U.Va. Architecture Student Focuses on Landscape Design with an Eye Toward Public Service and Advocacy

May 11, 2009 — Landscape architecture design that reaches across disciplines to address design and social issues is close to Karl Krause's heart.

A master's degree candidate in the University of Virginia's School of Architecture, Krause combined his skills as a graphic designer, communicator and middle school teacher — fields he worked in before coming to U.Va. in 2007 — to initiate a project to help immigrant children envision a transformation of their disadvantaged, densely populated urban neighborhoods.

Krause worked with children in youth centers in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Staten Island, N.Y. and a summer camp in Montreal. He dubbed them "Transformers," with the goal of not only helping them envision change, but also to learn ways they could be agents of social and environmental change in their communities.

Under his leadership, they used video cameras and took various roles, including camera operator, cue card holder and presenter, to tell their stories. They also practiced giving presentations about their communities.

On paper overlaid on large neighborhood maps, they drew designs for their imagined outdoor spaces. Their ideas ranged from the practical to fantastical.

The process was designed to provide a "kid's-eye approach to incorporating play, culture and experiences in nature within urban environments," Krause said. The activities were fashioned to create enthusiasm among the students and heighten their awareness of their surroundings.

Because the immigrant neighborhoods are poor and overcrowded, with sometimes seven or eight people living in a studio apartment, outdoor spaces become very important, Krause said.

Over and over he heard kids voice their disappointment in not being able to go outside by themselves. "I did not anticipate learning that in many cases they came from rural areas, often farms," he said.

The project was initiated with funds from an Architecture School 2008 Howland Traveling Fellowship. In addition to spending two weeks in each city working with the students and purchasing a high-definition video camera, Krause was able to donate $500 to each community youth program to spend as it wished.

"Their needs are so great," Krause said.

Krause is currently seeking grant funding for another participatory design project in Minneapolis involving high school students who have immigrated from Ethiopia and Somalia.

He envisions a design-build project "creating a community-to-community bridge, in terms of design and a way to share culture and heritage.

"Landscape architecture is a generalist profession and has the opportunity to mediate between all the parties involved," he said.

Krause's interest in landscape architecture developed before coming to U.Va. He worked for a year with a landscape architecture firm involved in community engagement and provided pro bono work to raise community awareness. That experience convinced him to pursue a career in the profession.

 U.Va. allowed him to further develop that interest. "There is an emphasis here on social justice and collaboration that is unique in landscape programs," he said.

After a few years honing his design skills, he plans to pursue a career devoted to projects that involve social justice and an open exchange process with communities to help them communicate their needs.

"I could do that for the rest of my life and feel fulfilled and happy. I am laying the stepping stones for that now," Krause said.

— By Jane Ford