In the Hudson’s Image– Urban Omnibus, 5/2/19
“Over the last two centuries, artists have painted, sketched and photographed the Hudson, while scientists, surveyors and others have mapped the river landscape as a first step to shaping it with human hands.”
For Colleges, Climate Change Means Making Tough Choices– The Chronicle of Higher Education
“The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation’s awarding of $100 million to reinvent LaSalle Park and to complete a regional trail system represents the largest philanthropic gift ever in Western New York.”
Surrounded by water along 144 miles of shoreline, Norfolk is highly vulnerable to sea level rise. The city is the second largest in Virginia, with a population of 250,000. It’s home to the world’s largest naval base, which hosts 100,000 federal workers and function as a city within the city. Its port is the third busiest in the country. The core of the city is the employment center for a region of 1.5 million people. All of this is under significant threat.
At the American Planning Association (APA) conference in San Francisco, we heard about Norfolk’s recent efforts to live with with water while protecting vulnerable low-income areas, revitalizing and creating new urban centers, and ceding some parts of the city back to the ocean.
According to Martin Thomas, vice mayor of Norfolk, the question is: “how do we create a high quality of live given we are facing rising waters?” The answer involves creative economic, social, and environmental solutions that will lead to a transformed city.
Thomas said 30-40 percent of the regional economy is dependent on federal funding, “so we are diversifying the local economy.” There are disconnected communities with concentrated levels of poverty, so the city is investing in mixed-income redevelopment projects. There is recurrent flooding that can result in 2-3 feet of water rise, so the city is creating the “designed coastal systems of the future.”
An example of what Norfolk is dealing with is the highly vulnerable area of Willoughby Spit, which is 3 miles long and 3 blocks wide and where thousands of residents live. This area is a chunk of the local tax base, but “it won’t exist in a few decades.”
Through its Vision 2100 process, Norfolk mapped its most valuable assets, which included the Naval base, airport, botanical gardens, and the historic downtown core. Through comprehensive public meetings, city policymakers, planners, and residents created a map of where flooding is expected to worsen, where investments in hard protections and green infrastructure will be focused, and where the “future urban growth of the city will be built.”
The vision organizes the city into four zones: red, yellow, green, and purple.
Red areas on the map are vital areas that will see “expanded flood protection zones; a comprehensive 24-hour transportation network; denser mixed-use developments; diversified housing options; and strengthened economic options.” These include the naval base, universities, ports, shipyards, and medical facilities that can’t be moved. Future housing and economic growth will be steered into these areas, which will be made denser. The red zone will receive priority levels of investment in both hard and green resilient infrastructure while maintaining access to the water.
The yellow zone will be where the city helps Norfolk residents adapt to rising waters and where it also cedes land back to the water. Programs there will aim to “exploit new and innovative technologies to reduce flood risk to the built environment; focus infrastructure investments on improvements that extend resilience; educate current residents about the risks of recurrent flooding; develop mechanisms to enable property owners to recoup the economic value lost to sea level rise; and develop a solution for sea level rise adaptation in historic neighborhoods.” Here, the focus is on more resilient housing, raised 3-feet above flood levels, and the widespread incorporation of green infrastructure.
The green zone features communities already on higher ground, safe from flooding, where Norfolk will create new transit-oriented development and resilient urban centers that can accommodate future growth.
The purple zone is where Norfolk will create the “neighborhoods of the future,” improving connections to key assets, creating affordable housing, and redeveloping under-performing residential and commercial areas. According to Vision 2100, the city found that 40 out of 125 neighborhoods were deemed assets and therefore not subject to major “transformation” — a euphemism for redevelopment or letting them be subsumed by rising waters. In many of these historic neighborhoods, which are found in the purple zones, small-scale improvements will be made to improve the quality of life — more parks, sidewalks, libraries, and community centers.
Norfolk’s 2030 comprehensive plan, green infrastructure plan, and resilience zoning code are the primary ways in which the city is moving towards this vision.
George Homewood, Norfolk’s planning director, said that zoning requirements are a “blunt instrument” that they tried to make more flexible through a “resilient zoning quotient,” a system that developers and property owners can use to accumulate points to meet requirements. The zoning system itemizes “must do’s, should do’s, and nice to do’s (bonuses) for developers.”
Requirements differ depending on the expected level of risk to water rise, but must-do’s include green infrastructure for stormwater management, risk reduction through raising homes by 3-feet above flood levels, and energy self-sufficiency. The zoning ordinance seems critical to achieving the city’s ambitious green infrastructure plan, which also fits together with the vision and 2030 plan.
Back-up power generation is not only required for the usual places like hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities, but also important community utilities like pharmacies, grocery stores, banks, and gas stations.
Vlad Gavrilovic with EPK, planning consultants to Norfolk, further explained that the new zoning code built off of existing neighborhood, landscape, and building design standards, the “pattern language” so critical to informing neighborhood character.
Homewood believes “climate change and sea level rise are very real to the folks who suffer from recurrent flooding.” But rolling-out the new, more complex zoning ordinance hasn’t been without its challenges, and the city planning department is on their fourth round of tweaks to address “unintended consequences.” Perhaps that is to be expected given it’s the “first, most-resilience focused zoning ordinance in the country.”
In a later conversation, Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, former ASLA president and long-time resident of Norfolk, who was deeply involved in these planning efforts for decades, said that Old Dominion University in downtown Norfolk was key to kick-starting the multi-decade-long effort to make Norfolk more resilient. “Back in 2010, the university started an initiative to prepare Norfolk for sea level rise, asking Larry Atkinson in the oceanography department to lead a cross-disciplinary effort and create a coalition with the community that exists to this day. That was many years ago, but it was then that the seeds were planted for the approach we see today.” That approach, Rinner said, uses public-private partnerships and creates bottom-up, community-driven solutions that transcend politics. “Environmental issues are so close to people in Norfolk and Hampton Roads; it doesn’t matter if you are Democrat or Republican.”
For her, Norfolk’s resilience plans and codes are a true model for other communities because they show what can happen after years of effort — “major change seems to coalesce all of the sudden.”
UPDATE: H.R. 9, the Climate Change Now Act, was passed by the House of Representatives on May 2, 2019, by a vote of 231-190. The final bill included amendment H.Amdt. 169 recognizing climate justice and environmental justice, which passed by a vote of 237-185.
ASLA applauds the House for taking bold steps in H.R. 9 to uphold U.S. commitments in the Paris Climate Agreement and for recognizing the importance of environmental justice in this process.
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This week, the House of Representatives will vote on H.R. 9, the Climate Action Now Act. This bill effectively blocks the president from withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement and requires the president to put forth a plan to achieve 26-to-28% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2025, as proposed by the U.S. under the agreement.
The House will also vote on an amendment to H.R. 9 that highlights the Paris Agreement’s commitment to environmental justice for vulnerable communities and for gender equity.
“In the Paris Agreement, the U.S. made a commitment to reduce our carbon emissions and start combating this growing threat to our communities. While some may want out, ASLA is still in,” said Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, Executive Vice President and CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects. “We applaud the House of Representatives for taking bold steps in H.R. 9 to uphold U.S. commitments in the Paris Climate Agreement – and for including an amendment addressing the need for environmental and climate justice in this process.”
ASLA is an official signatory of the “We Are Still In” declaration – a joint statement of support for the Paris Agreement signed by governments, academia, and the private sector. The bipartisan coalition includes over 3,500 representatives from all 50 states, collectively representing more than half of all Americans.
“Landscape architects design resilient and sustainable outdoor environments that can withstand the severe weather conditions and natural disasters exacerbated by climate change,” continued Somerville. “The threat climate change poses to our communities crosses party lines and affects people of all backgrounds.”
The House vote on H.R. 9 comes as ASLA leaders head to Capitol Hill for ASLA’s Advocacy Day 2019, where they will appeal to their elected officials for investments in climate-resilient, sustainable infrastructure.
“In 2016 and 2017, the transportation sector was the number one source of CO2 emissions in this country,” said Roxanne Blackwell, Hon. ASLA, Esq., Director of Federal Government Affairs at ASLA. “If we’re going to meet the goals set out in the Paris Climate Agreement, we need more of the kind of policies our leaders are supporting this week, including active transportation projects, like Complete Streets, Safe Routes to School, recreational trails, and more.”
Based on the scientific evidence about the causes and impacts of climate change, ASLA recognizes that global climate change presents a serious threat to humans and our environment. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its most recent report says the impact of a 1.5 degrees Celsius increase in global temperatures will “disproportionately affect disadvantaged and vulnerable populations through food insecurity, higher food prices, income losses, lost livelihood opportunities, adverse health impacts, and population displacements.” Further, an internal report issued by thirteen federal agencies within the Trump Administration, stated that “Climate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in communities across the United States, presenting growing challenges to human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth.”
The American Society of Landscape Architects is also an official signatory to the “We Are Still In” declaration. The bipartisan coalition includes over 3,500 representatives from all 50 states, spanning large and small businesses, mayors and governors, university presidents, faith leaders, tribal leaders, and cultural institutions. “We Are Still In” signatories represent more than half of all Americans and, taken together, $6.2 trillion of economic activity.
“Humans have collective agency. We are driven, on an evolutionary basis, to collaborate and cooperate — to work together. This is what makes us the most advanced species on the planet. This also means we can collaborate to create an equitable, ecologically-sound future,” said landscape architect Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, former ASLA president, in a session at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in San Francisco.
Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, CEO / Executive Vice President of ASLA, further explained the goal of the report: “Climate change is putting communities at risk. The standard development approach isn’t working. We instead need a new paradigm that incorporates natural systems in order to create healthy, climate-smart communities.”
The report outlines that new paradigm in five key areas: natural systems, community development, vulnerable communities, transportation, and agriculture. But, according to Rinner, what the report really describes is “one interactive system.”
Smart Policies for a Changing Climate is guided by a few concepts: “Collaborate, plan ecologically, maximize green, establish connections, seek multiple benefits, and secure multiple sources of funding.”
Maximizing the role of natural systems in the built environment is a particularly important concept. “When we ignore natural systems, you get the problems we have — drought, wild fires, flooding, etc”
Communities can scale up the incorporation of natural systems at the regional and urban levels. The Chesapeake Bay action plan is an example of an effective regional watershed plan because it crosses the political boundaries of six states and the District of Columbia to solve ecological problems.
At the urban level, coastal cities like Norfolk, Virginia, are moving towards becoming “‘sponge cities’ that not only absorb stormwater, but also enrich biohabitats with native vegetation.” In these communities, green infrastructure also acts as a “community development catalyst.”
Norfolk, which received a $120 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to improve its resilience to coastal flooding, has decided to invest heavily in green infrastructure to better manage flooding. The city created a model resilience strategy, resilience zoning code, and green infrastructure plan, as part of its 2030 comprehensive plan. Rinner, a former long-time resident of Norfolk, and participant in the city’s planning processes, said “collaborating through partnerships” was key to making that effort succeed.
Ying-Yu Hung, FASLA, SWA Group managing partner in Los Angeles and a member of the blue ribbon panel, showed a few projects by her firm to further illustrate how resilient landscape projects can create multiple benefits.
The one-mile-long, 45-feet-wide Ricardo Lara Linear Park was created along the embankment of Highway 105, which bisects the mostly-Latino community of Lynwood, California. Hung said Lynwood is vastly underserved in terms of public green space. The community has just 0.5 acres acres of park per 1,000 people, whereas the city of Los Angeles on average has one acre per 1,000 people, and Malibu, one of the wealthiest areas, has 56 acres per 1,000 people.
Working with the non-profit From Lot to Spot, SWA Group designed a green strip along the highway, where some 300 trees catch some of the dangerous air pollution from vehicles passing by and bioswales and bioretention basins capture polluted runoff pouring off the highway. Further away from the highway, there is a trail and separate bicycle path, leading residents to community arts, fitness, and educational spaces, as well as a dog park. Ricardo Lara Linear Park builds community resilience to climate change by reducing the urban heat island effect and improving the health and well-being of Lynwood residents. The park is so beloved community volunteer groups maintain it.
In an example of how natural systems boost community resilience, Hung then described the 1.2-mile-long linear park, the Buffalo Bayou Promenade, which runs under freeways that cut through downtown Houston, Texas. SWA widened the slopes around the bayou, significantly increasing the amount of water it can contain when it floods. Some 14,000 new trees were planted to reduce erosion, provide wildlife habitat, and create an appealing social space for the 44,000 households who live within 10 miles of the park.
The park was purposefully designed to withstand the onslaught of severe flooding. When Hurricane Harvey hit the city and the bayou rose by some 40 feet, the Buffalo Bayou Conservancy had to remove 60 million pounds of sediment and re-plant 400 trees, but the essential infrastructure survived. “We designed the park for the worst-scenario possible.”
Lastly, Armando Carbonell, senior fellow and chair of the department of planning and urban form at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, also a blue ribbon panel member, delved into the impact of climate change on low-income communities, as well as “the extremely difficult subject of relocation and retreat.” Climate change is deeply unfair in its impacts — it will have “disproportionate impact on low-income people who live in flood zones,” increasing the risk of their displacement.
According to Carbonell, in Latin America, city governments have been picking up and re-locating whole neighborhoods deemed at-risk to the far edges of cities. “The suspicion in these communities was the government had another agenda — they wanted to re-develop the land; and that’s true more often than not.”
In Staten Island, New York City, 23 people died when Hurricane Sandy hit the community of Oakwood Beach. A relocation effort there also generated suspicions about motives, despite the fact that Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) rules dictate that any vacated land would become a permanent easement. Community members wondered: “If we vacate our property, how will it be used? Will our land become condos for rich people? Who’s benefiting?”
In Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, relocation has been particularly wrenching. In the late 1800s, the Indian Removal Act forced a group of Native Americans to this narrow strip of land in Terrebonne Parish. Given this place is the end of the Trail of Tears for the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, “there is a level of resistance” to moving and abandoning their homeland and burial ground. “They’ve been pushed to the edge; they can’t be pushed further.”
Unfortunately, due to rising sea level and the destruction of ecosystems, which has caused land subsidence, this community has lost 98 percent of its 22,000 acres, leaving the remaining tribe members in “absolute vulnerability” on just 320 constantly-flooding acres. Dissatisfied with the terms of relocation set by the state government, 30 plus members of the tribe have refused to leave.
Carbonell said some two million people in coastal Louisiana are now at risk of relocation due to rising sea levels. In coastal Bangladesh, which is similar in size and scale, there are some 14 million facing the same end. “The challenge ahead is daunting.”
Global warming may be near a tipping point; even the popular press says it is coming. Some experts warn it will be reached within a decade, others hold out for a twenty-year window — a generation at most. But it’s already in rapid motion scolds David Wallace-Wells in The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of The Future, beginning straight away in the first sentence of this riveting and deeply distressing overture to a tragic future: “It is worse, much worse than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all….”
Drawing from numerous credible scientific sources, some obscure and esoteric and others as widely circulated as recent U.N. sponsored or World Bank reports, Wallace-Wells hurls out a flurry of shock scenarios to delineate not just the more conservative probabilities, but also the higher and even scarier ranges of human-caused heat buildup. There is little doubt that devastation is occurring more frequently and it is getting more virulent. The book’s opening section, aptly titled “Cascades”, articulates a “new kind of ….violence….the planet plummeting again and again with increasing intensity, and in ways that build on each other and undermine our ability to respond, uprooting much of the landscape we have taken for granted for centuries.”
Last year’s hellacious California wildfires and mudslides were not an isolated incident, but rather part of a massive threat to global plant life. Forest die back may amount to “….retreat[ing] of jungle basins as big as countries….which means a dramatic stripping back of the planet’s natural ability to absorb carbon, which means still higher temperatures, which means more dieback…”
The human costs, especially in politically vulnerable circumstances, are a consequence of similar accelerations. The one million Syrian refugees resulting from the 2011 civil war were also victims of drought. The World Bank estimates that by 2050 the number of climate change refugees from sub-Sahara Africa, Latin America and the rest of Asia could reach 150 million. The U.N. goes higher – ranging from 200 million to a billion.
Celsius degree increases are a suitable metric in comprehending different scenarios, and they are the author’s most relied-upon benchmark. There has been a 1.1 rise since the inception of the industrial revolution; the rise associated with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2016 Paris accords to year 2100 is 2 additional degrees by the end of this century. Wallace-Wells considers this the “best case scenario”, with ice sheets beginning their outright collapse, water scarcity for 400 million more people, unlivable cities along the equatorial band of the planet, and in northern latitudes, heat waves killing thousands each summer.
Last year’s heavily publicized Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has upped that to 3.2 degrees, even if immediate action were taken to implement the Paris accords. That could amount to major flooding in Miami, Dhaka, Shanghai and Hong Kong, along with a hundred other cities and multiple additional catastrophes. And the likelihood cannot been discounted that a rise of 4 degrees, or even much higher, might occur by the end of this century.
It takes little stretch of the imagination to conjure the connection between horrific disaster and the specter of mass extinction, and many other books have focused on this question exclusively. Of the five preceding extinctions, the first occurred an estimated 450 million years ago, when 85 percent of all species died, and the most recent occurring 80 million years ago when the tally amounted to 75 percent. What is likely to be happening now would constitute the first caused by homo sapiens.
Wallace-Wells concludes with wide-ranging speculations on what it means to be human, and thus self-aware, amidst a seemingly limitless universe where other such life forms may have both prevailed and expired countless times before ours. Here is where he searches for personal consolation in the Anthropic principle, which (depending on how it is interpreted) consigns to the very existence of earth-bound humanity, in the author’s words, a “sense of cosmic specialness.”
This sudden glint of optimism comes as a surprising and confounding about-face, given the preponderance of doom and gloom that precedes it, and yet for David Wallace-Wells, parent to a child born while this blunt screed was being written, the primal instinct to survive and the desire for meaning may be sufficient fuel for his rejection of despair, despite the preponderance of scientific arguments for a worst-case scenario.
This guest post is by Martin Zimmerman, who writes from Charlotte, North Carolina, where he is an urban planner, free-lance journalist, and sustainable city activist.
The Absent Hand: Reimagining our American Landscape by writer Suzannah Lessard is part memoir, part examination of the American cultural landscape. Lessard offers a unique and necessary perspective on the deterioration of our society’s connection to the landscape, manifested most prominently in the book as sprawl.
Lessard is an aficionado of sprawl. It transfixes and confounds her, creating a special tension. The reader can feel Lessard’s urge to aptly describe sprawl’s features, sometimes manufacturing new words when the right ones aren’t there. The right words are there often enough, though: schizoid, edgeless, and excrescent attached themselves to places like Rosslyn, Virginia, and King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.
This struggle to read and relay the suburban landscape is part of Absent Hand’s larger theme: as technology collapses space, context is lost, and with it the ability to understand our place and purpose. Machiavelli explains to his readers in The Prince that to best view a mountain, one must descend to the valley. Context offers the promise of objective evaluation and control.
So what happens when a force such as sprawl saps context from our landscape or climate change outstrips our capacity to solve it? Bad things, you can imagine. Lessard views a cohesive landscape as cultural glue. Without it, there is no common geography to bind inhabitants. Suburbia gets experienced as “individual, customary routes.” And climate change continues its own destabilizing course.
Technology has historically been the primary instigator of this anti-contextualizing process. Lessard points to its impact on war and labor. The Internet has siphoned people from mills and farms into the same offices in front of monitors that bring us everywhere and nowhere. Our relatively recent fascination with industrial and pastoral relics like warehouses and barns is no coincidence, Lessard argues.
Those relics suggest to us a tangible link between our work and our landscape. Modern work has a weak relationship to territory and leaves no such physical imprint (its infrastructure being another story).
Most of these insights dominate the second half of the book. Lessard’s anecdotes and experiences living and traveling, mainly in the Washington, D.C.-Boston corridor, populate much of the first.
Her opinions are never watery, but neither are her introspection and self-critique. I’m a product of suburbia, and her descriptions of it renewed its mystery to me. As a current resident of Lessard’s old neighborhood in Brooklyn, I found she captured well the charm of the ubiquitous brownstones.
Still, it’s fair to wonder if Lessard’s worries are just fear of modernity. There’s a healthy amount of technophobia expressed in Absent Hand, and Lessard’s outward refusal of nostalgia for bygone landscapes is undercut by her own more elegiac descriptions of said landscapes.
And yes, it’s a familiar trope to fear the encroachment of McMansions, as Lessard seems to. But it’s also highly relatable. The only thing scarier than sprawl’s idiosyncrasies is its sameness.
Still, I imagine Lessard would be amused to learn, as I recently did, that critics initially panned brownstone homes for their uniformity.
At age 8, Greta Thunberg, who lives in Stockholm, Sweden, learned about climate change. By age 11, she had fallen into a deep depression because of the lack of global action to solve the climate crisis. A doctor diagnosed her with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), selective mute syndrome, and Asperger’s syndrome, which means she is on the autism spectrum. Being autistic, she said in a TEDx talk, means she sees the world in “black and white.” And for her, acting on climate change is a black and white issue: “We must stop carbon emissions from fossil fuels. We have to change.”
Beginning at age 15, Thunberg started channeling her frustration into being a dedicated climate activist, sitting in front of Sweden’s National Legislature every day, during school hours, demanding the Swedish government reduce carbon emissions by at least 15 percent each year. Thunberg decided on such a radical move because “no one in the media is talking about climate change; and you would think they would talk about nothing else.”
Thunberg — who was inspired by the teen activists at Parkland in Florida skipping school to protest gun violence — has herself inspired a global movement of student-led climate protests. Last year, an estimated 20,000 school children held climate strikes in 270 cities. On March 15, the biggest global protest yet occurred — with an estimated one million students skipping school to march for climate action. Organizers estimated there were some 2,000 strikes in 125 countries.
The UK Student Climate Network, which organized protests in London, released a manifesto that clearly relays the protesters’ frustration and anxiety about the future:
“We’ve joined a movement that’s spreading rapidly across the world, catalyzed by the actions of one individual in taking a stand in August last year. Greta Thunberg may have been the spark, but we’re the wildfire and we’re fueled by the necessity for action.
The climate is in crisis. We will be facing ecological catastrophe and climate breakdown in the very near future if those in power don’t act urgently and radically to change our trajectory. Scientists have been giving increasingly dire warnings about the state of our planet for years, with the urgency and severity of their message escalating in recent times. It’s abundantly clear: change is needed, and it’s needed now!”
According to CBS News, protesting school children were united in their demand for a rapid transition to 100 percent renewable energy.
In the U.S., the strike was organized by Youth Climate Strike, a coalition led by Isra Hirsi, a 16-year-old sophmore from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Haven Coleman, 12-year-old 7th grader from Denver, Colorado. In San Francisco, hundreds of students marched from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office, demanding action. And in St. Paul, Minnesota, 1,000 students stood in front of the state Capitol chanting: “Stop denying the Earth is dying.”
Protests also occurred on March 15 across Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa. In Berlin, Germany, an estimated 20,000 student protestors waved signs such as “‘March now or swim later’ and ‘Climate Protection Report Card: F'” on their march towards German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office. And in New Delhi, school children protested inaction on climate change as well as poor air quality, which causes an estimated 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide annually.
A recent Pew survey found that Generation Z, now aged 13-21, is equally as focused on climate change as the Millennial generation, now 22-37 years old. Some 54 percent of Gen Z sees climate change as being driven by human activity, while 56 percent of Millennials think the same. These numbers are considerably higher than for Gen Xers, Baby Boomers, or the Silent Generation.
“These school children have grasped something that seems to elude many of their elders: we are in a race for our lives, and we are losing. The window of opportunity is closing – we no longer have the luxury of time, and climate delay is almost as dangerous as climate denial.
My generation has failed to respond properly to the dramatic challenge of climate change. This is deeply felt by young people. No wonder they are angry.”
Guterres said the “commitment and activism” shown by these students gives him hope the world’s leaders will shift course in time but it’s important to keep up the pressure. A recent United Nations report found that dramatically reducing emissions over the next 11 years is absolutely critical.
Climate change is causing seas to rise, flooding to worsen, and hurricanes and wildfires to become more destructive, all of which puts our infrastructure at greater risk. On top of that, America’s current infrastructure received a D+ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in their latest scorecard. Increased risk from climate events and the massive backlog of maintenance projects means that our infrastructure has never been more vulnerable.
But for some forward-thinking communities, vulnerability means opportunity. For these communities facing climate impacts, the best way to protect themselves has been to move beyond the grey infrastructure of the past and transition to green infrastructure.
In the Neoclassical Rayburn building on Capitol Hill, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and Environment and Energy Study Institute (EESI) hosted a briefing for over a hundred Hill staffers to explain how communities and landscape architects are using green infrastructure to help communities become more climate-resilient.
Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, CEO of ASLA, said infrastructure should be created or remodeled to work “in tandem with natural systems.”
As outlined in the report Smart Policies for a Changing Climate, which was the result of ASLA’s blue ribbon panel on climate change and resilience, green infrastructure — such as “green roofs, streets, and corridors; tree canopies; parks and open spaces; and wetlands and wild lands” — leverages the benefits of nature to soak up excess stormwater and protect against flooding. These innovative projects also provide many other benefits, such as improved water and air quality, cooler air temperatures, and psychological and cognitive benefits for people.
“The risks of coastal, riverine, an urban flooding are increasing,” said Mark Dawson, FASLA, managing principal at Sasaki, one of the leading landscape and urban design firms in the U.S., which incorporates green infrastructure into all its community resilience projects.
His firm is now working with flood-inundated Shelby County in Tennessee, which won a national disaster resilience grant of some $60 million, to protect itself from persistent, destructive riverine flooding. Sasaki mapped the extent of current and expected future flooding and developed comprehensive plans with the impacted communities. In one especially hard-hit low-income community, there was serious conversation about selling and relocating but planning turned towards how to use parks and reconfigured residential lots with floodable zones to better protect homes. A new green infrastructural park now in development will accommodate an expanding and contracting flood plain (see image at top).
Montgomery county, Maryland, has also gone all-in on using green infrastructure to improve community resilience to climate change. Adam Ortiz, director of environmental protection for the county, said the county government is focused on bringing green infrastructure to previously under-served communities in order to spread the benefits to everyone.
For example, the Dennis Avenue green street, found in an “under-invested” neighborhood, is not only a “beautiful upgrade” but cleans and infiltrates stormwater runoff and protects against flooding. These projects aren’t just good for the environment and property values, they also create economic benefits. According to Ortiz, “green infrastructure projects have contributed $130 million to the local economy,” spurring the creation of county businesses that offer well-paying green jobs.
It’s worth reiterating that some communities need green infrastructure more than others, because some communities have borne “environmental insults” far longer. Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome with the Kresge Foundation argued that environmental justice considerations should guide who gets much-needed resilient green infrastructure. She said low-income “black and brown” communities are often more vulnerable to climate impacts because they are already dealing with so many contemporary issues and the legacy of past injustices. “First, you take institutional racism, then throw climate change on top of that, and it makes things only worse.”
White-Newsome said anyone working on these projects should seek to use good local science; conduct a comprehensive environmental justice analysis before starting a project; remove barriers to “education, access, and financial decision-making;” and empower local communities as part of the process. Green Infrastructure Leadership Exchange and Earth Economics are helpful organizations for communities seeking to finance their own plans and projects.
In the past few years, there has been progress on Capitol Hill in incentivizing more resilient infrastructure, but not nearly enough. Ellen Vaughn, director of public policy for EESI pointed to the Disaster Recovery Reform Act; the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act; Defense appropriations around climate resilience; and the recently-passed Natural Resources Management Act, which provides permanent financing for the Land & Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). And Somerville noted that ASLA has been promoting the Living Shorelines Act and hopes it will be re-introduced this Congress.
But more must be done at the federal level to spread the protective benefits of next-generation resilient infrastructure to more communities. Somerville said: “what is needed is dedicated federal funding for green infrastructure.”
A wide-ranging proposal for a Green New Deal (GND) was introduced on February 7 in the House of Representatives in the form of a resolution sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), with a companion resolution introduced in the Senate by Sen. Edward Markey (Mass.).
Although the current GND resolution is largely aspirational and includes few specific policies, it contains a commitment to core principles of urgent transformational change that are fully compatible with ASLA’s positions, and mirror the recommendations the Society already put forward in our Blue Ribbon Panel report, Smart Policies for a Changing Climate.
Like our report, the GND resolution calls for widespread, immediate action that will ensure clean air and water; climate and community resiliency; access to nature; and a sustainable environment. We also strongly back calls for a national commitment to environmental justice for all Americans, especially for those from underserved, vulnerable, and neglected groups that have historically borne the brunt of the ill-effects of environmental calamities. ASLA supports the underlying principles of the GND resolution that relate specifically to climate change and resilience, and we are pleased that it has served to stimulate public debate about the accelerating climate crisis.
We note that in addition to climate-related policies, the resolution also contains several recommendations about social and economic issues that are beyond the scope of the Society’s mandate and existing policies, matters about which we can take no formal position.
ASLA members can be assured that when the GND is translated into formal legislative proposals to reduce carbon emissions, make transformational changes to infrastructure, and create a robust 21st-century clean-energy economy, ASLA will be at the forefront of the fight to enact them into law. We firmly believe that landscape architects must take a leadership role in planning and designing sustainable, resilient communities and ASLA, without question, will do its part to bring the climate principles of the Green New Deal to fruition.
ASLA is pleased that the Green New Deal resolution has significantly expanded the scope and intensity of the dialogue about climate change and we are extremely gratified that the Society’s report mirrors its major climate and infrastructure goals and we look forward to the legislative proposals that will stem from it.
“We rely on natural processes and landscapes to sustain human life and well-being. Our energy, water, infrastructure, and agricultural systems use these processes and landscapes to satisfy our most basic human needs. One motivation, therefore, for protecting the environment is to sustain the ecosystem goods and services upon which we depend. As we emerge from the sixth decade of modern environmentalism, there is a growing international awareness of opportunities to efficiently and effectively integrate natural and engineered systems to create even more value.”
One might understandably think this was written by a landscape architect, or excerpted from somewhere on the ASLA website. In fact, it comes from the forward of Engineering with Nature: An Atlas, a new book by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Engineering with Nature (EWN) team, led by environmental scientist Dr. Todd Bridges.
Over the last eight years, Bridges has quietly built the EWN initiative out of the Army Corps’ Vicksburg, Mississippi headquarters, working with a team of engineers, environmental scientists, and ecologists to develop pilot projects that prove the viability of engineering large-scale infrastructure in partnership with natural systems.
Now, after successfully completing dozens of projects across the U.S., Bridges is pushing to take EWN to new heights. The initiative’s 2018-2023 strategic plan envisions an expanded portfolio of engineering strategies and project types, deeper interdisciplinary and community engagement, and heightened public awareness of EWN goals, activities, and success stories.
To that end, Engineering With Nature: An Atlas documents more than 50 engineering projects completed in recent decades that exemplify the EWN approach. The projects are grouped according to typology, including chapters on beaches, wetlands, islands, reefs, and rivers. Reflecting the collaborative approach of the EWN initiative, only half of the case studies profiled were carried out by the Army Corps. The remainder were executed by partner NGOs in the US and government agencies in England, The Netherlands, and New Zealand, countries which have made substantial investments of their own in innovative coastal and water-based engineering.
A key theme of the book is the beneficial re-use of dredged material. While conventionally viewed as a waste product, the EWN initiative seeks to find and develop beneficial uses for the material, such as in wetland restoration, habitat creation, and beach nourishment. And because the Corps is required to maintain the navigability of all federal waterways, the EWN team has a ready supply of dredged material to work with.
One example of this strategy can be seen in Texas’ Galveston Bay, where the Corps partnered with Houston Audubon to create the 6-acre Evia Island, which today is populated with herons, egrets, terns, and brown pelicans.
Other projects take advantage of erosion and sediment flux to catalyze beneficial outcomes. In Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River, the Corps placed dredged material in strategic upriver locations to create a 35-hectare island that is “self-designed” by the river’s flow. And at Sears Point, in the northern San Francisco Bay, the Sonomoa Land Trust and Ducks Unlimited restored 1,000 acres of tidal marsh by puncturing a levee, allowing water from the Tolay Creek to flow into a field of constructed sediment mounds. The mounds slowed the water’s rate of flow, stimulating land growth within the project area.
These approaches have considerable overlap with recent research in the field of landscape architecture, particularly the work of the Dredge Research Collaborative, which advocates for ecological and watershed-scale approaches to the management of sediment and dredged material and has collaborated with the EWN initiative in recent years.
An Atlas also includes projects that retrofit conventional infrastructure to provide ecological benefits, such as creating nesting habitat for terns on top of breakwaters in Lake Erie, or efforts in the Netherlands to redesign coastal reinforcements to serve as habitat for marine plants and animals. Reminiscent of SCAPE’s Living Breakwaters project off the southern coast of Staten Island, these projects demonstrate an increasing interest in designing infrastructure that provides multiple benefits.
Despite its title, At Atlas does not contain any maps or diagrams to orient the reader–an unfortunate omission that makes it difficult to grasp the scale of the presented projects. Instead, the projects are depicted using solely perspective and aerial photos.
While these photos are informative, the book would have greatly benefited from the development of a graphic language to more clearly and visually communicate the impacts of the presented projects and the issues they seek to address.
Despite these omissions, the breadth and scope of projects presented in Engineering with Nature: An Atlas makes a considerable impression, presenting a range of strategies for designing infrastructure with ecological, social, and cultural benefits at multiple scales.
Perhaps most significantly, An Atlas suggests there is great potential for meaningful interdisciplinary collaboration between the Corps and landscape architects. As landscape architects increasingly seek to broaden the field’s scope to include the planning and design of large-scale systems and ecologies, this collaboration may prove vital. Engineering with Nature: An Atlas begins to paint a picture of what such a collaborative practice may look like.