Designing for a Difference

by | Nov 2, 2020 | Associations, Design, Featured Slider, People, Projects

Simone Heath, ASLA, is an urban designer for the City of Atlanta.

As a Black girl growing up in the small rural town of Fayetteville, Georgia, Simone Heath didn’t even know what landscape architecture was. She needed an elective in high school, and when the Spanish class filled up, she took landscaping by default. 

“It was a happy accident,” says Heath. “It turned out my teacher was a landscape architect, and I was pretty well-suited for the work.”

So after high school, Heath enrolled in the University of Kentucky’s landscape architecture program. She was not only the sole black female, but for three years, she was the program’s only African-American student. 

“It’s a little uncomfortable to walk into a room and be the only female or the only black person,” says Heath. “If I walked in late to class, everyone noticed.” 

While Heath was working three jobs to pay for college, she noticed her white peers were scoring internships at engineering and construction firms where they had family connections. 

“Opportunities just didn’t present themselves to me,” she says. “But I continued working hard and learning as much as I could.”

Heath went on to get her master’s in City and Regional Planning from the Georgia Institute of Technology and then a second master’s in Town and Country Engineering from Tongji University in Shanghai, China.

“I figured there’s no better place for diversity than China,” Heath laughs. “But the most eye-opening part of my experience there is just how differently China deals with landscape architecture. It’s not an added luxury like in the states, but an important part of the whole design process, treated the same as architecture. It was pretty inspiring.” 

Urban Planning & Design

Heath now works as an urban planner and designer for the City of Atlanta. She has served on the board of Georgia’s ASLA chapter and is actively involved in the Black Landscape Architects Network (BlackLAN), based out of Washington, D.C. 

For three years, she worked for Atlanta City Studio, a pop-up design studio within the City of Atlanta’s Department of City Planning.

“Atlanta City Studio sets up a storefront in different neighborhoods of the city, educating and empowering the public to get involved in the design process,” explains Heath.

Atlanta City Studio’s goals are to collaborate with other designers as well as citizens to increase access to parks, provide better pedestrian experiences and bike paths, and create safer outdoor areas. Once a project is complete, they move on to another neighborhood.

“With the quarantine, we all saw the importance of outdoor spaces more than ever,” says Heath. “But driving around the city of Atlanta, the differences are so apparent. There aren’t sidewalks in the black neighborhoods. You don’t see the same kind of amenities. They were developed differently. Landscaping is the last thing on anyone’s mind in a black neighborhood where you don’t have trashcans or sidewalks or even curb cuts for a wheelchair. Some of the bus stops are literally a sign on a four-way street.”

In Cascade Heights in southwest Atlanta, Atlanta City Studio designed and built a covered bus stop with a place for people to sit down and place their groceries or belongings while they wait. In the historic English Avenue neighborhood, they helped convert a hollowed-out church damaged by fire into an innovative green space for community gatherings. Throughout the city, they’ve partnered with the Department of Transportation and Department Public Works to make sidewalks ADA compliant, design crosswalks and install trashcans and lighting.

“The best part is that the communities where we’ve been have felt so empowered,” she says. “They were completely part of the process. And as a bonus, more people are learning what landscape architecture is all about and the problems it can solve.” 

Heath is now helping to create a narrative and engaging communities for ongoing Department of City Planning efforts. Future goals for the department include connecting Westside Park at Bellwood Quarry with the Chattahoochee Greenway, two major projects under the City of Atlanta.

She says her work at the city is not only creating more functional spaces and better access for its citizens, it’s creating equity.

“Good design is for everyone,” she says. “ Everyone deserves access to the basic principles of good design … whether that’s lighting, drainage, outdoor spaces or sidewalks. I feel so fortunate to be in this role.”

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