On-Ramps, On Time

Landscape architects can do more than talk about diversity—they can act.

By Timothy A. Schuler

The students used various drawing exercises to study and observe their selected prairie plants. Photo courtesy Evert Nelson.

The high school students were pretending to be plants. They crouched in front of giant, wall-sized pieces of parachute cloth, china markers in hand, and slowly grew, black lines following suit. Recalling the movement of the prairie grasses just outside, they waved and swayed and curled in on themselves, a collective interpretive dance that evoked the native grasses and wildflowers that they had been studying all morning. Quickly a mass of black lines became a monochromatic prairie, a temporary mural inspired by the small patch of native grassland visible from the hallway window.

Leading the drawing exercise was Erin Wiersma, an artist and associate professor in the art department at Kansas State University. Wiersma is best known for her massive biochar “drawings,” which she makes by dragging huge sheets of paper across freshly burned prairie. The exercise at J.C. Harmon High School, located in the largely Hispanic Kansas City, Kansas, neighborhood of Argentine, was part of Grassland Interview, an interdisciplinary art and ethnography project created in collaboration with the landscape architect Katie Kingery-Page, ASLA, the associate dean of Kansas State’s College of Architecture, Planning, and Design.

Grassland Interview was originally conceived as a way to expose and explore the fragile beauty of the world’s grasslands—nearly 90 percent of which have been destroyed, by some estimates—and it has grown to include a series of youth drawing workshops conducted at high schools around the state. At J.C. Harmon High School, freshmen in the school’s Architecture, Construction, and Engineering (ACE) Academy rotated through a series of activities with Wiersma, Kingery-Page, and Catherine Bylinowski, a horticulture educator with the University of Missouri Extension Service.

They learned about the many ecosystem services that native plants provide, and picked a plant from the school’s emerging prairie to research, observe, and draw. For Wiersma’s exercise, students were asked to recall how the prairie grasses grew last year (“They were really fast!” “Everything was flooded!” “I’ve never seen the grass this tall before!”), then use their bodies to embody the growth of the plants. “My hope is that I can give them a moment to recognize their own being and create some empathy for their environment and maybe for themselves,” Wiersma says.

While Wiersma worked with one group, Kingery-Page led another in a more focused, observational drawing exercise in which students produced line-and-contour drawings of their plants. These eventually would join the more expressive drawings in a permanent mural. Kingery-Page says the drawing workshops emerged out of a desire to combine art and science as a way to help students in urban schools feel a sense of ownership over their environment. “When we talk about raising awareness of the significance of grasslands, it’s really about raising awareness that we belong to grasslands. I want these youth to recognize that they also belong to a grassland,” she says. At the same time, “there’s also a message about your future and your career, and the power of landscape architecture.”

The idea of bringing Grassland Interview into local high schools emerged out of a Kansas State design studio that reimagined J.C. Harmon’s campus. Over the course of the project, Kingery-Page met David Bennett, a biology teacher in the ACE Academy and the person responsible for the school’s native prairie, as well as a recently restored wetland. “It was sort of an aha moment, honestly,” Kingery-Page says. “I thought, biology classes—and the kinds of kids who might get excited about a biology class—these could be our future landscape architects!”

Both the workshop and past studios are part of a larger Kansas City Metro initiative, which links low-income communities, such as Argentine, with university resources. The goal is to use design studios and other programs to tackle pressing urban issues while also exposing students of color to the college’s various design programs. “We want to increase access to our programs and help our professions be more representative of the society that we serve,” Kingery-Page says. Right now, the College of Architecture, Planning, and Design is 72 percent white. J.C. Harmon is nearly the inverse, Kingery-Page says, with a student body that is 66 percent Hispanic, 16 percent black, and 13 percent white.

The racial homogeneity of this country’s design and planning professions has been the subject of internal and external criticism since at least the 1960s, when Whitney M. Young Jr., then the head of the National Urban League, blasted the American Institute of Architects for its complacency in the fight for civil rights. Speaking to a nearly all-white audience—which just as easily could have been a gathering of the American Society of Landscape Architects—he condemned the profession for its “thunderous silence” and “complete irrelevance” to the civil rights struggle. Since then, progress has been incremental. According to ASLA data, only 10 percent of landscape architects—and just 4 percent of ASLA members—identify as Latinx, despite making up nearly 20 percent of the population. African Americans, who make up 15 percent of the U.S. population, comprise just 3 percent of the landscape architecture profession and 1 percent of ASLA membership.

A more expressive drawing exercise was led by Erin Wiersma, an artist and associate professor at Kansas State University. Photo courtesy Erin Wiersma.

If there is a bright spot, it’s that the profession increasingly seems to acknowledge that its lack of ethnic and racial diversity is a liability. ASLA, alongside universities and other design organizations, is actively working to attract young people of color to the profession. In 2018, the society hired its first national manager of career discovery and diversity, Lisa Jennings, who has worked on bringing existing resources under a single virtual roof and establishing or expanding partnerships with K–12 educators and other organizations. At the high school level, these outreach efforts often consist of straightforward, hands-on activities, career day presentations, or university campus visits. But some landscape architects are working outside their professional roles as practitioners or educators to pilot more intensive programs that they hope will help broaden the on-ramps into the profession.

The Urban Studio was launched in 2019 to help train and support high school-age youth from communities of color who are interested in careers in design. It was founded by four landscape architects—Kendra Hyson, ASLA; Maisie Hughes; Daví de la Cruz; and Andrew Sargeant—who connected through the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s Fellowship for Innovation and Leadership. (Hyson was serving on the LAF board; Hughes, Sargeant, and de la Cruz were 2018–2019 Fellows.) The four designers eventually recognized that they shared an interest in creating a pipeline for students of color that would give them the skills, confidence, and support they need to not just pursue a career in design, but to succeed. “This is not an easy profession to be in,” says Hyson, who also works as a senior planner for the Montgomery County Planning Department in Maryland. “If you’re not supported as a person of color, if you don’t have people around you who look like you and have gone through the experiences you’ve gone through, it can be really difficult.”

The nonprofit organization has three arms: Studio DC, run by Hughes and Hyson; Studio South Central, run by de la Cruz in Los Angeles; and Studio Digital, run by Sargeant, who lives in Austin, Texas, and works for Lionheart Places. Each has taken a slightly different form. Studio DC’s inaugural program was conducted this past fall and funded through a Community Stormwater Solutions grant from the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment with additional support from Anova. The program consisted of a 10-week intensive design program in which 12 high school students, drawn mostly from D.C.’s fifth and seventh wards, spent seven hours each Saturday learning the basics of landscape architecture and developing concept plans for two separate sites: a community recreation center near the National Arboretum, and a vacant lot in the historically African American neighborhood of Deanwood. Each student received a $500 stipend—a crucial benefit for young people who otherwise might work on weekends, Hyson says.

Kendra Hyson, ASLA, and Studio DC participants at Canal Park, where they learned about designing for stormwater management. Photo courtesy the Urban Studio.

Studio South Central’s first cohort was made up of high school students from in and around Pueblo del Rio, the Los Angeles public housing project where de la Cruz grew up. Over 10 weeks in spring 2019, a group of five students used art and photography to document their communities and, in the words of de la Cruz, explore the “connection between storytelling and place.” The first Studio Digital program—a one-week intensive design program at Utah State University to learn about immersive technologies such as virtual reality—was planned for spring 2020, but was postponed owing to concerns over COVID-19.

At barely one year old, future Urban Studio programs could take any number of forms, Hughes says. Currently, the founders are lining up funding and university partners to support the organization’s mission. They don’t want to rush it. “We could spend all of our time going after grants that are available, but we’re trying to change the game,” Hughes says. “We need to take a more offensive approach to this. We need to do a deep dive-in strategy and be really deliberate about the kind of funding that we go after.”

One thing that is unwavering is the Urban Studio’s transformative potential. “Our work is not about just creating more black landscape architects,” Hyson says. “Our mission is to advance design thinking for equitable and sustainable urbanism. For us, that means people of color working with communities of color.” The driving question, she adds, is, “How can we take the skills that landscape architecture has given us—this ability to think long term, to creatively problem-solve, to be resilient and think about sustainability and green infrastructure and all of the multilayered aspects of the landscape—how can we take all of those things and pass them on to these young people?”

Another organization working to equip young people of color is Juxtaposition Arts in Minneapolis. The organization was founded in 1995 by Roger and DeAnna Cummings and Peyton Russell as a youth arts organization, offering free classes in contemporary art and mural-making to the young people of North Minneapolis, the largely black community where both Roger and DeAnna spent their childhoods. In 2010, the organization established JXTALabs, paid apprenticeships or “labs” in graphic design, textiles and screen printing, public art, contemporary art, environmental design, and community engagement and urban planning (the last two of which fall under the heading “tactical”). Apprentices must complete Juxtaposition’s visual art literacy training program, or VALT, before applying to become apprentices. JXTALabs takes on client work, annually employing up to 70 teens and young adults ages 14 to 21 to design and build real-world projects, including custom bicycle racks, parklets, and play structures.

The skate plaza integrates rain gardens to manage stormwater. Photo courtesy Juxtaposition Arts.

One of Juxtaposition’s most recent projects is the Skate-able Art Plaza, 4,600 square feet of public open space that offers skate elements alongside features designed for more passive recreation. The need for more open space in the neighborhood has long been a topic of conversation at Juxtaposition, Roger Cummings says. When one of Juxtaposition’s buildings was deemed structurally unsound, Juxtaposition decided to demolish the building to make way for a new building. Rather than leave the corner lot vacant, the nonprofit saw an opportunity to create a temporary public space—a space designed by and for local kids.

“We wanted to find something to do with it,” says Kristen Murray, ASLA, Juxtaposition’s program director. “It seemed like an opportunity for a skate plaza, a space that would blend skating and activity and physical movement, as well as art and performance and enterprise.”

Located on the corner of a busy intersection in North Minneapolis, right next to Juxtaposition’s main building, the colorful, multipurpose plaza is largely the brainchild of apprentices in the environmental design, tactical, and public art labs. Ramps and other skate features form a horseshoe oriented away from traffic, which is further protected by a grouping of five large boulders (the property has a history of automobiles crashing into it, says Niko Kubota-Armin, who leads the environmental design lab). A large mural creates a backdrop for performances, and rain gardens encircle the ramps, collecting stormwater from the plaza as well as adjacent properties. (The Mississippi Watershed Management Organization helped fund the project.)

Opened in June 2019, the skate plaza serves as a much-needed gathering place as well as a billboard for the work Juxtaposition does. Murray says the neighborhood has claimed the space as its own to such a degree that Juxtaposition’s leadership is rethinking its vision for the site. “It’s a really important space,” Murray says. “It’s not something [residents] want to see go away. So I think that’s changed how we think about the design of the campus and how we make more spaces like that on the campus in the future.”

Besides its paid apprenticeships, Juxtaposition also maintains a working relationship with the University of Minnesota’s College of Design and landscape architecture department, a partnership that was formalized in 2005 under the name ReMix, partly thanks to the efforts of Kristine Miller, a professor of landscape architecture, and Satoko Muratake, then a graduate student and now a landscape architect at TEN x TEN. The ReMix program, which is also how Murray first became involved with Juxtaposition, is mutually advantageous. It benefits Juxtaposition’s high-school-age apprentices, who gain exposure to university-level design programs and access to faculty, as well as the university landscape architecture students, who get opportunities to work with Juxtaposition and residents of North Minneapolis. For the Skate-able Art Plaza, the grading and planting plans were done by Norman Palacious, a graduate student involved with ReMix who now works as a landscape designer for Asakura Robinson in Austin.

Installed next to the skate plaza, this modular parklet was designed and fabricated by youth apprentices in JXTA’s Environmental Design Lab, in collaboration with Lazor Office. Photo courtesy Juxtaposition Arts. 

In 2014, Juxtaposition launched its Pathways to College and Careers program, or PaCC, which provides apprentices who are close to aging out of the nonprofit’s programs (the program is for 14- to 21-year-olds) with mentors, career guidance, help writing résumés and applications, and opportunities for paid internships outside Juxtaposition. The program was started in response to needs identified by apprentices in a series of interviews conducted by Adrienne Doyle, a landscape architecture student and now the lead of Juxtaposition’s Tactical Lab. Doyle, a JXTALab alum, says many of the apprentices felt they lacked the resources, knowledge, and professional connections necessary to, say, mount an exhibition at a local gallery or land an interview with a design agency, especially relative to their white counterparts. PaCC works to remove some of those barriers and create a bridge from Juxtaposition to the professional world, providing assistance with such things as personal finance, writing a business plan, or travel to cities such as New York or Chicago.

Kristine Miller, the UMN professor, says Juxtaposition’s model puts the emphasis on the right places: on racial equity, and supporting youth leaders of color who can use design to make positive change in their neighborhoods. “A project is never going to do it,” she says. “I hope we learned that through urban renewal. It’s going to take people who are able to take their values, understand what they’re great at, build trust with each other, dismantle their own personal racism, and commit to working together over time. What you see then is that it’s the way they did the skatepark, with youth, with artists of color, in a very public way, that has an impact.”

Juxtaposition has spent 25 years building its programs, partnerships, and reputation in North Minneapolis. For fledgling organizations like the Urban Studio, or independent practitioners, working with young people or building new on-ramps into the profession is an effort that often falls outside the scope of their normal jobs, making the work difficult to sustain. “This has always been something I’ve wanted to do, but it is not always easy to frame it in the context of, for practitioners, billable hours or, as an academic, peer-reviewed scholarly research,” Kingery-Page says.

Other challenges include the fact that not everyone values diversity equally. “We know that in some spaces, we’re still having to make the case that this is necessary,” says ASLA’s Lisa Jennings. “And that’s okay. We’re all coming to these conversations from different perspectives, and there needs to be room for all perspectives.”

Andrew Sargeant, of the Urban Studio, says the pipeline of prospective landscape architects won’t look different until larger issues of representation and racial equity are addressed. He says there need to be coordinated efforts at every age and career step. It’s about, “How do you get kids when they’re young? And then how do you make sure that the education that they’re receiving reflects them? And then also, when they graduate and look for jobs, let’s get them jobs and let’s make sure that they’re comfortable.” Until all of that happens, he says, the profession will have a diversity problem. “They’re really focusing on the K–12, but no one is really talking about, where do you land?”

For Kingery-Page and her collaborators, it’s been remarkable to see the impact that even a simple drawing workshop can have. At J.C. Harmon, David Bennett, the biology teacher, says he was astounded at how calm, quiet, and engaged the students were during Wiersma’s more expressive exercise and that it “was like therapy” for some of them. One student in particular, who had expressed an early interest in design but who also has “outrageous amounts of energy,” Bennett says, was “totally at peace.”

Bennett says he hopes Kingery-Page and Wiersma will continue to bring these drawing workshops to the school. By linking subjects like ecology to the students’ own neighborhood, and the prairie plants they see from the window each day, the activity has a better chance of resonating with the kids, he says, and is more likely to plant a seed about future career paths. “It’s pretty enriching, compared to going into a room and hearing somebody talk about their career,” he says. “It’s site-based, it’s connected to what they’re learning about, and it’s hands-on. The students are creating something. They’re making something that is self-expressive and individual but also collective.” It might just be a first step toward a future in design.

Timothy A. Schuler writes about design, ecology, and the natural environment. He lives in Honolulu.

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