Black Landscapes Matter



Black Lives Matter (BLM) is one of the most influential American protest movements in the 21st century. Building from contemporary mobilizing strategies developed through Occupy Wall Street and other movements, BLM leveraged the police murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012 into an international movement that makes a deceptively simple proposition: you cannot have a just society if an unarmed black person’s life is not protected from state-sanctioned murder. BLM’s intersectional leadership (two thirds of its founding members are queer black women), its decentralized structure, its lack of reliance on established black organizations, its strong aversion to established black “leaders,” and its embrace of social media as an organizational tool extend the rich traditions of non-violent direct action used by generations of black people to effect social change. In this case, it represents an information age and “Do It Yourself” approach to organizing. 

However, some have questioned the long-term impact of BLM on national policy as affecting black people and all Americans. BLM created a comprehensive platform now being championed by The Movement for Black Lives that extends to areas of health, safety, and welfare where black people live. What does this broader agenda mean for designers and planners that work with black people and black communities? What are the implications of this era on the landscapes where black people live, work, worship, remember, and play?

The timing of this topic is significant. Twenty-three years ago, Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM) featured a cover story on the reflections of landscape architects in the aftermath of the LA Insurrection . In that issue, past, present, and future leaders in democratic design gathered and shared their perceptions on the limitations of landscape architecture (in the traditional sense) to effect social change in black communities. Many of these perceptions interrogated the traditional project delivery model, the economics that drive traditional landscape architecture practice, and the challenges of serving those without land ownership, money, and political organization. 

The story built on themes brought forth another 25 years prior by Whitney Young in his historic keynote address to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) . In the aftermath of nationwide insurrections ignited by the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Young admonished architects and the design community for not representing the communities they served and doing more harm than good. As an aside, this speech is credited with kick starting the Community Design Center (CDC) movement, which provides pro bono design services to communities in need.

If there is a common thread here, it is that both the LAM article and the AIA address that preceded it by a generation were responses to crises. BLM and the Movement for Black Lives are different. Both offer systemic arguments that extend beyond black people. Although unarmed black people are murdered by police every year at a disproportionate rate, police murder Latino and Native American people at equally disproportionate rates, and murder more unarmed white people than people of color combined .  In addition to the mainstream dismissal of BLM as merely “identity politics,” the compartmentalization of these issues as just black issues that somehow do not affect white people is false. 

Jelani Cobb recently made the point that “the myth of White supremacy is the lack of recognition of mutuality ”; that somehow doing harm to black people does no harm to white people and others. I want to expand that; I think many people think that doing harm to black landscapes will not hurt other landscapes, or will not affect landscape architecture overall.  

It may be time to not only think about how Landscape Architecture can better serve Black communities, but also to be honest about the need to begin a radical rethink of the profession. Especially in the nascent days of what looks to be a federal government that will threaten the protection of our rights and resources, how can we rethink our approaches so that Black Landscapes Matter?

For the purposes of this paper, I want to build on a quote from BLM co-founder Alicia Garza. At a panel called “Building Multi-Racial Coalitions” and sponsored by Race Forward,  Garza described the underlying motivations for the BLM movement as fighting “to be seen, to live with dignity, and to be connected.” I will use these three themes as lenses to examine landscapes in North Carolina, and to show how Black Landscapes (could) Matter.