Next Generation of Landscape Architecture Leaders Focus on Climate, Equity, and Technology (Part I)

Ellinikon Metropolitan Park / Sasaki

“Our fellows have shown courage, written books, founded mission-driven non-profits, created new coalitions, and disseminated new tools,” said Cindy Sanders, FASLA, CEO of OLIN, in her introduction of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Fellowship for Innovation and Leadership program at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

Sanders highlighted the results of a five-year assessment of the LAF fellowship program and its efforts to grow the next generation of diverse landscape architecture leaders. The assessment shows that past fellows are shaping the future of the built environment in key public, non-profit, and private sector roles.

And she introduced the latest class of six fellows, who focused on climate, equity, technology, and storytelling:

Chris Hardy, ASLA, senior associate at Sasaki, used his fellowship to significantly advance the Carbon Conscience tool he has been developing over the past few years. The web-based tool is meant to help landscape architects, planners, urban designers, and architects make better land-use decisions in early design phases when the opportunity to reduce climate impacts is greatest.

Carbon Conscience is also designed to work in tandem with the Pathfinder tool, created by LAF Fellow Pamela Conrad, ASLA, as part of Climate Positive Design. Once the parameters of a site have been established, Pathfinder enables landscape architects to improve their designs and materials choices to reach a climate positive state faster.

Hardy examined more than 300 studies to develop robust evidence to support a fully revamped version of Carbon Conscience, which will launch in July 2023. He found that “landscape architecture projects can be just as carbon intensive as architecture projects per square foot.” He wondered whether the only climate responsible approach is to stop building new projects altogether. “Are new projects worth the climate cost?”

After months of research, he believes decarbonizing landscape architecture projects will be “very hard,” but not impossible. He called for a shift away from the carbon-intensive designs of the past. To reduce emissions, landscape architects need to take a “less is more” approach; use local and natural materials; and increase space in their projects for ecological restoration, which can boost carbon sequestration. He cited Sasaki’s 600-acre mega-project in Athens Greece — the Ellinikon Metropolitan Park — as a model for how to apply Carbon Conscience, make smart design decisions, and significantly improve carbon performance upfront. “There are exciting design opportunities — this is not just carbon accounting.”

Ellinikon Metropolitan Park / Sasaki
Ellinikon Metropolitan Park / Sasaki

Landscape architect Erin Kelly, ASLA, based in Detroit, Michigan, sees enormous potential in using vacant land in cities for carbon sequestration. Her goal is to connect vacant lands with the growing global offset marketplace, which offered 155 million offsets in 2022 that earned $543 million. And she sees opportunities for landscape architects to work with carbon developers to improve offset projects.

Carbon offsets are purchased by organizations to reduce their climate impacts. One offset credit equals one ton of greenhouse gas emissions. Offsets are verified by third-party verification companies and then listed on carbon registries. Like other projects, there are carbon developers, who purchase or lease land to grow trees or protect natural carbon sinks, like wetlands. Projects are monitored, usually over a 25 to 100 year period. But there is no one price for an offset, and “the quality varies,” Kelly said.

There is a need for new approaches to offsets that generates more direct income for communities and incentivizes landscape health by factoring in biodiversity. Sequestering carbon in cities like Detroit provides an opportunity for urban communities to benefit, but to date urban offset programs like City Forest Credits have been limited and need to be scaled up.

The vision / Erin Kelly, ASLA

She estimates that 31 million people in the U.S. now live in vacant land communities. Using machine learning and satellites, Kelly is developing a national atlas of vacant land ripe for redevelopment as offsets by city governments, community groups, and companies. “Landscape architects haven’t been involved in setting up these offerings,” but can tell “compelling stories” and influence how they are developed. Locally-managed, small-scale offsets can provide greater financial benefits and community health and environmental co-benefits.

Local connections to offsets / Erin Kelly, ASLA
National offsets that enhance biodiversity / Erin Kelly, ASLA

Robert Levinthal, a PhD student at the Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), is focused on Mega-Eco Projects, or very large-scale nature-based solutions. Hundreds of these projects, like the Great Green Wall in Sub-Saharan Africa, are in development at different scales around the world. They are meant to combat desertification, protect biodiversity and connect habitat, and preserve and restore watersheds. They may be in urban or rural areas.

Mega-Eco Projects / Robert Levinthal and Richard Weller

Unfortunately, few landscape architects are involved in these projects. For Levinthal, this means the project leaders are “missing critical insights,” as landscape architects can help ensure these massive projects balance the needs of humans and non-human species. Landscape architects can plan and design the connections between large-scale natural systems and communities.

In Senegal, Levinthal explored the implications of the Great Green Wall himself. Initially proposed in the 1950s, the plan envisions a 50-kilometer-wide belt of trees from the east to west coasts in Sub-Saharan Africa as an anti-desertification measure that will prevent the Sahara Desert from further expanding south. The African Union, which supports the initiative, has scaled down the effort but it still remains ambitious — with the goal of restoring 100 million hectares of land and storing 250 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. But Levinthal noted that out of $14 billion spent on the Great Green Wall to date, just $20 million has reached Senegal. And desertification is happening outside the Great Green Wall area.

Mega-Eco Projects / Robert Levinthal

Levinthal sees the need to better connect green belt planning with community master planning and eco-tourism development. Senegal, like other Sub-Saharan African countries, is “sadly missing landscape architects and urban designers” who can weave parks, community spaces, recreational areas, and transportation systems into ecological restoration efforts.

The need for regional planning around the Great Green Wall in Senegal / Robert Levinthal

And pastoralists remain deeply underserved. He called for a renewed focus on regional and land-use planning among landscape architects and deeper partnerships with indigenous peoples. To learn more, look out for an upcoming symposium at UPenn, October 13-14, 2023.

Read Part II

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