02/02/21 MLA+U Program Launches Landscape Justice Initiative


The USC School of Architecture’s Master of Landscape Architecture and Urbanism program (MLA+U) has launched the Landscape Justice Initiative (LJI), a platform to consolidate and strengthen the program’s longstanding commitment to applied research and practice in communities that have inequitably suffered from environmental burdens, disinvestment, and other institutionalized practices of discrimination.


In order to garner the broad participation and expertise needed to tackle complex challenges, the Landscape Justice Initiative’s projects will engage students, faculty, external scholars, and community partners. “We hope to increase opportunities for students to undertake forms of service-learning and co-learning with communities that have deep local knowledge derived from lived experience,” explained Dr. Alison Hirsch, director of USC’s MLA+U program. “We also hope to support research and projects that bring in faculty from across the university with the humble recognition that addressing complex socio-environmental challenges will take input from a range of experts and knowledge-holders.”


The LJI aims to fill the gap between academic inquiry and meaningful change in the field. It provides a chance for students to participate in long-term projects that depend on sustained engagement with local and regional communities. Efforts by LJI also allow for the initiation of projects outside the structures of the market, offering students opportunities to discover their agency and to become future leaders in design and environmental decision-making.


USC’s MLA+U program has been committed to resource-limited and marginalized communities well before 2020, when demands to end racial oppression and structural violence against communities of color increased. Hirsch noted that “this urgency has motivated extra efforts to get organized and seek out opportunities to work with communities that design has historically not reached. It’s a good time to harness momentum and a sense of common cause and collective energy.”


The initiative will predominantly focus on Southern and Central California, which are priority regions for the MLA+U program. These regions present a range of challenges related to environmental, climate and spatial injustice that have the capacity to teach students a lot about the application of landscape strategies around the globe, particularly in semi-arid and arid regions. Low-income communities of color are often denied even simple aspects of a decent urban environment such as shade, making them the most vulnerable to rising temperatures, especially here in Los Angeles. 


One current project, for example, explores homelessness in relation to public parks and how it is perceived, regulated, programmed, and designed. The goal of “Spatial Politics of Homelessness: Democratizing Civic Space” is to gain a better understanding of the forces and histories that shape attitudes towards homelessness today. Students learn from key stakeholders, analyze existing conditions at parks across the Los Angeles region, and develop strategies to improve the parks for everyone, especially the homeless.


Another project is a focus of Hirsch’s on questions of environmental and spatial justice in the San Joaquin Valley, which is the nexus of some of the most pressing environmental concerns of our day and is a landscape of extreme inequality. LJI is additionally committed to justice-oriented programming, which begins with the “Ground” series of interdisciplinary discussions, field happenings and exhibit starting on February 25, 2021.


By consolidating these efforts within the Landscape Justice Initiative, the MLA+U program can better coordinate and raise funds for projects, more effectively partner with community organizations, and get involved in environmental change at the structural level through cross-disciplinary collaborations. 


For more information on the Landscape Justice Initiative, including current projects and a spring schedule of virtual events open to the public, visit https://sites.usc.edu/landscape-justice-initiative/.

Special thanks to the Grant & Shaya Kirkpatrick Landscape Architecture + Urbanism Leadership Fund for their support of the LJI.

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