Landscape Architects: Now Is the Time for Climate Action

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Climate Positive Design / Pamela Conrad, ASLA, CMG Landscape Architecture

Earlier this month, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a bombshell report concluding that the world has as little as twelve years to act to stave off the worst impacts from a warming climate.

Despite the weight of that assessment, a panel on climate action and landscape architecture at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia gave reasons to be hopeful and presented new tools that may help landscape architects reduce their climate impact.

“The next few years are probably the most important in our history,” said Pamela Conrad, ASLA, a senior associate at CMG Landscape Architecture. “We believe our profession can be part of the solution, and that it’s time to work together.”

ASLA past-president Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, enumerated the many climate-focused initiatives ASLA has undertaken in recent years, including the ASLA Center Green Roof, the Chinatown Green Street, advocacy efforts, online resource guides, collaboration with federal agencies to develop resources and toolkits, and the recently convened Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience and its report: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate. 

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ASLA Chinatown Green Street / ASLA, Design Workshop

Rinner stressed the need for landscape architects to become more involved with discussions around public policy. “We all have to advocate–that’s the first step,” she said. “If we can’t change policies, so many things will just continue as is.”

Collen Mercer Clarke, chair of the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects (CSLA) committee on climate adaptation, gave an overview of CSLA’s efforts, which include the creation of a series of primers on climate adaptation and the promulgation of design standards that were written taking climate change into account.

Clarke urged the audience to think globally. “The world is waiting. I haven’t seen another profession that can provide the kind of leadership we can on this issue.”

Martha Schwartz, FASLA, CEO of Martha Schwartz Partners, highlighted recent work by the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) in the spirit of the organization’s 1966 Declaration of Concern. In 2016, fifty years after that initial declaration, the LAF convened to draft the New Landscape Declaration, which places climate change at the center of the profession’s focus for the 21st century.

“After centuries of mistakenly believing we could exploit nature without consequence, we have now entered an age of extreme climate change marked by rising seas, resource depletion, desertification, and unprecedented rates of species extinction,” the statement reads.

“The urgent challenge before us is to redesign our communities in the context of their bio-regional landscapes enabling them to adapt to climate change and mitigate its root causes.”

Earlier this month, LAF released a ten-point plan for landscape architects to act on this declaration. Action items include: designing with nature, setting measurable goals for climate-performance metrics, leading by example, developing interdisciplinary partnerships, serving in community organizations, and voting.

“We’ve got to be tougher and better at doing this,” Schwartz said. “It’s not enough to be a good designer, but an active designer, to take leadership in the era of climate change and stay relevant in an ever changing world.”

LAF is also supporting leadership on climate change through its fellowship program, which began in 2017 and provides funding for active professionals to pursue innovative research ideas. As an LAF Fellow, Pamela Conrad has developed a calculator that predicts the emissions and carbon sequestration potential

“A few years back, I assumed I could go online and download a tool that would tell me exactly what I wanted to know. But frankly, those tools really only exist for architects right now. Because we have the ability to sequester carbon, perhaps we need our own tools to measure these impacts.”

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Landscape Carbon Calculator / Pamela Conrad, CMG Landscape Architecture

Conrad’s tool, which is still in beta testing and has not yet been publicly released, measures sources of embodied emissions in landscape materials against the sequestration potential of vegetation on a site to calculate both the carbon footprint of a project and the amount of time it will take for sequestration to completely offset emissions. Past that point, the project will  sequester additional atmospheric carbon dioxide, a condition Conrad calls being “climate positive.”

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Climate Positive Design / Pamela Conrad, CMG Landscape Architecture

Using the calculator, Conrad has been able to estimate the carbon footprints of her recently completed projects and, by tweaking the input parameters, model strategies that could have reduced their climate impacts.

“We can plant more trees and woody shrubs; we can minimize paving, especially concrete; we can minimize lawn areas; we can use local or natural recycled materials.” With these strategies, Conrad estimates that she could have cut the time it will take for her projects to become carbon neutral in half.

“The design of those projects didn’t change at all, or the quality for that matter. But what a difference it could have made if we just had the resources to inform our design decisions.”

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Carbon Positive Design / CMG Landscape Architecture

Conrad argued that, through climate sensitive design, landscape architects could be responsible for the sequestration of as much as 0.24 gigatons of carbon over the next thirty years, enough to place landscape architecture in the list of 80 solutions to climate change studied in Paul Hawken’s Drawdown project.

And “if we were to include other work we do, like incorporating green roofs into projects or making cities more walkable and bikeable, that would put landscape architecture within the top 40 solutions.”

Conrad plans to release the calculator to the public next year and hopes that it will be used to set measurable goals for designing climate-friendly projects and create opportunities for accountability.

“How are we going to keep tabs on ourselves to make sure that we’re actually doing these things?” she asked her fellow panelists. “What would it take for us to have a 2030 challenge specific to landscape architecture?”

“ASLA or the LAF should do that — there’s no reason why we can’t!” said Schwartz.

“We all have to stand up for what this profession is founded on,” Schwartz said. “This is the foundation of who we are. This century is the golden age of landscape architecture. The world really needs you. It needs what you know and what you believe in. Now is the time.”

One thought on “Landscape Architects: Now Is the Time for Climate Action

  1. milliontrees 10/31/2018 / 11:30 am

    Ah yes, another laudable goal with not much evidence that the good advice is being followed here in the San Francisco Bay Area, where all non-native trees are being eradicated. In those rare instances in which the deforested landscape is being replanted, the choices that are made by landscape architects are entirely inappropriate to the changed environment and the changed climate.

    Here are a couple of typical, pointless projects that are doomed by the realities of climate and environmental change. Millions of oak trees have died in California, yet there are major projects planting them where they won’t survive: https://milliontrees.me/2018/04/12/nativist-fantasies-about-oaks/. Redwoods have very demanding horticultural requirements for water and wind protection, yet they are being planted where they won’t survive and many are already dead: https://milliontrees.me/2018/04/01/nativist-fantasies-about-redwoods/

    If and when landscape architects throw off the yoke of nativism, they can become active participants in the struggle to address climate change.

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