The Green New Deal: What’s Next for Landscape Architects?

“Renew Calumet” / wkshp/bluemarble

By wkshp/bluemarble

A Green New Deal means designers can live up to their potential to address the wicked problems of our time. Landscape architects, planners, and architects may be familiar with the Green New Deal Superstudio, which was a call for designers to “spatially manifest” the Green New Deal, or to imagine projects centering jobs, justice and decarbonization.

The Superstudio marks an inflection point for landscape architecture. Grounded in policy and the context of climate change and social unrest, the Superstudio is the landscape architecture community’s public acknowledgement that our work is deeply intertwined with politics.

As a collective of young practitioners, we understand the significance of the Green New Deal conversation happening within and outside of our profession. ASLA and the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) have embraced the Green New Deal, and organized students and practitioners to imagine its tangible implications within the built environment. These steps represent real action towards the shift in practice that Billy Fleming, ASLA, the Wilks Family Director at the McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania, called for in his 2019 article, Design and the Green New Deal. Like Fleming and the profession’s organizations, we recognize a shift that needs to happen if landscape architecture is to stand a chance.

It is crucial for landscape architecture to change if we are to have a meaningful contribution toward a habitable future. As Superstudio participants, Wkshp, a team of emerging professionals, viewed the Superstudio as a way to imagine both future projects and adapted practice.

For us, the Superstudio was fulfilling in several ways. With limited experience in professional practice, we found a shared sentiment that our professional experiences were not in complete alignment with what we were sold in school – a sometimes romanticized version of our personal career paths and the impact they will have. After a couple of years in practice, we have maintained faith in the potential of landscape architecture to make large-scale change. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Superstudio was that it prompted us to make space to rekindle our passions and sense of purpose, in ways that often don’t fit into typical modes of practice.

“Understanding the GND through Landscape Architecture” / wkshp/bluemarble

What exactly doesn’t fit into existing practice and why? While developing our Superstudio submission, our time was dedicated to identifying barriers to implementation and asking questions. Repeatedly, we were brought back to the same power dilemmas, which are beyond the scope of the typical landscape architecture project, but were centered in our Superstudio work: structural racism, a patriarchal society, colonialism, severe economic inequity, and environmental injustice, among others.

“Towards a Just Transition — Community Activist in the Calumet Region” / wkshp/bluemarble

Working under the framework of the Green New Deal was liberating – it meant that we could transcend the constraints of the current market, and a model of practice formulated to serve it. It allowed us to imagine design processes and projects to serve geographies and communities that have been economically, socially, and environmentally abandoned, while considering how we can work differently.

We imagine a culture that has moved beyond megalomania, utopianism, and individualism. In the Superstudio, we find the seeds of a collaborative realism and inclusive organizing that we are now working to scale and ground. So, a Green New Deal project is not necessarily a “new project” in its built form, but the where, how, and for whom represent a practice transformed. The Green New Deal creates living infrastructure in places that need it but can’t afford it, repairing landscapes that have been endlessly extracted from, preparing underserved communities for unpredictable futures, with an emphasis that it will all be co-designed. This is a new means and mode of practice — one of which does not yet exist, but desperately needs to.

The Superstudio was an experiment in process, just as much as it was a design project. wkshp/bluemarble, a non-hierarchical collective with collaborators from multiple firms working together across three time zones, embodied this ethos throughout. We understand that ethics of flexible leadership and constant growth are critical for facing the challenges of our generation.

“Renew Calumet” / wkshp/bluemarble

The Modernist approach exemplified by architects Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright is a deeply flawed, failed model. We cannot rely on individuals to save the planet. In the same vein, we must stop placing individuals on a pedestal within design culture as a whole. Almost nothing in our field is created — or even conceived — by a single individual, and it’s time to acknowledge the power of a team as well as elevate the power of the ideas, rather than praise a single person. On this note, we reject destructive criticism by those in power within our tiny profession. Young designers need support, especially those willing to dedicate a career (or even one year as a thought experiment) to re-conceiving our collective future.

With this transformational spirit, the Superstudio summit, Grounding the Green New Deal, was an opportunity to begin imagining next steps with fellow Superstudio participants and leaders. The summit organized by LAF, with the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, ASLA, and the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA) at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., featured a curated selection of projects and speakers from practice, policy, and advocacy. The summit which was thought-provoking, informative, and beautifully executed, igniting a series of deep reflections.

Both the immediate and more distant futures of the profession were on display at the summit. For those seeking spark notes on advancing jobs justice and decarbonization, here are some general themes we came away with:

  • Connect with and lend support to organizers, center the visions of frontline communities, and grapple with and address the relationship between ourselves, our communities, and our professions to colonialism, racism, and structural inequalities.
  • Gain a better understanding of both power and implementation pathways, both locally and nationally, so you can make things happen now.
  • Concurrently work to advance policies like the GND that aim to create change at scale in the future, work to change institutions that hold power, and when working with developers and politicians make them think that your transformative idea is their idea.
  • Above all, to make a real impact, we need to get organized and plan our actions.

We were especially inspired by the work and vision of organizers such as Colette Pichon Battle, Esq., the executive director of Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy, an organization that is actively bringing justice to front line communities in the Gulf Coast Region, and represents the type of organization that designers could support in projects akin to the Green New Deal. The voices of those with public sector experience stood out as well, such as Mitchell Silver, Hon. ASLA, former Commissioner of New York City Parks & Recreation department. These panelists shared their strategies of working within existing institutions to produce projects embodying the pace, scale, and justice-orientation of the Green New Deal in the now.

Kate Orff, FASLA, founder of SCAPE, and Fleming, both key figures in the Superstudio and the profession at large, provided essential framing through presentations that served as a prompt for advocacy and guide for implementation.

We felt that the lack of organized dialogue among the mass of Superstudio participants was a missed opportunity, and that the format of the summit, while inspiring, felt devoid of the popular, inclusive spirit of the Superstudio. Some challenges – mostly of the “how do I start doing this right now?” variety – still need further testing in the real world. For example, once we connect with community organizers, are we prepared to work differently from our normal practice? Can this work happen at scale outside of academic spaces? How does this work get done where there isn’t an existing implementation structure, or the structure cannot transcend existing forms of development? How do we scale up this transformative practice outside of the most populous, resource-rich regions of the country?

Urgency is in the air. The summit must be the beginning of a conversation, yes, but most importantly must further contribute to radical action both within and beyond the field locally and globally. Now is the time for landscape architecture to evolve.

Here are our next steps: capacity building, organizing, and, most critically, doubling down on the collective imagination that the Superstudio so radically and meaningfully engaged.

wkshp/bluemarble is a team of emerging professionals working for transformations within practice and the world at large.

Adriana Hernández Aguirre, Associate ASLA, Coleman & Associates
Maddie Clark, Design Workshop
Olivia Pinner, Associate ASLA, SWA
Adam Scott, PLA, Associate ASLA, SWA
Nicholas Zurlini, Associate ASLA, GGLO

One thought on “The Green New Deal: What’s Next for Landscape Architects?

  1. David Godshall 04/30/2022 / 9:00 pm

    I’m thankful for this commentary. Honest, critical feedback is important, useful and necessary. I’d offer that radical change in our profession is not going to come from speakers in firms that are from traditionally corporate in their structure and represent top down power hierarchies, and thus I think the speaker list was wildly off-target (To be clear- Kate Orff rules and i count her as the outlier in this panel). Fast, meaningful change is not going to manifest through big, slow, bureaucratic institutions and we should just start looking elsewhere and everywhere for alternative views; we need to stop asking the establishment to provide us with a future that looks radically different from the past.

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