Pride at SWA: An Interview with San Francisco’s Sam Dent

In June, communities around the globe celebrate LGBTQ+ civil rights milestones… and highlight ongoing issues and challenges that impact social equity for all people. As a design leader in creating a more livable world, SWA is proud to continue our efforts in expanding the public realm as a space for togetherness, art, and activism. This year, we spoke with San Francisco Associate Sam (Yu-Sheng) Dent about his recent successes in bringing LGBTQ+ voices to the forefront of conversations about shared (and safe) spaces.

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We spoke with
Sam Dent,
San Francisco SWA Associate, to learn more.

From the recent AIA LGBTQ happy hour hosted by SWA’s San Francisco studio to your recent ASLA interview, you and your office have been making some significant moves to elevate LGBTQ+ dialogue within the landscape and design professions. How did these efforts get started?
First of all, I want to acknowledge that it’s been a team effort! Associate Principal Daniel Cunningham, our Marketing Manager Jen Hung, our Office Manager Dana Samiere, and of course the studio’s Managing Principal Rene Bihan, along with so many others in the San Francisco Studio who were active and supportive, made everything possible. As part of our ongoing work on Harvey Milk Plaza, we hosted a field session during last November’s ASLA Conference, which was held in San Francisco. We toured the historic Castro District, spoke about Harvey Milk’s story, and explored the ongoing evolution of queer art and space-making within the neighborhood. Together with Castro community organizations – the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza and the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District – we used the opportunity not only to celebrate the queer community in San Francisco, but also to open up the conversation about queer culture in public space and design.

This was the first time ASLA has hosted a field session specifically addressing culturally significant LGBTQ+ spaces, and the experience opened up lots of doors and opportunities that eventually connected me with a group of working queer professionals. We put together a panel at this year’s LABash in Kansas City titled “Queer Emergences: An LGBTQIA+ Conversation in Landscape Architecture.” Our goal was to empower queer people from the profession’s educational side, which is particularly relevant now that certain U.S. states are trying to minimize or eliminate queer identity via legislation that impacts schools. A lot of networking took place during this time; many people who knew one another professionally, but perhaps not personally, recognized that there was a larger conversation to be had.

As part of this process Brian Springfield, from Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza, referred us to the AIA – in part because he knew by then that the San Francisco studio staff were great party hosts! On June 9, we welcomed more than 200 LGBTQ+ practitioners and allies to the studio to celebrate queer joy, and to discuss some of the issues that we confront every day in our work.

What are some of those issues? How are they reflected in the profession?
I think that being part of a historically marginalized community grants a designer a lot of empathy regarding issues that affect other marginalized peoples. I thought a lot about this topic in my work for Harvey Milk Plaza. To extrapolate a little, as an immigrant from Taiwan, living in San Francisco, it’s hard not to notice that the city’s “Chinatown” is an Americanized version of Chinese public space. And it set a standard, with the “dragon gates” that have been replicated in cities worldwide.

Those gates don’t necessarily have legitimate, traceable cultural roots, but they signify that you are crossing into a designated realm of experience: one where generations of people have lived and consider to be a “safe space” in which to be identifiably Asian. Given the hate crimes that the country witnessed during the pandemic, that is not an insignificant thing – and given the violence that has been part of the LGBTQIA experience historically, I think that designers with that orientation have a unique perspective on what a safe, welcoming space really means in terms of daily life.

The rainbow flag, for all of its ubiquity, is a reassuring sight when flown proudly and publicly. Our impact as designers and planners is to move beyond the simple issue of safety to celebration – creating public places that not only serve basic needs, but that are places where art, culture, and activism of all kinds can thrive and grow.  I think these are important topics for the next generation of urban landscape designers.

This all speaks emphatically about the importance of empathy in design for the public realm.
Exactly. I, and a lot of my LGBTQ+ colleagues, see ourselves in other marginalized peoples’ experiences. Sometimes, growing up in a “straight” society, the messages that you receive are that you are not set up to succeed, based on something that is a core part of your identity. In a sense, people with LGBTQ+ orientation are trauma-bonded to most intersecting minority groups. We understand the struggle of having to assert civil rights and personhood; we understand the discomfort of feeling unwelcome and unsafe in public. And that influences our design approaches: how we can create better public safe spaces, whether that’s on a neighborhood, district, city, state, or national level.

What does “inclusive” design mean to you? What makes an outdoor space feel safe and welcoming?
Ideally, all public spaces should feel safe and welcoming. But as I mentioned earlier, the initial signifiers (a Pride flag, “dragon” gates) are really the most superficial parts of design. In conversations with my LGBTQ+ and allied colleagues, we want to make some deeper moves, including for the Memorial at Harvey Milk Plaza. We want design that welcomes active programming in the public sphere – to create space for music, dance, visual art, social communion, and yes – for activism when that is what is needed. So that means designing to accommodate public transit, creating multiple modes of access and programs, and providing a public realm that is beautiful and inviting for anyone who lives in the area or is just passing through.

Character is all-important, though – and again, that comes from the people who live in and contribute to these vibrant communities, to whom we as designers always need to listen. If I want to make a Taiwanese beef noodle soup, it’s good to know that I can find all the ingredients in Chinatown. Similarly, it’s good to know where the best drag shows are likely to be found.

Sam Dent is also a contributor to OLIN’s Pridescapes initiative.