Equal Opportunity Design
Urban Ecology brings safe, healthy, and green spaces to the
Bay Area urban core.
By Linda McIntyre
Courtesy of Urban Ecology
Even in this cynical age, idealism about the power of design
to do good is alive and well among professionals. But how can landscape
architects use their skills to help make life better, safer, and healthier for
people who can ill afford considerations of aesthetics and sustainability?
Urban Ecology, founded in San Francisco in 1975, shows us
one way to do it. The group is a lean and mean nonprofit with only four
full-time staff, two of whom have studied landscape architecture, and a steady
rotation of interns. Much of their work is similar to that of larger national
groups such as New York’s Project for Public Spaces. But their small size and
local focus means they know the neighborhoods they’re working in intimately and
can build strong and enduring relationships with other firms and community
Urban Ecology began as an effort by architects and planners
to bring the environment back into the city, but it morphed over time into a
catalyst for policy advocacy. The group’s Blueprint for a Sustainable Bay Area,
published in 1996, reads like today’s news, exhorting density, accessibility,
and environmental justice. Until recently, the group spent a lot of time and
effort drawing up ambitious master plans, but, as so often happens in the
nonprofit world, few of the plans were implemented. It was hard, says executive
director Don Neuwirth, to sustain the volunteer efforts the group depends on in
So now the group is evolving again, shifting into a more
hands-on, active role in bringing community projects to life—planning and
designing schoolyards, parks, and streetscapes, many of them in less-affluent
East Bay neighborhoods. “We’re focusing on doable projects and programs as
opposed to large-scale master plans and advocacy,” says Neuwirth.
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