Interview with Pamela Conrad: Climate Positive Design

Pamela Conrad, ASLA

Pamela Conrad, ASLA, is a principal at CMG Landscape Architecture in San Francisco, California, and founder of Climate Positive Design. She is a recipient of the 2018 Landscape Architecture Foundation Fellowship for the development of the award-winning Pathfinder landscape carbon calculator app and the Climate Positive Design Challenge.

A year ago, you launched Climate Positive Design in an effort to help landscape architects design and build projects that can become climate positive, meaning that over their lifespan they sequester more greenhouse gas emissions than they embody or produce. You also put out a major challenge to the community, stating that if all landscape architects and designers took a climate positive approach, they could sequester an estimated one gigaton of greenhouse gases by 2050. What motivated you to start this effort?

First, I had to dig in and understand all the science and policy. I made a conscious effort to understand the Paris Climate Accord, and more recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report calling for limiting global temperature increase to 1.5 °C (2.7 ˚F).

I was shocked to find out that according to the IPCC, we have less than ten years to prevent catastrophic events from happening to human lives, and that those who have the least, particularly in the global South, will likely be impacted the most.

A few years back, I read the book Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. It was the first time climate solutions were broken down and made accessible. I realized that 20 percent of the outlined solutions are land-based and can be part of landscape architects’ everyday work.

Out of curiosity, I began analyzing case study projects from our work at CMG. I realized it is relatively easy to improve the carbon impacts of our projects without reducing the quality or performance.

I started to grasp that what we do as designers can make a big difference when we scale up all of our work around the world. It was with this understanding that I launched the Climate Positive Design Challenge.

Since launching the Pathfinder app, a tool that helps landscape architects, designers, property owners, design to a carbon positive state, nearly 1,500 projects have been submitted, totaling more than 43,000 acres. In addition to other climate-friendly practices, these projects are expected to plant 777,000 trees, which, in ten years, will result in 1.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gases being sequestered. What have you learned from this first set of projects that have been submitted? What patterns are you seeing?

Within the first year, we’ve seen a gradual improvement in the years-to-positive scores across project sites. This is being achieved by a continuous reduction in greenhouse gas emissions through the embodied carbon and materials and operational carbon in landscapes, and an increase of carbon sequestration. It’s looking at that overall equation for a landscape carbon impact.

In the first few months, we saw a lot of academic projects being logged. It seems that the Pathfinder is being widely used as a teaching tool – which is great! Since realizing that, we’ve added in a feature so those studies can be used as an academic resource, but their data will be excluded from the overall impact numbers.

The current average years-to-positive is 21 years for urban landscapes like plazas and streetscapes, and the target is 20 years to positive, so we’re really close to reaching our goal. We will perhaps make it more challenging going forward.

For parks and gardens, campuses — inherently greener projects – the years to positive target is five years. The average of all the projects received to date is nine years to positive, so we’re not quite there yet. We need to keep pushing, which is the point of a challenge.

Climate Positive Design case study (before) / CMG Landscape Architecture
Climate Positive Design case study (after) / CMG Landscape Architecture

We’ve also seen that the projects across the board have over three times more sequestration than emissions, which is fantastic. This would put us on track to meeting our overall goals.

One of the helpful things about the data we have collected over this past year is that we can see the average emissions and sequestration per square foot. That information will be used in the upcoming landscape carbon SITES and LEED pilot credits. We’re now able to take this data, transform it, and relate it to other rating systems, which will hopefully increase exposure and awareness of Climate Positive Design and other rating systems.

What are the top five things all landscape architects should be doing now in their projects to sequester more carbon and get to climate positive? What things have the biggest bang for the buck, in terms of the climate?

I like to keep things simple. Otherwise, it’s too easy to become overwhelmed and not change our practices.

The top five things to remember are: plant more; pave less; use materials with lower embodied carbon; update your specifications to meet the highest sustainability performance standards, specifically your concrete specifications by using cement substitutions. The fifth is to create operations and maintenance manuals that limit the use of fossil fuels to operate the equipment to maintain landscapes — so use organic fertilizers rather than fertilizers made from fossil fuels.

You note that deciduous trees store a bit more carbon than evergreens. Are there particular species of trees and shrubs that are carbon sequestering powerhouses?

This is perhaps the most frequently asked question. There is no one perfect tree for sequestering the most carbon. The best tree to plant is the one that will grow the fastest, live the longest, and get the biggest. This the tree that is going to sequester the most carbon in the region your project is located.

Carbon is directly correlated to biomass. A redwood tree — a massive tree that lives a very long time — is going to sequester much more carbon than a small, understory redbud tree. This is just as an example where size does matter.

Another interesting example is bamboo. It is a rapidly renewable, woody species that can be converted into building products, such as flooring, furniture, even structures. It’s incredibly strong and actually a grass, so the carbon within its root system can stay in the soil for thousands of years. It is a super sequesterer, but it should be used with caution, because it can be an invasive species.

How can we ensure that plants selected to store carbon also support local ecosystems and provide habitat for pollinators and wildlife?

Bamboo demonstrates how we need to be mindful that we don’t cause more problems than we had before. We must be mindful of not planting invasive species that will take over native plant communities and reduce biodiversity.

I would recommend anyone to refer to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) global standard for nature-based solutions, which outlines ecosystem-based approaches that are specific to geographic locations and address societal changes, supporting human well-being, and include biodiversity benefits.

We can use native species to sequester more carbon where they’re appropriate, increasing biodiversity and reducing water usage at the same time. Native plants are one way to ensure we support local ecosystems.

How can landscapes architects partnering with historically-marginalized and underserved communities, which experience higher climate risks and impacts, use your tool to address climate injustices?

This is one of our biggest challenges to overcome as a profession. I do not have all the answers. But I will say that from my experience, really listening to people and meeting them where they are is a start. If people say what they really need most are jobs, then don’t give them a skate park. Think about how we can partner in non-traditional ways to create jobs that might also improve quality of life and be part of climate solutions – like community jobs programs supporting tree-planting initiatives.The results of something like this can be measured in local school programs through the app for free. It’s my hope that things like this can give the next generation hope that there are solutions out there. We just need to work together on them.

What models or innovations that aren’t widespread today could speed up the carbon sequestering abilities of plazas and streets with large areas of hardscape?

There are definitely innovative products coming out that capture carbon, such as Carbon Cure. But I challenge us not to rely wholly on new models or fancy innovations, and instead step back and think about simplifying things.

This is an opportunity for us to rethink how we design, to do more with less. Let’s rethink the typical plaza. Maybe it doesn’t have to be all concrete. Maybe it can have large trees in a field of stabilized, crushed stone paving, as many historic plazas around the world.

Ferry Building Plaza design proposal (before) / CMG Landscape Architecture
Ferry Building Plaza design proposal (after) / CMG Landscape Architecture

This is my challenge to the profession: let’s think about things differently. Let’s turn this into an opportunity to make a statement that we believe in climate-positive landscapes. We’re taking a stance on climate change, and that’s something that many of our clients will get behind.

What needs to happen in the landscape architecture product marketplace to further accelerate climate positive design? How are you seeing product manufacturers respond to the climate crisis?

Over the past decade, in other disciplines, architecture in particular, product manufacturers have been increasing the transparency of their material and product development processes and revealing associated emissions. Product manufacturers are providing this information through an environmental product declaration (EPD). The data manufacturers provide — the CO2e emissions related to Global Warming Potential (GWP) — is what is used in the Pathfinder calculations.

We hope this increased transparency in the architecture field will migrate to the landscape products space. We must ask landscape product manufacturers to provide EPDs so we can make informed decisions about which product or material to choose.

Vestre, a Norwegian landscape product manufacturer, is currently working with Climate Positive Design to include their products into the app. They’re going to be providing their EPDs for use in the Pathfinder. They do not want us be exclusive, but rather encourage other product manufacturers to provide the same level of transparency and include their products as well, which says a lot about their values.

Vestre

I hope that everyone will jump onboard, because this is an opportunity at a global scale to reduce the impact of these products.

The latest version of your app, Pathfinder 2.0, includes a bunch of new features. What improvements were made? And what do you hope to tackle next?

New features include the ability to compare design alternatives; analyze existing conditions; and understand site impacts, like grading, tree removal, or reused soil imports and amendments. There is also improved data that covers the replacement of materials over time, and more data transparency in the way of pop-ups and information icons.

As I mentioned, we’ll be adding products into the app soon. But we’re also hoping to expand the sequestration data for ecosystem restoration projects. Forest restoration is coming up next. Then, we’re hoping to get financial support, in the form of donations, to expand to coastal wetlands, kelp, mangroves, grasslands, etc.

The goal remains to keep the app free, open, and accessible for all to use and make a difference in projects. This is a commitment I have made. I believe there is an incredible opportunity for landscape architects to re-imagine landscapes so they are not only wonderful places for people, but also help solve the climate crisis.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (November 16-30)

Xuhui Runway Park, Shanghai, China / Courtesy Insaw Photography, via Metropolis

Shanghai’s Longhua Airport Is Converted into a New Public Park — 11/30/20, Metropolis
“Designed by Sasaki, Xuhui offers a palimpsest of a reused airport, preserving its materials and forms. The 36-acre space is an intensely ‘linear composition,’ says Dou Zhang, senior associate director of Sasaki’s Shanghai office.”

There’s No Room for Teens in the Pandemic City — 11/30/20, Bloomberg CityLab
“With schools remote, sports canceled, and libraries closed, teenagers in many U.S. cities find themselves unwelcome in parks and public spaces.”

Ford Reveals Plans for Michigan Central, a 30-acre “Mobility Innovation District” in Detroit’s Corktown — 11/24/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“As for the disused rail tracks-turned-mobility platform behind Central Station, that effort is being headed by Boston-based landscape architecture studio Mikyoung Kim Design in partnership with Detroit-based livingLAB.”

Mellon Park, ‘a Prime Example of Landscape Design,’ Is up for Historic Designation — 11/23/20, Next Pittsburgh
“Dating to 1910, the property consists of pastoral parkland, formal gardens, a fountain and several buildings that once were part of estates belonging to the Mellon, Marshall, Scaife, Frew and Darsie families.”

More Parks, Longer Lives — 11/19/20, Parks & Recreation Magazine
“The research suggests that if all the census tracts in L.A. County expanded park access up to the county median, it could add up to 164,700 years in life-expectancy gains for residents living in park-poor tracts. Latino and Black community residents comprise almost 72 percent of the gain (118,000 years).”

Google Launches New Tool to Help Cities Stay Cool — 11/18/20, The Verge
“Google’s new Tree Canopy Lab uses aerial imagery and Google’s AI to figure out where every tree is in a city. Tree Canopy Lab puts that information on an interactive map along with additional data on which neighborhoods are more densely populated and are more vulnerable to high temperatures.”

‘Tiny’ House Village for St. Louis Homeless Coming to Downtown West, Mayor Announces — 11/18/20, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Tiny houses are a lot safer, more secure and comfortable than living in a tent,’ Krewson said during a news conference, adding that the homes will create a ‘stronger foundation’ for homeless people to rebuild their lives.”

Landscape Architecture Firms Adapt to the COVID Recession

Breaking ground on the Wilmington Waterfront Promenade, Port of Los Angeles / Sasaki

The pandemic has created a global economic crisis, leading to a recession in some countries and a depression in others. While the U.S. is no longer facing a depression, like it did this spring, the country is now in the midst of the COVID recession, and landscape architecture firms are learning to adapt. In a session during reVISION ASLA 2020, firm leaders with Sasaki, SWA Group, and Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA) explained steps they are taking and their outlook for the coming year.

According to Michael Grove, FASLA, chair of landscape architecture, civil engineering, and ecology at Sasaki, a multi-disciplinary architecture, planning, and landscape architecture firm based in Massachusetts, the firm is focused on “putting people over profits.” To ensure the firm can meet payroll for its 250-300 staff, Sasaki is holding larger cash reserves while cutting pay for its partners, in the form of profits, by 20 percent.

Sasaki is also re-investing in its own capabilities. The firm has increased both internal staff training and investment in research and development (R&D). This enables the firm to “capture higher fees from thought leadership and research,” Grove said. The higher investment in research also allows the firm to benefit from federal and state R&D tax benefits.

Being multi-disciplinary has its benefits as well. “The diversity of our practice helps in different markets.” In China, which is now experiencing an economic recovery, Sasaki is a “known entity,” with an office in Shanghai, so can benefit from growth there.

But Grove cautioned there is worse to come in the U.S. “Design firms are usually impacted 6-12 months after a shift in economic conditions.” The firm is now seeing higher education clients put projects on hold, as universities and colleges rethink the use of their campuses in an increasingly hybrid in person-virtual world. In the commercial sector, some clients accelerated design and construction through the summer, but that is no more given “ongoing angst in commercial markets.” There has been a jump in civic or public projects in China, but in the U.S., “municipal budgets are now stretched thin” without additional fiscal stimulus.

Sasaki is now planning for a “decline projected by the end of the year.” To prepare for this, they are cutting travel and marketing expenses in order to keep cash and profits up.

SWA Group, a multidisciplinary firm that focuses on landscape architecture, planning, and urban design, has also benefited from being diversified. René Bihan, FASLA, managing principal in the firm’s San Francisco office, said SWA Group, which has some 250 employees and is 100-percent employee owned, is organized more like a starfish than a spider.

A socially-distanced tour of SWA Group’s Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park in Queens, New York / SWA Group

“If you cut off a spider’s head, it’s game over.” In the same way, in a spider-like organization, there is a “pyramidical hierarchy that suffers when leadership goes down.” In contrast, a starfish has multiple legs that can continue to live and regenerate on their own. An organization organized like a starfish doesn’t have a head. In the case of SWA Group, each of its eight studios spread around the world act somewhat independently and have their own cultures.

For example, their San Francisco office is mostly focused on policy and large-scale sites and has some technical experts. Other offices are known more for project design and construction. With their flexible structure, the firm can move staff and resources from one studio to another as markets grow or shrink.

SWA Group also purposefully keeps a diverse client portfolio. “Right now, 52 percent of our work is international,” with the bulk of those projects in China, Mexico, and the Middle East. Another 20 percent is public projects.

In adapting to the new normal, SWA has altered how it seeks out new business. “We do very few cold calls or RFPs. Instead, about 80 percent of business comes from repeat clients,” Bihan explained. “There is a familiarity. We continually check in with them, find out what they are up to, and look for ways to help them.”

Social media, books and blog posts, public engagement, and word of mouth are other “huge ways to get business,” he said. SWA has even leveraged pro-bono work, including parklets and neighborhood volunteer projects, to find new clients. “These projects can be launch pads.”

MNLA, a landscape architecture, planning, and urban design firm based in New York City, has a staff of 32 and is mostly focused on projects in the public realm. According to Molly Bourne, ASLA, a principal at the firm, MNLA has been investing in a more resilient structure for the past few years. With improvements in IT infrastructure, they were able to transition to all staff working from home relatively easily. “We are so thankful we invested in this transition.” It also helped a great deal that the office went paperless a few years ago, moving to all digital record keeping.

The firm purposefully maintains a balance between public and private projects. “We never go past a certain margin,” Bourne said. “With a diversity of revenues, we never put our eggs in one basket.”

The firm takes on a mix of conventional federal, state, and local government projects, along with projects that result from federal stimulus funds. The firm is also pre-approved for New York City and state “on-call” projects that can be “small and undefined, but can serve as survival work.”

At the same time, MNLA is being as transparent as possible about where things stand with staff, asking people to pitch in where needed. So far, “2020 is good and bad. We’re bobbing along, grappling with uncertainty, and remain very busy.”

Construction of Pier 55 in Chelsea, NYC, designed by Thomas Heatherwick and MNLA / Tectonic, via NYC Yimby

Bourne said working during the first few months of the pandemic in NYC was particularly difficult. “It was an emotional time for staff. It was either very quiet or ambulance sirens.” MNLA continues to put staff well-being first. “Staff are our greatest asset.”

Conversation then turned to what the job market is like for landscape architecture students who just graduated or will be in coming months. This is one of the most challenging times to find an entry-level position, at least since ASLA has been keeping records. According to the latest survey, 65 percent of graduating students received no offer this year. Of those who received an offer, more than 40 percent saw the terms or location of their position change.

The speakers recommended job seekers leverage and grow their networks. Most jobs are found through contacts. “Folks mostly hire people they already know can provide value,” Grove said. “They want to hire from a known entity, or get a referral from a trusted source.”

Some more advice: stay flexible and be open to a range of possibilities. Be competitive; make yourself indispensable. Do informational interviews, which are low-pressure. Undertake contract work, which can turn into more permanent positions. Look beyond landscape architecture firms: the government, construction, facilities management — places where a landscape architecture education will be of benefit.

Paula Stone Williams on How to Achieve Gender Equity in the Workplace

Paula Stone Williams lived the first 60 years of her life as a man and then transitioned to life as a transgendered woman. Having experienced multiple genders, Williams offered a unique perspective on gender roles and how to achieve equity in the workplace during a keynote speech at the 2020 GreenBuild virtual conference. The speech is part of the U.S. Green Building Council’s broader efforts to create a more inclusive community.

Williams knew she was transgender at age 3 or 4, but “no gender fairy arrived” to shepherd her through the process of becoming a transgendered woman. She built a career, raised children, but felt a sense of authenticity was missing.

When she finally came out as a transgender woman in her 60s, Williams was able to be herself, but in the process lost every job, including her role as CEO of a Christian organization. “In this country, you can be fired from a religious organization for being transgender,” she said. As a trained psychotherapist and pastoral counselor, Williams continues to work with clients.

When people ask her whether she feels “100 percent woman,” she responds, “I feel 100 percent like a transgender woman.”

Life as a transgendered “alpha woman” is very different from life as an “alpha male,” she explained. “Before I had a few pairs of shirts, a few pairs of pants, and a few suits. Now, I have a closet full of clothes. You can’t wear the same thing too often or other women will notice and judge you for it.”

She told men in the audience that “the culture is tipped in your favor, and you don’t even know it.” Women in particular have a hard time being seen as leaders. “If you speak too strongly, you are known as ‘that woman,’ which means not leadership material. It’s a knife edge.”

“Men also interrupt women twice as much as they do other men.” When she was a man, Williams said she was guilty of the same: “I was a bad interrupter.” To stop this, “men need to assume women know what they are talking about.”

“Men need to show deference to women. To be a genuine ally of gender equity, men need to be an accomplice or assistant, give power to another person, and work at their direction.”

Williams offered a slew of statistics to outline the challenges for women in the workplace. White women make on average 79 cents for every dollar a white man makes; Latina women, 59 cents; and African American women, just 54 cents. Only 5.8 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women, who also hold just 22 percent of senior vice presidents positions. 6.6 percent of Silicon Valley’s leaders are women, as are only 3 percent of the leaders in venture capital firms. Williams argued this helps explain why there are so few women-owned companies in Silicon Valley. Just 15 percent of partners in legal firms are women. Only 17 percent of Wikipedia entries are about women.

Despite the lack of opportunity, women can be more effective leaders, Williams believes, because they are inherently better at “compromise, collaboration, and correction,” which are key leadership traits. “Women are more willing to compromise and have less of their ego at stake. They can find a workable solution. Women collaborate as equals. They are also better at correcting themselves, instead of doubling down like men.”

But Williams identified a few ways both women and men work against gender equity in the workplace. “Women don’t empower each other enough and often only see each other as competitors. In six years as a woman, I have had more struggles with other women than I had as 60 years as a man.” Williams said her five young granddaughters are “already in deep competition with each other.”

To achieve greater gender equality, women need to better support each other, say “I’ve got this” to men more often, and stop apologizing for themselves and their talents. In turn, men need to offer more deference to women and listen better. What is critically important is to “truly listen.”

According to Williams, sustainable design professionals working in the built environment may be further ahead than others in this regard. “You already defer to the planet and the climate and listen to the Earth, which sets you apart.”

“Women are more closely connected to the Earth. For all of us, better connecting to the Earth and its cycles is how we will achieve true gender equity in the world and equity with the planet.”

Biden Administration Will Have Greater Respect for Design Professionals

Congressman Earl Blumenauer / Portland.gov

Congressman Earl Blumenauer, who represents the 3rd district of Oregon, helped kick-off reVISION ASLA 2020. In an interview with new ASLA CEO Torey Carter-Conneen, Rep. Blumenauer said the incoming administration led by President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will have respect for the 175,000-plus landscape architects, architects, and urban planners in the U.S. who do the hard work of “pulling the pieces together and solving problems instead of creating new ones.”

Rep. Blumenauer, who is a fierce advocate for sustainable, cyclist- and pedestrian-friendly communities, believes that with the new administration, there is a “real opportunity for design professionals to harness their creative powers.”

Carter-Conneen noted that Republicans in part ran on a platform opposing the Green New Deal, a set of proposals articulated by liberal Democrats to dramatically increase public investment to address climate change and inequality.

In a debate with President Trump, President-elect Biden distanced himself from the Green New Deal, instead calling for the Biden plan, which includes a commitment to achieving 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 and providing billions towards fighting environmental injustice and creating new green jobs.

Rep. Blumenauer, one of the forces behind the Green New Deal, noted that the framework is “aspirational, not about specifics.”

“In reality, the Green New Deal is about creating more choices for Americans” by improving access to renewable energy, instead of just fossil fuels, and designing and building federal infrastructure projects that “enhance the environment,” he said.

“I’m not worried about the rhetoric around the Green New Deal. We need to realize its vision by maximizing resources and embracing resilience to climate change.” The Biden plan for addressing climate change is also about “actively rebuilding America and creating a low-carbon future.”

When asked how landscape architects can better get involved in both policy and politics, Rep. Blumenauer said landscape architects already enjoy widespread public support. “You all are most effective at engaging the public and capturing people’s attention through creative design.”

“Landscape architects bridge concept and reality and solve problems people care about.”

Rep. Blumenauer applauded the role of landscape architects in promoting natural solutions to urban problems. Speaking directly to the online audience of more than a thousand, he said: “with urban landscape design, you can use soft green infrastructure to create more value. You shouldn’t be bashful about the value you bring.”

To expand their impact, he called for landscape architects to work collectively with architects and urban planners. Together, design professionals can be “very powerful.” Too often, “you understate your political power.”

Towards a New Landscape of Racial Justice

Hunts Point Riverside Park, South Bronx, NY / Rudy Brunner Award

“We need to take a hard look at the racial injustice that has poisoned American society. This is an issue for all professions — it’s not unique to landscape architecture,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, the new CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), during the first general session of reVISION ASLA 2020.

“Racism has played a role in countless development and design decisions, environmental injustice, and disinvestment in many communities.” To start on a new path, ASLA, as a professional society, and landscape architecture firms need to have an “essential dialogue that can help us all move forward,” Carter-Conneen said.

Carter-Conneen brought more than a thousand virtual attendees through a wide-ranging discussion with Majora Carter, an urban revitalization strategist who led the creation of Hunts Point Riverside Park, the first new park in the South Bronx in 60 years; and landscape designer and artist Walter Hood, ASLA, who is designing the landscape of the International African American Museum (IAAM) in Charleston, South Carolina, and co-editor of the new book Black Landscapes Matter.

Instead of focusing on diversity, Hood argued the best way to move forward is to celebrate our differences, which can be “empowering.” As part of this, we need to “create broader definitions of landscapes” and move past “colonial landscapes in which everything is the same.” He stated that “everything is not the same — that is the fiction of the colonial landscape.”

Underserved communities of color can also move past tired conversations around gentrification and development. Instead of seeing all new community-driven development as bad, it’s important to understand the nuances rooted in history.

“The communities that are now being gentrified were once redlined and created out of inequality. These places have largely stayed the same, because they were once where they stuck Black folks and all the crap, devaluing these neighborhoods.”

Prior to being devalued and redlined, these communities were actually “historically very diverse, with a mix of working class people.” So, for Hood, the solution is not to further maintain the “ghetto,” but to “reshape it, dismantling segregation through amazing artistry and advocacy.” Planning and designing neighborhoods that restore historic diversity will lead to places “where people can live together.”

But Hood also noted that after some neighborhoods integrated in the 1960s, “many white people fled to the suburbs.” It’s unclear what the future will bring: “To live together or not — this is the big conundrum of the 21st century.”

Carter has called for historically “low-status” communities like the South Bronx to “self-gentrify.” This is driven by her desire to retain talent in these communities. “You don’t have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one. In the past, it has been about growing up and getting out. But there is already lots of value in these communities.”

In fact, predatory real estate speculators have long seen the value, which is why perhaps so many historically marginalized and underserved communities fear development. Self-gentrification is different though: it’s about communities seeing the value and making improvements for themselves, reaping the rewards in the process.

Carter said she has recently stopped using the term self-gentrification because it is “too triggering for some.” While some people “get it right away,” others may see nefarious motives. “But I stand by the concept. The idea that there is no value in these communities is untrue. I want to mess with that idea.”

Hood largely concurred, arguing that he has purposefully kept his studio in West Oakland, a predominantly Black community, because “I’ve been here 25 years. This is my place, people here look like me, and it’s key to establishing self.” Plus, he added that “I can’t trust my future to someone else.” The future of West Oakland needs to be protected by the people who have deep roots there. They can beautify and improve it best.

2020 is the year of the pandemic. And in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by the police, it’s also the year of reckoning about racial injustice. When asked what the turmoil of this year means for low-status communities in the future, Carter said “I am hopeful and pray that the changes will turn into something real.”

She believes there is a great opportunity to help revitalize “low-status communities, including inner-city communities, poor white communities that have seen the loss of manufacturing, and indigenous reservations.” This can be realized through renewed investment in green infrastructure, which creates good-paying green jobs.

Hood argued that with the pandemic, “more people now see the value of the working class. We even came up new terms for them” — essential workers or first-line defenders.

Hood’s new book Black Landscapes Matter, co-edited with Grace Mitchell Tada, offers a way to further understand how landscapes have shaped race relations in the U.S. The book came out of a series of lectures Hood organized after a series of police killings of Black people in 2016. For him, the killing of Michael Brown was particularly impactful.

“The landscape where he was killed was familiar, outside a liquor store. I know that store, that street.” After Brown was gunned down, he was left in the middle of the road for hours.

Places enable or disable these kinds of behaviors. “Certain back drops make you afraid that someone could kill you there. These places look a certain way and give people the right.” Hood pointed to George Floyd and the check cashing store he went into. “These places have signs and symbols.”

One way to change the deadly narrative of these places for people of color is to change the narrative of the landscapes. As an example, he pointed to his project — 7th Street Dancing Lights in Oakland— that created towering 8-foot-tall images of African Americans over a road. “When people see the images, they wonder, ‘what is that?’ They may see the place differently” — and then interact with the people there more respectfully.

7th Street Dancing Lights / Hood Design Studio

This is why for Hood it’s so important to undo the homogenizing impact of colonial landscapes, which make all places seem the same, even though they aren’t. “Through post-colonial landscapes, we can articulate different origin stories — and futures. We can make change by changing the narrative.”

Carter said: “that is so brilliant. We can create agency by creating places that speak to us. This kind of work opens up all sorts of new possibilities, and it doesn’t take anything away from anyone else.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (November 1-15)

Phase Shifts Park in Taichung, Taiwan / Mosbach Paysagistes

Mosbach Paysagistes Creates Park for Taichung on Site of Former Airport — 11/12/20, Dezeen
“Phase Shifts Park in Taichung, Taiwan, has been designed by French landscape architects Mosbach Paysagistes and combines nature and technology to create a refuge from the heat and pollution of the city.”

Reed Hilderbrand and Trahan Architects Reveal Their Vision for the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum in Washington, D.C. — 11/10/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“The concept design for the National Bonsai Museum & Penjing Museum is the first major project within Reed Hilderbrand’s master plan update for the 109-acre core landscape of the U.S. National Arboretum, which dates back to 1927.”

Barcelona Will Supersize its Car-Free ‘Superblocks’ — 11/11/20, Bloomberg CityLab
“The Catalan capital’s celebrated pedestrian-first zones are expanding to cover most of the city center, Mayor Ada Colau announced.”

National Native American Veterans Memorial Opens on the National Mall — 11/11/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“It is the first national landmark in the United States capital to pay tribute to the countless American Indians, Alaska Natives, and native Hawaiians who have served in the U.S. military throughout the decades.”

What Biden’s Win Could Mean for Land Use, Transportation, and Climate — 11/11/20, Planetizen
“Now that the presidential election has broken free of its weeklong logjam, it’s time to start anticipating how President-elect Joe Biden might change course from his predecessor.”

Public Space Programming Pivots — 11/10/20, Reimagining the Civic Commons
“We bring you stories of innovative and safely designed programming that engages people of all ages and backgrounds.”

World’s Cities Doubled in Land Use over 20 years, with America Leading Urban Sprawl, Study Finds — 11/04/20, South China Morning Post
“Measurements based on satellite images suggest the total size of urban areas increased from nearly 240,000 sq km (92,700 square miles) in the year 2000 to almost 520,000 sq km (200,000 square miles) in 2020.”

Black Landscapes Matter: Q&A with Landscape Designer Walter Hood — 11/02/20, Metropolis Magazine
“The forthcoming collection, co-edited by landscape designer Walter Hood, examines a past, present, and future of the Black American experience as spatially archived in cities such as New Orleans, Detroit, Oakland, California, and Charleston, South Carolina.”

Christiana Figueres: A Net-Zero Future Is Now Under Construction

“When there is a convergence of crises, like we have now, there needs to be a convergence of solutions,” argued Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), at the 2020 GreenBuild conference. These solutions need to be net-zero in terms of energy and greenhouse gas emissions, regenerative, and reconnect humanity to nature. And while progress towards these solutions is now “irreversible,” we need to move much faster towards a net-zero world.

Since stepping down from the UNFCCC, where she orchestrated the Paris Climate Accord, Figueres founded the Global Optimism group and wrote the book The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis. With decades of experience fighting in the trenches of UN bureaucracies for climate action, Figueres shared her vision for the future, which is rooted in her “stubborn optimism.”

The history of the planet is the “result of an evolving relationship between nature and humans,” she explained. For 99.99 percent of that relationship over the millennia, “nature had the upper hand, and this was to our benefit.”

Up until the 1960s, humans experienced the Holocene Epoch, which provided Goldilocks-like conditions on Earth, creating a “sweet spot” in terms of temperatures, biodiversity, and precipitation. “This era enabled us to prosper, progress, and multiply.”

But in mid 1960s, the Holocene came to an abrupt halt because of rising greenhouse gas emissions resulting from decades of industrialization. “Then, the relationship between nature and humans was suddenly inverted, and humans took the upper hand, creating the Anthropocene Epoch.”

“I am 60 years old, so I was actually born in the previous era. I’ve lived through two geological eras, and I have to say the Anthropocene is already a sad history.”

In just six decades, humans have actually changed the biophysical processes of the planet. “Atmospheric gases released by our activities have created a warming planet, which has increased cyclones, hurricanes, wildfires, flooding, and sea level rise. Air pollution now leads to the premature death of 7 million people annually.” We have destroyed half of the world’s original forests. As we move into areas that were once the sole province of nature, we are increasingly exposing ourselves to viruses like COVID-19. And soon, “our oceans will have more plastic in them then fish. It’s becoming a dystopian world.”

But this is where her stubborn optimism came in. Figueres doesn’t believe we are condemned to a future of more destruction. “Because we now have the upper hand over nature, this dystopia is not preordained. We can collectively change the course.” That new course is found through adopting “clean energy, designing buildings that produce their own energy, and regenerating our soils and oceans.”

The path of decarbonizing our economies and societies is already laid out. The issue is that according to the UNFCCC, we have about a decade left to orchestrate this major transition in how humans power themselves. “2030 is the eye of the needle. We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030, and then 100 percent by 2050.”

There are reasons to hope we can make it. In the energy sector, renewable sources, like hydro, solar, and wind power are already the source of more than 25 percent of global electricity and are heading towards 30-plus percent this year. In a greater number of energy markets, renewables are also the cheapest energy source, beating out coal, oil, and natural gas. In the transportation sector, electric vehicles are growing due to government mandates. “Every major car manufacturer now offers a range of EV models.”

New European Union pandemic recovery funds are directed towards a green recovery. China has just stated it will reach peak emissions by 2060, a major commitment. The majority of G-7 countries are now “headed in the right direction.”

More than 1,400 major corporations worldwide are already moving to “diversify away from climate risks,” Figueres explained. Another 1,200 companies, with some $14 trillion in capital investments, are divesting from sectors with high climate risk, like fossil fuels. The 30 largest institutional investors, which have some $5 trillion in assets, “now understand climate risk and are not willing to strand assets.” 18 country’s central banks now do climate change stress tests.

Amazon, the global e-commerce giant, just released its pledge to become net-zero in terms of its emissions by 2040. Apple, Nike, Starbucks have moved up their net-zero goals to 2030.

Figueres was very positive about these trends, because they “normalize corporate responsibility and create new expectations.” Plus, these companies are sending the message that “constraining carbon is good for innovation.”

But amid these developments, the future sustainability of the built environment looms large.

Figueres said planners and design professionals play a critical role, because they are the “architects of the future.” It will be design professionals that help us achieve the critical goals of all new buildings being net-zero in terms of energy use by 2030, and all buildings by 2050 — key goals required to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.

To make this more sustainable future happen, design professionals must “incorporate the human experience” and steer the world towards “more low-impact materials that have a high impact on human livability.”

Furthermore, 60 percent of the world’s infrastructure hasn’t been built yet. With the expected growth in population and new cities across the developed and developing worlds, there’s only one chance to get things right. Landscape architects, architects, planners will be responsible for determining “how we live on the planet” far into the future.

“We can create a new relationship between nature and society. We can claw back nature in cities, creating a more harmonious and regenerative relationship. We must regenerate nature in cities for humans to thrive.”

To achieve this new world, humanity will also need to shift its mindset. “We need to shift from thinking about ‘the other’ to thinking about ‘each other.’ We need to get away from thinking we have power over something or someone and move towards the idea that we have ‘power for’ someone or something. This will create the sense of collective agency.”

The Planetary Health Framework: The Way to Achieve a Sustainable Future

Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves / Island Press

Humanity has become totally out of synch with the planet’s biophysical systems — for proof, just look to climate change, COVID-19, environmental degradation, ocean acidification, and the accelerated extinction of species. As we now begin to understand, the planet is a single organism, a complex, inter-connected system that can either be healthy and in balance — or not. Furthermore, our health and well-being are intrinsically connected to the health and well-being of natural systems.

In Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves, a new book edited by Drs. Howard Frumkin and Samuel Myers, we are given a roadmap for how to undo the damage to the Earth and live in a way that is more respectful of the planet’s limited capacity. The authors convince us to take this path not just for nature’s sake but also for our own future health and well-being.

Dr. Howard Frumkin is former Dean of Public Health at the University of Washington and former director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Samuel Myers is principal research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Together, they have put together a thought-provoking and rich 500-page overview of the emerging field of planetary health, which is increasingly used by UN organizations, governments, non-profits, and universities as a framework for understanding the relationship between human and environmental health.

Frumkin and Myers and their contributors build their case so methodically, with loads of persuasive data, that by the end of the book, it seems difficult to imagine a better framework for understanding Earth’s contemporary human-environmental dynamics. This book is a must-read for anyone passionate about creating better outcomes for more people, far into the future.

In their introduction, the editors explain how today is “the best of times and the worst of times.” On one hand, it has “never been a better time to be a human being.” In the past 65 years, the percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty fell from 63 percent to 10 percent, despite the population tripling in size. Child mortality rates are the lowest in recorded history.

But on the other hand, human activity is “driving biophysical change at rates that are much steeper than have existed in the history of our species.” 40 percent of the planet is now dedicated to agriculture, at the expense of natural systems. Habitat destruction and the anticipated extinction of up to a million species threatens the underlying biodiversity that maintains the resilience of natural systems.

Some may see promise in the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch created by humans, and imagine a future planet optimized by direct human control. But in reality, the poor human management of the planet’s biophysical systems to date means that more of the status quo will lead to civilizational collapse.

According to Frumkin and Myers, we have disrupted the climate system; polluted air, water, and soils; caused rapid biodiversity loss; reconfigured biogeochemical cycles; made pervasive changes in land use; and depleted fresh water and arable land. These changes all have significant health implications for billions of people. A new approach rooted in planetary health is needed.

The book first provides a background on the intellectual history of the concept of planetary health, which only began as a systems-scale field of research in the 1990s. As Dr. Warwick Anderson explains in his essay, the field made a big leap in 2010, when The Lancet, a major research journal, and the Rockefeller Foundation partnered with other public health groups to promote a “new health discipline — public health 2.0.” In 2015, with the release of the seminal Lancet – Rockefeller Foundation commission report Safeguarding Human Health in the Anthropocene Epoch, Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, deemed the new field of inquiry “planetary health,” which Anderson states, “rapidly gained currency.”

The book then lays out the scale and complexity of the problems and offer some positive models to addressing them:

A chapter by a team of esteemed researchers from organizations such as the Population Council, Population Reference Bureau, and Population Institute explore how the growth in human population and consumption are driving environmental change. They argue that “given the tight interconnectedness of the two drivers, it may be best to see them as coequal challenges.”

These contributors call for disincentivizing the excessive consumer consumption of the U.S. and western Europe, which would doom the planet if expanded to a global scale. They also point to the connected drivers that can further reduce population growth, including greater investment in the education of girls and women around the world, which helps to empower them to make their own decisions, and the expansion of access to contraceptives.

Their conclusion: a “multi-pronged strategy that integrates education, sound policies, and high-quality health services — all while guaranteeing the rights and respecting the dignity of all people — could dramatically accelerate the transition to truly sustainable levels of human population and consumption.”

A companion essay outlines the environmental impacts of the twinned growth in population and consumption. The authors argue: “We live on a different planet than the one our great-grandparents called home a century ago. It is a warmer planet, a more crowded planet, a planet with fewer species, a planet marked by widespread contamination and altered biogeochemical cycles.”

In this chapter, we learn about humans’ many impacts on the environment — ranging from the climate to the nitrogen cycle in agriculture, from land use and cover to water scarcity, biodiversity loss, and pollution.

Through a series of essays, Planetary Health delves into how those specific environmental changes — all driven by human behavior — are in turn jeopardizing human health and well-being by increasing risks in the area of nutrition, infectious diseases, non-communicable diseases, population displacement and conflict, and mental health.

In the section on nutrition, Myers explains how rising temperatures and carbon dioxide levels increase risks in the agricultural sector, impacting everything from the amount of time farm workers can stay in the heat to the nutritional yield of important mainstay plants. He also flags the lack of genetic diversity of the few plant species we rely on and the need to greater protect plant diversity.

A chapter on infectious diseases by Richard Ostfeld, with the Cary Institute of Ecological Studies, and Felicia Keesing, a biologist at Bard College, explains the growing risks of various infectious diseases. They write: “key environmental drivers, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, land use change, pollution, and alteration of biogeochemical cycles cause changes in the abundance, distribution, physiology, and behavior of important species involved in the transmission of both zoonotic and nonzoonotic pathogens to humans.” They analyze the relationships between land use, biodiversity, and diseases like malaria, lyme disease, and schistosomiasis, among others.

Non-communicable diseases, which include cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes, and other conditions, account for 70 percent of global deaths each year. In this chapter, Frumkin and Andy Haines, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Diseases, lay out the data on how climate change, urbanization, and air pollution increase non-communicable disease risk. Of particular interest for landscape architects and planners is a section on the dangers of automobile-dependent communities.

A team of researchers then connect the dots between environmental change, migration, conflict, and heath impacts, explaining how the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, is now understood as the first “modern climate change conflict,” and how we can expect more to come.

One of their arguments for investing in climate solutions is worth re-stating: “Adaptation to global environmental change is part of preventing migration. Adaptation can reduce vulnerability to both sudden shocks and long-term trends. Examples include switching farming practices to drought-tolerant crops and soil-conserving techniques, not building in floodplains, constructing levees and sea walls, restoring coastal barrier systems (mangroves, vegetated dunes, coral reefs, wetlands), and altering building codes to put key utilities on roof instead of in basements.”

Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster, provides a much-needed overview of the expected mental health impacts of climate and environmental change. She collects many useful studies in one place, providing a valuable reference.

One worrying conclusion: “Higher temperatures can provoke increased aggression. This manifests in many ways: from pitchers beaning batters during baseball games and drivers aggressively honking their horns, all the way to violent crime, particularly when combined with frustration over limited access to resources, such as fresh water or arable land.” One of her key solutions is expanding access to nature, particularly in cities. “Reconnecting with nature…offers a range of direct and indirect mental health benefits.”

Planetary Health then turns to building the case for systemic changes in our societies and economies, including a shift away from using gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of growth and instead using gross national happiness and other metrics that better account for human health, well-being, and environmental health. Central arguments include: “happiness and human health are intertwined; natural environments make people happy; and happiness production is not resource-intensive.” In other words, more experiences in nature create happiness, not the latest purchases.

After wading through the problems, we then get to the solutions — healthier models for various sectors: energy, chemicals, cities, economic development, and private sector growth. The chapter on urban places and planetary health is particularly worth reading as it makes the health argument for “integrated green urbanism,” transit-oriented development, bicycle infrastructure, and urban food systems. Iryna Dronova, a professor of landscape architecture at UC Berkeley, contributes to this discussion. The chapter on chemicals outlines how to reduce the risk of endocrine disruptors and create new green chemicals.

This significant new book also proposes how to create a set of planetary health ethics that can guide current and future action — a mutual promise to do no further harm in our era of climate and environmental change. Here, the contributors call for a “social movement, a scientific framework, an attitude towards life, and a philosophy of living that fosters resilience and adaptation.”

The core message: If we truly commit to maximizing human and environmental health in all communities, and undertaking all that entails, we will get on a pathway to saving the planet.

Close Encounters with Water

For some inventive landscape architects and architects in Europe, water bodies have presented an opportunity to create memorable, immersive experiences for the public. Instead of creating bridges that traverse lakes and moats, these projects bring cyclists and pedestrians through the water, creating seamless access to nature preserves and historic sites.

Limburg, Belgium, which is in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of the country, has developed 1,240 miles (2,000 kilometers) of bicycle trails, which attract two million cyclists annually. The area is known in Europe as a “bicycling paradise,” according to the Limburg tourism bureau.

In De Wijers, a vast 1,730 acre (700 hectare) nature preserve comprised of lakes, there were areas difficult to reach for cyclists through existing trails. To improve access to Bokrijk, which includes a 19th-century castle, open-air museum, and arboretum set within the nature preserve, landscape architecture firm Burolandschap and architecture firm Lens°ass Architecten created an ingenious path — Cycling Through Water, which cuts directly through one of the lakes.

Cycling Through Water / © luc dalemans
Cycling Through Water / © luc dalemans

The concrete-lined path is 695 feet (212 meters) long and nearly 10 feet (3 meters) wide, and its top is designed to be level with the surrounding lake, creating an infinity effect from the distance. Burolandschap states that since the path opened in 2018, more than 300,000 cyclists have used it.

Cycling Through Water / © luc dalemans

To anticipate and address concerns raised about carving the path through a nature preserve, the city of Limburg paired the project with an expansive restoration and conservation effort in the surrounding lake district, which included the development of new lakes. Burolandschap found that the project resulted in “improvements of the water quality and a significant increase in the habitat of amphibians.”

Cycling Through Water / Burolandschap

The dikes were remodeled, which creates “purer water” in the lakes. And below the concrete path, Burolandschap created an amphibian crossing of sorts that lets the animals move to other areas of the lake.

The Limburg tourism bureau said Cycling Through Water is increasing tourism to Bokrijk in a safe and sustainable way. The base of the cycling path is constructed with slip-resistant tiles, which work “even when there is frost.” The path also extends car-free access to the castle and its surrounding sites, further privileging the bicycle, a very low-carbon form of transportation.

Cycling Through Water / © luc dalemans

Another recent project designed for pedestrians similarly cuts through water in dramatic fashion. Moses Bridge in Halsteren, The Netherlands by RO&AD Architecten is a path through the West Brabant Water line, a defensive system from the 17th century made up of fortresses and moats.

Moses Bridge / RO&AD Architecten

To help pedestrians reach Fort de Roovere, a recently restored fortress, RO&AD Architecten designed a low-impact “invisible bridge” made of wood and waterproofed with EPMD foil.

Moses Bridge / RO&AD Architecten

“The bridge lies like a trench in the fortress and the moat, shaped to blend in with the outlines of the landscape,” RO&AD states.

Moses Bridge / RO&AD Architecten

The top of the bridge meets the actual water line, so the structure can’t be seen from a distance and doesn’t mar the view of the historic landscape. But “when you get closer, the fortress opens up to you through a narrow trench. You can then walk up to its gates like Moses on the water.”

Moses Bridge / RO&AD Architecten