Elizabeth J Kennedy
Principal & Studio Director
Elizabeth Kennedy Landscape Architect, PLLC
Education: Cornell University, College of Human Ecology 1978, and Graduate Program in Landscape Architecture
Elizabeth is the founder of Elizabeth Kennedy Landscape Architect, PLLC (EKLA). Black-owned and woman-run, EKLA is the longest-surviving such firm in the country. Its longevity is intrinsically tied to Elizabeth’s tenacity and her belief in the importance of service—to clients, to the community, the emerging professionals she trains, the profession, and the process of design. The work she directs quietly challenges mainstream assumptions about the aspirations and needs of underrepresented voices. Systems and biases have long dispossessed the less powerful of spaces and rendered the people who use them invisible. Elizabeth is best known for work that counters this invisibility. Her projects at the intersection of social justice and design exemplify landscape architecture’s potential to engage a broader critical understanding of place and identity. It’s from this perspective and standpoint that Elizabeth teaches, directs, critiques, frames, collaborates, and edits – whether in her studio or through national debate.
What is YOUR story? What led you to a career in landscape architecture? When did you realize you wanted to become a Landscape Architect?
My dad was an architect, and he introduced me when I was very young to the idea that the landscape could be designed. I later realized I wanted to be a landscape architect when I discovered the term in one of his copies of Architectural Record; I was 14. It seemed to be a profession that brought together everything about design and the natural world. I’ve never considered another profession or career although I’ve worked in more lucrative areas of the AEC industry, managing affordable housing development and construction. I started EKLA on New Year’s Eve, in 1994; I was collecting unemployment and writing out my next move on a coffeeshop napkin. Since our first project, to write a scope of work for community gardens in northwest Harlem, I’ve directed every aspect of the company’s journey to become the go-to firm for sustaining heritage sites through design and management. I didn’t imagine I would head the longest surviving Black-owned and woman-run landscape architecture firm in the country—but largely through trial and error, I believe we’ve done something really good.
What project or work that you have done at any point in your career are you most proud of and why?
Our heritage work has brought the most pride—our work to restore the Hunterfly Road Houses site, and then design the surrounding interpretive landscape come immediately to mind as one example among many. We’ve had surprising impact doing tiny things: giving advice, providing a different point of view, seeing something in a task that would be overlooked, teaching, helping organizations develop the capacity for stewardship. We believe practice has a very broad scope.
What is your favorite outdoor space in the greater NYC area and why?
There is a point in Fresh Kills Park where you can see the city that surrounds New York Harbor in almost complete panorama; I love its sense of expanse.
What do you do to de-stress, relax or escape?
I love ordinary places. There’s a salad bar in the Bronx I frequent every Saturday; weather permitting, I often take my food and go to the parking lot at Orchard Beach, sit by the inlet and watch other people hanging out—in-line skating, flying kites or drones, tail-gaiting, doing anything outdoors, off the grid and informal. Otherwise, I read the New Yorker and watch a lot of police procedurals on TV.
Where do you go for inspiration or what do you find inspiring?
I’m always inspired by seeds of hope in ground-up projects where people in communities have agency—I’m the optimist who believes in the power of the mustard seed.