Decolonizing Landscape Architecture Education, Part 2

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

Photo of participants in the Redesigning the Design School Initiative
The ReDesigning the Design School initiative at the Arizona State University / image: courtesy of the Design School at Arizona State University

The following is the second installment in 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 (click here for Part 1). 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 2: Cultural and Institutional Transformations

Cultural and institutional transformations were the focus of the second panel which began by discussing initiatives that have been underway at several institutions, the processes by which these changes are being implemented, challenges faced, and stories of success. The panel also discussed the role of institutions of higher learning in society and the actions that could be taken within these institutions to build bridges and connections with civil society to reimagine and work towards creating a just and equitable future for all.

Chingwen Cheng, ASLA, from Arizona State University began with a discussion of the ReDesigning the Design School initiative at ASU, started in 2019. The initiative involved listening to hundreds of voices from industry, alumni, students, staff, and faculty over hundreds of hours of meetings, and hundreds of pages of reports, over the course of two years. Cheng served on the Executive Committee for the ReDesign Committee, which identified six strategic goals:

  • build a truly accessible design school,
  • teach designers to be human-centered,
  • reinvent the relationship between community and design school,
  • decolonize design education,
  • open up silos, and
  • make design central.

One of the action items to decolonize design education was to review the curriculum of all programs in the Design School, which include landscape architecture, architecture, interior design, industrial design, and visual communication design programs.

At the University of California, Davis, through his role as Vice Provost, Michael Rios leads the Office of Public Scholarship and Engagement, where he and his team support a large network of faculty, staff, students, and other allies to recognize and reward public scholarship. The mission of this University-wide office is to build and support relationships between communities and Davis scholars that are working to have a mutually beneficial and positive public impact. The Office of Public Scholarship and Engagement came about through a bottom-up process that was faculty-driven in response to a previous administration’s decision to eliminate the University’s outreach office a few years ago.

Through a process that involved over a thousand university and non-university constituents, Public Scholarship and Engagement was intentionally designed to both enlarge the support for publicly engaged research, teaching, and learning and foster a sense of belonging among public scholars. Most of the focus has been to develop university-wide awareness and understanding of public scholarship as well as support the work of individual scholars through several fellowship programs. The Office also provides grants to researchers to develop and build partnerships with collaborators, and co-sponsors events for students and faculty that support this mission. In terms of transforming the institution, the Office is also working to change the language in the UC Davis academic personnel manual concerning faculty merit and promotion.

Finally, at Iowa State University, the College of Design has created a director position for equity, inclusion, and multicultural student success. As not all colleges at Iowa State have such a position, Julie Stevens, who served on the Faculty Senate at Iowa State, has been pushing for all colleges to establish that position. With the new DEI director, the College of Design has created a program called Inclusive by Design, with workshops and activities for faculty and students to interact across the disciplines within the college, and between faculty, staff, and students. The students in particular have been leading some of the initiatives within that space. The faculty members in landscape architecture have also been proactive by rewriting the department’s strategic plan, with decolonizing the curriculum as a major goal. These efforts have allowed for diversity, equity, and inclusion to be at the forefront of conversations.

Challenges and Barriers

While these examples suggest that institutional changes are underway and that there appear to be more spaces for conversations about structural and institutional changes, the process can be slow and contentious, especially when engagement is limited or shallow. At Iowa State, for instance, Julie Stevens described the need to think and reflect on how the initiatives are engaging with different stakeholders, without which institutional restructuring can only go so far.

One example was the work of the Faculty Senate DEI committee at Iowa State, which has been working to create metrics by which faculty will be evaluated. The effort included creating a place in the annual review where faculty could report out on their efforts to engage in diversity, equity, and inclusion issues. “It was really contentious and was met with a lot of resistance,” said Stevens. “There were a lot of faculty who didn’t want to be evaluated that way for a lot of reasons,” she continued. Stevens found it hard to have those conversations at a bigger, institutional level. She also realized that if people aren’t engaged in self-reflection, meaningful institutional change will be difficult—“adding that metric on the annual review only goes so far.”

These initiatives can also be viewed differently by different constituents within a university. For example, Michael Rios noted that “many faculty of color see offices of diversity and inclusion as simply managing risk.” While agreeing that these offices are doing important work, he argued that “there are different types of campus communities that need support, not just students, and that what comes out of university DEI offices may not represent the issues, challenges, and struggles that many faculty of color face.” It’s important to create platforms to communicate across different cultures of the university so that issues of diversity, inclusion, and anti-racism “focus on meaningful conversations, not symbolic tokenism.”

Speaking of tokenism, Michael Rios also reminds us of the deeper structural issues within institutions of higher learning, in terms of the value ascribed to particular forms of knowledge over others. As an example, “it’s not surprising that at R1 universities, STEM research becomes the norm for excellence.” “We have to think about how universities are implicated in the socialization of whiteness, not just in terms of race, but practices that reproduce the social hierarchies within the enterprise of knowledge production,” he continued. He argued that to decolonize educational institutions, we should be aware to avoid “at the same time contradictorily reproducing the same colonial practices.”

Actions and Opportunities

A common theme across the two sessions was the engagement of students on campus and within the program. Following the example of students at UC Davis that push for changes within the program, Chingwen Cheng mentioned the Design Justice Initiative at ASU led by students in summer 2020 in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. The group issued a statement, including 14 action items, to demand the ASU Design School to recognize its obligation in anti-racism and acknowledge that design education curriculum and pedagogy are not neutral. Starting in Fall 2020, the students have continued to engage other students, staff, and faculty to address the 14 action items through three student-led committees:

  1. Restructure and Outreach Committee to address inequity within the educational system, faculty, and student body;
  2. Equity and Inclusion Committee to make the school a safe space for all, embrace diverse cultures, and foster diversity;
  3. Wellness and Support Committee to focus on developing strategies to ensure accessibility, support, and a healthy environment for all.

Julie Stevens argued for the importance of not only engaging but also supporting students: “We have a significant opportunity here to really be with our students right now in times of significant change, to let them lead.” “We talked about being student-centered. Maybe we need to pass the torch; maybe we need to allow our students to share with us about where they’d like to see the profession going,” she continued. It is important, however, to recognize that the levels of student interest and activism can be different in different institutions, as reminded by Mallika Bose: “some of us are in institutions where the students are demanding change and others are in institutions where students are not doing that.” She, therefore, argued for the need to “learn from each other, what’s happening, and how we’re doing this.”

The 2017 “Design as Protest” event at the University of Washington, Seattle, was organized and led by landscape architecture students. / image: Jeffrey Hou

Julie Stevens suggested that the landscape architecture profession actually has a lot to contribute to the issues of racism and social inequality, particularly through our ability in scaling and storytelling. “We can scale up, we can scale down, we can see different perspectives, big geographies, little geographies. We see the individual story of a human being in front of us. We also see the global stories, at the same time,” said Stevens. Landscape architects also work across disciplines. “There are opportunities here to call upon other disciplines as well,” she argued. Building on this, Mallika Bose reminded us of the importance of building coalitions “to do this work of institutional change.” Furthermore, “we need to partner not only just within our institutions but outside,” she continued.

In the same vein, Chingwen Cheng mentioned the school brought in an outside group to facilitate institutional change through educating faculty and staff about diversity, inclusion, and equity in design education and to see where the problem areas are and what we can do. “Very often when we try doing this work, a lot of people are very apprehensive, and that really makes the work even more difficult,” she said. “Our hope is that, by bringing in somebody from outside, it will have more credibility and create a safe space for discussion.” The school also sent students to training sessions on design futures for integrating diversity, inclusion, and equity in design professions; the students have taken on the leadership role in the school to get more people engaged with these topics.

“Without the willingness to explore other possibilities, to acknowledge and amplify diverse worldviews, we cannot fundamentally change the system we are within. If we have more people talking to each other, then hopefully there will be a ripple effect in the school, the profession, and the nation, which ultimately transforms the system toward justice futures,” Cheng continued.

Conclusion: Putting Change in Motion

Given the scope and scale of issues and challenges, the two-part discussion was intended more to begin a critical conversation among educators, universities, and programs in landscape architecture. If time and resources were available, it would have been great to engage an even broader audience, including community stakeholders beyond the university. Nevertheless, through the two-part panel discussion, the speakers have highlighted important findings drawn from ongoing initiatives across seven universities, at the levels of program, department, school, college, and university, involving stakeholders and constituents from both outside and within.

The second panel featured Julie Stevens (Iowa State University), Chingwen Cheng (Arizona State University), and Michael Rios (University of California, Davis), moderated by Mallika Bose (Pennsylvania State University). / image: Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture

The speakers collectively shared the perspectives of faculty, students, administrators, and their own roles as scholars and educators, with many of them engaged in community design or socially engaged research. The conversations revealed some of the most difficult and persistent challenges and barriers, as well as ongoing actions and existing opportunities. The speakers addressed both the limitations and opportunities with the concept of decolonization and how it can be applied in landscape architecture education.

Whether one subscribes to the term decolonizing or not, there was agreement among the speakers on the need to reexamine fundamental knowledge and assumptions about landscape architecture, including whether the work that we do reproduces biases and structural disparities in society. Considering the institutional reckoning in the wake of the twin pandemics of racial and health disparities, we must examine the role of professional education and institutions of higher learning in perpetuating these biases and disparities. This includes the forms of knowledge and practices legitimized, both explicitly and implicitly, in addition to demographic representation in education and the profession.

The Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA) discussion provided further insights about the importance of this work and what it may take to push for substantive changes in landscape architecture education at the program, curriculum, and institutional levels. It’s our hope that this discussion can inform and inspire similar efforts at different universities. As Michael Rios said during the discussion, “change is a process and not an end state.” The change we hope to see in landscape architecture education will require actions on our part to examine what we do, to listen and talk to one another, to engage different voices, and to set things in motion.

Extended Reading & Resources

Boone, K. (2020, June 3). Black Landscapes Matter. World Landscape Architecture.

Committee on Diversity. Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning.

Dang, T. K. (2021). Decolonizing Landscape. Landscape Research.

Design As Protest. DAP Collective.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. American Society of Landscape Architects.

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Resources. American Institute of Architects

National Organization of Minority Architects.

Hou, J., Boone, K., Bose, M., Cheng, CW., de la Peña, D., Langhorst, J., Lawson, L., Rios, M., Ruggeri, D., Stevens, J. (2020). Design as Activism: A Framework for Actions in Landscape Architecture Education.

LAF Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Resources. Landscape Architecture Foundation.

Raxworthy, J. (2018). The Landscape of Practices: Decolonizing Landscape Architecture. In C. Brisbin and M. Thiessen (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Critically in Art, Architecture, and Design, 298-314. London and New York: Routledge.

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.

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