COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Randolph Hester

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

Randolph (Randy) Hester Jr. is a landscape architect, professor, and sociologist based in Berkeley, California. His practical work and teaching has focused on applying sociological methodologies to the design of neighborhoods, cities, and landscapes. Hester is a strong advocate for community participation in developing what he calls ecological democracies and sacred landscapes - spaces that grow out of a true understanding of the needs of a local community and the potential of its resources. His approach has excited communities across the U.S. and abroad, and it has inspired countless students to actively engage the social and environmental context of their work.

Professor and former chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning at the University of California at Berkeley, Randy Hester is also co-director of Community Development by Design, a planning organization specializing in neighborhood design, community participation, and sacred landscapes. The organization works on small town community development, large-scale open space planning and public participation in natural resource management decisions in Washington, California, Hawaii, and elsewhere. He has written the numerous books and articles about citizen participation and socially suitable planning.


Growing up in rural North Carolina, in his teenage years Randy Hester he began to challenge urban renewal projects that would have isolated some of the poorest local neighborhoods. At age 20, he moved into what he once called a $43-a-month "shotgun house" in the Chavis Heights neighborhood of Raleigh, N.C, where he continued to engage in community work.

He earned a BA in Landscape Architecture and Sociology from North Carolina State University, and an MA in Landscape Architecture from Harvard. Afterwards, he returned to UNC where he joined students in forming the New Lands organization, in order to help poor residents remain in their homes and resist eviction. He was elected to Raleigh City Council in 1976, using his position to allocate federal community development funds for day care, jobs, and other services in Chavis Heights. His first book, Neighborhood Space (1975), draws largely on this experience. In 2000, Hester was appointed to the professional panel responsible for selecting the design for a monument to Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, D.C.

Today, Hester lives on a self-designed urban farm/garden consisting of both outdoor and indoor rooms, emphasizing the possibility of maintaining an ecologically sustainable lifestyle. He is passionate about collecting and reusing salvaged and reprocessed materials in the landscape.


Ecological Democracy. Hester aims to centralize the environment and people's well-being in the political choices that directly impact planning and design decisions. central to the political choices that often direct planning and design decisions. According to his theory of ecological democracy, design decisions should be inspired by interconnected thinking, community stewardship, voluntary inconvenience, systemic co-selfishness, and conspicuous non-consumption. Inhabited place must have a center, a locally-derived character,  and a permeable boundary through which critical resources and externalities can be monitored for their impacts on sustainability and justice.

Neighborhood Space. Hester defines neighborhood space as all nearby public space in which residents feel a sense of ownership based on collective responsibility, familiar association, and frequent shared use. These spaces are vital for a connected community, even though they do not necessarily correspond to the political definition of a specific neighborhood or district. Although most neighborhood spaces emerge naturally through community interaction and use of the physical terrain, they nevertheless require positive facilitation through design and management. For a neighborhood space design to be successful, Hester argues, it needs to be the product of a genuine community development process. Those seeking to design sociable neighborhoods must clarify the concept of "residents' own" spaces, and then they must decide how to delineate those spaces. The word "own" refers to a collective, symbolic community ownership and can often apply to highly contested areas. Hester points out that spaces such as trash dumps, phone booths, secret niches, ponds and transportation corridors often emerge as "owned" in community analyses. He emphasizes that we need to understand the value of those spaces for different groups in the community, and find ways of increasing this value without losing the sense of community and identity the spaces provide.

Finding Fishheads. Every community has some meaningful resources, such as a river, trees, or transportation -- without such resources, the town would not have developed at that place. Hester advocates for identifying these resources, or "fishheads," in each community, and using them as the base upon which to discuss new ideas and community development.

Sacred Places. Sacred places are those areas, resources, and elements of a town or neighborhood to which the community has a strong connection. A community's sacred places can often only be identified based on local knowledge and experience. As a tool encouraging citizen participation in the design process, Hester asks locals to describe and map the "sacred structure" of their town. In one case study, for example, an old gravel parking lot was considered sacred because it was host to a biannual local festival. Some communities might also have strong visions about the physical character of their neighborhood and materials they would like to see used in design efforts, and these elements and materials should also be considered sacred.

Participation with a View. Community participation in design and planning is paramount in Hester's work. It brings to the fore the social, economic, and ecological issues at stake, as well as the dreams and hopes embodied in the spaces to be redesigned. In describing a variety of effective, low cost tools for community participation, he emphasizes that it must also be facilitated by "a view" of the desired future on the part of city officials, designers, and planners. He warns that participation for its own sake can lead to a gridlock where nothing can be agreed upon, or final plans run against social and economic goals.


"Two irrepressible forces underlie my work: the human desire for participatory democracy and ecological limits. There are many more democracies in the world today and resource limits are more critical, complex, and misunderstood. More than any other factors, democracy and limits shape public landscape design."


"I was inspired by] Randy Hester - he is such a perfectionist, so talented, he can draw up a storm, and he was always about process." Rodney Swink, President of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space