Sam Dennis, Jr.
Ask Sam Dennis, Jr., if he has an ultimate vision for his work, and he’ll tell you that he hopes to be put out of a job.
It’s hard to see how a geographer who is also a licensed landscape architect and associate professor at the University of Wisconsin with appointments at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, Urban and Regional Planning – even Family Medicine – could find himself out of work. But it’s precisely because Dr. Dennis’s work lies at the nexus of all of these fields of inquiry that makes him say (tongue planted firmly in cheek, of course) that he wishes he would be put to pasture.
That’s because Dr. Dennis works with communities to improve their neighborhoods. And, quite simply, he envisions a Madison where everyone has been educated about how to value her “place” in such a fashion that every such place is cared for and nurtured so that it doesn’t require improvement.
Dennis emphasizes repeatedly the collaborative, community-driven nature of his work, though. He isn’t parachuting into neighborhoods to decide what needs improving and unilaterally implementing changes.
“What we try to teach our landscape architecture students to do is to work directly with communities to make meaningful places,” he explains. He teaches it, because he does it.
“Place, as we say in geography, is space made meaningful. Space is abstract, but place is what we mean when we talk about spaces with meaning -- my home, my neighborhood, my place, that beautiful place, that sacred place.”
With a boyish energy, a warm Liam Neeson look in his eyes, and the lingering traces of a North Carolina accent, Dennis relates how he started his career as a carpenter, eating his lunches at the unfinished peaks of McMansions in sprawling estates so he could get a feel for the lay of the development.
From his birds-eye view, he realized the haphazard fashion in which many of these neighborhoods worked at cross-purposes to their natural settings, fencing off stream beds and natural greenways.
It was the question, “Who designs these terrible neighborhoods?” that brought Sam Dennis to the study of landscape architecture and the making of meaningful places, and an appreciation of design that values local ecosystems and specific human communities.
It was the determination to teach and do deeper field research that led him further on to the pursuit of a Ph.D. in Geography.
And it was having a child while working on that Ph.D. at Penn State that led him to his greatest insight and strongest passion – the power inherent in tapping the native knowledge of young people to identify the greatest needs in a community.
“If you think about it, young people experience their neighborhood more directly than any other group of people,” says Dennis.
“Adults, [neighborhoods are] sort of bedroom communities, you go off to work, you come home. For young people, except when they’re in school, they’re in the neighborhood, and it either serves or doesn’t serve their developmental needs, so they ought to be involved in the planning and design of these places.”
For Sam Dennis, this has meant giving young people the tools necessary to tell a story about their neighborhoods. He equips them with cameras and has them employ what is known as Participatory Photo Mapping (PPM).
“The important thing is to have kids share their own stories, use their own voice,” he says.
“Kids today have more visual literacy than almost anything – they know about visual storytelling, because they’re consuming media images starting from birth essentially, and they become really savvy about it. So they have a photograph, they narrate their story that’s connected to the photograph, and that’s attached to a place on a map, and those 3 things never get disentangled. They’re always together, always part of the narrative.”
In practice, this means a young person takes a picture of busy intersection with no pedestrian crosswalk – or a corner that ought to have a stop sign, or a vacant lot that acts as a magnet for shady characters – and tells a story about how that specific place impacts their life and the life of their community.
“Lately we’ve been doing it in Google maps because we can share it easily, and the kids are people are able to “jump scale” as we say in geography – they’re able to jump beyond just their own neighborhood issues and see that young people in other places have the same issues, so it can become a powerful social movement of a sort.”
PPM is doing more than simply cataloguing flaws in place-based design, but it is also, as Dennis says, “informing some reasoned action on the ground.”
“The key is to have the results find their way in front of the adult decision makers, and we let the young people decide what the change is that they want most, and what audience needs to hear it the most.”
Finally, Dennis is helping empower youth – not exclusively but largely in marginalized or underserved communities – and helping nurture their sense of agency, of efficacy, of self-confidence to address the ills they see around them.
As a landscape architect, Sam Dennis is helping communities value their natural and built environments. As a geographer, he is illustrating for decision makers the greatest needs of the Madison region. As a mentor, he is training both college students and young people from all walks of life to consider how their lives intersect with the natural world around them, and how to think about what constitutes “improvement.”
As a Badger Bioneer, let’s hope he’s out there working for a long time.