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Minneapolis Parks Foundation > Common Ground > Projects > Reimagining the Civic Commons > Race, Culture, and Space: A Conversation with Kofi Boone

Race, Culture, and Space: A Conversation with Kofi Boone

This post first appeared on Medium as part of Reimagining the Civic Commons’ discussions designed to help public space practitioners and community leaders dig more deeply into the challenges facing our field, called “Civic Commons Conversation.” Visit RCC’s Medium channel for more great content.

In December, RCC hosted a conversation between Paul Bauknight, the Minneapolis Parks Foundation’s Project Implementation Director, and Kofi Boone, a university faculty scholar and professor in landscape architecture and environmental planning at North Carolina State University in the College of Design.

Boone’s work sits at the nexus between landscape architecture and environmental justice, with specializations in democratic design, digital media and interpreting cultural landscapes. This past year, he has sought to understand the connections between the Black Lives Matter movement’s efforts to create just, healthy and safe places for Black people and the work of planners, designers and architects working in Black communities. This article is a condensed version of the conversation between Bauknight and Boone.

Kofi Boone

Paul Bauknight [PB]: Why do Black landscapes matter?

Kofi Boone [KB]: To paraphrase BLM organizer Alicia Garza, it’s about being seen, it’s about living with dignity, and it’s about being connected in society. So much of the Black cultural legacy is not made visible, not made tangible and not embedded in our community strategies. And so that ability to reclaim our cultural legacy is important, in terms of how we give Black people public space, to ensure that everybody that uses these places feels like they’re seen as a human being and they can live with dignity.

You know, in landscape architecture we usually talk about the award-winning landscapes that end up in coffee table books or that win awards. I love those places too — they’re beautiful. But conspicuously absent from these discussions are the lived experiences of the people who use those places and who actually made those places as well.

PB: Minneapolis is the epicenter of this current Black Lives Matter movement. What needs to change in our work in public spaces, and how do we think about this work here and in other places?

KB: What people really grapple with is how to leverage [these watershed moments] for systemic change. And unfortunately, there has not been as much progress within the built environmental design space as we would like.

Today, based on how you measure it, two to four percent of architects are Black folks, with Black women making up less than one-tenth of one percent of total licensed architects. And although there’s been more of a light shining on this issue recently, there’s been little attention given to how we do what’s required for systemic change. I’ve seen information about the criminal justice system, mass incarceration, systemic inequities across many curricula in other professions, but there are few classes for built environmental professionals on these topics. There are very few faculty in our profession who are even conversant in these issues.

I think people really want to make changes based on policy. For example, President Clinton issued an executive order in 1994 that was the first rule from the executive branch dealing with environmental justice. This executive order really changed how EPA and a lot of us think. People began to examine and ask why we were increasing the disproportionate burden of toxics and other negative environmental impacts in Black communities and communities of color. Yet today, there are no other environmental justice laws on the books other than that executive order.

What I’m hearing in many places now are questions about how communities get more power. In this global capitalist system, how do local communities, Black communities, find those footholds? And a lot of it has to do with ownership of land and property that can work in concert with public policy. But putting all the eggs in the public policy basket and expecting policy to deliver transformative change doesn’t seem to make sense.

Tonnetta Graham of Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation speaks at the ribbon cutting for Boxers’ Trail Gateway in East Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, Pa. Image credit: Cari Feiler Bender, 2020.

PB: When I was in architecture school no one talked about public housing policy, no one talked about redlining, no professors looked like you and me, nobody talked about the political and the economic realities of our profession.

At the same time, as a Black male, I know all this stuff is happening in my community and our training for the most part left all of that out. As we think about the systemic changes to the [professional] pipeline, what needs to happen in terms of school?

KB: First, I would say there’s not enough demand for change, and nor is the idea of change to architecture, landscape architecture, and design and planning in anyone’s top ten social change ideas list. Maybe not even in the top 20! There’s a perception that we’re enablers of shaping capital, but in terms of making change, our profession is perceived as less powerful than other fields that pay more, have more social status or are more familiar to our communities.

I’ve talked with a lot of families with kids, and I tell them that landscape architecture doesn’t pay extremely well but it is high impact. All the places that you live, work, play, and worship were probably touched by landscape architects.

Part of the problem is we do not acknowledge the damage that we have done as a profession. You mentioned redlining, the legacy of urban renewal, which was and is very damaging. There is all manner of eras that have done incredible harm to our communities, generational harm, and we don’t talk about it. We blame bad actors or say it was done in the spirit of the time. But part of changing the profession is acknowledging that harm was done. For us to say that, we’ve done harm, and we’ve learned from it. We can improve.

PB: Can we talk about this concept of a Black ‘creative ethos’ that you’ve written about?

KB: People ask me: if you believe that architecture, landscape architecture, planning, design and all these built environment professions are a direct and impactful way of providing benefit to our communities, why isn’t there a groundswell of diverse people moving into these professions?

In almost every arena from fashion to film to art to TV, there’s this push to include diverse voices and viewpoints, right? Because people feel like ‘I can get my voice heard.’ That same push is not showing up in our professions. This disconnect indicates that we have work to do. We need to draw in that interest and tell future Black architects and Black built environment professionals that this is a space where you can make an impact, and where your voice is heard.

I also think that sometimes we place too much emphasis on delineating between who is considered a “designer” or “professional,” with all the schooling and money it requires, and the work people in communities do out of necessity or simply because they understand their community’s needs better than an outside designer could.

For example, in the early 20th century when local communities across the South raised half of the resources required to build a new school, the Rosenwald Fund (created by Sears co-founder Julius Rosenwald) would match these funds. In many cases, local residents refused the match and raised the entire capital budget themselves.

In the end, more than five thousand “Rosenwald Schools” were built across the Southeast. Sadly, many of these sites have now fallen into disrepair. But they echo a time when local people — Black people — raised their own funds, contributed their own resources, know-how, and site-planning awareness to hundreds of state-of-the-art facilities in their own communities. They were landscape architects.

Rebuild Foundation’s Juneteenth Quarantine Concert at Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago, Ill. Image credit: Nancy Wong, 2020.

PB: For practitioners — local government, nonprofit organizations, but not necessarily designers or academics — what are the policies or practices that could be adopted to ensure more Black and brown designers?

KB: That’s a really good question. I wrote an article celebrating people that we wouldn’t traditionally call designers, yet who were landscape architects and designers in their time. For example, enslaved African people living on a plantation called Middleton Place created an amazing landscape — a landscape for which they do not get recognized.

Here’s what people can do: in the places that matter in your communities, you can really help drive greater understanding about why these places matter and amplify the benefits of these places, so they continue to serve the community. We need ongoing community conversations about places that matter. This, and resources, builds trust. But we often don’t have the infrastructure to sustain these conversations. If a community is restricted to the boundaries of a consultant contract, the consultant’s work is going to be constrained; I’m arguing for ongoing community conversations about the places that matter within communities. Those are needed to enable growth and sustainability rooted in people.

Second, I think we need to reclaim the roles that policy and governance can play in advancing these efforts. Philanthropy is fine but not as a surrogate for good governance and public interest. We are in a critical moment where we can talk about policy and governance as design challenges. I would like to see more people trained in design engaged in policies addressing pressing social challenges. For example, homelessness/houselessness, food insecurity, resilience, and disaster recovery. The scale of these issues requires systemic change and designers are positioned to participate and lead in these arenas.

For example, I like the work of Fred Brown from the Forbes Funds in Pittsburgh. The Forbes Funds is doing some really interesting work with philanthropic community there, thinking about who should be involved in change, who should benefit from change and who is impacted by that change.

The Forbes Funds has been using the UN Sustainable Development goals guidelines for his work, combined with social determinants of health. These are a set of guidelines at a global level that, for different participating countries and organizations, are used to lift people out of poverty, to connect them to each other, to support them in living in healthy lives and driving change in their own communities.

alt_Market in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood of Chicago, Ill. Image credit: Nancy Wong, 2020.

PB: You touched on the importance of balancing people’s lived experience and professional expertise to achieve the highest quality public realm. Too often you get one type of process or the other, but not a balance. Any recommendations on other people or organizations that you see challenging this dichotomy productively?

KB: This is a tough question, and the answer is: I think it depends. From a traditional corporate perspective, I’m impressed with the work of Hood Design StudioDesignJones and the emerging work at Urban Studio and Studio Zewde, and how these firms are making a difference. Zena Howard at Perkins & Will is doing important work (among other things, she was a designer on the Smithsonian Museum of African American History). The Public Interest Design movement and folks like Bryan Bell are also doing good work. Bryan C. Lee Jr. and Colloqate out of New Orleans are really pushing it via the Design Justice Platform, as is Blackspace out of NYC.

From a municipal standpoint, I like the collaborative work Alexa Bush is leading in partnership with Reimagining the Civic Commons in Detroit, and I’m impressed with the Detroit Collaborative Design Center. In Chicago, Doug Williams’ work with their Large Lot program on the city’s South Side is impressive, as is Africatown in Seattle.

Featured Image: We Walk PHL in Parkside Edge. Image credit: Albert Yee, 2019
Photos courtesy of Reimagining the Civic Commons; Kofi Boone

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