The Lab in the Backyard

USC’s Landscape Justice Initiative aims to give students grassroots perspective on their field.

By Patrick Sisson

Installing plants at a Test Plot site with USC student Yiyi Peng, studio instructor and USC Test Plot lead Jen Toy, and local resident Maria Arroyo, a member of the Abuelas de Parque. Image courtesy USC Architecture.

In 2018, after discovering that city arborists planned to plant Australian and South African plant species in response to a future of sustained droughts, the Los Angeles landscape architecture studio Terremoto launched Test Plot, a small-scale scheme designed to engage community groups in growing native plants in city parks and ultimately show that residents can play a role in maintaining the city’s landscape. “There’s a fear of maintenance,” Jenny Jones, ASLA, a partner at Terremoto, says. “We want to celebrate the maintenance.”

An assist from the Landscape Justice Initiative at the University of Southern California (USC) helped the demonstration project blossom into something bigger and underscored the way institutions can collaborate on, instead of co-opt, community-led design. The USC professor Jennifer Toy’s class ran a Test Plot site in Rio de Los Angeles, a nearby state park, beginning in November 2020, providing staff, hours, and a proof of concept. It’s a model USC’s landscape architecture program hopes to replicate across Los Angeles’s varied landscape, with the aim of turning the university’s resources into a force multiplier for grassroots projects.

Alison Hirsch, ASLA, the director of USC’s Landscape Architecture and Urbanism program, established the Landscape Justice Initiative earlier this year as an umbrella for past and future work around these issues. She says it’s partially a response to the larger political and ecological landscape of Southern and Central California. Hirsch’s own work on industrialized agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley has been a focus for students. “In Los Angeles, for better or worse, we have this amazing laboratory of challenges—sea-level rise, biodiversity, warming temperatures, deeply institutionalized practices of discrimination and marginalization—extremely palpable all around us,” she says.

Students will continue to monitor the Test Plots over time and track data through visual surveys, soil tests, field notes, and labor and resource inputs. Image courtesy USC Architecture.

Test Plot is just one example of the initiative’s approach to working with the community. In South Los Angeles, USC students are collaborating with LA Commons, an ongoing public arts project, on A Memorial to Black Lives, one in a series of memorials focused on questions of Black achievement, joy, liberation, and memorialization. Graduate students have also dug into how policy excludes the unhoused from public spaces with groups like the Los Angeles Poverty Department and Los Angeles Community Action Network.

For the Test Plot program, USC’s involvement has helped Terremoto and community groups expand, with an eye toward opening a third test plot in Baldwin Hills this year. “With USC coming in and dedicating an entire studio class here, dedicating all those student hours of research, it’s proved this can be done elsewhere,” Jones says. “Their garden was really successful, and it allowed us to step out of our little bubble.”

Hannah Flynn, Student ASLA, a second-year graduate student and research assistant who has been monitoring the Rio de Los Angeles Test Plot sites and taking soil samples since May, says it’s been a powerful experience getting outside the classroom, establishing a level of intimacy with the local volunteers, and understanding the social infrastructure needed to make something like this work. “It’s really valuable to be able to ask questions about environmental and spatial justice within the context of an actual project,” she says.

Hirsch says the Landscape Justice Initiative has come at a crucial time for the profession, when the need to think systemically about questions of inequality and communities and to consider the larger structural issues that shape our environment is more vital than ever. “We’re trying to have sustained engagement with local and regional communities,” Hirsch says. “We’re trying to figure out what design education looks like with a model of reciprocity.”

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