Architecture, Design, Action: Chris Reed on Dismantling Systemic Racism in Pedagogy and Practice

Illustration of Chris Reed, Co-Director of the Master of Landscape Architecture in Urban Design Degree Program & Professor in Practice of Landscape Architecture, with text

Chris Reed, Co-Director of the Master of Landscape Architecture in Urban Design Degree Program & Professor in Practice of Landscape Architecture

How has the discipline of landscape architecture enabled a history of spatial injustice and violence against Black Americans? 

Open space and landscape/planning practices have been used to segregate and oppress Black populations in cities across America for decades. Urban renewal and public realm projects and new open space projects intentionally removed thriving Black communities in order to separate them from one another and to disempower them, and subsequently, to disinvest purposefully in those communities. We can also see, in the last couple of decades, the imbalance of investment in open spaces in white communities and Black communities—and the ways Black and minority communities near signature projects have not been included in their design and planning nor in reaping their benefits. We must acknowledge this disciplinary history as a start, and we can then begin to have an open and more honest conversation pedagogically and professionally. 

How can landscape architects be better allies to, and advocates for, communities of color, particularly Black communities?

This is a very important question. I can really only speak from my own experience as a practitioner. My firm, Stoss, works typically in the public realm, and we confront these issues of race and social equity on a daily basis. When you’re working on public projects you engage many communities of color, and you can and should give those communities a real voice and influence in the work. Our practice has been involved in many projects that put issues of equity, race, and social justice at the center of their agendas, and make racial and social equity an essential outcome of that work. 

In our recent work in St. Louis on the Chouteau Greenway, for instance, we put together an incredibly diverse team of nationally recognized and local consultants, including Toni Griffin and recent Loeb Fellow De Nichols. The Greenway project was intended to address St. Louis’s racial issues square on and to find ways forward that would change the way the city works, change the way design projects and practices are developed, and change the nature of civic conversation in the city. That’s a big challenge for any design discipline—but it’s one that landscape architecture is well suited to, given the impact that landscape projects have physically, geographically, socially, and economically across many different neighborhoods and cultures. In such instances, we work deeply with African American communities and many other communities of color to draw on their experiences and their own social and cultural histories and traditions as ways to begin to inform the work that we do—and that then are manifest in the programming and design.

When we do this, the projects become richer. They have broader appeal when people can begin to see in the work their own cultural histories and references. It takes a certain humbleness on our part, knowing that we don’t have all the answers. If we do it right, this kind of open process results in a set of designs that are powerful and empowering, and advance design ambitions and agendas as much as they advance social-cultural agendas. But it’s important to listen in the right ways, to assemble the right teams, to build trust in those communities, and to start with questions, not answers. Even in projects where we’re not being asked to take on these issues directly, it’s up to us as designers to advocate for the voices who aren’t in the room and who don’t yet have a seat at the table. We can expand the possibilities and the audiences for a project and counter built-in, structural, anti-Black racism that continues to pervade many forms of city-making and design.

Practitioners can model practices that help to address racial issues, even when our projects do not. We can develop partnerships with local organizations that deal with issues of race, equity, social and environmental justice, youth, art, etc., and provide pro bono design and planning services to them and the communities they serve. We can donate to the organizations we work with in our own communities, and in the communities we work in across the US, as we are doing at Stoss. We can host Black thinkers and designers for forums and discussions with our staff. We can advocate for many causes, including making Juneteenth a state and national holiday, and for Black rights in general. We can showcase the work of Black creatives, as Sean Canty has done so powerfully. And we can implement new opportunities for firm-supported community service; at Stoss, Juneteenth will be a paid day off for staff who want to take on a community service initiative that day. 

How else can landscape architecture education help dismantle white supremacist narratives? 

It’s important that we first acknowledge that the experience of Black Americans is singular—beginning with slavery, and then with the lingering effects of slavery, racism, and racial violence that persist today. No other people have endured a history of violence as Black people in the US have. Our work—and diversity initiatives generally—need to be broad, but they need to acknowledge that African Americans have a singular experience in the US that no other race has shared; we need to respond to this clearly and directly.

In the department, we’re looking at a number of initiatives, including revising the curriculum; recruiting more Black faculty, students, and administrative staff; and continuing to build upon our recent efforts in the history and theory courses to include topics and resources beyond white, Eurocentric sources. We will see clear results starting in the fall, especially if we expand this work to studios and seminars. 

For a number of years, in my courses, I’ve been trying to include project references from many different cultures around the world, to ask “who are we (or should we be) designing for,” and to very directly take on hard questions of race in the city. Recently, for instance, Sean Canty, Lily Song, and I taught “Multiple Miamis,” an option studio in the Overtown neighborhood of Miami, an African American community. We began with questions of how design could best serve the community members that are already there, before it begins to imagine amenities that could attract new populations. 

Much of the departmental conversation focuses on how we can expand these practices and efforts and initiatives in both the short and long term. How do we expand resources that help support this work? And how do we create a culture that brings more Black and brown people into the school in meaningful ways—in positions of authority, on the faculty—who can contribute their intellects, their cultural and social traditions, and their own life experiences in order to have more open and more diverse conversations about the agency of design. 

Creating a community of people who look like each other and who can share life experiences will also help with student recruitment. The more that we can have diverse Black faculty, the more we can begin to develop a culture that’s going to naturally attract more Black students and provide a community that they can respond to. 

What kind of conversations have the Notes on Credibility and subsequent responses from the dean and faculty generated in your department? 

The Notes caused a lot of people to reflect deeply on the broader cultural moment we are in and the issues specific to the GSD—it’s a very helpful and necessary critique of our institution. The students behind the Notes were able to articulate something very clear—it was a tough message for many people, but one that rang true—and you could sense the students’ passion and frustration. They weren’t just raising issues, they also outlined very tangible actions for moving ahead, which is incredible. 

The responses we’ve seen so far from the dean and different departments are a good first step. The dean’s response, in particular, was heartfelt. You could read the humanity behind it, but also the intellectual project at hand. Across the faculty, it’s been a deeply reflective conversation, and what we’ve uncovered through it is the need to take quick steps forward, in a thoughtful way, in combination with more long-term actions. We all feel the urgency and opportunity of the moment to rethink how we teach, and how our academic lives are structured, how we recruit, all of that. I think the Notes have generated more focused conversation on a single topic or set of topics than anything else in the recent past at the GSD—and the students are to be lauded for this. 

How can the GSD begin to diversify its faculty, particularly in terms of younger Black architects and designers showing excellence in their profession but without a pre-existing teaching record? 

We need to do multiple things simultaneously. We need to recognize the world-class Black researchers and designers who are already out there—and not just because they focus on Black issues, but because they are outstanding academics and designers who just happen to be Black. We also need to find ways to cultivate more relationships with these scholars and practitioners and double down on our efforts to bring them into the GSD. 

In Landscape Architecture, we were fortunate this year to bring in a new faculty member, Sara Zwede, who’s African American. She is well recognized already as a young designer, urbanist, and artist and has an excellent body of emerging research about the South called Cotton Kingdom (also the name of the seminar she’ll be teaching in the fall). Finding folks like Sara at all levels of our faculty is important. It will take a commitment of energy and resources to develop such recruitment initiatives and teaching programs, but it will be time well spent.  

How can the GSD reshape its pedagogical approach? 

Again, to go back to the “Multiple Miamis” studio, the school raised money through the Knight Foundation to do a series of studios in Miami that dealt with issues of race, social equity, and climate displacement. Those sorts of GSD-sponsored initiatives are absolutely critical. It’s all too easy to say that we’ll take on a problem in Cambridge, St. Louis, Miami, or Los Angeles: We’ll do an event in an impoverished area, meet the folks struggling with these issues, and then we go away and develop our own academic projects. We must also find a way to give something back to these communities so we’re not just drawing on their experience and knowledge to develop our own work. It could be using the GSD’s convening power to put community advocates and power brokers into the same room, so we can contribute to and advance the issues on the ground, or it could be offering scholarships to programs like Design Discovery for kids in these communities. The goal is to find or make opportunities for reciprocal learning and benefit so that we are good stewards as well as good students.

Chris Reed is founding director of Stoss Landscape Urbanism, and Professor in Practice of Landscape Architecture and co-director of the Master of Landscape Architecture in Urban Design Program at the GSD. He is interested in the relationships between landscape and ecology, infrastructure, social spaces, and cities—and in foregrounding issues of race and equity in the firm’s projects.