“The Green New Deal Superstudio models a collective form of practice. We have a foot in the world now, but can imagine a new future,” said Kate Orff, FASLA, founder of SCAPE, during the start of the second panel of Grounding the Green New Deal, a summit organized by the Landscape Architecture Foundation at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.
This new future must be envisioned quickly, Orff argued, because humanity has “already crossed the 1.5 C temperature increase” that will unleash destructive climate impacts. “We need to anticipate that future and act now.” And referring to the first panel of the summit, she argued that while interest in climate justice is expanding and designers are partnering with more marginalized communities, landscape architects must accelerate efforts to “co-create, co-facilitate, and co-repair.”
At the same time, Orff cautioned that landscape architecture projects take a long time. “Ten years is nothing in the built environment.” There is simply no time to build new institutions from scratch to address the climate and biodiversity crises. “We must work within the parameters that exist. Given the timescale, we must advocate for radical change within the institutions we have.” She called for “moving fast, but at the speed of trust.”
In a panel discussion, a mix of landscape architects, philanthropists, policymakers, and planners then delved into how to advance decarbonization, jobs, and justice through landscape architecture practice. These are the three tenets of the 2019 Green New Deal Congressional legislative proposal and the Superstudio organized by LAF, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, ASLA, and the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA).
Alexa Bush, a program officer with the Kresge Foundation’s Detroit office, who also has a master’s of landscape architecture degree from the University of Virginia, said she shifted from project work at firms to the Detroit city government and then to the foundation sector, because “decision making happens at the local level. How do I enable design? It’s through local government.” And with the philanthropic sector, which works closely with local governments, “it’s about assembling a blend of funds and partners. We can help make the tables where decisions happen.”
She added that “the strength of landscape architects is system thinking. I can call in experts when needed. Landscape architects are the glue in the system and can build the team.”
For Kevin Bush (not related to Alexa), deputy assistant secretary for grant programs at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), one of the best ways for landscape architects to advance their ambitious policy goals is to “glob onto existing local projects.”
The reality, he argued, is that “local governments are having the worst time in history.” Overrun with demands related to COVID-19, many local governments face major challenges in planning for long-term climate adaptation. “Design professions should be empathetic about the constrained realities.”
It’s important to find what funds are coming through state and federal pipelines to local projects and “latch onto them.” Otherwise, landscape architects can spend decades planning visionary projects that may not come to fruition.
“To design for other people’s problems we need to speak other people’s languages. When we talk about housing, we shouldn’t say units, but homes,” argued Jess Zimbabwe, executive director of Environmental Works in Seattle. “When the teamsters went on strike here in Seattle, there was widespread irritation at them among design professionals. But if they had living wages and affordable housing, we wouldn’t have these problems.”
Mitchell Silver, Hon. ASLA, former commissioner of New York City Parks & Recreation and now a vice president with McAdams, said that in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, he was often asked: “How are you doing? What can I do to help?”
He said the most important step landscape architects, planners, and other designers can take is to listen. Planners and designers are tasked with creating places of healing and joy. But that is impossible without “deep understanding.” Anytime he visits any place, he always checks in with himself. “Do I feel welcome? If I don’t, I won’t come back.” Designers have to get this right for more people.
“When working with African American communities, it’s really important to listen,” said Mia Lehrer, FASLA, founder of Studio-MLA. She said her firm is a highly inclusive office, with multiple cultures represented. The past year has been a “charged, emotional time for everyone.” But she feels that as a landscape architect, “it’s important to give back; it’s an obligation.”
Lehrer described how her complex, multi-functional projects, like the new SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, are a result of deliberative processes. The stadium, which leveraged a public-private partnership to create a 6-acre lake and 50-acre park, was led by Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts. “There was never more than 12 people in any meeting.” Meetings were designed so that each person could bring up issues to resolve; and then future meetings would resolve new issues.
At the local level, “if you think something is important, than the process needs to be simplified,” Silver said. As part of New York City’s Community Parks Initiative, the city’s equitable parks plan, Silver’s department completed 850 projects in seven years, redesigning parks in underserved communities. “Our goal was to streamline projects.”
To further break down fragmented, siloed government, Silver also called for cities to create a “czar of the public realm” who can cross all departments that impact citizens. And climate-related infrastructure should be governed by a senior role. Resilience should be overarching. “Fragmented government leads to fragmented results.”
“We must also look beyond borders.” Climate, ecological, and biodiversity issues cross governmental jurisdictions, Lehrer argued, and require new coalitions of local organizations. She thought the focus of the Green New Deal Superstudio was too U.S. centric.
In closing remarks, Billy Fleming, ASLA, the Wilks Family Director at the McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and Roxanne Blackwell, Hon. ASLA, director of governmental affairs at ASLA, noted that positive change takes time, particularly at the national level, but landscape architects have had significant wins.
“30 to 50 years ago, the idea of green infrastructure for stormwater management was a foreign idea,” Fleming said. “Not many years ago, the idea of Complete Streets was radical,” Blackwell argued. “But with persistence and patience,” landscape architects have advanced their policy goals. The recently passed Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act is a prime example, with hundreds of billions for green infrastructure and water management, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and public lands.
A key way forward for landscape architects is to move from a “transactional to a transformational approach” with communities, argued Kofi Boone, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning at NC State University. “Local knowledge is enriching and yields different kinds of projects and ideas that can lead to innovation.”