Women Landscape Architects Take the Lead on Climate Action (Part 1)

Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project at the Tate, UK / Studio Olafur Eliasson

When thinking about climate change, many of us focus on the looming environmental impacts — sea level rise, more intense storms and floods, rising temperatures. And landscape architects are increasingly creating solutions to those “ecological, technical problems,” said Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, professor at the University of Virginia, during the kick-off of Courageous by Design, a day-long conference organized by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) in New York City, comprised entirely of women speakers.

But as landscape architects fix these ecological problems and increase landscape performance, Meyer advised the masked, in-person audience of hundreds not to forget that design also matters. “Landscape architects need to design for the immediate human experience as well as long-term community survival.” Design must support “psychological well-being” today in order to build social resilience for what is to come.

Landscape architects can design with the goal of eliciting “affective responses” to the climate crisis. For example, meaningful “landscape experiences could provoke a young activist to shift their consciousness.” Through landscape design, “we can create a culture of care and spark environmental investigation. By addressing spatial and social justice, we can create transformative socio-economic experiences in public spaces.”

Meyer argued that the latest dire warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) don’t spur on greater climate action in most people. Designers should instead look to Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s Weather series, which evoke “awe, dissonance, and wonder” (see image above). These kinds of immersive, powerful experiences can reduce the disconnect we all feel between reality and climate change. Sir Anthony Giddens’ book The Politics of Climate Change argues that “this disconnect is between what we know and what we do everyday.” Giddens speaks about the “invisibility of climate change” caused by “scalar and relational disconnects.”

Olafur Eliasson’s Icewatch, Paris / Studio Olafur Eliasson

One way to bridge the gap is to treat climate adaptation not just as a technological, ecological process but also as an emotional and social one. “Landscape form matters and can suggest scalar connections that affect mood, emotions, and feelings.” To address the social impacts of climate change, landscape architects can create “new collective experiences based in new spatial and material practices. Feelings also perform and are affective: Awe is a biological reaction and can cause us to care and cultivate compassion.”

Awe can be found in simple, everyday designed places. “Walks in my neighborhood where I experienced awe sustained me during the long pandemic.” Experiencing small moments of awe in designed nature, through experiencing a beautiful garden or bird, can spark “new thoughts about our multi-species co-dependence.” Meyer believes that this kind of “everyday exposure to awe” are also affective experiences.

Frederick Law Olmsted understood these ideas when he said: “A park is a work of art designed to produce certain effects in the minds of men.” Like Olmsted, landscape architects can not only design ecological solutions but also change sensibilities. New landscape design should address climate change, urban form, and social aesthetics together. “This is how we can insert landscape architects into the climate crisis.”

Central Park, NYC / Ed Yourdon, NYC, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

A subsequent series of talks by leading women landscape architects further wove together ideas about how to solve climate challenges and create those personal, immersive experiences that change attitudes and spur on awareness and action.

According to Martha Schwartz, FASLA, founder of Martha Schwartz Partners and a professor of practice at Harvard Graduate School of Design, “there is no place more vulnerable to climate change than New York City.” The city will be impacted by sea level rise, flooding, and rising temperatures, along with increased food insecurity. In the Northeast, which supplies a significant amount of food to NYC, climate change is already impacting agriculture. As things get worse, “we can imagine access to food will become harder as communities stop trading with each other.”

Compounding these risks is the poor state of NYC’s infrastructure, which will lead to “cascading failures.” The subway system is 90 years old, outdated, and dangerous. “It’s dirty, dingy, with leaking roofs, and the city can’t pay for upgrades.” The sewer mains are 80 years old, and overflows from combined sewer outfalls result in 27 billion gallons of sewage and stormwater to enter waterways each year. 50 percent of the city’s streets are now sub-standard.

Schwartz outlined a set of solutions to save NYC, rooted in a few guiding ideas: “the urban landscape needs to be treated as a necessity, not a commodity. The urban landscape is the largest piece of infrastructure.”

Given the importance of the urban landscape, landscape architects need to re-arrange the city to maximize its potential benefits in addressing climate change. “We need to create less dependence on centralized infrastructure. We need bold, more flexible smaller-scale, nature-based systems.” She called for all streets to be lined with actual forests, not just trees, to embed immersive nature experiences into the city.

Another key idea: Instead of further building up NYC as a mega-city, focus on neighborhoods. “Decentralize the infrastructure so it can work at a neighborhood scale.” Schwartz called for “re-spatializing” the city as a set of smaller 15-to-20 minute cities, which is the maximum amount of time pedestrians will walk. New transportation networks will be key to achieving this. NYC doesn’t have a choice but to abandon its “dangerous and unfeasible” subway system in favor of a new above-ground system.

And NYC and other vulnerable cities can be made more resilient by incorporating nature-based solutions that address both flooding and rising urban temperatures. “Copy from nature and create ecological urbanism. NYC can un-build itself through strategic erasures.” The city can install linear farms and forests in the rights-of-way. Using the Miyawaki forest model, New York City could plant dense, biodiverse forests that grow in 2-3 years in polluted areas. “We need real forests instead of street trees.”

Miyawaki forest model, Lahore, Pakistan / Global Village Space

Lisa Switkin, ASLA, senior principal at Field Operations in New York City, more directly engaged with Meyer’s thesis, arguing that too often beauty is pushed to the sidelines as less important in comparison with the scale of environmental and social problems facing communities.

She finds solace and inspiration in the Navaho worldview, Hózhó, which puts beauty at the “center of life and thought.” In Western societies, “beauty is a surface phenomenon,” but the Navaho believe that “beauty is about balance between land and water, place and belonging.” Switkin called for “expanding and redesigning beauty,” creating a new urban nature that conflates the city and wilderness, urbanism with ecology.

Balance and beauty in Navaho worldview: Hózhó, Navajo Beauty, Navajo Weaving, Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, Indiana University

As an example, Switkin pointed to a Field Operations-planned and designed project in Shenzhen, China, the Qianhai Water City, a new “sustainable city” for 4 million people. “Water fingers running through the development will improve water quality. Linear parks that will act as stormwater filters.” 70 percent of the development will be natural, with 13 acres of constructed mangroves. “This project is meant to create immersive natural experiences in a dense city.” The first segment of the project just opened.

Qianhai Water City, Shenzhen, China / Field Operations

Another project Switkin highlighted is Freshkills Park in Staten Island, New York, a 2,200-acre landfill reclamation project Field Operations has been working on for two decades. “The park offers a world of contrasts — both natural and engineered beauty.” The park is designed to capture both landfill gases, which are being transformed into usable methane for Staten Island residents, and leachate. The landscape includes restored creeks and meadows, tree and seed farms, wilderness areas, mountain biking and cross-country skiing — all on a former garbage dump. The park is currently functioning as an environmental research station but will soon open to the public as it becomes more naturalized. “This has been a process of renewal — both in terms of ecology and spirit and imagination.”

Freshkills Park, Staten Island, NY / NYC Parks

“Landscape architects can make a contribution to adapting communities to climate change, but the effort must be collective,” she said. Designers can help foster ecological health and resilience, better connect communities to place, increase health and well-being, and inspire and improve people’s lives.

Like Meyer, Switkin believes that creating immersive experiences and redefining beauty will help ensure landscape architects remain “relevant and resonant” in the midst of the climate crisis. Designing immersive experiences and taking climate action “aren’t in opposition, but central to each other.”

Kate Orff, FASLA, founder of SCAPE, who has recently made the case for the role of landscape architects in addressing climate change in The New Yorker and CNN, relayed her own doubts and questions she has for herself.

Given the scale of the climate crisis, and the fact that “our largest landscapes are dying,” she wonders “whether the unit of a landscape architecture project is sufficient.” An estimated one million plant and animal species are facing extinction. Wetlands are being lost at a rate three times faster than forests. Two-thirds of birds and other wildfire have vanished since 1970. “There is an eco-cide, and we are designing amid that.”

But she thinks that landscape architects are “special and qualified” to do the hard work of restoring biological diversity to our landscapes and finding ways to incentivize communities to protect these places. “We can see the relationships. We can make projects, but not close our eyes. We can listen, make, and unmake.” She said some landscape architects may complain that addressing the climate crisis isn’t design, but we have to “grapple with that, and reflect on what is design and what isn’t.”

She pointed to just a few of SCAPE’s recent projects, including Living Breakwaters in Staten Island, New York, a designed and engineered oyster habitat that will protect communities from storm surges and support local livelihoods and environmental education efforts. In that project, “policy and regulations informed everything we did. Then-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan spent months re-writing code to make that work.” But even this modest $100 million project took eight years of planning and design before construction began in the past few months.

Living Breakwaters, Staten Island, NY / SCAPE
Construction of Living Breakwaters, Staten Island, NY / SCAPE

Orff argued that “working upstream in the policy environment is critical,” but “addressing people and their behavior will enable us to scale up change even faster.” She called on landscape architects to continue to wade into the toughest environmental and social challenges and lead collaborative efforts to de-pave roads, undam rivers and remove the concrete channels around them, and rip-out car-based infrastructure as much as possible.

In the Q&A, Meyer asked how all three women toggle between being humble and listening to communities and being courageous in designing new solutions to the climate crisis.

Orff said “I keep toggling between ‘I gotta get this done,’ and climate grief. I feel humility in knowing my role isn’t enough, but I have the courage to do it anyway.”

“I learned about how methane could be released with the Arctic permafrost, and I basically stopped doing landscape architecture for a few years,” Schwartz said. “I quit because I felt that landscape architecture wasn’t relevant. But I did a deep dive on climate change and read a lot of books. I have a whole new education about Earth systems. I now have a new scale of thinking. Running my own firm for 37 years, I solve problems. I started Mayday, a new non-profit organization focused on climate engineering. We need to cool down the atmosphere while we drawdown carbon. Landscape architects are super important, but are not recognized. We need to broadcast what we do and that everyone needs to do this. We need to envision; use your creativity.”

“Indigenous belief systems offer powerful concepts,” Switkin said. “Beauty is balance. The question for me is what will push people to achieve greater balance with nature. We need to better collaborate. We can bring our realm of expertise, form alliances, and create a shift. We can’t do everything though.”

Orff reiterated this focus on forming new alliances. For a project on the Mississippi riverfront, SCAPE brought together more than 15 organizations involved in separate efforts at different scales. “We can convene organizations, make a map, and pull it together.”

Switkin mentioned the book New Power: How Anyone Can Persuade, Mobilize, and Succeed in Our New Chaotic, Connected Age, which explains “movement culture.” With social media, “there is an exponential growth factor and influence circles outward. Individual actions can make a difference.”

Meyer concluded that “you have to be an optimist as a designer.”

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