No Higher Stakes

Date Posted: 12.06.2016

By Deb Guenther

Landscape architects are skilled facilitators, listeners and translators of diverse information into meaningful action. Are we good at adaptation? The dynamic conditions that we preach about in nature also apply to our social world. Certainly, dynamic conditions revealed themselves last week with our national election. Can we adapt to the information that’s been revealed? We are proud stewards of land and communities, and alarm bells have been going off about increasing income gaps, fear between racial groups, personalized social media and the echo chamber of information, and the divisive role each of these can play in communities. How should our daily work and lives respond after seeing these issues laid out so clearly before us?

There may be some answers in an organization called EcoDistricts. A national not-for-profit organization, EcoDistricts empowers city makers to put community stakeholders front and center in urban regeneration work—to effectively build people-centered cities from the neighborhood up. Many practitioners may look at this group and say, “that’s not the work I do. I am working on a block, a residence, a civic space.” With a second look, there are lessons in neighborhood-scaled conversations that apply to all of our work. As Rob Bennett, the Executive Director suggests, “the answers are different when we talk to each other. We can’t find the most effective answers unless community leaders are in the driver’s seat.”

EcoDistricts recently launched EcoDistricts Certified, powered by what they call the Protocol, a global performance standard that drives the development of just, resilient, sustainable neighborhoods. Here are three examples of the values built into the Protocol:


EcoDistricts Certified is driving a new form of collaborative governance that helps ensure our communities are designed and built with the needs and interests of all stakeholders in mind. It’s community engagement 2.0.

Unfortunately, gentrification is often a by-product of landscape architects’ well-intended designs for public space. By integrating inclusive community engagement and public-private-civic partnerships into our place-based designs, landscape architects can play a vital role in building shared health and prosperity for people across socio-economic groups.  “Placemaking is a social act. It shows what we value as a culture,” said Antwi Akom, San Francisco State University professor and director of Streetwyze, an online platform that crowdsources community data.

By using Streetwyze, community developers can document fine-grained information tailored to each community’s interests to inform issues as broad as food deserts or park safety, and as specific as local childcare needs or the prevalence of community-owned businesses.  Used by housing authorities and cities interested in building social cohesion into their resilience planning, Streetwyze was highlighted at the White House Frontiers conference this year.

Sustainability is of course essential—net zero energy, green stormwater infrastructure and water conservation, habitat-friendly urban space. With its focus on cross-sector collaboration and community-driven design, EcoDistricts Certified challenges landscape architects to put people and planet at the center of design by embedding equity, resilience and climate protection across all design decisions.

Landscape architect Diane Allen Jones and her partner Austin Allen do long-term community building planning work in New Orleans and Baltimore. As highlighted in a Landscape Architecture Magazine article about their work last fall, they both think landscape architecture has focused on environmental design somewhat to the exclusion of communities. “It’s not enough to know how to control the water, manage the water,” Allen says. “In order to do that you might be taking homes, or open space (important to neighbors).”


We can learn a lot from housing authorities that have long had the mission of empowering people, including immigrants and people with low incomes. Working with the Denver Housing Authority and the Mariposa neighborhood, Mithun established a Healthy Living Initiative in 2010 based on extensive community conversations that prioritized health goals and strategies—codifying them in a series of campaign plans that the housing authority and community members could use to implement the ideas and reach their goals. In 2012 the Colorado Health Foundation provided a grant for the health metrics to be reviewed and updated, resulting in some of the early feedback loops about what strategies were working and which needed to adapt or be revisited.

When the adjacent Sun Valley neighborhood, started work on their redevelopment plan in 2015, these health metrics were evaluated and adapted once again.  The community’s interests in this neighborhood are built on a long legacy of community gardening and cultural traditions that support local food production and distribution—canning, preparation and butchering.  Since the housing authority conducted a transparent process they built trust in the community and open lines of communication allowed progress to be made. The community expressed interest in a health impact assessment, reinforcement of the early health campaigns at Mariposa, and revisiting Sun Valley’s health metrics as a future phase in the context of the larger West End region.


Years ago, Kathleen Hall Jamison from the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Pennsylvania did a study of how people respond to different types of news. Perhaps not surprisingly, families that watched high content news became more involved in their communities and engaged with their neighbors. This type of social cohesion is widely recognized as a cornerstone of resilient communities—communities that are the most effective in returning to economic stability after the shock of a natural, economic or environmental disaster. A physical parallel to high content news is the Atlanta BeltLine—‘high content’ city infrastructure that serves not only as a multi-use path that connects bikers, walkers, habitat and shoppers between neighborhoods but also provides drainage, tree canopy and habitat to improve livability among neighborhoods. The plan has a strong social equity component having been established as Ryan Gravel’s master’s thesis about community and economic development going hand in hand. Gravel and fellow BeltLine board member Nathaniel Smith recently stepped down from the BeltLine Partnership Board of Directors, urging the board to take a stronger role in working with community groups. Programs like EcoDistricts certification are an example of how to hold programs accountable for achieving equity goals over time.

James Baldwin said, “In order to have a conversation with someone you must reveal yourself.” Finding the ways to work “with, not for” communities and promote conversations that reveal the issues, leaves something even larger than the physical project—it expands our common ground.

This essay first appeared as a guest blog post on Land8.