America’s infrastructure and culture are changing. Once relegated to segregation and isolation, women are breaking barriers, and walls, and in the cracks, green is sprouting up.
As the owner of a Landscape Architecture Firm specializing in creating public spaces for cities, you can find my team and me engaging in a wide variety of activities - from designing plans to engaging in public meetings, visiting project sites or nurseries, or a myriad of other activities. There are a wide array of components necessary to the process of beautifying our cities, but which are crucial in the role of implementing public spaces that can be enjoyed during work or play and which contribute to America’s rapidly evolving communities.
Women today are living in a challenging social climate, with the very idea of basic morality being tugged along a partisan divide. When we’re having public debates about just who women should be allowed to have lunch with, there’s a problem. And while I would never pretend to have the solution to our societal dilemma, I can’t help but look to our cities to seek a better understanding.
I have always loved gardens, and have dreamt of their designs my whole life. A passion that’s been instilled in me since I was a little girl, my entire life has been influenced by the natural world of my surroundings. There are some who would view gardening as a “feminine” pastime, but no one would disagree more than my father. A thorough bred Englishman, the comforts of the garden were among my dad’s only consistencies as a young boy. While the Nazis pummeled London, my dad was evacuated along with thousands of other children to safer parts of the UK. He spent his early years shifting between England and Ireland, never sure of what the next day was going to bring. This state of constant change taught my dad to be patient and ready for anything – qualities that lent themselves well to a long life of gardening.
Eventually, his love of gardening brought him to America and to my mother. If he was the example of the quintessential Englishman, my mother was the quintessential American. Able to trace her American roots all the way back to the Revolution, and proud of her heritage – they were a mix of Old World and New.
Together, they instilled in my sisters and me, a sense of pride and independence. I did not grow up defined by my gender and felt no limitations as a woman, yet, as my career picked up, I found that some men did. Whether a doctor, lawyer, scientist, or any other “untraditional” role, women everywhere have the same story. Mine happened in the field. Dressed in steel-toed boots and a hard hat, I was overseeing the installation of a rain water system. My team of workers were all men, and as manly as they professed to be, they did not know how to properly install the equipment. It was up to me to get in the dirt and guide them through the installation, but they looked at me – this little woman, with faces clearly registering doubt. When I explained that the rain water system had a filter over it, which was knotted at the end like socks from the laundry, one of them quipped that his wife did the laundry. With humor and deflection, I quipped right back, got the crew laughing and to drop their defenses, they learned how to properly install the system and throughout the rest of the project to see me as a leader, no different from them.
I’ve led many design/build projects, and found this to happen many times since. I admire my male colleagues, and count many as my closest friends, but without a doubt I have faced doubt or discrimination and have had to integrate that into my daily dealings.
But, what do my experiences say about America, and how does my role at the helm of a design firm affect how women are viewed professionally? Sexism is, in many ways, rooted into the ways cities are built. Think of the classic images of a business-driven city – men in suits rushing to and fro, from sun blocking skyscrapers lining city streets. After a day’s grind, they return home to doting wives and respectful children and sit down to dinner for a home cooked meal. When America returned from WWII as the leader of the free world, this was the ideal, the American dream – and its cities matched that vision. Impressive skyscrapers challenged the clouds and hard concrete lined the streets. Business was purely business in this masculine rush for American dominance, and there was no need for anything else.
However, society has evolved, and proof of that is built into the framework of modern cities. It is through the creation of a space that makes one feel connected to their community. It is when designers thoughtfully incorporate a level of detail that facilitates connectivity, social engagement and comfort, that the design becomes invaluable to the framework that draws people to that space, and makes them want to use it.
As a contributor to city design and beautification, this evolution is nowhere more apparent than in the design of our cities and communities. Because many of the projects I work with are publicly funded, I feel that my work represents the desires of everyday Americans, and how they see the future, no matter where their political ballots lie. As we become a more open and diverse society, we’re melding our personal lives with our business. Developers are adding room for parks, where meetings can be held in the sunshine. Offices have common areas that promote friendship and connectivity. Public transportation stops are lined with trees, flowers, and walking/biking paths that support our health. Gone is the “nostalgic” stereotype of a man at work.
We’re already living in a time where “lunch” and “business” are not separate activities, but hand-in-hand with our daily duties. Americans – male and female – have moved past the idea that business is an entity disconnected from the rest of our lives.
As a woman, I’m proud to contribute to this evolving nature of American life and American professionalism. While the debate rages on about women’s role in society, let those who cling to the past look to America’s cities to see that change is built into the very framework of our communities, and that it won’t stop. When men of a certain mindset head to the office every morning, let them know that women like me are cultivating the public spaces that form their environment.
Being stared at by strangers is something I have become very accustomed to. Not because I am a beautiful, ethereal being that catches everyone's attention (but I will take it if that's what you're thinking), but in the way that I am a Black woman, a Black person, and people tend to notice my presence. I don't think there is a Black person out there that can deny knowing what it's like to be stared at by a random person.