Designing a Green New Deal

Environmentally beneficial transmission line easement / LOLA Landscape Architects, .FABRIC and STUDIO 1:1

Close to 1,400 attendees and several thousand online viewers watched the day-long Designing a Green New Deal conference hosted by the University of Pennsylvania, which brought together for the first time the policy experts and activists driving the Green New Deal (GND) with landscape architects, architects, and planners.

“It is really important to think about what it would mean to build out a GND,” said event co-host Billy Fleming, ASLA, Wilks Family Director of the Ian L. McHarg Center. “The policy experts didn’t have anybody that could help them think through what it would look like and how it would work.” Fleming hoped the event would spark a conversation between policy experts and designers about what kind of built work might arise from and hasten a GND, and how those projects could address both climate and social issues.

Some of the most inspiring ideas came during the event’s first session “Beyond Hagiography – Mining the New Deal Legacy.” Nick Pevzner, ASLA, senior lecturer of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, presented speculative and built projects that put energy infrastructure to creative use and deploy renewable power in sensitive ways (see image at top).

“The GND implies a rapid expansion of renewable energy infrastructure,” Pevzner said. How and where this infrastructure might be situated in the landscape, and what co-benefits it may provide, are issues that landscape architects should be considering.

As Pevzner pointed out, conflicts are already arising between renewable energy infrastructure and existing land use. Landscape design and careful planning can help navigate those conflicts.

Landscape architect Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, who spoke at during the event’s “Bold Visions for a GND” panel, emphasized the ability of design workshops to spark policy. She asked attendees to think about ambitious projects that would transcend municipal and state boundaries, projects that would inspire “new, casual coalitions of self-interest,” and a stronger, greener federal mandate.

Among these ideas were a Mississippi River National Park, as well as a coastal “shore-way” featuring “equitable, managed retreat, investing in living shorelines, and stemming the collapse of coastal biodiversity.”

“We need to visualize and give form to this exciting, new, low-carbon landscape,” Orff said. But is a GND necessary to realize projects of such scope and ambition? Yes, Orff told me. “This kind of change requires federal, state, and local cooperation in ways that are currently elusive.”

Fleming agreed, saying “it’s impossible to imagine a world in which we’re able to take on challenges like climate change, climate justice, and social justice at the scale at which it is occurring without a GND. We’ve reached the limits of what we can do through the project-by-project, private firm-driven development of the world.”

One of the event speakers, Leah Stokes, assistant professor of political science at University of California at Santa Barbara, elaborated on the challenges of de-carbonizing the U.S. power sector with or without a legislative package as transformative as the one the GND implies.

“We’ve been living on borrowed time” in terms of our energy resources, Stokes said. The potential of hydro and nuclear power has for the moment been tapped. Wind and solar represent our best hope at de-carbonizing the power grid and transportation system. In order to do that, the U.S. will have to approximately triple its current capacity in the next 10-20 years, according to Stokes.

In other words, “we have to get really good at building stuff better and quickly,” Fleming said. Beyond projects that foster renewable energy or low-carbon modes of transportation, landscape architects have a role to play in ecological restoration, environmental justice, and social justice. Fleming pointed to the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative and the Emscher Landscape Park in Germany as projects that took on critical issues outside of energy, such a biodiversity and adaptive reuse of industrial land.

The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative / Y2Y.net
Emscher Landscape Park / Latz+Partners

Architect Peggy Deamer, representing The Architecture Lobby, laid out several principles that designers can hold themselves to that are in line with the GND’s principles. “We have a say in what we build,” Deamer told the audience. “We need to build projects that aren’t just objects of capitalist consumption.” She also emphasized that project stakeholders are not just the owners, developers, or users of a project, but the environmental and social community in which a project sits.

Several other speakers echoed this sentiment, including Orff and Rhiana Gunn-Wright, policy director for New Consensus, who advised the designers in the room to “meet people where they are” in order to listen and share how planning and design can benefit their communities.

Fleming said he expects the conversation between policy experts like Gunn-Wright and design experts to continue, with the McHarg Center facilitating dialogue between greater numbers of design firms and GND policy experts.

Watch the full day-long event:

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