Revamping the landscape history curriculum to uproot racist histories.
By Timothy A. Schuler
On the evening of June 11, 2020, amid mass protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Marc Miller, ASLA, tweeted: “It’s time y’all. Revive American landscape history and reboot it to reflect the long history of systemic racism that helps to make it.”
The tweet was part of a longer thread in which Miller, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at Pennsylvania State University and the current president of the Black Landscape Architects Network, argued for landscape architecture departments to rethink their history curricula in the context of ongoing racialized violence. The thread caught the attention of two educators in particular: Elizabeth K. Meyer, FASLA, a professor of landscape architecture and the founder of the Center for Cultural Landscapes at the University of Virginia (UVA), and Thaïsa Way, FASLA, the director of Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.
A Call for Change in History
Miller’s call, in conjunction with unfolding events within higher education, was a catalyst for a monthly virtual lecture series on alternative histories of landscape, hosted by UVA. “Our students were just so hungry for curriculum to change, to deal with the structural racism that’s actually embedded in curriculum and in the history of our field,” Meyer recalls.
Out of that lecture series grew a much larger pedagogical undertaking, an initiative titled, “Toward a People’s History of Landscape.” Created in partnership with Andrea Roberts, who joined UVA in 2022 as a professor of urban and environmental planning and who now codirects the Center for Cultural Landscapes, the project is an effort to “explore alternative approaches to scholarship and teaching landscape-oriented social histories, centering Black and Indigenous historical narratives,” according to the scholars’ proposal for a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute, which took place in 2022 at Dumbarton Oaks.
The institute’s two dozen participants ranged from full-time faculty to graduate students and represented an array of fields and cultural backgrounds. “In order to come together to build a new idea of what place history is, we had to pull in all of those knowledge centers,” Roberts says. It also responds to a growing desire among historians to more rigorously engage the idea of place. As Way explains, “History departments were interested in how to do spatial histories. How do they do landscape history and environmental history? Many historians are starting with a very small and ill-equipped toolbox on how to study place.”
Among the products of last year’s three-week-long, in-person event, which focused on Washington, D.C., and the nation’s founding, are a series of teaching modules and syllabi intended for use by faculty throughout the country. (See apeopleslandscapehistory.org for resources.)
Brandi T. Summers, an associate professor of geography at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of a book on Black aesthetics and the history of Washington, D.C., was among the visiting scholars. Her most recent work uses history to generate a speculative Black urbanism for her hometown of Oakland, California, and she sees similar promise in the people’s history project. “The importance of a people’s landscape history,” she says, “speaks to what’s been cannibalized, what’s been invisible-ized, so that we can go back and actually reread [the past] because it actually might produce a different present.”