Landscape Architects Can Help the World Achieve New Sustainable Development Goals

VPUU-project, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa, 2012 /
VPUU-project, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa, 2012 /

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were created through an open, global process over the past two years, will be adopted by United Nations member states later this week. The 17 goals, with their 169 targets, will guide nations towards a more sustainable pattern of development that favors diverse life on Earth. Global transformation on multiple levels is the end goal.

Establishing a transformational agenda for 2015 to 2030, the SDGs begin with a compelling vision statement:

“We envisage a world in which every country enjoys sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth and decent work for all. A world in which consumption and production patterns and use of all natural resources – from air to land, from rivers, lakes and aquifers to oceans and seas – are sustainable. One in which democracy, good governance and the rule of law as well as an enabling environment at national and international levels, are essential for sustainable development, including sustained and inclusive economic growth, social development, environmental protection and the eradication of poverty and hunger. One in which development and the application of technology are climate-sensitive, respect biodiversity and are resilient. One in which humanity lives in harmony with nature and in which wildlife and other living species are protected.”

It’s impressive that the world’s 200-plus nations, through a UN process fostering peace and mutual respect, can articulate a global agenda for working together. As the document explains, “never before have world leaders pledged common action and endeavor across such a broad and universal policy agenda.”

Learning more about the SDGs is worth the time of landscape architects. We can help the world make progress in solving the inter-connected problems we collectively face.

Let’s back up a minute and recall that sustainability was defined in 1987 as achieving a long-term balance between three equal pillars — economy, society, and the environment. The publication of Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report, coined the term “sustainable development” and popularized these pillars. To be sustainable today, a consideration of these three pillars is central. (In my own landscape preservation work, I favor a model that also integrates culture, which permeates all the facets of sustainability and plays a role in whether we can achieve inclusivity, equity, and justice). Then, in 2000, world leaders agreed to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which laid out 8 goals for the world to pursue from 2000 to 2015. And then, at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2012, all countries agreed to create a new set of sustainable development goals to pick up where the MDGs left off.

A landscape architect looking at how to work towards the new SDGs might focus on goal 13, which deals with climate action, goal 14, which focuses on life below water, and goal 15, which looks at life on land, but looking deeper at all the goals and their specific targets helps us to understand how we can contribute as individuals and collectively to the many other important goals and targets as well.

Landscape architects can contribute to reaching goal 2 — which seeks to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” — by working with agricultural communities to increase the productivity of small farms and create better access to markets, as detailed in target 2.3. Landscape architects can also help communities create sustainable and resilient agricultural practices, maintain ecosystems, and strengthen the capacity to respond to climate change, as detailed in target 2.4.

In goal 3, which calls on governments to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages,” we find target 3.6, which aims to “halve the number of global deaths and injuries for road traffic accidents.” Landscape architects are already working on designing better intersections, green complete streets, and multi-modal corridors that contribution to achieving this important target.

ASLA and each of us its members can contribute to goal 4 — which calls on nations to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” — by teaching everyone about sustainable development and how to become global citizens who act from that awareness and commitment in their daily lives.

Goal 6, which calls on nations to “ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all,” is perhaps the most direction contribution to the goals made by landscape architects. We can help reach global goals on water quality, including protecting water resources, counteracting pollution, and restoring water-related ecosystems, which are included in targets 6.3, 6.5, and 6.6.

ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Slow Down: Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park, Turenscape / Kongjian Yu
ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Slow Down: Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park, Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

What about goal 7, which calls on nations to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all?” Target 7.2 asks that countries, “by 2030, increase substantially the share of renewable energy in the global mix.” I have had the opportunity to site two solar arrays. Other landscape architects can then certainly become engaged in growing the share of renewable energy.

Shelburne Farms, Shelburne, Vermont, a 1,400-acre National Historic Landmark, installs solar array / Patricia O’Donnell

Or perhaps consider the important target 8.4 that seeks to “improve progressively, through 2030, global resource efficiency in consumption and production and endeavor to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation, in accordance with the 10-year framework of programs on sustainable consumption and production, with developed countries taking the lead.” This decoupling process will result in better quality landscapes that provide ecosystem services.

Addressing goal 11 — “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” — is well within the realm of landscape architecture. And many of us are already helping to achieve target 11.7, which seeks to provide universal access that is safe and inclusive, to public green spaces. Landscape architects can play a role in achieving target 11.2, which seeks to create more sustainable urban transportation systems, and target 11.7.a, which aims to “support  positive  economic,  social  and  environmental  links  between  urban,  peri-urban  and  rural  areas  by strengthening national and regional development planning.” Cities, which are expected to contain 75 percent of the world’s people by 2030, are fertile ground for the skills of landscape architects working collaboratively with other planning and design professionals.

ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Honor Award. Lafayette Greens: Urban Agriculture, Urban Fabric, Urban Sustainability, Detroit, Michigan, Kenneth Weikal Landscape Architecture / Beth Hagenbuch
ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Honor Award. Lafayette Greens: Urban Agriculture, Urban Fabric, Urban Sustainability, Detroit, Michigan, Kenneth Weikal Landscape Architecture / Beth Hagenbuch

The last goal — goal 17, which calls for nations to “strengthen  the  means  of  implementation  and  revitalize  the  global  partnership  for  sustainable development”– is a fitting capstone to this ambitious effort. Cooperation is needed to build momentum and create measurable change toward a thriving Earth, with all its diverse life forms and resources.

The overarching goal is to halt and then reverse the degradation of the Earth. I urge you to learn about these goals and apply your skills as a landscape architect toward achieving these goals from now through 2030. Registering SDG initiatives is one way to join this pivotal movement toward a sustainable planet.

This guest post is by Patricia M. O’Donnell, FASLA, AICP, principal of Heritage Landscapes LLC, preservation landscape architects and planners. She is committed to sustainable living and using heritage as a platform for a vibrant today and tomorrow in her work and volunteer activities. 

One thought on “Landscape Architects Can Help the World Achieve New Sustainable Development Goals

  1. Aris W. Stalis 10/05/2015 / 1:57 pm

    Having participated in the Seventh Session of the United Nation’s Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD-7) in 1998, I strive to remain abreast of how the world will work towards a more sustainable future. As Patricia mentioned, culture was one of the key elements discussed at this session. As landscape architects, it is critical for us to focus on the local culture, and be sure that we not only celebrate it in our designs, but let it guide our work. Lost cultures become exactly that – LOST.

    A second focus must remain on water quality. While drinking water is a scarce resource, we cannot forget our focus on the oceans. Control of storm runoff is critical for ocean ecosystems and for the lives that depend on this resource. In my opinion, we have not gained ground here, and continue to see the oceans degraded. The vast expanse is just not that – oceans are finite, and their protection and restoration should be a top priority for all. As nations expand to areas such as the Arctic, we have to realize that changes in the northern hemisphere will impact the rest of the world.

    The world is quite small, and it behooves landscape architects to work as they truly should – acting as diplomats for the earth’s ecology. This will lead to peace, and protection not only for the environment, but for those that are oppressed.

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