Practical Strategies for Reducing the Climate Impacts of Landscape Architecture Offices

Towards Zero Emission Business Operations: A Landscape Architect’s Guide to Reducing the Climate Impacts of Offices / ASLA; Cover image: Irvine Nature Center Stream & Wetland Restoration. / © William Wilhelm Photography LLC, courtesy of Biohabitats, Inc.

ASLA and the ASLA Fund have released a comprehensive, freely-available guide: Towards Zero Emission Business Operations: A Landscape Architect’s Guide to Reducing the Climate Impacts of Offices.

The guide is designed to help landscape architecture firms of all sizes navigate the transition to zero emission offices more easily.

It outlines more than 110 strategies landscape architecture firms can implement to reduce their business and project greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50-65% by 2030 and achieve zero emissions by 2040.

The guide provides best practice strategies relevant for firms that rent or own their offices. It offers firms ways to:

  • Measure their carbon footprint
  • Develop a climate action plan to reduce emissions
  • Take actions to reduce Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions

The ASLA Climate Action Committee produced Towards Zero Emission Business Operations to support landscape architecture firms in achieving the goals of the ASLA Climate Action Plan.

Rooftop solar panels at SWA Studio in Sausalito, California / William Tatham, Courtesy of SWA Group

The guide is authored by landscape architect Ronnie Siegel, ASLA, founder, Swire Siegel, Landscape Architects and ASLA Climate Action Committee Member, who interviewed 19 landscape architecture, architecture, and sustainability consulting companies to develop the resource.

“Towards Zero Emission Business Operations is a must-read for any landscape architecture firm serious about decarbonizing their business. These smart strategies can help firms not only reduce their emissions but also save money and increase the health and well-being of their employees,” said ASLA CEO Torey Carter-Conneen.

“Decarbonization, electrification, and the transition to renewable energy create new opportunities for landscape architecture firms. By measuring emissions, making a plan, and taking action, any firm can get on a path to zero emissions,” said Ronnie Siegel, ASLA.

Mithun team members biking to work / Hilary Noll, Courtesy of Mithun

The guide builds on the ASLA Climate Action Plan and the Climate Action Field Guide for ASLA Members, which chart a pathway for landscape architects to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions in their projects and operations and increase carbon sequestration by 2040.

In 2022, the Climate Action Plan was developed by a high-profile Task Force of five landscape architects chaired by Pamela Conrad, ASLA, founder of Climate Positive Design, and a 17-member Advisory Group. It outlines a bold vision for 2040 and 71 actions to be taken by 2025.

Our Vision for 2040:

All landscape architecture projects will simultaneously:

  • Achieve zero embodied and operational emissions and increase carbon sequestration
  • Provide significant economic benefits in the form of measurable ecosystem services, health co-benefits, sequestration, and green jobs
  • Address climate injustices, empower communities, and increase equitable distribution of climate investments
  • Restore ecosystems and increase and protect biodiversity

To make progress on the Climate Action Plan, ASLA and the ASLA Fund also recently released Collaborating with Industry Partners on Climate Action and Biodiversity: A Guide to Conversations Among Landscape Architects, Vendors, and Product Manufacturers.

The ASLA Climate Action Committee and Corporate Member Committee curated more than 70 questions landscape architects can ask vendors and product manufacturers to advance climate and biodiversity goals.

Landscape Architects Are Key to Increasing Carbon Drawdown

Central Park Open Space Plan, Denver, Colorado / Andropogon

“To quote Vaclav Smil: ‘human societies are nothing but subsystems of the lithosphere, the Earth’s thin veneer of life, which is ultimately run by bacteria, fungi and green plants,'” said José M. Almiñana, FASLA, Principal, Andropogon Associates, and ASLA Climate Action Plan Task Force Member at Greenbuild in Washington, D.C.

Within this system, there is a “sticky substance that holds soils together.” It is called glomalin, and it’s a protein produced by mycorrhizal fungi. “It’s responsible for sequestering 27% of the carbon in soils,” Almiñana explained.

Humanity will decide what happens to the future of this thin veneer. If we preserve and regenerate landscapes, we will ensure they store more carbon. If we use a “place-based approach,” we will also help communities better connect to restoration efforts.

For example, the Central Park Development Plan* in Denver, Colorado reimagined a former airport landscape that was “polluted and decimated.” A new open space plan proposed by Andropogon in the mid 1990s enabled the restoration of a buried creek and the landscape (see image above).

“Once the decision was made to protect open space and recover the creek, all sorts of productive opportunities became a possibility.”

Almiñana’s point was that carbon sequestration must start with the landscape. And improving the health of landscapes will not only yield more carbon storage, but also provide more climate resilience and other important human health benefits.

Much of the conversation about climate change and the built environment has been focused on “how to do less bad” by reducing carbon-intensive materials, said Katie Riddle, ASLA, Director of Professional Practice at ASLA.

This is important work, but among the design professions, only “landscape architects can also do more good” by increasing carbon drawdown in the landscape.

Riddle highlighted a 2017 study from The Nature Conservancy, which found that “increasing carbon sequestration in plant biomass has the greatest potential to reduce net carbon emissions and slow the effects of climate change.”

These kinds of ecological strategies form the foundation of the ASLA Climate Action Plan, Riddle said.

Chris Hardy, ASLA, Senior Associate, Sasaki; Founder, Carbon Conscience; and Co-Chair, ASLA Climate Action Committee Subcommittee on Climate Drawdown and Biodiversity, has also focused on helping landscape architects do more good.

He is interested in increasing the “climate literacy” of landscape architects. This is crucial because “developers and clients increasingly expect it.”

Hardy led the development of Sasaki’s Carbon Conscience tool to help landscape architects, architects, planners, and others better understand the climate impacts of their design proposals. It’s for early phase design work when there is the greatest opportunity to reduce carbon and increase sequestration.

He wants to see more analysis of site carbon opportunities woven into projects, shifting from a model of whole building lifecycle assessments to whole site lifecycle assessments.

Whole site lifecycle assessment / Sasaki

“There are lost opportunities if we don’t factor in the landscape. For example, California’s updated building code, which regulates embodied carbon in buildings, ignores biogenic carbon in the landscape.”

“We need to expand the spatial boundaries of lifecycle assessments. The living environment is the only viable way to sequester carbon,” Hardy said.

Role of biogenic carbon. Carbon Conscience / Sasaki

But he also cautioned that “not all sites and not all ecosystems are equal.” This is why it’s important to work with a landscape architect to figure out the carbon storage potential of a site.

The Sustainable SITES Initiative (SITES) is another tool for reducing emissions and increasing sequestration in the landscape, said Danielle Pieranunzi, SITES Director, Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI). “70 percent of SITES credits contribute to improving carbon drawdown.”

SITES is similar to LEED but is designed for landscapes that may or may not have buildings. Now, 336 projects in 41 states and D.C. and 20 countries, spanning over 1.2 billion square feet, participate in SITES.

The U.S. General Services Administration, which manages federal buildings, has required SITES certification for its projects. The State of Rhode Island and recently the City of Austin, Texas followed suit.

“SITES requires an integrative design process, which creates an opportunity to be climate and nature positive,” Pieranunzi said. She noted how the ASLA Climate Action Plan builds from SITES and is closely aligned with its goals.

“SITES shows how important soils and plants are. It’s also about reducing embodied carbon, conserving what is healthy and functional, and restoring landscapes.”

Almiñana shared other projects by his firm that show how landscape architects can increase carbon sequestration.

For the Greenville Courthouse in Greenville, Mississippi, Andropogon increased the diversity and quantity of trees and plants in their design proposal.

Greenville Courthouse sequestered carbon, Greenville, Mississippi / Andropogon

Using Climate Positive Design‘s Pathfinder tool, they were able to increase carbon sequestration through the landscape and modify materials so that it would take 32 years to reach a climate-positive state — in which more carbon is stored than emitted.

Greenville Courthouse, Greenville, Mississippi / Andropogon

For the new net water- and energy-positive Yale Divinity School Living Village in New Haven, Connecticut — which is also being certified as part of the Living Building Challenge — they planted more than 230 new trees and significantly increased permeable surfaces. “We doubled the landscape’s capacity to sequester carbon.”

Yale Divinity School Living Village, New Haven, Connecticut / Andropogon

*Almiñana noted that the name of the Central Park neighborhood was changed from the Stapleton neighborhood in 2021. The community had been named after the decommissioned Stapelton airport that once comprised the site, which in turn was named after former Denver Mayor Benjamin F. Stapleton. Community association members voted to change the name of the community after learning Mayor Stapleton had been a member of Klu Klux Klan in the 1920s and in the wake of protests after the murder of George Floyd. The Denver City Council unanimously approved the name change.

70 Questions Landscape Architects Can Ask Industry Partners to Move Forward Climate and Biodiversity Goals

Collaborating with Industry Partners on Climate Action and Biodiversity: A Guide to Conversations Among Landscape Architects, Vendors, and Product Manufacturers / ASLA. Cover image: ASLA 2023 Professional Urban Design Honor Award. Town Branch Commons: An Urban Transformation in Lexington, Kentucky. SCAPE, Gresham Smith / SCAPE and Ty Cole

ASLA Releases Comprehensive Conversation Guide with Questions on Product Materials, Manufacturing, and More.

ASLA and the ASLA Fund have released Collaborating with Industry Partners on Climate Action and Biodiversity: A Guide to Conversations Among Landscape Architects, Vendors, and Product Manufacturers.

The ASLA Climate Action Committee and Corporate Member Committee curated more than 70 questions landscape architects can ask vendors and product manufacturers about:

  • Product:
    • Carbon data
    • Low-carbon material content
    • Recycled material content
    • Hazardous material content
    • Biodiversity protections
  • Use of products in landscapes
  • Location of product manufacturing
  • Manufacturing facilities
  • Company operations
  • Equity programs
  • Advocacy efforts

There are also additional questions for plant and tree nurseries.

The guide was jointly authored by landscape architects, vendors, and product manufacturers. It incorporates goals outlined in the ASLA Climate Action Plan and Field Guide, the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), and by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI).

“With this guide in hand, landscape architects can ask industry partners the right questions and move the conversation forward. Getting on the same page will lead to deeper collaboration on how to reduce our collective impacts and improve benefits,” said ASLA CEO Torey Carter-Conneen.

“The guide will enable us to expand the dialogue on embodied carbon in materials, the sustainable use of products in landscapes, and supporting equity goals in communities,” said April Phillips, FASLA, Chair, ASLA Climate Action Committee.

ASLA 2006 Professional General Design Honor Award. Small is Beautiful. Michael Van ValkenburghAssociates Inc. / Elizabeth Felicella

The guide builds on the ASLA Climate Action Plan and the Climate Action Field Guide for ASLA Members, which chart a pathway for landscape architects to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions in their projects and operations and increase carbon sequestration by 2040.

In 2022, the Climate Action Plan was developed by a high-profile Task Force of five landscape architects chaired by Pamela Conrad, ASLA, founder of Climate Positive Design, and a 17-member Advisory Group. It outlines a bold vision for 2040 and 71 actions to be taken by 2025.

Our Vision for 2040:

All landscape architecture projects will simultaneously:

  • Achieve zero embodied and operational emissions and increase carbon sequestration
  • Provide significant economic benefits in the form of measurable ecosystem services, health co-benefits, sequestration, and green jobs
  • Address climate injustices, empower communities, and increase equitable distribution of climate investments
  • Restore ecosystems and increase and protect biodiversity

ASLA also has clear goals for global biodiversity. ASLA has committed to advancing the global movement to protect and restore at least 30 percent of terrestrial, coastal, and marine ecosystems by 2030 (30 x 2030).

Towards a Circular Economy

Amsterdam, The Netherlands / istockphoto.com, bloodua

The Netherlands is ramping up plans to achieve a fully circular economy by 2050. This means the country will reimagine existing materials, reduce the extraction of raw materials, and generate “as little waste as possible.”

At this year’s Greenbuild conference in Washington, D.C., Sandra Onwijn, acting director for the transition to a circular economy at the Netherlands Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, outlined how the transformation is progressing and what their experience can teach other countries and industries.

“It won’t be easy, but we owe it to future generations. We need to cut carbon and protect biodiversity. We need to improve water and air quality. And we need to protect material supplies,” she said.

The Dutch government is creating policies, incentives, and public-private partnerships to achieve a few key goals:

  • Use less raw materials overall by reducing extraction and increasing sharing and reuse.
  • Ensure materials and products last longer and are more intensively used. “This involves repairing, repurposing, and refurbishing.”
  • Increase recycleability, recycled material content, and the substitution of bio-based materials.

“Worldwide, the building sector accounts for 50 percent of raw material use, 40 percent of energy use, 30 percent of water use, and 40 percent of waste, and more than a third of greenhouse gas emissions,” Onwijn said.

To reduce the impacts of the building sector in the Netherlands, the government has created new building and infrastructure material performance standards, which they continue to make more stringent.

The standards call for “ensuring the long life span of buildings by design.” And using “renewable and recycled materials.”

The Dutch wants every material to have its own “passport,” which can quickly show where the material came from, how it was made, and how it is taken apart and reused.

The reuse journey of materials will be continuously tracked. “This is really important to achieving a circular economy,” Onwijn said.

Other strategies are being implemented to move circularity forward. The government is now procuring circular products.

And they are creating public-private partnerships to encourage circularity in different industries. In 2018, “all players signed a concrete agreement.” Now, the textiles and plastics industries are also coalescing.

The Netherlands has banned the dumping of many types of materials in landfills. Waste regulations are being used to “phase out the linear economy.”

Onwijn reiterated the need to keep circular economy work practical. The Dutch set up the Holland Circular Hotspot program to facilitate problem solving among public authorities and companies.

They are also promoting their CIRCO program, which “invests in designing for circularity and disassembly.”

The U.S. government is much further behind in creating policies that encourage a circular economy. But built environment groups are making progress and laying the foundation for standardized, transparent materials data and reducing embodied carbon emissions. These are emissions produced by the extraction, manufacturing, transportation, and installation of materials.

Another session at Greenbuild explored efforts to reduce embodied carbon in the U.S. Jessica Bristow from the International Living Future Institute (IFLI), Meghan Lewis with the Carbon Leadership Forum, and Stacy Smedley with Building Transparency outlined progress on a new coalition: the Embodied Carbon Harmonization and Optimization (ECHO) Project.

ECHO Project

ASLA, Climate Positive Design, and 13 other organizations are part of this strategic group, which aims to “ensure all embodied carbon reporting at the whole building and whole project scale in the U.S. — including landscapes and infrastructure — follow the same clear definitions and scopes of included impacts.”

“Building industry and policymakers need clear, accurate, and accessible data for making the best decisions and policies to meaningfully reduce our impact on the environment,” they said.

“We do not have the resources or time to waste in our push toward decarbonization. The key to success is cross-disciplinary collaboration– coming together to create a consistent methodology for reporting and measuring emissions.”

It is important to scale up efforts on universal embodied carbon measurements because the state of California recently updated its building regulations to include embodied carbon requirements and other states and cities are expected to follow suit.

The Biden-Harris administration has also become more involved. It recently announced $100 million in grant funding available to develop environmental product declarations (EPDs). This is driven by the need to collect more accurate data on embodied carbon and “expand market access for low-carbon construction materials.”

Elsewhere at Greenbuild, Cody Finke with Brimstone, Mikaela DeRousseau with Building Transparency, and Ignacio Cariaga with Heidelberg Materials explored the complexities of decarbonizing concrete.

Cement, which is the binder in concrete, is the second most used natural resource on Earth after water. Some 4.3 billion tons of cement are extracted each year, resulting in approximately 30 billion tons of concrete. All this concrete accounts for 8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. “If concrete was a country, it would be the third largest polluter in the world after the U.S. and China,” Finke said.

It’s relatively easy to reduce the embodied carbon of concrete by 10-30 percent using existing strategies, DeRousseau argued. These include mixing in higher percentages of slag or fly ash. “The hard part is getting to 100 percent emission reductions,” she said.

Finke said current concrete production has a “chemistry problem.” About 40 percent of emissions are from the furnaces that heat limestone to make cement. Those can be eliminated by switching to electric furnaces powered by renewable energy. The other 60 percent of emissions come from the chemical reactions involved in transforming carbon-rich limestone into cement.

Brimstone has been developing a novel technology. Their process crushes up silicate rocks and uses magnesium to sequester carbon. “One ton of our cement stores one ton of carbon.” He thinks alternative cements need to be scaled up because the U.S. is running out of the slag and fly ash added to concrete; these are largely waste products from coal and steel production.

Brimstone cement sample / Brimstone

Heidelberg Materials explained their approach to carbon capture at a concrete production facility in Alberta, Canada. “While carbon capture alone won’t get us to net-zero, it’s another tool to fall on,” Cariaga said.

The concrete plant will be powered by renewable energy and its own heat. Greenhouse gas emissions will be captured, liquefied, and pumped 1.8 miles (3 kilometers) below ground, under existing aquifers, where the liquid will eventually turn back into limestone.

To support continuous material and manufacturing innovation, more investment in EPDs is needed, DeRousseau said. Current embodied carbon accounting systems need to be harmonized so that designers and policymakers can more easily compare products and make decisions. Embodied carbon will also soon be a factor in federal and state procurement.

Confronting the Racist Legacy of Urban Highways

Justice and the Interstates: The Racist Truth About Urban Highways / Island Press

By Diane Jones Allen, D.Eng., PLA, FASLA

Highways, in their inanimate state, cannot be racist. However, the forces that located them and the consequences of their placement are inextricably connected to race. Deborah Archer, a law professor and civil rights lawyer, captures the central concept: “Highways were built through and around Black communities to entrench racial inequality and protect white spaces and privilege.”

In the new book, Justice and the Interstates: The Racist Truth About Urban Highways, editors Ryan Reft, Amanda Phillips du Lucas, and Rebecca Retzlaff explore racial injustice and the interstate highway system. They collect essays that address the dislocation caused by interstates. The book came out of a series of articles in Metropole, a publication of the Urban History Association.

The editors explain the mechanisms used in concert with the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, including federal, state, and local housing legislation, that limited housing and economic opportunities for Latinos and Blacks. They outline how racial zoning maps adopted by municipalities across the U.S. in the early twentieth century established legal boundaries of segregated neighborhoods, making it easier to target these neighborhoods for disinvestment, demolition, and highway location.

The first part of the book brings together three chapters that explore the myths constructed by politicians, transportation planners, builders, and engineers to support building the interstate highway system despite the high costs to communities. One significant myth — the marginalization and destruction of Black and Latino communities were unpredictable consequences of highway development.

Case studies in the book show that the interstate highway system’s negative impacts on urban neighborhoods were known. And any legislation enacted to lessen the adverse effects provided little help to Black and Brown communities but often privileged the interests of their white counterparts.

Sarah Jo Peterson states that the common perception was highways were a system for interstate travel. Unintended impacts on cities were caused by their misuse for travel within cities. And everything terrible that happened in cities due to the development of interstates was the fault of city leaders and urban renewal.

Peterson offers a firm counter argument: racial injustices and the process of transforming urban transportation into highways are connected. Furthermore, these forces still influence American transportation policy and practice today. So it is imperative to articulate what occurred in the past to examine how the past still impacts current transportation development.

There has been a historical accounting of transportation in the U.S. — Edward Weiner’s Urban Transportation Planning in the United States: A Historical Overview, written in 1997. But Peterson points out that this history ignores the impacts of transportation planning and urban expressway construction on Black communities, offering little social analysis. Weiner’s book attributes the clearing of communities and the negative impacts of highway development to federal programs that had unintended consequences.

But contrary to previous historical accountings, impacts of highway development were anticipated by urban leaders. Highways weren’t developed for urban commuter travel demand; they were more suited for rural to urban commutes, especially as car ownership increased. Urban residents moved to the expanding bedroom communities of the suburbs. Urban communities were in the way. The massive acts of eminent domain required for urban expressways were barely acknowledged.

Peterson reveals a significant point: the Federal Highway Administration and highway industry knew. They anticipated the problems for urban transportation, including the dismantling of neighborhoods and the relocation that came with highway expansion, and claimed that these issues were outside of the highway planning process.

Additional citizen participation, which could have provided communities a voice in solving these problems, was mainly used to support highway projects, especially in the 1960s during the height of highway development.

In another chapter, Retzlaff and Jocelyn Zanzot, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at Auburn University, look to Alabama to explore the complexities of highway removal in the face of their racist legacy.

They view interstate highways as monuments to the American racist past, similar to the confederate statues being removed. However, unlike this public statuary, highways cannot quickly be taken down because they underpin the automobile-oriented American transportation system.

How could highways been built without awareness or concern for negative impacts? Impacts include: higher asthma rates, heart disease, mental health risks, noise pollution; increased risk of premature death, neighborhood instability, and community trauma.

Highways were placed to create convenience for some groups at the expense of others. Through the political process, highways were planned in direct alignment with urban areas, near downtowns, and through low-income and minority neighborhoods. State and local highway directors and engineers had significant input into these decisions as they were familiar with local communities, land use, and social and economic conditions.

These local decision-makers found it politically beneficial to avoid white neighborhoods when possible and route highways through neighborhoods lacking political power, which were most often those of color. Using the excuse of removing urban blight, this dark destruction was allowed as it coincided with other tools of oppression, such as redlining and urban renewal.

Alabama provides Retzlaff and Zanot the opportunity to explore a case where the legacy of interstate planning is reckoned with, resulting in reconciliation, transportation access, and community health equity.

Under Sam Englehardt, who was director of highways in Alabama in the late 1950 and early 1960s, race was a critical factor in highway planning. The Montgomery, Alabama, interstate system designed by Englehardt and the Alabama highway department offered no off-ramps from I-65, disconnecting thirteen streets of the neighborhood from the rest of the city. In 1972, African American business people on the west side of Montgomery requested that their community be declared a federal economic disaster zone due to urban renewal projects and interstate construction.

The construction of Interstate I-65 and I-85 in Montgomery displaced 1,596 families and dismantled 74 small businesses. The highway system also impacted African Americans in rural areas of Alabama as they were excluded from gaining access to the services and economic development that freeways connect to.

Retzlaff and Zanot lay out a way forward in repairing the harm caused by interstates.

Transportation and urban planning professionals who design and route interstates need to be on the side of reparative justice for neighborhoods that continue to be harmed by destructive planning and engineering of highways. Planners must actively seek policy and funding opportunities provided by government agencies that address infrastructure investment, holistic revitalization, capacity building, historic preservation, affordable housing, and economic opportunity.

An example of reconciliation: in 2021, West Jeff Davis Avenue in West Montgomery, named after the president of the Confederacy, was renamed Fred D. Gray Avenue in honor of the African American Civil rights attorney who fought against and overturned Montgomery’s segregated public bus system.

Mayor of Montgomery Steven Reed stated at the dedication that the renaming of the street was symbolic. However, concrete reconciliation would be reinvestment in the community, resulting in community health, economic opportunity, and joy.

The book then delves into how the tools engineers, planners, and civic officials used to construct the interstate highway system led directly to racial impacts.

Politicians’ planners and engineers knew the political targets of highway routing; they were communities of color. They created methods that ensured targeting and the predicted consequences.

These methods included leaving democratic and meaningful public engagement out of the highway planning process, segregating highway planning from local land use planning processes, and connecting slum clearance with highway planning and development.

As described by Ruben L. Anthony Jr. and Joseph Rodriguez, communities also used tools to fight freeway expansion. Today, freeway opponents in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, are strategically using history to oppose freeway expansion.

The history of freeways in this city is long and devastating. Between 1960 and 1971, urban renewal and highway development destroyed 20,000 homes in Milwaukee. Much of this displacement happened before the federal government instituted programs to assist communities with housing raised by highway expansion. These communities also lost jobs that went to the suburbs.

Suburbanization affected working-class Black residents who needed public transportation to access to suburban employment and other services. Those who remained in the community saw their property devalued. And the health of those remained were also affected. Many suffered lead poisoning and respiratory conditions from the building of freeways near their homes.

Gilbert Estrada and Jerry Gonzalez describe the displacement of thousands of ethnic Mexicans from their homes. The authors tell a history of forced relocation, neighborhood loss, and disregard for communities by civic officials in greater Eastside neighborhoods throughout Southern California. As with impacts on other communities, consequences were due to cold, technocratic planning.

In the case of Mexican communities, highway development displaced them from their segregated neighborhoods. It pushed them into a local suburbanized housing market, expanding the geography of Latinos in Los Angeles. The authors posit that this phenomenon resulted in delayed redress for displacement.

This demographic shift — or submerged migration, as author Michael Eric Dyson termed it — resulted in more Spanish-surnamed residents in the suburbs surrounding East Los Angeles than in East Los Angeles by 1970. A significant migration of Latinos from Mexico and Central America also contributed to this demographic shift.

Although Latinos live across Los Angeles, they have been most linked to the Eastside. During freeway construction in East Los Angeles in the 1950s and 60s, approximately 2,844 dwelling units were removed, displacing 10,966 residents. The freeways have also increased travel time for residents and restricted movement of Eastside pedestrians through 35 new barriers to local streets.

Eastside Los Angeles Interchange / formulanone, CC BY-SA 2.0

Why did such targeted destruction occur in Eastside? Estrada and Gonzalez cite a lack of financial resources, little-to-know political representation, gerrymandering, and voter suppression.

One byproduct of the new freeways was the diversification of suburban Los Angeles, like the way many urban communities were before segregation and devaluation methods were employed. Another product was the adoption of Eastside highways as their own canvas for expressing their identities, similar to how New Orleans Tremé and Seventh Ward communities have adopted the space beneath the I-10 freeway in New Orleans.

The editors of Justice and the Interstates describe community-led efforts to restore torn communities and address the harm and injustices of freeway building. Amy Stelly eloquently describes the beauty of the Tremé neighborhood and the devastation and racial injustice that it endured with the building of the Claiborne Avenue Expressway.

Stelly describes her efforts to have the freeway removed and stop the Claiborne Corridor Innovation District, a plan to stabilize the uses that community members currently undertake beneath the freeway. She provides valuable techniques in this chapter for community action, including:

  • Galvanizing like-minded allies to coalesce around a shared mission
  • Publishing position papers
  • Connecting to other organizations with needed expertise
  • Working with political representatives
  • Using effective lobbying
  • And, most importantly, communicating with impacted residents through public awareness campaigns.

The District is in its first phase of construction. It doesn’t run counter to Stelly’s goal of removing the freeway and restoring Claiborne Avenue. It activates the space beneath the freeway, claiming and defying this structure in preparation for the time when the freeway comes down. It also forces planners of a post-freeway future to recognize this land as the community’s own.

Claiborne Corridor Innovation District / Diane Jones Allen, FASLA

Justice and the Interstates challenges readers to grapple with the problematic history of interstate development in America. It calls upon citizens, scholars, planners, lawmakers, and all concerned about urban infrastructure, mobility, health, and the equity of our cities to look at the unjust past so as not to repeat it.

The book exposes the intentional methods to remove citizens from their homes and level neighborhoods in the name of progress. Importantly, this text also reveals methods for reconciliation, healing urban scars — literally and figuratively — and planning a path forward. In this effort, landscape architects can play a major role.

Landscape architects dwell well in the space of community healing. We can lead and contribute to environmental and social-cultural reclamation and the renewal of places once devastated by highway infrastructure. Biden-Harris administration funding of highway removal signals that federal and state agencies are now working with local governments. There is a need to remove highways and increase climate mitigation and resilience. Landscape architects can use their unique skills and expertise.

Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, is director and professor of landscape architecture, University of Texas at Arlington College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs, and principal landscape architect at DesignJones, LLC. She is author of Lost in the Transit Desert: Race, Transit Access, and Suburban Form (Routledge, 2017).