Systems thinking, globalization, and the climate change imperative are largely ubiquitous in our profession and impacting the way we think about and do our work."
Early in his career, Detroit native, SEAS alumnus, and Professor of Landscape Architecture at North Carolina State University’s (NCSU) College of Design, Kofi Boone (BS’ 92, MLA ’95), stood at the crossroads of landscape architecture and environmental justice. But instead of waiting for the light, he turned it Green on his own.
Boone, of course, would be the first to tell you that he was only following the well-trodden path of so many others who shaped the landscape—both physical and cultural—in ways that were always right there, in front of our eyes—and out of “sight.”
In his essay, “Black Landscapes Matter,” Boone builds upon a quote from the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter organizing project, Alicia Garza, on the underlying motivations of the movement.
“To be seen, to live with dignity, and to be connected” – Alicia Garza
In “Black Landscapes Matter,” Boone writes:
“What if landscapes were approached as a way to help invisible people and places ‘to be seen?’ What if landscape processes were deployed to help us all ‘live with dignity?’ And what if, through our continued and shared commitment to building together a more just society, we resisted those forces that would pull us apart and instead engaged in the work with the intent of being ‘connected?’”
Throughout his career, Boone has indeed been engaged with “the intent of being connected.” As a prominent scholar and a leading voice in addressing racism through democratic design, his work focuses on the changing nature of communities—and bridges theory and practice both at home and abroad.
Serving as co-director of NC SU’s College of Design’s Ghana Study Abroad Program, Boone taught seven courses in West Africa, including work with Women In Progress/Global Mamas to develop concepts for new facilities and product lines, as well collaboration with The Mmofra Foundation on educational play experiences grounded Ghanaian cultural practices. Closer to home, Boone’s interest in developing tools for enhanced community engagement and design encompasses digital projects, such as the one in Raleigh, North Carolina—where community residents used smartphones to help designate the largest African-American neighborhood in the city as a cultural district. And in response to the destruction stemming from Hurricane Matthew, working collaboratively to diverse practitioners and communities to increase landscape resilience capacity through Homeplace. These and other efforts are featured in Design as Democracy (Island Press, 2018), winner of the EDRA Great Books Award.
A multi-faceted essayist and speaker, a quick Google search on Boone will find his insightful reflection on a piece of art after the passing of Toni Morrison; a host of keynote presentations; and his story, “On Belonging and Becoming[kb3] ” featured a conversation with Dr. Julian Agyeman on landscape architecture, sustainability, and environmental justice (Landscape Architecture Magazine, March, 2020). “The Water You Can’t See,” was featured on the magazine’s cover (December, 2019) that expresses appreciation for how Duke University Pond was transformed into a hydrology park that delivers revitalized ecologies.
And that’s just on the first page of the search results. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll come across his contribution to the 2009 book Becoming a Landscape Architect: A Guide to Careers in Design in which Boone credits his mentor, SEAS Professor of Landscape Architecture Emeritus Ken Polakowski, for encouraging him to consider the field when he was still an undergraduate.
“He offered me a job that summer doing research—behavioral mapping—at the Detroit Zoo. Once a week I’d sit with Ken and he would ask me to tell him what I saw, and he’d be sneaking landscape architecture into those conversations. He told me, ‘you could do whatever you want, but I think you’d make a great landscape architect…’”
Boone relates that Professor Polakowski went on to map out the next six years of his life—from taking a higher credit load as an undergraduate—all the way through the master’s of landscape architecture program. “He aggressively mentored me,” Boone reflected.
Boone also recalls SEAS career counselor, Sandy Gregerman, who initially connected him with Professor Polakowski—as well professors of landscape architecture Ian Grandison and the late Terry Brown—who kept him “motivated.” “It took a village,” Boone said with a smile.
It was at SEAS (then the School for Natural Resources and Environment) that Boone also became interested in the emerging environmental justice movement, and took classes that were newly offered in the field. There is where he met those “crossroads” that would inspire and inform his career for decades to come.
In the intervening years, Boone’s work has been recognized with Michigan and North Carolina Chapter ASLA awards, Student (as faculty advisor) and Professional National ASLA awards, as well as many NC State University and Departmental Awards including the Alumni Association Outstanding Teacher. He is an active member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), serves on the Board of Directors of The Corps Network and the Landscape Architecture Foundation where he is Vice President of Education.
We reached out to Professor Boone for his thoughts on the potential impact of landscape architects in a world where climate change and environmental justice are inextricably interlinked. We also asked him if he had any advice for students who are passionate about the field.
“Landscape Architecture has changed dramatically since I was a student,” said Boone. “Systems thinking, globalization, and the climate change imperative are largely ubiquitous in our profession and impacting the way we think about and do our work. There have been tremendous inroads made in our profession with regards to gender equity, but we are still struggling with racial equity and creating a profession that is more reflective of the diverse communities we serve. The stakes are very high, but the opportunities are everywhere.
“Many of our graduates are leading successful and nourishing lives applying their landscape training in a wide array of venues. From Forestry and Agriculture, to Public Health and Coding, to Urban Design and Cultural Landscapes, there is almost no field that would not benefit from landscape thinking. There are a lot of reasons to graduate and go to a professional firm or government agency. But my advice to the next generation is to cast a wide net. Get out of the landscape architecture bubble and build networks with others affecting and affected by the environment. Embrace community and democratic design practices. These will point to innovative pathways to tackle our most pressing challenges and to lead an inspired life.”