Black Landscapes Matter asks why Black landscapes are separate from landscape design

Reading The Land

Black Landscapes Matter asks why Black landscapes are separate from landscape design

A memorial in Nashville, Tennessee, by Hood Design Studio (Courtesy Hood Design Studio)

Black Landscapes Matter
Edited by Walter Hood and Grace Mitchell Tada
University of Virginia Press, 2020
MSRP $35

If Black lives do matter, then where we live, and how we live there, must matter as well. This deceptively simple suggestion is the provocation that Black Landscapes Matter poses to the fields of landscape architecture and design. Edited by Walter Hood and Grace Tada, this collection of a dozen essays holds up a mirror to the design profession as a way of inciting a racial reckoning within that space, much as the Movement for Black Lives and related social movements have done in the wider world. Indeed, the tension between—or, perhaps, the co-constitution of—the anti-racist social movements and the rise of the neo-fascist right serve as a backdrop to this work.

In written and photographic essays, as well as design proposals, Hood, Tada, and nine other contributing authors deftly draw a through-line connecting the contemporary moment, of sociopolitical unrest regarding racism, to a much longer, and deeply rooted, history of dispossession, erasure, and—to quote Hood—the “ugly and unforgiveable.” When reading the chapters as a whole, two dominant arguments emerge: “the precariousness of Black geographic claims,” to borrow the words of contributor Anna Livia Brand, requires us to pay attention to the ordinary and the ephemeral, alongside the monumental and the permanent; and, the American economy and American landscapes—so often implicitly understood as white spaces—are created through the extraction of Black labor and Black land. As Hood notes in the conclusion, “Black landscapes force us to reconsider what is vernacular.” Through this lens, the fields, cabins, and main houses of plantations, the ironwork adorning Southern port cities, and the murals dotting MLK Boulevards across the nation are all reframed as the Black vernacular, whose architects, designers, and builders have long been excised from the frame.

A temporary community painting project in Opa Locka, Florida (Courtesy Hood Design Studio)

The 12 chapters in this slender volume were authored by design practitioners and academics, who drew from their client projects, partnerships, fieldwork, and life memories to share their perspectives on how and why Black landscapes have always mattered and how they continue to matter. These American geographies and spatialities represented are diverse: North, South, West, and Midwest; urban and rural; domestic and industrial; public and private. Project plans and renderings and photo essays richly complement the scholarly and discursive entries.

In the first section, “Calls to Action,” Richard Hindle, Louise Mozinga, and Anna Livia Brand invite readers to reread familiar landscapes through the lens of Black life. By reflecting on a diverse range of geographies, from the free Black town of Seneca Village in 1800s Central Park to Northern Virginia’s midcentury suburbs to the ongoing abandonment of Black humanity by the state during and after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the authors suggest that understanding Black landscapes in fact requires a double lens of the DuBoisian kind: Both state-sanctioned erasure of Black spaces as well as state-sanctioned creation of white spaces must remain in the frame. The second section, “Practicing Culture,” effectively utilizes photographs and design renderings to depict Black vernacular landscapes, “the everyday and the mundane” spaces of Black life past and present. The case studies in the third and final section, “Notes from the Field,” read as a less cohesive set than the contributions in the previous sections, but the differing interventions each author makes are compelling. Of particular note is the critique of the field put forth by Kofi Boone, Distinguished Professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at North Carolina State. After tracing various Black landscape histories, such as the targeted extraction of Wolof farmers and their knowledge of rice cultivation to design the rice plantations of the Carolinas, Boone writes:

“Mainstream landscape architecture history, theory, and practice relegates the critical Black landscape to historic preservation, cultural anthropology, and archaeology. Why can they not be read as landscape architecture?”

The challenges he puts forward permeate the remainder of this last section, and they link to Hood’s conceptualization of Black landscapes as the sites we already know, like Monticello, presented in a new light. Thus, Black landscapes become an opening: to rethink how and why we know what we think we know about American cities and landscapes, and, by looking at our cities and landscapes in the mirror, to forge a sense of empathy and our collective obligations to one another.

The book falls short of its aim in one minor, but poignant, way. While the essays in the third section rely heavily on the perspectives of practitioners and the insights of intellectuals, voices from communities embedded in these Black landscapes are not often heard. Speaking for those working in the grassroots, however earnestly, rather than incorporating their insights directly as chapter authors, stands in tension with the volume’s inspiration, the Movement for Black Lives. This social movement emerged at the grassroots level and names community control, collective ownership, and political power as three demands in its six-point platform. Authorship honors those demands, and including contributors from the grassroots may have added unique insights to this volume.

Black Landscapes Matter was published in December 2020—several years after the Rally for the Right in Charlottesville (a site chosen for the legacy of enslavement embedded in the landscape), in the midst of a global reckoning on racism catalyzed by the police killing of George Floyd, and mere weeks before the January 6 storming of the Capitol. The book went to press in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, coinciding with a resurgence of public support for anti-racist action that transformed American landscapes: Statues at public sites came down; exhibit labels and tour scripts at historic sites were rewritten; dormitories and lecture halls were renamed.

Yet applying a historical lens to the subject matter reveals how regularly gains for Black people in the U.S. are foreclosed (as was the case with the fleeting experiment of Reconstruction) or met with resounding subversion (as occurred when the Brown v. Board of Education decision was directly followed by white flight from public schools and city neighborhoods). DuBois’s framing of double consciousness, periodically invoked in the book, allows us to appreciate the removal of Confederate insignia from state flags, while simultaneously understanding the monumentality of the Confederate flag entering the Capitol for the first time and recognizing a “white vernacular” in “the everyday and the mundane” proliferation of black-and-white U.S. flags flaunting a single blue, red, or green stripe. Black Landscapes Matter is at its best as an epistemological critique, instructing its readers how to reread their everyday landscapes and challenging leaders in the field to rethink their sanitized paradigms.

Hilary Malson is a scholar of urban planning and geography. She currently researches housing justice and planning history as a doctoral student in urban planning at UCLA.

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