Catherine Seavitt Nordenson
This is one of a series of interviews with the Graduate Program Spitzer’s new program directors conducted by Erica Wszolek, executive associate to the dean and communications manager, during summer 2020.
Professor and Master of Landscape Architecture Program Director Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, a registered architect and landscape architect, explores adaptation to climate change in urban environments and the novel transformation of landscape restoration practices in her research. She also investigates the intersection of political power, environmental activism, and public health, particularly as seen through the design of public space and policy.
Why did you first choose to work at Spitzer?
Well, I felt like this was the place where I could be most useful. I think that’s a good way of thinking about it. I’m a strong believer in the public mission of City College, and of course Spitzer as well, and our unique landscape architecture program. And I think, like most of our faculty, we are indebted to the many generations before us at this institution who really pushed an agenda of equity, justice, and education as a powerful weapon. There’s a shared vision amongst faculty who teach at City College — we want to be here. We want to work with these smart, diverse students. Someone told me recently that teachers are considered “essential workers.” I think that’s important to keep in mind. And at a public urban university, it’s invaluable work.
What ambitions do you bring to the post of program director?
This is an interesting question. The history of our landscape architecture program is quite unique. The program was first launched in 1969 by M. Paul Friedberg, the first director. It was funded by a federal HUD grant — the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The question at the time was to really probe the question, What is urban landscape architecture? And, How could the profession become more diverse? How could City College educate the young people of New York City to become the urban landscape architects who would work in the city’s public agencies? I think that role of the public university to educate students from an urban context and prepare them for a position in which they would design the public spaces of the very neighborhoods where they grew up is really intrinsic to the DNA of this program. So, there’s a really interesting history of service and the urban realm that resonates from the very foundation of the program.
While keeping that in mind, I think it’s important to ask how our students are different today, and if we should shift our educational methods, and, if so, how? Of course everything always evolves, but having taught at City College for ten years now, I’ve noticed that we attract a very particular activist student in our graduate landscape architecture program. Today, these students are really looking for a way to implement actionable change in the urban realm, in the realm of landscape, and in the publicness of that realm. So although our students don’t necessarily funnel directly into the city agencies one hundred percent any longer, a good number of them do end up working in the public realm. We’ve still got graduates in the agencies — in the Parks Department, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Transportation — but they’re also working in private firms that are specifically addressing the public realm and the quality of that space in terms of equity, justice, and accessibility.
Landscape architecture is a discipline that actually works with the surface of the earth — it literally changes the world and the world’s systemic flows. These changes are actionable and address the issues of justice that are so critical to the overall City College vision, but they specifically tackle climate justice, social justice, environmental justice, and now multispecies justice — we’re not just responsible for humans. The actionable nature of the education that we’re giving our students is key to our program in terms of making change, not just pointing out the inequities and the problems, but really tackling new ways of bringing new knowledge into that real world and making a difference.
What insights from your teaching and professional experience are you hoping to integrate or adopt as a program director?
So, the work that I do professionally is very much focused on questions of climate justice and creating a paradigm shift in the way we consider our landscapes. I grapple with ways of adapting to an uncertain future and designing for indeterminacy. What does it mean to move the needle? To make a paradigm shift? To think differently about engineering with concrete versus deploying marsh grass? If we think differently, we can actually undermine assumptions that have been in place for fifty years, seventy-five years, one hundred years. So there are many ways of rethinking certain paradigms that haven’t been questioned, that are blindly accepted as “this is how we do things.”
How it’s always been?
Right! But we have to do things differently. It’s imperative. You know, think of what’s happening all around us. Reverend Al Sharpton delivered the eulogy at George Floyd’s funeral yesterday. I was moved by his powerful quote on the front page of the New York Times this morning: “Get your knee off our necks.” Things must change. We’re experiencing a powerful moment right now. The pandemic can be seen as just one of innumerable respiratory illnesses, right? It’s the air we breathe, it’s what happens to our lungs, it’s when you tell someone you can’t breathe and they don’t act accordingly, it’s when you don’t let someone else breathe freely. You hold their breath, we hold our own breath. I mean, there is a respiratory illness that has spread across everything right now. It’s in the so-called culture, the nature, and the profession. We have to rise up and look at this directly in the eye and address it as something that needs to be fundamentally rethought. There has to be a new paradigm. There has to be a new way of understanding something seemingly simple, yet so complex.
Take Central Park. Is that a white landscape? How can we make Black landscapes matter, too? Seneca Village was part of that landscape, until the land-owning Black and Irish communities living there were taken over, razed by eminent domain, and Central Park was formed in its place. That’s erasure, simply put.
And, so, I think that there’s so much that we have to question. Who built your landscape? Who takes care of your public space? Who is your essential worker? And what’s their essential place in this story? There’s so much here that we have to radically rethink. It’s time to upset the whole historical canon and ask whose land are we sitting on? Think about this planet of ours. We look at the world, we see systems, we see how things connect. We know that there’s a relationship between the equator and the poles, and that melting ice has a lot to do with burning rainforests. If there’s one thing that COVID-19 has taught us, it’s that our planet is totally interconnected. Political borders are meaningless. That interconnectedness has to be addressed through questions of equity, justice, race, labor, public, private, and, you know, rethinking capital in a way that is transformative. We can no longer accept “this is how we’ve always done it.”
Last question: In one word, what do you hope your legacy will be?
Oh my gosh.
You can think about that.
Hmm, I’m coming up with two-word phrases. I guess that doesn’t count. I’m thinking a lot about air. I’m thinking a lot about shaping a space to breathe and think freely. I’ll say atmosphere. Because that’s the air and the space we’re in, you know, the atmosphere of a place. I want to create a good atmosphere.