Architecture, Design, Action: Anita Berrizbeitia on Dismantling Systemic Racism in Pedagogy and Practice

Illustration of Anita Berrizbeitia, professor of Landscape Architecture and chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture, with text

Anita Berrizbeitia, professor of Landscape Architecture and chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture

As a landscape architecture theorist, how do you understand the crisis of systemic inequity and spatial injustice in American cities?

I’m interested in examining how landscape architecture can rework and redirect pressures of capitalism toward more just ends. How does the landscape architect understand his or her project beyond design direction? How do they understand governance, politics, and power in relation to their design proposals and built projects? How can landscape shape urbanization (at every scale), to check its inherent tendency to expand and maximize capitalistic growth?

Landscape architecture, landscape, land itself—this is where, simply put, life and all of its conflicts takes place. This means that, as long as the capitalist spatial mode prevails, landscape is always a contested ground. Landscape architecture constantly negotiates between disciplinary values of environmental protection, the necessity of high-quality public-realm landscapes, and social equity and the pressures imposed by the market forces of development. Who/what pays for landscape, and what does this have to do with its spatial distribution in urban areas, with accessibility, upkeep, and design quality?

This conundrum of funding—for all public realm projects such as streets and infrastructure, in addition to recreational landscapes—has resulted in a new set of questions. Who gets to design the space and why? All you need is a quick glance at a Google Earth image of any city in the world to see the inequities in the distribution of “green.” The pattern always reveals the same story: leafy green spaces indicate where the rich (typically white) people live, and arid areas signify where the poor (typically communities of color) live. How can we redistribute public and private funding more equitably, toward projects that have broader public benefit? 

How can landscape architects align their work with principles of spatial justice? 

The first obvious answer is that they must commit to expanding their practice to include work with underserved communities. Because these communities cannot afford the services of a landscape architect, firms will need to procure other sources of funding. This is difficult and time-consuming, a commitment on many levels that will necessarily restructure practice itself. We are increasingly seeing firms that have a non-profit arm, funded largely by the profits earned from high-paying clients such as private developers. 

Second, landscape architects have to formulate an agenda for each and every project that exceeds the client’s brief (typically framed as a bounded site, a program, a budget, and time frame) to focus on broader issues of spatial justice, including designing and incorporating mechanisms for preventing well-known consequences of building landscape, such as gentrification. This will be essential as landscape inequality will only become more intensified with climate change. The landscape architect will have to be a politician, an activist, and an advocate for the interests of those who are not on the typical client list, incessantly arguing that there be greater public utility in all their work, regardless of the scale of the project. Ultimately they have to deliver this new vision with greater intentionality and clarity of position, implemented through the invention of new methods and languages of design.

How does design justice filter into your pedagogy, and how do you think landscape architecture education still needs to change?

Course syllabi are essential, as they are the primary venue through which we express a value system. To demonstrate the relevance of the field, we often boast of the multivalence of landscape architecture, how it touches on all aspects of the natural and the social spheres. Yet as often as we explain the many ways that landscape relates to everything, we neglect to explain what landscape hides behind its physical manifestation, its appearance.  We do not as often discuss the histories, processes, and practices that have led to the present state of landscape, to the climate crisis in all its manifestations, to pandemics, and to social injustice and exclusionary public realms.  

By not interrogating these histories, processes, and practices, landscape architects can blind themselves to the ways that capitalism and empire have artificially limited the bounds of the possible. In addition, by focusing on the constructed work, we neglect to discuss those conditions of mutuality that necessarily exist in the creation of every landscape: the labor that actually shapes and constructs landscape, the live matter that is often displaced from other geographical locations, the extractive practices that cause environmental and social damage elsewhere. 

Our department has a long-standing commitment to pedagogy that focuses on public-realm landscapes and, building on this commitment, over the last four years we have made changes across all areas of our curriculum.  After the last presidential election, we reinvented the fourth semester theory class “The Nature of Difference: Theories and Practices of Landscape Architecture.” In this class we explore how notions of social and political difference are embedded in the design of landscapes. More recently, the changes to first semester’s “Textuality and the Practice of Landscape Architecture” embrace a less filtered view of landscape architectural history. Core studios have also seen significant changes that address issues of climate change and social and environmental inequities at every scale. 

Admittedly, these changes are slow to implement—and uneven. Some courses, and some topics, are more open to evolution than others. Some require tweaking while others require radical transformation. Implementation of curricular changes requires faculty support, funding, and time. But more importantly, it will require adding the historical and cultural perspectives, the design expertise, and scholarship of those who have been traditionally excluded from prestige landscape architecture.

What role should senior faculty have in bringing about this change? 

The senior faculty are a hinge between the present and the future of the school, between the present and the future of the discipline, and between the school as a community in its totality and those in charge of its administration. They have a fundamental role in bringing about change.

One key issue we need to address is the importance of both continuity and change in academia, especially in terms of hiring and promotion protocols. Hiring more faculty of color is imperative, but so is the long-term mentoring of our Black graduates toward academia. This is clearly an area where senior faculty would have a major impact. Evaluation for promotion needs to include greater recognition of faculty working in research or in practice that addresses inequality. Similarly, senior faculty have a profound influence on the research interests of their students, and continuities often get reinforced unnecessarily. We also need to broaden the criteria for funding student research beyond ecology to include research that explores BIPOC cultural and vernacular landscapes, and that addresses systemic racism, environmental justice, and the relationship between the two. 

In terms of addressing institutionalized racism at the GSD, senior faculty need to accept that it exists, understand and accept our roles in it, and seek advice on how to implement change both in the short and the long term. Faculty and administration must have focused conversations on the gap that exists between an evolving vision for the school and the administrative mandates that shape, sometimes in invisible but very tangible ways, the school from the outside. This will be fundamental to bringing about change.  

Anita Berrizbeitia is professor of Landscape Architecture and chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture. Her research focuses on design theories of modern and contemporary landscape architecture, especially those that represent paradigm shifts in the conceptualization of landscape, the productive aspects of landscapes, and Latin American cities and landscapes.