Let’s reframe environmental protection in a way that people can relate to, and resonate with, in order to achieve greater outcomes.
I first met community planner and landscape architect Kendra Hyson during the pandemic, over Zoom, where we had a conversation about her work at the widely acclaimed The Urban Studio, a nonprofit organization that focuses on equitable and sustainable urbanism by co-designing and co-creating with communities of color. Kendra and her partners co-founded The Urban Studio to help students of color explore careers in the built environment. Their first project—which occurred in the fall of 2019 and received support from the Washington, D.C. Department of Energy and Environment, SmithGroup, Howard University, and the National Building Museum—brought together ten African-American high school students from historically underrepresented areas, which also happen to be some of the most polluted watersheds of the city. Over ten weeks, Kendra and her colleagues worked with the students to design innovative stormwater solutions to challenging scenarios across the community, culminating in presentations by the students to city and other representatives at the National Building Museum.
I then met Kendra in person at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, in March 2022, where she presented two interactive sessions with Kenneth J. Kokroko, a community planner and assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Arizona. The fascinating, interactive two-part session, “Authentic Voices: A Conversation on Owning Your Voice and Claiming Space,” investigated how being “your most authentic voice” can help shift power dynamics, bring voice back to the voiceless, and foster more inclusive approaches to community-based planning, design, and social justice.
After her presentation, Kendra and I sat down to talk a bit more about her work, which demonstrates a deep commitment to community-based planning and a passion for using design as a tool to achieve social equity.
Today Kendra, who lives in Washington, D.C., is an associate planner and urban designer at SmithGroup, an international architecture, engineering, and environmental design firm. Prior to joining SmithGroup, she worked as a senior planner for the Maryland-National Capitol Park and Planning Commission. In addition to her ongoing work at The Urban Studio, Kendra serves on American Society of Landscape Architects national committees and is an emeritus member of the Board of Directors of the Landscape Architecture Foundation. She is an alumnus of the University of Arizona, graduating with a Master of Landscape Architecture in 2017, and holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a focus on environmental installation art from Spelman College, an all-women, historically Black college in Atlanta, Georgia.
Simmons Buntin: You came up in the art world, and we often think of artists as introverts. But as a planner, designer, and social justice leader—and watching your presentation just now—you strike me more as an extrovert.
Kendra Hyson: I’m probably one of the most introverted extroverts. I can “turn it on” to go out there and do a presentation like that, but as you’re seeing now, I had to come in here and clam up for a minute so I could recharge. But I have been told I talk too much—and I think that, unfortunately, many women get told that in school. Yet I’ve always been a talker because I’ve always been curious. I enjoy having conversations with people, especially when others are willing to go where I’m willing to go in those conversations.
Simmons Buntin: Do you think your interest in talking to people fostered your move from installation art to urban design and planning?
Kendra Hyson: My transition to landscape architecture came about because of an artist residency with Spelman professor Arturo Lindsey at the Taller Portobelo Norte in Portobelo, Panama, the summer before my senior year of college. In Portobelo, I developed relationships with people in the community. Professor Lindsey is from Portobelo, and he knew everyone in town and had connections that allowed me to build more relationships and work with the community. We paid to stay there and I saw the economic impact that made, as well. Our funding provided for my house mother for a long time—that meant a lot to me.
I thought about how I could take the feeling I got of community, and their wonderful support, and return something to them. I also considered that other people might want to have these deep cultural experiences where they get to know an authentic community while giving back, too. The answer to me seemed to be sustainable ecotourism, and that became an entrance into landscape architecture.
But I also knew that charity begins at home, and I realized I would have more impact, and perhaps more joy, by working with my own community back in Washington, D.C.
Simmons Buntin: You are a professional landscape architect and community planner. Are you still an artist?
Kendra Hyson: I’d like to think so. I’d like to think that once you’re an artist you’re always an artist. That’s where I exceled when I got to graduate school. I didn’t excel in environmental science, though many of my classmates came from that background. But I did execute the digital programs well given my background in art. You know, I was never particularly good at math as a kid, and we get the idea that all science is math-based, so I was deterred from going down that path. But I realized, as I pursued my master’s in landscape architecture, that I can get better at that. Science is about curiosity, and that’s what I think I bring to landscape architecture.
Landscape architecture is ultimately about how people are impacted. It asks: How are people going to experience this space, what are they going to think, what impact is this going to have on them physically (think air quality, heat, safety). It was just the right fit for me. As weird as it sounds, all of these disparate elements came together and made sense.
Returning to math, I recall having difficulty with the concepts of rise over run, and when I got into landscape architecture I realized: Oh, this is topography—I get it! In physical space it makes sense. For me, the art helped make the science understandable because it gave physical form to what I was doing. I always had a great spatial sense. The art still impacts my work, but it’s more from a physical space perspective.
Simmons Buntin: From our earlier conversation I understand that your transformation from art to landscape architecture to social equity happened during your time as a Master of Landscape Architecture student at the University of Arizona. What was the biggest lesson from your master’s education?
Kendra Hyson: I was still thinking about sustainable ecotourism when I entered the MLA, but after starting the program, I became interested in community-based design, and particularly designing with instead of only for people. And yet the most valuable lesson—and there were lots of them—is that landscape architecture is systems thinking. Landscape architects understand how different systems work and how those systems should work together. And in that context, the most impactful courses were site engineering and plant materials. I struggled early on, but both taught me to understand nuance. For instance, what are the nuances of water moving through space? It isn’t just the engineering or ecology. There’s more, and that appealed to my artist’s brain. I had to reframe the challenge in order to really embrace it.
Leaning into what I don’t know and framing it in a way that makes it more meaningful is how I operate.
Simmons Buntin: Tell me about The Urban Studio? How did you start it?
Kendra Hyson: There’s a quote by Frederick Douglass, who says, “It’s easier to build strong children than it is to fix broken men.” I take that to heart. So, my objective for The Urban Studio has been to engage communities of color with a particular focus on younger generations, and to inspire them to become landscape architects, planners, and engineers—and get involved in the shaping of their communities and their world.
I co-founded The Urban Studio in 2019 with Maisie Hughes, an award-winning urban planner and landscape architect who also owned a women- and minority-led consulting firm, as well as landscape architects Daví de la Cruze and Andrew Sargeant. It all began with a couple good ideas and the right timing.
I wanted to work with high school students at a school in my neighborhood—to teach them about landscape architecture, design, and the integration of the built and natural environments. The students at this school were offered technical training—electrical work, plumbing, construction—so they would be prepared for trade jobs if they didn’t want to go on to college. But they were missing the relationship to our natural environment. I convinced the school to let me offer an after-school program to help bridge that gap, but it wasn’t successful. The students were teenagers, many with after-school obligations, and they needed incentives to attend.
On the heels of the murder of George Floyd and the Covid pandemic, everyone has their eyes on equity. We were already working in that space and those events have catapulted our work even further.
When I discussed my idea and its challenges with Maisie, who was also my mentor, she suggested we pursue a grant to fund the program, which would allow us to set up an application and accept interested students—and also pay them. We wrote the grant and submitted it under the umbrella of her business, and were awarded $20,000. We then realized we’d get more resources if we created a nonprofit organization. We brought in Daví and Andrew, who we knew through the Landscape Architecture Foundation, and who were also interested in working with disadvantaged communities to inspire more students of color to go into design. The Urban Studio was born, and we’ve grown from there, with our first project highlighted by Landscape Architecture Magazine.
We’re still building up—in a way, we are still in a startup phase, though we continue to support projects in Washington, D.C. while expanding to Los Angeles. So we’re trying to be intentional about the type of work we take on, recognizing that on the heels of the murder of George Floyd and the Covid pandemic, everyone has their eyes on equity. We were already working in that space and those events have catapulted our work even further.
Simmons Buntin: As we talk about equity and social justice, are you thinking about climate justice?
Kendra Hyson: Oh yes. That is the impetus around what we did in our initial project. The grant we received was a community stormwater solutions grant. The idea was that students would create stormwater solutions for their communities. These communities face three overarching challenges when it comes to climate. First, they have very little knowledge of environmental impacts—both those affecting them and those they are responsible for in their watershed. Second, there is a “I’m not thinking about my watershed; I just have to keep my lights on” truth. Third, the specific areas of D.C. we’re pulling students from are some of the most impaired watersheds. So our focus was on these communities that were environmentally vulnerable.
My thinking around environmental and climate justice is more around people, because people must undertake the behaviors that lead to sustainability. And that occurs through education, understanding, and advocacy. For example, someone may not care about stormwater management in general, but they do care about their house flooding and about their water bill. So let’s take actions that have a positive impact overall on our environment but also positively impact the individual. It goes back to the idea of reframing. Let’s reframe environmental protection in a way that people can relate to, and resonate with, in order to achieve greater outcomes.
Simmons Buntin: Environmental and climate justice speak to policy, as well. Are things looking more hopeful in that context?
Kendra Hyson: Yes and no. I have a hard time believing that anyone’s bottom line is really to destroy a community. But it is advantageous to a developer when the community is poor—because the land is cheaper and they can develop it at a lower cost. If we’re all honest about what our bottom line is when we come to the table, however, we can get to a better outcome for everyone. There is still a disconnect, though, between what planners are seeing happening and the types of policies we want to create and the bottom lines of developers and governmental decision-makers who push projects forward.
We also need to learn to compromise. For many environmentalists, it’s all or nothing. For instance, they may say we can’t plant a tree unless it has so much volume of soil and meets many other technical requirements. But they are missing the point, because trees won’t get planted at all if we can’t be flexible, and then no one benefits. Conditions don’t have to be perfect. They rarely are.
In government, things are so siloed, each department with its own, different priorities. It is the planner’s job to bring all those people together—community members, developers, environmentalists, government departments—to have conversations. Unless we do that, we will continue to find ourselves with good policies that are not implemented in a way that helps communities actually get better. So yes: we are moving in the right direction and people are trying. But it’s a human system subject to the elements of human nature.
Simmons Buntin: And community involvement is a big part of that—that’s one way to connect the disconnect.
Kendra Hyson: And there is of course a human element in that. Everyone has their own bottom line of what they need and want in their space. It’s up to us as community planners to find this happy medium, to ensure at a minimum that basic needs are being met. And that’s my challenge in working with disadvantaged communities—their basic needs aren’t being met a lot of the time. No access to clean water or healthy food or a good home. Those things impede on their ability to do anything else. Many times projects don’t move forward because people don’t have access to resources, including the time needed to participate in community, or don’t know how to navigate the processes. A lot of the work of community planning—as well as of organizations such as The Urban Studio—is helping others navigate the process.
Simmons Buntin: Is that what you’re working on with The Urban Studio—helping others navigate the process to build better communities? What’s next for The Urban Studio?
Kendra Hyson: We’ve been thinking about creating a space where anyone who is interested in doing something in their community can come to us and say, “I want to do this project; how can I do it?” And we can help them. Those can be part of our more grassroots, community-driven work. I think The Urban Studio will grow; we’re trying to get to a point where we can staff up and really do the projects that mean something to us. A lot of our work has been ancillary to other people’s work. They are great opportunities to build our network and skill set but sometimes it takes away from what we want to accomplish—which is fostering that next generation and ensuring that communities have the understanding of how they can shape change in their neighborhoods.
And I continue to be particularly interested in working on mentorship and leadership programs for young students of color who are entering into design professions.
Ultimately, though, my hope is to pass The Urban Studio on to the next generation at some point. I love the work I do there. I love the work I do with SmithGroup. At some point I want to have a family, and have time for that. In my mind it feels difficult. I know it’s possible—there are women who do extraordinary work every day, some of the women on the Landscape Architecture Foundation Board, and other practicing landscape architects, for example—but I admit I have to wonder how they do it all.
Art is always social commentary, mind you. But art is not always meant to be permanent.
Simmons Buntin: Returning to art, what role do you see public art playing in social justice?
Kendra Hyson: I think public art has a great role because it represents a place’s identity, especially in the context of what they choose to invest in as public art. My challenge with public art has been the process. I think people in the wake of George Floyd think about it as an equitable outcome, but I ask: Is it an equitable outcome if you didn’t have an inclusive process leading up to the art that was chosen and installed?
In my career I’ve learned it’s not just what you know but who you know. If you know the people who are developing the public art RFP and learn about it before it’s made available to the rest of the world, you get that advantage. Public art, however, should involve a process of procuring local artists before saying “we want to place the art here because it will make the community look cooler.” Art has to be inclusive of all the people it’s going to impact. The perspectives of local artists are really important. So public art has a huge role to play, but it comes back to a question of whether we are approaching it in a way that is equitable and inclusive from the beginning. Are we consulting the community before we say we’re going to put public art here? What does the community want to celebrate?
In the wake of George Floyd, memorials have been popping up, and they are temporal public art full of social commentary. Art is always social commentary, mind you. But art is not always meant to be permanent. We need to think about what the community is trying to say about itself in this moment in time, and not be afraid to say we’ve done that and now we want a new trajectory.
Public art can be a good way to use more inclusive processes, but we also have to not be fixed. A lot of times we get fixed on what the solution should be as opposed to what it could be, or giving it space to change and transform over time.
Simmons Buntin: That’s a historic problem with us, right? The memorials around the Civil War, for example—that they won’t always live there and we’re open to that kind of change?
Kendra Hyson: Yes, but there’s value in things remaining, too—to acknowledge the legacy and history. It’s never perfect but we need to strike a balance. We need to stop leaning into being perfect and having the “absolutely right” solution and say instead: This is right for now. If it means something to the community over time, that’s great. If the neighborhood decides it’s not reflective of who they are anymore, we should also be okay with that. That’s what museums are for! Memorialize them in a different way. They can travel and their story can migrate into different places. Really it’s about the stories.
Simmons Buntin: Are you familiar with the work of Black architect Mabel O. Wilson, whose Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia memorializes the thousands of slaves who built the campus? It’s made of limestone and in that humid climate, literally weeps. It also has placeholders for the names of these enslaved laborers, because only 3 percent of the slaves’ names who built the campus are known, if I recall correctly. It’s very moving.
Kendra Hyson: That level of thoughtfulness, of how a story gets told over time—that’s the best thing about landscape architecture. We look at how a space is going to transform over time. It’s not static. A building may stay the same over time, but a landscape—you have to think about what it’s going to look like in the rain, in different seasons. That takes a level of complex thinking that people don’t always appreciate. To see an architect think through those challenges and consider how the space is going to evolve over time—this is how it’s going to respond to the environment, this is the type of material—having those nuances in your work. People don’t often know the story about how things got built, and those stories are important.
Simmons Buntin: Thank you for this wonderful conversation, Kendra—and for your important work. One more question before we head back out into the craziness that is South by Southwest: What’s next for Kendra Hyson?
Kendra Hyson: Family is next for me. I’m young and have a ways to go professionally. I find the work I’m doing at SmithGroup—building up my portfolio while working in different communities—to be both fulfilling and important. As is building up my own personal legacy. So I want to do more projects and I want to have a portfolio that has a footprint in the world. But family is really important to me. I’ll stay in Washington, D.C. for now and value time with my family, and we’ll see where it goes from there.
Simmons Buntin is the founding editor-in-chief of Terrain.org, as well as the director of marketing and communications at the University of Arizona’s College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture. With Elizabeth Dodd and Derek Sheffield, he edited the critically acclaimed anthology Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy (Trinity University Press, 2020), and he is the coauthor, with Ken Pirie, of Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). He is also the author of two books of poetry published by Ireland’s Salmon Poetry: Bloom (2010) and Riverfall (2005). Catch up with him at simmonsbuntin.com.