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Angelica Rockquemore is a bit of a whiz kid. A landscape designer and planner at Honolulu-based HHF Planners, the Fulbright Fellow’s decorated education and professional career includes research and planning of Japanese gardens in Kyoto, design of outdoor play areas in Maori language immersion preschools, neighborhood concept development in Portland, and ethnographic research and writing that has contributed to Hawaiian historic preservation projects for the state of Hawaii.

Having served on the ASLA National Diversity Summit from 2015-2017, Rockquemore is also a leading voice advancing the American Society of Landscape Architecture’s goal of drawing more African American and Hispanic practitioners into the field. Foundational to all Rockquemore’s work is the belief that place is integral to who we are as human beings.

Here, she shares her thoughts on what drew her to landscape architecture, what she and other participants achieved in the ASLA National Diversity SuperSummit 2017, and the striking ways in which her projects blend her varied interests in anthropology, early childhood learning, and cultural and historic preservation.

Q: How did you come to landscape architecture?

A: I grew up in Hawaii and have always loved the outdoors. Every weekend, I would go swimming or hula dancing. Always being in an outdoor environment, I wanted to have ‘big girl’ job working on that. But I didn’t enter the practice professionally until later in life. When I graduated from college, I got a Fulbright fellowship to study Japanese gardens in Kyoto, Japan. As an undergraduate, I studied anthropology, learning about culture and what makes people think and tic. Through the experience researching Japanese garden design, I serendipitously realized you can design space with intention to convey a story or tradition. In a Japanese garden, the placement of every single rock is deliberate: to open a view of a tree, to highlight a certain feature of the rock. Seeing that level of detail and care, I realized landscape architecture was something I’d love to do.

Q: How did you come to participate in the ASLA National Diversity summit?

A: My involvement with the ASLA National Diversity Summit began in 2015 when I came on board in the third year of the program. It started out with six emerging designers and landscape architects from across the country, with African American and Latino background. The idea was to add six new people every year, with the goal of creating a small working group of 30 people within in five years. One day I was nominated to join; now they have an application. I was surprised, at first, that such a big organization would consider diversity a major issue facing the field. But if you are from minority background, you’re often the only person that looks like you around; in my first studio course at the University of Washington, a prestigious program, I was the only student of color; it was hard to relate. To see the ASLA acknowledge the issue and put financial support behind it felt incredible.

Introductory exercise at ASLA Diversity SuperSummt where attendees discussed their career paths | photo via Land by EPNAC.com

Q: Why do you think landscape architecture struggles to draw people of color into the field?

A: One of the goals of the Diversity Summit is to better divulge the root of the problem. I hesitate to say there is one main answer. Part of it is educating folks about what the field of landscape architecture is and what it can do. We’ve found out people often confuse it with gardening or associate it with a lower income profession.It’s stigmatized. Part of that is the marketing of landscape architecture and how it is packaged. To parallel that, many of us who participated in the summit are united by a love of design and people, which we discovered later in life, in college, graduate school, or after a first career. We were looking for something more fulfilling in life. Think about elementary school career days when everybody wants to be a doctor or lawyer. You don’t get a chance to learn what landscape architecture is and what it can offer. That’s one of our main initiatives, introducing the field at earlier ages, in K-5 programs and high school to spark interest.

Q: What was a key accomplishment of last year’s ASLA Diversity SuperSummit?
A: Last September, we achieved our long-time goal of having a website. It describes what the summit is, why it’s important, and why it’s important to have information online. There are leadership links, data from the past five years, all online and accessible to anyone with web access. That’s a big achievement and milestone.

Water wall at Palolo Elementary School | photo courtesy HHF Planners

Q: Can you tell me about one of your current projects that is introducing landscape architecture to students?

A: Actually, HHF just finished a project at a local elementary school in Honolulu, Palolo Elementary School, part of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Green Apple Day of Service to bring together private companies, local non-profits, and community members to transform existing outdoor spaces to more sustainable learning environments. We partnered with students, teachers, and the community to design an outdoor science lab with them. Being a person of color, a native Hawaiian, seeing children of native Hawaiian and Micronesian background learn to transform a school into a place where they can learn was inspiring. Many of these children come from broken backgrounds; they don’t get too much interface with designers. Here, they could meet me, and say, ‘Oh, she looks like me.’ To have that small little relationship, to give children a glimpse of what drawing and design thinking can achieve, is one of the pleasures I attribute to being a part of the diversity summit.

Dry-land kalo | photo courtesy HHF Planners

Q: How did your design transform the outdoor space?

A: Among the schools’ teachers, there was a big push to incorporate STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) curriculum. We tried to create a space that could support those learning objectives for K-5 and engage children in self-discovery. Before the project, there was a fenced-in lawn overgrown with weeds. We designed a flexible space that could give each grade their own space to work in. The landmark design piece for the entire site is a dry-land kalo planting area, where children learn the traditional way of planting and caring for the crop, which is a staple of indigenous Hawaiians. There is also a closed loop irrigation system defined by water drums, pumps, and PVC pipe, where children learn about water flow and conservation.

Students, staff, and community members planting kalo as part of Palolo Elementary School’s outdoor science lab | photo courtesy HHF Planners

Q: You previously studied at the University of Auckland’s Master of Urban Design Program in New Zealand and have done work designing outdoor play areas in Maori language preschools. Can you tell us a little about that?

A: That was one of my favorite projects, the Te Kōhanga Reo preschool. As part of my thesis, I put together a conceptual design for a school playground centered on cultural-based learning for children ages 2-4. I used natural materials for the play areas and lots of mounds. The gist was to design a playground to teach kids to embrace the natural environment and understand the place of mountains, oceans, and water in traditional folklore.