For Immediate Release
Dr. Anna Livia Brand joins the College of Environmental Design this fall as an Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning. Her research focuses on the intersection of race and space, specifically looking at historic black mecca neighborhoods and how they change through processes of gentrification and resistance. Her comparative research focuses on cities in the American North and South, including New Orleans, Houston, Atlanta, Chicago and New York. This work highlights the ongoing spatial impacts of racial processes and resistance to these processes over time and evaluates the role that urban planning and design plays. Within her work, Dr. Brand focuses on interpretations of everyday landscapes and the built environment and she is interested in the ways that people shape and create a place for themselves in urban environments and the ways that they imagine more just places and communities.
Dr. Brand’s background is in urban planning and design. She has worked professionally as both a planner and designer. She received her Bachelor and Master of Architecture from Tulane University, her master’s in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of New Orleans, and her Ph.D. from MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning.
Below is a Q&A with Dr. Brand on her new role in the Department of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning.
What is the scope of your research, and what themes does your work focus on?
Most of my work in the past couple of years has focused on race and urban development. After Hurricane Katrina, there were a lot of efforts to prohibit black communities from returning and rebuilding. When I started doing research on the city’s post-Katrina planning and redevelopment imagining for my dissertation it felt to me that planning efforts were not dealing substantively with the types of racialized inequality that were deeply rooted in space. The recovery itself, while highlighting the incredible depth of cultural and human resilience and residents’ imaginations for a better city, also failed to centralize racial equity issues within other concerns such as environmental vulnerability. Yet while the recovery of the city in many ways has exacerbated inequalities, the state didn’t have a framework for elevating the equity and reparations based claims being made by communities of color. So my work began to focus there - because it felt like urban planning and design platforms needed to be challenged to more fully elevate these claims in order to imagine and take part in building more just futures.
My current research is a continuation of this, but expanded in a more comparative sense to address how racial processes reflect deeper histories and spatial forms in different contexts and different times. Being from Chicago and having lived in New Orleans for a long time, I wanted to understand the parallels and differences in how racial processes took place in the American North and South. For example, in New Orleans, Treme, the historically black neighborhood, has been a vibrant black community since the late 19th century. It was built by Free People of Color, and by the beginning of the 20th century, was the center of black cultural and business life, much of which was located along the Claiborne Avenue corridor. That area was later decimated by the construction of the I-10 expressway down the middle of Claiborne, as well as urban renewal type redevelopment projects and public housing segregation. Despite this, residents have adapted and reclaimed the areas under the Claiborne overpass and the space continues to have significant meaning for residents. As part of post-Katrina planning, one planning effort looked at the possibility of taking down the expressway. Since this neighborhood had seen a lot of gentrification and is under a lot of redevelopment pressures, the question for many residents was who was going to benefit from this? Residents weren’t necessarily opposed to taking it down, but they felt like there needed to be measures put in place to counter the gentrification and displacement that was already taking place and would continue more rapidly by removing the expressway.
Chicago has a similar story about the decimation of a vibrant black cultural and business community through urban renewal type redevelopment agendas. Still there, and despite the problems the South Side community faces, residents’ continue to work to retain these important historical elements. Similar to New Orleans, this area is ripe for gentrification and change, processes that can displace people and erase history. Yet residents imagine an alternative to erasure and displacement in the ways that they mark history and call on the state to play a different role than its ongoing expansion of capital at their expense.
For me, the questions evolved to consider these longer histories and trying to understand how similar processes take place - literally - in very different contexts and across different temporalities. So the comparisons trace the deep histories of these business and cultural corridors, not only to reconstruct the history of these incredibly vibrant places, but to consider how redevelopment and change happening now are connected to these longer racial processes manifesting in new forms in the 21st century. The question then also becomes one for my students - who are future designers and planners -- asking them to consider what role they can play in supporting something different, a different spatial imaginary or epistemology that can elevate and shape new modes of being in the city. I try to bring these issues to the forefront when working with students.
What course are you teaching this fall? And what is it about?
I am going to be teaching an undergraduate and graduate seminar that is an introduction to engaged social practice. We will work on developing an understanding of socially engaged and reflective practice, challenging ourselves to think through the ways we get to know and learn from communities and support their goals and visions for the future through design and policy.
What interested you in coming to the College of Environmental Design?
My background is in both planning and design, so I am interested in returning to a setting that encompasses both of those elements. It feels a bit like coming home for me in that sense - at the same time that it feels like this wonderful new opportunity. My work has hovered around exploring both the social and racial geographies and epistemologies of cities, and for me this was a great opportunity to push deeper into that element of my work and to learn from others who similarly engage this intention in different ways. Being in a landscape architecture program in some ways liberates me to think more about those issues in different ways than I would in an urban planning program, though I’m also excited about the different disciplines represented in the College of Environmental Design.
What are you hoping to bring to the college as an educator?
I would like to introduce students to thinking about inhabited geographies, not just as design or landscape elements, but also the social, racial and economic forces in how spaces are inhabited. I hope to bring forward that connection to the social landscape and how we might use social landscapes to inform our design and policy work. For me though, it’s not only about lived experiences -- these landscapes have deep histories too, so how do we think about these histories when we plan and design for the future? I’m excited to dive into this more with the students in the College of Environmental Design.