“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.”
“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.”
Since 1987, she has directed the West Philadelphia Landscape Project, an action research program that has the goal of restoring nature and rebuilding community through strategic design, planning, and education programs. Spirn is the recipient of Japan’s 2001 International Cosmos Prize for “contributions to the harmonious coexistence of nature and mankind;” IFLA’s Geoffrey Jellicoe Award; and the 2018 National Design Award for “Design Mind.”
The pandemic has created a global economic crisis, leading to a recession in some countries and a depression in others. While the U.S. is no longer facing a depression, like it did this spring, the country is now in the midst of a recession, and landscape architecture firms are learning to adapt. In a session during reVISION ASLA 2020, firm leaders with Sasaki, SWA Group, and Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA) explained steps they are taking and the outlook for the coming year.
According to Michael Grove, FASLA, chair of landscape architecture, civil engineering, and ecology at Sasaki, a multi-disciplinary architecture, planning, and landscape architecture firm based in Massachusetts, the firm is focused on “putting people over profits.” To ensure the firm can meet payroll for its 250-300 staff, Sasaki is holding larger cash reserves while cutting pay for its partners, in the form of profits, by 20 percent.
Sasaki is also re-investing in its own capabilities. The firm has increased both internal staff training and investment in research and development (R&D). This enables the firm to “capture higher fees from thought leadership and research,” Grove said. The higher investment in research also allows the firm to benefit from federal and state R&D tax benefits.
Being multi-disciplinary has its benefits as well. “The diversity of our practice helps in different markets.” In China, which is now experiencing an economic recovery, Sasaki is a “known entity,” with an office in Shanghai, so can benefit from growth there.
But Grove cautioned there is worse to come in the U.S. “Design firms are usually impacted 6-12 months after a shift in economic conditions.” The firm is now seeing higher education clients put projects on hold, as universities and colleges rethink the use of their campuses in an increasingly hybrid in person-virtual world. In the commercial sector, some clients accelerated design and construction through the summer, but that is no more given “ongoing angst in commercial markets.” There has been a jump in civic or public projects in China, but in the U.S., “municipal budgets are now stretched thin” without additional fiscal stimulus.
Sasaki is now planning for a “decline projected by the end of the year.” To prepare for this, they are cutting travel and marketing expenses in order to keep cash and profits up.
SWA Group, a multidisciplinary firm that focuses on landscape architecture, planning, and urban design, has also benefited from being diversified. René Bihan, FASLA, managing principal in the firm’s San Francisco office, said SWA Group, which has some 250 employees and is 100-percent employee owned, is organized more like a starfish than a spider.
“If you cut off a spider’s head, it’s game over.” In the same way, in a spider-like organization, there is a “pyramidical hierarchy that suffers when leadership goes down.” In contrast, a starfish has multiple legs that can continue to live and regenerate on their own. An organization organized like a starfish doesn’t have a head. In the case of SWA Group, each of its eight studios spread around the world act somewhat independently and have their own cultures.
For example, their San Francisco office is mostly focused on policy and large-scale sites and has some technical experts. Other offices are known more for project design and construction. With their flexible structure, the firm can move staff and resources from one studio to another as markets grow or shrink.
SWA Group also purposefully keeps a diverse client portfolio. “Right now, 52 percent of our work is international,” with the bulk of those projects in China, Mexico, and the Middle East. Another 20 percent is public projects.
In adapting to the new normal, SWA has altered how it seeks out new business. “We do very few cold calls or RFPs. Instead, about 80 percent of business comes from repeat clients,” Bihan explained. “There is a familiarity. We continually check in with them, find out what they are up to, and look for ways to help them.”
Social media, books and blog posts, public engagement, and word of mouth are other “huge ways to get business,” he said. SWA has even leveraged pro-bono work, including parklets and neighborhood volunteer projects, to find new clients. “These projects can be launch pads.”
MNLA, a landscape architecture, planning, and urban design firm based in New York City, has a staff of 32 and is mostly focused on projects in the public realm. According to Molly Bourne, ASLA, a principal at the firm, MNLA has been investing in a more resilient structure for the past few years. With improvements in IT infrastructure, they were able to transition to all staff working from home relatively easily. “We are so thankful we invested in this transition.” It also helped a great deal that the office went paperless a few years ago, moving to all digital record keeping.
The firm purposefully maintains a balance between public and private projects. “We never go past a certain margin,” Bourne said. “With a diversity of revenues, we never put our eggs in one basket.”
The firm takes on a mix of conventional federal, state, and local government projects, along with projects that result from federal stimulus funds. The firm is also pre-approved for New York City and state “on-call” projects that can be “small and undefined, but can serve as survival work.”
At the same time, MNLA is being as transparent as possible about where things stand with staff, asking people to pitch in where needed. So far, “2020 is good and bad. We’re bobbing along, grappling with uncertainty, and remain very busy.”
Bourne said working during the first few months of the pandemic in NYC was particularly difficult. “It was an emotional time for staff. It was either very quiet or ambulance sirens.” MNLA continues to put staff well-being first. “Staff are our greatest asset.”
Conversation then turned to what the job market is like for landscape architecture students who just graduated or will be in coming months. This is one of the most challenging times to find an entry-level position, at least since ASLA has been keeping records. According to the latest survey, 65 percent of graduating students received no offer this year. Of those who received an offer, more than 40 percent saw the terms or location of their position change.
The speakers recommended job seekers leverage and grow their networks. Most jobs are found through contacts. “Folks mostly hire people they already know can provide value,” Grove said. “They want to hire from a known entity, or get a referral from a trusted source.”
Some more advice: stay flexible and be open to a range of possibilities. Be competitive; make yourself indispensable. Do informational interviews, which are low-pressure. Undertake contract work, which can turn into more permanent positions. Look beyond landscape architecture firms: the government, construction, facilities management — places where a landscape architecture education will be of benefit.
Paula Stone Williams lived the first 60 years of her life as a man and then transitioned to life as a transgendered woman. Having experienced multiple genders, Williams offered a unique perspective on gender roles and how to achieve equity in the workplace during a keynote speech at the 2020 GreenBuild virtual conference. The speech is part of the U.S. Green Building Council’s broader efforts to create a more inclusive community.
Williams knew she was transgender at age 3 or 4, but “no gender fairy arrived” to shepherd her through the process of becoming a transgendered woman. She built a career, raised children, but felt a sense of authenticity was missing.
When she finally came out as a transgender woman in her 60s, Williams was able to be herself, but in the process lost every job, including her role as CEO of a Christian organization. “In this country, you can be fired from a religious organization for being transgender,” she said. As a trained psychotherapist and pastoral counselor, Williams continues to work with clients.
When people ask her whether she feels “100 percent woman,” she responds, “I feel 100 percent like a transgender woman.”
Life as a transgendered “alpha woman” is very different from life as an “alpha male,” she explained. “Before I had a few pairs of shirts, a few pairs of pants, and a few suits. Now, I have a closet full of clothes. You can’t wear the same thing too often or other women will notice and judge you for it.”
She told men in the audience that “the culture is tipped in your favor, and you don’t even know it.” Women in particular have a hard time being seen as leaders. “If you speak too strongly, you are known as ‘that woman,’ which means not leadership material. It’s a knife edge.”
“Men also interrupt women twice as much as they do other men.” When she was a man, Williams said she was guilty of the same: “I was a bad interrupter.” To stop this, “men need to assume women know what they are talking about.”
“Men need to show deference to women. To be a genuine ally of gender equity, men need to be an accomplice or assistant, give power to another person, and work at their direction.”
Williams offered a slew of statistics to outline the challenges for women in the workplace. White women make on average 79 cents for every dollar a white man makes; Latina women, 59 cents; and African American women, just 54 cents. Only 5.8 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women, who also hold just 22 percent of senior vice presidents positions. 6.6 percent of Silicon Valley’s leaders are women, as are only 3 percent of the leaders in venture capital firms. Williams argued this helps explain why there are so few women-owned companies in Silicon Valley. Just 15 percent of partners in legal firms are women. Only 17 percent of Wikipedia entries are about women.
Despite the lack of opportunity, women can be more effective leaders, Williams believes, because they are inherently better at “compromise, collaboration, and correction,” which are key leadership traits. “Women are more willing to compromise and have less of their ego at stake. They can find a workable solution. Women collaborate as equals. They are also better at correcting themselves, instead of doubling down like men.”
But Williams identified a few ways both women and men work against gender equity in the workplace. “Women don’t empower each other enough and often only see each other as competitors. In six years as a woman, I have had more struggles with other women than I had as 60 years as a man.” Williams said her five young granddaughters are “already in deep competition with each other.”
To achieve greater gender equality, women need to better support each other, say “I’ve got this” to men more often, and stop apologizing for themselves and their talents. In turn, men need to offer more deference to women and listen better. What is critically important is to “truly listen.”
According to Williams, sustainable design professionals working in the built environment may be further ahead than others in this regard. “You already defer to the planet and the climate and listen to the Earth, which sets you apart.”
“Women are more closely connected to the Earth. For all of us, better connecting to the Earth and its cycles is how we will achieve true gender equity in the world and equity with the planet.”
Climate change-driven migrations will occur more frequently. That was the message in a first-of-its kind session at reVISION ASLA 2020. Haley Blakeman, FASLA, a professor at Louisiana State University, said landscape architects can facilitate more successful migrations by acting as a conduit between scientists, planners, and the communities forced to migrate.
Blakeman explained her team’s efforts in helping to move the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribal community of Isle de Jean Charles, a small and increasingly submerged island in Terrebonne Parish, along the coast of Louisiana. The island has lost 98 percent of its landmass over the past 60 years.
“[Climate migration] is going to be happening in more and more places,” Blakeman said. Sea level rise is Isle de Jean Charles’ particular affliction. Elsewhere, drought, wildfires, and food insecurity will force movement.
Can landscape architects help lead these migration efforts? “Yes,” Blakeman said, but only by accepting their limitations and collaborating with migrating communities and a collective of multidisciplinary planning and design professionals.
In Blakeman’s case, this collective included geographer and resilience policy analyst Jessica Simms and sociologist Pamela Jenkins. Their expertise and knowledge of the Isle de Jean Charles community helped build a trusting relationship that has served the project well.
“It’s tricky business moving people from their home to another place,” Jenkins told attendees. “It is not an infrastructure project with a social component, but the other way around.”
Isle de Jean Charles is representative of many low-lying areas in Louisiana. The state thrives commercially on its proximity to the water. But between the oil and gas industry choking coastal wetlands and the incursion of the sea, Louisiana has lost over 1,900 square miles of coastal land in the last 90 years. Isle de Jean Charles has outpaced that trend, putting pressure on the islanders to secure their community’s future elsewhere.
The tribe worked with the State of Louisiana to secure federal funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the move. The project is the United States’ first community-scale climate change-driven resettlement. 38 of 42 households on Isle de Jean Charles are participating, and 34 of those are moving together to a 500-acre site called “The New Isle,” according to Simms.
Simms and her team vetted about 20 potential locations in Terrebonne for re-establishing the islanders, only examining sites that were safely above sea level. 20 sites were narrowed to three, with five configurations. Site preference surveys made rounds in the community as members visited the sites.
Eventually, the community settled on a site favored by approximately 80 percent of its members, an hour’s drive from Isle de Jean Charles. Blakeman, Jenkins, and Simms liaised between the islanders and design team in order to tailor The New Isle to the community’s needs.
While this suggests a tidy process, Simms reminded the audience that forced migration is inherently traumatic. “Their identities are wrapped up in the island that is going away,” Simms said.
Most tribal members were born and raised on the island and are well attuned to the place. In a departure from previous policies, which barred those migrating from retaining ownership of their existing land, the islanders were allowed to maintain ownership and access to their land and homes, though not allowed to live there. This policy change was critical to achieving community buy-in.
This buy-in is critical to the success of any forced migration effort, Jenkins explained. She quoted a figure from Anthony Oliver-Smith, an academic in the field of disasters and their social impacts, saying 90 percent of such migrations fail. Existing social fault lines, poor communications between the community and the professionals involved, and a lack of available funds often doom climate migrations.
And while the Isle de Jean Charles migration is heading towards success, all of the speakers emphasized that it does not represent a model. There are lessons to be learned from the effort, but each future migration undertaking must be community- and context-specific.
Construction on the homes of The New Isle began in May and will finish in 2021, according to Simms. The new community will sit 12 feet above sea level.
Congressman Earl Blumenauer, who represents the 3rd district of Oregon, helped kick-off reVISION ASLA 2020. In an interview with new ASLA CEO Torey Carter-Conneen, Rep. Blumenauer said the incoming administration led by President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will have respect for the 100,000-plus landscape architects, architects, and urban planners in the U.S. who do the hard work of “pulling the pieces together and solving problems instead of creating new ones.”
Rep. Blumenauer, who is a fierce advocate for sustainable, cyclist- and pedestrian-friendly communities, believes that with the new administration, there is a “real opportunity for design professionals to harness their creative powers.”
Carter-Conneen noted that Republicans in part ran on a platform opposing the Green New Deal, a set of proposals articulated by liberal Democrats to dramatically increase public investment to address climate change and inequality.
In a debate with President Trump, President-elect Biden distanced himself from the Green New Deal, instead calling for the Biden plan, which includes a commitment to achieving 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 and providing billions towards fighting environmental injustice and creating new green jobs.
Rep. Blumenauer, one of the forces behind the Green New Deal, noted that the framework is “aspirational, not about specifics.”
“In reality, the Green New Deal is about creating more choices for Americans” by improving access to renewable energy, instead of just fossil fuels, and designing and building federal infrastructure projects that “enhance the environment,” he said.
“I’m not worried about the rhetoric around the Green New Deal. We need to realize its vision by maximizing resources and embracing resilience to climate change.” The Biden plan for addressing climate change is also about “actively rebuilding America and creating a low-carbon future.”
When asked how landscape architects can better get involved in both policy and politics, Rep. Blumenauer said landscape architects already enjoy widespread public support. “You all are most effective at engaging the public and capturing people’s attention through creative design.”
“Landscape architects bridge concept and reality and solve problems people care about.”
Rep. Blumenauer applauded the role of landscape architects in promoting natural solutions to urban problems. Speaking directly to the online audience of more than a thousand, he said: “with urban landscape design, you can use soft green infrastructure to create more value. You shouldn’t be bashful about the value you bring.”
To expand their impact, he called for landscape architects to work collectively with architects and urban planners. Together, design professionals can be “very powerful.” Too often, “you understate your political power.”
“We need to take a hard look at the racial injustice that has poisoned American society. This is an issue for all professions — it’s not unique to landscape architecture,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, the new CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), during the first general session of reVISION ASLA 2020.
“Racism has played a role in countless development and design decisions, environmental injustice, and disinvestment in many communities.” To start on a new path, ASLA, as a professional society, and landscape architecture firms need to have an “essential dialogue that can help us all move forward,” Carter-Conneen said.
Carter-Conneen brought more than a thousand virtual attendees through a wide-ranging discussion with Majora Carter, an urban revitalization strategist who led the creation of Hunts Point Riverside Park, the first new park in the South Bronx in 60 years; and landscape designer and artist Walter Hood, ASLA, who is designing the landscape of the International African American Museum (IAAM) in Charleston, South Carolina, and co-editor of the new book Black Landscapes Matter.
Instead of focusing on diversity, Hood argued the best way to move forward is to celebrate our differences, which can be “empowering.” As part of this, we need to “create broader definitions of landscapes” and move past “colonial landscapes in which everything is the same.” He stated that “everything is not the same — that is the fiction of the colonial landscape.”
Underserved communities of color can also move past tired conversations around gentrification and development. Instead of seeing all new community-driven development as bad, it’s important to understand the nuances rooted in history.
“The communities that are now being gentrified were once redlined and created out of inequality. These places have largely stayed the same, because they were once where they stuck Black folks and all the crap, devaluing these neighborhoods.”
Prior to being devalued and redlined, these communities were actually “historically very diverse, with a mix of working class people.” So, for Hood, the solution is not to further maintain the “ghetto,” but to “reshape it, dismantling segregation through amazing artistry and advocacy.” Planning and designing neighborhoods that restore historic diversity will lead to places “where people can live together.”
But Hood also noted that after some neighborhoods integrated in the 1960s, “many white people fled to the suburbs.” It’s unclear what the future will bring: “To live together or not — this is the big conundrum of the 21st century.”
Carter has called for historically “low-status” communities like the South Bronx to “self-gentrify.” This is driven by her desire to retain talent in these communities. “You don’t have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one. In the past, it has been about growing up and getting out. But there is already lots of value in these communities.”
In fact, predatory real estate speculators have long seen the value, which is why perhaps so many historically marginalized and underserved communities fear development. Self-gentrification is different though: it’s about communities seeing the value and making improvements for themselves, reaping the rewards in the process.
Carter said she has recently stopped using the term self-gentrification because it is “too triggering for some.” While some people “get it right away,” others may see nefarious motives. “But I stand by the concept. The idea that there is no value in these communities is untrue. I want to mess with that idea.”
Hood largely concurred, arguing that he has purposefully kept his studio in West Oakland, a predominantly Black community, because “I’ve been here 25 years. This is my place, people here look like me, and it’s key to establishing self.” Plus, he added that “I can’t trust my future to someone else.” The future of West Oakland needs to be protected by the people who have deep roots there. They can beautify and improve it best.
2020 is the year of the pandemic. And in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by the police, it’s also the year of reckoning about racial injustice. When asked what the turmoil of this year means for low-status communities in the future, Carter said “I am hopeful and pray that the changes will turn into something real.”
She believes there is a great opportunity to help revitalize “low-status communities, including inner-city communities, poor white communities that have seen the loss of manufacturing, and indigenous reservations.” This can be realized through renewed investment in green infrastructure, which creates good-paying green jobs.
Hood argued that with the pandemic, “more people now see the value of the working class. We even came up new terms for them” — essential workers or first-line defenders.
Hood’s new book Black Landscapes Matter, co-edited with Grace Mitchell Tada, offers a way to further understand how landscapes have shaped race relations in the U.S. The book came out of a series of lectures Hood organized after a series of police killings of Black people in 2016. For him, the killing of Michael Brown was particularly impactful.
“The landscape where he was killed was familiar, outside a liquor store. I know that store, that street.” After Brown was gunned down, he was left in the middle of the road for hours.
Places enable or disable these kinds of behaviors. “Certain back drops make you afraid that someone could kill you there. These places look a certain way and give people the right.” Hood pointed to George Floyd and the check cashing store he went into. “These places have signs and symbols.”
One way to change the deadly narrative of these places for people of color is to change the narrative of the landscapes. As an example, he pointed to his project — 7th Street Dancing Lights in Oakland— that created towering 8-foot-tall images of African Americans over a road. “When people see the images, they wonder, ‘what is that?’ They may see the place differently” — and then interact with the people there more respectfully.
This is why for Hood it’s so important to undo the homogenizing impact of colonial landscapes, which make all places seem the same, even though they aren’t. “Through post-colonial landscapes, we can articulate different origin stories — and futures. We can make change by changing the narrative.”
Carter said: “that is so brilliant. We can create agency by creating places that speak to us. This kind of work opens up all sorts of new possibilities, and it doesn’t take anything away from anyone else.”
Black Landscapes Matter: Q&A with Landscape Designer Walter Hood — 11/02/20, Metropolis Magazine
“The forthcoming collection, co-edited by landscape designer Walter Hood, examines a past, present, and future of the Black American experience as spatially archived in cities such as New Orleans, Detroit, Oakland, California, and Charleston, South Carolina.”
“When there is a convergence of crises, like we have now, there needs to be a convergence of solutions,” argued Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), at the 2020 GreenBuild conference. These solutions need to be net-zero in terms of energy and greenhouse gas emissions, regenerative, and reconnect humanity to nature. And while progress towards these solutions is now “irreversible,” we need to move much faster towards a net-zero world.
Since stepping down from the UNFCCC, where she orchestrated the Paris Climate Accord, Figueres founded the Global Optimism group and wrote the book The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis. With decades of experience fighting in the trenches of UN bureaucracies for climate action, Figueres shared her vision for the future, which is rooted in her “stubborn optimism.”
The history of the planet is the “result of an evolving relationship between nature and humans,” she explained. For 99.99 percent of that relationship over the millennia, “nature had the upper hand, and this was to our benefit.”
Up until the 1960s, humans experienced the Holocene Epoch, which provided Goldilocks-like conditions on Earth, creating a “sweet spot” in terms of temperatures, biodiversity, and precipitation. “This era enabled us to prosper, progress, and multiply.”
But in mid 1960s, the Holocene came to an abrupt halt because of rising greenhouse gas emissions resulting from decades of industrialization. “Then, the relationship between nature and humans was suddenly inverted, and humans took the upper hand, creating the Anthropocene Epoch.”
“I am 60 years old, so I was actually born in the previous era. I’ve lived through two geological eras, and I have to say the Anthropocene is already a sad history.”
In just six decades, humans have actually changed the biophysical processes of the planet. “Atmospheric gases released by our activities have created a warming planet, which has increased cyclones, hurricanes, wildfires, flooding, and sea level rise. Air pollution now leads to the premature death of 7 million people annually.” We have destroyed half of the world’s original forests. As we move into areas that were once the sole province of nature, we are increasingly exposing ourselves to viruses like COVID-19. And soon, “our oceans will have more plastic in them then fish. It’s becoming a dystopian world.”
But this is where her stubborn optimism came in. Figueres doesn’t believe we are condemned to a future of more destruction. “Because we now have the upper hand over nature, this dystopia is not preordained. We can collectively change the course.” That new course is found through adopting “clean energy, designing buildings that produce their own energy, and regenerating our soils and oceans.”
The path of decarbonizing our economies and societies is already laid out. The issue is that according to the UNFCCC, we have about a decade left to orchestrate this major transition in how humans power themselves. “2030 is the eye of the needle. We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030, and then 100 percent by 2050.”
There are reasons to hope we can make it. In the energy sector, renewable sources, like hydro, solar, and wind power are already the source of more than 25 percent of global electricity and are heading towards 30-plus percent this year. In a greater number of energy markets, renewables are also the cheapest energy source, beating out coal, oil, and natural gas. In the transportation sector, electric vehicles are growing due to government mandates. “Every major car manufacturer now offers a range of EV models.”
New European Union pandemic recovery funds are directed towards a green recovery. China has just stated it will reach peak emissions by 2060, a major commitment. The majority of G-7 countries are now “headed in the right direction.”
More than 1,400 major corporations worldwide are already moving to “diversify away from climate risks,” Figueres explained. Another 1,200 companies, with some $14 trillion in capital investments, are divesting from sectors with high climate risk, like fossil fuels. The 30 largest institutional investors, which have some $5 trillion in assets, “now understand climate risk and are not willing to strand assets.” 18 country’s central banks now do climate change stress tests.
Amazon, the global e-commerce giant, just released its pledge to become net-zero in terms of its emissions by 2040. Apple, Nike, Starbucks have moved up their net-zero goals to 2030.
Figueres was very positive about these trends, because they “normalize corporate responsibility and create new expectations.” Plus, these companies are sending the message that “constraining carbon is good for innovation.”
But amid these developments, the future sustainability of the built environment looms large.
Figueres said planners and design professionals play a critical role, because they are the “architects of the future.” It will be design professionals that help us achieve the critical goals of all new buildings being net-zero in terms of energy use by 2030, and all buildings by 2050 — key goals required to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.
To make this more sustainable future happen, design professionals must “incorporate the human experience” and steer the world towards “more low-impact materials that have a high impact on human livability.”
Furthermore, 60 percent of the world’s infrastructure hasn’t been built yet. With the expected growth in population and new cities across the developed and developing worlds, there’s only one chance to get things right. Landscape architects, architects, planners will be responsible for determining “how we live on the planet” far into the future.
“We can create a new relationship between nature and society. We can claw back nature in cities, creating a more harmonious and regenerative relationship. We must regenerate nature in cities for humans to thrive.”
To achieve this new world, humanity will also need to shift its mindset. “We need to shift from thinking about ‘the other’ to thinking about ‘each other.’ We need to get away from thinking we have power over something or someone and move towards the idea that we have ‘power for’ someone or something. This will create the sense of collective agency.”
Humanity has become totally out of synch with the planet’s biophysical systems — for proof, just look to climate change, COVID-19, environmental degradation, ocean acidification, and the accelerated extinction of species. As we now begin to understand, the planet is a single organism, a complex, inter-connected system that can either be healthy and in balance — or not. Furthermore, our health and well-being are intrinsically connected to the health and well-being of natural systems.
In Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves, a new book edited by Drs. Howard Frumkin and Samuel Myers, we are given a roadmap for how to undo the damage to the Earth and live in a way that is more respectful of the planet’s limited capacity. The authors convince us to take this path not just for nature’s sake but also for our own future health and well-being.
Dr. Howard Frumkin is former Dean of Public Health at the University of Washington and former director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Samuel Myers is principal research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Together, they have put together a thought-provoking and rich 500-page overview of the emerging field of planetary health, which is increasingly used by UN organizations, governments, non-profits, and universities as a framework for understanding the relationship between human and environmental health.
Frumkin and Myers and their contributors build their case so methodically, with loads of persuasive data, that by the end of the book, it seems difficult to imagine a better framework for understanding Earth’s contemporary human-environmental dynamics. This book is a must-read for anyone passionate about creating better outcomes for more people, far into the future.
In their introduction, the editors explain how today is “the best of times and the worst of times.” On one hand, it has “never been a better time to be a human being.” In the past 65 years, the percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty fell from 63 percent to 10 percent, despite the population tripling in size. Child mortality rates are the lowest in recorded history.
But on the other hand, human activity is “driving biophysical change at rates that are much steeper than have existed in the history of our species.” 40 percent of the planet is now dedicated to agriculture, at the expense of natural systems. Habitat destruction and the anticipated extinction of up to a million species threatens the underlying biodiversity that maintains the resilience of natural systems.
Some may see promise in the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch created by humans, and imagine a future planet optimized by direct human control. But in reality, the poor human management of the planet’s biophysical systems to date means that more of the status quo will lead to civilizational collapse.
According to Frumkin and Myers, we have disrupted the climate system; polluted air, water, and soils; caused rapid biodiversity loss; reconfigured biogeochemical cycles; made pervasive changes in land use; and depleted fresh water and arable land. These changes all have significant health implications for billions of people. A new approach rooted in planetary health is needed.
The book first provides a background on the intellectual history of the concept of planetary health, which only began as a systems-scale field of research in the 1990s. As Dr. Warwick Anderson explains in his essay, the field made a big leap in 2010, when The Lancet, a major research journal, and the Rockefeller Foundation partnered with other public health groups to promote a “new health discipline — public health 2.0.” In 2015, with the release of the seminal Lancet – Rockefeller Foundation commission report Safeguarding Human Health in the Anthropocene Epoch, Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, deemed the new field of inquiry “planetary health,” which Anderson states, “rapidly gained currency.”
The book then lays out the scale and complexity of the problems and offer some positive models to addressing them:
A chapter by a team of esteemed researchers from organizations such as the Population Council, Population Reference Bureau, and Population Institute explore how the growth in human population and consumption are driving environmental change. They argue that “given the tight interconnectedness of the two drivers, it may be best to see them as coequal challenges.”
These contributors call for disincentivizing the excessive consumer consumption of the U.S. and western Europe, which would doom the planet if expanded to a global scale. They also point to the connected drivers that can further reduce population growth, including greater investment in the education of girls and women around the world, which helps to empower them to make their own decisions, and the expansion of access to contraceptives.
Their conclusion: a “multi-pronged strategy that integrates education, sound policies, and high-quality health services — all while guaranteeing the rights and respecting the dignity of all people — could dramatically accelerate the transition to truly sustainable levels of human population and consumption.”
A companion essay outlines the environmental impacts of the twinned growth in population and consumption. The authors argue: “We live on a different planet than the one our great-grandparents called home a century ago. It is a warmer planet, a more crowded planet, a planet with fewer species, a planet marked by widespread contamination and altered biogeochemical cycles.”
In this chapter, we learn about humans’ many impacts on the environment — ranging from the climate to the nitrogen cycle in agriculture, from land use and cover to water scarcity, biodiversity loss, and pollution.
Through a series of essays, Planetary Health delves into how those specific environmental changes — all driven by human behavior — are in turn jeopardizing human health and well-being by increasing risks in the area of nutrition, infectious diseases, non-communicable diseases, population displacement and conflict, and mental health.
In the section on nutrition, Myers explains how rising temperatures and carbon dioxide levels increase risks in the agricultural sector, impacting everything from the amount of time farm workers can stay in the heat to the nutritional yield of important mainstay plants. He also flags the lack of genetic diversity of the few plant species we rely on and the need to greater protect plant diversity.
A chapter on infectious diseases by Richard Ostfeld, with the Cary Institute of Ecological Studies, and Felicia Keesing, a biologist at Bard College, explains the growing risks of various infectious diseases. They write: “key environmental drivers, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, land use change, pollution, and alteration of biogeochemical cycles cause changes in the abundance, distribution, physiology, and behavior of important species involved in the transmission of both zoonotic and nonzoonotic pathogens to humans.” They analyze the relationships between land use, biodiversity, and diseases like malaria, lyme disease, and schistosomiasis, among others.
Non-communicable diseases, which include cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes, and other conditions, account for 70 percent of global deaths each year. In this chapter, Frumkin and Andy Haines, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Diseases, lay out the data on how climate change, urbanization, and air pollution increase non-communicable disease risk. Of particular interest for landscape architects and planners is a section on the dangers of automobile-dependent communities.
A team of researchers then connect the dots between environmental change, migration, conflict, and heath impacts, explaining how the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, is now understood as the first “modern climate change conflict,” and how we can expect more to come.
One of their arguments for investing in climate solutions is worth re-stating: “Adaptation to global environmental change is part of preventing migration. Adaptation can reduce vulnerability to both sudden shocks and long-term trends. Examples include switching farming practices to drought-tolerant crops and soil-conserving techniques, not building in floodplains, constructing levees and sea walls, restoring coastal barrier systems (mangroves, vegetated dunes, coral reefs, wetlands), and altering building codes to put key utilities on roof instead of in basements.”
Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster, provides a much-needed overview of the expected mental health impacts of climate and environmental change. She collects many useful studies in one place, providing a valuable reference.
One worrying conclusion: “Higher temperatures can provoke increased aggression. This manifests in many ways: from pitchers beaning batters during baseball games and drivers aggressively honking their horns, all the way to violent crime, particularly when combined with frustration over limited access to resources, such as fresh water or arable land.” One of her key solutions is expanding access to nature, particularly in cities. “Reconnecting with nature…offers a range of direct and indirect mental health benefits.”
Planetary Health then turns to building the case for systemic changes in our societies and economies, including a shift away from using gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of growth and instead using gross national happiness and other metrics that better account for human health, well-being, and environmental health. Central arguments include: “happiness and human health are intertwined; natural environments make people happy; and happiness production is not resource-intensive.” In other words, more experiences in nature create happiness, not the latest purchases.
After wading through the problems, we then get to the solutions — healthier models for various sectors: energy, chemicals, cities, economic development, and private sector growth. The chapter on urban places and planetary health is particularly worth reading as it makes the health argument for “integrated green urbanism,” transit-oriented development, bicycle infrastructure, and urban food systems. Iryna Dronova, a professor of landscape architecture at UC Berkeley, contributes to this discussion. The chapter on chemicals outlines how to reduce the risk of endocrine disruptors and create new green chemicals.
This significant new book also proposes how to create a set of planetary health ethics that can guide current and future action — a mutual promise to do no further harm in our era of climate and environmental change. Here, the contributors call for a “social movement, a scientific framework, an attitude towards life, and a philosophy of living that fosters resilience and adaptation.”
The core message: If we truly commit to maximizing human and environmental health in all communities, and undertaking all that entails, we will get on a pathway to saving the planet.
Monday, November 16, 1:00 pm – 6:00 pm EST
Tuesday, November 17, 1:00 pm – 6:00 pm EST
Wednesday, November 18, 1:00 pm – 6:00 pm EST
reVISION is big ideas
Landscape architects can maximize their capacity to realistically mitigate climate change. Explore the design track with speakers including Pamela Conrad, ASLA, LEED AP.
reVISION is important issues
Wildfire vulnerability in Australia and western states in the U.S. are causing us to focus more on resilience in these communities. Explore the climate change track with speakers including Greg Kochanowski, ASLA, AIA.
reVISION is hands-on information
Learn best practices from the experts all while discovering the newest products and techniques in the industry. Explore Design Day with speakers like Gina Ford, FASLA.
reVISION is GREAT VALUE.
Save up to 75% from the in-person event.
For ASLA members (full, associate, affiliate, corporate), registration is $199. For non-members, the rate is $299. ASLA student members can register for just $25. And emeritus ASLA members can register for $75.
Join prominent educators and practitioners as they share their experiences teaching and coordinating studios as part of the Green New Deal Superstudio, a national conversation on how the framework of the Green New Deal’s key tenets of jobs, justice, and decarbonization can be translated from policy into actual projects with regional and local specificity.