ASLA Oregon LANDbytes SEPTEMBER 2011 Feature:
The Story on the Understory
By Rebecca Wahlstrom
What were you doing on 8.17.11? I hope that you were out in your neck of the world celebrating the launch of The Understory. If you haven’t heard of The Understory yet, the goal of this two-year public awareness campaign is to educate the general public about landscape architecture. Around 175 events were held across the country with landscape architects getting out and meeting the public, holding charrettes, media coverage – anything to get the word out. Springfield, Portland, and Bend held events; Springfield sent out a media package to their co-workers via email, Portland folks met people during the lunch hour in some of the downtown plazas, and the Bend participants held a charrette for a Habitat for Humanity site. Since this is just the beginning of the ASLA’s quest to inform the public, I thought it would be worthwhile to see how it went on 8.17.11, and see how it could be even more successful in the future.
8.17.11 BEND: Robin Gyorgyfalvy from the US Forest Services & Scenic Byways Program and Chelsea Schneider of WH Pacific organized the charrette for Alford Acres, a Habitat for Humanity urban farm project that not only grows food for the residents, but also gives the surplus to Common Table, a charitable café in Bend. As Robin said, they wanted to do an event that would be ongoing and show people that landscape architects can take the lead in substantial projects. The event brought permaculturists, planners, master gardeners, students, LEED designers, landscape architects and public artists all together at one table; allowing them an opportunity to make some powerful connections which will benefit the community in the future. Robin noted that during the work session there was a lot of talking and not much being put to paper; it took the LA’s in the group to translate the words into graphics. The executives from Habitat for Humanity were part of the design team and were amazed by the level of energy and creativity being generated in the room. Robin said that Bend’s main goal was to have an event that was demonstrative of what landscape architects did best; be collaborators and connectors for the community. All evidence points to a successful Understory launch in Bend –we’re looking forward to seeing what comes next!
8.17.11 PORTLAND: A hardy band of landscape architects hit downtown plazas during lunchtime. Clothed in spiffy “The Understory” shirts and carrying brochures that explained the profession, they connected directly to the public in public spaces. This approach had mixed reviews; some thought it was successful, some not so much. The successful tended to approach folks not already talking to their friends and just were sitting there, enjoying their lunch. Dave Walters from MIG suggested that next time a central station could be set up in a space without competing events, so that the public could approach us, instead of us advancing on them. People are wary of strangers approaching them while holding out a piece of paper; both Dave and Emily Hull, of Parsons Brinckerhoff, suggested we need to think up a showier way to convey our message and intrigue the public. The general feeling was that they had a fun experience and would certainly do it again, especially knowing the things that could be improved.
8.17.11 SPRINGFIELD: Nicole Ankeney and Jake Risley, from the Willamalane Park and Recreation District in Springfield, knew that since there was just the two of them they were not able to field a big event, so they used technology to their advantage. A catchy and informative email was sent to the Parks and Recreation employee email list that explained the profession and gave some local examples of what their department of landscape architects did. Nicole reports that the response to the email was very positive, with people asking more questions and thanking them for their work. Springfield is a great example of bringing awareness not only to the public at large, but also to the people we work with everyday in a multi-disciplinary environment.
This isn’t the end to The Understory, it is only the first chapter. As Scott Mizee, from Alta Planning + Design said, no marketing campaign can be completed in a day, repetition is a must. This is only the beginning of a two year campaign, so be on the lookout for other chances to get out there and make our face known to the community. You might want to ask yourself before the next opportunity to meet the neighborhood. How are you going to engage the public at the next event? If you had 30 seconds, what are the relevant points you want to express about your profession? Once the public has met you, what do you want them to do with the information? Do you want them to support parks initiatives that come onto the ballot? Appreciate how urban spaces are formed? Knowing exactly what we want as an outcome will help us focus our efforts and open up creative avenues to show the public our clever and resourceful ways. If you want to be sure to be a part of the next chapter of The Understory follow it on Facebook at facebook.com/theunderstory and keep a close eye on the Oregon ASLA website for more information. Your Environment. Designed.