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Archive for the ‘Climate Change’ Category

climate-protest

University of Toronto students protesting / Rabble.ca

Leading up to the UN climate change summit in Paris in December, the question is: can the heads of the world’s governments get it together and create a real game plan to stave off a 2-degree increase in global temperatures? At an event organized by the Center for American Progress and The New Republic in Washington, D.C., government and international organization leaders concluded there’s a lot more work that will need to be done leading up to Paris, and even after the summit, because any agreement reached there will only cover 2020 to 2030. The goal at Paris is to get a sense of what all countries’ national pledges to limit emissions mean in terms of hard numbers, which will then serve as the baseline upon which “ambitions can be ratcheted up” every few years.

At this point, pledges by governments fall far short of what’s needed to get on a pathway to a 2-degrees-or-less temperature increase. A 2-degree increase in itself will “not be benign,” as the World Bank’s special envoy for climate change Rachel Kyte explained. With a 2-degree rise, island countries will be consumed by rising seas, and people living across the Sahel in Saharan Africa will find they can no longer grow food. But it’s even worse, under current business as usual scenarios, the world is heading towards a 5-6 degree increase in temperatures, with hugely destructive impacts worldwide. To date, the world’s temperature has increased by 0.8 degrees due to human-caused climate change, with those in the Arctic already up by nearly 2 degrees.

Janos Pasztor, assistant-secretary general for climate change at the United Nations, explained what will happen in Paris. The talks will have a few key parts. All countries will put forward their “intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs),” which are bottom-up, voluntary pledges for cutting carbon emissions. Pasztor explained this what countries believe they are “able and willing to do.” At the same time, local governments, companies, and non-profits will put forward an “action agenda” comprised of innovations around the world that governments can refer to for ideas. As part of this, there will be a senate of global mayors, led by the Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo and former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. There will need to be an agreement on financing. Developing countries will need help getting access to money from the wealthiest. And there will need to be a legally-binding agreement on the rules “for how governments are going to ratchet up pressure to move up levels of ambition.”

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COP 21, Paris Climate Summit / COP 21

For Kyte at the World Bank, what’s at stake at the next UN summit is “how ambitious do we dare to be? What will this cost? Who will pay for it?” The end-goal needs to be a zero-emission global economy. “Emissions need to peak earlier and earlier — that’s what we are looking for.” Kyte also echoed arguments made by Pope Francis with his encyclical: at Paris, the wealthiest countries have a responsibility to help the poorest. The World Bank, she said, realized it can’t end poverty, its stated mission, with climate change occuring. As countries attempt to develop and achieve their own aspirations, “climate change pulls the rug out from under them.” This is happening to everyone — “rich, middle-income, and poor countries alike.”

The World Bank is ratcheting up its own efforts, administering large climate financing funds that can move dollars from the U.S. and Europe to the least-developed countries. They have also decided to stop financing any new coal power plants worldwide, except in exceptional circumstances in which a poor country has no other cost-effective energy option available to them. She added that the end of coal is simply a fact of life, part of the grand transition that will occur over the next few decades. “And this will cause dislocation.” But she argued this transition needs to start happening soon, as “it will only become more difficult and costly later.” To speed this transition, she called for further divestment in coal companies.

The world can’t forget the poorest, who, “through no fault of their own, have come into harm’s way. As they build their resilience, we have a responsibility to help them.” Many communities are planning for “continuous change, but what about discontinuous change?” For example, coastal communities may soon have to ask themselves, “can we afford sea walls, or should we cede parts of our community back to the sea?” Some coastal communities have to figure out if they can become a “saline economy,” producing food and goods in brackish water. Just as some coastal communities will need to need let some of their land go, some mountainous communities will need to move further up the slopes. “So many communities have already had to pick up and get up out of the way.”

But Kyte was optimistic the world can make this difficult transition. She said the Industrial Revolution is an example of a global transitional process that succeeded. And in just the past few decades, there has been a shift from from state-owned-enterprises (SOEs) to private ownership of production almost everywhere. The future challenge will be not to just find the $100 billion least developed countries need to adapt, but the $1 trillion the world economy needs to make the shift. “The challenge is to build an economy that is low carbon and competitive.” To do this, countries need to undertake a few steps now: “end fossil fuel subsidies, put prices on carbon, and then set long-term prices for carbon.”

One audience member asked whether all these countries’ INDCs can be used to create a “race to the top,” a sort of environmental Olympics between countries in which they compete to see which country has achieved the most significant carbon reductions. France’s Ambassador to the U.S. Gerard Araud, there representing the summit’s host country, said “using peer pressure is a great idea, but we aren’t there yet. At Paris, we need to set the baseline and go from there.” When asked which countries would win the gold in this race, he pointed to France, with its stated goal of having 50 percent renewable energy by 2030; Denmark, with its success in hitting 100 percent wind power; and Costa Rica, with its smart efforts to preserve its rainforest and invest in renewable energy.

And, lastly, Denis McDonough, White House chief of staff, reiterated that President Obama has made fighting climate change his priority, and reaching a global agreement at Paris will be at the top of the list. In a partisan speech focused on mostly domestic climate politics, McDonough said Obama would not back down with new regulations that limit emissions from power plants. The Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.)’s upcoming Clean Power Plan, which will be released in August and will reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants, the largest source of carbon pollution, will move forward despite “Republican scare tactics.” McDonough said Republicans have been using the same tactics for 40 years, since President Nixon created the E.P.A. and signed the Clean Air Act. “They say environmental regulation will kill jobs, raise prices, and lead to power failures.” The reality, he said, was “the U.S. has cut pollution by 40 percent and grown the economy by three times over the past 50 years.”

McDonough said climate change is not only a national security threat — “it’s a threat multiplier” — but it will also disproportionately affect the poorest in the U.S. and everywhere else. Already in America, “African American children are twice as likely to have asthma and four times as likely to die from it.” This is because too many African American children grow up near polluting power plants and busy transportation corridors. Climate change, which raises temperatures, only makes ozone and surface-level pollution worse, raising the threat to low-income communities. Obama also aims to bring more solar power to low-income communities so everyone can benefit from lower energy bills.

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SuperPope Francis graffiti in Rome / NPR

Last month, Pope Francis released Care for Our Common Home, a powerful encyclical designed to build the moral case for improving the environment and fighting climate change. He calls the climate a “common good” and decries the “abuse” of the environment that supports all of humanity. The Vatican published the encyclical in advance of Pope Francis’ just-concluded tour of South America, his September tour of the U.S., and the critical UN climate change summit in Paris in December. At each stop in his South American tour, he made the case for environmentally and socially-responsible development, arguing that it’s the only way to save both the environment and help the poor. For example, in Ecuador, he said: “The goods of the Earth are meant for everyone, and however much someone may parade his property, it has a social mortgage.” Pope Francis join hands with the environmental movement, rallying the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to pressure global leaders to act.

Pope Francis isn’t the first pope to weigh in on environmental issues. As he writes in the encyclical, Saint John Paul II “warned that human beings frequently seem ‘to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption.'” And his immediate predecessor Benedict XVI also proposed “eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth that have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment,” essentially calling for a new, sustainable approach to development.

However, Pope Francis goes further than his predecessors. He writes: “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.” He backs the scientific consensus that humans have caused climate change. He blames over-consumption and rampant capitalism for our predicament. “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production, and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.”

Pope Francis doesn’t just focus on climate change; he also addresses the health problems associated with pollution, the growth of non-biodegradable waste, the lack of fresh drinking water, the loss of biodiversity, and, finally, the “decline of human life and the breakdown in society” caused by environmental degradation.

He blames the lack of global action on the environment on money-driven self-interest and campaigns of disinformation led by special interests. “It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.”

To create a sustainable long-term solution, Pope Francis calls for a new relationship between humanity and nature. As Naomi Klein writes in The New Yorker, it may be one of the most radical policy changes by a major religion ever.

Klein writes: “Challenging anthropocentrism is ho-hum stuff for ecologists, but it’s something else for the pinnacle of the Catholic Church. You don’t get much more human-centered than the persistent Judeo-Christian interpretation that God created the entire world specifically to serve Adam’s every need. As for the idea that we are part of a family with all other living beings, with the earth as our life-giving mother, that too is familiar to eco-ears. But from the Church? Replacing a maternal Earth with a Father God, and draining the natural world of its sacred power, were what stamping out paganism and animism were all about.”

She adds: “By asserting that nature has a value in and of itself, Francis is overturning centuries of theological interpretation that regarded the natural world with outright hostility—as a misery to be transcended and an ‘allurement’ to be resisted.”

Beyond the new understanding of nature as an ecological system is a renewed focus on the world’s poor. Pope Francis believes the rich have an obligation to aid the world’s poor, who will be most negatively impacted by climate change. This is the crux of the moral argument for action.

He writes: “We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.”

To be Catholic now is to be an ecologist and activist. This can only be a step in the right direction.

But Pope Francis will face tough critics in the U.S., particularly in the U.S. Congress, where he has been invited to speak in September. Already Republican Presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have dismissed his efforts, inviting him to “stay out of politics.”

It’s too soon to tell the impact of the encyclical and the Vatican’s broader efforts on climate change, but Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, chief economist of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, says in The Guardian that “you should never underestimate the soft power of moral arguments.”

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Red Hook Community Emergency Readiness / Ready Red Hook

When I think about climate change, I like to look at a photo of my daughter and her two dear friends—not just because of their sweet smiles, but because the photo offers an important clue to how we can design cities to thrive in uncertain times. We don’t know exactly how climate change will play out, but two things are clear: Parts of our cities are in for severe stress. And we will have to get through it together.

Back when this picture was taken, I thought of the riverfront of New York City as a place to play; I often took my daughter and her friends down to the repurposed docks for concerts and picnics. That was before Superstorm Sandy slammed into the city and the East River busted its banks. That storm refined my thinking about life with climate change.

We had it radically easier than thousands of other New Yorkers—we only lost power for four days. But we shared with them a sense of uncertainty: When will lights come back on? What system might conk out next?

And now there is a larger sense of uncertainty about the future. Climate change has become a part of our lives, and we’re likely to face a series of crises: storms that whip our coasts and droughts that parch our heartland—though we don’t know when, or where, or how severely. It’s this constant uncertainty that we will have to address in our urban designs.

We do know that, in times of crisis, friends and neighbors can play a vital role in helping each other cope. Like many New Yorkers, we did what we could after Superstorm Sandy—donating supplies to families in the Rockaways, and dropping off food at the public housing community down the block.

Urban design can support that kind of community spirit, by bolstering connections among neighbors. The peninsula community of Red Hook, in Brooklyn, responded to Sandy this way. The community plans to raise the usable space of waterfront buildings above street level, creating new space beneath those buildings for people to gather, get help, and simply socialize. (My daughter, who was six at the time, had offered a similar idea, but then she listens to me daydream a lot.)

In uncertain times, urban design should make public places more flexible, more reassuring, and more public. This is in tune with the history of urban experimentation. Cities are places where unlike-minded people share limited space. Their innovations—parks, skyscrapers, farmers’ markets, Foursquare–result from experiments that tried to squeeze maximum benefit from a crowded place.

Even big-budget projects are trying to design in human connections to manage uncertainty. For example, the federal Rebuild by Design process commissioned design teams to work with neighborhoods on ways to make Northeastern cities’ coasts less vulnerable to storm surge. The “BIG U,” the project that drew the biggest plug of funding, is underway, creating a series of berms and slopes that serve as public parks while blunting wave action.

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The BIG U / Rebuild by Design

If this plan succeeds, the water will be something to explore and adore, not something to fear. And if the fear quotient goes down and the sense of public comity goes up, perhaps people will be more willing to invest the dollars—and make the hard choices—necessary to face an unstable climate.

And if that’s right, then decades from now people can take pictures on the scenic bluffs overlooking the East River. And perhaps those pictures will show kids with the same peaceful confidence that comes from knowing you can count on your friends and neighbors.

This guest post is by Alec Appelbaum who writes about how urban design can help cities cope with the stresses of climate change. He teaches at Pratt Institute and runs a teen urban-design curriculum called AllBeforeUs.

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Pollinator Pathway One (Before and After Planting), 2011 / © Sarah Bergmann

EcoDistrict planning and design can accelerate local efforts to improve sustainability. EcoDistricts offer a framework through which communities can discuss, prioritize, and enact initiatives that address climate change — by providing clean energy, conserving wildlife habitat, and encouraging low-impact development — and also social equity. If more neighborhoods begin to adopt the EcoDistrict model — wherein a range of partner organizations work in concert — we could see stronger bottom-up pushes toward city-wide sustainability.

Since 2011, the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, which is funded by the Bullitt Foundation and led by Capitol Hill Housing, has sought to improve the sustainability of the community and the equity of its constituents. This EcoDistrict is partnering with the Seattle 2030 District, a high-performance business district in downtown Seattle, that aims to reduce carbon emissions 50 percent by 2030. In 2015, Seattle’s City Council formally passed a resolution recognizing the EcoDistrict.

In the past few years, the EcoDistrict has made progress: Capitol Hill Housing and Seattle City Light started the first community solar project on an affordable housing building in Washington State. Participants in this program can “subscribe” to receive the benefits of solar via the systems built and maintained by Seattle City Light on the rooftop of the new Capitol Hill Housing, the Holiday Apartments, which houses 88 new apartments for low-income families, artist spaces, two theaters, various community organizations, and street-level retail spaces.

Also, innovative building projects are being encouraged to update the city’s outdated land-use code, using a process of design review. As an example, The Bullitt Center helped launch the city’s Living Building pilot program.

The EcoDistrict aims to address urban ecosystem fragmentation and the loss of tree canopy and open space. To do this, Capitol Hill Housing is partnering with interdisciplinary designer Sarah Bergmann to create the second certified Pollinator Pathway in the U.S. Each Pollinator Pathway connects two or more green spaces, following a set of scientific criteria, and is created through commission or partnership.

Bergmann’s first project, Pollinator Pathway One — a mile-long, 12-foot wide landscape first developed seven years ago — connects Seattle University’s campus with Nora’s Woods, a small forested area a mile away, through a series of connected gardens (see image above). The second project, Pollinator Pathway Two, will run through the heart of the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict and will connect two Olmsted-designed parks and Seattle University.

More knowledge sharing among EcoDistricts around the country will help lead to a more replicable model. Already, a few high-profile EcoDistricts are joining together: In 2014, the Portland, Oregon-based EcoDistrict organization launched a program called Target Cities, a two-year partnership with ten projects across eight North American cities.

This guest post is by Katy Scherrer, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, University of Washington.

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President Obama signs executive order, “Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade.” / Jacquelyn Martin/AP

On March 19, President Obama signed a new executive order titled “Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade,” which will guide federal agencies toward more sustainable government operations. From planning for resiliency in the face of natural disasters and climate change to implementing more stringent stormwater management practices, the order addresses many aspects of landscape architecture and community planning. Reaching the order’s targets will then require federal agencies to collaborate with thought leaders in both professions, as well as state and local governments, to seek out and implement industry best practices.

The prominence the new executive order places on the sustainable design and management of federal facilities means the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) — as the civilian government’s primary landlord — has not only the great responsibility, but also the great opportunity to increase its role as a government leader in sustainability.

GSA has previously proven its appetite for innovation in sustainable building technologies through programs such as The Green Proving Ground, which uses the size and variety of the agency’s real estate portfolio to test nascent technologies for large-scale commercial viability. That same size and variety will be valuable as GSA and other federal agencies tackle challenges, such as the following:

  • installing green infrastructure on federal properties to manage stormwater and wastewater;
  • reducing the use of water for irrigation and industrial purposes;
  • ensuring that a percentage of existing federal buildings and all planned federal buildings achieve energy net-zero and strive for water net-zero;
  • promoting sustainable commuting through locating federal facilities near public transit; and
  • incorporating climate change preparedness and resilience into planning for new facilities and renovations of existing facilities, and into facility management practices.

Read the full text of the executive order and GSA Acting Administrator Denise Turner Roth’s response to the order.

This guest post is by Karen Handsfield, AICP, LEED AP, an urban planner and policy analyst with the Urban Development Program for the U.S. General Service Administration’s Office of Chief Architect in Washington, D.C. and Christian Gabriel, ASLA, RLA, National Design Director for Landscape Architecture for the U.S. General Service Administration’s Office of Chief Architect in Washington, D.C.

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In 2014, the Earth reached its hottest levels at least since 1880, when global temperatures were first recorded. According to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), much of the 1.24 F (0.68 C) temperature increase over the 30-year average was driven by warmer oceans, which were up 1 degree F over the average.

According to a new report, rising ocean temperatures and increased acidification due to the addition of carbon are already wrecking havoc on marine ecosystems. Malin L. Pinsky, a marine biologist at Rutgers University, told The New York Times: “If you cranked up the aquarium heater and dumped some acid in the water, your fish would not be very happy. In effect, that’s what we’re doing to the oceans.” Coral reefs, which are among the richest of all marine habitats, have already declined by 40 percent. Many fish are now migrating to cooler waters, creating shifts in intricate food chains.

Things are not much better on land. While temperatures didn’t reach the record-setting levels from a few years ago, they were still near peak levels, ranked at fourth-warmest since 1880. According to The Washington Post, “California, much of Europe, including the United Kingdom, and parts of Australia all experienced their warmest years.” All of the 14 hottest years on record for land and sea are from the past 15 years.

A number of scientists have explained how climate change will lead to more “climate weirding,” as more extreme events happen in more random places. The World Metereological Organization (WMO) keeps track of these extreme weather events. According to their review of 2014, as relayed by BBC News: “In September, parts of the Balkans received more than double the average monthly rainfall and parts of Turkey were hit by four times the average. The town of Guelmin in Morocco was swamped by more than a year’s rain in just four days. Western Japan saw the heaviest August rain since records began. Parts of the western US endured persistent drought, as did parts of China and Central and South America. Tropical storms, on the other hand, totaled 72, which is less than the average of 89 judged by 1981-2010 figures. The North Atlantic, western North Pacific, and northern Indian Ocean were among regions seeing slightly below-average cyclone activity.”

In an email to The New York Times, climate scientist Michael Mann at Pennsylvania State University, said the warming trends indicate the debate about climate change is over: “It is exceptionally unlikely that we would be witnessing a record year of warmth, during a record-warm decade, during a several decades-long period of warmth that appears to be unrivaled for more than a thousand years, were it not for the rising levels of planet-warming gases produced by the burning of fossil fuels.”

However, others still aren’t fully persuaded that rising temperatures caused by fossil fuels present a danger. John R. Christy, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville said 2014’s record-high temperatures are really still within the margin of error of global temperature measurements. “Since the end of the 20th century, the temperature hasn’t done much. It’s on this kind of warmish plateau.”

To note, this chart plotting temperature anomalies doesn’t look like it’s plateauing (see another larger chart).

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Mainstream climate scientists believe there is still time to cut emissions levels enough to avoid reaching dangerous levels of carbon in the atmosphere. The goal is to keep the global temperature increase below 3.6 F (2 C). The focus is now on the UN climate summit later this year in Paris where governments will need to create a binding international agreement.

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Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, is a professor of landscape architecture and urban planning at MIT. Her most recent book is
The Eye is a Door: Landscape, Photography, and the Art of Discovery (2014). She is also the author of The Granite Garden (1984 ASLA President’s Award of Excellence), The Language of Landscape (1988), and Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange’s Photographs and Reports from the Field (2011 ASLA Honor Award). The Web site www.annewhistonspirn.com is a gateway to her work and activities.

This interview was conducted at the ASLA 2014 Annual Meeting in Denver.  

This year is the 30th anniversary of your book, The Granite Garden, which argued that cities are part of nature and should be designed with nature. Since 1984, how much progress have we made? Where are we still going wrong?

We’ve made enormous progress, particularly with water. Ironically, we’ve done less well on climate and air quality. I say ironically because there’s so much awareness of climate change these days. There’s been a lot of attention paid to design proposals aimed at adapting to rising sea levels, but less to the enormous potential that the design of cities holds for reducing the factors that contribute to climate change in the first place. We need to truly reimagine the way we design cities.

Scientists and engineers are focused on technical solutions, social scientists on policy. And that’s where the public debate is focused. We designers and planners are not getting our message across as well as we should.

On the other hand, it’s a tremendous challenge for us to keep up with the latest and best scientific knowledge that would directly affect the way we design. We’re awash in information. You can’t expect a practitioner to stay abreast of all this literature, which is why we at MIT are proposing to do a monograph series on knowledge related to the urban natural environment — air, earth, water, ecosystems — and make that bridge to design. These monographs would be authored by teams of designers and scientists.

We hope to make these available at no cost, to anyone in the world. We hope that they’ll be valuable to scientists too, because most scientists don’t really know how their discoveries apply to design and planning. We are seeking funds to start with urban climate and air quality and then do our next monograph on water.

My hope is that this will prompt new experimentation and research that will give landscape architects the information we need. Right now, scientists develop their research agendas for their own purposes, mainly to document, record, and predict, but not to alter the world or make it more beautiful.

Thirty years ago, there was a sharp divide between proponents of ecological design and landscape as an art form. Examples of urban design that were both ecologically functional and artful were few and far between. I wrote “The Poetics of City and Nature: Toward a New Aesthetic for Urban Design” in 1988 and my book, The Language of Landscape, to argue for design that fuses ecology and art. Others made that argument, too. Now we have many great models of artful ecological design. So that’s another area where we have made real progress.

What do you think of the theoretical discussions born out of your book: ecological urbanism and landscape urbanism?

They’re very important in several ways. Both movements have appealed to architects, and that’s really important. Green infrastructure is something that landscape architects have been talking about for many decades, but architects weren’t thinking in those terms. Landscape urbanism and ecological urbanism were deliberately aimed to capture that audience. And that’s good. On the other hand, some proponents have claimed their approach is radically new, which it is not, and have ignored the contributions of many others to both theory and practice. Certain built projects have captured the public imagination, but for the most part, the landscape urbanism and ecological urbanism literature has been aimed at the design disciplines, not the larger public. There is a need for publications that are valuable to  designers and planners and are also challenging, interesting, and enlightening to a broader audience.

I first set out to accomplish that with The Granite Garden. It probably took me an extra 3-4 years to write the book because I had to learn how to write to this larger audience, use no jargon, and explain the concepts in a way that wouldn’t be boring to my professional colleagues but at the same time would be engaging to the public. I learned the power of that approach when The Granite Garden was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, and then abroad. It was picked up so widely because it was published as a book for a general audience, not solely as a professional text.

Landscape architects are not doing a good enough job at reaching that broader audience.

You say some things have improved; some haven’t. How would you change the way we’re communicating today? What’s the best way to reach the public?

The Web and electronic publishing have opened up powerful new opportunities. Twenty years ago, in 1995, the West Philadelphia Landscape Project Web site was in the works. Within two years, we’d had millions of visitors to the Web site, from 90 countries. This is the extraordinary power of the Web. I maintain several web sites, all geared to both a professional and a general audience, related to my research, writing, and teaching.

At AnneWhistonSpirn.com, I make available all of my writings except my books. I retain copyright and distribution rights to my articles, and so I can make them free for download on my web site. All of my courses have been online since 1996. They’re all available at no cost.

I’ve been part of the open-access movement before there was an open-access movement. I’ve always wanted to reach the broadest possible audience. There’s no single way to reach the public, but we shouldn’t dumb things down. We can engage both professionals and the public, if we go beyond the PR stuff and really try to reach the public in a serious way. As my editor would say, “Anne, your readers are not like your students. They don’t have to read. They can go get a beer and put down your book and never pick it up again, so you have to keep them engaged. You have a duty to your reader.”

E-publishing affords new ways to expand readership. With its many color photographs, a print edition of my new book, The Eye Is a Door: Landscape, Photography, and the Art of Discovery, would have been priced beyond the reach of many readers. To make it affordable, I composed and published it as an e-book.

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The Eye Is a Door / Anne Whiston Spirn

New e-book editions of The Granite Garden and The Language of Landscape will be published later this year. You will be able to read them in two ways: through verbal text (with links to images and captions) or as an essay of images and captions (with links to the book’s text). I envision this as a new kind of reading experience.

Looking at innovation today, what do you see 30 years ahead?

In the epilogue to The Granite Garden, I imagined two visions of the future: the infernal city and the celestial city. A lot of what I envisioned then is now commonplace. On the other hand, much has happened that I did not imagine. A lot can change in 30 years. Just think: the original Macintosh, the first personal computer with a mouse and graphic interface, was released in January 1984, the same month as The Granite Garden.

Today, we have the Internet and social media. Our phones can collect and upload all kinds of data. We’ve got crowd sourcing of data. 30 years down the pike, clothing, and vehicles that gather data will be commonplace. We’re going to be overwhelmed with data, so we need to be even smarter about figuring out what this data means and how to use it.

Climate change and the gross disparities in economic means and access to education and employment across the world are threatening the human species. They’re equally threatening, and social upheavals can only get worse as disparities in income and opportunities continue to get wider. Many people won’t have anything to lose. They won’t have a stake in society.

For the past 30 years, since I wrote The Granite Garden, I’ve focused on restoring the natural environment of cities at the same time as rebuilding inner-city communities and educating and empowering young people who don’t have access to a high-quality education that will set them up for having a stake in society. Those are areas where I’ll continue to devote my efforts.

What has the last 30 years of your work with the West Philadelphia Landscape Project taught you about achieving social justice through environmental action in cities?

The West Philadelphia Landscape Project, which builds on work I did in Boston from 1984 to 86, has been an investigation into how to improve environmental equality and social equity at the same time. There are obstacles, but  I’ve learned that it’s not difficult to conceptualize issues and mobilize people. Then it’s just a matter of lining up the resources and getting the administrative framework in place. It’s possible. There are many great examples. In Philadelphia alone, there are many, from the Urban Tree Connection at the grassroots to the city government’s Green City Clean Waters program.

Designers are optimistic. People don’t go into landscape architecture to create a worse world or even to maintain the status quo. We are in this business because we want to make the world a better place. I’m really worried, but I also believe we can do it. It’s possible.

Much of your writing and photography has been focused on learning how to “read” a landscape. What do you mean by this phrase? How is that different from seeing a landscape?

It’s like the difference between merely looking at a picture and understanding how it was constructed and what it means. Landscapes are full of stories. There are natural histories: stories about how a place came to be in terms of its geology, climate, and plants. There are also political stories and folk stories and stories about memory and worship. People’s gardens hold their own stories. In shaping landscape, individuals and societies express  their values, beliefs, and ideas. All these stories are embedded in landscape, and they can be read.

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Glen Loy, Scotland / Anne Whiston Spirn

Landscape literacy – the ability to read and tell such stories – is fundamental to being a landscape architect. I wrote my book The Language of Landscape because I realized that lack of fluency in the language of landscape was a barrier to more fluent and functional design, more expressive design, more eloquent design.

The West Philadelphia Landscape Project was a laboratory for working out ideas about the language of landscape and landscape literacy. It was extraordinary working with 12- and 13-year-olds in  Mill Creek, a low-income African-American neighborhood in West Philly, as they learned how to read that landscape.

So what was the best way to teach these kids landscape literacy?

Their neighborhood was called Mill Creek, but there wasn’t any creek you could see. My students showed them old maps, photographs, and other kinds of documents that described the neighborhood  at different historical periods from pre-colonial times to the present. Each week was a different period. Gradually, they came to understand through looking and investigating these old maps, newspaper articles, and planning documents that there was once this creek, Mill Creek. They found out that it was buried in a sewer and that there were cave-ins over the sewer. That’s where a lot of the vacant lands were, including in blocks  right around the school. The creek literally flowed right alongside where the school is located.

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Buried Floodplain in Mill Creek, West Philadelphia / Anne Whiston Spirn

The children also learned about socioeconomic issues of the 1930s and political decisions that led banks to stop lending money for small businesses and home mortgages in their neighborhood. And they came to understand that their neighborhood today is the result of all these things that happened in the past.

Then they took the historical maps and went out to compare them with the present neighborhood and discovered: “Oh, my goodness, this huge vacant lot block was once six blocks, and there were houses here,” and, “Oh, my gosh, there’s a fire hydrant in the middle of these woods that grew up on these lots.” It really turned their whole attitude about their neighborhood around.

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Learning Landscape Literacy at Sulzberger Middle School / Anne Whiston Spirn

Before learning to read its history, the children didn’t believe their neighborhood could ever change. When my students  had asked them how they would like to see their neighborhood in the future, they  had said, “Nothing’s going to change.” They were very cynical. After learning about its history, they began to say, “The neighborhood could change. It hasn’t always been the way it is. It could change in the future. Why couldn’t it? We know how it’s changed in the past.” Using that knowledge, what kinds of policies and actions could lead to change in the present?

About that time, I started reading Paulo Freire, who was a Brazilian community organizer. He developed literacy programs, for adults in poor, informal settlements in Brazilian cities. His findings about verbal literacy were exactly the same findings I was having in landscape literacy. He found that the most effective way to teach literacy was to collect oral histories of older people in the community, put them into text, and then teach people to read from those texts of the oral histories of their place.

So these kids were learning to read from the primary documents about their own neighborhood. The landscape itself became a primary document. They then became ambassadors. As a 12-13-year-old, to know more than the adults know is tremendously empowering. They went home and told their parents, “Guess what? This happened here and that happened there. See where that vacant land is? There was a creek there.” This is landscape literacy.

If I were working with those kids today, I’d also have them out taking photographs. My new book, The Eye Is a Door: Landscape, Photography, and the Art of Discovery, is a guide for using the camera as a tool to discover the stories that landscapes hold. Through photography, I want to inspire people to look deeply at the surface of things and beyond to the stories landscapes tell, the processes that shape human lives and communities and the earth itself. To pick up a camera and use it to see, think, and discover.

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Artwork outside the 20th UN Climate Change Conference in Lima, Peru / 3 News, New Zealand

Last week, negotiators from nearly 200 countries built further momentum towards a global deal to limit climate change. At a United Nations conference in Lima, Peru, each nation agreed to enact domestic laws to reduce emissions and submit their plans detailing their cuts by March 2015, in advance of the major summit on climate change in Paris in just a year. These plans will be treated as non-binding “national pledges” that can form the basis for a new global accord. The goal of the Paris summit, which will be attended by many heads of state, is a legally-binding agreement to limit temperature rise by 2 degrees Celsius, but it’s unclear whether global leaders can achieve this level of commitment, given a number of attempts have failed in the past decade.

According to The New York Times, the Lima meeting’s new bottom-up approach may work well in comparison with the top-down approaches that have been attempted and failed in the past. The bottom-up approach harnesses “global peer pressure” to force countries to up their game and set more aggressive emissions reduction targets. “The hope, negotiators said, is that as the numbers and commitments of each country are publicized, compared, and discussed, countries will be shamed by the spotlight into proposing and enacting stronger plans.”

BBC News outlines the primary features of the agreement. Developed and developing countries now have a “common but differentiated responsibility” to address climate change. This loaded phrase attempts to accommodate the demands of the U.S. and other European countries who want every country — rich or poor — to step up and commit to fighting climate change, with the demands of China, India, and other developing countries, which argue that the developed world should take a greater share of responsibility for the climate crisis as they’ve been emitting more emissions over time and have more resources to deal with the challenges of mitigation and adaptation. As part of the agreement, developed countries will provide financial support to “vulnerable” developing countries, up to $100 billion a year by 2020.

As a next step, countries will submit national pledges by the end of March, 2015 that “go beyond their current undertakings.” Countries now have fewer excuses to not push the boundaries of climate action, given the historic climate change agreement between China and the U.S. in early November was perceived as upping the ante. The U.S. agreed to cut 2005 carbon emission levels by 25-28 percent by 2020, double the place President Obama had previously set, and China agreed its emissions would peak by 2030 and it would also increase the share of renewable energy to 20 percent by then as well. Europe has already pledged to cut its emissions by 40 percent by 2030.

Still, many climate watchers argue that national pledges don’t go far enough, as they fall short of a binding agreement that can limit temperatures increases to 2 degrees Celsius, which scientists have repeatedly stated is the crucial wall to prevent irreversible shifts in the planet’s complex climate system. The argument goes: Just as many developed countries have committed to giving developing countries billions to help them adapt to climate change and then have failed to deliver, these same countries may come up with grand pledges that fall short. The Telegraph (UK) writes: “In truth, as Mary Robinson – the former President of Ireland who now serves as the UN’s Special Envoy for Climate Change put it, the talks made just enough headway ‘to keep the multilateral process alive, but not enough progress to give confidence that the world is ready to adopt an equitable and ambitious legally-binding climate agreement in Paris next year.'”

To do that, more of the world’s leaders will need to personally invest in the process, earlier than they did five years ago in Copenhagen, which failed to yield a binding agreement. “Lima has underscored what we already knew: that the official negotiators – and even environment and energy ministers – are just not capable of cracking the issues on the table. These are just too big, and they simply do not have enough clout, even where they have the will. Only heads of government have the authority to do it. They came close to saving the day in Copenhagen, five years ago, and will need to engage again – and much earlier in the process – if dangerous climate change is to be averted.”

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The playground in Riverstone master-planned community, Big Adventrue Park, incorporates the natural environment as much as possible.

The playground in Riverstone master-planned community, Big Adventure Park, incorporates the natural environment as much as possible. / Houston Chronicle

FIU Students Seek Flooding Solutions if Sea Level Rises Throughout Miami-Dade CountyThe Miami Herald, 11/20/14
FIU professors Marta Canavés and Marilys Nepomechie worked with students for three years to research sea level rise projections at three, four, and six feet, and created models and proposals to keep existing city infrastructure and neighborhoods habitable. The models, designs and collected data are on display at the new Coral Gables Museum exhibit through March 1.”

S.F.’s Newest Public Space Provides Invitation to Sit, LingerThe San Francisco Chronicle, 11/25/14
“The new plaza is a patch of asphalt at Mission Street, closed to cars but with plenty of room for bicycles to coast through, below a gateway-like frame of salvaged wood adorned with hanging rat tail cactus. Its counterpart at Market Street behind the Palace Hotel spent decades as a deliberate green oasis with formal planters, until it declined to the point where now it is hidden behind construction barriers.”

Parks, Playgrounds Get New Attention in Planned CommunitiesThe Houston Chronicle, 11/26/14
“The latest amenity at River­stone creates a shady and colorful play area for families in the Fort Bend County master-planned community. On two acres of land, colorful pathways and play structures are set among the trees and twisting trails.”

A Guide to Denver’s Best Landscaped Spaces, Deep and FreeThe Denver Post, 11/28/14
“None of it got there by accident, as the new ‘What’s Out There Denver’ online guide reminds us in inviting detail. Our natural places were planned by generations of forward-thinking civic leaders and landscape architects who understood how preserved green spaces balance all of the asphalt and concrete of city life.”

New York’s High Line: Why the Floating Promenade Is So PopularThe Washington Post, 11/30/14
“It has become an archetype for cities everywhere craving their own High Line mojo. In Washington, it is the inspiration for a proposed elevated park where the old 11th Street Bridge crossed the Anacostia River and, separately, for a component in the long-range redevelopment of Union Station.”

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In the wake of the world’s largest global protest on climate change — with some 300,000 people marching in New York City and another 300,000 more marching in 2,000 locations across the world this past weekend, 120 world leaders met at the United Nations in an effort to build political momentum for a legally-binding global agreement on climate change next year in Paris. The meeting was the first large-scale meeting of world leaders on climate change in five years. The meeting occurs amid new reports that carbon dioxide emissions are at their highest levels yet, with 2.3 percent growth in emissions this past year, and the world is at its hottest since global temperatures have been recorded.

The UN summit may have raised pressure on countries to act, particularly China, which has long stated that it will move on climate change once the United States does. Well, the U.S. has acted, with President Obama moving to curtail emissions from coal power plants and taking other measures in order to reduce emissions by 17 percent by 2020 and make “further ambitious cuts by 2050,” reports the The New York Times. In response, a representative from China, whose leader, Xi Jinping, decided not to attend, said China will reduce its carbon intensity by 40 percent by 2050. The Guardian quotes Chinese vice-premier Zhang Gaoli, who said: “As a responsible major developing country, China will make an even greater effort to address climate change and take on international responsibilities that are commensurate with our national conditions.”

Former U.S. Vice President and Nobel Prize winner Al Gore said the meeting was a “net positive.” “There is no question that a considerable amount of momentum was generated here. I think it was a tremendous boost to the whole movement that is towards the Paris agreement.”

Some European countries agreed to support the efforts of developing countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change. France, which will host the big climate negotiations, announced $1 billion for a global climate change fund. South Korea and Switzerland pledged $100 million and other countries also agreed to contribute $100 million. Last year, Germany committed $1 billion as well. Critics say the $2.3 billion in commitments falls far short of the $15-20 billion needed.

Much of the heavy lifting on climate change will be done at the local levels. News on that front was promising. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new plan to cut his city’s emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Boston, San Francisco, and Stockholm have made similar pledges. If only all the world’s other cities, which account for 70 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions, follow suit. There were also agreements among companies and non-profits to change business as usual. The Guardian reports that “more than 400 companies from 60 countries all signed on to support putting a price on carbon.” Furthermore, in two particularly environmentally damaging sectors — palm oil and paper manufacturing — some of the biggest firms agreed to stop “destructive logging by 2030, and restore an area of forest equivalent to the size of India.”

However, criticism abounded about the lack of concrete commitments among the world leaders. The Elders, a group of esteemed wise men and women from around the world, who even put out a full-page ad in The New York Times to support the global climate marches, were dismissive of the usual talk. One of The Elders, Graça Machel, the widow of Nelson Mandela, said in her speech at the UN: “There is a huge mismatch between the magnitude of the challenge and the response we heard here today. The scale is much more than we have achieved.” Of the protesters, she said: “can we genuinely say we are going to preserve their lives, and ensure their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren inherit a planet which is safe and sustainable?”

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