The Case for Climate-Smart Landscapes

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate / ASLA

“Humans have collective agency. We are driven, on an evolutionary basis, to collaborate and cooperate — to work together. This is what makes us the most advanced species on the planet. This also means we can collaborate to create an equitable, ecologically-sound future,” said landscape architect Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, former ASLA president, in a session at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in San Francisco.

Rinner was chair of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience, which met in 2017 and included a mix of landscape architects, urban planners, academics, and local government and foundation representatives. The discussions resulted in Smart Policies for a Changing Climate, a report with a set of planning and design solutions and policy recommendations.

Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, CEO / Executive Vice President of ASLA, further explained the goal of the report: “Climate change is putting communities at risk. The standard development approach isn’t working. We instead need a new paradigm that incorporates natural systems in order to create healthy, climate-smart communities.”

The report outlines that new paradigm in five key areas: natural systems, community development, vulnerable communities, transportation, and agriculture. But, according to Rinner, what the report really describes is “one interactive system.”

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate is guided by a few concepts: “Collaborate, plan ecologically, maximize green, establish connections, seek multiple benefits, and secure multiple sources of funding.”

Maximizing the role of natural systems in the built environment is a particularly important concept. “When we ignore natural systems, you get the problems we have — drought, wild fires, flooding, etc”

Communities can scale up the incorporation of natural systems at the regional and urban levels. The Chesapeake Bay action plan is an example of an effective regional watershed plan because it crosses the political boundaries of six states and the District of Columbia to solve ecological problems.

Chesapeake Bay Watershed / NASA

At the urban level, coastal cities like Norfolk, Virginia, are moving towards becoming “‘sponge cities’ that not only absorb stormwater, but also enrich biohabitats with native vegetation.” In these communities, green infrastructure also acts as a “community development catalyst.”

Norfolk, which received a $120 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to improve its resilience to coastal flooding, has decided to invest heavily in green infrastructure to better manage flooding. The city created a model resilience strategy, resilience zoning code, and green infrastructure plan, as part of its 2030 comprehensive plan. Rinner, a former long-time resident of Norfolk, and participant in the city’s planning processes, said “collaborating through partnerships” was key to making that effort succeed.

Green infrastructure plan for Norfolk, VA / City of Norfolk

Ying-Yu Hung, FASLA, SWA Group managing partner in Los Angeles and a member of the blue ribbon panel, showed a few projects by her firm to further illustrate how resilient landscape projects can create multiple benefits.

The one-mile-long, 45-feet-wide Ricardo Lara Linear Park was created along the embankment of Highway 105, which bisects the mostly-Latino community of Lynwood, California. Hung said Lynwood is vastly underserved in terms of public green space. The community has just 0.5 acres acres of park per 1,000 people, whereas the city of Los Angeles on average has one acre per 1,000 people, and Malibu, one of the wealthiest areas, has 56 acres per 1,000 people.

Working with the non-profit From Lot to Spot, SWA Group designed a green strip along the highway, where some 300 trees catch some of the dangerous air pollution from vehicles passing by and bioswales and bioretention basins capture polluted runoff pouring off the highway. Further away from the highway, there is a trail and separate bicycle path, leading residents to community arts, fitness, and educational spaces, as well as a dog park. Ricardo Lara Linear Park builds community resilience to climate change by reducing the urban heat island effect and improving the health and well-being of Lynwood residents. The park is so beloved community volunteer groups maintain it.

Ricardo Lara Linear Park / SWA Group

In an example of how natural systems boost community resilience, Hung then described the 1.2-mile-long linear park, the Buffalo Bayou Promenade, which runs under freeways that cut through downtown Houston, Texas. SWA widened the slopes around the bayou, significantly increasing the amount of water it can contain when it floods. Some 14,000 new trees were planted to reduce erosion, provide wildlife habitat, and create an appealing social space for the 44,000 households who live within 10 miles of the park.

ASLA 2009 Professional Design Award of Excellence. Buffalo Bayou Promenade, Houston, Texas. SWA Group / Tom Fox

The park was purposefully designed to withstand the onslaught of severe flooding. When Hurricane Harvey hit the city and the bayou rose by some 40 feet, the Buffalo Bayou Conservancy had to remove 60 million pounds of sediment and re-plant 400 trees, but the essential infrastructure survived. “We designed the park for the worst-scenario possible.”

Lastly, Armando Carbonell, senior fellow and chair of the department of planning and urban form at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, also a blue ribbon panel member, delved into the impact of climate change on low-income communities, as well as “the extremely difficult subject of relocation and retreat.” Climate change is deeply unfair in its impacts — it will have “disproportionate impact on low-income people who live in flood zones,” increasing the risk of their displacement.

According to Carbonell, in Latin America, city governments have been picking up and re-locating whole neighborhoods deemed at-risk to the far edges of cities. “The suspicion in these communities was the government had another agenda — they wanted to re-develop the land; and that’s true more often than not.”

In Staten Island, New York City, 23 people died when Hurricane Sandy hit the community of Oakwood Beach. A relocation effort there also generated suspicions about motives, despite the fact that Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) rules dictate that any vacated land would become a permanent easement. Community members wondered: “If we vacate our property, how will it be used? Will our land become condos for rich people? Who’s benefiting?”

In Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, relocation has been particularly wrenching. In the late 1800s, the Indian Removal Act forced a group of Native Americans to this narrow strip of land in Terrebonne Parish. Given this place is the end of the Trail of Tears for the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, “there is a level of resistance” to moving and abandoning their homeland and burial ground. “They’ve been pushed to the edge; they can’t be pushed further.”

Isle de Jean Charles / Isle de Jean Charles.com

Unfortunately, due to rising sea level and the destruction of ecosystems, which has caused land subsidence, this community has lost 98 percent of its 22,000 acres, leaving the remaining tribe members in “absolute vulnerability” on just 320 constantly-flooding acres. Dissatisfied with the terms of relocation set by the state government, 30 plus members of the tribe have refused to leave.

Carbonell said some two million people in coastal Louisiana are now at risk of relocation due to rising sea levels. In coastal Bangladesh, which is similar in size and scale, there are some 14 million facing the same end. “The challenge ahead is daunting.”

Learn more in the Lincoln Institute’s report: Buy-in for Buyouts: The Case for Managed Retreats from Flood Zones.

2 thoughts on “The Case for Climate-Smart Landscapes

  1. Mark L. Johnson 05/01/2019 / 10:12 am

    Climate changes. Science guesses. But it makes sense for landscape architects to look at history and make projects based on solid science. Isn’t this what we’re supposed to do? We can’t save everyone’s material locale, but we consult on good site planting and plant selections. That’s the basics of what we do.

  2. R Steve Miller 05/07/2019 / 6:43 pm

    Design With Nature by Ian McHarg. Ahead of his time.

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