A few decades ago, when you thought of Orange County in California, “you didn’t think of the citrus growing here, you thought of the color of the sky,” said Gina McCarthy, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), at the opening general session of the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego.
Air pollution grew worse and public pressure increased on government at all levels to solve the problem. Then, finally, in 1970, the Clean Air Act was passed, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed. Since then, “air pollution has been reduced by 75 percent, while we have tripled gross domestic product (GDP).” This led McCarthy to state: “So don’t tell me solving climate change is beyond our reach.”
The technological side of fixing the climate crisis — renewable energy, a clean power grid, electric vehicles — are easy to envision and within reach. “The clean energy train has left the station, and there’s no way it’s turning back.”
The harder problems to solve are the greenhouse gas emissions from the built environment, and the “loss of the sense of community.” The solution to both problems is to build communities that can be “the foundation for a more sustainable tomorrow.”
Sustainable communities create opportunities for children to get outside and play, which is why McCarthy was one of the first to create a No Child Left Inside program in Connecticut when she served as commissioner of environmental protection.
When McCarthy was commissioner, she remembered meeting school children in Hartford who lived a few miles from the Connecticut River, but had never seen it. “No one drove them there.” And “there was no green space to connect them to the river.”
“How can children love nature if they don’t see it? How can they become the next environmental stewards if they don’t care about nature?”
To achieve sustainable communities, green infrastructure must also be interwoven throughout the built environment. “By moving away from concrete pipes to green infrastructure, we can also make our cities finally look good again.”
McCarthy called for “transforming the built environment to integrate nature into everything.” For this, she said landscape architects play a crucial role, as they are experts on how to design with nature.
Landscape architectural solutions like urban forests and green roofs will reduce the impacts of extreme heat. “Heat stress will kill more people than all other climate impacts put together. Heat is a silent killer — it kills people in their homes and on the streets.”
McCarthy believes “climate change is the most significant public health, security, economic, and environmental challenge of our time.” And all progress made on the environment and climate change under the Obama administration is now under assault.
While some 92 percent of EPA regulations formulated under the Obama administration withstood legal and other challenges, “all our life-saving efforts to reduce air and water pollution and clean-up contaminated sites are under attack.”
The Trump administration also recently initiated the formal process to pull the United States out of the UN climate agreement forged in Paris in 2015. “We are now the only nation who has not signed on. And we are the second largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions.”
Still, she found hope in the fact that some 25 states and hundreds of cities have stated they are still abiding by the terms of America’s contribution to the agreement. Together, this coalition of states and cities represents 55 percent of the U.S. population. If this group were a separate country, it would the third largest economy on Earth.
Regardless of party, “Americans want a stable, clean environment in which they can live, work, and play. I’ve worked under six governors, five of which were Republicans, and not one said to me, ‘we really need more pollution.'”
And that is why the attacks on environmental regulations are particularly galling for her. “The EPA really isn’t an environmental agency; it’s a public health agency. The EPA is focused on fewer asthma attacks and heart attacks.”
Phasing out dirty power sources like coal in favor of clean, renewable energy means cleaner air. In the U.S. some 4,000 kids develop asthma each year. “If you have seen a child having an asthma attack, you never forget it.” And thousands die prematurely from bad air quality.
Climate change is also about people’s health, perhaps more than nature. “No one relates to glaciers. What they relate to is the health and well-being of their children and grandchildren. Health is the best way to get people to care about climate change. Communications must be personal, and health is incredibly personal. Focusing on health impacts will create action.”
She exhorted the crowd of landscape architects to fight the good fight: “Do not sit on the couch. Stop being angry and anxious. Taking action is what being adult is all about. And we must demand action. We can’t turn our backs on our children and grandchildren.”
“Stop following the latest dramas in Washington, D.C. The Beltway isn’t the real world. Have you ever heard of an innovative idea that was initiated at the Federal level?”
She urged landscape architects to “speak up, challenge the status quo, and make your families proud. Design the future; show people what it looks like; tell the story.”
“We need landscape architects to design a world that is healthy, safe, and beautiful — and more just. Landscape architecture can kindle hope in all of us.”