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Passion to Improve Community Through Participatory Design

Ayana Belk holding a certificate award in front of a poster for her Reviving Troost work
Ayana Belk presenting academic work

Ayana Belk, an MLA student at Kansas State University, is the 2021 winner of the $10,000 LAF Honor Scholarship for Inclusive Community Design. She also received the $2,000 first-runner up award for the new Daniel Zwier/Permaloc Innovation Scholarship.

Ayana was born in Columbia, Missouri and grew up in Kansas City, near Troost Avenue, the city’s racial and economic dividing line. Her neighborhood on the east side was historically an underserved community with vacant lots, few amenities, very few trees, and no parks. She recalls that as a child “off of George Kessler Boulevard, we would go play in the medians where there was grass but no playgrounds or parks.” This disparity and lack of access to neighborhood parks and nature would become the driving force propelling Ayana’s journey into landscape architecture.

When Ayana was a junior in high school, she took her first big trip outside of Kansas City to Chicago to go audition for the Voice! Although she did not win a golden ticket, the experience was life changing. Seeing Millennium Park with Lurie Garden and Frank Gehry’s BP Pedestrian Bridge — a park that incorporated recreation, art, nature, and transportation all into one system was eye opening. Ayana realized these were things she never got to enjoy growing up in her neighborhood in Kansas City. This became the inspiration she needed and happenstance took care of the rest. “By coincidence, I saw a green plant on a poster in my high school hallway that said “landscape architecture”. I researched it and knew I had to become a landscape architect.”

With encouragement from a high schoolteacher and advisor, Ayana applied to the non-Baccalaureate Master of Landscape Architecture (MLA) program at Kansas State University. During her time in college, Ayana has been honored with multiple awards including the 2021 Commerce Bank Presidential Student Award for promoting equity and diversity at K-State. Winning the scholarships from LAF was affirming for her with respect to her research and its merit for the larger landscape architecture community.

I had this dream but it didn’t seem very possible at the time. But after writing out and submitting my vision, then to have a jury of strangers pick me — knowing that they believe in me and that what I am doing is worth investing in makes me feel validated and on the right track.


Ayana’s thesis research addresses Black students’ journeys to discovering and navigating landscape architecture. Her work explores the barriers Black landscape architecture students face, with the aim of offering universities and the profession recommendations for improving the Black experience and increasing the number of Black landscape architects. She recently conducted a survey to collect descriptive and quantitative data on individual students’ experiences. She looks forward to processing the responses and using the information to develop recommendations that can be disseminated and shared. 

Ayana is encouraged to see the discipline prioritizing research and diversity. She believes “we can’t achieve diversity without the research. Let's make sure Black landscape architecture student voices are heard and that we have the data we need to improve our programs and profession!”

What does the future hold for Ayana? She will graduate in May 2022 with an MLA and a minor in regional and community planning, she wants to use her training to rebuild the community she grew up in and to recruit more Black landscape architects. Ayana hopes to do this by starting a nonprofit in Kansas City that would provide a space for youth to create art, help them discover landscape architecture, and improve the Troost Corridor through participatory design. “Participatory design practices that bridge the gap between the designers and those the design is for are at the core of my design philosophy. I take a narrative and historical approach to design and have a special interest in urban acupuncture.” 

As an emerging professional, Ayana’s goal will be to create sustainable pocket parks to replace the vacant lots along Troost Avenue to give current residents and future generations nearby places to play and discover.

LAF is grateful to the many individuals and organizations that provide financial support towards fulfilling our mission to support the preservation, improvement, and enhancement of the environment.

Much of what LAF is able to accomplish would not be possible without the thought leadership and financial investment of our major supporters, including ASLA, which provides over $125,000 of in-kind support annually.