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American Society of Landscape Architects


January 2008 Issue

Equal Opportunity Design
Urban Ecology brings safe, healthy, and green spaces to the Bay Area urban core.

By Linda McIntyre

Equal Opportunity Design 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 groups.

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 those circumstances.

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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