Routledge is pleased to share with you our author Q&A session with Susan Dieterlen, author of the published title Immigrant Pastoral: Midwestern Landscapes and Mexican-American Neighborhoods. Dieterlen is an environmental scientist and urban designer and the founder of DeftSpace Lab, a research and consulting practice. She is a recent Research Assistant Professor in the School of Architecture at Syracuse University and Faculty Research Fellow at the Syracuse Center of Excellence for Energy and Environmental Systems. Her current book project is Design by Deficit, on the shaping of urban environments and their residents’ lives through chronic municipal budget shortfalls. She also writes the blog City Wild: Unraveling Urban Life and Space.
Congratulations on the publication of your book Immigrant Pastoral: Midwestern Landscapes and Mexican-American Neighborhoods. What do you want your audience to take away from the book?
On a basic level, I’d like readers to take away the big idea that urban design and immigration or cultural studies have important things to say to each other, and can work together in valuable ways. For people focused on social justice or immigrant welfare, realize that the daily business of design and planning is shaping places where people live, so that shaping could serve the outcomes you want to see. On the other hand, I once received a reviewer comment on an article manuscript that asked, “who cares about Mexicans?” This book is, in a way, my response: because we shape places, we need to care. Social justice is a part of our responsibility as professionals who shape places.
What inspired you to write this book?
In my late 20s I moved back to my home state of Indiana to work as a landscape architect. I did a lot of parks projects. I am a lifelong outdoors enthusiast, so on the weekends I’d often be out kayaking or bicycling – in parks – and I’d see big multi-generational groups of Spanish-speaking people relaxing and cooking out in the park. What I expected was to see the occasional dogwalker or fisherman, and here were these big parties! As a parks designer, this is unbelievably fabulous, that people would enjoy a place you created so much, but on the other hand, in my work life we seemed to be making places for those dogwalkers – that kind of light, solitary use. I started wondering about this, and wondering whether we should be doing things differently. As I got into it, I discovered that there wasn't a lot of work about this and it was a lot more than just parks, and it wasn't just that town. And the topic evolved from there!
Why is your book relevant to present day news about immigration?
Obviously immigration has been on the front page for a lot of the last two years due to politics - everybody’s talking about the wall.You might think that immigration is a new issue, but actually,far more Mexican immigrants were arriving here back in the early 2000s, when I began studying this topic, and of course, people have been going back and forth across the border since before either the United States or Mexico existed as independent nations. Immigration and the role of immigrants in our society are woven deeply into this country, into places hundreds of miles from any border. Immigrant Pastoral is a great example: smaller towns in the rural rustbelt are affected by immigration and benefit from immigrant communities. You’d never expect these places to be affected by immigration policy or international trade, but yet, they are. Another headline over the past year has been about how forgotten places like rural Ohio have been. My book shows how the energy and drive of immigrant communities can be a real revitalizing force for these places. It’s strange and a bit ironic that immigration and rural America have been so much in the conversation, yet what they have to do with each other is not something you hear much about.
What audience did you have in mind whilst writing you book?
My big goal in writing Immigrant Pastoral was that I really wanted this story to be out there as a book, in part because there’s so little available about this topic. It follows that this book needed to be appealing to anyone interested in this topic. I thought about people from architecture or planning, but also from cultural studies or immigration scholarship. I also thought about activists in immigrant neighborhoods and people in city governance. There’s scholarly rigor for the researchers and enough practical material for those outside academia. Because I’ve been in design practice myself, practitioners were very much on my mind, and a considerable portion of the book is geared toward them. Since the topic arose from my work designing parks, I circled back to that at the end, asking what I would do differently in some common design projects now.
What is innovative about your research?
I started my work life as a landscape architect, and brought that love of innovation and practical actions that shape the real world into my subsequent research career. Design sees the creative solution as the best one, which is sometimes at odds with the conventional viewpoint of research. I tend to be fascinated by how different fields overlap, with a focus on how people interact with their environments. I bring a strong ethic of sustainability and of social justice, and because I’m from rural Indiana, I gravitate toward issues affecting the Rustbelt. This is a long way of saying that I’m really interested in what design can contribute to big questions, like immigration and inequality and health. What’s innovative is that I combine the practicality of a former practitioner with scholarly rigor, and I’m a sucker for an unexplored question about how we handle gritty reality in making our cities places where everyone can thrive.
Do you have plans for future books? What’s next in the pipeline for you?
Yes, I’m working on my second book, tentatively titled Design by Deficit, about how chronic disinvestment shapes urban environments and the lives of their residents, for ill and sometimes for good. This is a different story from the same type of places I studied in Immigrant Pastoral - small cities of the Rustbelt. The initial spark of this new book came from teaching about benefits of nature and other environment and behavior research in Syracuse, New York, a very rusty and lushly vegetated town. There’s a lot about urban nature, especially accidental urban wilds, and a lot about vacant land and crumbling infrastructure. That sounds pretty grim, but there’s a surprising number of benefits to all this when you look at it through the lens of climate change, of inequality, and of public health. So the book really connects all those dots and asks at the end how to harness this trend, this neglect, to do what we know needs to be done to address these urgent concerns, kind of how to make one problem – neglect – work for us to help solve these other problems.
Researcher and Founder
New Haven Connecticut USA
Researcher, author, teacher, and designer, focused on the unraveling city. Specialties include
environment, immigration, social justice, wellbeing, urban disinvestment, and nature.