by Chingwen Cheng, PhD, ASLA, and Tom Martin, Associate ASLA
The mission of the ASLA Environmental Justice Professional Practice Network (EJ PPN) is to provide a forum for ASLA members involved in, inspired by, and interested in pursuing environmental justice through education, research, and practice.
This spring, the Environmental Justice PPN conducted a survey in order to learn about landscape architects’ understanding of and interests in environmental justice. Input from ASLA members is critical in shaping the EJ PPN and moving our profession forward. Landscape architects also have the opportunity to serve as a community-focused linchpin on multidisciplinary project teams, crafting designs in response to community input and inviting all stakeholders to the table to engage in the planning and design process. With allied professions and organizations, including the American Planning Association and the American Institute of Architects, updating their codes of ethics and professional conduct to reflect stronger support for environmental justice, we wanted to hear from landscape architects for their perspective.
The survey responses will aid in future communications with local ASLA chapters, projects such as a practitioner’s guide to environmental justice, and establishing a platform for EJ dialogue and resource sharing. As we continue working on those initiatives, we wanted to share a recap of the survey results and a few highlights and insights from the more than 170 responses received.
Environmental Justice: Comprehension and Attitudes
First we asked several questions to gauge respondents’ definition, knowledge of, and existing level of interest in this practice area, using a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 signifying the highest level of familiarity, agreement, or relevance for the given statement:
How familiar are you with the origins, ethics, or goals of the EJ movement in the US?
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. How do you think the EPA’s EJ definition informs the daily practice of the landscape architecture profession?
How concerned are you with environmental justice issues happening in the United States?
Defining key terms is a critical first step in elevating environmental justice as a focus for landscape architects. We asked respondents to describe what environmental justice means to them:
Here are a few quotations from the responses, representing a wide range of outlooks:
- Policies and implementation of programs, construction, conservation and preservation that enhances people’s lives and the environment in a way that does not negatively effect one social, economic or ethnic group over another.
- To me, EJ means that individuals and communities are not targeted to bear environmental burdens (poor quality environments, poor air or water quality, lack of environmental services) because of their ethnicity or social status.
- Equity, diversity and overall balanced resilience. The cultural and social aspects of our work are as important as the ecological and environmental.
- All people should have a healthy environment where they breathe clean air and water that won’t burden their health or shorten their lifespan.
- Designing with the future in mind and not what’s the cheap thing to do.
- Serve all people and their needs and preferences as they define them.
- I don’t believe in environmental justice.
Next we asked about the environmental justice issues you feel are the most pressing in the US:
Here are a few quotations from the responses:
- Fracking and drilling.
- Human rights for all people. Enforcement of environmental regulations. Conversion to 100% clean energy.
- Air & water pollution, food deserts, climate change (hard to choose).
- People of color and immigrants living, working, and schooling in toxic landscapes.
- Widespread use of insecticides.
- Global warming.
- The lack of exposure of nature within urban environments to surrounding residents.
- Right to place (“right to the city,” but not only focused on urban settings): sustainable and meaningful livelihoods and housing built upon inclusionary communities. This is not what I see.
- Landscape architecture, sadly, as it is often a tool of inequitable free market capitalism and the resulting exclusion of much of society.
EJ and the Landscape Architecture Profession
The next set of questions were geared toward getting a sense of how landscape architects are currently involved in pursuing environmental justice through education, research, and practice. We asked survey takers to describe an example of environmental justice (or injustice) as it relates to the landscape architecture profession:
Here are a few quotations from the responses:
- Climate change. Landscape architects are working to mitigate climate change through green infrastructure, urban forestation, education, etc.
- How landscape architects can become accidental green gentrifiers as they improve parks and natural sites in poorer neighborhoods.
- Getting community and stakeholder input into proposed changes to landscapes.
- Encourage building infrastructure to support walking, biking and electric vehicles for all people regardless of race, age, religion, or socioeconomic status.
- Access to and distribution of public park space is not always equal. Landscape architects should be some of the strongest advocates for equality in public park development.
- The desecration of Mauna Kea by the telescope industry. Mauna Kea is the most sacred site of creation for Native people of Hawaii. Location of polluting industry and land fills in low income communities, location of low income housing in flood prone areas, design of parks to exclude homeless.
Have you considered engaging your employers or colleagues in active discussion, educational programs, in house training, or other methods to address issues of environmental justice?
Have you worked on any project that attempts to reveal or address environmental justice?
What are the opportunities for the landscape architecture profession to address environmental justice in practice (as a student, as a practitioner, as an educator)? A few quotations from the responses:
- Practitioner: through the public participation process, educating clients and the community.
- Attend and/or present at public hearings, classes, and meetings to local officials, schools, other organizations, and the general public.
- Actively recruit cultural and racial minorities. Actively work in locations that are impacted by environmental racism. When you DO work in those areas, leave your judgement behind, leave your ‘high design’ training behind and work WITH the people to help them on their own terms. Self determination is powerful and designers can help people interpret their culture into their landscape.
- Talk about it more! Explicitly incorporate environmental justice into education. Teach students that working towards environmental justice is a core responsibility of the profession.
The Environmental Justice PPN leadership team is working to develop a number of resources, informed by the survey. Stay tuned for new tools for ASLA chapters, practitioners, and all ASLA members to use to continue this important conversation. We also look forward to the Environmental Justice PPN Meeting during the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego this November. We’ll be presenting on the state of knowledge of EJ in practice and action plans to move forward.
For more information on environmental justice:
A Student’s Guide to Environmental Justice Version 1.3, 2018 ASLA Student Honor Award winner; click here to download the full guide
Chingwen Cheng, PhD, ASLA, and Tom Martin, Associate ASLA, are co-chairs of the ASLA Environmental Justice Professional Practice Network (PPN).