Black Landscape Architects Network
Featuring an interview with founder Glenn LaRue Smith, ASLA (MLA ’83)
Though their numbers have risen in recent decades, Black landscape architects are still notably underrepresented in the field. Many become aware of that fact first as students—when they may find themselves as either the only—or one of two—Black members of their class. As they move into their professional lives, the demographics may alter, but the issues they face—and the cultural perspectives they bring—are often championed without the benefit of community.
Alumnus Glenn LaRue Smith, ASLA (MLA ’83) decided to change that. In 2012, he founded the Black Landscape Architects Network (BlackLAN) as a LinkedIn group, hoping that others might share his interest in building a community. BlackLAN now has 160 members, including Black landscape architects in the U.S., Africa and Canada—and was incorporated as a nonprofit organization earlier this year.
A native of Vicksburg, Mississippi, Smith is a first-generation college student along with two of his five siblings, and was the first African American graduate of Mississippi State University’s landscape architecture program in 1974. He went on to earn his master’s degree in landscape architecture (MLA) at SEAS, and returned for his first teaching position in 1989. He has since served as the department chair of landscape architecture programs at Morgan State University in Baltimore and Florida A&M University-Tallahassee, and has also taught at New York’s City College, Rutgers and Columbia University.
Among his other achievements, Smith was the first Black landscape architect to receive a Loeb Fellowship in advanced environmental studies from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1997, and served a term as president of the American Society of Landscape Architects’ (ASLA) New York chapter in 1996.
In a career spanning nearly four decades, Smith has practiced in California’s Bay Area, New York City—and for the past twenty years, in Washington, D.C. where he cofounded PUSH Studio in 2013. As senior partner, Smith leads marketing efforts for the firm with a continued effort to build a multidisciplinary practice concerned with 'Visioning' for city systems, improving the quality of life and public spaces in urban areas.
Smith notes that fellow SEAS alumnus Kofi Boone, FSLA (BS' 92, MLA '95), contributed to the launch of BlackLAN, activating a Facebook site for Black landscape architecture students in 2012. Boone serves on the BlackLAN Founding Board and is now a professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University. Ramon Murray, also an African American graduate of SEAS (MLA ’92) and former business partner of Smith’s (Smith + Murray studio), was also instrumental in helping to sustain BlackLAN and is currently founder of Murray Design Group, Inc. in Orlando, FL. While an assistant professor at SEAS, Smith crossed paths with both Boone and Murray as students.
In late September, Smith kindly shared his thoughts with SEAS Communications Specialist, Denise Spranger, via Zoom.
SEAS: You’ve studied and taught at several universities, but you mentioned that you have a special fondness for the University of Michigan. Why is that?
The University of Michigan is dear to me for three reasons. As a student, I had a minority fellowship which was very helpful to me in terms of getting through my education.
Secondly, I went back to teach at the School of Natural Resources (SNR, now SEAS) for a few years, and I've not taught at any other place where I've been so supported. The Rackham School and SEAS really made it possible for me to succeed. I counsel people who are interested in going into teaching based on the model of my experience at the University of Michigan. Lastly, Rachel Kaplan, my research methodology professor as a student and my faculty mentor as a professor, was a great influence on my career.
So, those are my three great experiences at the University of Michigan that were very positive times in my life.
SEAS: You've noted that Black landscape architects are very underrepresented in the field. What are the barriers that discourage entry into the profession?
I think the biggest barrier, which is something I'm trying to work on with the Black Landscape Architects Network, is that young people don't see US. In their daily lives, they don't understand what it is landscape architects do. So, we're on a mission to be more visible. And on a positive note, we have been working more closely with the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) to make sure that they're part of making that visibility possible.
I also think the profession as a whole has a challenge because we're often referred to either as the “landscaper” or the “landscape gardener.” I mean, there's so many hats that we wear—in horticulture, culture, and design—because we have such a diverse education. Sometimes that’s great, because we can become great leaders due to our breadth of knowledge. But it's also a curse, because people get confused about who we are and what we do.
SEAS: What might a greater representation of Black landscape architects contribute to the profession? This is a broad question, of course, but what are the perspectives that you feel are largely missing from the conversation?
I would say, first of all, that Black landscape architects are not monolithic. I happen to be interested in the art-based and urban design end of the profession. But by the very nature of being a Black landscape architect, I have to be interested in the cultural aspects of landscape as well—how our profession interfaces with Black and brown communities. Black landscape architects must be present in their communities as ambassadors to educate about the profession and the meaning of good design.
There's also the whole issue of environmental justice and the responsibility of landscape architects. But I always ask “whose environmental justice?” If Black people, and Black landscape architects in particular, aren't at the table discussing these issues from their unique perspective, it really doesn't address the total scope of what's meant by environmental justice.
SEAS: What motivated you to initiate the Black Landscape Architects Network (BlackLAN) Group on LinkedIn in 2012?
There are two parts to this answer. The first is my personal story. I grew up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, a relatively small town right on the river. It was integrated publicly but segregated socially, and I was one of the first to integrate a predominantly white high school. This was a time in the late ’60s when my mother couldn't go into a store and be called “Mrs. Smith.” They called her by her first name. Also, we couldn't get certain services. So, we boycotted—and drove 30 miles to another city to shop. It gave me a kind of civil rights, self-help, foundation. Thus, I believe in “collective” action to gain recognition and power.
The second aspect of my motivation to launch BlackLAN came from my experience as a Black landscape architect. After I’d been in practice for about 30 years, I’d been in so many situations where I was expected by my white bosses or counterparts to ask for things as opposed to being rewarded for good work. You know, why should I have to ask for a raise when they're giving a raise to someone who doesn't look like me—who is doing less work? I would have to confront them and say, “I'm doing four more projects on my own. Why am I not getting a raise?” Of course, then one is perceived as “subversive,” not unlike how women are seen as they push for their rights.
So, those two kinds of experiences make me feel like we, as Black landscape architects, need to organize. We need to do things for ourselves. We need to define the message—our goals, needs and collective actions.
BlackLAN has been on the scene establishing “community” since 2012, but we were seldom contacted about our mission until 2018. We organized our first luncheon at the Philadelphia ASLA conference, and consequently ASLA’s new African American Diversity Officer, Lisa Jennings, called and we have been closely collaborating with ASLA since that point.
If I wrap that all into one statement, I would say it was really about creating a community where we could speak to each other and help each other, because we wouldn't necessarily get that support from other places.
SEAS: Where does BlackLAN stand today?
The LinkedIn group now has 160 members. We haven't done a survey yet, so I can't tell you the exact number of students as opposed to professionals because it's a mixed group. But there are a fair amount of Black students, and there are at least 17 Black landscape architects from Canada and Africa. So, we've made it a global platform. Again, there is strength in numbers as a community.
We’ve also published our first issue of the BlackLAN newsletter in June 2020. The BlackLAN website has been launched, and the newsletter has now moved to that platform.
SEAS: I understand that BlackLAN incorporated as a nonprofit this year. What does that enable you to do?
The goal is to bring resources to students, in particular, through scholarships and other types of mentorship. I think the problem of recruitment and retention is money-based—because especially at the graduate level, people come into schools with families, and they're a little bit older. They're typically working part time. So, we felt that being able to provide some competitive scholarship money was a way to help elevate the retention levels of Black landscape architecture students. Thus, the nonprofit enables the organization to raise funds and support an array of other programs to benefit Black landscape architects.
Also, Black landscape architecture students may find themselves to be the only Black person in any given program around the country, and they're isolated. That doesn’t mean that they necessarily have a bad experience. But from my own experience in undergraduate school, it just would have been nice to know that there was someone else out there who looked like me—was going through the same things—and with whom I could communicate and network.
SEAS: Do you have any advice for young Black students who are thinking about getting into the field—or those who have just earned their degrees?
It's interesting that you ask that, because a potential student was referred to me just yesterday who has been living in Europe for a while, and she's trying to figure out the type of landscape school she wants to attend. So, I responded to this potential student to encourage her to explore her passion within the natural and social environment—to help narrow the search and understand the right questions to ask schools.
I think the main thing I would tell younger people is to really look through the landscape architecture magazines, periodicals, books, and online resources to see what’s been written about landscape architecture in the past five years or so. Also, it’s very important to talk to landscape architects about what they do. This is true no matter what race you are, but I do think that having the Black Landscape Architects Network is important for Black students. We now have a network to provide access for students like this young Black woman I mentioned.
In terms of getting people at the high school level interested in the profession, the BlackLAN looks to work with allied organizations, such as ASLA, to provide the BlackLAN membership as a resource.
SEAS: Do you think that seeing Black landscape architects in the profession might inspire more Black students to envision themselves in the field?
Yes, and I think that even those who aren't African-American—but have knowledge and access to us—can go into predominantly Black K-12 schools and point out the work of Blacks in the profession and what we’ve accomplished. Of course, this indicates that there is much work to be done to document the work of Black landscape architects. This information is missing in the history of the profession. While the BlackLAN does not plan to take on K-12 efforts directly, we will collaborate with allied organizations like Urban Studio and ASLA to bring Black professionals to these efforts.
SEAS: You mentioned in the “Everything but the Building” podcast that after BlackLAN issued a statement in support of Black Lives Matter, you were surprised to hear the pushback from some members in ASLA—essentially claiming that systemic racism doesn't exist in the field. Beyond what seems like that obvious denial, do you feel that the profession is slowly becoming more welcoming to Black landscape architects than it was, say, when you were in school?
Oh, definitely. I think there's an awareness now within schools, no matter what specific faculty members' personal politics may be—that the environment has been created in which you need to keep your personal politics to yourself and do the right thing. So, in that sense, it is better.
And I think younger people now have had a wake-up call. They had been, I wouldn't say complacent, but they've not had to deal with the sort of systemic racism in the way I've had to deal with it through my whole career—or possibly it's been so subtle for them that they didn't recognize it.
Now, because of the Black Lives Matter movement and the cultural place that we find ourselves in, younger people are much more aware—and they are questioning and being proactive in whatever ways they need to be proactive. So, fortunately, I think the scene has changed. And hopefully, it will keep on changing—in positive ways for all of us.
BLACK LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTS NETWORK: STATEMENT OF SUPPORT (06/03/2020)
Published on the American Society of Landscape Architects site
In the shadow of the racialized murder of George Floyd and the history of violence against black communities in America, the Black Landscape Architects Network (BlackLAN) stands in solidarity with the protests against such killings and associated acts of terrorism. As Black design professionals working within public and community realms, we are keenly aware of the need for our presence as stewards of equity and equality.
This racialized shadow has long been present in American communities, places, and practices. It has been 100 years since the Red Summer of 1919, when Black people were attacked and murdered across the United States. Two years later, the prosperous Black neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma—sometimes known as the “Black Wall Street”— was attacked by a white mob. The legacy of the death and property destruction is still being addressed today. Within this 100-year timeframe, there have been countless other acts of hate and violence against Black people and their communities. These events all speak to a need for our nation and our profession to truthfully reconcile the legacy of systemic racism and violence rooted in landscapes of institutional slavery. The continued refusal to reconcile this legacy does not pay respect to the role Black people played in creating American landscapes.
We are committed to fighting these transgressions and omissions through cultural, historical, and social practices. We embrace cultural research that reveals the history of Black people living in and building the American landscape. The BlackLAN values working as a collective to bring voice to the importance of black landscape architects in American society.
Listen or read more from recent interviews with Glenn LaRue Smith:
Everything but the Building podcast (July 27, 2020) Episode 0106
Architectural Record (August 7, 2020)
Mississippi State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
BlackLAN website: www.blacklanetwork.com