By Melanie Klein

I want all architects and landscape architects to know the importance of their role and responsibility to bring about Design Justice. Design Justice, as defined by architect Bryan C. Lee, is “Design as a pursuit for racial, social, and cultural justice through the process and outcomes of design. It’s not just about the visual, the end result of the design; it’s about the process of how we get to the design. That’s the generative component of it. The secondary component is that we’re challenging the privilege and power structures that use architecture, planning, site design, interiors, as a means to perpetuate injustice, perpetuate oppression, in the built environment. So Design Justice frames around those two concepts of challenging systems and visioning spaces, with communities, that provide positive outcomes for them.”

It is impossible for me to not be outraged by disregard for human life and civil rights. The recent murder of George Floyd, and the long history of similar events in our nation stem from systemic oppression and dehumanization of people targeted, stereotyped, and disenfranchised because of their skin color. We need to know, acknowledge, and articulate this history of systemic racism have an obligation to design and act in meaningful, inclusive ways that have the potential to combat racism and other forms of injustice. I recently got a letter from one of my alma maters, the University of Colorado Department of Landscape Architecture. The department head, Joern Langhorst, reminded his students and alumni that “landscape architecture and landscape architects have a long history of hiding behind the veil of neutrality and expertism.” Yet we must remember the public realm is never neutral – it is the most poignant and potent expression of power.

Lanhorst also reminded us “throughout its history, landscape architecture has been complicit in or an outright tool of oppression, serving unjust systems of power…New York City’s Central Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted – an abolitionist and the grandfather of the profession of landscape architecture in the United States – displaced Seneca Village, a predominantly Black neighborhood. Landscape architects have participated in redlining, in countless urban renewal projects that displaced people and communities of color, in the design of defensible spaces, gated communities or in the securitization of public space.” If you are unfamiliar with the term “redlining”, please learn about it and how it still affects every major metropolitan area of the US, including Kansas City.

We landscape architects, and other members of the design disciplines, need to face the history of our fields and the injustices and discrimination it committed or participated in. As my friend Lanhorst noted, “we need to design to actively combat such injustices and to use our expertise to address and undo spatial and spatialized forms of oppression and discrimination. The opposite of racist is not being not racist, but being anti-racist…we must refuse to hide behind apolitical expertism and perceived neutrality – everything is political, and spatial design has always been political. We need to take a stand beyond declarations of concern or lofty vision and mission statements. Landscape architecture needs to serve human rights. The spaces we need to design are the spaces in which human life happens. They are the spaces of debate, discovery and encounter – and of democracy. We need to design spaces that enact the right to place, to space, to the city for everybody – not just for people with a certain color of skin.”

We need to listen with empathy and activism. We need to make sure we are not replacing the experiences and opinions of disenfranchised community members with our (well-meaning but often misguided) professional opinions. After all, our service is to them, the members of the community in which we design. How can we serve them well if we do not know what their lives and experiences are?

I want to close with one more thought from Lanhorst: “There are concrete actions we – as individuals and members of landscape architecture community can take. There are things we can do inside of our profession and discipline, and there is the advocacy for change outside of it – to be effective we need to engage in both…We are living in a time of momentous change. Let us make sure it is for the better.” Some resources to start with:

Design As Activism

Black Landscape Architects Network Statement

ASA President’s Statement on Black Lives Matter and the Rebellion of 2020

America’s Cities Were Designed to Oppress

The (Un)Surprising Link Between Redlining and Shade Trees

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