A Conversation with Chandi Aldena (MLA ’13)

A Conversation with Chandi Aldena (MLA ’13)

February 22, 2022

In our Alumni Spotlights we profile distinguished graduates of the College of Architecture and Planning (CAP). We sat down with Chandi Aldena (MLA, 2013), whose story begins in Denver where she spent her childhood at Denver City Park. Chandi has traveled the world and witnessed the juxtapositions of architecture and communities across the globe. She melded a lifetime of love and knowledge of the outdoors, architecture, and community involvement into a successful career.

Tell us about your background.

I grew up in Denver, Colorado and learned to love nature at a young age. I spent my childhood outdoors playing in my backyard and city parks; and enjoyed spending my weekends both camping and hiking in the Rocky Mountains with my family. Growing up so close to Denver’s City Park meant that I was privileged with easy access to many events that shaped my childhood. I rode my bike to the park with friends, attended Jazz in the Park on Sundays, and spent countless afternoons running through the fountain outside of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. My time at the park really helped shape my passion for nature

How have your experiences shaped your design perspective?

I was born in India and adopted by a family in Denver where I grew up. I have traveled all across the United States and visited countries around the world, but I have always called Colorado my home. After high school, I lived in Fort Collins while I completed my Bachelor’s of Science in Landscape Architecture at Colorado State University (CSU). Although my permanent residence has always been in Colorado, I took every opportunity to travel.

In college, I participated in the Alternative Break Program where I participated in/co-led student service trips to communities across the United States, Panama, and Kenya. The most impactful summer of my college years was when I spent three weeks studying abroad in Italy and France for the landscape architecture program. Walking through the piazzas of Venice and Rome, and drawing in the gardens and parks of Paris all deepened my love for community spaces.

My worldview and perspective of public space is equally shaped by my trips back to India. During my second trip back, I joined my mom for five weeks in southern India where I was born. The trip was immediately after my study abroad experience, and the juxtaposition of European architecture and ancient Indian temples was fascinating. I witnessed the devotion put into the creation of sacred, public spaces and the daily use of sites hundreds and thousands of years old. Each trip shaped my personal definition of what community means. my master’s degree at the University of Colorado Denver (UCD). The city was rapidly changing as the economy recovered from the great recession and I witnessed a surge in growth and development. I had studio projects that reimagined the spaces along the South Platte River in the Globeville neighborhood, where the abandoned warehouses sat vacant behind chain-linked fences, ripe for development.

Eight years later, I went back to that same spot along the river to enjoy the newly opened River North Park. Coincidentally, I landed my dream job at The Trust for Public Land in Denver, one of the key partners in protecting that vacant lot for the city to create a new park. Today, I continue to live in the Mile High City while working with communities across Colorado.

Studio project designed with Kristen Ruberg

Tell us about your professional endeavors.

My first introduction to landscape architecture happened while I was volunteering as a teenager at the Denver Zoo. At the time I was thinking about pursuing a career in wildlife biology or zoology. But, that all changed when I saw the design plans and concept drawings for a new exhibit. It was then that I learned I could apply my love of animals, nature, and art into a career designing high quality exhibits that provide enriching homes for the animals, while educating people on the importance of wildlife and nature conservation. At seventeen I found myself on a path to becoming a landscape architect.

This introduction led me to the landscape architecture program at CSU. When I walked into the studio on a campus tour and saw sketches hanging from the walls and models sitting on the drafting tables, I knew that this was the program for me. Unfortunately, I graduated in the great recession and was faced with competing for entry level positions against professionals with over five years of experience. It may have been easier to change professions, but I was to be a landscape architect. Keeping that goal in mind I decided to continue my education at CAP in the Master of Landscape Architecture program. This decision ended up being a turning point in my career.

While working on my masters at CAP, I expanded my interest in landscape architecture and was drawn to designing public places that serve the community. I learned about the participatory design process for community engagement and the positive impacts public spaces have on community identity and development. One studio in particular, taught by Lois Brink, gave me the experience of working with students, staff and parents at an elementary school in Chicago to envision their schoolyard as a place for both play and learning. The experience of working with them in-person and seeing the ownership those young students had in the project inspired me to find a job where I could continue to have that type of personal impact in communities.

Chandi Aldena conducting community engagement with staff at Dirksen Elementary School

After graduate school, I pursued my dream job at The Trust for Public Land in the Parks for People Program that was brought on to the Colorado office in 2014. Over the last seven and a half years, I have had the privilege of applying my enthusiasm for park design with my expertise in participatory design to engage communities in hands-on workshops to create the vision for neighborhood parks, trails and schoolyards.

What are you working on today?

As the project manager and Community Schoolyards™ initiative lead for the Colorado Parks for People team, I work on park, trail and schoolyard projects in communities throughout Colorado. I build relationships with communities and listen to their priorities for access to quality outdoor spaces, and I engage community members in the design process to take their vision from concept to construction. Most of the park projects I have completed have been in the Denver metro area, with many projects in the Westwood neighborhood of Denver. One project that I have been working on for the last six years with the Westwood community is called the Westwood Via Verde, a three-mile, multi-modal neighborhood greenway that connects the parks, trails, schools and other neighborhood hubs. This project is a collaboration between local organizations including BuCu West, Re:Vision, Westwood Unidos, D3 Arts, Groundwork Denver, and Denver Streets Partnership, as well as our city partners in the Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure and Denver Parks and Recreation.

Over the last two years, we have been implementing the wayfinding plan for the Westwood Via Verde. This plan includes creative placemaking murals designed by local artists and painted with the community and youth team from Groundwork Denver. Although our community participation has been limited by the pandemic, we have worked closely with our community and city partners to host Covid-safe painting days.

This year we are working with Groundwork’s Westwood Green Team to create a green infrastructure demonstration garden at the Southwest Improvement Council (SWIC) and Westwood Library building. This project focuses on using native and low water landscapes adjacent to streets and parking lots to capture the stormwater runoff and snowmelt from the adjacent building. The goal is to engage the youth team and residents in sustainable design practices and provide examples of green infrastructure landscapes as precedent for future green infrastructure projects in the neighborhood. Our partnership with Groundwork supports the youth team as paid participants in projects in their own neighborhood and their participation in the projects of the Westwood Via Verde may inspire them to consider landscape architecture or urban planning as careers.

What drew you to CAP?

I was drawn to CAP because I was considering a double major in both landscape architecture and urban and regional planning as a way to expand my opportunities to enter the workforce during the recession years. CAP provides the opportunity to pursue these degrees simultaneously and I could still complete the programs in under four years. The ability to explore the other programs within CAP was a benefit for someone like me who already had a Bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture and wanted to take my education further.

What is the most significant thing you learned while at CAP?

The most significant thing I learned while studying in the MLA program was how to implement a participatory design process for public projects. Having a background in landscape architecture going into the MLA program, I had a strong foundation of the technical side of the profession. However, I was missing the experience of working on a project in a public space with real clients and stakeholders. The schoolyard’s studio gave me the opportunity to learn how to engage stakeholders of different ages (elementary school students, parents, and school staff). I learned how to use different types of communication to find out what the stakeholders prioritized for their schoolyard and how to engage them in a design charrette to conceptualize their ideas on paper. The experience of using the participatory design process gave me the foundation for implementing authentic community engagement in my current work.

Do you have any favorite memories of your time as a student?

My favorite memory of my time in the MLA program was the studio with Lois Brink where I worked with other students to redesign a schoolyard for an elementary school in Chicago. This studio always sticks out in my memory because we flew out to Chicago and spent several days holding design workshops with students, parents, and staff at the school. Working with the students to understand their ideas for the schoolyard, and hearing what the challenges were for staff taught me how to create authentic engagement in the design process. I enjoyed engaging with the students who had big ideas for how to make their schoolyard more enjoyable, their ideas were endless. I apply the lessons I learned in that studio in my professional practice working with communities in Colorado.

Looking back, what experiences at CAP were the most helpful in shaping your career?

One of the most helpful experiences I had while in CAP was getting to know my professors and having conversations with them about my career goals throughout my time in the program. All of my professors made themselves accessible for conversations about different ways of practicing landscape architecture, and many of them have design practices of their own. I was able to talk through my interests in practicing in a more nontraditional setting and I had several professors connect me to other landscape architects who work in those types of positions.

Another experience that shaped my career was having practicing landscape architects jury our studio projects. I learned a lot from the feedback I received from the guest jury members, specifically the questions that made me ground-truth my ideas in reality. Most of our projects were conceptual in nature, but the feedback encouraged me to think critically about the impact of my designs beyond function and form into community benefits.

Can you name a particular architect or practice that influenced you?

The practice of land art and the work of Andy Goldsworthy has influenced my passion for landscape architecture since college. I find myself drawn to his temporal work that is experienced only in the moments of creation like his work with water and ice. I appreciate his use of local materials found on the site of his artwork, an intentional way to harness the inherent power of place. The idea that artwork has a direct relationship with time and place where the experience is part of the artwork itself inspires me to think about the impact of my work with communities. The projects I work on are focused on a specific place and time, but the impact of residents participating in the design process and the completed park, trail or schoolyard project has community benefits for years to come.

What are some of the biggest challenges in the field today?

One of the biggest challenges in the field today is the underrepresentation of people of color and people from institutionally oppressed identities in design professions. One way that this lack of representation has a direct impact on our field is in our work to respond to the climate crisis. As the landscape architecture and planning professions work to address the pressing climate crisis, the communities that are the most impacted are not represented in the design professions. If we hope to find sustainable and equitable solutions to climate change that create resilient communities, we need to listen to the people most impacted and include them in the creation of the solutions. In my experience with working with historically under-resourced and disenfranchised communities, residents know what the most pressing issues are for their community. When we collaborate to find solutions at a community scale, we can address long-term climate issues (such as flooding and urban heat), while providing immediate benefits (green streets and safe, multi-modal routes to schools).

Chandi talking to a group at the Westwood Via Verde Community walk
Chandi talking to a group at the Westwood Via Verde Community Walk

I believe that we as landscape architects and urban planners need to place higher values on the lived experiences of people in the communities we are working in. Moreover, we should invest in residents and provide paid opportunities for them to participate and engage in public projects. Our projects are stronger with community support and compensating residents for their knowledge and expertise in their community creates ownership and personal investment in the outcome. If landscape architecture and urban planning are going to diversify the profession, we need to invest in and connect young people to our projects. Most of the youth I engage with on projects know little to nothing about landscape architecture and urban planning as careers. To engage more youth in design we need to understand what barriers may be keeping them from pursuing a career in landscape architecture or urban planning. To create an equitable opportunity for young people of color we need to make the education and career pathways more accessible and affordable.

Where do you go to feel inspired?

I feel the most inspired when I am in my community engaging in conversation with people about why the outdoors should be accessible and welcoming to everyone. I have the opportunity to listen to people from different backgrounds, geographies, and ages in the work that I do and I enjoy when I find a shared passion around creating equitable access to the outdoors for everyone. I find inspiration from the BIPOC leaders in the environmental field who are working tirelessly to center community and equity in outdoor spaces. I am an active ally and accomplice in the Next 100 Colorado Coalition, a coalition of organizations and people committed to the establishment of a just and inclusive parks and public lands system. This coalition has created a space where people of color and grassroots organizations that primarily work with people of color can find community and inspiration. The Next 100 Colorado community inspires me to continue to do the hard work to make the outdoors more inclusive and accessible for all people.

Students with Chandi Aldena painting a mural Munroe Elementary
Westwood community members painting a mural with Chandi Aldena

What would surprise us about you?

Most people in my professional networks do not know that I grew up singing in the school choir. I loved singing from the time I was a little kid. In elementary school I participated in citywide choir and in fourth grade I auditioned and was cast in the children’s chorus for Fables, a local theater production at the Denver Center for Performing Arts. I spent a semester performing in the play and had the experience of a lifetime. I continued to pursue singing opportunities and in high school I auditioned and was selected to participate in the Colorado All State Choir my junior and senior years. It was an honor to be a part of the Women’s and Mixed Choirs and inspired me to continue to sing in college while pursuing a degree in a completely different field. I still love to sing, but you are more likely to catch me singing with my friends at karaoke.

What was the last meal you cooked for yourself?

I love cooking! I prefer having a variety of meals throughout the week so I spend many of my evenings in the kitchen. Most recently, I used some of the jalapeño peppers from my garden last summer to make Colorado style green chili. We had so many peppers in our garden we I had to freeze most of them to use later. I am now thankful for the abundance because it made for a delicious homegrown addition to this recipe. I do not make green chili often so it was a special treat to go with breakfast burritos on these cold winter mornings.

To get in touch with Chandi Aldena, connect with her on Linkedin.