The Green New Deal Superstudio inspired thousands of planning and landscape architecture students around the world to envision better futures for underserved communities. With the goals of the Green New Deal Congressional proposal in mind, Kathleen Garcia, FASLA, a lecturer at the University of California San Diego (UC San Diego) led her undergraduate planning students through multiple studios to re-imagine the Sweetwater River corridor, just south of the city of San Diego, near the border with Mexico.
At the American Planning Association‘s National Planning Conference, students from Garcia’s class outlined their visions for a three-mile-long segment of the river that courses through National City, a primarily Hispanic and low-income industrial community.
“National City is a front line community” in dealing with the combined impacts of climate change, pollution, and inequities, Garcia said. The community and river corridor gave her studio opportunities to explore the three goals of the Green New Deal — decarbonization, jobs, and justice.
According to Garcia, the community is “crisscrossed with freeways and rail lines, polluted by heavy industry along its riverfronts, and separated from most remnants of nature.”
The rich lands around the Sweetwater River were once home to the Kumeyaay indigenous people, but is now a “flood-control channel.” The floodplain and grazing lands have been “converted into strip malls, scattered housing, auto dealerships, industry, active rail lines, and at the river’s mouth, a major marine terminal,” where nearly half a million imported cars arrive annually.
Climate change promises to increase the threat of wildfires and exacerbate existing urban heat islands, flooding, and air pollution in the community. “Local jobs are few. Residents commute at least 20 miles in congestion to jobs elsewhere. Native heritage has all been but erased. The city is highly dependent on car sales for its tax base. However, what will transportation look like in a cleaner, greener future?”
The students in her class range from third- to fourth-year students and major in diverse subjects such as planning, psychology, data sciences, and engineering. They are “looking for ways to make a difference,” and the Green New Deal inspired them to envision a much different National City and Sweetwater River.
Much of National City Maritime Terminal is built on fill, which is “not friends with sea level rise,” said Juli Beth Hinds, an instructor of planning at UC San Diego, who participated in the tour. The mouth of the Sweetwater River, which is along one edge of the Maritime Terminal, can only be seen from the tiny Pepper Park, one of the few public green spaces along the waterfront.
Here, Ethan Olson, a third-year student who is majoring in planning and urban studies and hopes to pursue a master’s degree in landscape architecture, brought out his boards to show his ideas. He proposed a new open space corridor through the industrial area surrounding the port, but on the inland edge to provide space to retreat from sea level rise.
The new corridor would serve as a green spine for mixed-use development, including housing and retail, and local job creation that isn’t dependent on transporting cars out of the port. Olson also envisioned weaving in bike infrastructure and properly connecting the Bayshore Bikeway, along with boosting local healthy food production.
Olson noted that the Port of San Diego and nearby Naval facilities are already planning for sea level rise, with some projections indicating a potential of 9 feet by 2100. Much of this critical coastal infrastructure is under threat.
“The big scope of the Green New Deal Superstudio appealed to me. Climate change isn’t an environmental issue alone, but also an economic, social, planning, and political one. The Green New Deal doesn’t ignore that. I like it as a concept,” Olson said.
Nine students presented their ideas over the next three hours at locations throughout National City. The bus stopped at a strip mall and big-box store district; a desolate riparian green space at the outer edge of a parking lot; the location of a major swap meet; next to a solar power installation alongside the freeway; and in a deserted dealership along the Mile of Cars, a string of automobile showrooms.
At the Gateway Marketplace strip mall, Rashma Saini, a third-year student majoring in developmental psychology, walked us through her planning ideas, crafted with the perspective of a typical National City high school student in mind.
Envisioning a new direct connection to the high school across the Sweetwater River, riverfront promenade, and shopping and entertainment district, Saini wants a high-quality space for the many Mexican students who study in San Diego, a place for them to hang out with friends before returning by bus to Tijuana. “It’s important that students feel welcome. We need to focus on their mental health and well-being.”
A later stop in a parking lot near a Burlington Coat Factory offered a close-up view of the channelized river. Here, Mitchell Kadowaki, who recently graduated from UC San Diego with a bachelor’s degree in environmental systems, showcased his plans for improving the urban tree canopy of National City. The now concrete-lined river is ripe for restoration as a riparian corridor, providing habitat benefits.
Through his research, he found that only six percent of National City is park land, much lower than the San Diego county average. But he noted that significantly expanding the tree canopy with the wrong tree species, improperly sited, could also further contribute to the drought by taxing already low water reserves.
Hinds noted that “tree selection is a live issue” in San Diego county. Until recently, palm trees, which offer few ecological benefits, have been specified as part of city plans. Eucalyptus trees, which are also not native and can be a wildfire hazard, can’t be removed from UC San Diego’s campus “unless they are diseased.” One way to increase tree and shrub diversity in the county could be to restore habitat for birds, including the endangered California gnatcatcher.
Stricken with drought in 2015, the San Diego Housing Authority shut off irrigation to street trees, killing them in the process. This impacted underserved residents that already have fewer street trees, amplifying the effects of heat islands and air pollution. San Diego is now exploring greywater re-use for irrigation, and there are a growing number of contractors who can do these kinds of projects, Hinds said.
Through the Green New Deal Superstudio projects, Garcia sought to show there is a “lot of overlap” between planning, landscape architecture, and urban design disciplines.
What she learned working as a landscape architect at WRT and planning director for the City of Del Mar is that “you get better solutions when you get people outside their boxes and comfort zones.” Landscape architecture and planning, in particular, use the “exact same problem solving but just at different scales.”
Her undergraduate students learned the stages of planning, explored different disciplinary lenses, and some are even inspired to become landscape architects.