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.

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