By Richard Weller, ASLA
There are two reasons why Superstudio was a good name for an event that would build on the momentum already established by Billy Fleming, ASLA, at the University of Pennsylvania, Kate Orff, FASLA, founder of SCAPE, and Thaddeus Pawlowski at Columbia University to align landscape architecture with the Green New Deal (GND). The first is that with the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF), back in 2020, we had all agreed to launch what was literally a supersized international design studio on the hot topic of the GND. The second reason was that Superstudio also recalls the eponymous Italian architecture group of the late 1960’s that specialized in bombastic imagery and anti-capitalist, anti-design rhetoric. This connection was, for me at least, most important because it signaled that the event we were planning was about design culture, not just political culture. The Superstudio is in this way situated as part of a certain modern tradition of speculation, which in turn provides context for the critical evaluation of its meaning. But before we get to that, let me set the scene a bit for you.
For the purposes of staging a conversation about the GND and landscape architecture, a jury of LAF board members along with Fleming, Orff, and myself distilled from the 669 submissions the Superstudio received what we thought to be a representative, manageable sample.
The overarching question in the back of the jury’s mind as they foraged through all the work was this: “Are the projects appropriate manifestations of the GND’s ethos and intent, and if so, how?” To evaluate this, the work was superimposed onto the tenets of HR 109, the non-binding congressional resolution introduced on February 7, 2019, by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) and Senator Ed Markey (MA). HR 109 calls on Congress to pass legislation that would achieve the following within ten years:
Net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers; 2) create millions of good, high-wage jobs and ensure prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States; 3) invest in the infrastructure and industry of the United States to sustainably meet the challenges of the 21st century; 4) secure for all people of the United States for generations to come, clean air and water; climate and community resiliency; healthy food; access to nature; and a sustainable environment; and finally, 5) promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.
The improbability of this notwithstanding, HR 109—delivered with AOC’s steely certainty—cut through all the bullshit of contemporary politics with a sense of urgency, authenticity, and above all, the possibility that history really is up to us. By triangulating environmentalism, decarbonization, and jobs around the fulcrum of social justice, HR 109 distinguishes itself from the last half a century or so of environmentalism which, arguably, suffered from too singular a preoccupation with “nature.” For a generation born into a climate changed world and now looking for answers, HR 109 is both prophetic and, at least insofar as it recalls the New Deal, useful.
Of course, as is the nature of political rhetoric, it is also just a bunch of platitudes. Apart from asking us to put all our faith in the heavy hand of government, HR 109 tells us nothing about how we actually get from the world we currently live in to the one in which it says we should. In broad terms, the responses to this are still split along old lines: good old socialism on the one hand, and wicked capitalism on the other. Further to that, there is division within the left itself along a sliding scale that has eco-socialism at one end and eco-modernism at the other. As you would expect, eco-socialists blame capitalism and its shameful colonial history for today’s global inequity and the climate crisis, whereas eco-modernists maintain the faith that free markets and technological innovation can yet solve the world’s socio-economic and environmental problems.
Both have their demons. For example, the eco-socialists are unable to explain—or have conveniently forgotten— socialism’s appalling social and environmental record. Nor can they really explain where all the energy will come from if fossil fuels are suddenly “abolished,” as they like to say. For their part, the eco-modernists downplay technology’s shocking history of unintended consequences and can’t explain how innovation alone can avoid anything but the perpetuation of neoliberal inequality as we know it. With the deployment of more solar, wind, and geothermal energy, the eco-modernists also perform the cardinal sin of touting nuclear energy as a clean alternative to fossil fuels, at least to tide us over until the holy grail of fusion is discovered.
In terms of their landscape visions, the eco-modernists see hi-tech cities “decoupled” from vast wilderness areas. What eco-socialists see instead is less clear, but if I had to guess, it would be a working landscape — the Jeffersonian grid rescaled for permaculture and renewable energy production with a Conservation Corps fanning out in all directions.
For the Green New Dealers, the only way to expiate their demons is massive government programs and investment based on the precedent of the original New Deal, only this time without the racism and quite so much concrete. In today’s political climate, however, both in America and the rest of the world, to expect this form of bold governance any time soon, seems at best, wishful thinking. Making matters worse, because it is a manifesto, not a policy, HR 109 has lent itself to the messianic and the Manichean on both the left and the right. Instead of adding to this, or recoiling into apocalyptic resignation, it is precisely in times like these that landscape architects have a role to play in giving vision and dimension to alternative futures, which is where the thought experiment of the Superstudio comes in.
The last time anything even remotely like the Superstudio happened was the so-called Landscape Exchange, an annual design competition for landscape architecture students in the U.S. that started in 1924 and ended in 1970. Reflecting the profession’s modesty, the projects in the Exchange were generally constrained to the design of gardens and parks on real sites, with real contours. It is interesting that just as the Exchange held its final competition in 1970, Ian McHarg, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote Design with Nature. And here we are, some 50 or so years later, asking students not to design a park or a garden, but to take a shot at nothing less than an entirely new economy and a new society to go with it.
For some, this is landscape architecture reaching its world-changing potential; for others it’s just more overreach that can only lead to the craft’s undoing. Either way, the LAF has to be congratulated for being the first design-related organization in the world to take HR 109 at its word and rally its troops for a creative response. And so too, we must congratulate the teachers, students, and a handful of professionals who stepped up. Kudos to them for facing up to the almost impossible challenge of, per the brief, translating HR 109 “… into actual projects and [showing] where, as a matter of priority these projects should take place, what will they look like, who will they serve, and how will they roll out.”
So, good event, but what about the work?
The jury organized the work into 6 categories based on 6 verbs: Adapt, Cultivate, Empower, Energize, Remediate, and Retrofit. These already tell you a lot about the ethos and focus of work produced under the banner of the Green New Deal. In this sense the perfect GND project would be about adapting to climate change, cultivating the land, empowering marginalized people, (re)energizing with renewables, remediating brownfields, and retrofitting existing buildings and existing infrastructure. This is very a big ask of any landscape project, but, with remarkable consistency, all the submissions stuck to the script and got busy putting these verbs into action. By prioritizing relationships between jobs, justice, and environmentalism and then inscribing them in real space, even if only as a gesture, the Superstudio marks a significant change in sensibility. Participants also made very deliberate choices about where to focus their work and the sorts of programs it should involve. Contrary to where the neo-liberal design dollar has tended to go, almost all Superstudio submissions make a point of allocating resources and design services to neglected communities. And even though, as an academic exercise, participants obviously had the luxury of choice in this regard, taken as a whole, the Superstudio work emphasizes a long overdue reorientation that developers, city authorities, and the profession need to reckon with.
Having pegged out the relevant territory, the question then of course is what, especially, makes a GND project that landscape architects wouldn’t just do anyways? And this is where things become a little predictable.
To summarize, the majority of projects submitted to the Superstudio are things like:
• Streetscape retrofits
• Community gardens and parks
• Small-scale flood mitigation
• Lots of tree planting
• Soil remediation
• Urban farming and food co-ops
• Community centers
• Research centers
• Clean brownfields
• Small solar arrays
• Green school yards
• Recycling centers
• Stream daylighting
• And very occasionally some buildings labeled as “affordable housing” or “green jobs districts.”
As well as their predictability, the submissions also share similar graphic qualities. Crammed with statistics, diagrams, flow charts and slogans, the boards often look like DIY manuals, bureaucratic brochures, school posters, and the sort of stuff left lying around after a community workshop. The actual designs can be hard to find, and when they do appear, the hand of the designer tends only to offer outlines along with some optimistic Photoshop showing “the community” enthusiastically filling in the blanks. Whereas on the other side of town, the mainstream profession makes everything look like a stylish walk in the park, GND landscapes tend to have the feel of a union picnic. And maybe, at the neighborhood scale this kind of communitarian, restorative, eco-agrarian, anti-aesthetic is what a GND ecotopia would really be like. And maybe that’s a good “bottom-up” thing, but the question that has to be asked, as with any landscape representation, is what are these happy, folksy images not showing us? What’s outside the frame? What’s over the horizon?
The answers relate to the bigger questions implicated in, but not addressed by HR 109. For example, if fossil fuels are abolished, or quickly phased out, how is the new world phased in? Where does all the new energy come from, exactly? How do we make everything we are accustomed to, without fossil fuels? Or if lifestyles must change, how and in what way? What might be the daily and collective rituals of a post-fossil fueled world and the spaces these play out in? How would lifestyle changes apply to people who don’t have the luxury of making environmentally benevolent choices? How will we sequester the carbon from the skies and filter the nitrogen from the ground at a scale commensurate with the issues? How will America, let alone the world, feed itself without industrial fertilizer and do so without more deforestation? How do we secure the water supply? What, in addition to the hard labor of landscape restoration, are the new “green jobs?” Where are they and how do I get to them? And if there is to be a new Conservation Corps, what is its plan of action? How do we accommodate the human and non-human migrations that climate change will force? Where will at least another 100 million Americans this century live? How will the coast be reorganized to absorb rising seas? How will the suburbs, where most people currently live, be retrofitted? The list goes on.
To be fair, only a fool would pretend to have the answers to these questions. But instead of just fast-forwarding to a world without fossil fuels and relabeling it with lots of GND goodies, we have to sit longer with the wicked and often times contradictory nature of the issues. We have to scope them across the full range of scales they entail. We have to understand them before we pretend to change them, and when we do, we have to get inside their systemic natures and be forensic about where they could be inflected, disrupted, rerouted, reimagined and reinvented. And obviously this can’t be done by landscape architects or through the medium of landscape alone. Weaning civilization off fossil fuels in the context of a rapidly changing planetary climate is the greatest challenge civilization has ever faced, so let’s not make it look simple.To do so is not design, it’s just illustration, or worse, propaganda.
A few submissions that went somewhat further afield in their inquiries and propositions concerned topics such as:
• Fire management and forestry practices
• Big riparian corridors
• Reimagining regions through BIPOC lenses
• Prison reuse
• Tools for community scenario planning
• Assertions of indigenous land rights
• Non-romantic takes on offshore wind farms
• Light rail corridors
• New trails
• Freeway removal
And one stand-out submission declared “the GND will be won or lost at scale”, and called for land-use planning on a national scale. Again, there is nothing really new in any of this, but the scale and emphasis of this second tranche of work seems more apropos.
So where does this leave us? Well, I guess the politicians who support the GND will see it as an endorsement. They might also breathe a sigh of relief that, at least according to landscape architects, their world-changing policies seem to be relatively innocuous. On the other hand, if they are looking for images to “stir men’s blood,” or even just something an advertising agency could use to help persuade Americans to relinquish their fossil-fueled superpowers, they will be disappointed.
Compared to how designers have previously responded to historical moments of heady socialist speculation —for example, the Russian constructivists, the modernists and the megastructuralists—it is remarkable how little speculation there is in the Superstudio results. And I don’t mean this pejoratively. Since its more about the undoing of a world than the building of a new one per se, the GND doesn’t lend itself to a spectacular architectural imagination. It does however lend itself to the more subtle threads of the landscape imagination. But while the Superstudio work has shown how that landscape might take shape at a local level, it has not shown how the sprawling landscape of modernity will be retrofitted and restructured. Along the eco-socialism—eco-modernism scale, studios across the nation have clearly tended more toward to the former, and as such, the work is more an illustration of local socio-political aspirations and allegiances, than it is about technical invention and aesthetic exploration.
Like Ebenezer Howard, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright, Karl Marx called for a blurring of city and country. But he also ridiculed literary and architectural utopias. Going by the Superstudio work one could be excused for thinking that, following in his footsteps, landscape architects working in the spirit of the GND also have very little interest in, if not an actual disdain for aesthetics. This is a mistake. In some GND-related polemic, it is argued that since design is a mechanism through which capitalism and the climate crisis is reproduced, design as we know it is fundamentally incapable of broaching the interrelated social, environmental, and economic issues HR 109 sets out. Adolpho Natalini, the nominal head of the original Superstudio, made more or less the same point back in 1971, writing that “if design is merely an inducement to consume…and if it merely formalizes unjust social divisions…then we must reject design.” But he didn’t mean we abandon aesthetics. On the contrary, for years, in the spirit of rejecting a certain kind of design, Superstudio continued to produce powerfully utopian and dystopian imagery that captured and influenced its zeitgeist. Make of this what you will, but not one submission to the LAF Superstudio dared present a really utopian or dystopian version of the GND.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we should now just make trippy images of alternate realities. But I am asking whether by ignoring the way in which the evolution of modernity into a post-fossil fuel phase is an aesthetic project, we’ve not only left the GND with an image problem, but also left ourselves with no alternatives except deference to “the community” on the one hand and rolling out government-issue green infrastructure on the other. Of course, this is good work and lots of it must be done, and landscape architects are the right people to do it. But I have this terrible feeling that beyond the frame, over the horizon, history is being determined by people looking at a very different set of drawings.
Grounding the Green New Deal: A Summit on Policy, Design, and Advocacy will be held at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. on April 9. Learn more and purchase tickets.
Richard Weller, ASLA, is the Martin and Margy Meyerson chair of urbanism, professor and chair of landscape architecture, and co-director of the McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania.