Field Notes on Design Activism: 3

This is the third installment of a narrative survey in which several dozen educators and practitioners share perspectives on the intensifying demands for meaningful change across design pedagogy and practice. How is the field responding to the interlocking wicked problem that define our time — climate crisis, structural racism, unaffordable housing, rapid technological shifts? To the increasingly passionate campaigns to decolonize the canon, to make schools and offices more equitable, ethical, and diverse? What are the issues of greatest urgency? What specific actions and practical interventions are needed now?

Clockwise from top left: Image from Climate Literacy and Action in Architecture Education. Photo of field trip conducted as part of the activist pedagogy of the Alabama Lab at Auburn University. Still from a video produced by University of Minnesota students in collaboration with the Native Village of Tazlina. Photo of procession led by plenero musicians in Mott Haven, 2019.
Clockwise from top left: From Climate Literacy and Action in Architecture Education, published by the Association of Architecture Schools of Australasia and the Australian Institute of Architects; field trip conducted by the Alabama Lab at Auburn University [Rachel Perez]; scene from a video produced by University of Minnesota students in collaboration with the Native Village of Tazlina [UMN/Native Village of Tazlina/Cadaster]; procession led by plenero musicians in Mott Haven, 2019 [Shehzil Zahid, courtesy Mott Haven Herald].

As an architectural educator, the most urgent priority in my handbook for design activism can be stated with bumper-sticker brevity: “Place matters.” These two words could be easily co-opted to serve a range of political ideologies, from the neoliberal sloganeering of so-called coastal elites to nativist speechifying emanating from the so-called heartland. But replace the virtue signaling and dog whistles with serious sincerity, and “place matters” can serve as a building block of design activism.

For design activists, ‘place matters’ means replacing totalizing narratives with nuanced perspectives that combine historical knowledge with close observation.

Here, building block is more than a convenient metaphor; it’s a charge to make change from the ground up, action by action, from small to medium to large, and to recognize the essential relationship of each small positive thing to the larger whole that we seek to transform — whether that’s a street, a neighborhood, a campus, or a city. As we move back into public life, still cautious about living with Covid, place matters in ways that are haptic and embodied, whether we are remedying environmental injustices, calming traffic, or enhancing everyday life with a block party. Plant a tree, paint a mural, build a parklet — these actions all have obvious benefits. But, in an activist handbook, making place matter also requires context and situatedness, replacing totalizing narratives with nuanced perspectives that combine historical knowledge of the how-we-got-here variety with close-up observations of the here-and-now.

Newark, a 2018 photograph of an old brick factory and a new office building.
Newark, 2018. [Victor Reynolds via Flickr under License CC 2.0.]

Noelle Willliams, "Frederick Douglass and Plane Street Colored Church," an installation that evokes the 19th-century center of Newark's African American community. Photo by Camilo Jose Vergara.
Noelle Lorraine Williams, Frederick Douglass and Plane Street Colored Church, an installation evoking the 19th-century center of Newark’s African American community. Photograph by Camilo José Vergara. [Library of Congress]

I’m writing this in my office in Weston Hall, home of the Hillier College of Architecture and Design, on the campus of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, in the University Heights neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. I’m looking out over Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, formerly High Street, which was renamed in 1983 during the final term of Kenneth Gibson, the city’s first African American mayor. In the 1930s, this street became the dividing line between downtown and the city’s redlined wards, reinforcing existing spatial segregation and spurring the continued economic disinvestment that culminated in the Newark Rebellion of 1967.

Since then, urban renewal and institutional expansion have largely bulldozed this history, but if you look carefully you can still see it, along with traces of Newark’s other histories: empty commercial spaces that once bustled with the happenings of the Black Arts Movement; former factories that signal the city’s industrial past; abandoned mansions that embody the wealth derived for those in power from the labor of immigrants; an athletic field named for Frederick Douglass on a lot once occupied by the Presbyterian Plane Street Colored Church, which was a documented stop on the Underground Railroad. And so on through the years, back to the city’s 1666 founding by Puritans who had moved south from Connecticut, the settlers who displaced the Leni Lenape from the ancestral territories they had occupied for thousands of years. Locating and marking these histories, and countless others, in the built fabric of 21st-century Newark is a necessary tactic for making change today. This is not about valorizing genius loci or urban authenticity. It is about remembering, as Amiri Baraka once suggested, that place doesn’t just organize us physically; it shapes who we are intellectually and emotionally. It’s where we cultivate our souls.

Gabrielle Esperdy


The thing about the crises we face now is that they’re not singular or discrete — they’re multiple and interconnected and frankly a big terrifying mess. So three of the most urgent considerations for architecture — mitigation of and adaptation to the climate crisis; redesign of architectural education to enable that response; and questions of mental health amongst practitioners and students — are profoundly interrelated. Eco-anxiety and climate grief lead to stunted learning and emotional distress. And while melancholy looks like a pretty reasonable reaction to present conditions, a burnt-out profession is not going to marshal the imaginative brilliance we’ll need to design what Donna Haraway terms “still possible futures.” As many have said: despair is a luxury we can’t afford. So, it’s time to put on our boots, and start with a form of architectural education founded on equal collaboration between students, teaching staff, and practicing professionals.

From Climate Literacy and Action in Architecture Education, September 2021, by Chris Knapp and Liz Brogden.
From Climate Literacy and Action in Architecture Education, a survey organized by the Association of Architecture Schools of Australasia in collaboration with the Australian Institute of Architects, September 2021, led by Chris Knapp and Liz Brogden on behalf of Philip Oldfield, Dagmar Reinhardt, Naomi Stead, and Naimi Iftikhar.

Working with collaborators, we recently surveyed staff and students from all architecture schools in Australia and New Zealand, and found that 95 percent of respondents were “concerned” or “very concerned” about climate change. The same percentage wanted to see more about climate and sustainability in architecture curricula. But despite high motivation, academics are frustrated, and 84 percent indicated that they, or their school, would benefit from communal action and support to resolve a series of stalemates: architecture faculty want to act, but they’re not sure exactly what to teach or how best to teach it. Students want deep knowledge, but they don’t know whom to believe; they want practical tools, but they’re not sure how to apply them. Existing practitioners need to retrain and retool, but they’re so stretched with “business as usual” that they’re exhausted before they begin. Inertia is our enemy — the energy needed to redesign education and the profession is energy we don’t feel we have. But what is the alternative?

Faculty want to act, but are not sure exactly what to teach. Students want deep knowledge, but don’t know whom to believe.

We argue that the first steps lie in building climate literacy, fostering student agency, empowering teaching staff to redesign curricula and pedagogies, and collaborating with the profession and the construction industry to offer relevant and timely real-world learning opportunities. Climate change is reshaping our natural and built environments. Architects are positioned to champion appropriate action, to ameliorate and adapt to rapid, complex change. We can be a powerful force for good. But first we need to turn our own ship.

Naomi Stead and Liz Brogden


Transitions

Architectural design culture has long been associated with visionary change, imagining the future by depicting some redefined world. Today, with our collective future at risk, there is no shortage of design imagery allowing us to see how present behaviors may lead to catastrophe — or to contrived prosperity. Typically, architects take an optimistic stance; if a beautiful future could just be imagined and visualized properly, this in itself might persuade decision-makers and inspire transformation. In these cases architects usually leave it to others to figure out how to implement change.

Rather than solo-concocting far-out renderings, designers might instead model future scenarios based on specific contingencies.

This approach is reflected in the discipline’s implicit preference for asking questions, rather than solving problems (in many design circles, “problem solving” is almost derogatory). But what good is a vision of the future without a complementary understanding of how to move towards it? In the Anthropocene, no design process can progress or conclude or even be self-aware unless it is thoughtfully, collaboratively positioned (i.e., designed) in a trajectory toward action. Imagine the impact architects might have if they supported future visions by designing politically calibrated, trans-professional, trans-scalar, and trans-temporal roadmaps to realization. Rather than solo-concocting far-out renderings with no captions, designers might instead model future scenarios based on specific contingencies, synergies, and forms of adaptability.

Still from a video produced by University of Minnesota students in collaboration with the Native Village of Tazlina for their land rematriation campaign.
Still from a video produced by University of Minnesota students in collaboration with the Native Village of Tazlina for their land rematriation campaign. [University of Minnesota/Native Village of Tazlina/Cadaster]

Still from a video produced by University of Minnesota students in collaboration with the Native Village of Tazlina for their land rematriation campaign.
Still from a video produced by University of Minnesota students in collaboration with the Native Village of Tazlina for their land rematriation campaign. [University of Minnesota/Native Village of Tazlina/Cadaster]

In such practices, architects would actively reinforce ongoing social and environmental movements, collaboratively advance new paths for professional activity, and meaningfully contribute to encouraging shifts that are happening across civil society. Consider, for example, the effort of Native communities to enact Rights of Nature, a principle that could prompt significant change in the status quo, ecologically, territorially, and socially. Designers can help to connect such goals with tangible processes of spatial-material adaptation, and along the way we could support the visions of those whose ambitions have been disregarded until now, and thus invest creativity in charting active transitions. Such a scenario would make design no less visionary and much more operative.

Gabriel Cuéllar


Studio faculty should select sites with complex, layered histories.

In advocating for design activism, I would stress our need to understand that the climate crisis is part of an interlinked series of crises. We cannot address climate change questions without also addressing social justice issues. For example, the shift to clean energy cannot happen in a bubble; it must take into consideration the continuing extraction of resources and labor and the embodied carbon that go into design, production, and manufacturing. The crisis of biodiversity loss is inextricably linked with design justice as well. As a design educator, my practical suggestion for grappling with the urgency of our interlinked crises is to select project sites with complex and layered histories. Rather than assigning seemingly “ideal” sites for student projects (which often happens in architecture studios, especially in beginning level courses), I would encourage studio faculty to search for contested and complex sites, and to encourage students to actively address these sites’ histories and current social and environmental conditions.

Joyce Hwang


What a dispiriting time to teach architecture! Why would anyone enter such a profoundly impotent field?

Everywhere, any half-sentient student witnesses the corrosive effects of unfettered capital’s apotheotic victory over reasoned construction — even in Europe, though most of the world’s construction isn’t happening there. For every small architectural success, young practitioners watch another natural landscape/long-functioning rural order/once-valued neighborhood reduced to dross by the ever-freer, ever-more-convenient aggressions of the freest possible free market.

Does architecture have any ethic beyond that of the marketplace?

Understandably, there’s little collective anger among architects against this circumstance. The same forces have corroded the field. After lean decades closing the last century, we’re on a run of profitability like the Middle Kingdom. Profit — our Xanax — eases the market’s baleful yoke, and softens the certainty that our efforts on behalf of [fill in the crisis] aren’t really enough.

Admittedly, raised on past architectural heroics, I’m naïve. Architects have mouths to feed. Still, when you scrape the rhetorics down, does the profession (including most of its educational institutions) have any ethic beyond that of the marketplace? Come on! It’s a collaborator in, not a liberator from, the wicked problems capital has wrought. Like its master, architecture isn’t solving much, in depth, for the long term.

So, for me, now, architectural education has to re-discover why architecture might be important.

There are two alternatives. Consciously pursuing one or the other is my ground rule for students.

The first alternative is to reject the marketplace. This approach starts out suspicious of interesting form, capital’s current tool of suppression and confusion. This track asks: what are the non-formal factors that allow form to be meaningful? Today that necessarily includes the evolving structures of labor, material ecologies, and basic need, all set against the ethical necessity for endurance in — and therefore programmatic generosity of — construction geometries. It is, once again, manifesto-writing time!

The second alternative is to cast your lot with the marketplace, trusting it will find solutions. This is the more difficult path. Since the market is ruled by the desires of consumers, you have to throw out taste, architecture’s silent touchstone.

Photo of house construction in the Galapagos, with the standard poured slab and CMU fill concrete.
In the Galapagos, poured slab and CMU fill concrete construction is standard. [David Heymann]

Traditional wood house, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, Galapagos.
Traditional wood house, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, Galapagos. [David Heymann]

Here’s an example of how hard that is to do. With American and Ecuadorian students and colleagues, I’ve been researching possibilities for sustainable construction in the Galapagos, which — in a perverse market twist — is undergoing rampant growth. One group of students explored using the archipelago’s varied plastic waste instead of concrete in producing block, the primary infill material used there. The resistance to this proposal from locals — “Why would we want to live in houses made of trash?” — made sense. Galapagans see millions spent by visitors, but live without dependable drinking water.

Then a local asked if the plastic blocks could have paintable wood-grain texture. “We’d use those if the house could look like wood.”

The Galapagos have only been inhabited for a few generations. The oldest buildings are wood (curiously, North American fir or cedar, from the remains of a U.S. airbase). A wooden house confers precedence, establishing status. But wood is costly, block more practical and thermally advantageous.

I was ecstatic: a sustainable solution the market might bear! But the architecture students were not pleased. Weaned (still!) on “honest expression of materials,” they looked like someone had poured salt on snails.

David Heymann


Transforming Individualistic Paradigms of Competence

Many people believe that the unprecedented 2021 mob attack at the U.S. Capitol undermined the foundations of American democracy; I would argue that the competitive, individualistic traditions of professional education and practice have long done so.

If I were to write a design activism handbook, I would seek to shore up the cracks in democracy’s imperfect structure by offering alternatives to the competitive, individualistic practices of neoliberal capitalism — with its insidious economic inequality, dehumanization of labor, and environmental degradation. Instead of indenturing young people to a lifetime of seeking upward economic mobility, I would offer approaches that engage them in reiteratively developing interdependencies with others, so they can understand and repair the cracks that injustice causes, even in the most disenfranchised communities.

I would borrow from Indigenous wisdom to disrupt competitive capitalism and prioritize an ethos of communal responsibility.

To replace individualistic paradigms of competence with ones that promote collective, intergenerational dialogue, I would borrow from Indigenous organizations that are seeking to heal the wounds of colonization, one of American democracy’s original structural flaws. Take Hoʻoulu ʻŌpio, the pseudonym I have bestowed upon an organic farm in Hawai’i that engages young people in reclaiming the agricultural knowledge that the Kanaka Maoli (first people) lost when U.S-backed insurgents overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893. (I feature the farm in my book Pedagogy of a Beloved Commons: Pursuing Democracy’s Promise through Place-Based Activism, forthcoming next year from Fordham University Press.)

In my handbook, I would explain how Hoʻoulu ʻŌpio began as a community development corporation, but soon embraced youth development; how in 2001 it employed twelve young people and leased five acres of land, while today it employs 100 young people and owns 281 acres; I would explain how the organization has expanded from initially supporting youth in community college to supporting children and youth in kindergarten through graduate school and in specialized farming careers. I would emphasize that this expansion was the result of the organization’s young interns convincing legislators to award them land for farming that developers had slated for luxury housing. To achieve comparable outcomes in other places, I would suggest that design students learn the skills necessary to persuade their own local officials to award them land in underserved communities where, as a requirement for their professional degrees, they could grow organic produce and build affordable housing.

Architects, students, and community members "holding space" with me (lower center, in white shirt) in Gould Hall at University of Washington after participating in a workshop on homelessness during the AIA Seattle's annual Design in Public program. Our efforts to recruit unhoused people to the workshop were unsuccessful.
Architects, students, and community members “holding space” with me (lower center, in white shirt) in Gould Hall at University of Washington after participating in a workshop on homelessness during the AIA Seattle’s annual Design in Public program. Our efforts to recruit unhoused people to the workshop were unsuccessful. [Courtesy of Sharon Egretta Sutton]

A crucial competence that I would seek to inculcate through my handbook is the ability to understand everyone’s differing experiences, which Native Hawaiians refer to as learning to “see through eight different eyes.” I would explain that today’s interlocking disasters cannot be addressed by a few privileged experts but, instead, require entire communities of problem solvers; I would note how Hoʻoulu ʻŌpio has nurtured such a community by “holding space” at the beginning and end of each workday so that managers, apprentices, and interns alike can share their ideas and worldviews. Then I would suggest that firm owners also hold space with seasoned staff and younger employees so everyone can see through each other’s eyes and share ideas for addressing today’s wicked problems.

In my activist handbook, I would definitely teach respect for people and for nature. I would note that Hoʻoulu ʻŌpio encouraged such respect by disrupting young people’s exposure to consumerist values that disregard the sacredness of land, instead engaging them in the practice of malama ‘āina (care of the land) and along the way encouraging their respect for one another. Then I would propose that design faculty and principals at firms exercise malama ‘āina too. I would urge such leaders to adopt the Hawaiian concept of kākou, a communitarian pronoun meaning “myself and others” where each “me” is responsible to care for the “we.” These are just a few examples of how I would borrow from Indigenous wisdom to disrupt capitalism’s competitive individualism and prioritize, instead, the ethos of communal responsibility that distinguishes a truly equitable and inclusive democracy.

Sharon Egretta Sutton


We are not going to design our way out of any of the urgent problems of our time. We are going to organize our way out of them, if at all. To be able to design responses to urgent problems is, at this point, a “nice to have”; an ideal — but not necessary — precondition for change. The fact is that change can and does happen many times by folks waking up one day and simply storming the Bastille out of the blue. Out of desperation and indignation, because we can’t take it anymore. Or change is brought about by unintended consequences. Change will come in any instance; the key thing is to channel that change, direct it, in the direction we need for the survival of our species. Organizing is the key. And we cannot care if we always remain in the minority. Not a bit. Being a minority is natural in these instances.

Men with hand drums walking down the street in the Bronx, in summer.
Procession led by plenero musicians to the former Lincoln Recovery Center at E. 140th Street in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx, 2019. Monxo López is at the far left in maroon shirt. [Shehzil Zahid, courtesy Mott Haven Herald.]

We are not going to design our way out of urgent problems. We are going to organize our way out of them.

The most pressing challenge is structural racism. Without getting to work on that for reals, we will not be able to get all hands on deck to address the planetary threat of global warming, for example. In fact, many current solutions to the climate emergency unduly burden communities of color, or the global South. If we do not address our structural racism problem, we are doomed. Simple. Although strictly speaking the most pressing problem is all of them; the fact that we have all these existential challenges at the same time.

There are TWO things that work for me: persistence and humor.

Persistence. I never ever drop it. In everything I do I ask “how does this benefit communities of color?” “Where are the people of color in the leadership of this proposal?” Why aren’t there any people of color in the leadership of X or Y institution? Where are the women in leadership? Queer folks? How will this affect the working class? Why are they being left out? I never stop doing that. Persist until it makes people uncomfortable. Them being uncomfortable is their problem, not yours.

Humor. I am always ready to make fun of myself and of others, particularly to make fun of people in positions of power, and hopefully to their faces. But ridiculing them to their backs is also excellent. Keep them out of the loop. They do not deserve to have fun. Laugh them out of the room whenever possible. Dress them down and ridicule their grandiosity, seriousness, hypocrisy, their lack of imagination, how set they are in their ways, their lack of generosity, cowardice, their self-centeredness, how boring they are. I know some of this can be about life and death at times, but it is also horribly funny. Laugh until others join you in the irreverence. Fart and snoring sounds are particularly effective. Big eye rolls also work. Laughing about oneself is also extremely healthy.

Monxo López


Climate awareness is not a clear and predictable endpoint, but a dynamic process of definition and response involving complex power relations, varied histories, variable risks, and diverse constituencies. Local communities have profound opportunities for mitigation of and adaptation to climate-related threats. Yet it is often difficult to comprehend and realize these capacities — especially in light of news coverage of impending catastrophes that include ceaseless images of droughts, floods, and fires splashed across newspapers and social media feeds. Furthermore, jargon-laden scientific metrics are often paralyzing, and in many people’s minds can seem irrelevant.

It is time to advance a version of climate awareness that enhances residents’ abilities to adapt at a neighborhood level. Activist designers in this context could contribute interactive visual tools centering marginalized knowledge, lived experience, and overlooked histories. Such tools can help communities protect themselves by communicating to the general public the socio-ecological value of existing local resources. With the support of climate scientists and community experts, we can demonstrate multi-performative design for the public realm as a situated form of empowerment and action.

Rendering of interactive visual tool designed to encourage local climate awareness.
Designers can encourage local climate awareness by producing interactive visual tools that center marginalized knowledge, lived experience, and overlooked histories. Rendering by the Centre for Landscape Research, University of Toronto. [Courtesy Fadi Masoud and Hanna E. Morris]

Multidisciplinary design teams might install digital and print illustrations in transit shelters, community centers, libraries, and schools to visualize neighborhood-level climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. Rendering by the Centre for Landscape Research, University of Toronto.
Multidisciplinary design teams might install digital and print illustrations in transit shelters, community centers, libraries, and schools to visualize neighborhood-level climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. Rendering by the Centre for Landscape Research, University of Toronto. [Courtesy Fadi Masoud and Hanna E. Morris]

Activist designers can help communities envision climate mitigation and adaptation in their immediate environs.

For example, after consulting and centering the lived experiences and diverse knowledges of immediate stakeholders, multidisciplinary design teams might install digital and print illustrations in public locations such as transit shelters, community centers, libraries, and schools to show what climate mitigation and adaptation could look like in the immediate surroundings. The digital versions of such illustrations could share real-time information to motivate on-the-ground organizing. One suite of materials might depict the transformation of a nearby parking lot, or a busy road, into a tree-lined blue-green street that moderates temperatures and cleans the air. Other illustrations could show how neighborhood parks can be redesigned to slow, hold, and filter urban floodwaters after a big storm. Such illustrations can showcase opportunities for energy-saving retrofits of buildings, the expansion of public facilities to support changing community needs, or the effects of biodiversity and green space on physical and mental health.

In short, we see the sharing of climate adaptation and mitigation strategies through visual media as a means by which we can synthesize important yet often overlooked insights and more directly engage communities. In doing so, we strive to facilitate an understanding not only of the threats different people face, but of a plurality of possibilities for ensuring more equitable climate futures — futures that embrace uncertainty and difference, challenging apocalyptic visions while contesting exclusionary politics and planning practices.

Fadi Masoud and Hanna E. Morris


The global north’s predominant forms of urbanity are hard-wired for energy-intensive lifestyles, producing vast amounts of CO2, particularly through the use of private cars. To undo this will require remaking the very structure of cities to center on more sustainable modes of mobility like walking, biking, and mass transit.

Key to this adaptation, it is often argued, is increasing cities’ density to make more destinations accessible by foot, bike, or train. Yet calls to draw our cities together in more compact forms do not tell us what kind of density, and where, and for whom. In places where “densification” has become the dominant planning paradigm, a threat is materializing — that already compact neighborhoods will be further densified by infills on community green spaces, and that those without means will be trapped in cramped areas surrounded by huge swathes of car-reliant suburbia. Low-density landscapes with vast amounts of greenery are in this way preserved for those who can buy their way out of adaptation to the planet’s limits by “offsetting” their density onto others.

A banner protesting an upmarket development that would densify the Norra Fäladen district of Lund, Sweden, ca. early 2010s. The banner reads “Caution, children play here. Don’t build here!” Photo by Johan Pries, who lives in the neighborhood.
A banner protesting an upmarket development that would densify the Norra Fäladen district of Lund, Sweden, early 2010s. The banner reads “Caution, children play here. Don’t build!” Photograph by Johan Pries, who lives in the neighborhood.

Green, low-density landscapes are too often preserved for those who can buy their way out of adaptation by ‘offsetting’ density onto others.

It is important that those pursuing compact-city development work in dialogue with communities whose spatial amenities risk being sacrificed in order to maintain openness elsewhere. Such situations are increasingly common in the Nordics, where public parks in working-class and migrant areas, which were amply provided by national policies in the postwar era, are seen now as sites ripe for densification. But we must resist the temptation to settle conflicts around public spaces slated for redevelopment within the parameters of a single project, thus refusing to acknowledge the ways in which density is increased across a larger urban area. Making the compact city more equitable instead requires both scaling down — to identify what’s at stake for neighborhoods being redeveloped — and scaling up — to ensure the just distribution not only of densities but of access to public space and greenery. Practitioners cannot, and should not, flinch from connecting the interests of communities endangered by careless redevelopment to multigenerational patterns of class privilege and racism. Nor should we allow the distribution of densities to reproduce these geographical patterns in unspoken yet systematically exploitative ways.

Only by preserving the spatial affordances of communities that today bear the brunt of densification (communities that are often already quite compact), and pointing to the increasingly unequal distribution of these affordances across larger geographies, can the compact city also become a just city.

Johan Pries


Centering marginalized narratives through disruptive engagement(s)

The pandemic only exacerbated systemic inequalities that disadvantage Black and Brown people and their collective health; it revealed what was already happening. But it also invited a renewed critique of structural racism, by showing in stark relief the omnipresent forces that continue to unjustly affect communities of color. This is not a new understanding of the American milieu, particularly when it comes to landscapes of marginalization. But it does raise a critical question for me as a landscape architect and educator. How might community narratives be used to disrupt conventionalized and exploitative readings of place and people, to steer us towards a more equitable future?

James Baldwin helps us to understand the imperative of hearing such narratives in his 1972 book No Name in the Street:

If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected — those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most! — and listens to their testimony.

Baldwin reminds me that stories play an important role in the development and survival of cultures, providing significant information about language, history, and the environment. Stories and histories can come in textual form, or in visual form (such as maps, photographs, and diagrams), or in verbal form (such as oral histories and folk music). In all forms, they interconnect in our daily lives and contribute to the makeup of our cities and neighborhoods. Communities of color have historically been marginalized in planning and design decisions — decisions that have shaped the very spatial, economic, and environmental conditions under which those communities live — resulting in conflict, inequality, discrimination, and displacement. Going forward, it is imperative that we center such voices and their stories in design decision-making.

James Baldwin reminds me that stories play an important role in the development and survival of cultures.

This starts with asking critical questions to disrupt the traditional design practices that have built landscapes of marginalization. What does that mean? It means that we attend to power. It means that we call out absences and voids. It means that we are intentional about who is at the table when choices are made about our communities. It also means that we need to understand what is being privileged through the projects we undertake. We need to rethink design from a democratic viewpoint, asking what design is and who has access to it. We need to question what education is and who has access to it. We need to question what community looks like and how it functions. Centering marginalized voices means reimagining the means by which we actualize values of diversity, equity, and inclusion to create a more just and equitable world.

CL Bohannon


Loopholes

The bulk of our work in architectural design (I teach landscape architecture) is structured through the capital project. Correspondingly, we often understand what we do as service, not in the broad sense of ministering to the needs of others (neighbors, rivers, future generations, animals, plants), but in the narrow sense of belonging to a professional service sector. It’s true that we sell our specialized skills rather than, say, producing manufactured goods or developing real estate deals. But blindly following the prompts we are given tends to obstruct our capacity to provide service in the former sense, because the ends of our work are usually bounded by decisions that have been made by our clients, who are both wealthier and more powerful than we are. It is difficult to be both a service professional and a design activist.

I would hardly consider myself an expert in design activism. But I have spent the last decade or so chasing loopholes in the capital-project framework, and, though I wouldn’t expect loopholes to amount to a real political program (and design activism does ultimately require a political program), I do think it’s possible to accomplish some useful things — to do a bit of activist design — while working in loophole-space.

It is difficult to be both a service professional and a design activist.

In 2012, three colleagues and I started the Dredge Research Collaborative, with the aim of understanding where, how, and why landscapes are made through the manipulation of the movement of sediment. By our final DredgeFest in California in 2016, we (along with three additional core members and numerous colleagues and collaborators) became convinced that design can play an important role in shaping those movements. Since then, we have found partners outside design who not only share that conviction, but have the resources to fund design with sediment. These processes intrigue us precisely because of their scale: landscapes created and destroyed through the manipulation of sediment dwarf landscapes made via the mechanisms of service-profession landscape architecture. (One ordinary dredged material management area, Craney Island in Virginia, is composed of three cells, each as large as Central Park.) Correspondingly, change is slow and its directions uncertain. Fellow DRC member Sean Burkholder likens working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as we often do, to the role of sweepers in curling, frantically applying brooms to the ice to gently influence the trajectory of the stone.

David Hill leads a tour of the Cypress Nature Park for advocates and community members. A series of Alabama Lab studios, taught by Hill and organized in collaboration with partners like River Region Trails, have helped build momentum for design efforts and public access in these Montgomery wildlands.
Auburn University professor David Hill leads a tour of the Cypress Nature Park for advocates and community members. A series of Alabama Lab studios, taught by Hill and organized in collaboration with partners like River Region Trails, have helped build momentum for design efforts and public access in these Montgomery wildlands. [Rachel Perez]

Synthesis plan for the Graham Farm and Nature Center, Estillfork, Alabama. The plan was developed in 2019; faculty Sarah Coleman, Emily Knox, and Rob Holmes are currently leading a team of students in detailed design of the first phase of the project, with implementation scheduled to begin in fall 2023.
Synthesis plan for Graham Farm and Nature Center, Estillfork, Alabama, developed in 2019; faculty Sarah Coleman, Emily Knox, and Rob Holmes are currently leading a team of students in detailed design of the first phase of the project, with implementation scheduled to begin in fall 2023. [Natalia Almonacid, David Hill, and Rob Holmes]

Recently, Auburn University launched the Alabama Lab (housed in our graduate landscape architecture program), inspired in large part by our colleagues at the Rural and Urban Studios. Our aim is to redeploy the resources we do have — our time and energy as students and faculty, captured in semester-long chunks of advanced studio courses; our belief in the pedagogical virtue of working as landscape advocates — to bolster the efforts of communities who are already advocating for both their own interests and the interests of what we call “underdog landscapes.” That work demands sustained engagement, because public landscapes change incrementally, and because landscape is, as many have noted, never finished. So we have organized the Alabama Lab around repeat engagements and multiyear partnerships. This has meant committing deeply to just a few initiatives, dedicating ourselves to the particularity of one soggy, tupelo-inundated urban wild in the heart of Montgomery; one urban creek in Chattanooga; and one farm-turned-research-and-education center in north Alabama’s Paint Rock Valley.

None of this constitutes an answer at scale. But in both the Dredge Research Collaborative and the Alabama Lab, we are convinced that seemingly small and marginal changes at the ragged edges of our professions can be significant.

Our Auburn colleagues at Rural Studio have proven that simply demonstrating possibility can substantively challenge inherited design practices. They’ve offered an alternative to traditional modes of design education; an alternative to the abandonment of rural regions by the design professions; an alternative to the model in which a client is understood as a person with power and privilege, rather than a person with unmet needs. If a (fantastically) idiosyncratic design-build program in Alabama’s Black Belt can find itself at the core of a network of partners working to address the nation’s housing affordability crisis — as the Front Porch Initiative is now doing — then perhaps there is real value in getting started, in one place. Perhaps we can assemble a real alternative from a multitude of local actions, subtle trajectory shifts, and changes that seem too small, until they aren’t.

Rob Holmes


Change has never been more urgent in our design and planning schools. And yet how do we reimagine the academy?

If you follow the money in alumni and professional associations, scholarships are the sexiest program of the moment; institutions are focused on fundraising and marketing to prospective applicants, suggesting that we just need to enroll a few diverse students and, magically, schools will be changed (for the better one hopes). Yet, while laudable, this is not the most powerful lever with which to dislodge enduring racist, sexist, and settler-colonialist legacies. Students enroll demanding progressive re-envisioning, and it is essential to engage them in the process of achieving it. But, at the end of the day, creating change in the academy is not their responsibility.

From the Equity, Diversion, and Inclusion Resources of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture.
From the Equity, Diversion, and Inclusion Resources of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture.

Change has never been more urgent in our design and planning schools. Yet how do we reimagine the academy?

It is the responsibility of faculty to productively tackle how we build and share knowledge and practices that engage the intersecting crises of climate disruption, structural racism, lack of affordable housing, and public health. To do this work, we must acknowledge the complicated legacies of design practices and, simultaneously, explore alternatives for the future. For this, we must think differently about who teaches and what we think it means to educate. Accordingly, if there is one strategy we need, it is to invest in faculty. Faculty are at the heart of real and enduring transformation.

This means taking seriously the call for scholars who bring alternative histories and counter-bodies of knowledge, learned and tacit, to the practices and the disciplines of design. At the same time, hiring one Black colleague, a Latinx or Asian colleague, a female colleague, maybe an Indigenous colleague: this will not fix the issue. If we are to steward our schools as places of belonging and engagement with a truly representative array of people, ideas, and places, new faculty must have support from a full community of practice. Every faculty member must undertake the hard work of transformation, whether in teaching, scholarship, or service. We must re-imagine our professions by working collaboratively across schools to mentor underrepresented early career faculty, and at the same time, to learn as communities of practice how to re-formulate our work and our leadership. Only then will we be able to sustain an academy, a curriculum, and in turn, the professions necessary to tackle the 21st-century’s greatest challenges.

Thaïsa Way

Cite
Gabrielle Esperdy, Naomi Stead and Liz Brogden, Gabriel Cuéllar, Joyce Hwang, David Heymann, Sharon Egretta Sutton, Monxo López, Fadi Masoud and Hanna E. Morris, Johan Pries, CL Bohannon, Rob Holmes, Thaïsa Way, “Field Notes on Design Activism: 3,” Places Journal, November 2022. Accessed 01 Dec 2022. <>

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