An interview with Olmstead Scholar Sara Zewde: Cultural Preservation, Landscape Architecture, and Kanye West

Contributed by Rebecca Greenwald

At 28, Sara Zewde is something of an architectural wonderkid- part landscape architect, part urbanist, part sociologist and cultural anthropologist, and-as of this month-the Landscape Architecture Foundation's 2014 Olmstead Scholar. As the first student from Harvard's Graduate School of Design to win the award, Sara will bring her perspective examining and designing landscapes with Walter Hood/Hood Design in Oakland and Asakura Robinson in Houston to creating spaces in both New Orleans' Treme and Rio de Janeiro's Little Africa that honor and reflect some of those cities’ most challenged yet culturally influential communities. I caught Sara in between final exams to talk about her grant work, the relationship between cultural preservation and landscape design, and why Kanye West is important to the design community.

Tell us a little bit about the two projects you'll be using your grant to pursue in Rio and New Orleans

A few years ago I was working in transportation planning in Rio de Janeiro when a discovery was made of slave bones in what they believed to be the old slave wharf, Valongo, in central Rio. At the time the city government announced that they wanted to memorialize the space with a plaza to represent the black experience in that community, Pequena Africa (Little Africa). With the support of a grant I received from Harvard I examined the design process and issues in that community. The city government and community organizations advocating for the project were interested in getting me involved in the design process but had no funds at the time, so this Olmsted grant will help me go back and get involved in these design issues looking at the Pequena Africa neighborhood.

A cross-section of the city's history is visible during the construction project in Pequena Africa (2011). Source: Sara Zewde

For the New Orleans part of my research, I’ll be revisiting a topic I explored in my master’s thesis at MIT, the potential removal of the Claiborne Expressway that cuts through one of the city’s most famous historically black neighborhoods, Treme. When I wrote my thesis, the project was theoretical and then about a year afterwards the city got a federal grant to study the feasibility of removing the elevated expressway. The Olmstead grant will give me the chance to go back and reconsider what I was talking about in my thesis and get involved in developing design strategies for the corridor as the project gets realized.

What similarities do you see between the two communities, design and otherwise?

In terms of the trajectory of these cities, they’re both in a period of hyper development—New Orleans is still seeing a lot of post-Katrina redevelopment and Rio is seeing a lot of World Cup and Olympics-related development which has the put the core of both cities under a lot of pressure. Because of this, areas that were historically under-valued, largely because of infrastructural decisions like putting freeways there, are now being redeveloped and reconsidered. In the case of Rio, the elevated freeway going through Pequena Africa was removed only very recently.

Claiborne Avenue in 1955, before the construction of the elevated expressway. Source: Louisiana Historical Society

Under the overpass today (2010). Source: Sara Zewde











Both of these neighborhoods are also the homes of forms of music and culture that have formed national identities—in New Orleans Treme is the birthplace of jazz and in Rio Pequena Africa is the birthplace of Samba. Despite that, there has been a lack of understanding of how the spatial cultures of those places are able to influence their contemporary design. That’s really where the intrigue for me lies- we can say we’ve been able to honor certain aspects of these neighborhoods, but in terms of architectural and landscape design we haven’t been able to.

That thesis from your first Masters at MIT is now being used to teach students about black architecture and urbanism- an area that is not usually given critical examination, especially in academic settings. Can you detail some of the defining elements you see in this area?

For the most part, the way urbanists view black neighborhoods (and other low-income neighborhoods and communities of color) are as problems that need to be fixed. At the heart of what I want to say is what can we as urbanists learn from these neighborhoods? There are actually a lot of spatial and cultural practices that lend themselves to contemporary design. It’s not really about defining some set of physical elements that are characteristic of all of these places, but more about the way we look at them and value these people, landscapes, and neighborhoods.

For both projects, how much background research did you have to do on the history of both places and what are some of the most interesting things you learned in that process?

In both Rio and New Orleans the most important part of the research process was simply talking to people: small business owners, local residents, members of city government, and civic, cultural and spiritual leaders. These conversations were about building relationships with the members of these communities and understanding what aspects of the spaces around them are most important. One of my favorite things about design is the empathy it requires of you.

As much as possible, spending time in the area is critical as well. It is important to experience the place with a sense of curiosity and wonderment, in combination with a rootedness, in order to tap into the rhythms and energies of the place.  And you layer on the more historical, archival and current events research in understanding the issues and politics of the place. Those elements of the research are really important in understanding how to enter these projects and what my potential contribution might be to those contexts.

How has your own diverse upbringing - both of your parents moved here from Ethiopia and you spent much of your childhood between Louisiana and Houston- represented itself in your work?

Every place I’ve lived has a very distinct landscape. Even as a child moving from Louisiana to Houston I became very conscious of the change in the way things looked, in the lighting, the smells, the pace of life, the sounds- all of that melded together into landscape. It happened again when I moved to Boston and again in California and in Brazil. For me it’s overlaying all of those moves with my parents’ upbringing in Ethiopia, I’ve always been very aware of what is represented in the landscape and how it makes you feel about where and who you are, where you’re supposed to be, what people, cultures and ways of life are validated and represented, etc.

In terms of the work I’m currently pursuing, both Brazil and New Orleans exhibit elements of Africa in the Western Hemisphere. And my parents are both Africans in the West. So they present this extreme hybridity, and I guess because my own life is of a hybrid nature that’s one of the reasons why I’m drawn to both places.

You were recently one of a group of students at Harvard's Graduate School of Design who brought Kanye West in to speak and engage in conversation around design- what was the significance of that experience and what is the importance of figures like him in raising the profile of black designers?

The reason why we reached out to Kanye was because we identified with the frustration he was expressing in the media about being pigeonholed into one form of art and the feeling that he wasn’t gaining access to a lot of the design world because of this. The media didn’t seem to understand it, but we did. For us, with black people being so underrepresented in architecture, landscape architecture, and planning (for reference only 2 percent of accredited architects in the AIA are black) we could certainly relate to that frustration. We want to be part of the design world and feel like we can make a unique contribution in the same way our peers can.

Kanye and AASU photo

Having someone with Kanye’s reach and platform come to the GSD and express his thoughts on design as an agency of change and how design can save the world was very significant for us. For people of all colors and socioeconomic backgrounds to learn craft is highly empowering and will only continue to widen the range of things that are possible for design. Kanye spoke directly to that.

I have to ask since you're now an official Olmstead scholar- what influence has Olmstead had on your interest in landscape architecture and on your work?

One of Olmstead’s greatest strengths was his ability to layer ecologic, aesthetic, and social aims. I think a lot of landscape architecture today either positions itself in one of two categories- it’s either a ‘public project’ like an urban plaza or it’s an ecological restoration project aimed at saving habitat. But Olmstead’s work manages to do both really well, and he was very conscious of accomplishing both social needs and landscape aims. Olmstead was also very good at observing people and you can see that in the very delicate hand that comes through even in his large scale works—you feel like you could venture through Central or Prospect Park forever. It’s this layering effect that is so evocative and timeless and is something that can be appreciated even as populations change around them. And that is what I’m aiming to do with my work.


About Rebecca Greenwald

Rebecca Greenwald is an associate with Walter Communications and consults with companies across design, travel and sustainability. In her free time, Rebecca enjoys getting lost in new cities and in cafes, markets, bookstores and record shops. 

5 Tips for Using Social Media with Intention

Despite a growing reliance on social media, the construction industry in Australia is increasingly unsure how to use social media—with architects leading this trend. According to Infolink’s social media survey of almost 1,300 Australia architecture and construction industry professionals, nearly half of architects, 48%, say they don’t know how to use social media. This figure has almost tripled from 2012. My guess is that architects in the U.S. are feeling the same rub. I have a theory about this. There is a reason why some firms are so frustrated with social media – it’s because they are using social media in isolation of everything else they do.  The fact is social media is only a tool, just like sending out a postcard, pitching a journalist, or submitting for an award.  These are all tactics. Without a strategy based on a specific and achievable goal, you will not be successful with random tactics.

If you take away nothing else from reading this post, know that you need to establish a goal before you decide to  execute tactics.

So pause from posting your firm’s latest accomplishment on your Facebook page, and think about what your communications aspire to do.  This could be around a specific campaign –promote the findings of a research project that the firm has conducted—or it could address a greater goal of the firm such as build its presence in the independent schools market. Every firm is unique in its particular goals and challenges, so how—and which— specific communications tools (and networks) you use to reach these goals should also be unique.

If you are on the fence about social media, here are five tips to use  these tools with intention:

1.  Invest the time and resources needed to think through your strategy.

Lake|Flato recognized social media as an opportunity to regain some of the public visibility lost as a result of the many shelter magazines that have dropped off newsstands. But without someone who knew social media well internally, Lake | Flato was hesitant to jump in. So they asked for help. Aside from the fact that they hired us, this was a smart move because an outside perspective often helps you appreciate what you do well. We modeled a social media approach that was both unique to their firm and that could be self-sustained on their already successful social intranet. As a result, blogging and posting to Facebook and Twitter doesn’t feel like one more obligation, instead it’s a natural extension of how they were already sharing interesting ideas, projects and information.




2.    Integrate all your communications channels to reach more people and be more effective.

As a core expertise to the DPR brand, sustainability is threaded through their marketing messaging and communications. Social media plays a big role with about 30 blog posts written about some form of sustainability since 2011, a series of videos on sustainability-oriented topics ranging from their living lab office to adaptive reuse, net zero to the company’s history with green building. DPR shares this content on its Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Google+, Twitter and Instagram. The company also publishes its expertise and research in technical papers and sends its experts to speak  at conferences like Greenbuild and ULI’s Fall conference and Verge San Francisco hosted by Greenbiz. DPR aggressively pursues net zero, LEED and Living Building certification, awards, and press coverage on its sustainable projects.

Any of these tactics would certainly help advance DPR’s reputation for green building, but collectively, they present a firm that is committed to the tenets of sustainable development and recognized broadly as leaders.

DPR blog 2



3.    Recruit senior leaders as social media ambassadors (internal) and spokespeople (external).

Array Architects created a blog as a way of showing to the public the high quality of knowledge the firm has on the needs of the healthcare market. This is where the firm shares experiences from their 30+ year history and where they explore new topics as a means of helping them to understand concepts more fully. From the beginning, this effort was spearheaded by Array CEO Carl Davis. Following his example as an active contributor, Array has a total of 28 employee bloggers (as well as invited guest bloggers) who have added more than 90 posts since the Array Thoughts blog launched in June 2012. Carl continues to be one of the most frequent bloggers and the voice of the firm on Twitter. His personal investment signals to staff that blogging and social media are not time wasters—in fact, at Array they are a priority. Their commitment to developing original and thoughtful content – whether as a blog post, a Pinterest board, or a video—has helped the firm and its individuals become a trusted design advisor for healthcare community.




4.    Accept that social media (and communications in general) is a marathon, not a sprint.

Don’t be intimidated by the pages and accounts with tens of thousands of followers—this is not a numbers game. Everyone has to start without any followers and build their network gradually. Grow your audience by contributing useful stuff and interacting with other people who you admire. It takes time and consistent effort, but people who are interested in similar topics as you will start to notice and engage with you. In time you will have an audience full of the right people. In the meantime, keep at it and celebrate the little milestones, like retweets by someone you respect, posts that inspire someone to leave a thoughtful comment.

5.    You don’t need to be on every network. Pick two or three and use them well.

Consider where your audience is and how they are already using these networks and develop a strategy that fits with their behavior.

Charles Elliott is a landscape architect at LRM in Los Angeles. The firm doesn’t have a social media presence on any channel except Pinterest. As one of the principals, Charles is the firm’s front man on Pinterest. He has more than 70 boards, and over 10,000 pins. His approach is to pin beautiful examples. He attributes images to their original designer but also includes a caption that shows his grasp of the design intent and broader applications. He comes off as someone with a strong sense of design and style – even though most of what he has pinned isn’t his work. He has become a resource of outdoor design ideas to anyone on Pinterest – and has amassed over 500,000 followers through this very simple strategy.



What other social media mantras have been helpful to you? We want to hear your story.



Top 5 Architecture and Urbanism Blog Posts for Week of Sept. 2, 2013

090213 The excitement of  field trips. Returning streets to the people. Building under bridges. Public squares in the urban world. A trail for volunteering. Examining thought leadership.A trip into the field.

Melanie Kahl of Cannon Design discusses how field trips contribute to design, learning and place.

“Strange as it may seem, we think field trips are more of a mindset and lifestyle than anything else. A mindset central to learning and design. When we go on field trips, we become students of the world––our awareness is heightened, our inspiration is fueled, and our understanding is deepened. Life is a series of really awesome field trips.” – Melanie Kahl

Via Cannon Design Blog

Returning streets to people. Gerdo Aquino, president of SWA Group, examines how cities are finding opportunities to reintroduce car-free zones that give the streets back to the people.

Aquino provides five tips for going car-free in urban areas, including making sure that pedestrians already frequent the space, that the street is not currently essential to the city’s street grid and the place is a unique destination.

Via Ideas SWA


Under bridges. Jared Green of ASLA’s the Dirt explores Mexico City’s creative use of space under its bridges.
After the success of its pilot program Bajo Puentes, or Under Bridges, which turned four trash-strewn, vacant underpass spaces into vibrant shopping plazas, playgrounds, and cafes, the city is expanding the program. It will add another five and target 30 more possible areas that can be turned into commercial or recreational space. as candidates.

Public squares are center of urban world. Landscape Architects Network (LAN) features 10 festival squares as part of its Top 100 Squares, showing the world the power of people and the power of public space.

  1. St. Marks Square, Venice, Italy
  2. Circular Quay, Sydney, Australia
  3. Century Square, Shanghai, China
  4. Yonge-Dundas Square, Toronto, Canada
  5.  Zócalo Square, Mexico City, Mexico
  6. Jackson Square, New Orleans, USA
  7. Leidseplein, Amsterdam, Netherlands
  8. Parc del Forum, Barcelona, Spain
  9. Place Sainte-Catherine, Brussels, Belgium
  10. Bristo Square, Edinburgh, Scotland


A great trail for volunteering. Stantec landscape architect Dalton LaVoie assembled a volunteer team of local designers throughout Northern California to help create a road map for converting an iconic stretch of now defunct Northern California railroad into a landmark hiking trail.

When complete, the 80-mile scenic Great Shasta Rail Trail will link the Northern California towns of McCloud and Burney, as well as nearby recreation areas and local communities. “Volunteering can serve as a creative outlet and provide opportunities that may not otherwise present themselves through your everyday work. For design professionals, exercising creativity and imagination is one of our passions. When this passion is coupled with opportunities to learn, explore, collaborate and assist communities in need, we’re usually interested.” – Dalton LaVoie

Via Stantec Blog

Thought Leadership Article

Amanda Walter of Walter Communications examines the term thought leadership, discovering a growing movement toward thought leadership programs across the AEC industry.

Walter conducted a global survey, which indicated several common topics: sustainability, technology and business growth and operations, design process and project delivery. But there was one factor that was evident in each firm interviewed: “Leadership. Somewhere — maybe not directly conducting the research, but cheering on the team that is — there are passionate individuals who have sparked the initial curiosities. Permission to pursue ideas can have infectious results.”—Amanda Walter

Via Design Intelligence

Architecture Thought Leader: The Innovation Studio at MKThink

mkthink logoSelf-described as “the ideas company for the built environment,” MKThink has three practice areas that, on the surface, seem to contradict one another: An Architecture practice that designs new buildings and renovates existing ones, a Strategy practice that helps clients connect their business practices with their goals through the more effective use of space - thus avoiding the need for new buildings, and an Innovation practice that is currently incubating a technology that could help would-be Architecture and Strategy clients create new buildings and facility strategies with less need for a consultant.

Taking a closer look, you can see the logic behind these ideas.

“Our goal is to create the most effective and appropriate places for people; new building is not always the answer,” says MKThink found and CEO Mark Miller.  By first understanding the role of the built environment with their clients’ goals, MKThink can help as much with cost avoidance through strategic planning as they do with the design for their new spaces. After several years, the firm struck a healthy balance of strategic and built environment work, but the firm was full of other ideas that they wanted to explore

Mark Miller unveiled Project FROG in San Francisco in March of 2006.

In 2006, before the Innovation studio existed, MKThink came to a realization that there were 380,000 “classrooms in a can” in the United States. Knowing there was a better solution than the modular learning facilities designed for no particular purpose; MKThink initiated research based on an industrial design methodology. By 2008, MKThink launched and secured funding for Project FROG (Flexible Response to Ongoing Growth), an energy neutral, building kit system that is currently being used as classrooms, community centers, healthcare facilities, retail stores, offices and more. Project FROG generated significant press coverage and provided opportunities for the founders to tell the product story and encourage other design-oriented entrepreneurs.  For MKThink, aside from its initial share of equity ownership, the most valuable payback from Project FROG comes as lessons in business and finance as well as a test case for the concept of an innovation studio within a design firm.

The Potential for Great Ideas

Contrasting MKThink’s approach with the more common form of design innovation, “Most architecture firms innovate for specific projects, but their focus isn’t on realizing the potential of ideas for broader application,” says Miller. The MKThink Innovation studio matches a creative team with a problem that needs to be solved and the markets that need the solution – then they invest in the resulting good idea to develop it further. The studio aims to invent scalable, marketable solutions, a goal that pertains to both its client work and its role as an internal R+D department. For its clients, MKThink Innovation functions as innovators-for-hire or as an incubation vehicle to help advance the ideas of bootstrapping entrepreneurs, public entities, private corporations and even community organizations.

It’s worth noting that Innovation studio’s billable work does not assume a higher priority than its internal role. The studio takes on one advanced internal incubation project at a time with the intent of creating a viable and profitable product. Internal ideas for incubation are generated in the first of three phases of the firm’s “innovation pipeline,” which is research, incubation and enterprise.

Ideation is at the core of the MKThink culture and the entire firm participates in some way. All staff– including overhead positions – are expected to participate in the research phase. Each is responsible for studying a topic of their interest and presenting their conclusions to the firm and sometimes to the public. Presentations could take the form of a photo essay, a white paper, or even a business plan or patent application. MKThink doesn’t restrict what subjects can be pursued, but they try to organize explorations into three themes: productization, where industrial design meets architecture; the impact of data and analytics on spaces; and  the environment and sustainability. These independent studies often spark ideas that eventually move into the incubation phase which is formalized within the Innovation studio. Miller notes “research goes where the findings take us. It’s sometimes hard to tell where an idea starts or ends.”

One employee's study of the relationship between artistic movement and architecture culminated as a photo essay and eventually a post on the firm's blog.

Role of the Innovation Team

The Innovation team is staffed with creative professionals with diverse backgrounds, training and interests - including an MBA who is also a professional ballerina. Miller describes his team as smart, engaged, overachievers, and thinkers.  Promising Innovation projects incubate, mature, and graduate as an enterprise. It’s not uncommon for some of the core staff who nurtured the idea to continue with the new venture. This opens doors for new creative talent with a crop of different backgrounds and perspectives.  Miller notes, “We recruit for general talents related to specific assignments, but in reality, when we find someone really good we figure out a new job definition to have them add to our capabilities.  ”

Ideas that could be interesting prospects for the firm are advanced to the Innovation studio for incubation. At a point somewhere between 6 months and a year from the project’s start up, MKThink decides the appropriate next step:

  1. Kill / Hold
  2. Progress as planned
  3. Enhance the progression with investors and/or partners

When ready as an operational prototype, the Innovation project is tested by incorporating it into the project work being done in the Architecture and/or Strategy studios. By introducing the product or service to a limited audience of clients, MKThink can observe the invention in real world scenarios, and, when appropriate, begin to realize revenue. Ideally, MKThink develops the idea to a point where the business case is self-evident, if not self-sufficient. Sometimes this requires bringing in outside resources as additional expertise is needed and, if suitable, introducing the case to professional investors for the purpose of scaling and gaining strategic input.  Thriving ventures are eventually spun off as an entirely separate company.

Embracing a Technology Enterprise

MKThink’s latest innovation, which is now in the enterprise phase, is the software and services company, roundhouseOne.   Its proprietary solution, 4Daptive technologies, is informed by the work done in MKThink’s Strategy studio to address larger problems by adding speed and scale to data processing. 4daptive logoThis tool generates real-time analytics on how people and cultures consume resources and interact with facilities and natural environments to determine and improve alignment with institutional goals. What was once tracked manually (and invasively), 4Daptive technologies collects better data, automatically, and makes it available to clients on demand.

By the nature of the technology solution, the roundhouseOne development team is closely aligned with the Strategy studio as the 4Daptive technologies is tested and advanced in Strategy’s active client work. While communication between these two groups is fluid, the firm of about 40 individuals encourages active informal exchange and critique of work, as well as structured firm-wide business review meetings a few times each year.  At these “all-hands” meetings, each studio presents what they are working on – external projects and internal projects. This gives everyone in the firm the chance to learn and exchange ideas about the challenges and advances in each of the practice areas.

MKThink’s inclusive approach to innovation is not about marketing and positioning, instead it is their way of scratching an itch to investigate, grow, and create. Their structured approach fosters an environment of thinking differently and taking measured risks. Its successful endeavors continue to fuel the firm’s confidence in its ability to create sustained change.


This is the second profile in our AEC Thought Leadership series. Walter Communications has partnered with our friends at the Cameron MacAllister Group to study the strategic role of thought leadership in the built environment professions. Our first featured firm was Eskew+Dumez+Ripple's research and testing program and we conducted an industry-wide survey of firms, which has now closed and is being analyzed.

Favorite Design and Urbanism Blog Posts for Week of April 1, 2013

BNIM's collaboration stage. Lake|Flato on the Evolution of air barns. Stantec sees common ground in ski areas and airports. Placemakers on mixed use. Innovations in education with LPA.



Setting the stage for collaboration. BNIM staff attended the firm’s annual Symposium, opting for “family” conversation that encouraged informal dialogue instead of traditional breakout sessions.

The Symposium discussions focused on five issues, with individual participants tapped to write editorials on the issues for the blog. Joe Keal starts off with the topic of collaboration:

“As design professionals, collaboration is inevitable. In many instances, we have colleagues that we have successfully coexisted with over a span of many years – working to establish trust, respect and a great deal of mind-reading. In other instances, we are looking for peers and mentors that inspire us, or do amazing work, or utilize processes that blow our minds. If we are not doing this… well, we should be.” Joe Keal

Via BNIM Blog


Evolution of air barns. Grace Boudewyns of Lake Flato discusses working on “Air Barns,”  a project that was designed to provide a habitat for a client’s string of polo ponies.

“The project started as a simple napkin sketch then evolved into a hands-on collaboration with the Contractor (Jeff Truax) and his welders during construction.  The Construction Documents were drawn by hand, on vellum, on an old drafting table that used to reside at my house.  That table now lives on as a relic of this lost art at my workspace today.” – Grace Boudewyns

Via The Dogrun


Ski areas and airports share common ground. Bruce Erickson, a senior associate at Stantec, explores how ski areas and airports have a lot in common and how planners of each property can learn from one other.

Ski areas and airports share three main “areas” from a planning perspective:

  1. Land side: Parking, shuttle, utilities etc.
  2. Air side: Runways, taxi strips, ski runs, lifts, and/or specialized maintenance equipment
  3. Inside: Base lodges and terminals

Via Stantec Blog


What is mixed use? Howard Blackson,  principal  and director of planning at Placemakers, looks at the term mixed use, which has held different meanings in various places over the past 40 years.

Blackson says mixed-use can be defined as three-dimensional, pedestrian-oriented places that layer compatible land uses, public amenities, and utilities together at various scales and intensities. This allows for people to live, work, play and shop in one place, which then becomes a destination for people from other neighborhoods.

Via PlaceMakers Blog


Innovative urban education. Kate Mraw, an associate and interior designer at LPA, continues to discuss San Diego’s e3 Civic High, a revolutionary school-within-a-library that aims to redefine the meaning of the studio. The second part of this series examines design goals and features, and as well as the administration’s emphasis on sustainable architecture and engineering.

“The design principles for the learning environment centralized around three ideas: personalization, social connections and flexibility. For learning to happen everywhere, we understood that movement mattered—regardless of the primary function, secondary uses were explored, developed and designed.” – Kate Mraw

Via LPA Blog