Landscape architecture professor empowers through inclusive approach to design and engagement

By Colie Touzel

C.L. Bohannon

Bohannon (center) leads a group of students on a walking sketch tour of the Virginia Tech campus in fall 2019. Photo by Taylor Cupp.

What makes design successful? Conversation, collaboration, and community engagement. That belief and practice highlights C.L. Bohannon’s research and teaching as an associate professor in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies’ landscape architecture program and also as director of the Community Engagement Lab.

Bohannon sees community outreach as a critical step in including citizens in the design process as primary users of the landscape. This process begins with designers listening to and understanding the people, what they want, and how they will utilize a space.

At times, Bohannon said, that approach begins by acknowledging that including citizens in the conversation hasn’t always been a standard practice in his discipline.

“Some designers from the past refused to design for the people and refused to treat them with dignity and respect,” said Bohannon. “We need courageous designers now who are going to push forward to solve real problems and intervene against historical systems of oppression.”

By understanding how to engage with communities and how to design for and with them as part of an inclusive process, current and future designers can help create a more equitable world.

“I use that approach as a starting point in my classes to say, ‘You as a designer have a lot of power to be creating a specific plan, right?’” said Bohannon. “‘So why not use that power to have a positive impact?’”

Bohannon encourages students to inspire innovation for the good of everyone and to embrace the unknown to manufacture change in society. Now, in the midst of COVID-19, students need this motivation more than ever.

While the onset of COVID-19 might present new opportunities for aspiring designers to consider equitable design within new contexts, the pandemic has certainly presented challenges for faculty and students. Due to Virginia Tech’s pivot to online learning in the middle of the spring 2020 semester, Bohannon had to make alterations to his fourth-year landscape architecture studio.

At the beginning of the semester, the Hokies in his class had partnered with Virginia Beach Parks and Recreation to develop a splash pad park for Mount Trashmore. Rather than cancel the scheduled presentation to civic leaders, students instead displayed their work through the Zoom video conferencing platform.

The resulting presentation blended innovative methods for community engagement with technology while students maintained their plans to meet their community partner’s needs, all while completing the goals and objectives of the studio.

That creative leadership tends to leave a lasting impression with Bohannon’s students. Program alumna Airiel Barrientos ‘19, a landscape designer at MSA, P.C in Virginia Beach, still relies on Bohannon’s mentorship.

“He helped me realize not only how incredible landscape architecture is and how much I can do with it, but also that I can empower others to do the same,” said Barrientos. “I can inspire other women and minorities. He sees your power and helps you be a better leader, person, designer, and educator.”

As a minority herself, Barrientos felt comfortable and welcome in the landscape architecture program, thanks in large part to Bohannon, who helped Barrientos embrace her strengths. He taught Barrientos that her cultural background gave her a special ability to see design from a valuable and unique perspective.

“Sometimes a young black or brown person will see me in my current position and they think ‘Oh, I can do that,’” said Bohannon. “That’s important to me, because when I was in school at the University of Arkansas, there was no one who looked like me in the entire college. Not just landscape architecture – the entire college.”

As a faculty principal in the Leadership and Social Change Residential College (LSCRC) for the past two years, Bohannon is a strong advocate for representation and dialogue. This unique college is a part of the university’s Living-Learning programs, where students live in a residential college and learn through interdisciplinary connections with other students and a live-in faculty member.

The focus of the LSCRC is to lead in a complex global environment with enriched backgrounds of diversity and inclusivity. Residents in the LSCRC are applying community engagement practices in their workforce development projects in and around the New River Valley.

Although COVID-19 has halted physical research for residents in the LSCRC, they’re still collecting data and developing online resources. In the fall, incoming LSCRC residents will have a legacy project to pick up and carry forward.

“We’re teaching our residents to get out into the community with a focus on impact, fitting in with the spirit of Ut Prosim,” said Bohannon.

Bohannon marvels at the potential of the LSCRC and is excited to continue collaborating with Hokies.

“The fact that we have such strong student leaders in the LSCRC from the College of Architecture and Urban Studies and from the School of Architecture + Design is amazing,” said Bohannon. “We teach design education in the college that our students are able to utilize in a unique way, and then they influence other students’ design thinking and critical thinking.”

While circumstances change, and pandemics hopefully fade, Bohannon noted that there will always be a need for designers who are willing to serve as leaders in their communities. “And our students are doing that,” he said. “They’re making moves in society for the good of people.”


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