Black Landscapes Matter
by SAMANTHA SOLANO
For the first time in my seven years of design education, I finally have the opportunity to participate in a design studio that is addressing race, socio-economic class and inequality in America—a privilege many will never have. But why? It would seem as though many in the design field ignore these issues. I do not believe it is because they do not care, I think it is because they do not know how to address them. I have studied landscape architecture and urbanism, and in my experience, we are subconsciously taught to design for the privileged. The imaginary clients always have endless amounts of money. The precedents we are shown are of world-class projects that are typically in prosperous areas or only benefit citizens of a specific income bracket. And the programs we are assigned can be incredibly trivial—like a museum for fashion. Let’s be honest: I am taught to design for white, capitalist America and I hadn’t realized this in its entirety until returning from my course field trip to St. Louis and Washington D.C.
The overall premise of the studio is to critically examine the streets named after Martin Luther King Jr. and its adjacent neighborhoods to subsequently propose a design—a narrative worthy of King’s legacy. Both the streets in St. Louis and Washington D.C. are located within predominately low-income, black neighborhoods (something that quite paradoxically stands true for almost all the 730 cities who have one). This visit was in stark contrast to my last studio trip, where we visited The Gardens of Versailles in the outskirts of Paris, France—the old seat of the French Monarchy. Thus, I realized then, after spending some time on the ground in St. Louis and Washington D.C., that I had been viewing my designed world through a closed lens, a lens that I’ve accepted, a lens of exclusivity. This writing is an account of my experiences and my views of this groundbreaking studio thus far. I want to share this because of its relevancy today and as an unedited insider’s perspective of the studio. Some news articles have already been written about what we are up to and the comments from several readers are intolerant and disgraceful—just one symptom of one of the many issues that are deeply wrong with this country. This is my response.
The Studio—The MLK Way: Building on Black America’s Main Street
The design studio is organized and taught by Daniel D’Oca, an urban planner who is Principal and Co-Founder of Interboro Partners—an architecture, planning and research firm based in New York City. Dan came across the non-profit organization called Beloved Streets of America founded by Melvin White in St. Louis, whose vision is that “every street within the United States bearing the name Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is vibrant, beautiful, and prosperous.” Melvin White is a post office employee who while on his routes in north St. Louis, noticed that Martin Luther King Drive was a street dealing with crime, abandonment and overall poor conditions. He questioned how can a street bearing the name Martin Luther King could be in such a bad condition—after all that he stood and died for. So, he decided to be proactive, take a stand and do something about it. That’s when he started his organization. Unfortunately, King streets across America are in situations similar or worse to St. Louis. In Chris Rock’s 1996 show “Bring the Pain,” he comically describes the perceptions that many associate with the MLK streets throughout the country:
There are approximately 900 streets named after Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States. In our studio, we are exploring the reasons behind why these streets and neighborhoods obtained this reputation and what we are finding is that—in some ways—planning, architecture and design are to blame. In St. Louis specifically, the Economic Policy Institute published a report in October of 2014 called “The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Root of its Troubles” by Richard Rothestein –which explores the racial segregation history of policy and planning in St. Louis and the effects it has had on the contemporary landscape of the city. If planning and design caused some of these issues that are affecting MLK streets and their neighborhoods—can planning and design help to resolve the issues as well? This is one of the many questions we as a studio are asking.
And this is not an easy task. We are faced with issues greater than any design can solve. We are not going to solve prejudices. We are not going to solve income disparities. We are not going to solve racism and inequity. But what we can offer is hope. Sometimes all it takes to empower someone or a community is for them to know they are not alone and that they are loved. So, what we are providing is vision and intention—the first steps to achieving progress and renewal. We are a team of students studying architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning and urban design. Usually, we are ourselves segregated within the walls of our design building, but in this studio we are also coming together—a model of collaboration and syncretism that should be more present within the rest of academia and praxis. We are overcoming our limiting beliefs, our prejudices, and the many criticisms being thrown back at us. We are not special because we are attending Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, we are special because we are a part of something bigger than ourselves and that takes commitment and responsibility.
As a class, we have split up to work on either St. Louis or Washington D.C. Both cities have their respective issues that need to be addressed--St. Louis is struggling with loss of population and economic stimulation, while D.C. is booming and dealing with gentrification and displacement. In St. Louis there are projects that are working on the issues of vacancy and abandonment—proposing to reactivate those sites with things such as façade improvements, urban farming and vegetal succession, temporary interventions, and policy changes for the acquisition of vacant lands. Broader questions are being addressed that pertain to business development and access to education and mentorship to activate business growth as well as affordable housing initiatives that integrate class and community. Students working in D.C. are proposing projects that focus on providing residents with much needed amenities on the street such as grocery stores, access to parks and open space, new job and retail opportunities—all while incorporating the existing life and vibrancy that activates the street day to day. These initial ideas are just the beginning of our projects that will develop and grow throughout the rest of the semester.
Seeing Beauty is a Choice
A vacant lot with crumbling buildings and overgrown with vegetation isn’t a shame, it is an opportunity. A street full of people waiting for their social services isn’t dead, it’s vibrant. Alleys with graffiti aren’t symptoms of a troubled population, they are artistic expressions of an undervalued segment of our society. By placing a value judgement on a place—which invariably comes from limited world views—it simply limits potential. Such surficial opinions are not a true reflection of reality. Therefore, the question is not whether something is good or bad, but about what it is and what it wants to be. As designers we have huge responsibilities that impact many people and we also have a choice—if we choose to exercise that choice. We can choose to ignore what’s there or enhance it. We can choose to involve the community or just tell them what they are going to get. The designs we choose have a direct effect on how people interact with their everyday landscape. Some interventions may even displace people from a place they have known their entire life. It is always about choice and it is always about taking a stand.
I have studied landscape architecture and urbanism, and in my experience, we are subconsciously taught to design for the privileged. The imaginary clients always have endless amounts of money. The precedents we are shown are of world-class projects that are typically in prosperous areas or only benefit citizens of a specific income bracket. And the programs we are assigned can be incredibly trivial—like a museum for fashion.
So where do we go from here? We design. We design alternative narratives. We design new possibilities. We design tools that inspire residents to reclaim their streets and neighborhoods and enact change and hope. This project it not about beautification—this is not a trip to the salon or the plastic surgeon. This is an inside job, an emotional awareness and intelligence that starts with the Martin Luther King streets and radiates out. It’s about self-worth and authenticity—not just for the residents but the physical street as well. The street must embody worthiness to empower worthiness. This is a project not only serving Black America, but is a precedent for any underserved, marginalized, disempowered community to acknowledge their vision and worth. And the action is reflexive as well for I believe that my colleagues and I will leave this studio with different mindsets and different world views that we can bring into our future studios and professional endeavors beyond academia. For me, this is not just another design project. This has become my life project.
Samantha Solano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.