Karl Linn 1923-2005: Building a just world, one garden at a time

Photo by Evvy Eisen

IN NORTHWEST BERKELEY, a greenway flows from a community garden where people gather amidst lush vegetation, artworks, and eco-friendly technology. Native plants, art, and interpretive panels tell the natural and cultural history of the neighborhood and inspire walkers and bikers to slow down and socialize. The creation of these life-enhancing environments was inspired and guided by community activist Karl Linn.

In 1959, Linn joined the landscape architecture faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. He developed a service-learning curriculum, taking his students into inner-city communities where they worked with residents to design “neighborhood commons,” places close to home where people could relax, socialize, and celebrate the special occasions of their lives. Linn inspired volunteer professionals, youth teams, social service agencies, and city governments to be part of “barnraising commons.”

Linn recognized that reclaiming land for commons created a foundation for grassroots democracy. The pioneering community design-and-build centers Linn founded in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., became models for the Domestic Peace Corps, and he encouraged his students to create commons on college campuses.

Linn inspired Carl Anthony (see Anthony) to coordinate the creation of a neighborhood commons in Harlem in 1963. Anthony credits Linn with advocating for environmental justice two decades before the field had a name.

Later, responding to the nuclear arms race, Linn conducted workshops helping students and colleagues break through suppressed anxiety about the future. He took early retirement from a tenured professorship in 1986 to help found Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility and to chair its Education Committee.

Moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, he teamed up with Carl Anthony to start the Urban Habitat Program to develop multi-racial environmental leadership and restore inner-city neighborhoods. With the help of his wife, pianist-composer Nicole Milner, Linn worked tirelessly securing land for community gardens, nurturing the development of project teams, and promoting dialogue. Karl Linn died on February 3, 2005, at age 81.

For more information visit www.karllinn.org. Learn about Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility at www.adpsr.org, and Urban Habitat at http://urbanhabitat.org. Author Diana Young is a free-lance editor and graphic designer.

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