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Olmsted Scholar Feature: On Participating in Community

By Christopher Jennette, 2010 University Olmsted Scholar

As a graduate student for three years, I spent many hours trying to better understand what we, as landscape architects, mean when we say the word “community”.  At once geographical, cultural, and somewhat intangible, the concept of community is ever-present in our design thinking, process, and language. Landscape architects spend a good deal of time thinking about communities: how to create and enhance them, to engage with and inspire them, and to help them find and express their identities. This past year, after making my first big move since graduate school, I realized something about communities that I had always known, but that somehow escaped me over the course of so many nights waxing academic — we live in them.  

After graduating from the University of Massachusetts this past spring, I packed my life into a few boxes and moved south to Louisville, Kentucky. Not knowing much about Louisville, I was a bit apprehensive about the transition from the snowy, familiar sights of Northampton, Massachusetts to a city best known for horse racing, baseball bats, and bourbon. I did some research and learned that Louisville is a city of roughly 1.26 million residents (metro). It has an extensive (and expanding) parks system including a number of Olmsted-designed gems right near downtown, many great restaurants showcasing locally grown ingredients, and a thriving arts community. Upon arriving, I was excited to explore my new home, and to make discoveries on-foot instead of on-internet.

Though some of what I discovered here was expected: that thing called southern hospitality I’d heard so much about but never thought was real, barbeque the likes of which New England has never seen, and more days above 90 degrees than I care to relive — some of my discoveries came as a truly pleasant surprise. Neighbors raising chickens in my neighborhood just east of downtown, crowded farmer’s markets replete with beautiful, fresh produce, meat and poultry throughout the week, a community garden just around the corner, and bright orange 95-gallon recycling bins in front of nearly every business on my walk to the bus stop, to name a few.

Last month, I joined Louisville’s 9th District “Green Triangle Coordination Team” - a diverse group of local citizens, professionals, and business owners that will serve as a resource to identify, enhance, develop, support, and connect green initiatives throughout the district in which I live. One aspect of Landscape Architecture that has always excited me is the potential for our profession to be a key linkage — to coordinate and connect many different groups of people and ideas. I’m excited about the prospect of wholeheartedly engaging with my community, and working to reveal, connect, and celebrate the great things that are happening here.  

Becoming part of the coordination team got me thinking about the role that we play as professionals in our local communities, and it also brought up a couple of questions that I thought blog readers might like to ponder along with me. Though we, as landscape architects, have spent a great deal of time refining our skills so as to better support our instincts as designers and thinkers, are we putting those skills to use in our own communities? Do we, as trained, talented creative people, have a responsibility not just to our profession, but to our neighbors? In the coming year, I encourage you all to seek out the wealth of opportunity right outside your door and to put your hard-earned skills to work for the good of the community in which you live.

Chris Jennette earned his Master’s Degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Massachusetts in May.  He is currently living and working in Louisville, Kentucky as a landscape and graphic designer.

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