A Natural Collaboration
Landscape architect Sara Zewde has traveled far and wide to discover and refine her calling: helping others cultivate cultural and community resilience.
Sara Zewde is an eminent landscape architect who incorporates historical and community narratives into her design for public spaces.
Born in 1985 to Ethiopian immigrants, Zewde was raised in New Orleans. She studied at Boston University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard University. Her master’s thesis at Harvard looked at landscape architecture in Rio De Janeiro within the context of Brazilian culture. She returned to Rio after graduation to work with its mayor’s office drafting a design for a park at Valongo Wharf, a historical center of the global slave trade.
In 2018, she cofounded Studio Zewde, a landscape, urbanism, and public art studio based in Harlem. The company has completed or is designing for spaces in New York, Philadelphia, Houston, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and other cities.
Zewde is an assistant professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.
In 1991, a loading dock along the Delaware River in Philadelphia was abandoned by the railroad company Conrail. Disused, it became a canvas for local street artists, eventually becoming known as Graffiti Pier. Today, it’s one of the most photographed sights in Philadelphia, while in 30 years it could be underwater. In 2019, Sara Zewde was tasked by the Delaware River Waterfront Conservancy to create a plan to save the pier, but few people in the community seemed to want her help.
Sara Zewde: Pretty much everyone we spoke to said can you please not do landscape architecture? Whatever you do, don’t do landscape architecture, which is tough for a landscape architect to hear, as you can imagine.
Graffiti artists and residents of the neighborhood were suspicious. They saw Zewde as an outsider, and thought a landscape architect would sanitize their pier’s rugged beauty. But like it or not, change was going to come.
Zewde: Climate change is inevitable, and the urban development pressures are inevitable. And so if we do nothing, the place is going to change, and so the change is not at the hands of the landscape architect. We actually started to call it a Save Graffiti Pier project, which really mobilized people to get involved and to really identify for themselves what aspects of this place are important. Why is it important to rally around this place? And so as soon as we kind of reframed it as a Save Graffiti Pier project, the role of the landscape architect became clear.
Although Sara Zewde didn’t grow up in Philadelphia, she has spent years thinking about vulnerable places and the people that shape them. After Hurricane Katrina struck her own hometown of New Orleans in 2005, Zewde was determined to understand why there had been so much devastation. At the time, she was a sophomore in college and had a lot of questions for the city’s architects and urban planners. Even though they knew how to rebuild New Orleans, Zewde says, they didn’t seem to understand what its communities wanted or needed.
Zewde: As time went on, I started to understand how big the gap was between people who live there and the people that were working there. And I was so confused by this gap in the conversation, this inability to communicate at a certain level that I, at that point, was committed to studying it myself and figuring out how to operate in that space.
This wouldn’t be the first time that Zewde had sought her own answers. She had grown up hearing about her parent’s early lives in Ethiopia, and had become ever more curious about the stories that help define a place as home.
Zewde: For me, living in Louisiana, which is a place that is very culturally rich, but knowing that I had a history even longer than that that I knew of in terms of my family, always gave me a clear sense of, a clearer sense that Black people in America and around the world have incredible ancient history. This is so much bigger and so much more beautiful than what the world tells us about people that look like me. Having that consciousness gave me, it just energized me.
Zewde went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in sociology and statistics at Boston University, and later a master’s in city planning from MIT. In 2011, her studies brought her to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil as a fellow of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. But after working as a transit planner for the 2016 Rio Olympics, Zewde realized that she’d rather be designing landscapes. So when construction workers unearthed the ruins of an infamous slave port at Valongo Wharf, she got involved in the preservation efforts, conducting interviews and archival research on the port’s history. In 2014, she used her findings to design a memorial for the site in Pequena África, to honor the community’s past as well as its present.
Zewde: Our idea of memorials come from monuments, in classical antiquity the idea of a demonstration of power, and we’ve taken that architectural tradition and used it to talk about history. And what that does is it really kind of reaffirms the idea that the history is in the past, that it’s an object. We’ve calcified it and put it on a wall, or it’s done, and here is a representation of it. And most of history is present. People say they want their history known, and so they think they want a memorial. But in reality we’re missing the chance for the landscape itself to tell a story.
Zewde proposed a landscape of plants that would’ve been recognizable to enslaved Africans as they arrived in Brazil, and created patterns influenced by the circular rhythms of samba, a dance that originated in the Afro-Brazilian communities of Rio de Janeiro. Zewde says that her goal was to create a living monument.
Zewde: It’s an approach to making spaces that the material choice, the programmatic elements that literally, the kinds of activities you can do in the place is a way to memorialize rituals, memorialize the traditions of people and place. So to me it’s, the living monument is really about creating vibrant landscapes that are historically rooted, but also about, they are representative of what people want in their future.
It was a breakthrough for Zewde, but when she returned to the United States, she was told that what she wanted to do wasn’t landscape architecture, even after receiving a prestigious national scholarship from the Landscape Architecture Foundation in 2014.
Zewde: I was told it may be policy. I was told by one person and one mentor, a respected person in the field, that if I were to operate this way, I would never be respected as a designer.
So, she took a year off from school and changed almost everything about her practice in the hope of being accepted, until she learned something vital about the godfather of her profession, a 19th century landscape architect who designed many early American public green spaces, including New York’s Central Park.
Zewde: Frederick Law Olmsted spent time in the South writing about the conditions of slavery. And so it was mentioned in passing in a class, and I emailed the professors afterwards to say are there any references where I could follow up? You mentioned this. I still go back to this email sometimes. And they mentioned a few references, but said there’s nothing that really talks about the relationship between his travels and his practice of landscape architecture, which is what I was really interested in.
So Zewde took the material that was available, Olmsted’s The Cotton Kingdom, to see if she could find the relationship herself. She retraced the author’s steps through the American South, more than a century and a half earlier. Like Zewde, Olmsted had been unsure where his interest in the environment would lead, but he ultimately created landscapes with civic objectives, places where everyone could belong. Zewde saw her own vision for ecological and cultural preservation in his legacy.
Zewde: It sounds like lofty aims, but for me there’s a through line. Frederick Law Olmsted is an easy person to reference because everybody loves him, but there are lots of people that have thought about this. Part of what powers me through all of the challenges, when somebody tells me that what you’re interested in is not landscape architecture, I know that there is so much more and so much behind me in terms of people and ancestry and culture. And I think within that there’s a really broad diversity of work that can come out of that. Design, aesthetics, ecologically, politically. And I think what happens when we make work like that is people start to understand themselves as agents in the world around them. And particularly for people who have historically been denied that, to take part in a process where they actually help envision their own futures, I think that’s, I mean, the real project.
In 2018, Sarah Zewde started her own design firm, Studio Zewde. She’s since exhibited work at the 2018 Venice Biennale and designed a plaza for Africatown in Seattle, a memorial streetscape and monument in Houston, school grounds in Camden, New Jersey, a coastal estate in Martha’s Vineyard, and several projects in Philadelphia. Now in her thirties, she’s a professor of landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, teaching a new generation how they too can help shape the future, in which nature and the built environment work in harmony. Zewde understands that crafting environments where people can thrive can take years, but she’s in it for the long haul.
Zewde: I would rather lose whatever efficiencies that might be gained than give up on a perspective of what’s possible. I want every place to be unique and feel like it fits, and a lay person can’t describe that. If you ask somebody what they want, there’s no way they can tell you they want exposed aggregate concrete, you know? That’s the role of the interpreter. As a landscape architect, why, when you’re walking on this path do you move slower? Because of the texture of the concrete. There’s a reason why you feel like, you know, that you want to sit here. All of these signals are in the landscape, and they’re manifested and expressed in the materials. Graffiti Pier is a completely different look than the four-acre residential coastal estate we were doing in Martha’s Vineyard. Similar processes, right? But where you land is all over. I mean, when I look at our portfolio of work, I’m like, yeah, this doesn’t come together to mean anything. And that’s what I want.
While some of Zewde’s projects will be decades in the making, Graffiti Pier in Philadelphia is slated to open in 2024, with upgraded seawalls that are also new surfaces to paint. As the tides rise and fall, the meaning of the art will shift as it goes in and out of view.
Zewde: For the most part, it’s also about a dialogue with the rising tides. The graffiti writers are in dialogue about the biggest challenges of the society, and this is a landscape to have that dialogue. So it’s built in both structurally and culturally into the design of the place.
To survive, Graffiti Pier needed to undergo change, and Sara Zewde hopes that all of her interventions can be undertaken with a similar sensibility and sensitivity.
Zewde: So it’s not the landscape itself that I feel like I’m working to preserve. I’m not working, I’m not endeavoring to preserve the design of the landscape. I’m working to preserve what it’s supportive of.
AJC: The meaning of it.
Zewde: The meaning of it, the people. But it’s about fortifying the traditions of the people that have imbued this place with so much value and beauty, and for that tradition to be the most resilient thing that comes out of that project.
Sara Zewde is guided by the inevitability of change, and her life and work has shown that her true quest may be to help others navigate this by understanding the resilience of culture, of people, and of the land.