UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Devon Guyer decided to pursue his studies at Penn State in 2018, he wasn’t sure what major best fit his interests in design, so he enrolled as a Division of Undergraduate Studies student. While earning some undergraduate course credits that first year, he had the opportunity to explore the design degree options in the College of Arts and Architecture and was particularly drawn to the landscape architecture program in the Stuckeman School.
“What drew me to the field [of landscape architecture] was knowing that I could make a difference in the world through design,” said Guyer. “Landscape architects play a specific role in the development of everyday life, and as designers, we can shape and develop the way people interact.”
After participating in a landscape architecture summer intensive program, taught by Assistant Professor Stephen Mainzer, he was hooked and enrolled as a second-year “Larchie.”
Fast forward three years and Guyer is preparing to graduate on Aug. 13 from Penn State with his bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture; but in the spring of 2022, a class taught by Mainzer compelled Guyer to do a deeper dive into studying representational landscapes before heading into the real world.
“The course (LARCH 424: Design Theory Seminar: Threats to Democracy, Humans, and our Environment) really explored best practices in design to develop landscapes that are representative of the communities that live there,” explained Guyer. “Systemic racism has impacted landscape development over time, so we need to be developing landscapes that reflect an area’s history and culture in order to promote social development.”
These issues of social justice and representation were not only raised in his course, but were also playing out in real life in widespread media over the past several years; and it had Guyer thinking of an area near and dear to him where he could potentially have a real impact as a designer: his hometown of West Philadelphia.
“Growing up in West Philadelphia exposed me to a unique urban community where people care for one another, and we knew who each other was in our neighborhoods,” explained Guyer. “Playing throughout Fairmount Park, I soon discovered all the city’s hidden parks and gardens that shaped my childhood and laid the foundations for my design aspirations.”
His love for his hometown coupled with his exposure to Studio Zewde, a landscape architecture firm in New York City that he studied in another landscape architecture course, inspired Guyer to further explore the effect designers can have on a community by the decisions they make in the design process.
“Sara Zewde came to talk with our class to share some of her firm’s work and one project that stood out to me was the work she did on the Valongo Wharf in Rio de Janeiro, which is the only living relic of the trans-Atlantic slave trade,” said Guyer. “Studio Zewde transformed the wharf into a place that represented the Afro-Brazilian culture of the people that live there, and it was then that I understood the kind of work I’m meant to do in this world.”
With Guyer’s interest in representation and design democracy piqued, he reached out to Mainzer about doing a six-week independent study this summer to research two parks in the Philadelphia area that Studio Zewde is working to revamp: Graffiti Pier and Mander Park.
Mainzer suggested Guyer complete a case study of the two areas, which included reviewing policy maps, U.S. census data and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice Screening data to gather demographic information, as well as pouring over academic articles and even social media accounts to get a sense of public opinion and community buzz.
“With any area we go into as designers, it is so important to do the work — to know the history, who the people are, what the culture is like, what the community takes pride in — before we start the actual business of design. That’s something Devon already had in his head, but having him studying these two very different parks in his hometown really drove it home,” said Mainzer.
Guyer also reached out to Studio Zewde to see if he could interview someone there about the firm’s approach to community engagement in the two communities. He was put in touch with Anne Lynch, a landscape architect with the firm.
“It was important for me to understand the methods the studio used in each park to connect with the communities and how to use that information to create landscapes that reflect a community’s identity,” said Guyer.
From there, Guyer got to work on his case study.
“Our job is really about getting buy-in from the community and continuing that dialogue and inclusion throughout a design project,” said Mainzer. “That’s the side Devon would get to learn about through his partnership with Studio Zewde.”
Located in the West Ward of Philadelphia on the Delaware River waterfront, Graffiti Pier is a former anthracite coal loading dock that was part of Reading Railroad’s Port Richmond Yards.
“Immigrants of Polish decent lived in the adjacent neighborhoods and were exploited to work long, hard hours while facing harsh living conditions,” he said.
The pier was decommissioned and abandoned in 1991 and since then has become an icon of graffiti culture, community identity and public art, according to Guyer. It is, in fact, one of the most Instagrammed places in Philadelphia and features walking trails, green space and waterfront views. The area, however, is facing developmental pressures and sea level rise.
“Graffiti Pier is under pressure because developers are currently developing the adjacent landscape west of the pier, with interest from other riverfront developers. It also faces an environmental threat because of climate change, so it is threatened from all sides,” said Guyer.
Studio Zewde’s approach to getting the community involved was two-pronged to target both public and private stakeholders, said Guyer. Those living in the area were invited to provide input about the best- and worst-case developments of Graffiti Pier during public engagement sessions.
The private stakeholders of the park, the graffiti artists whose work draws visitors and other creatives to the pier, meanwhile, were invited to join designers from Studio Zewde at a local dive bar.
“It was important to understand the artists’ culture and hear their ideas about the development of the pier,” said Guyer. “Gaining access into a closed community through such an event gives designers a unique opportunity to understand both stakeholders’ needs and the value they bring to the community.”
Mander Park, on the other hand, is in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood of Philadelphia along the Schuylkill River. A historically Black, low-income area, the park features open green space for residents to use for community programming and sports, as well as a public pool and playground.
“The area has been influenced and redesigned by redlining histories that restricted access and movement of Black and other minority groups in the city,” explained Guyer. “Redlining kept minority groups together, ensuring the people there have lesser rights to housing while living in depressed conditions.”
In its efforts to engage the Mander Park community, Studio Zewde held a block party that featured music, food and live entertainment. The event fostered a sense of togetherness among residents and provided a platform to share their memories and future hopes for the area.
Social science and community design
Through examining these two Philadelphia parks with guidance from Mainzer and input from Lynch, Guyer says he has come to understand the importance of the social sciences in the design fields, which he looks forward to bringing to his career.
“Really wrapping your head around what makes a community a community before trying to change anything about that place is so important,” said Guyer. “It fosters the development of socially just and representative landscapes and allows us to develop spaces that communities can take pride in and ownership of.”
He also said he is grateful for the opportunity Mainzer gave him to develop his research chops before graduating.
“Traditionally, undergraduate design students don’t get the opportunity to refine their research skills while still meeting their course requirements, so this was a valuable experience for me to figure out who I want to be, and the impact I want to have, as a designer,” said Guyer.
Mainzer said he hopes other design students see the value of adding more research opportunities to their undergraduate studies.
“This experience not only augmented and diversified Devon’s skills and knowledge, it also helped expand his professional network and helped familiarize him with the important process of really understanding a place — it’s history, traditions, people — before getting to the business of design,” said Mainzer.
The Stuckeman School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture is the largest academic unit in the College of Arts and Architecture at Penn State. It houses the departments of Architecture, Graphic Design and Landscape Architecture, as well as two research centers: the Hamer Center for Community Design and the Stuckeman Center for Design Computing.
Written by: College of Arts and Architecture at Penn State University; used with permission.
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