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Creating a Positive Social Impact Through Design

LAN student Nahal Sohbati shared her design process for Ridge Lane Park in an inspiring lecture

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School of Landscape Architecture graduate student Nahal Sohbati gives a presentation during her department’s 2017 Speaker Series. Photo by Bob Toy.

Look out landscape architecture, here comes Nahal Sohbati. On the cusp of graduating this month with her master’s degree, Sohbati will soon take her industry by storm and bring with her the ideals she implemented in her award-winning Ridge Lane Park project. 

Sohbati imparted her experience and ideologies on her fellow Academy of Art University students during the School of Landscape Architecture’s (LAN) Speaker Series on Nov. 2. 

“We are incredibly proud of her work,” said Jeff McLane, LAN director, as he introduced Sohbati to a live and online audience at The Cannery. “It’s amazing to see student work that actually becomes real. I hope this inspires all of you to go out and create.”

Passion encompassed Sohbati’s every word, as she shared her journey working on Ridge Lane Park, a sustainable, community-collaborative street park nestled in the Ingleside area of San Francisco. While she presented her design process, challenges and successes, she emphasized the importance of research, democratic design and social impact. 

“It’s very exciting to see a small piece of land transformed into something that impacts people and their environment,” said Sohbati.

Starting with how it all began, Sohbati spoke about the aspects of her initial designs that fostered her success. Three years ago, in her Site Design Studio class (LAN 620), Sohbati began drafting ideas for Ridge Lane, a hazardous, vacant strip of land that residents used to cut through the neighborhood to get to the Balboa Park BART station and other public transit stops. 

Eventually, Sohbati’s concepts were selected out of 11 students by the Ridge Lane Neighbors (RLN), an association which initially contacted the Academy to commission the project. Today, Sohbati has completed one of five parcels of the quarter-mile strip of land. And Sohbati said it was her ability to engage, educate and listen to the needs of the RLN, or in other words establish a democratic design process, that allowed her success.

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Graduate student Nahal Sohbati and School of Landscape Architecture Director Jeff McLane. Photo by Bob Toy.

“Behind every neighbor’s request was a reason,” Sohbati said. Although not every need was met, Sohbati educated the association as to why she made certain design decisions. “One of the most important parts about community engagement is community education and explaining why you are making the decision. It creates trust between you and the client.” 

An example of this was one neighbor’s request for security cameras. After research, Sohbati, was able to present evidence which showed that cameras will not promote safety, but creating a vibrant environment will. 

Another principal she highlighted during the lecture was the value of creating a positive social impact through design. By adding gabion benches, native and non-native plants that enhanced the native butterfly population as well as creating a clear access area, Sohbati was able to unite the residents. 

“I wanted to create an exciting experience that didn’t just connect point A to B, but instead a journey through Ridge Lane,” she said. “It was very interesting to see people who lived close, but didn’t know one another come together and talk.” 

It has now been over a year since the first parcel was completed and Ridge Lane has already garnered a lot of attention. This year, Sohbati was awarded the American Society of Landscape Architecture’s Award of Excellence in Student Community Service. The project has also earned recognition from the California State Senate and Assembly and the City and Council of San Francisco. 

As the lecture came to a close, students and other audience members were clearly impressed by the presentation. Amanda Pfeiffer, a visual arts and animation lab technician for the Academy walked away from the lecture feeling inspired. 

“I was really impressed. It was inspiring,” she said. “I love to see the fresh and innovative ideas of our students. Her concept and the way her project came together was really cool.” 

A landscape architecture student in the audience agreed with how well-rounded Sohbati’s project was. 

“The whole project is really cool,” said Jhen Lin, a third-year LAN student. “It was amazing how she focused on the history of the site as a place for butterflies and her geometric form and just seeing how successful the project was.” 

Although Sohbati is in her final month with the Academy and looking for full-time work as a landscape architect, she is still very focused on Ridge Lane Park. She is currently working with the San Francisco Department of Public Works and the San Francisco Parks Alliance to get funding for the second parcel, as each parcel requires its own funding.

But if the first parcel of Ridge Lane Park is any indication of Sohbati’s impact on the world of landscape architecture, she is sure to leave her mark.

“Nahal embodies what landscape architecture should be,” said LAN Online Director Heather Clendenin. “It should be more accessible, more of a dialogue and a more democratic process. She will be a leader in this profession.”