We’re counting down to our much-anticipated Gender in Architecture event at the Shop on June 7, a night of conversation and connection about gender identity in the built environment. The program features a panel of amazing designers, who will share their lived experiences and singular visions. To get you ready for the event, we’re featuring each panelist here on field notes so you can get to know a little more about them before attending.
Today we have Benji Eisenberg (they/them). Benji is a Coastal Adaptation Design Strategist and UBC Research Associate, whose work interweaves climate adaptation, ecological restoration, and food sovereignty. From freediving for kelp spores in the north Pacific to broadcast seeding milkweed in a cemetery, Benji aims to recenter the designer’s role as an ecological nurturer of land and water.
Was there a moment in your life when you realized that the built environment impacted your idea of gender?
I feel like my gender identity is heavily linked to the place I grew up, or rather the ecosystem I grew up in. Spending most of my life living within a few miles, or sometimes a few feet, of the ocean’s tide has always given me a sense of gratitude and appreciation for liminal spaces, spaces that refuse to exist on an ecological binary. Sometimes the shores are dry and crusty, sometimes they are wet and teeming with life, all depending on the hour or minute of the day. I also grew up in a city that prides itself on being able to fill in and cover up this liminal space to make way for houses, buildings, and developments. Throughout its history, Boston covered, filled, scrapped, and polluted its intertidal marshlands to set the foundation for a more permanent state of consistent dryness.
It’s hard for me to see the treatment of binary non-conforming ecological spaces as different from the stories I grew up with around gender and gender expression. The idea that I could not be beyond or between two extremes but rather must conform to one of two genders never sat well with me. The ecosystems I grew up in taught me otherwise, they taught me that to exist somewhere between or beyond binaries is not only natural, but powerful, adaptable, and beautiful.
How does your gender identity impact your work?
My gender identity impacts my work mostly by helping me to think beyond ecological binaries. When I work with certain species, I try to consider the fact that what happens in their primary habitat may be affected by what happens in a geographically different yet ecologically connected habitat miles away. For example, when thinking about how to protect and restore salmon habitat, I don’t just think about protecting the upland forest where the salmon spawn, or the river mouth where juvenile salmon mature, or even the offshore waters where salmon spend years of their lives before they make their way back to shore, I try to consider the whole system, which spans topographies, habitats, and ecologies.
I also try not to distance myself from the landscape. With most of the ecosystems I work with, I like to blur the lines between designer, steward, and inhabitant. I make sure to spend as much time as possible in the ecosystems I am working to restore. This could mean camping in an old growth forest to document the biodiversity or freediving in a kelp bed to learn what is the best substrate to grow kelp on. Being able to think beyond ecological binaries or binaries in general, helps me think about how to nurture a system rather than deconstruct and isolate the system’s pieces.
How do you see the connection between equity and ecology?
To me, there is a massive connection between equity and ecology. The connection is pretty clear when looking at who is affected by issues like sea level rise, deforestation, pollution, and habitat destruction. The people affected by these issues are disproportionately part of marginalized communities, like low-income individuals, people without fixed addresses, Indigenous communities, and minority groups, just to name a few. These communities often bear the brunt of environmental degradation in ways that limit or halt access to water, housing, food, medicine, and other human rights.
Being able to achieve equity in the context of ecology involves recognizing and addressing these environmental injustices, while also promoting practices that protect and restore the environment. I believe it requires considering the needs and fronting voices of marginalized communities in decision-making processes related to environmental policies, conservation efforts, and resource stewardship. As designers, I think we have a great toolset for spatializing ideas which can merge both the needs of a community and the needs of an ecosystem. Once we can live in a world where both community and ecological needs are consistently met, we may then have a better relationship between equity and ecology.
When you are beginning your design process, what are the first questions you ask yourself?
Since so much of my work centers around nurturing landscape, my first question is often: “what does the landscape want?” More vegetation? More moisture? Less canopy? More biodiversity? And so on. I then ask: “what does the community who is closest to this landscape (geographically, culturally, economically, etc.) want for this landscape?” After asking these questions, I spend my time weaving the needs of these two entities together. My favorite projects are the ones where the needs of community mostly align with the needs of landscape. A good example of this kind of alignment could be if a community wants more places for traditional foraging and harvesting of wild foods in a landscape that is lacking the biodiversity it once had. This is a nice alignment because areas with higher biodiversity can often support more resilient forms of food system stewardship. So ultimately, the landscape thrives from increased biodiversity and the community has increased access to culturally significant foods.
If you ever imagined doing some totally different job or career, what would it be? And why would you rock it?
I think if I were to do my career over, I’d pursue sound ecology. From my understanding, a sound ecologist is someone who records different landscapes, species, and ecosystems to understand their changes over time. I love the idea of laying down in a high-altitude wildflower meadow to record glaciers because I love being in remote places and just sitting for a while to listen. The profession is definitely more complicated than I currently understand but the idea of going around the world listening to and recording different landscapes sounds like a great way to spend a life.
When you’re deep into your work, what’s the guilty pleasure song or artist you listen to or sing to yourself?
I am not sure if I would call it a guilty pleasure, or just pleasure… but if I am on a long drive for work or need a calming song before leading a workshop, I will listen to Joni Mitchel on repeat for some soothing energy. I also have a relatively deep voice and I’m not sure if I’ve ever sung something on key, so it leads to some interesting vocal renditions.
Thanks so much to Benji for these illuminating insights! To hear more from Benji and what promises to be a special night, join us on June 7.