Diversity—Not Just for Plant Communities

Diversity—Not Just for Plant Communities

African-American landscape architecture students discussing boards

Photo © OLIN / Sahar Coston-Hardy

Following up on National ASLA’s diversity initiative, as well as the efforts our own chapter is making locally to address the lack of diversity within our profession, below is a repost from Olin: Blog written by Janelle Johnson, a Senior Landscape Architect with OLIN and a selected participant in ASLA’s Diversity Summit.


In many ways, it might seem that landscape architects would, more than most other professionals, understand and appreciate the power of diversity. We design singular spaces that must be embraced by many different people at once—local residents, tourists, children, and adults, not to mention the stakeholders, client groups, and governmental entities with whom we collaborate. We value diversity in the environment, knowing that successful ecosystems—designed or natural—are only possible through the harmonious incorporation of myriad plant and animal species. But when it comes to diversity within our own ranks of design professionals, landscape architects have continually fallen behind the curve. Leaders in our field have begun to address this disparity, but it is up to each and every one of us to recognize the issues at hand and work together to find solutions.

The American Society of Landscape Architects has begun tackling the issue of diversity in the profession by organizing the 2013 Diversity Summit. A collection of Latino and African-American professionals from all over the country gathered to engage in conversations about our paths to the profession and how to make that path more clearly delineated for future designers. The purpose of the summit was to identify the leading causes of the lack of diversity in the field in order to develop strategies that will promote the profession to a larger demographic.

The Numbers

Research compiled by Terence Poltrack, Director of Public Relations and Communications at the ASLA, shows that between 2000 and 2010, the Hispanic and Latino population increased by 43% in the United States, while the African-American population grew 12.3%. According to projections by the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. population will be much more racially and ethnically diverse by 2060 as minority populations continue to grow, with the U.S. likely to become a majority-minority nation for the first time in 2043.

The numbers in the landscape architecture profession do not reflect such diversity. The ASLA’s Survey of Graduating Students showed that in 2012, 82% of graduating students were Caucasian, 8% Asian or Pacific Islander, 4% Hispanic/Latino, 2% African-American, 1% American Indian and 3% “other.”  These statistics have been fairly consistent over the past ten years and sadly illustrates a cross-section of people vastly disproportionate to the nation’s overall population.

Of course, this stark disparity is not just troubling because of the statistics. It means that, as a community of creative professionals, we are not able to reach the fullest potential of our practice. A designer’s approach to the transformation of a place is informed by in-depth research, site analysis, and a rigorous design process, but the lenses through which a designer envisions the potential of this transformation are colored by their personal knowledge base, prior experiences, worldly travels, and cultural background. Therefore, one could argue that a more diverse body of practitioners would enhance the quality of design thought in the field and enrich the landscape architecture community.

Further, landscape architecture has great depth and breadth of practice which encapsulates a number of other professions such as planning, urban design, and the earth sciences. Given the diversity of the various practice areas and opportunities for specialization within landscape architecture, it is surprising that the profession has not captured the interest of a wider range of America that is more directly aligned with the proportion of ethnic and cultural groups present in this country. Why hasn’t more been done to attract African-American and Latino students to the world of landscape architecture?

The Journey

Even my own path to the profession as a practicing landscape architect was a meandering one.  At the age of seven, I proudly asserted my ambition to be an architect when I grew up. When faced with the challenge of selecting a university, I researched several institutions and several different programs of study without a clear objective in mind. I ultimately decided to enter the School of Engineering at Purdue University, with the intention of matriculating into the civil engineering program. After a year, I began to realize that my interests in art, human behavior, the built environment, and the like were not being engaged at the level that I needed. I combed through the University’s program offerings in search of a new major, and it was only then that I found landscape architecture.

For me this journey began over ten years ago, yet landscape architecture remains a marginal, obscure and misunderstood profession in minority and urban communities, no matter their socio-economic status. This is primarily because individuals in these communities are less likely to know any landscape architects or even what landscape architecture is. Without exposure to varied career choices, most students naturally gravitate toward professions they are familiar with, like teaching, medicine, and law.

Action Items

These kinds of concerns, research, and anecdotes, dominated the conversation at the diversity summit, and from the discussion, three action items emerged: Public Awareness, Early Exposure, and Mentorship. A strategy focused on public awareness will help to eliminate any lingering misconceptions about the profession that exist among a few cultural groups. A higher level of public awareness will also ensure that career and guidance counselors are armed with information they need to guide students to the profession when appropriate. Similarly, early exposure to the field is also a priority, as children often begin to think about their future at a young age. It is important for landscape architecture to be understood as a viable career option. Lastly, mentorship is essential to one’s success at every stage of a person’s education and career.The ASLA is taking the lead on the development and implementation of programs to address the themes mentioned above.  Next steps include authoring a white paper on the topic, producing a promotional video of summit participant interviews, and partnering with academic programs across the nation on recruitment efforts for this field of study. However, individual practitioners can certainly start now by engaging in activities that promote awareness to a broader audience, ensure students are exposed to landscape architecture as a career option at an early age, and also serve as active mentors to landscape architecture students and young professionals.


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