Landscape Architects Will Push for Nature-based Solutions at COP28 

From left to right: Torey Carter-Conneen; Pamela Conrad, ASLA; Kotchakorn Voraakhom, International ASLA

Delegates will highlight the key role of landscape architecture in maximizing the benefits of nature for people and communities

ASLA is sending two delegates to COP28 in Dubai, UAE, and eight virtual delegates will join online. This is the second year ASLA has been an NGO observer to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (COP) process.

At COP28, ASLA delegates will argue:

Nature-based solutions to climate change and biodiversity loss are more than mangroves, forests, and grasslands. Using landscape architecture strategies, they can be woven into places where people live. They can take the form of parks, recreation areas, streets, coastal infrastructure, and more. Through inclusive design, they can provide even greater benefits to people and support the healthy urban ecosystems people rely on.

While more communities are integrating nature-based solutions, those advances are not widespread. All communities need equitable access to best practices, project financing, and the landscape architecture, planning, ecology, and engineering professionals who make these projects a reality.

ASLA 2023 Professional Landmark Award. Vista Hermosa Park Natural Park, Los Angeles, California. Studio-MLA / Tom Lamb

Landscape architects design nature-based solutions to create real benefits for people and communities:

1) Increased Biodiversity
Nature-positive landscapes are the foundation of terrestrial ecosystems and efforts to achieve 30 x 2030 and 10% net biodiversity goals, restore global ecosystems, and increase and protect biodiversity.

2) Improved Human Health and Livability 
Accessible public landscapes, such as parks and recreation areas, provide proven physical and mental health benefits that reduce healthcare costs and increase community cohesion.

3) Going Beyond Net-Zero

Landscapes are the most efficient way to store carbon and achieve zero embodied and operational emissions and double carbon sequestration by 2040.

4) Strengthened Resilience 

Healthy, biodiverse landscapes that store carbon in trees, plants, and soils also increase people’s resilience to climate impacts, such as extreme heat, flooding, drought, and sea level rise.

5) Expanded Investment and Sustainable Livelihoods

When woven into communities, nature-based solutions become resilient assets that lead to increased investment in housing, infrastructure, and public amenities, and create sustainable local livelihoods.

In-person delegates include:

Additional in-person landscape architect delegate of the Government of Thailand:

ASLA 2019 Professional General Design Honor Award. Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park
Honor Award. Bangkok, Thailand. LANDPROCESS

All three speakers will be presenting in these blue zone sessions:

Scaling Up Nature-Based Solutions in Urban Environments
Wednesday, December 6, 4.15 AM – 5.15 AM EST / 1:15 PM – 2:15 PM GST
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Pavilion

Nature-based Solutions & the Built Environment: Designing for Resilience, Drawdown & Biodiversity
Friday, December 8, 7.45 AM – 9.15 AM EST / 4.45 PM – 6.15 PM GST
Official COP28 Blue Zone Side Event, SE Room 9

ASLA virtual delegates joining online include:

At COP28, Countries Need to Get on Track to Hit 2030 Goals

Solar Strand, University at Buffalo. Hood Design Studio / Douglas Levere, University at Buffalo

In 2023, temperatures were the hottest on record. This is because the current level of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere hasn’t been seen in 3-5 million years. A slew of United Nations (UN) climate reports released over the past few months tell the same story: the world’s governments are taking action to reduce global temperatures but are not moving fast enough. The lack of progress is only increasing climate risks.

The latest Emissions Gap Report from the UN Environment Program (UNEP) finds that current pledges by countries that signed on to the Paris Agreement will lead to a 2.5°C (4.5°F) to 2.9°C (5.2°F°) temperature rise this century, far surpassing the goal of a 1.5°C (2.7°F) temperature increase. And last year, global greenhouse gas emissions increased by 1.2 per cent to reach a new high of 57.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (GtCO2e). This means governments, particularly the largest historical polluters, need to dramatically scale up their emission reduction efforts.

World leaders are looking to the upcoming global climate summit — COP28 — in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to build new momentum. There, countries will confirm the “global stocktake,” which analyzes emissions data from the past five years, and set new targets in 2025 to be achieved by 2035.

“Every fraction of a degree matters, but we are severely off track. COP28 is our time to change that,” said Simon Stiell, Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change. “It’s time to show the massive benefits now of bolder climate action: more jobs, higher wages, economic growth, opportunity and stability, less pollution and better health.”

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that countries need to cut global greenhouse gases 43 percent by 2030 in comparison with 2019 levels to keep goals in reach.

Unfortunately, countries are only taking “baby steps” in this direction, Stiell has said. The UN analyzed the nationally determined commitments (NDCs) of 195 countries that signed on to the Paris Agreement. They found that if current commitments are met, global greenhouse gas emissions will increase by 2 percent by 2030 in comparison with 2019 levels, which is very far from the 43 percent drop needed.

To speed up the peaking process and start making more dramatic cuts, countries need to invest more in transforming their economies and communities, particularly the transition to renewable energy. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says $4.5 trillion of investment in renewable energy is needed each year by 2030 to keep the 1.5°C temperature increase goal in reach. In 2023, renewable energy spending is anticipated to be $1.8 trillion, less than half what is required.

Greater investment in renewable energy also means more planning and design work will be needed to appropriately site the expansion of wind and solar power across landscapes. As Hood Design Studio demonstrated with the Solar Strand at the University at Buffalo, it can be done in a way that reduces impacts on wildlife and supports ecological restoration.

The risks of slow progress on reducing emissions are only becoming clearer. A report published in The Lancet by 114 scientists contends that “climate change continues to have a worsening effect on health and mortality around the world.” The New York Times reports: “One of the starkest findings is that heat-related deaths of people older than 65 have increased by 85 percent since the 1990s.”

The U.S. government also recently released its fifth national climate assessment. It states: “Across the country, efforts to adapt to climate change and reduce emissions have expanded since 2018, and U.S. emissions have fallen since peaking in 2007. However, without deeper cuts in global net greenhouse gas emissions and accelerated adaptation efforts, severe climate risks to the United States will continue to grow.”

The assessment finds that states, tribal authorities, and cities are taking advantage of new adaptation measures, including “nature-based solutions, such as restoring coastal wetlands and oyster reefs.” It also points to the growth of green infrastructure to tackle increased stormwater; efforts to manage vegetation to reduce wildfire risks; and the rise of urban heat plans, which leverage expanded tree canopies to reduce dangerous heat islands.

ASLA 2023 Professional General Design Honor Award. The University of Texas at El Paso Transformation. El Paso, Texas. Ten Eyck Landscape Architects, Inc / Bill Timmerman

But they still conclude that even in a wealthy country like the U.S., “current adaptation efforts and investments are insufficient to reduce today’s climate-related risks and keep pace with future changes in the climate.”

Extreme weather events — longer heatwaves and droughts, worse floods and wildfires — have grown in number. In the 1980s, the U.S. experienced approximately 3 billion-dollar disasters per year. But over the past four years, that has skyrocketed to more than 22 billion-dollar events annually, and many of these events are highly costly. “Extreme events cost the U.S. close to $150 billion each year—a conservative estimate that does not account for loss of life, healthcare-related costs, or damages to ecosystem services.”

In this new era of increased climate impacts, landscape architects, planners, engineers, and architects are needed more than ever to envision new climate-resilient infrastructure that keep communities safe, and also pragmatic climate migration plans where this isn’t feasible.

Climate policymakers also see the need for new global goals for adaptation, an area where landscape architects can provide leadership and effective strategies.

For example, in China, 70 cities have joined the “Sponge City” movement led by landscape architect Kongjian Yu, FASLA, founder of Turenscape and the 2023 Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize winner. The goal is that by 2030, 80 percent of these cities will absorb 70 percent of rainfall through green infrastructure approaches, reducing the impacts of sea level rise and flooding.

Sanya Dong’an Wetland Park, Sanya, Hainan Province, China, 2021 / ©Turenscape, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation
ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. A Green Sponge for a Water-Resilient City: Qunli Stormwater Park. Haerbin City, Heilongjiang Province, China / © Turenscape

A range of adaptation targets, rooted in nature-based solutions, are needed to not only reduce damages from flooding and sea level rise, but also extreme heat, drought, and other climate health impacts.

Nature-based solutions are smart because they provide many additional benefits — increased biodiversity, greater carbon drawdown, improved health, and economic growth. At COP28, landscape architect delegates will press global leaders to increase investment in these solutions.

Close watchers of the climate negotiations expect to see progress at COP28 on developing new adaptation goals. These targets can help drive the creation of more accurate climate financing goals, and spur wealthy countries to donate more loss and damage funds to the people and communities already experiencing impacts.

Socially Just Public Spaces Are Crucial to Flourishing Societies

Why Public Space Matters / Oxford University Press

By Grace Mitchell Tada

One of the most radical instances of public space transformation happened recently. During the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, public space transformed into “a medical resource, a distribution hub, an overflow space, a center of protest and resistance, a gym, a senior center, a community center, a daycare center, a schoolyard, a night club, a transportation corridor, an outdoor restaurant, a shopping mall, a children’s playground, an outdoor theater, a music venue, a nature center, and a place of belonging and ‘being at home.’”

As Setha Low writes in her book Why Public Space Matters, “public space mattered.”

Why do public spaces matter? For Low, an anthropologist by training and distinguished professor of environmental psychology, geography, anthropology, and women’s studies at the City University of New York, their importance lies in their social value and their role in establishing socially just communities.

They are places of social interaction and community building. They are places where people learn to live with difference. They offer a stage for political and social protest and can encourage democracy and equality. They are crucial to the flourishing of people and their greater societies.

Public space encompasses all sorts of spaces: the typical parks, plazas, and libraries, but also streets and sidewalks, social infrastructure, and “environmental linkages.” Yet the definition of public space varies according to who is defining it. A landscape architect, for instance, centers spatial form and people’s interactions with the environment, while a social scientist focuses on social relations.

To establish a more uniform understanding of public space, Low proposes six characteristics that people across disciplines can use to define any public space:

  • Physical aspects
  • Ownership
  • Governance or management authority and funding
  • Control and influence, rules and regulations, and access
  • Symbolic/historical meaning
  • And political activity

Determining these six characteristics shows that “there are many kinds, not one ideal type” of public space.

Throughout the book, Low draws on her decades of public space research, which began in 1978. Since that time, issues including racial injustice, socioeconomic inequality, and climate change, among others, have always been important, but are even more acutely so now. It’s on these issues that she focuses her book.

Low points to Jones Beach, 20 miles from New York City and one of the most popular state parks in New York, as a public space where park visitors experience social justice. Her two years of research showed how many diverse groups of people frequent a space where they feel they are accepted and belong, especially in a context where surrounding towns restrict beach access.

Jones Beach State Park, New York / Wikipedia, Chanilim714, CC BY-SA 3.0

The site’s design accommodates and welcomes different people through physical design and markers—smooth boardwalks and ramps, ample benches, signs that speak to the historic Lakota Village, and so forth. But, furthermore, Jones Beach, has so “many kinds of people, environments to experience, and things to do that most people find a place for themselves and thus feel represented and welcome.” They also feel recognized and respected.

Low argues that places like Jones Beach are key to a democratic society and public space—and, as a result, so is evaluating social justice in public spaces. She offers the Social Justice and Public Space Evaluation Framework to both examine and design just spaces, which is useful to designers and community members alike.

Parks sites like Jones Beach, as well as other sites Low studies, such as Walkway Over the Hudson Historical Park in Poughkeepsie and Highland, New York, and Lake Welch Beach at Harriman State Park, New York, embody stereotypical public spaces, especially in the minds of landscape architects.

Another type of public space she examines is less often considered: the streets, sidewalks, plazas, bridges, and other public spaces used as part of the informal economy. This economy can be as much of 70 percent of the workforce in urban sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Working in these public spaces — including in neoliberal societies like our own that have few safeguards for poorer and unhoused people — makes workers especially exposed to physical violence, theft, police surveillance, and incarceration.

Dabbawallas delivering lunches as part of Mumbai’s informal economy / Wikipedia, Joe Zachs from Pune, India, CC BY 2.0

Selling, delivering, waste collecting, care-giving: all these activities unfold in public spaces. In the landscape profession where glamorous park designs often grab the most attention, it’s important to remember that “for much of the world, public space is a place of work or looking for work and building social capital to find a better or more stable job.” Low’s ethnographic case studies from around the world demonstrate how these spaces are adaptable and empowering to the people who use them as their workplaces.

In Paris, the ecologically sensitive Jardins d’Eole emerged from a brownfield site due to the activism of the surrounding West African and Maghrebi neighbors / Paris Government

As a medical anthropologist by training, Low consistently makes clear that social dynamics are at the heart of her understanding of public space. Yet she sees environmental sustainability as an integral thread of that understanding. Her first teaching job, in the department of landscape architecture and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania, was to instruct “human and environmental health as an outcome of ecological planning.”

For Low, elements like community gardens and urban agriculture are ecological boons not in themselves, but because they “[build] stronger communities, [support] social reproduction, and [promote] environmental justice.” She highlights the words of a Detroit resident: “Environmental justice is not just about the distribution of bad stuff….It’s also about the distribution of power among communities that have historically only been subjects and experiments of power structures.”

The book’s various chapters showcase Low’s systematic ethnographies that undergird her findings. She observes, talks, maps, and writes field notes which ultimately reveal patterns of behaviors and interests. Low appreciates this methodology of ethnography because, rather than, say, counting the number of people in a space, “it focuses on why people are doing what they are doing from their own point of view.”

Ethnography also means that the perspective of the researcher—by nature subjective—plays a significant role in the research. To illustrate her reflexivity, the book is scattered with excerpts from Low’s field notes about children creating play spaces in Nairobi, improvised workplaces on the streets of Varanasi, her ecological planning work on Sanibel Island, Florida.

It’s these sharp, empathetic observations of public spaces—what makes them work, the people that activate them, and the diversity of ways in which they use these spaces—that animate the book and so vividly illustrate her assertion that public spaces are crucial to flourishing societies.

Low writes of her decades of research in a way that makes her work seem effortless. Her evocative field notes reveal the pleasure she takes in experiencing and doing her work understanding urban landscapes. Yet it’s also clear that she dedicated much effort and time to each of her case studies. She acknowledges that certain projects took years as she observed participants and conducted extensive interviews.

She knows this is an impractical span of time for landscape architects wishing to conduct similar research or evaluation. But they nonetheless require a rigorous way to study interactions between humans and their environment. So the book’s final chapter offers toolkits, methodologies, and resources for designing and evaluating public spaces. Most notably, Low provides a blueprint for how readers can achieve less time-intensive public space ethnographies in the same vein as her own.

Low calls this method the Toolkit for the Ethnographic Study of Space (TESS), which she developed in conjunction with her colleagues. She co-opted some techniques from the Rapid Ethnographic Assessment Procedure, a methodology used by medical anthropologists that takes only months, as well as other behavioral techniques.

Ultimately, TESS consists of five steps:

1) Mapping
2) Participant observation
3) Interviewing
4) Historical documentation
5) Analysis

“It is not a design toolkit,” she writes, “but an ethnographic one developed to enable you to become your own social scientist and get directly involved in public space activism to improve cities for the future.”

Tompkins Square Park in East Village, Manhattan, New York City. Low created a case study of the park using the TESS method / Wikipedia, David Shankbone, CC BY-SA 3.0

Low believes in the power of socially just public space to have transformative effects. While a park or sidewalk or plaza may not resolve issues of social injustice alone, she believes they can be places to start. She has presented the framework, and her own examples, to empower the reader to begin transformation of their own effort, in their own community.

Grace Mitchell Tada, ASLA, is with Hood Design Studio and PGAdesign and co-editor of the book Black Landscapes Matter.

How Fire-Prone Communities Can Reduce Their Risk

Fire risk reduction strategy / SWA

16% of Americans now live in “designated fire hazard areas,” states SWA, a landscape architecture firm. And nearly 80 million U.S. properties face a “significant chance of exposure” to wildfires. Risks to both people and property are expected to dramatically increase by 2050.

To address this threat, SWA created an illustrated guide — Playbook for the Pyrocene, which offers 20 community planning and design strategies that can be applied by landscape architects, planners, homeowners, and developers.

The guide is authored by Jonah Susskind, senior research associate at SWA’s XL Research and Innovation Lab, and a team of researchers at the firm: Alison Ecker, Sydnie Zhang, Harrison Raine, Shannon Clancy, Dallas Ford, Peter Rustad, Rajpankaja Talukdar, and Ted Vuchinich.

“As wildfires become more frequent and destructive, we must rethink how communities are planned and designed. Fire is as complex as it is elemental, and there will never be a singular, tidy solution,” writes Alison Ecker, SWA, in the guide.

Instead SWA offers communities a way to layer solutions and apply practical, science-based guidelines and strategies to reduce risk at the community scale.

Fire risk reduction strategy / SWA

The guide synthesizes research findings from fire science, forestry, land use planning, and emergency management. And it builds on many years of wildfire work by SWA. “First, a set of landscape strategies developed with the community of Paradise, California after the 2018 Camp Fire. Then, a 945-acre planning study in Sonoma County, California. And, ultimately, a collaboration with the California Governor’s Office to develop statewide guidelines for wildfire planning,” Jackson Rollings, director of communications at SWA, explained.

“After the tragedy in Lahaina in Maui, there’s been a lot of reporting on rebuilding and recovery, but not nearly enough on actionable solutions and community-scale planning. This resource is intended to fill that knowledge gap and make these strategies plain and legible,” he added.

SWA argues that “supercharged fires” are growing worldwide. They are caused by “misguided” fire suppression policies; climate change; and unabated development in the wildland-urban interface (WUI).

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, WUI is a term for fire-prone lands where “human development meets or intermingles with undeveloped wildland or vegetative fuels.” With increased sprawl, the WUI is growing by 2 million acres each year.

Susskind delves into each cause of increased wildfire risk:

“Fire suppression policies resulted in far fewer acres burned, but over time, they inadvertently created an immense stockpile of unburnt fuels. As a result, today’s fires have become much larger and tend to burn much hotter than they would have naturally.”

“Eminent fire historian Stephen Pyne has dubbed our current epoch the Pyrocene because of the degree to which human manipulation of natural fire regimes have permanently altered Earth systems.”

Climate change is also fueling more destructive annual megafires. “Prolonged periods of record-breaking heat and drought have impacted fire-prone ecosystems by desiccating forests and grasslands and significantly increasing the length of annual fire seasons.”

And living in the WUI puts many people in the most immediate danger. “In recent decades, due to the housing-affordability crisis, NIMBYism, and local zoning restrictions, more affordable development has been pushed further away from city centers to comply with state mandates, and the WUI has become the fastest growing land use category in the US. Today, nearly 100 million people (about a third of the U.S. population) live in the WUI.”

Fire risk reduction strategy / SWA

In California, “more than 80 percent of California’s fire-related structure loss has occurred in these high-risk zones.” And if WUI development continues at a similar pace over the next thirty years, 20 million Californians could call these fire-prone landscapes home.

(California currently accounts for approximately half of properties at risk from wildfire. Other states with major fire hazards are Texas, Colorado, Arizona, Idaho, Washington, Oklahoma, Oregon, Montana, Utah, and many others.)

“We did not intend for the resource to influence high-level land-use planning decisions, which are usually much further upstream,” Susskind told us.

“The questions we are trying to answer here are not so much where to build, but rather how to build better within the context of wildfire broadly.”

Fire risk reduction strategy / SWA

A key part of that is learning how to design with ecosystems that are naturally dependent on fire.

“This means [designing] in ways that support fire as a critical part of ecosystem health and stability. Each of the strategies can be applied in order to reduce risks for frontline communities while simultaneously ensuring that fire can effectively support fire-dependent ecologies,” Susskind said.

Fire risk reduction strategy / SWA

SWA also sees the guide as just the start of a broader, collaborative effort to reduce risks.

“Landscape architects, urban designers, planners, and developers all have work to do to fill critical knowledge gaps. Best practices will need to be expanded and codified through professional licensure and institutional accreditation. Practitioners will need to have a firm grasp of the basic principles of fire behavior, vegetation management, and defensible space.”

“We will need to build and maintain partnerships with firefighting agencies, fire-safe councils, prescribed burn associations, and other key organizations. We will also need to advocate for more robust and ecologically informed wildfire policies that boost accountability for those making development decisions in high-risk areas.”

The Very Personal Impact of Community Green Spaces

ASLA 2020 Professional General Design Honor Award. Naval Cemetery Landscape Honor Award. Brooklyn, New York. Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects / Max Touhey

By Alden E. Stoner

While landscape architects’ work touches people’s lives every day, they rarely get to hear from the people who interact with their work. Designing outdoor spaces and using those spaces are two distinct phases. But what if there were a way to get a glimpse into how people feel about landscaped green spaces, years or even decades after they were designed?

At Nature Sacred, we believe nature offers powerful benefits for health and mental well-being, particularly in urban areas, where it can be hard to connect to the natural world. We’ve spent the past 25 years supporting green spaces that are nearby and integrated into the communities that use them, open to all, and designed to encourage contemplation and peace. We call them Sacred Places.

When we built our first Sacred Place, we tucked a waterproof journal under the wooden bench that serves as a centerpiece of the space. We were surprised and moved by the volume and breadth of writings that visitors added to it. Nature emboldened people to share their ideas, loves, losses, gratitude, and encouragement with great vulnerability – and sometimes a bit of humor.

As we developed more Sacred Places – now over 100 across the U.S. – we added a journal to each one. Our archive of journals grew, and we realized the wisdom contained in them was too valuable to keep to ourselves. We collected the most touching, memorable, and thought-provoking entries in a book that was published last year titled BenchTalk: Wisdoms Inspired in Nature.

BenchTalk is not only a testament to the power of nature but also to the work of the landscape architects who bring each Sacred Place to life with the help of a community-led design process. Throughout the book, a constant theme is people’s gratitude for a small pocket of nature where they can reflect.

“Never knew of this space – little sanctuary amid the rubble of the BQE. Boy do we need more spaces like it – to allow ourselves a moment to connect with the infinite, with the silent rhythms within – even as the traffic hums unabated, and planes fly overhead.” – Naval Cemetery Landscape in Brooklyn, New York

We worked with Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects and Marvel Designs to transform a 1.5-acre former cemetery into an award-winning green space that’s filled with life while honoring the site’s history and the community’s needs. A partnership with Brooklyn Community Housing and Services offers formerly homeless residents a chance to interact with nature in their community. And a local high school has developed a science curriculum based on the Sacred Place’s meadow, sparking an appreciation for nature among a new generation.

“Looking up at these towering trees, I am overcome with the feeling of being blessed. I am also keenly aware that these arching trunks and branches are only half the picture. I thus ask these deep roots to give me strength. Thank you for this space.” – The Green Road at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland

The Green Road at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland / Courtesy of Nature Sacred

The Green Road was designed with the help of Jack Sullivan, FASLA, to provide a place for veterans to heal from PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. Featuring a forested area with paved, accessible trails, the space intentionally retained “wild” and natural elements to mirror the wild and chaotic realities of war that these veterans have lived through.

“Today is the day Baby K is trying to start his life of greatness. Mark these words that the world has a new warrior with passion, heart, and power!” – Terrace Garden at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland, Oregon

Terrace Garden at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland, Oregon / Courtesy of Nature Sacred

The Terrace Garden is a therapeutic garden filled with plants to mark the changing seasons, connected to the Family Birth Center and Cardiovascular ICU at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center. Designed in collaboration with Brian Bainnson, ASLA, of Quatrefoil, the space bears witness to the highs and lows of life, offering serenity for laboring mothers and recovering cardiac patients, as well as the doctors and nurses who work tirelessly to help them.

“Tough times never last but tough people do. #JoplinStrong” – The Butterfly Garden and Overlook in Joplin, Missouri

The Butterfly Garden and Overlook in Joplin, Missouri / Courtesy of Nature Sacred

The Butterfly Garden and Overlook is part of our Landscapes of Resilience Project, which aims to show how green spaces can support community resilience and recovery in the wake of a tragedy – in this case, the tornado that killed 161 Joplin residents in 2011. We collaborated with Traci Sooter and students from Drury University, city officials, psychologists, and community members to design this healing garden. The result is a Sacred Place with design themes related to the mourning process and a butterfly pavilion referencing children’s reflections that butterflies helped them during the storm.

In every corner of the country, in neighborhoods, universities, hospitals, prisons, and more, we’ve seen that creating restful green spaces with community input has a profound impact on people’s lives. If you’d like to join us in this work, please reach out.

Alden E. Stoner is the CEO of Nature Sacred.

Kongjian Yu Wins 2023 Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize

2023 Oberlander Prize Laureate Kongjian Yu, FASLA / © Barrett Doherty

The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) announced Chinese landscape architect Kongjian Yu, FASLA, has won the 2023 Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize for his influential planning, design, and advocacy work to advance “sponge cities.

The biennial award of $100,000 will include two years of public engagement focused on Yu’s work, ideas, and the state of contemporary landscape architecture.

The prize is named after German-born Canadian landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, FASLA, who passed away in 2021 at age 99.

TCLF states that the prize is bestowed on a recipient who is “exceptionally talented, creative, courageous, and visionary” and has “a significant body of built work that exemplifies the art of landscape architecture.”

The seven-person international prize jury, chaired by Elizabeth Mossop, FASLA, wrote: “A brilliant and prolific designer, Kongjian Yu is also a force for progressive change in landscape architecture around the world. Through built works, lectures, publications, teaching, and a series of celebrated letter to the leaders of China, he has striven to direct landscape practices away from a destructive confrontation with natural forces toward a more optimistic position of cooperation and adaptation.”

Yu said: “I deeply appreciate the jury for their brave decision to recognize my work, when there were so many talented nominees who I believe much deserve this prize. They include our fields’ well-established giants in developed countries, who have inspired my work.”

“I deeply believe that landscape architecture can and will play a key role in healing the planet. As Cornelia Oberlander stated: ‘Landscape architects must be leaders, especially in dealing with the effects of climate change.’”

Yu’s “sponge cities” concept is about using nature-based solutions to reduce widespread urban flooding brought on by development and climate change. These solutions act as “sponges soaking up rainfall” instead of containing and conveying water through traditional concrete infrastructure.

ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. A Green Sponge for a Water-Resilient City: Qunli Stormwater Park. Haerbin City, Heilongjiang Province, China / © Turenscape

Sponges can be layered and take a variety of forms: “constructed wetlands, greenways, parks, canopy tree and woodland protection, rain gardens, green roofs, permeable pavements, bioswales, and other measures.”

Thanks to Yu’s multi-decade advocacy campaign, China made investment in sponge cities its national policy in 2013.

Letters to the Leaders of China. Kongjian Yu and hte Future of the Chinese City / Terreform

Since then, more than 70 Chinese cities have implemented sponge policies and programs. The goal is that by 2030, 80% of the cities will absorb 70% of rainfall. This effort forms one of the planet’s most ambitious Mega Eco-Projects.

Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, President and CEO of TCLF, said Yu’s ideas are “inspiring planners and decision makers in Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, England, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Sweden, and elsewhere.”

Yu is the founder and leader of the Graduate School of Landscape Architecture and the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at Peking University in Bejing. He is also founder and principal designer of Turenscape, a landscape architecture firm with more than 400 employees.

According to TCLF, Yu and his firm have built 600 projects in more than 200 cities; mostly in China, but also in France, Indonesia, Russia, Singapore, Thailand, and the U.S.

A few of Yu’s key projects:

ASLA 2007 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Red Ribbon – Tanghe River Park, Qinhuangdao City, Hebei Province, China. Turenscape (Beijing Turen Design Institute) and Peking University Graduate School of Landscape Architecture, Beijing, China / © Turenscape

Red Ribbon Park
Qinhuangdao, Hebei Province, 2007

Once a make-shift garbage dump, Yu revitalized this landscape along the Tanghe River, weaving in diverse native plants and adding a “sinuous 1,640-feet-long (500-meter) red benchlike structure” that glows at night.

Zhongshan Shipyard Park, Zhongshan, Guandong Province, China, 2011 / © Turenscape courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Zhongshan Shipyard Park
Zhongshan, Guandong Province, 2001

Yu transformed a bankrupt shipyard built in the 1950s into a 27-acre park that retains and repurposes machines, docks, and other industrial structures. “Yu believes in the retention of cultural landscape heritage, including industrial sites and working landscapes,” TCLF writes.

ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. A Green Sponge for a Water-Resilient City: Qunli Stormwater Park. Haerbin City, Heilongjiang Province, China / © Turenscape

Qunli Stormwater Park
Qunli New District, Harbin City, Heilongjiang Province, 2011

“One of the first ‘sponge cities’ projects to gain wide attention, this 80-acre (34.2-hectare) national urban wetland park was created from a dying wetland.” Yu built ponds and mounds, with native grasses, meadows, and silver birch trees accessible via pathways and elevated walkways.

ASLA 2020 Professional General Design Honor Award. Deep Form of Designed Nature: Sanya Mangrove Park. Sanya City, Hainan Province, China. / © Turenscape

Sanya Mangrove Park
Sanya, Hainan Province, 2016

A landfill lined with concrete flood walls became a 24.7 (10 hectare) “lush and biodiverse” mangrove park along the Sanya River. “Finger-like landforms with skywalks connect with pathways that lead to elevated pavilions.”

Sanya Dong’an Wetland Park, Sanya, Hainan Province, China, 2021 / © Turenscape, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Sanya Dong’an Wetland Park
Sanya, Hainan Province, 2016

“One of the earliest and the most significant demonstration and multi-functional projects of the nationwide sponge city effort.” 168 acres (68 hectares) of polluted wetlands were restored and became a park that also integrates ponds, rice paddies, greenways, and coastal habitat into a “holistic sponge system.”

And in the U.S., Yu designed:

Hing Hay Park, Seattle, WA, 2018 / © Miranda Estes, courtesy Turenscape and The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Hing Hay Park
Seattle, Washington, 2018

At two-thirds of an acre (.27-hectare), this small park in the Chinatown-International District Neighborhood features a bold red “metal gateway inspired by Asian paper cutting and folding traditions.” Yu partnered with the Seattle-based firm MIG | SvR to design a park with “multiple garden terraces, inspired by the rice paddies of Yu’s agrarian upbringing, and numerous gathering and performance spaces,” TCLF writes.

In the book Designed Ecologies: The Landscape Architecture of Kongjian Yu, (2012), William Saunders writes: “During the 1966 to 1976 Cultural Revolution … [Yu] grew up near an enchanting forest and a fish-filled creek, only to see the forest cut down and the creek become too polluted to support life. This helps explain the depth of his commitment to recreating and protecting natural abundance.”

“He suffered social ostracism in the countryside for having wealthy ancestors and then for being a ‘country bumpkin’ when he made it to the big city. This helps us understand his conviction that parks are to be enjoyed by all ranks of people.”

“He loved farming and was proud that his commune used every square meter of its land productively. This helps explain his revulsion to landscapes that are ‘merely’ ornamental.”

“He learned how to deploy scarce water resources and cultivate crops in ways that ensured their survival. And this helps us understand his will to create parks that are low-maintenance and ‘productive.’”

Hear from Yu himself, who reflects on his early life and inspirations: