Field Notes on Design Activism: 7

This is the seventh and final 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: Black Lives Matter Plaza, Washington, D.C. [Ted Eytan]; “Drawing Table,” a tool for community engagement at Hafenplatz, Berlin [Antje Steinmuller]; diagram created for #whOWNSpace [Quilian Riano]; Public Sediment team surveying vegetation along the Alameda Creek Flood Channel [Brett Milligan]


Whitney M. Young, Jr.’s speech in 1968 to the American Institute Architects questioned the efficacy of design professionals’ work in “urban” environments, and to this day when you see this speech referenced, it tends to be part of a call for social change in architecture. Young was, of course, not the only non-designer who has had a transformative impact on the discipline’s concerns and processes. During the 1970s and 1980s, Dr. Robert Bullard — a sociologist — developed the concept of environmental justice. Civil rights leader Dr. Benjamin Chavis coined the phrase “environmental racism” in 1982. Young, Bullard, and Chavis represent three modes of activism, and each figure has had significant effect on designers’ understanding of our public roles and civic responsibilities. Yet we rarely hear their names mentioned in design discourse. Why? Perhaps because we cannot point to objects or spaces they made that we could call “good” or “beautiful” within conventional frameworks for architecture or landscape architecture. They have not added buildings, green spaces, diagrams, drawings, renderings, or photographs to the canon. It is difficult to document activism after the work is done, because it is a verb and not a noun.

It is difficult to document activism after the work is done, because it is a verb and not a noun.

It is nevertheless crucial that we recognize these three figures as critical to the development of contemporary design thinking. In landscape architecture in particular, environmental justice and environmental racism can become big talking points in studios organized around community-based projects. For one semester, students can become activists — making proposals for marginalized places using the same design strategies, technical tools, and image-making habits they draw on for the “non-activist” renderings they’ve learned to make. In history and theory courses, we don’t inform students that Dr. Bullard and Dr. Chavis are still doing the work, and that activism is not a phase or style but a practice. Even inside a design practice, activism is necessarily episodic and requires inventive ways of working with clients, sites, budgets, and more. But if you are committed to making responsible design accessible to everyone, it’s always present, integral to the long evolving arc of your work.

More educators need to become canon-divergent thinkers, recognizing that different students and practitioners have different entry points into the disciplines, and that not all moments or places of historical significance belong to the same lineage. Nor are historical precedents and design strategies always interpreted in the same ways. For example, imagine if someone took the time to look at the emergence of hip-hop in the Bronx as an origin point for what has come to be known as tactical urbanism. We would be afforded another opportunity to understand the impact of hip-hop on spatial practices, such as the block parties where DJ Kool Herc spun vinyl on turntables. Simultaneously, we would gain new perspectives on the role played by capital — or lack thereof — on how the built environment is made and read.

Regardless of the reasons for omission or oversight, designers must see more, see differently, and cite better. We can’t do the work if we don’t recognize the real activists.

Marc Miller

Blood on the Leaves

Institutions are normalizing the question “whose lands are we on?” And this runs the risk of reducing a critical if not essential process of cultural inquiry to a banal refrain repeated at lectures and conferences, as a kind of alibi for the much harder work of reckoning, reparation, and rematriation: the long game. The long game requires institutions to ask more difficult questions — “what historical treaties are we bound to?” or “whose knowledge are we privileging?” or “what world are we leaving behind?” Moreover, so-called land acknowledgments mask the elephant in the room: the royal “We” so carelessly used in academia, practice, and offices of design and planning.

White skin, green masks.

“Who are you accountable to?” This question requires each of us (as individual-yet-interrelated human beings) to learn about the lies on which Whiteness relies, the extent of cultural theft on which White dominance is built. Your passport or state-issued birth certificate doesn’t come with an errors-and-omissions clause; nowhere in the daily apparatus underpinning citizenship is there one mention of Indigenous genocide or the seizure of ancestral territories, the enslavement of Black people, the exploitation of immigrants. Such citizenship is built on false pretenses.

Land acknowledgments are a kind of alibi for the much harder work of reckoning and reparation: the long game.

If you still think that the quiet work of design operates at the scale of dimensions and specifications, then I would ask why even the small stuff is criminalized: jaywalking or panhandling punishable by law; skateboarding or sleeping on a park bench illegal; graffiti imprisonable. The “broken windows” theory of law enforcement, so widespread in the 1980s and ’90s, is still in effect — and across this carceral landscape of zero tolerance, throughout the segregated spaces of cities and beyond, mainstream urbanism invokes ideas about “quality of life” to produce misdemeanors that should never enter into the criminal justice system in the first place. The crime of design as it is practiced and taught now, to an increasingly neoliberal, technocratic elite who persistently if not hypocritically claim neutrality as service providers to settler-colonialism: such design should cease and desist. Urgently needed is a moratorium on White-supremacist curricula and a stoppage of capitalist pedagogical propaganda.

Reboot with an exercise: a close reading of Deborah A. Miranda’s “Teaching on Stolen Ground,” from 2007, along with a spatial mapping of Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project. It’s an exercise in un-learning. At the precise moment that activism is being co-opted by White nationalists and so-called patriots, it’s no surprise that “quality of life” (compare “to serve and protect”) has become a policy that designers and planners peddle, in their roles as merchants for the securitization and militarization of space, the policing that gets called maintenance or preservation. It’s the new “War on Drugs” prosecuted in a gentrified zone of near-complete fear, and thus in a society of total surveillance, controlled by the power of “qualified immunity” for those gatekeepers. The hostility of asphalt should be compared to the banality of a police officer, armed with a deadly weapon paid for by the public, while patrolling a street under construction or a manhole undergoing repair.

Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park, Boston, 2015.
Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park, Boston, 2015. [Stephen Passacantilli]

It would do good for newcomers to the field of environmental justice and to the study of environmental racism, specifically performative-posturing White allies, to dig into their own ancestries. Such legacies betray an ever-increasing reliance on incarceration (not just prisons or policing systems, but a full spectrum of regulations, penalties, and sanctions) through which an illusion of order is generated by removing or displacing (mostly non-White) bodies. To research in this field is not to claim; it is to exhume the overshadowed: to bring truth to power. Exposing lies, chasing ghosts, tracking down monsters … research with a cause asks, “how are you positioned?” What are you fighting for?

Slogans like Fuck the Police, All Cops are Bastards, Abolition aren’t ideologies of hate. They’re calls to reject and abolish the inherited systems of settler-colonialism and racial capitalism, and to reorganize and redistribute public funds — justly. In responding to such calls, everything must be re-imaginable: something as small as the height of a curb or the thickness of a line on a map connects to something as large as underfunded school budgets, segregated neighborhoods, under-serviced communities, gerrymandered voting districts, dangerous labor conditions for temporary workers, destructive oil-drilling leases, or deadly border walls.

But this is unattainable until the White majority acknowledges and actualizes the truth, a truth that can be found in lyrics written by a Jewish school teacher and poet from the Bronx, Abel Meeropol, in his 1937 song Strange Fruit, later adapted by Black performing artists Billie Holiday and Nina Simone in the 1930s and ’60s, with beats resampled and remixed by Herbie Hancock in 1995 and TNGHT in 2013: the “blood on the leaves and blood at the root.”

Pierre Bélanger

The Cluster Hires Will Not Be Silenced

After waves of protests and activism against injustice in 2020, architecture schools started to reckon with their complicity in those injustices, both contemporary and historical. Consequently, dozens of schools issued calls for tenure-track faculty positions focused on race, gender, class, and social justice. As beneficiaries of these positions, we appreciate being spared the precarious employment that has long seemed to be the only option for most BIPOCs in academia.

But, to be clear, this trend is not a blessing bestowed on us by White university systems. It is rather a result of pressure by Black, Brown, and Indigenous protest movements that rendered our political agendas unavoidable and unsilenceable — in concert with students’ demands for faculty who share their political commitments to a just future and the expansion of architectural knowledge. These comrades in struggle make it impossible for universities to maintain social relevance without recognizing their complicity. It is to these activists that we, and our colleagues hired in this wave of appointments, owe our stable employment and steady paychecks.

Architecture schools are not ready for us. There seems to be a covert expectation that our presence is the solution to decades of demands.

Yet we have arrived to find that architecture schools are not ready for us. There seems to be a covert expectation that our presence is the entire solution to decades of movement demands, some still unanswered since the 1960s and before. The colleges and universities we’ve joined have no clear institutional vision that could receive our scholarship and teaching as a means to explore and rectify the ailments of their systems. Rather, when students raise questions about structural issues, our images on the websites function as a shield. This goes beyond tokenization, to implicit beliefs that confuse anticolonial work with the supposed neoliberal “balance” represented by a single marginalized faculty member. We end up in colonial ecosystems blind to their own problems, requiring us to subscribe to methods of communication mandated in invented bureaucracies — methods that are not only slow, but also futile.

They — the systems as animated in individuals with power — are bothered by our voiced objections to racist pedagogies, to racial capitalism, to investments in neoliberalism, and to attitudes that regard diverse students as a nuisance. This anxiety reveals how insignificant they thought the problems were, requiring window dressing rather than extensive work on maintenance long deferred. Seeing the tools in our hands, they respond by adding work to our work: endless facilitated meetings with consultants, emails of apology, hastily arranged “diversity” assignments, underfunded academic compromises entrenched in slow-moving systems geared towards shelving our complaints in what Sara Ahmed calls the “metaphorical filing cabinet.” We end up sidelined in loops of frustration and burnout.

What a profound study in institutional desire, to be promoted and diminished in the same breath.

In the midst of navigating our senior colleagues’ conspiratorial fears that our true purpose is to dispose of them, we hold high-pressure positions wherein we attempt to deliver what our job descriptions request, while being obstructed by those who requested it. What a profound study in institutional desire, to be promoted and diminished in the same breath. But perhaps our presence creates such discomfort because we are the daily reminder of our systems’ gaps. To engage with seriousness in our work is to face the references unread, the knowledges unacknowledged, and the politics long deemed unscholarly. Perhaps we appear too often as markers of the walls between the university and the world, behind which our institutions shrink away from their true mandate, to create new knowledge.

But perhaps more menacing still is the fact that our priorities exist beyond the institution. Despite being employed by a university, we do not work for the university. We work for the movements that made it possible for us to join the stable realms of academia. We maintain the urgency and acknowledge the pressing nature of our political projects, and refuse to be numbed into complacency.

Menna Agha and Jess Myers

In Favor of the Radical: A Letter to Designers

Everything is terrible and it’s getting worse. Between a swiftly escalating climate catastrophe, political division, skyrocketing inflation, poverty, displacement, despair, disillusionment, and the onset of a pandemic era with no clear end in sight, the world is heavy in a way that, prior to 2020, many of us had never imagined.

Designers are problem solvers. And when confronted with a cacophony of problems, we tend to reach first for the tools we know. In the face of record-breaking temperatures and surging seas, we plant green roofs. We add trees to skyscrapers. We design rain gardens, put electric vehicle charging stations in our parking lots, seawalls around our susceptible shorelines, native plants in our pollinator gardens. We incorporate all manner of green and supposedly green infrastructure into our projects.

Progress has been made. Sometimes big, often small, attitudes and priorities have changed, won by the success of projects that a couple decades ago seemed unrealizable. Projects such as SCAPE Studio’s Living Breakwaters, James Corner Field Operations’ Freshkills Park, and Turenscape’s Sanlihe Corridor each represent turning points in the discipline, expanding the purview of landscape architecture from the scale of the garden, park, and streetscape to the scale of the shoreline, city, and territory. But, in gaining reach, we are at risk of losing our depth. Imprisoned as we all are by the exponential growth of extractive economic systems and the endless scroll of media, designers have an opportunity to grow not out but down, to take care of our roots.

From the top: SCAPE, Living Breakwaters; James Corner Field Operations, Freshkills Park; Turenscape, Qian'an Sanlihe Ecological Corridor.
From the top: SCAPE, Living Breakwaters; James Corner Field Operations, Freshkills Park; Turenscape, Qian’an Sanlihe Ecological Corridor.

Designing radically means considering not just how many trees are planted but also the water, pesticides, and plastic pots used to grow them.

The word “radical” derives from the 14th-century Latin radicalis, from radix, “pertaining or relating to roots.” Today, of course, it connotes the extreme, the totalizing, the polarizing. A return to the root when it comes to design, however, posits that in order to fundamentally transform practice writ large, we must transform at every step along the way. A radical approach to practice means dissecting the typical design-firm business model to find a manner of operating that no longer replicates the low pay and long hours we are used to, but instead operates in an economically sustainable way for design workers at all levels. Thinking radically about process means reshuffling project phasing, moving community involvement from a final checkmark of approval to an integral part of a project from the beginning. Designing radically means considering not just how many trees are planted but also the water, pesticides, and plastic pots that are used to grow them. Every decision in a project is fair game for radical re-thinking.

There is so much that needs to be done. But it doesn’t need to start with taking on the largest and most “impactful” projects. It can start with any project, every project; the smallest scale, the tightest scope. It can start with choosing not just to do different kinds of work, but also choosing to work differently.

Melody R. Stein

What we call landscape comprises a set of inherently relational processes, and as such landscape offers fertile ground for connection-building, both to place and within community. This might entail the rooting of quotidian habits of being and belonging in a space, such as the sense of comfort and social kinship nurtured in a favorite neighborhood park. Or it might engage the sensory experience of a specific ecologically vibrant site, like the ability to know a shoreline and its seasonal rhythms intimately. But while our connections to land are often highly local and immediate, they can also traverse generations. They tap into the narratives we tell ourselves about our own histories, our families, our neighborhoods — the stories about who belongs.

The right to feel at home on the land is tantamount to the right to self-determination. To remove that right is to exert social and political control.

This sense of belonging is political. After all, the right to feel at home on the land is tantamount to the right to self-determination — and the removal of that right is a means for exerting social and political control. In communities across the United States, the legacies of racism and colonization have systematically broken relationships between people, culture, and land. Whether this has taken the form of denied access, the removal of people and destruction of narratives, or erasure of the land itself, the damage is staggering. The social psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove aptly calls the aftereffects of such disruption “root shock.” If we’re lucky, the work we do today as landscape architects attempts to reconnect communities to and through the land, repairing these severed ties. What does it mean for design if we center that as a goal? There is profound urgency to this call, and much work to be done.

Numerous structures in the West Fond du Lac neighborhood of Milwaukee were torn down in the postwar era to make way for Hillside Housing Development.
Numerous structures in the West Fond du Lac neighborhood of Milwaukee were torn down in the postwar era to make way for Hillside Housing Development. [Milwaukee Public Library]

Public event convened at India Basin, San Francisco, as part of the process of designing the park, and connecting with members of the community that had long been disconnected with the site.
Community activation event  on the site of the future India Basin Park, San Francisco, 2019, organized by San Francisco Parks and Recreation, Trust for Public Land, and SF Parks Alliance. [Azzurra Cox]

India Basin aims to model how parks might act as vehicles for advocacy around locally-derived visions of resilient neighborhoods.

But while this repair work is important, grappling with its urgency asks us to recognize — indeed, to foreground — that it is simply not enough. Designers must do more than understand and interpret; we must challenge how systems, power, and people entangle and interact within and beyond a site’s boundaries. We must task ourselves not only with designing spaces where meaningful connections can occur, but with crafting a design process that in itself deepens relationships between communities or individuals and their places — and in so doing amplifies existing power and lifts up grounded activism. In the case of India Basin Park — a ten-acre waterfront park that aims to reconnect San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood to a healthy public space — an ambitious Equitable Development Plan that we co-created in parallel to our design process expanded the definition of both site and outcomes. The resulting project’s success revolves just as much around building a connected constituency and advocating for their needs beyond park property (i.e., pedestrian safety, access to transportation, job creation, etc.) as it does around designing a rooted public space. India Basin Park aims to model how parks might act as vehicles for advocacy around locally-derived visions of resilient neighborhoods.

Designers are often (and rightfully) criticized for arriving late to the table, after the decisions about policy and economics foundational to any project have been made. But what if we built a new table? What if the design process itself became the forum in which issues beyond design, larger than site, are hashed out? How could we center a truly relational practice and concurrently (and humbly) act not only as designers, but as facilitators and collaborators? And how can we both design this process and let the process change us as designers?

In the context of a traditional fee-for-service model, this will require firms to rethink the full spectrum of their work, from structuring contracts so as to ensure the necessary time for relationship-building to reimagining public engagement and guiding clients into unfamiliar terrain. This will also require firms — and the profession at large — to adopt a theory of change that acknowledges and tangles with the political complexities inherent in design decisions. The issues addressed will be formidable, from housing security to restorative justice to the policing of bodies. But such work is fundamental to imagining and building more just futures.

Azzurra Cox

Housing is a human right. This internationally recognized principle is the basis for the Homes Guarantee, a platform developed by a multiracial coalition of more than a million grassroots leaders in the United States, whose central goal is to “build twelve million social housing units and eradicate homelessness.” My recent work is inspired by the Guarantee and related efforts to further housing justice by expanding social housing — which is defined by the Community Service Society as homes promoting “permanent affordability, democratic resident control, and social equality.”

Social housing construction in progress, along with a re-envisioned San Pablo Avenue, in West Oakland, California; created for "Aging Against the Machine," co-designed with Neeraj Bhatia, Ignacio G. Galan, and an interdisciplinary team.
Social housing construction in progress, along with a re-envisioned San Pablo Avenue, in West Oakland, California; created for Aging Against the Machine, co-designed with Neeraj Bhatia, Ignacio G. Galan, and an interdisciplinary team. [Courtesy Karen Kubey]

How can architects, urbanists, and educators contribute to housing justice? I have been trying a few things at once:

Speculative Designs

Policy proposals gain broad public support by presenting pilot projects and speculative visions. I worked with an interdisciplinary team to create design proposals for the recent exhibition Reset: Towards a New Commons at the Center for Architecture in New York. Our contribution, “Aging Against the Machine,” puts forward alternative housing and community development scenarios for aging that enable multiple options for care, improve physical access to the city, enhance resource sharing, and strengthen community ties. As part of our installation, we envisioned the national social housing framework put forth by the Homes Guarantee as it might look if realized in West Oakland, California. Building on local climate-justice efforts, we proposed 1,600 carbon-free homes in new and renovated buildings. In this project, community groups would act as development partners with the state, and resident associations would make decisions about operations for each building.

Right-to-Housing Working Group

For the past year and a half, under the auspices of the American Institute of Architects, I have convened the new volunteer Right-to-Housing Working Group. We are exploring two questions through a free public webinar series: “What does the right to housing mean in practice?” and “How can architects contribute?” The seven aspects of the right to housing, as codified by the United Nations, have implications for architecture. One of our public programs, for instance, brought together Joseph Kunkel of the MASS Design Group Sustainable Native Communities Design Lab with Ray Demers from Enterprise Community Partners to discuss ways to promote “cultural adequacy” — one of the seven qualities — through Indigenous-led, community-engaged design. (The other elements are 1. security of tenure; 2. availability of services; 3. affordability; 4. accessibility; 5. habitability; and 6. location.)

Political Alliances

Just as we implore experts in other disciplines to value high-quality design, architects must support allies working toward housing justice. Through our working group’s advocacy, the AIA recently joined the Opportunity Starts at Home campaign sponsored by the National Low Income Housing Coalition to support “policies that correct long-standing racial inequities and economic injustices by ensuring quality housing for people with low incomes.” And, as an individual, I have become more active locally, including knocking on doors for the pro-social housing candidate in my district’s city-council race.

Architects need to envision more just futures, and there is no more urgent issue than housing justice. We need to work in solidarity with allies, and we need to organize.

Karen Kubey

Design Activism as Continuous Collective Practice

When I was in architecture school, an upper administrator — after a conversation that surely became impassioned — asked me if I wanted to be a designer or “merely” an activist. That moment rings in my head because, until then, I had never thought you had to choose one or another. I simply thought that design that is critical had to be activist in nature, in that it considers the socio-political contexts of any given situation and seeks to deal with them creatively.

Yet I thought hard about the statement and what it could mean as part of my practice. At first, I came up with something I called critical activism — which I never fully defined but which generally sought to expand the roles of design and the designer, in order to more cohesively understand and act on political questions around spatial (co)production. I began by designing housing in Facatativa, Colombia, in projects that sought to foster collective economic empowerment by questioning models for mortgages and other loans and seeking to collectivize the housing debt incurred by an entire community — and its repayment. Soon I shifted to co-create the #whOWNSpace collective in New York City, a platform for examining the administrative policies and financial instruments that are increasingly privatizing public space.

Quilian Riano, diagram created for the group #whOWNSpace.
Quilian Riano, diagram created for the group #whOWNSpace, to underscore the growing prevalence of Privately Owned Public Spaces, or POPS.

Experience tells me that activism is not a personal pursuit of pet causes, but rather a participatory practice that creates solidarities.

These experiences began to teach me that activism is not a personal pursuit of pet causes, but rather a participatory practice that creates solidarities. This is when I started working with Peggy Deamer and others in the recently formed Architecture Lobby, an international organization of architectural workers, planners, and designers advocating for the value of architecture in the public sphere and for architectural labor within the discipline. We began by saying that an “architect” is a worker, and then focused on such workers’ needs at the level of lived experience (e.g. childcare, healthcare, etc.), and how we could advocate for those needs, and how we might support architects as people and as laborers (and as any other subjectivities a given individual may inhabit). To do this, while bringing together as many people as possible who identify as architectural workers, we had to become a radically democratic organization. This level of collectivity is not always easy, and sustaining it is truly a practice — a practice of knowing how to work together by identifying commonalities, learning to negotiate with others, and how to sometimes step back.

These lessons were compounded in 2020 as a group of BIPOC educators, including me, came together to form Dark Matter University, a democratic network of design educators founded to work inside and outside existing educational systems to challenge, inform, and reshape our present toward a better future. Two things that quickly became important were collectivity at all levels (from asking institutions to collaborate on DMU courses, to having co-teachers for each of these courses) and peership (a model by which people with varying levels of teaching experience are partnered.

In being part of these groups — often as one of their initial instigators — I have come to see design activism itself as a radically democratic practice, in which the best efforts begin with questions and pursue problems that are never fully solved, issues that require many people, and generations, to address.

Quilian Riano

Learning How to Act Together

A friend recently remarked on our failure to “act as a species” during the pandemic, with its many instances of poor global planning for vaccination and supply distribution. Indeed, many of today’s wicked problems — for instance, in the interrelated realms of climate change and justice — require engagement with extended if not global territories. Ultimately, collective action alone can carry us towards a better future, and this foregrounds questions about how we work together.

Naturally, working collectively, across boundaries, is not new — although progressive arguments are being made about who should have a seat at the table. Prominent recent competitions like the Hurricane Sandy Design Competition initiated by HUD’s Rebuild by Design, or the Resilient by Design Challenge for the Bay Area that was modeled after it, pivot on a growing recognition that marginalized communities must have a voice in long-term planning, and that such planning must be trans-disciplinary.

"Drawing Table," a tool for community engagement at Hafenplatz, Berlin, Germany; Berlin Multiplicities Travel Studio, California College of the Arts, 2018; instructors: Antje Steinmuller, Christopher Falliers.
“Drawing Table,” a tool for community engagement at Hafenplatz, Berlin, Germany; Berlin Multiplicities Travel Studio, California College of the Arts, 2018; instructors: Antje Steinmuller, Christopher Falliers. The table was set up in a green space in front of a former supermarket. [Antje Steinmuller]

Yet as an educator of future architects and urbanists, I ponder how we can better prepare students for such collective action. The field has always been characterized by collaboration, and when we understand ourselves as agents operating within planetary ecologies, we must further expand the boundaries of what is broadly considered an architect’s skillset. Such collaborative frameworks challenge the image (still often upheld) of the architect as an author of object-buildings. Architecture education today must include not only the design of objects, but the design of processes in time and across distance — processes that integrate many voices and kinds of expertise.

We need to teach students how to shape the orgware that frames collaborations and carries plans into concrete reality.

We need to teach students how to shape the orgware — the “organization-ware” described by Crimson Historians and Urbanists as the “topography of opportunity” enabled by any given administration or policy — that frames collaborations and carries plans into concrete reality. Students need more opportunities to work equitably and empathetically in teams and with community stakeholders; they need to know how to plan inclusive processes in which they themselves are members, but not necessarily leaders; they need exposure to the many forms and processes in which people join forces to get things accomplished on the ground, from entrepreneurial partnerships, to local commoning, to state-sponsored initiatives. Even in more traditional architectural projects, students need to be exposed to critical conversations about how spatial design enables (or not) the assembly of equals, catalyzes or short-circuits negotiations, and makes room(s) for conversation or closes conversation down. Recognition of togetherness in all its variety can empower future architects and urbanists to instigate and to partake in collective action “as a species” — for more just communities and a healthier planet.

Antje Steinmuller

In a memorable clip from 2015, comedian John Oliver plays sound bites of several White men in suits, each talking about the sorry state of American roads and bridges. “Infrastructure,” he quips, “like those men we just heard from, is important but not sexy.” To date, fifteen million people have viewed the 20-minute YouTube video from his show Last Week Tonight — which has likely done more to raise awareness about our obsolescent infrastructure than all the academic articles, white papers, and conference lectures of the preceding decade combined. This year, President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law promised an investment of $1.2 trillion in highways, bridges, dams, water systems, public transportation, airports, and harbors, as well as clean energy, broadband, and other forward-thinking technology.

In 1962, Rachel Carson published her influential polemic Silent Spring, about the effects of pesticides on the environment. Her clear and rigorous exposition of these chemicals’ effects up and down the food chain revealed catastrophic impacts not only on fish, birds, and butterflies, but on humans. Seven years after her book was published, an oil slick on the surface of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire. A year later, the first Earth Day was celebrated by 20 million people across America. Grassroots groups, musicians and other public figures called for action, and in the early 1970s, Richard Nixon — recognizing the power of this message — created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed into law the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

From Last Week with John Oliver, 2015.
From Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law, 2017; Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962.
Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, 2017, and Rachel Carson’s, Silent Spring, 1962, are powerful narratives that inspired political and environmental activism.

In 1968, the Fair Housing Act outlawed redlining and other practices that segregated neighborhoods and cities. But the damage was done: the profound consequences on minority communities, eloquently described in Richard Rothstein’s 2017 book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, include the loss of prosperity across many generations — a history that is now driving new campaigns to make our cities more equitable.

Activism involves telling stories, and these stories can be told in many ways, through diverse media.

These examples demonstrate that communication is critical for catalyzing large-scale political action. Today, groups such as the Center for Urban Pedagogy, the Design Trust for Public Space, Waterfront Alliance, and the Mayors Institute for City Design work with designers to draw public attention to environmental and racial inequities, and to unlock opportunities for improving neighborhoods, cities, and regions. A new narrative emerging from these collaborations represents a future where communities whose parents and grandparents suffered environmental and racial injustices can now lead healthier lives and build equity in their homes and neighborhoods. Activism, in short, involves telling stories, and these stories can be told in many ways, through diverse media. Rothstein and Carson used books; John Oliver uses political comedy and incisive satire. Designers, too, can use media to help their clients and other publics understand the regulatory and economic drivers of landscapes and cities. In partnership with grassroots groups and activist communities, we can use our knowledge and creativity to create compelling communication, and in so doing instigate meaningful change.

Susannah Drake

In 2020, we questioned everything. In the face of Covid-19 and a series of particularly blatant racial injustices, cracks deepened in the status quo and we caught peripheral glimpses of alternative futures. Confronted with widespread unemployment, we experimented with universal basic income through expanded unemployment benefits and stimulus checks. Mutual aid networks proliferated. We briefly froze evictions and called for the cancellation of rent. Mass demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism spurred many to critically reflect on their own complicity in reproducing White supremacy. We even considered the prospect of abolishing (or at least defunding) the police.

Witnessing a challenge to their hold on power, the ruling classes speedily reframed these projects as unaffordable, quixotic, dangerous. It may seem that we not only failed to learn from the pandemic; we have relapsed into the stranglehold of what bell hooks called the White supremacist capitalist patriarchy. It’s easy to succumb to despair, cynicism, a sinking sense of futility. But to tackle our intersecting wicked problems, it is this inertia that we must first overcome.

Yes Loitering is a research project led by Chat Travieso in collaboration with a group of teenagers from the Bronx that imagines ways to create youth-affirming spaces in a city where young people are too often made to feel unwelcome and sometimes actively criminalized.
Yes Loitering is a research project led by Chat Travieso in collaboration with a group of teenagers from the Bronx that imagines ways to create youth-affirming spaces in a city where young people are too often made to feel unwelcome and sometimes actively criminalized. [Chat Travieso]

We must integrate public policy and community organizing into design education.

As 2020 illustrated, it’s possible to expand our collective imaginary and think outside the bounds of constructed systems, even if momentarily. Less likely to buy into our social, political, and economic logics, young people can invent liberatory futures. Critical design pedagogy should cultivate students’ ability to analyze their surroundings politically — confronting questions of space, race, class, gender, property, and power — while encouraging them to envision radical concepts of what could be — not as playful thought experiments, but as revolutionary acts of capacity-building and prefiguration.

We must also integrate public policy and community organizing into design education. Rather than seeing policymaking as dry, technical, and bureaucratic, we must teach it as a powerful creative tool that shapes material geographies. If more young people understand that things don’t have to be this way, and more young people become civically engaged, then more emerging leaders will know that to craft policy is to design new possibilities.

Chat Travieso

The wheels of retrenchment are turning. What remains from the turbulent period of pandemic lockdowns, BLM-led protests in response to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the possibility of passage for Bernie Sanders’s $16-trillion Green New Deal is little more than digital residue: strategic plans, statements of outrage, and promises to do better. A familiar refrain is growing louder: “change takes time; we must be patient.”

A highlight of my professional life during this time has been involvement in the Green New Deal Superstudio. Over the last eighteen months, the project has brought me to more than 50 schools of design, reminding me that students and faculty yearn for transformation — institutional and industrial renewals that might align architecture, landscape architecture, and urbanism with movements for climate, racial, housing, and economic justice. The visits also reminded me, however, that such efforts rarely succeed. Institutions tend to reproduce, not restructure themselves. They are more likely to transform their members than the other way around. Indeed, it’s hard to say at this juncture how many — if any — schools of design will be meaningfully changed in the long run by the Superstudio initiative. This isn’t to say that all progress has been squandered; there are always exceptions. But institutional change — a product of administrative leadership — is slow.

Black Lives Matter Plaza, Washington, D.C. 2020.
Black Lives Matter Plaza, Washington, D.C. 2020. [Tey Eytan via Flickr under License CC 2.0]

Institutions tend to reproduce, not restructure themselves. They are more likely to transform their members than the other way around.

What, then, might be done with our field’s uneven commitments to social and spatial justice? One possibility is to look to a discipline that has wrestled with such questions far longer: geography, or more precisely, carceral geography. Ruth Wilson Gilmore is best known for books like Abolition Geography, published this year, and Golden Gulag, from 2007, but her essay “Forgotten Places and the Seeds of Grassroots Planning” has been a beacon for radical scholars. (The essay appears in the 2008 anthology, Engaging Contractions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship, edited by Charles R. Hale and Craig Calhoun.) In it, Gilmore discusses three core concepts: “organized abandonment,” desakota, and “the material-discursive gap.” All have profoundly shaped geography’s struggle to amplify calls for liberation. They can do the same for designers.

Organized abandonment, in Gilmore’s analysis, names the overt policy of designating places and peoples for mass disinvestment — either because they are considered unworthy of support; because they control resources like oil or lithium that would be easier to extract from a precarious community; or both. Gilmore focuses on rural California and the gun belt (in the American Southwest, where defense contractors dominate local economies). But the concept travels well, with applications to the converted-coalfield prisons of Appalachia, the erstwhile plantations of the Mississippi Delta, the cobalt mines of Congo, and other regions treated as sacrifice zones.

Desakota, a Malay word meaning “town-country,” was adapted to economic geography some 20 years ago by Terry McGee. Gilmore, in considering such places that are neither urban nor rural, shows that material deprivation often coincides with immense organizing energy and creativity; the idea of desakota recognizes that many populations subjected to organized abandonment are already enacting radical futures. Gilmore thus invites us to abandon the mythos of the designer as a genius parachuting in to invent or divine solutions to problems so wicked that no one else could solve them. Instead, she asks us to acknowledge our modest roles in the broader ecosystem of built-environment production.

Finally, for Gilmore, the “material-discursive gap” identifies the process through which elite actors and institutions lend attention to a militant discourse — around, say, climate or racial justice in design — but fail to deliver the material investments necessary to advance key goals. Few concepts better describe the last few years in design pedagogy and practice.

This conceptual triptych lays groundwork for a critical reconsideration of the studio — long the centerpiece, for better and for worse, in design education. What if deans and chairs viewed their curricula as instruments for building trust and redistributing resources? How might this alter where studios focus and what they produce, with and for whom?

For starters, it might direct schools of design toward less familiar places and more progressive ways of working, closing the material-discursive gap by centering desakota communities living through organized abandonment — and to do so over the course of years, not in one-off studio projects that often over-promise and under-deliver. Compelling experiments are underway through the Buell Center at Columbia University, the new architecture program at Bard College, and the groundbreaking work of Forensic Architecture. But, elsewhere, few institutions have been willing to realign their resources. Until that changes, the chasm between our stated goals and lived realities will deepen.

Billy Fleming

Landscape Architecture for the Americas: A Brief Prospectus for Academics

Over the last two decades, as a researcher specializing in Latin American landscapes and their architecture, I have organized more than a few studios, officially sponsored and not, collaborating with public entities in Mexico. My objective, within the ongoing socio-environmental crises that we all face, is to help develop landscape architectural solutions to the urban challenges of rapidly and unequally sprawling Mexican cities and towns. It is with these experiences and this reality in mind that I say: please continue to disseminate, disperse, propagate, and adapt landscape architecture in places where there is little knowledge or technical capacity for implementation of the discipline’s multi-scalar project(s).

Granted, there is a risk of that which is often rightfully perceived, locally, as an imposition or a continuation of colonial practices coming from the empire. There may also be insecurities on the part of Latin American architects (I too have the degree) who dominate the field, and claim they practice landscape architecture well enough. In some countries, like Mexico, landscape is not even a profession, as there is no regulatory framework for it. As Jimena Martignoni writes in his 2008  Latinscapes: Landscape as Raw Material, “landscape architecture is, in Latin America, an attitude.”

Still from the film Green Infrastructure for Ambos Nogales.

Stills from the film Green Infrastructure for Ambos Nogales.
Stills from the film Green Infrastructure for Ambos Nogales, a binational collaboration among educational, governmenta, and environmental organizations.

But the fact is that many places in the Americas are in critical need of landscape architecture and its students, professionals, scholars, and/or advocates and activists. Programs, scholars, and practitioners are concentrated in the U.S., with few educational opportunities in Latin America. It is thus U.S.-based designers who can and should work to strengthen the planning, design, and implementation of landscape architecture in other parts of the continent, to enhance local technical capacities as knowledge is transferred and adapted where it is most needed.

Many places in the Americas are in critical need of the discipline and its students, scholars, professionals, advocates, and activists.

Collaborating with local institutions, public agencies, and practitioners involved in urban or environmental planning and infrastructure is important here. This engagement includes taking American students to Latin America, leveraging the fact that these field trips are more affordable than travel to western Europe. Grants to help defray these study costs, if any, are likely to be small, so we must be prepared for this. Such exchanges offer the stimulus of working with Latin American universities and scholars in the development of landscape architectural curricula that are responsive to professional, cultural, economic, ecological, and regulatory contexts in the region. We can produce local capacities and networks for the future through our programs in the U.S. by actively recruiting — and offering scholarships to — students coming from, or descending from, these latitudes and cultures.

If you — if we — are going to do this, we should do it right. So, be compassionate and empathetic. Engage with a will to learn, so you can contribute and not impose. We can all support an international landscape architecture project that is also specific to the diversity of the landscapes and peoples found in our shared landmass. Along the way, by learning from and about others, we can learn more about ourselves.

Gabriel Díaz Montemayor

Abstraction has its place, but we have far too much of it. It’s everywhere. Rule sets. Generalizations. Concepts. Algorithms ad nauseam.

Abstraction appropriates, distances, objectifies. It works through acts of separating or withdrawing. To generalize from particulars is inherently reductive. It strips away reality in the service of instrumentality. (Stereotypes are an example of this.) Many lifestyle choices are based on abstractions, including some forms of activism. Abstraction has become more real than reality, and we see this in design, wherein our sensual bodies are made to function as subdued infrastructure supporting intellect and conceptualization. We dwell in ideas and simulations more than we do actual landscapes.

We dwell in ideas and simulations more than we do actual landscapes.

But ideas come from what we feel and experience. It seems we ought to remember that (pure) rationality (and thus pure abstraction) is a myth. Every thought or idea is premised on a radically situated experience of the world, along with the resulting coded interpretations of our emotive and sensory input. Perhaps we should bear in mind that people and landscapes don’t abide by generalizations. How we collectively experience the warming and destabilizing climate certainly won’t.

Over and over, the world has shown us that it’s too unruly, too real, too politicized, too site-specific to conform to design’s tendencies to abstract it. Abstraction gave us influential design concepts like flood “control.” It gave us the colonial strategy of fire suppression — the idea that if one extinguishes individual wildfires (as part of subjugating Indigenous peoples), one can tame wildfires and landscapes more generally. Both these strategies have failed, in the process promoting increased flood risks and feral mega-fires. Why? The abstractions lacked grounded experience of the unruly landscapes they sought to subjugate.

The Public Sediment team performing a vegetation survey and workshop along the Alameda Creek Flood Channel as part of the Bay Area Resilient By Design Competition, 2018.
The Public Sediment team performing a vegetation survey and workshop along the Alameda Creek Flood Channel as part of the Bay Area Resilient By Design Competition, 2018. [Brett Milligan]

UC Davis undergraduate landscape architecture students working on burn intensity experiments at the UC Mclaughlin Natural Reserve, as part of the Field Guide to Transformation design studio, 2022.
UC Davis undergraduate landscape architecture students working on burn intensity experiments at the UC Mclaughlin Natural Reserve, as part of the Field Guide to Transformation design studio, 2022. [Brett Milligan]

Spelunking the culverts, tunnels, and water structures along the lower extents of Pinole Creek, 2020.
Spelunking the culverts, tunnels, and water structures along the lower extents of Pinole Creek, 2020. [Brett Milligan]

I’d like to suggest that design should draw more from experience — or at minimum, seek a better balance between the two. If we put more stock in what we do, sense, and feel, life becomes messier, less predictable. Can we try harder to foster intimacy with and attunement to specific places and their forms, habits, styles, smells, looks, relations, and politics? If we give experience its primacy, then how and what we choose to experience becomes a more critical and evaluative basis for design action. Different experiences (and what we do with them) give rise to different designs, and in turn, different worlds.

Can we try harder to foster intimacy with specific places and their forms, habits, styles, smells, looks, relations, and politics?

Tactics for curbing abstraction and re-embodying landscapes are practical, immersive. They require intensive and creative fieldwork, like walking the length of a flood control channel along its center line, and coming back again and again during floods and droughts to feel the waterway’s chaordic rhythms. Or spelunking muddy underground creek culverts. Digging with one’s hands. Staying onsite far beyond the time of feeling tired, bored, or cranky, to see what happens. Talking to strangers, even if, at first, they are not inclined to talk to you. Being with plants and trying to learn their names, where and with whom they like to hang out, what they like to do. Carefully and intentionally cleaning the land with fire. Being with what is there, rather than lingering in a conceptual elsewhere.

Rather than rule sets, maybe we should seek presences, contradictions, serendipity, and weirdness. We should be cautious of anything described as “scalable” or transferable. Just trying to be fully present with a single place or situation in all its multiplicity is incredibly challenging. It’s humbling and we need that.

Brett Milligan

Marc Miller, Pierre Bélanger, Menna Agha and Jess Myers, Melody R. Stein, Azzurra Cox, Karen Kubey, Quilian Riano, Antje Steinmuller, Susannah Drake, Chat Travieso, Billy Fleming, Gabriel Díaz Montemayor, Brett Milligan, “Field Notes on Design Activism: 7,” Places Journal, November 2022. Accessed 28 Sep 2023.

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