Urban design landscape architect uplifts underserved communities

Where others might see an unimpressive vacant lot, 1974 landscape architecture alumnus Glenn LaRue Smith sees the opportunity to honor a community. Whether it’s a winding riverbank in a southern city or a monument that recognizes the armed services, sculpting communities and empowering the next generation of minority landscape architects is all in a day’s work.

From serving in university leadership across the nation to founding the first-ever network for Black landscape architects, Smith has proven himself an industry leader invested in racial equity.

Through his current work as co-founder of landscape and urbanism design firm PUSH studio, Smith aims to uplift communities and up-and-coming Black landscape architects. However, he admits his career hasn’t always been smooth-sailing.

“When I started at Mississippi State in 1970, the university had only been integrated for five years,” Smith explained. “I was among the first African Americans to attend. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if there was another Black landscape architect that existed in the world. It was, in a sense, very isolating. I had plenty of professional rejection after my graduation, not because of my work but because I was Black.”

The isolation from other accomplished African American landscape architects and the rejections left Smith with dreams he suddenly wasn’t sure he could achieve.

LEFT: Derryck-Anderson Brownstone Garden in Harlem, NY. (Photo by PUSH Studio, LLC) RIGHT: Phi Beta Sigma International Centennial Monument, Howard University. (Photo by PUSH Studio, LLC)

Still, armed with a quality landscape architecture education—both in his bachelor’s from MSU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a master’s from the University of Michigan—he pressed forward, finding a niche in urban centers. His first major project was to reshape downtown Jacksonville, Florida by designing a pedestrian boardwalk space along the banks of the St. Johns River, which flows through the heart of the city.

“Many projects helped shape me professionally, like the Southbank Riverwalk in Jacksonville and later, the Stafford County Armed Services Memorial in Stafford, Virginia,” he said. “It was doing the work that really built my confidence.”

Smith has focused on urbanism projects and competitions across the globe, from California to Copenhagen. He said every design pays homage to the site’s intrinsic value while also addressing the needs of the community and the density of buildings, landscape, infrastructure and people that comes with an urban area. Creating this sense of place or the ability to show the relationship between the community and its environment is what landscape architects strive to achieve.

“Something always exists or has existed on a specific site that should inform the design,” he said. “An installation in Detroit will be different from one in Washington, D.C., even though the design process is the same.”

“I started the BlackLAN as a way for Black students and professionals across the globe to mentor and support one another. It’s especially important because it’s something we’re doing for ourselves as Black landscape architects.” ~ Glenn LaRue Smith

Some of the work he’s done has also prioritized environmental justice, such as the project in Harlem where he helped transform vacant lots into gardens, play areas and passive parks. He’s done similar work in the nation’s capital, where he’s collaborated with the city and professional teams to create safer commutes for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians alike and partnered with private developers to implement green infrastructure for residential and commercial projects.

“We designed a dozen green roof terraces for developers participating in Washington, D.C.’s Green Area Ratio program, aimed at increasing the quantity and quality of environmental performance across the city’s landscape,” he explained.
Smith said the design process is also intertwined with his own experiences as a Black man.

“The work that PUSH studio tends to focus on—urbanism—by definition, deals with urban communities, and so often, these communities are some of the most underserved in the nation,” Smith said. “Urban landscape architecture is my way of demonstrating that they’re deserving of the same things as more privileged communities. Why accept a vacant lot when you know you deserve more?”

TOP RIGHT: Stafford Armed Services Memorial in Stafford County, VA. (Photo by Peter Vanderwaker) MIDDLE RIGHT: An aerial photo of the Stafford Armed Services Memorial. (Photo by Peter Vanderwaker) BOTTOM RIGHT: Stafford Armed Services Memorial in Stafford County, VA. (Photo by PUSH Studio, LLC)

Throughout his career, Smith has maintained the effort to serve the Black community when possible, working closely with several historically Black colleges and universities such as Florida A&M and Morgan University for teaching assignments and others like Howard University to design urban spaces. Two of his most recent additions to Howard University are centennial monuments for campus Greek life, where he has taken the commemorative intent and melded it with something unique to each organization.

“The Zeta Phi Beta symbol, for instance, is a dove. For their monument, we built off the idea of doves, flight and the wings to make what could have been a run-of-the-mill installation unique to the sorority and its history,” Smith said.

Additionally, he has recently set out on a journey to empower the community of Black landscape architects. As a long-time member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, Smith was intimately aware of the profession’s lack of Black landscape architects both at home and abroad. With this in mind, he created the Black Landscape Architects Network to connect and share knowledge around the globe.

“I don’t think I would have had to struggle as much if I’d started with the knowledge that my dream was by no means unreachable,” Smith said. “I started the BlackLAN as a way for Black students and professionals across the globe to mentor and support one another. It’s especially important because it’s something we’re doing for ourselves as Black landscape architects.”

Smith also served as the inaugural president of the organization, and though he is preparing to pass the organization’s leadership on to the next generation of landscape architects, by no means is he finished empowering himself and others with his art.

“With 40 years of experience under my belt as a Black landscape architect, it’s my responsibility to document our history,” Smith said. “Part of that is my own professional history, but part of it is raising up other Black landscape architects and showing the world, and more importantly each other, that we’re capable of incredible things.”

By Reagan Poston | Photos submitted