like a university campus or a place like Central Park. What you’re probably not imagining is a landscape where 6 lanes of interstate divide a low-income minority neighborhood from the heart of the city—a landscape where there is no public transportation, no grocery store within a 5-mile radius, and no hospital within a 1-hour drive.
There is no doubt that the discipline of landscape architecture has helped create some of the most beautiful, inclusive, and people-environment oriented places that the world has ever seen. Yet, there too exists an ugly underbelly of division and exclusion.
Urban sprawl has created a landscape of same-ness across the United States that was designed for and caters to those with access to personal transportation. “It’s the American way” – a retort I have actually heard before when making my argument for democratic, walkable communities and public space. In many places, there is no infrastructure in place that would even suggest that it is a human landscape: no sidewalks, no crosswalks, no shade trees or planting designs, no waste baskets, no benches, no focal points, no opportunities for chance interactions with others, and absolutely no sense of place. These sprawling landscapes are characterized by their lack of planning and atrocious design aesthetic. Our nation can be described by a network of interstate dotted with identical clusters of big-box stores from coast to coast. Arterial roads fronted with parking lots for miles and miles and not a person in sight. Where is the humanity? And even more disturbing: where is the ecology? Looking around, there is scarce evidence that there is actually an ecosystem at work. These landscapes completely lack consideration for the people who live in and around them and the ecosystems which they disturb.
As cities sprawl, they require more roads for connectivity. It is no secret that they often will blatantly separate racial groups with impassable infrastructure. I saw it growing up in Jackson, MS. I have seen it with my own eyes in every metropolitan area I have ever visited. You name a big city and I will show you the landscape divide. Confounding this is the evolution of city walls–physical barriers to access and views of “private” places; all the while, public places are under-designed, few, and far between. Our landscapes today are strewn with structural and systematic barriers to access that exist to separate the privileged from the others. The walls offer a sense of protection and security for those who can afford to live inside, but for the rest of us, they represent a physical barrier in the landscape that must be circumnavigated. These are the landscapes of oppression: designed to exclude, to divide, and to be guarded—and damn anyone who has a problem with it.
By now, you may be asking yourself, in this “free” country of ours, where are the opportunities if the landscape itself is designed to favor those in power over others? Where is the equal opportunity if you are born in a place where there are no facilities or infrastructures that support you? Landscapes of oppression exist nearly everywhere in the United States, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
We live in a country whose lands were illegally seized from the indigenous peoples who lived here first, fought, died, and were forced from their lands to make room for the colonization and migration of white immigrants seeking freedom and opportunity in this virgin landscape. When the founding fathers developed the United States Constitution, they were working together to create a system which would free them from the oppression of colonial rule and would establish them rights—rights which they denied to certain groups in a move that would establish the power regime for the next two hundred years.
In the Constitution, Amendments 4 and 5 establish the concept of property and private property rights—which is a major zone of contention today where we see complex, deadlocked disputes between private landowners, corporate entities, governmental interests, and the scientific community. The belief that a person is entitled to do what they want, when they want, and how they want on their lands still dominates the psyche of United States citizens in positions of power. Never mind that the land itself is stolen property and the accumulation of wealth and influence was often accomplished on the backs of slave labor. It is a hard, ugly, and inconvenient truth that most choose to ignore.
The Tipping Point
While we as a country have come a long way socially since the Revolutionary War, up through the Civil War, Jim Crow South, and the Civil Rights Movement; there is still much work to be done. The part of the United States’ history that includes slavery is still painful for many—as is the history of wrongdoing against the indigenous peoples. Black Lives Matter, the Human Rights Campaign, and the March for Science are but a few of the modern social movements that are gaining ground and raising awareness of life or death issues that underrepresented and marginalized groups experience. One solution for the structural inequalities in our society would be first, to acknowledge these issues and facts; and then second, vow to do something about them; and third, to then go out into the world and make a difference.
For landscape architects, this means responding to the moral responsibility to look after the health and well-being of the people and environment that are both impacted by their designs. Good design may be more expensive, and thus, less attractive on the front end; but the consequences of bad design far outweigh any dollar amount that could be quantified. We have a responsibility to our communities to do everything in our power to promote a better quality of life for everyone.
My interests in landscape architecture are rooted in ecology and place-making. My approach consists of a blend of empirical and social sciences: the physical (environment), biotic (living organisms), and cultural (humanity) components make up any given place in the world. So in my research, one piece involves understanding the drivers of landscape systems and processes; the other is about understanding people’s needs, including how they impact and interact with their landscapes.
Specifically, I am researching sustainable residential landscapes. Both to understand what the challenges and barriers to sustainable residential design are, but to also understand what motivates clients and landscape architects to make their design choices. My research is about understanding the elements of sustainable residential design and the social and cultural factors that support or degrade local ecology. Through this research, I am developing a contribution to theory and practice that will help communities become healthier places to live and work in; the broader impacts allowing me to also contribute to global human and ecosystem health, one residential landscape at a time.
I stand by the land-grant mission for my research and work to first and foremost serve the people. During my time in the academy, I have an opportunity to do some recruitment for the major and for graduate landscape architecture programs. Recruitment is important to me for advancing the discipline—because a majority of practitioners and professors are white men, I am especially interested in talking to people of color and women in general to try and encourage them to pursue their education and career in landscape architecture if that is something they are interested in. I will continue active recruitment by developing relationships with the communities where I will work. This means establishing a connection with guidance counselors at high schools, developing relationships with the first-year studio professors, and continuing to develop relationships with students.
In design, one of the most important things to have on your side is the trust of the client. This comes from establishing a relationship with them—through active listening and building their confidence in a shared vision. As landscape architecture leans deeply into social and cultural issues, engaging the community and stakeholders is of upmost importance for the successful planning of any project. When positive relationships can be developed with the client and community, more can be accomplished as there will be more buy-in and ownership from stakeholders. In my academic and professional experience, I have seen first-hand how important this piece is for the success of a project. In addition, I have just completed my first successful SpeakOut1, an active community engagement process that provides richer qualitative and quantitative data.
Because I am interested in helping students learn to see the world through the lens of resilient and sustainable landscape architecture practices, I look for opportunities to show my students the power of design through case studies and field trips. Teaching for these values in the classroom, I will contribute to a revolution of thought and practice, where future designers are thinking holistically about the environment, land use, health, and well-being for all people and the environment.
Because students are more than repositories for theory, I take time to get to know them and look out for opportunities to help them with their personal success. As a teaching assistant, I have worked with students who couldn’t afford their own mouse. Without being asked or expecting anything in return, I have twice now given my own to students who I discovered having profound financial obstacles. It is important to be sensitive to the needs of our students when they fundamentally lack the resources to accomplish their coursework and projects If I find this to be the case, I reevaluate my pedagogical stance and practices and make changes to make the learning environment more accessible and inclusive for all students.
- Speak Out is a community engagement workshop methodology developed by Wendy Sarkissian and Wiwik Bunjamin-Mau with Andrea Cook, Kelvin Walsh and Steph Vajda.