A Necessary Book: Lo–TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism

Lo–TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism / Taschen

By Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA

In 1964, architect, engineer, and critic Bernard Rudofsky curated the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibition Architecture Without Architects in order to shatter the exclusive and discriminatory canon of architectural history, which was long overdue for redress. The exhibition examined “non-pedigreed architecture,” which, “for want of a generic label,” Rudofsky called “vernacular, anonymous, spontaneous, indigenous, rural.”

Julia Watson continues that discussion in her necessary new book Lo–TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism and introduces a new term. Lo–TEK—a meshing of “lo-tech” and TEK, which abbreviates Traditional Ecological Knowledge—redefines indigenous innovation and technology as models of symbiosis between humankind and nature–ones we direly need to confront the crisis of climate change. Radical indigenism advocates refashioning knowledge systems to include indigenous philosophies and create new discourses. Design that incorporates radical indigenism creates sustainable and climate-resilient infrastructure.

Lo–TEK catalogues indigenous technologies from across the globe, positing that scaling and hybridizing them with conventional technologies can provide a new vocabulary of sustainable innovations in the built environment. Watson, an Australia-born and New York–based architect, activist, academic, and founder of both Julia Watson and A Future Studio, researched and wrote Lo–TEK over six years. During that time, Watson traveled to 18 countries. While exploring, she pinpointed the inherent advantage of Lo–TEK design: it is “both an everyday response for human survival and an extraordinary response to environmental extremes, such as famine, flood, frost, drought, and disease.”

The technologies she presents span ecosystems and purposes: they purify water, grow food, maintain biodiversity, collect rain and groundwater, and enable habitation of aquatic and arid locales, to name a few.

The Ifugao people’s palayan rice terraces in the Philippines simultaneously irrigate, filter water, and support community-based rice farming. The Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania construct boma acacia corrals that prompt desert afforestation and ecological succession in lands grappling with desertification.

Sustainable agricultural practices increase productivity and preserve biodiversity. In Mexico, the Mayan people’s milpa system uses a cycle of burning, mulching, and fallowing to encourage forest succession, soil fertility, and polyculture gardens. In Tanzania, the Chagga people’s kihamba forest gardens support over 500 species by inter-cropping trees with agriculture.

In Tanazania, the Chagga people manage kihamba forest gardens. / Julia Watson, Taschen

The Ma’dan people in Iraq and the Uros people in Peru demonstrate how to live with water using buoyant, biodegradable infrastructure. All innovations are local, affordable, and made by hand. They enable the sustenance of both people and resources, not their exploitation. They rely upon indigenous communities remaining on their ancestral lands—unlike many conservation efforts. And “rather than primitive, as Le Corbusier would say, this knowledge is primal and known to us all,” Watson writes.

On Peru’s Lake Titicaca, the Uros people construct islands from totora reeds / Julia Watson, Taschen

Designers in search of new tools and models to counter the mounting threats posed by climate change will find this book an accessible compilation of sustainable landscape innovations. Structured by ecosystem, the book categorizes the technologies as mountain, forest, desert, or wetland.

Each innovation receives a detailed description of its use and integral role inside the culture that created it. Sometimes interviews delve further into a design and its culture, like Jassim Al-Asadi’s insight into the floating civilizations of the Iraqi wetlands. Drawn diagrams break down each innovation. One could imagine a design firm nonchalantly co-opting certain elements—maybe the bheri wastewater treatment system used by the Bengalese people in Kolkata, or the waru waru cut-and-fill micro-topography of the Inca in Peru—within otherwise non-radical designs.

Each day, Kolkata’s bheri wastewater aquaculture system filters half of the city’s sewage. / Julia Watson, Taschen

What will be harder to co-opt is the spirituality intrinsic to these indigenous technologies and the cultures from which they emerge. A worldview encompassing religion, ethics, and systems of belief is inherent to their ecosystem management.

In Bali, the Subak people, who maintain highly biodiverse and productive subak rice terraces, practice water temple rituals based in their belief that the goddess Dewi Danu provides their irrigation water. J. Stephen Lansing, director of the Complexity Institute at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, notes such understandings are not so-called “‘magical’ ideas.” They’re critical to the operation of these landscapes; the temples are the locus of a cooperative water distribution system. Though the technologies themselves are innovative, the people tending them ultimately ensure their performance through their systems of belief. Lansing writes: “the wedding of these ideas with the managerial capacity of temple networks provides powerful tools for communities to impose an imagined order on the world.”

It’s in part the very dearth of the spiritual that Watson asks her readers to question. In championing indigenous technologies, she invites readers to critique the mythology of technology that has dominated the world since the Enlightenment.

Adherence to this myth—itself an outgrowth of humanism, colonialism, and racism—has fueled resource extraction and the dismissal of natural systems. Questioning it means interrogating its hegemony, homogeneity, and sidelining of indigenous peoples and wisdom. After all, in many indigenous cultures, “spirituality in the landscapes is directly related to sustainability and resource management.” Watson suggests embracing a different and new mythology of technology, one that unites humanism with radical indigenism.

Advocating that nuanced practices deeply rooted in indigenous cultures can be extricated from their contexts and duplicated, hybridized, or adapted engenders a tricky balancing act. Watson herself notes that popular culture in our current eco-friendly era encourages milquetoast versions of greenwashing premised upon a merged spiritual and scientific understandings of the environment.

It’s dangerously easy to cross the line into romanticizing indigenous cultures, as has been wont over the past several hundred years. In the US landscape, for instance, permutations of the mythology of technology materialized as manifest destiny and the fiction of empty space. “Like imperialism itself, landscape is an object of nostalgia in a postcolonial and postmodern era,” writes W. J. T. Mitchell, “reflecting a time when metropolitan cultures could imagine their destiny in an unbounded ‘prospect’ of endless appropriation and conquest.”

Watson, from the vantage of our postcolonial era, nods to this nostalgia by asserting indigenous techniques as components of myth. But in also calling out technology as myth, she proposes a subversion of it with a co-evolved mythology that joins the two. She checks myth with myth.

The danger in Watson’s proposal would be that in building this new mythology, indigenous innovations and the people behind them become assimilated and appropriated by technology’s homogenizing forces. Throughout Lo–TEK, Watson repeats that indigenous technologies offer “clues,” “inspiration,” and “models” for a future built environment of soft systems that collaborate with nature, but she stops short of articulating precisely how. “They are not instructions, but, like a compass, they provide an orientation rather than a map for the future,” she writes.

Nonetheless, one may still crave more specificity from Watson, who from her thorough field research certainly has some ideas. If Lo–TEK offers a timely, overdue, and respectful catalogue of indigenous technologies that can bring wisdom, other voices, and heterogeneity to our current unsustainable paradigm, the next effort lies in determining how to realize and maintain those heterogeneities.

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

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 Architects Can Reduce the Pain of Climate Migration

Isle de Jean Charles
Satellite view of Isle de Jean Charles, / Google Earth

Climate change-driven migrations will occur more frequently. That was the message in a first-of-its kind session at reVISION ASLA 2020. Haley Blakeman, FASLA, a professor at Louisiana State University, said landscape architects can facilitate more successful migrations by acting as a conduit between scientists, planners, and the communities forced to migrate.

Blakeman explained her team’s efforts in helping to move the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribal community of Isle de Jean Charles, a small and increasingly submerged island in Terrebonne Parish, along the coast of Louisiana. The island has lost 98 percent of its landmass over the past 60 years.

“[Climate migration] is going to be happening in more and more places,” Blakeman said. Sea level rise is Isle de Jean Charles’ particular affliction. Elsewhere, drought, wildfires, and food insecurity will force movement.

Can landscape architects help lead these migration efforts? “Yes,” Blakeman said, but only by accepting their limitations and collaborating with migrating communities and a collective of multidisciplinary planning and design professionals.

In Blakeman’s case, this collective included geographer and resilience policy analyst Jessica Simms and sociologist Pamela Jenkins. Their expertise and knowledge of the Isle de Jean Charles community helped build a trusting relationship that has served the project well.

“It’s tricky business moving people from their home to another place,” Jenkins told attendees. “It is not an infrastructure project with a social component, but the other way around.”

Isle de Jean Charles is representative of many low-lying areas in Louisiana. The state thrives commercially on its proximity to the water. But between the oil and gas industry choking coastal wetlands and the incursion of the sea, Louisiana has lost over 1,900 square miles of coastal land in the last 90 years. Isle de Jean Charles has outpaced that trend, putting pressure on the islanders to secure their community’s future elsewhere.

sea level louisiana
Upwards of 7.8 million people in the Gulf may be affected by sea level rise / Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, Dan Swenson

The tribe worked with the State of Louisiana to secure federal funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the move. The project is the United States’ first community-scale climate change-driven resettlement. 38 of 42 households on Isle de Jean Charles are participating, and 34 of those are moving together to a 500-acre site called “The New Isle,” according to Simms.

Simms and her team vetted about 20 potential locations in Terrebonne for re-establishing the islanders, only examining sites that were safely above sea level. 20 sites were narrowed to three, with five configurations. Site preference surveys made rounds in the community as members visited the sites.

Eventually, the community settled on a site favored by approximately 80 percent of its members, an hour’s drive from Isle de Jean Charles. Blakeman, Jenkins, and Simms liaised between the islanders and design team in order to tailor The New Isle to the community’s needs.

idjc rendering
A rendering of The New Isle community. / Waggonner & Ball, courtesy of The State of Louisiana.

While this suggests a tidy process, Simms reminded the audience that forced migration is inherently traumatic. “Their identities are wrapped up in the island that is going away,” Simms said.

Most tribal members were born and raised on the island and are well attuned to the place. In a departure from previous policies, which barred those migrating from retaining ownership of their existing land, the islanders were allowed to maintain ownership and access to their land and homes, though not allowed to live there. This policy change was critical to achieving community buy-in.

This buy-in is critical to the success of any forced migration effort, Jenkins explained. She quoted a figure from Anthony Oliver-Smith, an academic in the field of disasters and their social impacts, saying 90 percent of such migrations fail. Existing social fault lines, poor communications between the community and the professionals involved, and a lack of available funds often doom climate migrations.

community design session
Jenkins and Blakeman (far left) meet with community members to discuss issues related to their future home. / Haley Blakeman

And while the Isle de Jean Charles migration is heading towards success, all of the speakers emphasized that it does not represent a model. There are lessons to be learned from the effort, but each future migration undertaking must be community- and context-specific.

Construction on the homes of The New Isle began in May and will finish in 2021, according to Simms. The new community will sit 12 feet above sea level.

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.”

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, including 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 countries’ 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.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (October 16-31)

Spotfire training at the Oklahoma State University / T. Johnson, via The Architect’s Newspaper

Friendly Fire: It’s Time for Designers to Embrace Fire as the Ecological and Cultural Force That It Is — 10/29/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“In Tulsa, Oklahoma, controlled burns will soon be part of the maintenance regime for a massive urban wilderness preserve master-planned by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA).”

“Once-in-a-Generation Project”: Memphis Landscape Architect Honored for Big River Crossing — 10/27/20, Commercial Appeal
“Four years after it opened, the landscape architects who helped design Big River Crossing have won a statewide design award for the project, receiving praise for the way the project ties into the area’s relationship with the river.”

Trump to Strip Protections from Tongass National Forest, One of the Biggest Intact Temperate Rainforests — 10/27/20, The Washington Post
“President Trump will open up more than half of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to logging and other forms of development, according to a notice posted Wednesday, stripping protections that had safeguarded one of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforests for nearly two decades.”

Cities Are Pledging to Confront Climate Change, but Are Their Actions Working? — 10/22/20, Brookings Institution
“A team of scholars organized by the Brookings Institution has built and analyzed one of the most comprehensive statistical evaluations of just what’s happening in a cross section of diverse cities on emissions reductions.”

The Little-Known Women Behind Some Well-Known Landscapes — 10/21/20, The New York Times
“‘Women have literally shaped the American landscape and continue to today,’ said Charles A. Birnbaum, president and chief executive of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, ‘but their names and contributions are largely unknown.’”

Landscape Architects Unveil Plans to Save the National Mall’s Tidal Basin – 10/21/20, NPR
“Five landscape architects unveiled proposals Wednesday to save the sinking Tidal Basin on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The plans run the gamut from a conservative approach to radical reimaginings.”

Thanks to a Design Coalition with Community Ties, Philadelphia’s Graffiti Pier Will Live on as a Public Park — 10/19/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“The proposal from Studio Zewde walks a tightrope: Make the area accessible to a wider public and protect it from climate change, but don’t erase the pier’s offbeat spirit in the process.”

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

ASLA 2017 Professional General Design Honor Award. Klyde Warren Park, Dallas, Texas / Liane Rochelle Photography

Florida Sees Signals of a Climate-Driven Housing Crisis — 10/12/20, The New York Times
“Home sales in areas most vulnerable to sea-level rise began falling around 2013, researchers found. Now, prices are following a similar downward path.”

Manchester Follows Asia’s Lead in Designing Age-friendly Cities — 10/05/20, CityMonitor
“Perhaps no UK city is better equipped to respond to its changing demographics than Manchester, where one third of the population will be 50 or older by 2040.”

Snøhetta, OJB Landscape Architecture Top Winners of 2020 National Design Awards — 10/02/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Winner OJB Landscape Architecture, a landscape architecture and urban planning practice that maintains offices in San Diego, Boston, Houston, Dallas, and Philadelphia, released a statement where founder Jim Burnett noted: ‘I believe landscape has the power to transform cities and strengthen communities, and that now, more than ever, we have a responsibility to address issues of access, equity, and health in our shared public spaces.'”

Imagine a Transcontinental Network of Protected Bike Paths — 10/02/20, Fast Company
“Under an elevated rail line in Miami, a new park will open this fall with a 10-mile path dedicated to walking and biking. It’s an infrastructure improvement for Miami cyclists, but it’s also part of a larger, interstate network of trails that will eventually make it possible to ride from Florida to Maine with little interaction with cars.”

Landslide 2020 Spotlights Women-designed Landscapes and the Threats That They Face — 10/01/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“This year, to mark the centennial of the ratification of the 19th amendment, each of the dozen threatened landscapes (two containing multiple sites) were created, designed, tended to, and championed by women including a multitude of female landscape architects and designers, many of them pioneering in the field and some unsung and overlooked.”