Vicki Estrada’s world was made bigger by her transition 13 years ago, and her work just got better.
By Diana Fernandez, ASLA
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Vicki Estrada, FASLA, opened Estrada Land Planning in 1985, and over the course of nearly 35 years, the firm has worked on planning and landscape architecture projects that have helped define the city of San Diego. Her work as a community planner and advocate over the past three decades was community engagement before there was “community engagement,” and her imprint can be seen everywhere in the city’s parks, streets, communities, and transit. We asked Diana Fernandez, ASLA, an associate at Sasaki, to interview Estrada about her career and her life, and what followed was a very candid and wide-ranging conversation about gender, representation, identity, and making landscapes that don’t pretend. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Diana Fernandez: I’m so curious to find out what brought you to landscape architecture. I often feel like all of us landscape architects have stumbled into the field somehow.
Vicki Estrada: It’s a funny, interesting story actually. There were two processes. First of all, when I was in elementary school, I would draw. They were little downtowns. I was supposed to be listening to the teacher, but I would draw little downtowns in isometric view and with a ballpoint pen and my dad’s old office papers. You can still see his office logo on them.
The principal came by one day and said, “Hey, Steve,” my name at the time, “you’re going to be an architect.” I am? So from fourth grade on, it was kind of ingrained in me. You’re going to be an architect. You’re going to be an architect.
I got accepted at Cal Poly for architecture, and I went off. I had one year to go. I met some architecture friends, and I went down to Cal Poly Pomona on one Saturday to visit them. I remember walking down to the campus on a Saturday afternoon. It’s all deserted. It’s all quiet. We looked at this great big new lecture hall. So I walked in—have you seen the movie, The Blues Brothers?
Fernandez: No, I haven’t.
Estrada: Well, there’s a scene in The Blues Brothers where they walk into a church, and James Brown is the preacher, and the door opens up and you see the sunlight come down. I opened up the door, and there’s this room full of students, and onstage was this old guy with long, gray hair, with a cane. He pounds on the stage and he points—I swear it looked like he was pointing at me. “Imagine the Earth as a canvas,” he says. “Architects put dots on the canvas. Engineers connect the dots. You are the only ones who can paint the entire canvas.” Being an architect, I go, “What the fuck? What is he talking about?”
I didn’t know what that was, but what it did—it planted a seed in me. So I went back to my Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, and I went in and looked in my inbox, a real inbox, a box that was green with papers in it, and there was a little green sheet of paper that said the College of Architecture and Environmental Design is starting a fifth major, landscape architecture. What the heck was that?
But something that that guy said started me to realize, you know what? What makes the city great is not an Eiffel Tower here or an Empire State Building here, it’s what happens in between—that’s what makes cities great. Having worked for an architect the summer before and then doing details and interior elevations and bathrooms, I just wasn’t excited about it.
I don’t know what made me do it, because I had a year to go and I lost a year, but I changed my major to landscape architecture. I ended up getting my degree in landscape architecture. My mom cried. She thought I was going to have a pickup truck and a wheelbarrow. She didn’t know.
It turned out that was a LABASH conference at Cal Poly Pomona, and the person speaking on stage was Roberto Burle Marx, and I did not know who that was. That was Roberto Burle Marx, Brazilian landscape architect, and I never forgot that story.
That made me realize, landscape architects could be part architect, part engineer, part horticulturist, part geologist, part mathematician, part everything. I never looked back; I never regretted my decision. I graduated in 1975 from San Luis Obispo, with a degree in landscape architecture, the second graduating class that they had. Ten years later I had started my own office, and that was 34 years ago.
I always wanted my own office. I wanted to create public space and lay out buildings and lay out streets, and was I good at grading—and in San Diego it’s not flat—and that’s what I thought I really wanted to do. I was lucky—within that 10 years, I planted a few seeds and worked for three or four different firms, made some contacts, and finally one big developer said, “Hey, Steve, if you want, I’ll give you some work.” And I did. That was Otay Ranch. That was one of the big 25,000-acre new town plans, and I never looked back. My office has gone from one person to two people to 25 and an office in Phoenix, which was too much. I’ve never had a partner, it’s always been me—and let me put it this way, Diana, it’s not been boring.
It’s been 13 years since I transitioned, and you can imagine being an owner of a company and being involved in ASLA nationally, it caused a little bit of—that was before Caitlyn Jenner and all that—it caused a little bit of what? But you know what? I’ve had people tell me I’m the first transsexual they’ve ever met. I really think landscape architects are the best translators of the land, and I have helped change a lot of people’s minds about both the profession and being, let me put it this way, being a Mexican atheist transsexual landscape architect, who happens to be vegetarian as well.
[Both laughing] And because of that, man, I’m the bottom of the ladder, right? Bottom of the ladder.
But I’ve got two great kids, four grandkids. They’ve been great. I’m not rich, never have been, never will be. Quite honestly, if I wanted to be rich, I wouldn’t have chosen landscape architecture.
Fernandez: It’s not for the money. [laughs]
Estrada: It’s to make the world as good as it can be. Probably more than half my time now is volunteer. I’m on eight or nine different boards. I volunteer my time to make San Diego and Southern California the best they can be. I was chair of the Community Forest Advisory Board. I’m currently chair of the San Diego Environment and Design Council, which is architects, planners, engineers, and artists. I am just so proud of the fact that a landscape architect leads these people, right? I’m not a follower.
I think because of our training, with climate change and resiliency, we are the best profession out there. Architects, I was always taught, had more narrow thinking. Engineers are even narrower and straighter than that, but we, I used to think, we’re the ultimate. You know who’s out there more than we are? Artists. Artists have taught me how to think beyond. I’m thinking outside the box, but it turns out I just had a bigger box. But artists, there’s no box.
Fernandez: Your point about your identity and how that’s also shaped your perspective on practice is interesting to me. How can we ask people to claim ownership of their communities, as landscape architects, when they don’t have ownership of their own bodies, in certain places?
So I would love to unpack that a little bit with you, because intersectionality and landscape architecture I think are speaking to each other. I think artists are able to get at this at a more profound level than we have. I would love to hear how you, with your experience and with your practice, have started to unpack this question, especially as it relates to community building.
Estrada: Most of the boards that I’m on are nonprofits now, because in the old days, the days of government, they used to think our planning department, our city, they will save us. They’ll create the parks that we need, they’ll create the linkages, they’ll create the green spaces. It turns out they didn’t. And they aren’t going to because the money is not there.
So, it’s really become part of us, as the public. We want a park in that corner, we want a connection. We’ve got to make it happen. Now, we can’t do it alone. We need their help, and it turns out they can’t do it without us, either. I can’t tell you how many projects, Diana, that are public/private partnerships now where it’s the public who has begun to make this happen.
There are two boards I’m particularly proud of. One is San Diego Canyonlands and the other is Groundwork San Diego. For Groundwork, we have a creek in San Diego called Chollas Creek in a predominantly underserved area, a lot of Latinos and blacks, and historically, we’re very park poor, as a community. There’s a map from Parks for Everyone of the watershed area, and it shows that these people don’t have parks, don’t have cars, they don’t have access, and thousands of kids have never even been to the beach, which is 10 miles away. I was hired by the city in the 1990s to put together a report on how to restore Chollas Creek.
The reason is, historically, people would dump trash and mattresses, and it was the eyesore of the community rather than the spine. In D.C., you’ve got Rock Creek, in Boston, Emerald Necklace—watersheds and creeks tie things together. So the whole premise was to make the creek the spine, not the back door. As landscape architects, that’s common sense to us, but there was a sentence at the very end of the report: A nonprofit should be formed to help govern the creek and oversee it and so forth, and that became Groundwork.
I think that in community activism, you want to change things. The cities aren’t going to do it. The government isn’t going to do it because of all the politics. They end up compromising and nothing really important happens. I really have found that if we, as citizens of a community, want something to happen, we’ve got to take it on. Quite honestly, it’s the landscape architects who are best suited to make that happen.
Because if you look at almost all city council decisions, the majority are land use. All the community planning groups, it’s about land use. With climate change, in spite of what our president says, it is real, and there is so much we can do design-wise, and planting-wise. Planting trees is a simple thing, but in terms of basic land use and layout, so many things could have been done differently. I think you’re going to see a shift [away from] the cities and [toward] more community organizations, like Groundwork, like Canyonlands, like Citizens Coordinate for Century 3.
I did the Balboa Park master plan, which I’m pretty proud of—I started five years out of college, so that helped define my practice, and to this day, I’m still working on Balboa Park. I think people see certain landscape architects as being critical to, as being part of, that fabric. As landscape architects, I think you can’t just sit back and let things happen. Even now, with a disaster like in the Bahamas, if that had been planned differently, if landscape architects were involved in some of those decisions, or the communities themselves—the thing about landscape architects is that we are trained to be leaders and the general public isn’t, so we’re the ones who can bring all the pieces together and begin to make things happen, and to change things.
Fernandez: As it relates to identity and intersectionality and especially communities that are struggling with identity—whether it’s the trans community and not being able to, to the rest of the world, claim their bodies in a way that is respected by certain people and communities—do landscape architects play a role? And how has your experience of navigating that process yourself, at a personal level, affected the way in which you work or the way in which you look at projects?
Estrada: Wow, you know, I’ve never been asked that question. It’s a great question.
I think when you plug in all the parts—being a Latina, as well, in this day and age, that’s hard, and being agnostic/atheist is not easy sometimes in this world, either, and being vegetarian. All those things come into play. I was halfway joking when I listed all those, but it’s all part of not pretending—not pretending to be who we’re not.
From a land use perspective, I think a lot of times we pretend that, you know what? Is that park really the best thing to go there? Or that shopping center, or that road? I don’t want to pretend, and the land should not pretend to be something it’s not, you know what I’m saying?
Fernandez: Yes, yes, yes.
Estrada: That’s where the intersection comes in. Because I’m not pretending anymore to not be who I am. And quite often, you as a landscape architect, you know sometimes deep down the client hires you to do something that may not be the best use. They have an idea to do something that you, internally, don’t want to do.
Here’s an example. This is really stupid. Let’s just say there was a park up in the mountains that we were hired to kind of redo. The client agency said, “Steve, we want you to use one of these plastic trees.” I said, “You want me to use plastic trees?” “Well, we’re in a drought, we don’t have any irrigation, we don’t have water.” I refused—I am not going to use plastic trees in a park. So we got fired. I understand that there’s no water and there’s no maintenance, but what is it that’s important?
Even today, just this week, this city has been telling us on this very important streetscape and this very important part of town—interestingly enough, the gay part of town—that “We don’t want any street trees. We’re doing a bikeway. We’re widening stuff. We’re taking out the street trees, and we’re not replacing them with trees, because why? Because we don’t have money for them. We don’t have money to maintain them. We don’t have any irrigation.” Yeah, but this is the most significant pedestrian street in the city, these three blocks. How can you not have trees? So we’re still in the middle of that—I don’t want to say argument—discussion. But that’s the kind of thing that I think being trans has helped. I don’t want to pretend anymore. “Yeah, that’s fine. That’ll work.” You know what? It is our job in our profession, really. We are the stewards of the land. We need to protect the land, which is all we’ve got, to be the best that it can be.
Fernandez: To me, that is getting at authenticity. Is it an appropriate theme for being able to connect with these diverse communities? Is it okay to really emphasize cultural specificity, or like you said, not pretending to be something that you’re not, as a way to really meaningfully create a product that those people feel that they can see themselves, they can identify with, in a meaningful way?
Estrada: Being Mexican, and my relatives are still in Mexico and really poor, there are some definite cultural differences. Here’s a problem, these days: There’s a fine line between acknowledging and honoring differences, and being called a racist. I can tell you, for a fact, Mexicans, my culture, in our neighborhood, you go to East L.A., you go to L.A., you go to Griffith Park, you go to East San Diego, on a day like today, the Mexican families have couches in their front yards.
Fernandez: Right, right.
Estrada: Even though in the backyards, you have these great patios, they’re in the front. You go to Griffith Park, Mexican families bring couches on pickup trucks; I’ve seen it. You form basically an outdoor living room in the park. Then you have these Mexican trios doing music going from family to family, and so that raises the question. What you’re getting at, I think, is do we design parks for everyone that make everybody happy? Because Mexican culture or African American culture or Asian culture—do they view open spaces differently? Do they view recreation differently? And as such, should we be designing parks more specific to that culture?
I go to the American Planning Association conferences a lot. There’s always a theme, there’s Latinos in planning. We don’t have that in landscape architecture, we don’t have Latinos because there’s only three of us [both laugh], but I think it’s a valid topic. But in our profession, we do open space, we do common space, we do the urban realm. If you sit and watch those different cultures, how they act, it’s not that, oh, my God, you’re racist, you’re saying that Mexicans have to bring couches? Yes. Does that make me a racist? Or does that make me observant, you know, that there are differences, and the difference here is that you honor differences.
Here’s the problem. I’ve done a lot of community meetings, and there’s one neighborhood in San Diego that’s 90 percent Latino. When we have community meetings to design their major streetscapes, they don’t show up. That’s not just a problem here. It happens elsewhere.
Then you go look at our profession, and here’s one of the reasons to have Latinas out there in our profession, because if you look at the makeup of our students, and in the profession, it’s still predominantly white.
Way back when ASLA had a meeting in Atlanta, we had the mayor of Atlanta, Andrew Young—this must’ve been in the 1990s. He welcomed us, 5,000 landscape architects at the Atlanta convention center. I’ll never forget this. He got up and said, “Welcome to Atlanta, blah, blah, blah.” He stopped and he went, “Do me a favor, will one black person stand up?” Zero. There wasn’t one black person in the audience. If we’re talking about landscape architects and diversity, how can we justify, just something damned wrong, within that audience?
Estrada: Little by little maybe it’s changing. What I was trying to say is that we need to acknowledge differences in our designs. If we’re doing Pershing Square in L.A. or some other thing that’s really largely a particular culture, we need to design for that culture. What happens? Cultures change, they move. The black neighborhood that was there 30 years ago is no longer a black neighborhood because of a number of reasons. Things change, and if you design a park for Mexicans and all the Mexicans leave, then what? Are we compromising just to please everybody in design? That’s a valid question, don’t you think?
Fernandez: I complete agree, and it’s something I’m doing a lot of research on right now. I grew up in all sorts of neighborhoods here in the United States that were—I hate to use the term “underserved,” but they definitely did not have the resources that others had.
Estrada: That’s how they define it.
Fernandez: You know many people call it a ghetto. The reality is that when I came into the profession—and I hope to be able to make the world a better place, to make it better for all of us—I was always grappling with the fact that the educational models aren’t necessarily serving the way in which these diverse communities operate or navigate in public space. We aren’t necessarily taught about those differences in cultural appropriation of space and place, and specifically here in the United States, where it’s such a contentious value system that has been put into place, could be traced back to Lockean theory, in terms of who can have space and who was space made for. The ideal, when you kind of unpack things, always reverts back to white bodies in space. How we think about our educational practice is really based on Western Anglo principles of design.
My question to you is, how do we start to think about how these education models serve our communities in a better way? We’re saying, “Hey, we want to invite all these diverse practitioners to come into the field,” but the models we’re teaching them are actually hurting the communities they’re trying to help and work for, and that they’re viscerally connected to.
Estrada: I think what’s interesting is that if you look at the current makeup of the instructors of landscape architecture, I think there’s a higher percentage of diversity among the teachers. Yet, the students are not quite that diverse yet.
As you proceed out to a profession and you begin to work, it begins to narrow, and suddenly that’s not there anymore. Then you end up with the same old thing, you know what I’m saying? The same old design, the same old projects, the same old thing, and why is that?
Before you know it, we end up with the same old designs, not honoring the communities and the cultures. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that different cultures and different communities all walk through their space, view their space, see different colors differently. By the way, when I transitioned, I view space differently now than I did before.
Fernandez: Tell me more about that.
Estrada: Because women, and maybe it’s hormonal, because I don’t have any testosterone anymore, it’s all estrogen, and things change. I tell you that women, we view things differently. We see colors differently. We see more colors. I know one thing for sure, we listen better. I don’t think anybody would argue that. And my ego—as a man, I remember clients telling me, “Steve, we don’t like this park. We’ve got to move this. We’ve got to move that.” I would be very offended. I would not listen. I would be very defensive. “No, no, no, this is the way to go.” I can tell you now that when a client tells me, “You know, maybe this is a better way to go. We should do this over here,” I can tell you that since I transitioned 13 years ago, I understand more. It’s a different sense. Men and women do perceive space differently, as well as different cultures.
Honestly, if you were to ask me, “Well, Vicki, since you transitioned, do you design differently?” Yeah. Do I perceive space differently? Yes. Things are much softer, just not quite as hard. I think I’m more open to suggestions than I was before. So, yeah, it has affected how I design things. I only know of two other landscape architects who have transitioned actually at this point. I’m sure there may be more.
Fernandez: I think it is so fascinating to hear your awareness in observing yourself. It’s almost like in third person you’re able to see you before and you after. I think being able to talk about your experience and how that shaped the way you think about practice is just fascinating. Something that I would love to ask you is: What colors feel like home to you now that you’ve transitioned?
Estrada: Actually, I think they’ve changed. Brighter colors feel like home. There was a fog. Sometimes if you put a fog on things, colors become muted, right? We don’t have a single white wall in our house. Our kitchen’s bright red. You know, most guys wouldn’t do that. My view of the world isn’t clouded now by this male thing that I had on me.
Fernandez: In our conversations we’ve touched on intersectionality. We’ve touched on identity. We’ve touched on color and landscape. We’re taught in design school, hey, no bright colors! When we practice, we’re told we can’t use bright colors in landscapes because it fades or whatever x number of reasons. This is why we don’t embrace these colors in a more meaningful way. You know, it begs the question to me of whether there are new landscape architectural vernaculars, design vernaculars, that need to be introduced, to address our current societal demands for spatial creation?
Estrada: I’ll give you a very short answer this time—yes. I mean, that’s not a surprise. Obviously you knew I was going to say that. I think it goes back to the answers that I gave you from previous things. Clearly that vernacular is not just landscape. It’s our worldview vernacular and how we treat each other. So it may not sound political, but in terms of when you say, “Do we need new vernaculars in the landscape?” Yes. Just as we do in the political landscape.
Change happens slowly sometimes, and by us being involved and getting awards and being out there publicly and leading the community planning groups and making presentations, you don’t succumb to the single way of thinking, you become all-encompassing. You celebrate all cultures and colors and races and ethnicities and male and female and in-between. Interestingly enough, every analogy I just said you could actually quantify it in food, in a dish, to some degree, right?
Fernandez: Right, right.
Estrada: That’s why I can tell you this, Diana, my life hasn’t been boring the last 13 years. It’s been really interesting. Does it mean it was boring before? No, obviously my life changed. I was a good father for 25 years, got great kids, you know, but something changed.
Fernandez: I think the one last thing I wanted to ask you is what are your hopes for the future? I’m a young Latina landscape architect in the profession. I’ve been practicing for seven years, and I would love to hear your take on what gets you excited about where the profession is going, and what are your pieces of wisdom that you would bestow on somebody as they’re currently navigating landscape architecture, and all the craziness we’re experiencing?
Estrada: In spite of all the craziness and despite all the issues and problems that we’re having, I’m very optimistic. Landscape architects by default need to wear rose-colored glasses all the time and be happy. You know the spaces we design, and it could be from a backyard to a street to a big park to a whole new town. We need to make people happy.
All these things we’re learning the hard way. We’re learning the hard way, and who is best suited, as we go forward? Again, it’s going to take many, many years, decades, to actually make these decisions on land use and finally, you know what, who knows the answers? We do! Landscape architects, we’re the ones who, when I said we’re part architect and part engineer and part geologist, part hydrologist, we really are. That excites me. We inherently, deep down, have the same needs. But how we fulfill those needs, again, maybe it’s a little bit differently, and maybe this word isn’t used enough, but I think we landscape architects, we are the translators of ideas. We translate problems and solve the problems better than anybody else can.
Pride in who we are. I’m not a big pride parade person, but that word “pride,” it’s not just for gays. It’s for all of us. We can’t forget that. Those are the things that keep me going, and I’m very optimistic.
I think little by little there’s going to be a backlash, and people are going to say, “No, no, enough of this bullshit.” You know what? We are who we are, and we have to honor who we are, not lie to each other, not lie to the land, not lie to the land anymore. That’s what we’ve been doing, forcing things upon the land that the land didn’t want. That’s been the mistake that we’ve made over the years, and we, honestly, I think, are the best profession to begin to change things.