Landscape Architecture Tackles Homelessness and Shelter in the Pandemic

by Yekang Ko, PhD, and Cory Parker, PhD, PLA

Analysis of informal homeless tent encampment
Analysis of informal homeless tent encampment with hand-washing station. / image: Amicia Nametka

Environmental justice for vulnerable groups addresses inequitable distribution of resources or denial of participation in decision-making. The unhoused are one of our most vulnerable groups, and the COVID-19 outbreak puts vulnerable urban populations, especially people experiencing homelessness, in impossible circumstances. The issue of homelessness has escalated in the past decade, driven by economic polarization and the housing crisis. Since COVID-19’s spread through the United States, we have witnessed rising numbers of unhoused people, a trend likely to continue.

Critical discussions on how cities and civil society are responding to this crisis question traditional roles of environmental design. In this post, we explore how landscape architects can contribute to ongoing struggles of spatial justice, particularly by addressing homelessness in the post-pandemic world. We draw specific examples from Eugene, Oregon, the city with the highest homeless population per capita in the U.S. One third of Eugene’s unhoused population experiences mental illness of some kind, many camp along the Willamette River where increased flooding due to climate change threatens them and, with the recent record-breaking wildfire in September, they breathed smoke-filled air for more than a week of hazardous air quality.

Each threat exposes unhoused people to significant health impacts. As a mid-sized city with a population of 170,000, Eugene is known for its pioneering community-wide efforts in addressing the housing crisis and homelessness, including affordable housing movements, tiny house villages, and rest stops. As an alternative to policing, Eugene partnered with a non-profit to provide CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets), a mobile intervention program responding to mental health, substance abuse, and housing crises. Eugene and Lane County have also been actively looking for housing solutions, including building an additional large low-barrier emergency shelter with 75 beds and 350 units of permanent supportive housing units.

In the fall of 2019, the University of Oregon’s studio “Planning for Home: Landscape Approach for Resilient Transitional Housing,” taught by Yekang Ko and Shannon Arms, ASLA, proposed a systematic approach to the creation of a city-wide housing network that includes emergency shelters, transitional housing communities (up to two years), and permanent supportive and/or affordable housing.

Working with the City of Eugene City Manager’s Office and interviewing rest stop residents, students conducted a city-wide spatial analysis to identify potential sites suitable for a range of shelter types based on a number of environmental, social, economic, and amenity criteria and came up with site design. Students analyzed the specific needs of vulnerable user groups such as the unhoused with mental illness, LGBTQ youth, and seniors when developing their site design.

The student group had two primary recommendations:

  1. The city needs to proactively plan to identify sites for this housing network as more disasters and emergencies are likely to result in more people experiencing homelessness.
  2. Although transitioning unhoused people from the streets directly to permanent housing would be ideal, the time required to implement permanent housing solutions and the increasing likelihood of emergency situations will force the city to plan for transitional housing sites as a stepping stone to permanent housing.

After the COVID-19 outbreak and the quarantine order in March of 2020, Eugene opened additional shelter space at the fairgrounds and temporary respite shelters in parks and public open spaces across the city. Ironically, some people experiencing homelessness testified that COVID-19 has been a “blessing” to them, as the police are not citing them for misdemeanors during the quarantine. These informal settlements have been organically growing; campers formed their own communities by selecting leaders, composing guidelines, and holding socially-distanced community meetings.

In the spring of 2020, students from the University of Oregon’s seminar “Home, Housing and Homelessness,” taught by Cory Parker, interviewed several residents of the temporary respite shelters who emphasized their desire for safety in the pandemic. Large homeless shelters with rows of beds did not provide the security or social distancing necessary to get back on their feet: “[The shelter in a building has] 140 people in it and it’s crazy….It’s not really a shelter against the virus I think it’s more of a breeding ground myself because people are coming in and out all day long and people are leaving and coming.” At the same time, shelters in Eugene have had to eliminate 250 existing shelter beds due to state social-distancing guidelines. As an alternative, the respite shelter residents recommended small groups of six to 10 tents located out of doors in parks and parking lots. The self-governing “family” groups gave residents a voice in their own living situation, as well as a stronger social network.

Landscape architects can contribute by conceptualizing innovative ideas and initiating a public discussion. For example, what would city parks with pockets of transitional housing community or rapidly deployed respite shelters look like?

A group of students proposed the “Cultivating Resilience” plan that envisioned a city park that embraces the homeless population who are already using the space for transitional shelter while enhancing park quality for neighbors and increasing resilience. The transitional housing community has a modular, off-grid infrastructure that can be rapidly deployable and removable while providing basic needs like food, energy, and water on-site. “Plan B” below illustrates how space can be used for respite shelters in case of emergency.

“Cultivating Resilience” proposal by Tshewang Tamang, Student ASLA, Victor Garcia, and William Wei-Ti Lien, Student ASLA. Faculty advisors: Yekang Ko and Shannon Arms, ASLA, University of Oregon Landscape Architecture. Click here to view plans at a larger size.

Ultimately, landscape architects can contribute by addressing the broader housing crisis through innovative and collaborative design interventions for marginalized communities. The Landscape for Humanity (L4H), an initiative run by the faculty, students, and graduates from the University of Oregon Landscape Architecture program, has been collaborating with local non-profits such as SquareOne Villages and MAPLE Microdevelopment to provide multifunctional landscape design solutions that can contribute to generating sustainable revenue for the villagers. Through the Food-Energy-Water system approach and co-design workshops, the L4H has been engaging with the villagers at the Opportunity Village Eugene (OVE), a transitional housing community, as well as the Emerald Village Eugene (EVE), a permanent affordable housing community. The L4H is also working with a product designer, environmental scientist, philosopher, and social entrepreneurship expert to develop more multidisciplinary approaches to enhance the resilience of the communities.

Temporary emergency shelter for a park based on a pavilion by Kengo Kuma, adapted by Genevieve Middleton.

The pandemic created the political will for city leadership to start programs to get more unhoused people off the streets. By the summer and phase two of Oregon’s plan to reopen, Eugene closed the temporary respite shelters while continuing in their attempts to develop more permanent housing. But in September, City Council approved a plan for five new “rest stops” in scattered neighborhoods where unhoused people can stay as the pandemic continues. These scattered shelters represent a move to a more environmentally just city. Landscape architects, who are used to dealing with controversy and working with diverse publics, can offer ways to integrate temporary housing interventions into the urban landscape…in parks, parking lots, and vacant lands.

Yekang Ko, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Oregon. She is also a co-founder of the Landscape for Humanity (L4H).

Cory Parker, PhD, PLA, was a Spatial Justice Fellow at the University of Oregon this past year. He is currently an instructor at U.C. Berkeley and U.C. Davis.

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