5 Questions with Sara Zewde, Landscape Architect and Founder of Harlem’s Studio Zewde

Photo by Aria Goodman
Photo by Photo by Aria Goodman

Sara Zewde has constructed a successful career as a landscape architect, one which is evidenced by milestones such as the creation of her own Harlem-based design firm, Studio Zewde; her role as assistant professor at her alma mater, Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design; and most recently her coveted commission to transform eight acres of land at Dia Beacon Museum into a culturally and ecologically illuminating experience.

Sara’s path to forging a coveted career in landscape design has afforded her the opportunity to discover and discuss intimately the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, widely credited as the father of modern landscape architecture in the U.S. and the co-designer of Central Park. Olmsted’s 1861 book, Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom, which chronicles his travels and observations on slavery during his work as a New York Times correspondent, has fueled and informed Sara’s work. In her view, it serves as an invaluable resource and tool for any landscape architect seeking a deeper understanding of the dynamic relationship between landscape and the society in which it is created.

Sara’s keen awareness and appreciation of the intersection between the culture and the ecology of a place has not only led her to study Olmsted’s work, but also to explore the history of Seneca Village, the community of mostly African-Americans established in 1825 after the abolition of slavery. For 32 years, its residents inhabited and thrived upon the usurped land on which Central Park now exists. Through her teaching work and her landscape designs, Sara invites and challenges her peers and communities at large to embrace the potential of public landscape design to both honor history and nature, as well as truly embrace all who seek sanctuary within its confines.

We spoke with Sara about how both Olmsted and Seneca Village have informed and inspired her landscape design work. She shares her mission to expose and expand the function of public park creation, allowing greater access to nature while honoring the history and integrity of the land. Her work invites people from all walks of life to experience and embrace these curated spaces, and she reveals the role that she believes landscape architects can play in society, should they choose to accept it.

How does your design firm differ from other landscape architecture firms?

We are a full-service, licensed landscape architecture firm consisting of 15 people headquartered in Harlem. My journey of researching Olmsted and his work in the South and its relationship to Central Park has given me more confidence in the idea that landscape architecture can be more than how it's traditionally practiced.

We do a lot of research to embed our work in larger cultural and ecological systems. I argue in my forthcoming book [Finding Olmsted, from Simon & Schuster] that this was a hallmark of Olmsted’s view of landscape architectural practice, as well. Landscape architecture is inherently political—we cannot pretend to be apolitical agents. Particularly when working in the public realm, it requires the skill of working with people—a lot of people. Developing a vision that mobilizes people, then, is integral to the creative process of designing landscapes.

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“Landscape architecture is inherently political—we cannot pretend to be apolitical agents. Particularly when working in the public realm, it requires the skill of working with people." Photo by Gladimir Gelin

How do you utilize history to inform and guide your process as well as fuel your mission to create spaces where people belong?

In a lot of the places that we work, people's histories are underrepresented. There are contested narratives about what those histories are. And so, we go through a process of triangulating between various research methods, from oral histories to site and sociological observation to the more formally documented histories. Through this process, patterns begin to emerge that reveal the cultural contours of a place.

We often have a pretty iterative process of coming back to the public or to the client and saying, “Here's what we are picking up on. Does this resonate to you, or with the place that you know and love already?” Because, as we see it, a large part of our job is to do just that—to amplify what people already love about a place.

How can we ensure public places like Central Park are democratic and more inclusive, and how do you employ park design to achieve this?

Olmsted felt that parks had a role in ensuring the success of people descended from slavery in America. He aimed to encode those beliefs in his approach to design in Central Park. Clearly, the fate of Seneca Village is in direct opposition to his stated beliefs on the role of parks and public space in society. We haven't really been in a position as landscape architects to build on this complicated legacy, given the minimal attention his writing on the Slave South has received in landscape architecture curriculum to date.

One of the things that I love so much about learning more about Seneca Village is the degree to which it was a multifaceted community with so many institutions, churches, schools, [and] teachers. It was a world unto itself, in many ways.

Following the removal of Seneca Village, Central Park was ultimately able to generate substantial wealth for the landowners at its edges. The most exciting models to me for advocating for equity through landscape architecture are when landscape architects work directly with land ownership models—whether that's a community land trust or an entity like a conservancy. For instance, we worked with the Africatown Community Land Trust in Seattle to think about how investments in public spaces in the Central District/Africatown could dovetail with their efforts to build affordable homeownership opportunities for people with ties to the historically Black neighborhood.

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“One of the things that I love so much about learning more about Seneca Village is the degree to which it was a multifaceted community... It was a world unto itself, in many ways.” Photo by Aria Goodman

What type of open space and public park do you think New York City could use more of right now?

A lot of our work lately in New York has been in places that are severely underserved by greenspaces. One thing that I noticed in New York is, especially in areas that are less wealthy, there are technically a lot of parks, but not a lot of green. It's asphalt, or rubber-surface playgrounds, [or] basketball courts—and it's all heavily jammed in.

One of the great things about Central Park or Prospect Park is the generous landscapes for passive enjoyment. So my answer to that would be more vegetated landscape spaces to simply be.

How has your move to New York clarified and crystallized your mission to create parks and greenspaces that both service and speak to community members who are underrepresented and oftentimes overlooked?

I live in Harlem, which, since the early 20th century, has been a mecca for Black self-determination. Sometimes I ask myself, if Seneca Village weren’t displaced to build Central Park, would Harlem exist? I actually live on the corner of Central Park and Malcolm X Boulevard, which is a symbolic intersection for me in a lot of ways. I can actually see the ongoing Harlem Meer construction project from my window. Many people do not know this, but Malcolm X references Frederick Law Olmsted’s writings on the Slave South as being formational to his understanding of the condition of Black people in this country.

The Central Park Conservancy is transforming the former Lasker Rink and Pool into a new state-of-the-art facility. This multi-year project is a complete restoration of the landscape to more thoughtfully integrate a swimming pool and ice rink while better reconnecting the north end of the Park to nature.

Living in New York City, I also reflect on the role landscape architecture plays in the context of a changing climate. I think we can play a role in re-defining how infrastructure works, offering the lens of ecology and dynamic systems, and moreover, we can play an important role in attuning people’s relationship to the earth, in the context of a contemporary world that often obscures that. When we design places that are important to people, [we] give people a way to calibrate to the landscapes they live in, a lens to understand them—even in the middle of Manhattan Island

I often think about how people walk through parks every day, but there isn't a vibrant public discourse about the design of public space. That's something that I hope changes.

This interview has been condensed for clarity.

Samantha Hunter is a freelance writer who has written for Forbes, Martha Stewart, Better Homes & Gardens, Apartment Therapy, and Sweet July.

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