Fair Landscapes for All Americans

Lafayette Square Park, Oakland, CA image: Hood Design
Lafayette Square Park, Oakland, CA
image: Hood Design

Environmental justice requires that landscapes be designed through processes that are fair, and in forms that are fair. Without fairness there can be no peace, because we have the responsibility both to obey just laws and to disobey unjust ones. Civil disobedience and destructive revolt follow injustice. Without fairness we can never achieve lasting beauty, except in isolated pockets of exclusive affluence. For these reasons and more, our profession must courageously champion fair landscapes for all, not just a few, Americans.

The form of the landscape contributes to racial, economic, gender, and age segregation and discrimination. Half a century ago, freeway construction and urban renewal, nicknamed “Negro Removal,” destroyed neighborhoods and uprooted primarily African American and poor people. This land was then used to serve wealthier citizens. This exploitation met violent resistance, and over time the injustices became less blatant, but justice and formal ordering of the landscape remain at odds. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. concluded that the problem that persists is that many Americans are more devoted to order than to justice. Today, three formal considerations are directly related to fairness: inaccessibility, exclusion, and unequal distribution of resources and amenities.


To enable more citizens to enjoy life, liberty, and sustainable happiness, the landscape must be designed to provide access to basic necessities for everyday life, for gaining needed information and places for public decision-making. Frequently in American cities, land use segregation, urban flight, and the remote location of many important facilities, coupled with the high cost of transportation, make accessibility a debilitating daily problem for the poor. Home and work are increasingly separated by zoning, creating commuting annoyances for millions of Americans. For the poorest citizens, this combination of land use and transportation design prevents them from competing for jobs. Generally, inaccessibility most affects the poor, minorities, new immigrants, women, the very young, and the elderly.

Similarly, cost of transportation and remote locations make many facilities, like national parks and forests, inaccessible to large parts of the public (in many of these occurrences, the nearby urban poor are the consistent users). Landscape architects can address these problems through integrated land use plans including the design of public transportation, transit, and safe pedestrian routes that serve the neediest.


Segregation by race, social class, and life cycle stage continues to deepen. Sometimes the exclusion results from overt, racist policy, like in Dearborn, Michigan. Here, Detroit African Americans were forbidden from using Dearborn parks with fines up to $500, the discrimination thinly veiled by “resident only” laws. Such outrageously uncivil and illegal exclusion is common. Exclusion may result from policies like limited growth, zoning restrictions, large lot subdivision, resort development, and environmental protection. These policies especially bedevil landscape architects, because they are often considered best practices to which the profession subscribes.

Lafayette Square Park is inclusive by design - accommodating users as diverse as wealthy Asian parents with small children, old African American men, multi-ethnic teens and the informal economy of hair cutting. image: Hood Design
Lafayette Square Park is inclusive by design – accommodating users as diverse as wealthy Asian parents with small children, old African American men, multi-ethnic teens and the informal economy of hair cutting.
image: Hood Design

Landscape architectural detail makes manifest the power of property. Parks with uniformed guards or the omission of a bench may give the unspoken, but clear message, “Do Not Enter.” Physical and psychological unwelcome may be equally intimidating forces. Exclusion in design is typically directed at the poor, disenfranchised, and marginal. By thoughtful design, many problems can be mitigated.

Lafayette Square Park in Oakland was long known as “Old Men’s Park.” Over time, the homeless and drug dependent changed the park of friendly old men to a fearful place. An effort to revitalize the park was viewed by some as a thinly disguised effort to rid the park of undesirables, but landscape architect Walter Hood was determined not to exclude anyone. Hood was able to create settings that accommodated all the existing users and a wide array of new users by carefully forging a series of spaces serving different users around the edges of the park, and along a major walkway through the park. He also successfully created a hillock to allow modest separation between users who might not want to interact. Young children, old men, concert-goers and marginal characters, the haircut man engaged in an informal economy, all report that they feel that the park is theirs. An unusual complexity of users from middle class Koreans to lower class African Americans shows us how design can overcome exclusivity.

Lafayette Square Park - visual separation allows many different users to enjoy the park in separate spaces and to avoid others with whom they might conflict image: Hood Design
Lafayette Square Park – section sketches of visual separation
image: Hood Design
Lafayette Square Park - visual separation allows many different users to enjoy the park in separate spaces and to avoid others with whom they might conflict. image: Hood Design
Lafayette Square Park – visual separation allows many different users to enjoy the park in separate spaces and to avoid others with whom they might conflict
image: Hood Design

Unequal Distribution of Resources and Amenities

Uneven distribution of resources prevents the healthy development and precludes the active public participation of millions of citizens. It may be understandable that the wealthiest Americans disproportionately control private resources, but there is a parallel inequity in public resources from clean air and water, recreation, open space, education, and other public facilities, to pollution, flooding, and toxic wastes. Generally, public resources are distributed inversely proportionate to need; the wealthy get most of the public goods and few of the public liabilities, and the poor get fewer of the public goods and most of the public liabilities.

Consider the disposal of toxic wastes. Dr. Robert Bullard found a consistent pattern of waste disposal clusters in the poorest neighborhoods. In one area, deadly PCB-laced oils were consciously disposed of by spreading them in poor communities. You may think that this is only true elsewhere, but consider your own community. Where are the undesired land uses like polluting industry, incinerators, sewage plants, and landfills located?

The intention of design is to provide ordering that almost always conflicts with the disorder associated with justice seeking action. The Environmental Justice PPN provides a path for integrating design order and justice. image: Randy Hester, Community Development by Design
The intention of design is to provide ordering that almost always conflicts with the disorder associated with justice seeking action. The Environmental Justice PPN provides a path for integrating design order and justice.
image: Randy Hester, Community Development by Design

Now consider, on the other hand, a desired public amenity or public open space; where are majority of these amenities located? Your community may have a pattern similar to Los Angeles, where the majority of the city’s parks are in wealthy neighborhoods. The city’s west side, which includes Beverly Hills, has 13,310 acres of public open space, compared to the 75 acres allotted for the entire southeastern section of the city where majority of the poor people of color live.

From time to time these environmental inequities lead to urban rebellions. More often, they cause sickness and arrested development, and prevent the full contributions of less powerful citizens. Each injustice has long-lasting side effects. Without access to the natural landscape, youth grow up without the healthful benefits nature provides, and the chance to learn the connectedness necessary for an effective ecological democracy. Unequal distribution of nature seems to have particularly harmful and widespread consequences, from causing ecological illiteracy to contributing to domestic violence. These are problems our profession can and must address.

By Randolph T. Hester, FASLA, Professor Emeritus of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at the University of California, Berkeley, and a partner in the firm Community Development by Design. Randy now heads the Center for Ecological Democracy in Durham, North Carolina. Hester’s practice and research focuses on the role of citizens in community design and ecological planning. He is one of the founders of the research movement to apply sociology to the design of neighborhoods, cities, and landscapes. His current work is a search for a design process to support ecological democracy. This article is based on a draft for Design for Ecological Democracy (MIT Press 2006).

9 thoughts on “Fair Landscapes for All Americans

  1. Kassandra July 23, 2015 / 3:02 pm

    This article reminds me of one of the major reasons I decided to study landscape architecture. I hope that one day the designs I contribute to will have a positive social impact in the way the article so clearly highlights a need for.

  2. Stan Clauson July 27, 2015 / 1:19 pm

    Wow. This is more an angry diatribe than an informative piece. While we can welcome a PPN devoted to Social Justice, its posts will need to be more even-handed in analysis to be effective. The comment from Kassandra (above) with her desire to contribute a positive social impact was undoubtedly shared by all of us that worked in the fields of planning and landscape architecture. Our efforts may have been misguided or in error at times, but never so intentionally wrong-headed as the author suggests.

  3. carrlaasla July 29, 2015 / 3:58 pm


    If you think that the desire to provide positive social impact exist in all LAs and planners, you’ve been lucky enough to work in the right offices. Too many times I’ve seen LAs without a clue, designing public spaces for people without any interest in understanding their needs. Our professions is just like any other. We have planners and LAs who mail it in everyday without any thoughts of social impact.

  4. Carl Emura July 30, 2015 / 2:05 pm

    Mr. Hood needs to speak to the neighbors who live around the park who feel that it is not a safe place to walk through or use. I don’t think that they feel that the park is theirs and Old Oakland Neighborhood Association has complained to the City of Oakland numerous times about the park being an unsafe place. I live a block away and I don’t visit the park…it just doesn’t feel safe…but it’s nice design…just too bad the neighbors don’t feel comfortable using the park.

  5. Steven Chavez July 30, 2015 / 8:34 pm

    One problem with designing public spaces is that the field of landscape architecture itself doesn’t consist of practitioners that reflect the multi-cultural perspectives of our society. The field of landscape architecture can broaden its toolbox of design solutions by encouraging and allowing more racial and socioeconomic diversity in the profession.

  6. ST July 31, 2015 / 4:36 am

    I live a block from Lafayette Square and wonder if the author of this article has ever been there. In the seven years that I have lived here, I have never dared use the park, as it is overrun by the homeless, and is well known for its drug dealing and drug use, and as an epicenter for the petty theft in the area. While the concept of the park may have been egalitarian and inclusive, and the design is beautiful, the park is sadly a blight on the neighborhood. Please visit your sites next time before making statements about them. Thank you.

  7. Rohit Singh July 31, 2015 / 7:01 am

    Interesting article. I tend to agree with most things mentioned but hard to fathom that to bring social justice I must sacrifice mine and my family’s safety if I live around here. Sorry to sound extremist but this article leans towards one particular group at the cost of other. I should have the leisure of accessible landscape if I live around Laffayete Park, a small area in comparison than sharing with criminals and addicts not necessarily poor people. Maybe Oakland should use a vast area available to use as Park for all like golden Gate Park. This park is not enough for the growth we have seen in the recent past let alone the homeless. If social justice is the aim then declare this park a centuary for the homeless and others. I have no problems personally.

  8. Kofi Boone August 7, 2015 / 4:12 am

    Thank you for the article. It is terrific to see the profession publicly and visibly grapple with environmental justice in the context of the practice of landscape architecture. The environmental justice movement emerged outside of mainstream environmental organizations for many reasons. It’s past due that we connect the dots. Frederick Law Olmsted was one of the most popular exponents of the role the landscape played in social reform and “civilized” urban spaces. Olmsted was an abolitionist, wrote about the atrocities of slavery in the American south, and was offered but refused an invitation to serve as head of the Freedman’s Bureau. But Olmsted with Calvert Vaux also authored the plan for Central Park, eliminating Seneca Village, and refusing to hire African American laborers in the park’s construction. For all of its enduring value, Central Park came at the expense of the places and livelihoods of Black Americans. Even then the professional perception of justice, equity, access, and representation in the making and sustenance of the landscape was contested. This current focus on Environmental Justice will hopefully mirror landscape architecture’s rigorous explorations of ecological processes and the tools for making great places.

    The profession champions health, safety, and now has the opportunity to more clearly articulate approaches to addressing welfare. Critiques of Lafayette Square Park as a design are warranted. However, landscape architects make choices everyday that can enable and include, or discourage and exclude. And Lafayette Square Park represents an attempt to enable and include. After 50 years of suburban sprawl, white flight, and other episodes that sorted out black from white, and rich from poor, we need to overcome the stereotypes about one another borne of distance as well as the implicit biases that cast some people as potential threats in public space absent evidence. Learning to operate with people from different cultures is the stuff of successful urban space. It is sometimes uncomfortable, but it is essential for citizenship. And Environmental Justice in many cases opened our professional eyes to the idea that equity is not just about the the role race and class play in the locations of toxic waste and noxious uses, but also about people, and how far we have to come to make spaces where we can learn to get along together. Actual crime is actual crime, but if anything has been learned in American cities in the past few years, especially where black and white, rich and poor come together, its that perception can shape reality in powerful ways.

    In the case of places like Oakland, where the black population has dropped 25% in the past 10 years at the same time as wealthier people from other backgrounds are choosing to live there , it’s clear that Lafayette Square Park operates in a broader context. Homelessness may be made visible and visceral in space but is a regional issue requiring advocacy for affordable housing, access to education and jobs training, and health care. Not unlike ecological systems, social systems operate within nested scales requiring strategic work, and requiring the synthetic thinking skills afforded by landscape architecture.

  9. tloallergyfreetomogren September 16, 2015 / 7:14 pm

    This is an excellent, very thought provoking article. It is great to see the concept of environmental justice being adopted by landscape architects. Since my own work focuses on landscape allergy-asthma prevention, I’d also like to add that people who have allergies/asthma, they’re still a minority, and yet good design with justice in mind, would see to it that their rights ( to feel good ) is respected.
    Tom Ogren, author of The Allergy Fighting Garden. Stop asthma and allergies with Smart Landscaping.

Leave a Reply