Dismantling the Design Syllabus

Faculty at landscape architecture programs are asking what an anti-racist landscape architecture pedagogy looks like.

By Zach Mortice

A presentation to the elders of the Red Water Pond Road Community, part of the University of New Mexico Indigenous Design and Planning program. Photo by Catherine Page Harris.

Newly appointed this summer, Sara Zewde is the first tenure-tracked Black woman landscape architecture professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) and one of only 19 Black landscape architecture professors at accredited programs in the United States. And now that her first semester teaching at her alma mater is under way, she’s witnessing a few more firsts.

Discussions of diversity and structural racism at design schools had always focused on quantitative measures, such as the number of nonwhite faculty and students, but now the conversation is shifting to what’s being taught, and that’s new for Zewde. “I have never seen this kind of conversation around the actual curriculum, and that’s what excites me,” she says.

The transition from her time as a student at the GSD to now has been radical. “I went through three years of landscape architecture school, and I don’t think I was given one Black writer to read, ever. But I was given many slave-owning people to read,” Zewde says. Thomas Jefferson was one of them, and while his contributions to American landscape traditions are emphasized in design history, his record of assaulting enslaved women is not. “[We have] all of these efforts to diversify landscape architecture, but we’re bringing them into a very violent discourse. It’s violent. I’ve always felt that way and I’ve always felt alone.”

She says that this sort of discordance made her feel isolated when she was in school. “There was nobody to engage me in a conversation about it at all,” she says. But things are shifting. “This moment is not calling for me to change my reading or literature or approach.”

The change is registering outside design schools as well. Across the country, many universities are grappling with ways to confront systemic white supremacy, by distributing guides on anti-racist pedagogy and mandating classes on anti-Black racism.

But many landscape architecture programs are playing catch-up with the long-overdue reckoning with white supremacy that has been forced into view by the murder of George Floyd by police, and months of subsequent protests. Landscape architecture programs, led by faculty, are shifting curricula and reading lists, reevaluating the canon of standard historical and design texts, and offering critical reappraisals of the function of landscape architecture itself. This radical reformation is potentially the biggest change in the history of the profession, says Zewde.

Because of its everyday presence in the world beyond academia, environmental racism—and its corrective, environmental justice—is a primary area for renewed focus, and several programs have found ways to include it directly in class projects. “All you have to do is look at Google Earth,” says Anita Berrizbeitia, ASLA, the chair of the landscape architecture department at the GSD. “[In] any city, you see where the green is, and the green is where the rich people are.” It’s also likely where the landscape architects are.

Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, of the University of Virginia, says that without active, anti-racist consideration, what she calls “green whitewashing” can reinforce racial disparities. “There’s been an enormous amount of energy dealing with issues of landscape ecology over the last couple of decades, and landscape urbanism has been extremely neutral politically. That’s been a legacy of masking power, and hiding behind green as if it’s universally good.”

Ecological frameworks are vital, but without equivalent weight given to community, economics, and culture, they can encourage gentrification and displacement. In addition, as the transportation planner Destiny Thomas has reported in Bloomberg’s CityLab, redesigned public spaces, bike lanes, and streets, often constructed at the behest of wealthier white people, can pose a safety threat to Black people.

“By focusing so much on ecological practices, they’ve put these ecological practices where the money is, rather than where the money is not,” Berrizbeitia says. The values landscape architects define themselves by (environmental health, well-being, and a welcoming civic realm) are applied “only in certain places,” she says. “The field has not understood that ecology also has social content embedded in it.”

At the University of New Mexico, where Katya Crawford, Affiliate ASLA, is the landscape architecture program chair, several courses in the program use a heat island study of Albuquerque that shows wealthy neighborhoods are tree-lined and filled with parks, while poorer ones lack shade and parks and were closest to brownfields. Crawford wants to make it clear that “social and environmental justice are inextricably linked,” particularly where policy and design tools that marginalize communities (such as overpolicing and redlining) have worked together.

William C. Harrison, ASLA, is an assistant professor and coordinator in the landscape architecture program at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, a historically Black university. Harrison says that he typically embeds student academic projects in Black communities and cultural contexts, which makes environmental justice disparities clearer from the start. But he wants to move this time frame up even more. “They’re not getting that till junior and senior year, so one of the things we’re trying to implement is to get them exposed to that earlier,” he says.

To better understand the needs of communities where environmental racism has had an outsized impact, educators need to develop better tools for community engagement, says Meyer. This process is often “a sham,” she says. “Putting yellow stickies on a drawing at a public meeting is not authentic and substantial engagement.”

And before these methods can be refined, it can be difficult to get clients and public agencies to recognize residents’ right to lead discussions within their own communities of color. “Systematic racism has culturally brainwashed many people into believing it is OK for economically challenged minority areas to have less participation in the planning of their communities, access to healthy places, and [access] to the same amenities of affluent areas,” Harrison says.

C. L. Bohannon, ASLA, an associate professor at Virginia Tech, has long focused on community engagement in landscape architecture, and says it works as a powerful critique of the heroic, single-creator mode of landscape design, which can obscure racism and biases that don’t fit the grand narrative. And designers are complicit in forming those narratives and erasing the contributions of others. “As landscape architects we have as much blood on our hands, negatively affecting communities, even [with] the most seminal work of Frederick Law Olmsted,” Bohannon says. “This is landscape architecture. We have a legacy of this. If I’m looking at this, everybody’s under scrutiny.”

The curriculum is part of the problem. In the United States, landscape architecture pedagogy and history are fixed on European design traditions, but rarely include gardens and landscapes designed by Black Americans in the southern United States, or Indigenous design traditions—a point of focus at the University of New Mexico’s Indigenous Design and Planning Institute. “The built environment both reflects and reinforces culture and social hierarchy,” says UNM’s Crawford. “Landscape architecture comes from a very white supremacist, elite, Eurocentric background.” She says it’s important to realize that this didn’t happen by accident. “It’s a choice that has been made about what’s important to study. Indigenous knowledge should be a part of every landscape architecture department. Every country has an Indigenous population.”

This type of corrective, says the University of Washington’s Jeffrey Hou, ASLA, can’t be contained in just one or two courses. Students have made it clear that “all these issues—racial injustice, socioeconomic disparities—have to be embedded in all aspects of the curriculum,” he says. These topics have been a focus of Hou’s work at the University of Washington and as a 2019–2020 Landscape Architecture Foundation Fellow. Students have been some of the strongest voices calling for change. In a letter published online this summer, ASLA Adapt (an international group of students and emerging professionals advocating for political activism and progressive action), asked for increases in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) representation, curriculum overhauls, new public comment on accreditation standards, and other changes.

Curriculum changes affect accreditation, and that brings in the Landscape Architectural Accreditation Board (LAAB), the organization that sets standards for accredited landscape architecture schools. This year, the LAAB is bringing its typical five-year standards update cycle to a close, after including new standards mandating that programs demonstrate a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the retention of staff, students, and faculty, and take concrete steps to meet these goals. These draft updates (which were finalized in September) also specify that curricula be guided by diversity, equity, and inclusion. The board closed the period for public comments on May 31, just as a nationwide uprising against racist police violence enflamed cities large and small. It was immediately clear to Kristopher Pritchard, ASLA’s accreditation and education director, who manages the LAAB accreditation process, that their work was not done yet. “While we’re going to publish the revisions that have been made this last year, we’re going to continue to solicit input and flesh out the diversity standards,” he says.

As such, the LAAB has assembled a diversity committee (made up of existing board members) to examine accreditation standards, but also how the LAAB itself functions. It’s “sharing best practices with programs, so that programs can start to change and respond accordingly,” Pritchard says. “Longer term, some of the things we’ve been looking at are our volunteer pool, and who’s involved with that, and how can we diversify that group?” The LAAB also hosted a series of town halls with constituent groups (students, faculty, program chairs, practitioners, and members of the Black Landscape Architects Network) covering a very broad range of equity concerns. These include demographic diversity measures, promotion and training, studio culture, curriculum, and cultural exposure.

Given the wide spread of interests and the evolving cultural context, the biggest barrier to wrapping up a new set of standards is simply “taking in all of the information as quickly as possible to make sure they get it right,” Pritchard says. He expects the current revisions to be sent to the board for review in February, for the LAAB’s winter meeting, and their approval will prompt another round of public feedback through the spring. Afterward, new standards could be approved by summer 2021.

Within the bounds of accreditation standards or beyond, change in landscape architecture schools cannot be built “on the backs of minority faculty and students,” says Bohannon. One request he hears is, “‘Tell me what’s wrong.’ Dude, why is it my job to tell you what’s wrong? You need to do some of that work yourself,” he says. “It’s OK for you not to know, but here’s a moment when we can educate and help each other.”

Zewde is very clear on who bears the responsibility to effect change. Inside and outside the academy, “The profession is controlled by white people,” she says. “Black people are not going to change landscape architecture. We don’t have access to the levers of power.”

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