Land Connections–Social Justice Through Landscape Architecture

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The world today is changing. Not only in our technological advances but also in how we communicate as individuals. With information across the globe available at the click of a button, we have access to an abundant amount of facts, thoughts, and ideas. This access to information allows us to be more conscious than ever before of the issues faced by humanity. Our connectivity has made the world a lot smaller. We can conversate with each other on an unprecedented scale. Physical travel is more convenient than ever, and less of a barrier for many. People can even join together to support global causes from the comforts of their own homes. The everyday person’s voice can be heard louder than ever before. In fact, the use of a simple hashtag can start an entire movement with global reach! Despite significant modern social unrest, citizens are using these tools to advocate for their personal and family’s health, safety, and welfare.           

Traditionally, advocacy efforts for social issues have been addressed through speech and text resulting in legislative actions and public pressure on politicians.  There are however other effective means by which positive change in our communities can occur.  We are underutilizing the power to curate physical environments that enumerate the ideals of a just design that broadly includes all users and doesn’t discriminate. This is not a simple task and begs the question; How can we achieve socially just physical environments that meet the needs of all community members?

This question has been and continues to be discussed at length by Landscape Architects across the globe. With the power to communicate non-verbally from design to person, landscape architects have the tools, foresight, and creativity to envision suitable environments for others, creating socially engaging, widely comfortable, and equally accessible experiences. Often, landscape architects are expected to design spaces for diverse species of plants and animals, which is appropriate given significant training in ecology, which explores species diversity. They can’t however ignore the anthropology and human diversity aspects when designing spaces for people. Landscape architects can, and often do partner with communities to design safe places defined by landscape heterogeneity (a state of being diverse) something that communities tend to lack when a singular approach is taken to designing within a community with rich cultural diversity. It is a Landscape Architect’s duty to ensure there is a proper balance of landscape heterogeneity within our cities and that designs are influenced by all sectors of the community that are impacted by it. This design process can be defined by weaving various linguistic, cultural, social, and environmental systems into place realizing that there is no formula or one-size-fits-all solution for creating socially just spaces.  What matters the most is consciously approaching each project with a mind-frame that revolves around acceptance of others, magnifying the beauty of culture, and connecting through commonality; not seeking to redefine a culture, but rather embrace and express.

It can be a mistake, however, to create diversity for the sake of diversity itself. So then why aim to design more heterogenous places? The reason is simple because public safety is at the core of a landscape architect’s professional oath. Diverse spaces can offer empowerment to people, regardless of race, ethnicity, economic status, disability, or gender. Creating safe spaces fosters stronger communities, helps protect them over time and further spreads the ideals of social justice to other fabrics of social groups.

Methods to Ensure Socially Just Design

  1. Engage in Land and Cultural Research: Look into the past and present conditions of the site and the surrounding areas through spatial analysis, live field studies, and archival research. Learn of methods and case studies that incorporate social justice ideals. Amazing stories and cultural gems of information can be discovered through this type of research that can strengthen community ties and, in some cases, help them heal.
  2. Listen to the Past and Present: Engage with community members, leaders, and organizations that have a better understanding of the area, the community, and its needs. Discuss historic and native community needs with the intention to address issues, not minimize them. Take the discussion to the community rather than asking them to come to you.  Interview people in corner markets and on their front porches, go to local farmer’s markets, and sit with people at the park.  This personal level of engagement can yield wonderfully insightful information.
  3. Incorporate Symbolism and Education: Learn to identity and implement values such as ceremonial events and prevalent symbolic patterns. How can we apply those values and patterns within a functional design? Are there any educational opportunities we can use to not only inform visitors, but to create empathy and understanding? Are there concerns in the current community and how can we aim to combat them? Can we also design community programs and events? Try and put meaning into all design decisions.
  4. Do a Pretest of the Design: Hold an event in the location of the new space and mock it up.  Invite people to test run it and provide feedback.  You will begin to build a relationship with the community that yields positive connections, honest conversations, and more community reflective results.
  5. Celebrate the Successes: Enjoy the design with the community. Ask for feedback from users after completion. Learn from mistakes and apply them to future projects. Share about what you learned with other designers and collectively move progress forward.


About the Author

Jack Liang is a Landscape Designer at O’Dell Engineering. He holds a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Jack is passionate about supporting the social justice movement through landscape architecture design. He gets great joy from designing spaces that can be enjoyed by all members of the community.

Learn More

For previous Land Connections articles, click here.

For information on joining the O’Dell Engineering team, click here.

To see our landscape architecture project experience, click here.

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