Decolonizing Landscape Architecture Education

by Jeffrey Hou, Ph.D., ASLA, and Mallika Bose, Ph.D.

Decolonizing Landscape Architecture Education panel session at CELA 2021
The first panel featured Alison Hirsch (University of Southern California), David de la Peña (University of California, Davis), Joern Langhorst (University of Colorado, Denver), and Deni Ruggeri (Norwegian University of Life Sciences), moderated by Jeffrey Hou (University of Washington, Seattle). / image: Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture

The following two-part series is a summary of a recent panel on decolonizing design education that took place at the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA)‘s 2021 conference. In order to address systemic racism and biases within institutions that teach landscape architecture, we must confront the way our profession approaches the teaching and production of knowledge within landscape architecture that replicates racist and oppressive processes, policies, and outcomes in communities of color.
– ASLA’s Environmental Justice Professional Practice Network Leadership Team

Part 1: Curricular and Pedagogical Transformation

With the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism, calls to dismantle longstanding barriers and biases in society have been permeating through our political, social, and economic systems, including design education. Amid the recent calls for change, “decolonizing design” has become a rallying cry among many students and faculty in disciplines ranging from architecture to art and design (see, for example, “Architecture’s Colonial Reckoning” from The Architect’s Newspaper and “What Does It Mean to Decolonize Design?” from AIGA Eye on Design).

But what does decolonizing mean in design? For landscape architecture, what does it mean to decolonize our educational practices? What changes are necessary to transform the power structure that produces and sustains the inequity in society through design? What are the challenges and barriers? What actions and initiatives already exist?

These questions were at the center of a two-part, main-stage panel discussion at the annual conference of the Council of Educators for Landscape Architecture (CELA), held online in March 2021. The first session focused on issues related to curriculum and pedagogy, featuring David de la Peña, University of California, Davis; Alison Hirsch, ASLA, University of Southern California; Joern Langhorst, University of Colorado, Denver; and Deni Ruggeri, Norwegian University of Life Sciences. The second session addressed cultural and institutional transformation, featuring Chingwen Cheng, ASLA, Arizona State University; Michael Rios, University of California, Davis; and Julie Stevens, Iowa State University. We served respectively as the moderators for the two panels.

The speakers were invited to speak about their involvement with related initiatives either at the program, department, college, or university level. In Session 1, Alison Hirsch has been working with a network of colleagues in North America to rethink the history curriculum in landscape architecture. In his recent role as program director, David de la Peña has been working with his colleagues and students in reassessing the program curriculum at UC Davis. At UC Denver, Joern Langhorst has focused on transdisciplinary opportunities at the college level. As the lead for the Landscape Education for Democracy (LED) initiative, Deni Ruggeri has developed an online, collaborative, multinational program to complement existing programs and curricula focusing on landscape democracy and participatory action research. (The work of those in the second panel will be introduced in Part 2 of this summary.)

Decolonizing, What?

The discussion on decolonizing landscape architecture education inevitably began with what decolonizing meant, at least for the speakers. Starting the discussion in the context of the history curriculum, Alison Hirsch argued that “it was only after understanding real systems and structures that have shaped our relations to land that we can ethically intervene in it.” It is critical “that we understand the institution of slavery, the land-based economies on which our nation was built, and other forms of institutionalized racism in the form of federal policies, zoning, and other legacies of aggression and violence.”

For David de la Peña, decolonizing was personal. Having grown up in the Philippines as a biracial child of missionary parents, he wanted nothing to do with colonization, until one day he realized that it was exactly what he was doing as a designer: “I was an expert, an outsider coming into a community with what I thought were good intentions,” he said. “The intention of going into a neighborhood and improving it with bike lanes and parks […] might actually have a detrimental effect,” he continued. “For a lot of us, decolonization can be a term that is a little abstract and hard to figure out how it applies today, but for me, it’s quite personal.”

Words and languages matter, and it’s important to acknowledge that the term can be contested. “Terms like decolonizing, or decentering whiteness […] are all problematic, at least for somebody,” said Joern Langhorst. With inclusion as the underlying agenda, “if it is problematic for somebody, it is problematic for the whole effort,” he continued. Langhorst further argued, “most labels for what we try to do are defined ex negativo, describing what we don’t want to be, don’t want to continue doing, what we want to combat. That in itself makes it difficult to positively and assertively state what it is we want to achieve.”

Furthermore, some may find the language debilitating. “While all the spatial design and planning disciplines have done a lot of evil things […], not everything they have done has been profoundly evil, so there are a lot of shades of grey,” said Langhorst. “Just focusing on a list of things that went wrong can be dispiriting for our students,” he continued. Alison Hirsch concurred, “It’s easy to use these terms as a sort of catch-all.” She further stated, “In the process of dismantling these processes, the language may leave others out.”

Decolonizing, How?

If we can get past the terminology or language, what will it take to rethink the landscape architecture curriculum and dismantle the existing structure of biases and disparities?

For David de la Peña, it came down to five things that are related to the role of design professionals:

  • first, acknowledging and deconstructing ideologies and practices that favor privileged groups;
  • second, confronting these longstanding tendencies to appropriate, control, manipulate, or change a community, whether for selfish or altruistic reasons;
  • third, challenging our own biases and self-interests, and seeking ways that “we, as designers, can humbly interact with and collaborate with existing communities;”
  • fourth, valorizing local forms of knowledge that come from experience, memory, and cultural practice;
  • fifth, using this knowledge as the basis for action that situates local actors as decision-makers in that process.
How can landscapes acknowledge and deconstruct ideologies and practices that favor privileged groups? / image: Jeffrey Hou

For Deni Ruggeri, decolonizing in the context of landscape architecture refers to the processes that allow us to challenge orthodoxies and preconceived assumptions. For Ruggeri, “the best way to challenge the orthodoxy of planning and design curricula is to make space for the discussion on human rights, the right to landscape, democratic design, and democratic place-keeping and stewardship, and to layer this discussion in all activities.” Specifically, we need to challenge the ways we define excellence in design and the positioning of academia in society.

Similarly, Joern Langhorst argued, “we need to begin to meaningfully connect, to integrate, welcome, and seek out local, indigenous, non-expert experiences, perspectives, and bodies of knowledge, which often existed a lot longer than the ones we profess to have and go a lot deeper in terms of understanding place.” He further suggested, “the worst thing is what I call ‘inadvertent complicity’—that we’re thinking we’re doing something really great for everybody, but in fact, we’re complicit in agendas and mechanisms that disempower people.” “Every act of design is invariably, unavoidably, and incredibly a political act,” he continued.

In the context of the history curriculum, Alison Hirsch argued for “dismantling legacies of oppression that have made some people, places, and ideas more worthy of study than others.” “Only until we face the realities of history with truth and reconciliation can we really move forward to these more ethical and just modes of living in and shaping our multi-species world,” she continued. At USC, Hirsch has been working with students to localize themselves, “by understanding whose land we are standing on and who is forced to leave that land to serve settler modes of land domination and ownership.” Besides interrogating the assumptions of iconic spaces and places, she also argued for diversifying the canon by “looking at places and spaces designed outside the developed world.”

Challenges and Barriers

Dismantling the structure of oppression is obviously not a simple task. Besides the problems of language and labeling, there were two more things that Joern Langhorst found out the hard way. First, in the pressure to find consensus, it was difficult to come up with a solution all can agree on. Furthermore, he conceded, “every political consensus is limited in that it cannot fully do justice or provide equitable outcomes for everybody.” “Radical inclusion and openness went up against the limits of consensus-based democratic decision-making systems as we know them,” Langhorst continued.

Secondly, in some places perhaps more so than others, it is difficult to find people to authentically voice viewpoints and experiences that had been suppressed, marginalized, and excluded. As a result, “the few BIPOC folks feel additional pressure to be dragged into every committee and task force that deals with JEDI [justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion] issues,” said Langhorst. “There is a real burnout of folks from minority, marginalized, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ communities to be involved, serve on a plethora of committees, and essentially tell the institution what is wrong and what we need to do differently.” At the same time, “there are a lot of conversations where people speak for other people without having the necessary perspective and experience,” he continued.

Even in places that pride themselves in having strong diversity, blind spots can exist. For the landscape architecture program at Davis, having one of the most diverse undergraduate cohorts in the country and a legacy of emphasis on community engagement has made the program a bit complacent, “in thinking that we were already doing the work, that we already had the right attitudes, that we taught diverse perspectives in our classrooms, that we took on social factors,” said David de la Peña. “What’s become clearer and clearer every month of this past year was that it’s not enough. As faculty, we think we know what students demand, but actually it’s been quite enlightening to learn about the students’ experience,” he continued.

Actions and Opportunities

Despite the challenges and difficulties, the speakers also discussed opportunities for action. For Joern Langhorst, focusing on concrete actions actually presented a workaround to the lack of consensus on terms and meanings (although there are additional divides across disciplines, with different jargons, languages, and methodologies). At UC Denver, the current efforts to rethink the design curriculum are driven by those faculty who teach more on the critical end of the spectrum, including theory and history, and other colleagues that are coming more from the social justice background, who are “really, really fired up about this and basically seeing things like thank goodness finally somebody is doing something about this.”

At USC, the Landscape Architecture program has launched the Landscape Justice Initiative, a platform to consolidate and strengthen the program’s longstanding commitment to applied research and practice in communities. With the initiative, Alison Hirsch argued for the importance of “learning from local knowledge and expertise derived from lived experience,” as well as understanding “how design can be enacted as a form of co-creation” and “how action research can really be applied to instigate change.”

The Landscape Justice Initiative at the University of Southern California / image:

Besides changes within a program, there are also opportunities beyond one’s program that involve collaboration between different institutions. In 2000, the European Landscape Convention discussed the role that the landscape plays in advancing a more just and equitable society. It called attention to the landscape as a physical entity and a social construct, defined by people’s actions and interactions in public space. Yet, governments and universities did not know at the time how to respond to these new ways of conceptualizing and practicing landscape change. To fill the gap, Deni Ruggeri developed the Landscape Education for Democracy (LED) initiative, a massive online course on landscape democracy that involved a partnership of five European universities.

“By operating in the digital realm, the program has been able to teach across multiple cultures, building bridges and initiating a challenging dialogue across European universities about landscape democracy and the design and planning practices that would foster it,” said Ruggeri. The program has attracted a unique mix of students—international students, professionals, doctoral students, and young faculty—in virtual exchange. “So really what we’re trying to create here is an alternative curriculum to the one that universities in Europe already have in landscape architecture and landscape planning.” About 250 students have graduated from the program, with the participation of thirty faculty members.

Click here for part 2, published here on The Field later this week.

Jeffrey Hou, Ph.D., ASLA, is Professor of Landscape Architecture and director of the Urban Commons Lab at the University of Washington, Seattle. He completed a project as a Landscape Architecture Foundation Fellow for Innovation and Leadership in 2020 focusing on design activism.

Mallika Bose, Ph.D., is Professor of Landscape Architecture and Associate Dean of Research, Creative Activity and Graduate Studies in the College of Arts and Architecture at Penn State. As an administrator she is focused on increasing the visibility and impact of arts/design research and practice, especially as it relates to issues of environmental and social justice and equity.

3 thoughts on “Decolonizing Landscape Architecture Education

  1. Lulu Riddell September 28, 2021 / 11:03 pm


    • Steve Ryba October 1, 2021 / 2:16 pm

      what malarkey! good design is problem solving across the board…cultural use, habits, needs not to mention colors, materials as part of design. This notion you have is over the top, in my opinion, it seems like your digging deep to appease. Nothing is perfect but people must continue try. I believe it comes down to the individual morals, empathy and problem solving skills. One either gets it or doesn’t. I could barely read this…decolonizing , valorizing….pedagogy? you could start by knocking this down a notch and get out of your own head.

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