stories give places meaning

Social equity, environmental justice, neighborhood gentrification are not topics, I associate with landscape design conferences. As someone famous once said, the times they are changin’. The “hashtag” world of social media abounds with comments about community engagement, winners and losers and who has a seat at the table. The rarefied white world of landscape/ecological design doesn’t usually venture into a deep discussion of these sensitive and contested issues.

Larry Weaner, founder of New Directions in American Landscape, put together a program for the 30th anniversary conference that tackled some of these points of contention.  In his introductory remarks, Weaner spoke about his involvement in Detroit’s Fitzgerald neighborhood; a community trying to revitalize itself without driving out its low-income residents.

Weaner walked the streets trying to get a feel for the residents. He saw a small plot of land on the side of a house, being tended by a young man. He started talking to the man, who told him he was going to make a garden. Several months later, Weaner returned to Detroit. He knocked on the door of the house with the would be garden. A woman came to the door, asked him what he wanted, he responded with the story of his previous visit. The woman dismissed him and slammed the door in his face. Weaner reflected on the incident in this way…“I had to understand my cultural bias”

The title of the conference was, Ecology-based Landscape Design: What Comes Next?
We (the audience) were not prepared for what did come next.

Charles Birnbaum, founder of the Cultural Landscape Foundation spoke about the lawsuit currently being pursued by his organization and other grass root organizations opposed to the Obama Library site in Chicago. The current design by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects, and public plaza/landscape design by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates is extremely beautiful.  So what possible objections can there be?

The site sits on 20 acres of Jackson Park on the South Side of Chicago designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.  Birnbaum and others object to taking park land from this predominately African-American community.  I think its fair to say that most people in the audience could not understand how a President who began his career as a community organizer and spent years in Chicago would site his museum and library on a site that would be inconsistent with the aspirations of the community and its future.

“Representation without REPRESENTATION”  Kofi Boone

This short phrase summed up Kofi Boone’s presentation, Making Landscape Design Accessible and Just Past, Present and Future. 

Fragments of crockery found at the site of the former Seneca Village.

As part of his talk about Environmental Justice and Social Equity, Boone gave a brief history of Seneca Village (now part of Central Park) which was a settlement of mostly African American landowners in Manhattan in 1825. It was founded by free black people.  As the creation of Central Park moved forward, Seneca Village residents were evicted and the village was razed.  In passing, Boone mentioned that no black workers were employed in the building of the park.  Women were excluded from the park workforce, except for cleaning offices or as washroom attendants.  As Boone said  “stories give places meaning.”

Frankford Ford Pause Park

“Grass is an important symbol.  It indicates care and maintenance.  It has power.” Alexa Bosse.  For those of us who work in public parks, we dislike grass.  It means high maintenance, continual monitoring and a disregard for sustainable practices.  Alexa Bosse had a very different idea.  Frankford Pause Park  was a vacant lot next to what the New York Times called The Walmart of Heroin

What made this project work?  Gathering of data and doing many surveys was the first step in answering the question  What do people want?  How do they want to use this space?  What would make them feel safe inside this space? The answer: co-creation.  Community engagement, community buy-in, programming, ownership… these were the components of making this park a success.  It was built by the community.  Hinge Collective, is a public interest design firm, founded by Alexa Bosse “which support communities  in realizing public places, that reinforce what make those communities unique and powerful.” 

Just when I started to get comfortable with the turn the conference had taken, Teri Rueb, sound artist spoke about a completely different way to engage people with the landscape.  Teri Rueb describes herself as an artist who uses sound through GPS-based mobile media.  Participants are given headsets; upload a mobile app to their phones; after that you can walk anywhere in the park, woodland, meadow, etc. There is no set route.  You determine your own route.  Through GPS wherever you walk you hear the sounds Rueb has recorded.

I immediately wanted to go on one of these walks to experience a landscape in a new way.





Other echoes inhabit the garden, shall we follow? – T.S.Eliot


Books and Authors mentioned by speakers at the conference:

A People’s History of the United States – Howard Zinn
Environment and Social Justice: An International Perspective – Dorceta Taylor
Power privilege and Environmental Protection: Social Inequality and the Rise of the American Conservation Movement – Dorceta Taylor
The Nature of Cities, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It – Mindy Thompson
Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness – M.Kat Anderson
The Good Gardener: Nature Humanity and the Garden – Annette Giesecke
The Thunder Tree:  Lessons from an Urban Wildland – Robert Michael Pyle
Design for Ecological Democracy – Randy Hester
The Spell of the Sensuous:  Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World – David Abram
Rick Darke insisted that everyone listen to Paula Scher’s
ted talk

















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