Felt / featured

Affecting Social Change with Landscape Architecture

Jessica Henson

Jessica Henson, Landscape Architecture Professor in Practice at the University of Illinois, sees landscape architects as leaders in the design of built environments. Through their designs, they address many of the issues that 21st Century cities face, from social justice to environmental equity, economic disparity, human health and wellbeing.

“If people think that all we do is add plants after a project is complete, it’s a huge loss. We do so much more,” Jessica explains. “Landscape architecture has been at the forefront of sustainability and resiliency conversations since the creation of New York’s Central Park.”

“In a vacuum,” Jessica argues, “engineers and architects will take the lead in these conversations.” Unfortunately, sometimes the decisions they make aren’t environmentally and socially sensitive. “Seeing buildings as objects has led to terrible urban spaces that lack connectivity, that lack a community feeling.”

Landscape architecture’s response is to be more aware of the human scale, of what it means to move through urban places rather than seeing buildings as individual objects.

As a child, Jessica lived along the Mississippi River. Her first major memory of her landscape was the 1993 flood. “I saw people’s homes destroyed by a flood, by something that was an everyday part of our life.” This sparked Jessica’s interest in social dynamics along rivers. Some of the most disadvantaged populations live on the worst lands along the rivers, the ones most susceptible to flooding and pollution.

In designing for resiliency, Jessica hopes to create designs that address the inequality in these spaces. “It’s not enough for landscape architects to stand aside and say we can’t affect social change, because we can.” Jessica wants landscape architects to design spaces that can be enjoyed by all, not just by those who can afford them.

Jessica has led studios on the Mississippi River and is currently working on a Los Angeles River project. As a member of a team led by famed architect Frank Gehry, she works to understand the relationship between hydrology, the environment, and people. “Many people think, ‘I’m going to solve this problem by painting everything green—by planting trees everywhere.’ But it’s more complicated than that.” The team found that adding vegetation causes significant hydraulic changes, jeopardizing flood control, which is not an acceptable design solution.

Jessica’s experience as a practicing landscape architect at OLIN motivates her teaching. “I ask myself, ‘If this person were going to work at OLIN, what would they need to know?’”

Jessica emphasizes understanding the site and its economic, cultural, and social issues. Her students examine the relationships between environmental planning, demographics, and water management. They look at the place from different scales, from 35,000 feet above to a human scale. “I teach a methodology, not a form. I reject the idea that all forms need to look a certain way.”

Jessica also values collaboration in her studios. “When you get into the profession, you are collaborating all of the time. You don’t have to be an expert on everything, but you do have to know when to listen and how to work with other intelligent people.” In her studios, students offer feedback and listen to each other’s ideas. “I like to say that our department is only as good as its worst student. It’s a win for everyone if one person succeeds.”

Through her projects at OLIN and her teaching at the University of Illinois, Jessica is making a difference. “Landscape architects have a calling. We have a responsibility to the world to do more with our skill set, to make a real difference in people’s lives.”

My name is Jessica Henson. I am a faculty member at the University of Illinois.

I’m a Professor-in-Practice, which means I also work full-time for OLIN, a landscape architecture and urban design firm based in Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

I work as an associate, managing projects all over the world, working with collaborative teams of architects, engineers, and inside our office. I do projects ranging from small gardens and parks to large master plans on the scale of metropolitan regions.

I grew up over the Mississippi River and the first major memory I have of my landscape context as a child is of the 1993 flood and at the time, of course, it didn’t register.

But here I am many years later, and river flooding is at the forefront of my mind, because as a child I saw neighbors’ and other people’s homes destroyed by a flood; by something that was an everyday part of our life that just seemed to be doing its own thing safely within its channel and then suddenly it was this flood that beat all records.

I went to school for architecture and then ended up doing a master’s in landscape architecture.

When you look at a floodplain, for example, there are usually two groups of people that live in a floodplain: really wealthy people that will just rebuild their house and poor people that couldn’t afford to move if they needed to. Maybe they know that their property value is lower but they can’t afford a house up on the hill.

When you think about that type of inequity and you think about flooding, that’s something where design can affect change.

It’s not enough for landscape architects to just stand to the side and say “I can’t affect social change,” because we can.

If I look back in 30 years and I’m super wealthy and I’ve only built parks for the top 1 percent of the population to enjoy, I think I will be disappointed in myself. What I have to do is ensure that we, as landscape architects, aren’t just designing for a small percentage of the population – whoever can afford to hire a leading firm.

I think we have a calling. We have a responsibility to the population, to the world, to do more with our skill set. To do more with what we’ve learned and what we know about the relationship of environmental justice to humanity.

I grew up as a public school kid in the state of Illinois, I have an amazing family, and I’ve had unbelievable educational opportunities. To think that on some of the projects that I’m working on right now, both through the University of Illinois and through OLIN, can actually make a real difference in people’s lives is pretty incredible.