Untapped potential: Increasing diversity in landscape architecture
By Beth Hyatt
Total Landscape Care
28 February 2018
Photo courtesy of Diane Jones Allen
More often than not, when asked how they got involved in the green industry, many landscape architect professionals will say something along the lines of “I heard about this while in college,” or “I didn’t know this was a thing until…”
For College of Environmental Design alumna Diane Jones Allen, director of landscape architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs and a principal landscape architect of DesignJones, LLC, these statements sound all too familiar.
“Not to make generalizations, but unfortunately, landscape architecture isn’t well-known in the African American community,” she said. “I grew up in the African American middle class. I knew what an architect was, and I actually thought about being an architect. But instead, my undergraduate degree is in painting because I never knew what landscape architecture was.”
Jones Allen began her education career at Washington University in St. Louis, where she earned a BFA in painting. After graduating from Washington University, Jones Allen attended a summer career discovery workshop held by the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
“I remember them describing landscape architecture, and I was just kind of blown away,” she said. “I was like, I didn’t know somebody decided where the trees went. I didn’t know that somebody designed parks; you just don’t think about that. I knew that architects designed buildings, but I never thought about the infrastructure. I never thought about parks and greenways and parking lots.”
Jones Allen earned her Master’s of Landscape Architecture from UC Berkeley and began work with the firm Terra Designs Inc. in New Orleans until Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005. She moved to Baltimore where she began teaching at Morgan State University. Simultaneously, she became a Doctor of Engineering with an emphasis on transportation engineering.
In 2009, Jones Allen and her partner Austin Allen, the current principal of the firm, started DesignJones, LLC in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Around 2013, Jones Allen moved back to Louisiana to be more closely involved in the firm.
The firm’s initial focus involved disaster recovery and rebuilding projects. Today the firm’s focus is on creating and encouraging neighborhood empowerment.
“I actually think more and more firms realize that they kind of have to do (community engagement projects),” she said. “One thing that makes us unique is that a lot of our projects do emanate from the community. Lots of times, our work ends up being initially pro bono. A lot of firms respond to request for proposals (RFPs), and we respond to some of those, but the majority of our work (comes) from the community.”
Currently, the firm is working on a redesign project at Hayden Plaza in New Orleans and a potential skate park/recreational area under the I-10 highway.
“We always try to tell the client that we need to hold community meetings or a community engagement process just to get the community to embrace the design,” she said. “So, we try to do that in everything we do because those are the people that are actually going to use it. So, you want to make sure you’re designing for them, even when you have private clients.”
Jones Allen hopes the landscape architecture field takes a step towards becoming more diverse and inclusive. The obvious divide between genders and ethnicities is one of the biggest challenges she faces in the field of landscape architecture.
“I don’t think that (the industry has) changed enough,” she said. “Because if you would look at the number of African American-owned landscape architecture firms, there are some but there are not many. But what has changed, which actually gives me hope for the future, is that you can’t go get the cough medicine until you realize you have a cold. So, what I think is changing is the awareness that there aren’t and the awareness that there is a need for it.”
Jones Allen believes that the work of the American Society of Landscape Architects and the organization’s Diversity Summit will serve to boost awareness to these issues.
“One of the reasons I think there’s the awareness is because of what we talked about earlier,” she said. “A lot of the communities that have these issues, that have lack of open space, lack of playgrounds, lack of clean water or environmental justice issues are communities of color. So, the people that are coming down to solve the problem or do the design don’t look like the people in the community. So, I think that there’s a great awareness, and to me, that’s a good sign.”
Jones Allen believes there is not a strong enough presence of African American students and staff at many landscape architecture universities. She thinks this is an important opportunity for growth and improvement.
“I think that’s where it has to start, though,” she said. “I think it also has to start with getting young people in junior high and high school to be aware that there’s such a profession. Because it turns out that a lot of people find out about landscape architecture really late, whether they’re minority or majority. I think that once people find out about it, they’re like me. They’re like, yeah, that’s what I want to do!”
Read the full profile here.