The Ripple Effect: Diversity in Design

The Diversity and Design panel at the ASLA Texas Chapter’s annual conference / image: Diana Fernandez

Diversity in design and urban policy has long been an issue the architecture and engineering industry has struggled with. In 2016, ASLA curated a keynote for the Annual Meeting and EXPO in New Orleans focusing on diversity in design and urban policy (the full general session, Designing for Diversity and Diversity in Design, can be viewed online).

Building upon numerous ASLA efforts, the panelists—Ron Sims, Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2009-2011; Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, CEO, OLIN; Mark Rios, FASLA, Principal, Rios Clementi Hale Studios; Diana Fernandez, ASLA, Associate, Sasaki; and Kona Gray, FASLA, Principal, EDSA—each brought their own perspectives on how designers can rise to the challenge of meeting the needs of constituents whom have historically been underrepresented in the discussion for urban policy and city making. The conversation was continued on the EXPO floor, where attendees participated in a lively question and answer session focusing on topics such as education, design practice, and policy changes.

Unbeknownst to the panelists was the ripple effect the keynote had on the local ASLA chapters in attendance. Following the national conference, the panelists were approached by the Texas and Florida chapters to bring the topic of diversity in design to their local communities. Melissa Henao-Robledo, ASLA, a Landscape Forms Business Development Representative for Central and Southern Texas and a past Diversity Summit participant, worked with the ASLA Texas Chapter to organize a panel on Diversity and Design and what comes next. The panel compiled for the Texas conference sought to emphasize the demographic trends affecting the way we practice as designers. Similarly, Emily O’Mahoney, FASLA, a partner at Gentile Glas Holloway O’Mahoney & Associates, Inc., worked with the ASLA Florida Chapter to create a keynote for the chapter conference focusing on diversity in design in practice and education. Each conference provided varied opportunities to discuss the topic of diversity in design and urban policy within a regional and national context.

The impact of the 2016 keynote on diversity in design and urban policy has had a profound effect on our profession at the national and local level. From inspiring panels on the topic to creating the space for the topic to be discussed, it is a reminder of how landscape architecture can be a leading voice and presence in solving our society’s most pressing needs.

The following excerpts were taken from individual interviews of the participants and organizers of the presentations.

At the 2016 ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO / image: EPNAC

How did the conversation around the topic of diversity and design evolve as you continued to speak to the subject throughout the year at these conferences?

Kona Gray – After the 2016 ASLA general session, there has been a wave of interest and support of the subject. The time is now and I have been truly inspired by compassion from our colleagues. Every conference speaking engagement has led to more connections and opportunities for people to learn as well as put strategies into action to increase diversity.

image: EPNAC

Diana Fernandez – With the most recent presidential election in the United States, the topic of diversity has unfolded in our country in unprecedented ways. From the debates over monuments and memorials to the impact of climate change on natural disasters and the resiliency of communities of color, the topic of diversity in design is more relevant now than it has ever been. The coalescing of forces that has brought us to this point has put landscape architecture at the helm of being able to make a significant impact on the shaping of our society and built world. To me what has changed over the last year is the urgency of the issues at hand and our need to become advocates and leaders in shaping the constructs of our society towards justice and equity for all.

What can landscape designers and architects do to get involved in this movement?

Kona Gray – Get involved. I never thought that after 25 years of practice our profession would be the same. The number of Native Americans, African Americans, and Hispanic Americans has not dramatically increased for decades. We need to reach out and find diverse designers. It is simple. I would encourage everyone to mentor as many people as possible. Also, it is most helpful to sponsor someone financially. Finally, adopting schools and universities is key to expanding our reach. Most importantly, get started and make a difference in any way possible.

Following the general session, attendees were invited to continue the conversation with the panelists on the EXPO floor. / image: EPNAC

Diana Fernandez – We need to inject ourselves into the national conversations on the topic via any medium/platform available to us. We need to be vocal about our stance—in the same way our profession took a stance on sustainability and the environment, we must rise to become leaders and fight for social equity and justice in our built world. The topic of diversity in design has long been overshadowed by the current needs to invest in our education pipelines, and while I feel investing in the future of our profession is a key part of the strategy towards success, it is not the only approach to addressing the issue of diversity in design. Instead, I think we must push ourselves to understand that diversity in design is not about morality, or doing a good deed, but it is an essential part of our businesses’ success for the future. Pipeline investments are worthwhile but are a long game, and today landscape architects can work to redefine planning and design practices that have perpetuated the very issues we are trying to solve. It’s time to question our collective design values and explore new definitions of design excellence.

At the 2016 ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO / image: EPNAC

What has inspired you most about speaking at these conferences?

Kona Gray – I am most inspired by the people I have met during the conferences. Many emerging professionals have expressed appreciation to see someone that looks like them speaking about diversity. I truly believe we can grow our profession through inclusive recruitment. I challenge our Society and Chapters to deploy recruiters strategically targeting diverse communities to educate parents as well as students about the opportunities through the profession of landscape architecture.

Diana Fernandez – I feel like I was most inspired by the sheer will and determination many landscape designers and architects are deploying across the country to address diversity in design. There were many brilliant people I had the honor of meeting that are truly doing incredible work in their local communities, but never had a platform for the conversation to occur or the ability to share their work. I wish I had a recorder to catalog the inspiring and purely innovative stories I was told throughout the last year as a testament to our will as a profession to address these issues head on.

The Diversity in Design panel at the ASLA Texas Chapter conference / image: Alykhan Mohamed

As the organizer for the education session at your local conference, what was your driver for bringing the conversation from ASLA National to your local chapter?

Melissa Henao-Robledo – My inspiration began at the ASLA National Diversity Summit and hearing the personal and professional stories that were unique and at the same time had a connection with everyone. Texas has a diverse population of not only Latinos but also people of color that from my experience are not equally represented within the landscape architecture profession. The ASLA Texas conference was a fantastic opportunity to bring a diverse group of professionals who shared their stories from a perspective of race and gender which may be missing or can be improved upon in professional offices.

Kona Gray and Diana Fernandez at the Florida conference / image: Diana Fernandez

Emily O’Mahoney – We basically brought the National keynote to a State keynote—a bit smaller scale. We had Kona (a Floridian) and Diana speak. I thought the National program was very interesting and something that we should be talking about at the state level.

At the Florida conference / image: Diana Fernandez

What was the reception like for the event; how did people in your chapter respond to the session?

Melissa Henao-Robledo – The reception was outstanding with several people saying wow—you touched on my story and I can identify with your journey. Professionals of color commented on how the panel reminded them of their unique perspective and contribution because one can take their own differences for granted. The dynamic nature of sharing a personal story and bringing to the forefront an honest conversation about how the industry is lacking professionals of color made it more comfortable to talk about!

Emily O’Mahoney – I thought that the 500 people that were present received them very well. The two of them cover a wide range of diversity! I think it made business owners think about their practices and procedures.

At the Florida conference / image: Diana Fernandez

How can we continue to move the needle forward on this conversation?

Melissa Henao-Robledo – To move the needle forward I believe one needs to identify their personal passion and work from there. During the conference, Kona Gray encouraged the attendees to invest in mentorship and sponsorship, including financial support. My passion is for working with high school and college students so they are aware of the broad opportunities within the profession. The profession will thrive from the perspective of diverse races and genders because their life experiences can make a significant contribution to the built environment within the public realm. I’m putting my passion into practice by serving on the ASLA National Committee on Education and the Texas ASLA Committee on Student Organizations in addition to collaborating with industry-related organizations.

Emily O’Mahoney – We should develop other keynote programs that are delivering the message a bit differently. We should also look at the model that Kristina Snyder, ASLA, did, both for the Florida Chapter Conference and the 2017 ASLA Annual Meeting in Los Angeles, a workshop on Landscape Architecture and Working Families: A Plan for Your Work Life. We sure learned a lot more about Diana and Kona from this program. Imagine it applied to diversity in the work place and hiring protocols.

The Diversity in Design panel at the Texas chapter conference / image: Alykhan Mohamed

How is ASLA responding to this issue of diversity in design?

Shawn Balon – With continued decreases in overall enrollment in landscape architecture accredited degree programs, ASLA’s strategic priorities have identified a need to prioritize the growth of the profession and increase diversity. In early 2017, ASLA created a new position focusing on career discovery and diversity. This position marked an important step for the Society in working to build the ranks of future landscape architects and increase diversity within the profession.

The Career Discovery and Diversity Manager position is new to the Society, but many diversity efforts have been ongoing. Since 2013, ASLA has convened a Diversity Summit each year bringing together a group of experienced and emerging landscape architects who identify as African American or Latinx to develop strategies that address diversity issues in the field. In 2017, ASLA convened the Diversity SuperSummit that invited back all participants to assist in creating an action plan for the career discovery and diversity position. Focus items and initiatives will continue to be established and evaluated as ASLA plans future summits.

The 2017 ASLA Diversity SuperSummit / image: EPNAC

In 2015, the Presidents’ Council, comprised of allied landscape architecture organizations, drafted and signed a joint commitment to diversity, Mirroring the Nation: Landscape Architecture and the Future of the Profession, and has stepped up efforts on several fronts.

Additionally, ASLA’s Annual Meeting and EXPO education sessions featuring the topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion have increased over past years. The 2016 ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO in New Orleans showcased a general session discussion on Designing for Diversity and Diversity in Design.

Many of these initiatives focus on race and ethnicity, but it’s also important to point out that ASLA has increased efforts for women in landscape architecture. The Women in Landscape Architecture Professional Practice Network (WILA PPN) has been a part of ASLA for many years. Recently, the leadership of that PPN has put forth some great efforts in helping to get various presentations on women in design at conferences both locally and nationally.

These are just a few initiatives that ASLA has been tackling in response to issues of diversity. The work plan for career discovery and diversity has now taken shape and ASLA has begun to tackle these action items as we move into 2018. I look forward to increasing our diversity initiatives as we progress within our work plan.

Small group discussions at the Diversity SuperSummit / image: EPNAC.com

How has the ASLA Diversity Summit created the space for these conversations to occur and be taken to a national and local platform?

Shawn Balon – As stated above, the ASLA Diversity Summits have helped to create a space for various conversations on diversity. To find out additional action items resulting from the summits, ASLA has provided a presentation online: Action Items Taken Resulting from Summits. A few important milestones from the Diversity Summits:

These action items have also been pertinent in discussing reports and summaries with the ASLA Executive Committee, Board of Trustees, Chapter Presidents Council, and Accredited Program Chairs. Recently, I also had the opportunity to share some of the career discovery and diversity work plan and Diversity Summit action plans as keynote speaker at the ASLA Indiana Chapter Annual Meeting.

The new Diversity Summit webpage provides many resources addressing diversity in our profession, what excites you the most about the future of the ASLA Diversity Summits and your new role as a diversity manager?

Shawn Balon – It was exciting to be able to co-facilitate the 2017 Diversity SuperSummit with Juanita Shearer-Swink, FASLA. It was a great introduction to the work that was accomplished over the last five years and also a great turning point for the future of the Diversity Summits. The conversations assisted ASLA in how to devise and plan for future Summits. I am most excited about opening up future Summits to other professionals of color and of varying professional backgrounds and experiences. ASLA will be adding six new participants for the 2018 Diversity Summit and also inviting guests per the advice of the 2018 Diversity SuperSummit participants. ASLA will be launching a Call for Letters of Interest in early 2018 and applications will be available via the ASLA Diversity Summit webpage.

I am also excited to see how the conversations from the summits help grow ASLA’s initiatives over the next few years. The last Summits have focused on race and ethnicity, but I am excited to see how ASLA’s initiatives can become more inclusive of other diverse communities (persons with disabilities, LGBTQ, women in landscape architecture, etc.).

Inspired to add your voice to ASLA’s next Annual Meeting and help us to grow diversity in design? The 2018 ASLA Annual Meeting Call for Presentations will be open December 6, 2017 – January 31, 2018.

by Diana Fernandez, ASLA, with contributions from: Kona Gray, FASLA, Shawn Balon, ASLA, Melissa Henao-Robledo, ASLA, and Emily O’Mahoney, FASLA

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