Landscape architecture design studio Terremoto addresses labor exploitation in its industry

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Landscape architecture design studio Terremoto addresses labor exploitation in its industry

Barranca Landscape crew members ascend a steep hill overlooking the Silver Lake Reservoir in Los Angeles to prepare the land for native plants. (Courtesy Terremoto)

In the spring of 2021, we published an article titled “Landscape Architecture Has a Labor Acknowledgement Problem.” Its thesis was that landscape architecture chronically underrepresents, underacknowledges, and undervalues (in terms of both money and respect) the workers who build the projects that landscape architects design. And it has to change.

Since the article came out, we’ve been inspired to see conversations take place throughout our industry on the topic, one that we refer to with the shorthand “land and labor.” Last year, we formed an internal Land and Labor working group to explore how to better educate ourselves and take action on this issue. Through this activity, we have been learning from our peers at other firms, from organizers and nonprofits in the labor and immigrant workers’ rights space, and from academics studying this subject.

An unintended consequence of so publicly having our name associated with this topic is that many have come to us as experts. In truth, we are students attempting to address what is an incredibly complex and entrenched issue, and it is a journey where we are still at the beginning. The past 18 months have also been a period of intense national conversation about labor, worker treatment, and pay, and, within the architectural industry, heartening and overdue conversations led by the brilliant Architectural Workers United about labor exploitation within our field and at firms. We are not exempt from this process, and we are doing our own self-examination of where we might be falling short.

A year and a half into this work, we wanted to take a moment to look back at the lessons learned so far around land and labor and look ahead to some of the near- and long-term work that still needs to be done.

a tree demolition in southern califonia
Legacy Tree Care (LTC) oversees the demolition of a large Eucalyptus tree in Pasadena. (Courtesy Terremoto)
tree removal next to a craftsman home in pasadena, california
LTC carefully takes down the giant Eucalyptus. (Courtesy Terremoto)
landscape workers sitting on a section of a felled tree
The LTC crew puts a felled tree to good use. (Courtesy Terremoto)

The topic of land and labor is systemic, and our industry and institutions keep it that way.

Cultural attitudes within landscape architecture reinforce this topic. The most pervasive and pernicious issue is design (with a capital D) being seen as separate from and above manual labor. Many “professionals” have had the reactionary experience of correcting friends and family who refer to us as landscapers instead of landscape architects.

The norms around professional practice further reinforce this distinction. Michelle Franco, assistant professor of landscape architecture at the Ohio State University, has been researching how the laborers who construct and maintain projects have been erased from the bureaucratic structures that prop up the industry. Neither accreditation for landscape architecture degree programs nor licensure exams to become a practicing landscape architect address the subject of landscape laborers involved in the creation of designed landscapes. “It’s critical to recognize that structures in place make it easy for this whole population to remain invisible in our work,” Franco said. “It matters because a culture is defined by its policies and practices, and if we don’t ensure that future landscape architects give consideration to laborers, then their representation and inclusion will never become a normalized part of our industry.”

In much of academic education, conceptual design work—and rendering in particular—is emphasized over the experience of seeing and contributing to how those designs actually get built by humans. This focus minimizes the fact that on-site workers embody a tremendous amount of design experience and talent that can be critical when realizing landscape projects. Thankfully, a new wave of increasingly socially aware students are demanding that greater attention be paid to the subject, and progressive faculty like Franco are centering this concern in their work.

The idea that only those with advanced degrees are capable of meaningfully contributing to the design process needs to change. We need to ask ourselves how we can make space for the input and creative authorship of the workers on-site. And it’s not a “nice to do” bonus—collaborating closely with crews makes our designs and completed projects substantially better. They’re able to bring years of project experience to helping us translate loose drawings and uninspiring construction documents into countless sourcing, material selection, and detailing decisions.

landscape workers taking measurement during a concrete pour
The Gardeners Guild works out some details onsite. (Courtesy Terremoto)
workers prep a site for a concrete pour
The crew at Pioneer Construction ready rebar for a concrete pour. (Courtesy Terremoto)

Unintended exploitation is common.

Architecture and design, whether we like to admit it or not, is primarily a service industry. As part of that, designers tend to adhere to the adage that “the client is always right.” But when it comes to this issue, clients—even progressive-minded ones—often are not right.

On every project, a relational dynamic exists between clients, designers, contractors, and crews. Often, while the client-designer dynamic is deferential and cordial, the client-contractor relationship can be antagonistic or adversarial. This means that we as designers need to do a better job of rebalancing the scales. Because, while not always intentional, exploitation of contractors and crews, especially when they are people of color or immigrants, is depressingly common.

Wage theft is one major issue that shows up frequently in construction and is perpetuated by the “race to the bottom” pricing approach many contractors adopt to appease clients. Wage theft can include overt as well as covert forms, from not paying overtime to casually asking for change orders outside the agreed scope of work to requiring crews to work long hours without breaks.

Organizations like Justicia Lab and the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA) are doing important work developing resources to combat worker exploitation. Justicia Lab is about to release Reclamo, the first comprehensive digital tool to help immigrant workers in construction and landscaping in New York State reclaim stolen wages. In California, IDEPSCA leads advocacy, worker training, education, and outreach with day laborers. It is in the process of developing better health and safety protocols for workers, including landscapers and gardeners. This matters because construction consistently ranks as one of the highest-risk professions and also has among the fewest protections. Many workers exist outside traditional benefits systems without access to health care coverage.

We can start to do better by engaging clients on these issues at the beginning of projects, rather than when conflict occurs; by calling out disrespectful communication and instances of wage theft; and by explaining how higher wages for laborers translate to higher quality and long-term care of our clients’ projects.

craning timber into place at a landscape design project in southern california
DG Landworks cranes a timber into place at a residential project in Southern California. (Courtesy Terremoto)
building a shade structure with timber
Barranca Landscape (BL) builds a shade structure for a future school garden. (Courtesy Terremoto)
machinery placing logs at a school garden
BL masterfully places logs into place at a school garden in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles. (Courtesy Terremoto)

Representation matters.

In her recent article for Landscape Journal titled “Invisible Labor: Precarity, Ethnic Division, and Transformative Representation in Landscape Architecture Work,” Franco posits that depictions—especially visual—of the design process often leave out and render the people who build them invisible. As Franco states: “The processes of division and devaluation of labor inform a social understanding of whose work ‘counts’ and whose work is worth documenting. Excluding manual laborers from a professional, visual discourse actively engages in this process of Devaluation.”

Much of the way design and architecture media operates further enables this: Publications glamorize high-resolution completed project images and the narrative of the lone designer or firm as entirely responsible for these projects. All while failing to show any images of the building process and without referencing the work of the laborers and crews without which these beautiful gardens, landscapes, and buildings wouldn’t exist.

This theme of representation also speaks to our need to better highlight and communicate the personal and professional stories of the crews we work with and the deep expertise and craftsmanship they bring to their work. This will aid in rallying against the racist, classist, and blatantly false trope of the “unskilled worker,” which is particularly associated with day laborers. It’s also important to be in regular dialogue with workers about how they want to be represented, something we as a firm are working toward being more deliberate about, in addition to exploring opportunities to allow crews to document their own process.

workers at a park landscape in denver
A crew from Landtech going full tilt building a wilderness-centric plaza in downtown Denver. (Courtesy Terremoto)
wheelbarrows placed wheels up in a mound of dirt
The tools of the trade have their own beauty. (Courtesy Terremoto)

There is an important connection between labor and environmental sustainability.

While the landscape architecture industry is rightfully focused on how to reduce the environmental and carbon footprint of our projects, this topic is not isolated from issues of manual labor in landscape practice. In fact, the two are inextricably linked.

This is especially clear when it comes to maintenance. Landscape Design (with a capital D) overemphasizes the initial design with limited discussion of how those landscapes will be maintained over the medium and long term.

The regular undervaluation of the people who and processes through which we maintain our landscapes has tangible ecological impacts on soil quality, wildlife habitat, water cycle restoration, and carbon capture. When we devalue land care, we devalue the land itself. In California, we’re grappling with this right now as the state moves toward outlawing the use of gas-powered leaf blowers and lawn mowers. It’s a necessary step in combating pollution, but one that needs to be paired with a conversation about how we underpay gardeners who are forced to use “mow, blow, and go” approaches to visit enough homes in a day to make a living wage.

According to Sarah Fitzgerald, a designer at SWA and a member of ASLA’s Climate Action Committee, “Up to 25 percent of a project’s carbon budget is attributable to maintenance. If we can position the people who care for our landscape as valued stewards, they can improve their material conditions and also be in a better position to directly impact carbon sequestration. Choices like opting for electric equipment, using hand pruning, and knowing which species to preserve and which to remove can end up having a significant impact on the climate.”

two workers push logs into place for a garden project
BL crew members push logs into place for a future school garden. (Courtesy Terremoto)
workers apply mulch at an urban park in downtown denver
Landtech applying mulch to planted zones in Denver. (Courtesy Terremoto)
a landscape worker scales and trims a large oak tree
An LTC crew member deftly trims a coast live oak. (Courtesy Terremoto)

There’s much more work to do.

We’re grateful and humbled to be on this journey. But this is a massive topic, and we are a small firm working within a particular geographic context trying to dedicate time, care, and resources to this issue while managing every other aspect of running a studio.

If meaningful change is going to happen, more firms and institutions should join in this work—from more research into how this topic shows up in different geographic and regional, project-type, and firm-size contexts to subtopics like how contracts are structured and cataloguing what firms can start doing to make change internally.

Most importantly, this involves talking directly with workers themselves to see what they think should change. While we’ve started to have these conversations with crews on project sites, much more research and collaboration needs to be done to integrate their views on this topic. Our experience has been that when clear communication and respect is established, it not only enhances the material realities and experiences of all involved, but it also results in better projects. If the field of landscape architecture is to live up to its newfound commitment to equity and inclusion, one way is to work towards a solution that is right in front of us.

TERREMOTO creates well-built, site-specific landscapes that respond to client needs while simultaneously challenging historical and contemporary landscape construction methods, materials, and formal conventions. This article was written by the studio’s Land and Labor working group.

TERREMOTO presented the session “Land and Labor: Building more collaborative and equitable relationships between landscape designers, clients and crews” at last May’s Outdoor Spaces virtual summit hosted by The Architect’s Newspaper.