Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of the profession of landscape architecture, was designing nature-based solutions 150 years before the term came into favor. He designed with nature, conserved landscapes and ecosystems, and incorporated native plants — all of which are now contemporary approaches to increasing resilience to climate change.
But now, many of Olmsted’s parks, and those of his sons, are being tested like never before. “Olmsted parks are on the front lines of climate change,” said Dede Petri, CEO of the Olmsted Network, during an online discussion as part of Olmsted 200. And his parks are also increasingly test-beds for new solutions, too.
In a discussion moderated by Dinah Voyles Pulver, national climate reporter at USA Today, Erin Chute Gallentine, public works commissioner with Brookline, Massachusetts, said her city’s Olmsted parks are dealing with climate impacts such as flash flooding and drought. Parks’ trees are now “increasingly vulnerable to pests and diseases.” And across the city, climate change is reducing biodiversity and causing “less robust nature.”
In Manhattan, Central Park has seen record rainfall, more extreme weather events, and mass flooding brought on by climate change. Other impacts include “erosion, pathogens, and the spread of invasive plants” and an “erratic planting calendar,” said Steven Thomson, director of thought leadership at the Central Park Conservancy Institute for Urban Parks. Climate change is also causing milder winters, which means more visitors in the park year-round. “The park doesn’t have time to rest; it is trodded on more during its restoration phase.”
Looking nationally, ASLA CEO Torey Carter-Conneen highlighted how increasing temperatures and urban heat islands are putting pressure on Olmsted’s parks. “This in turn threatens the health and safety of communities,” he said.
As the climate continues to change, Olmsted’s parks will take on an even more important role. Olmsted understood the value of ecological health and believed it was central to human health and well-being. As cities deal with flooding, drought, extreme heat, and sea level rise, Olmsted’s urban respites will be needed even more.
Ecological conditions in Central Park are now being monitored by remote sensors. And the “lived experience” of those who work in the park day in and out are also a focus of research. Together, quantitative and qualitative data will inform policy recommendations that will help other parks adapt.
In the Boston and Brookline, the Emerald Necklace, a 1,100-acre chain of 12 parks, was originally designed by Olmsted to provide multiple benefits. It was simultaneously designed for flood control for the Muddy River, sanitation, scenic beauty, and wildlife habitat.
But in recent years, the park system has been impacted by development and climate change. Invasive plants and stormwater have deteriorated Olmsted’s flood control mechanisms. During storms, the Muddy River has regularly flooded surrounding neighborhoods. One severe storm caused “devastating flooding” and more than $60 million in property damages.
The Muddy River Restoration Project, formed out of a broad partnership, has been daylighting culverts, dredging, and removing invasives in order to speed the flow of floodwaters, increase the capacity of the Emerald Necklace to store water, and restore ecosystems. As Olmsted envisioned, “banks will swell, but we’ll be able to naturally manage the flooding,” Gallentine said.
The Central Park Conservancy is also bolstering Olmsted’s ingenious natural infrastructure so it can better withstand future changes. To support a range of species, the conservancy is daylighting streams and creating riparian habitat. It’s replacing lawn with grasses. And it’s also creating more spaces designed for birds and other pollinators.
And at a national level, ASLA is building on its Olmstedian legacy of fellowship, advocacy, and democratic engagement to advance climate action, explained Carter-Conneen. (Two of Olmsted’s sons were among the society’s co-founders).
ASLA launched its Climate Action Plan last year, and its goals include investing in nature-based solutions, focusing on equitable development, and restoring ecosystems on a global scale, which we can imagine Olmsted Sr. would have supported.
“Boston needs to ramp up its heat adaptation strategies, because two summers ago, the city had 40 days of temperatures over 90 degrees. This was a major problem because no one in the city has air conditioning,” said landscape architect Diana Fernandez-Bibeau, ASLA, deputy chief of urban design at the Boston Planning and Development Agency, during the Living Future conference in Washington, D.C.
Fernandez-Bibeau and Tamar Warburg, director of sustainability at Sasaki, outlined Boston’s innovative new plan for addressing extreme heat, which is part of its Climate Ready Boston effort. The plan promotes strategies ranging from parks to street trees, green roofs to library cooling centers, and offers “multiple layers of benefits.”
“The city is centering people in the resilience process. We’ve completed [sea level rise and flooding] planning for all the city’s coasts. And now with the heat plan, we are ahead of the ball,” Fernandez-Bibeau said.
Heat is a priority for the city because it is “the number-one cause of weather related deaths,” she said. “Children and older adults are at risk, along with those with pre-existing conditions like asthma and diabetes. Construction workers, athletes, the unhoused, and those without air conditioning are also at high risk.”
Through the 350 plus-page plan, the city argues that heat depends on how someone experiences it, rather than the actual temperature. “Age matters, as does someone’s adaptive capacity, which relates to level of access to cooling. In built-up environments with no trees, parks, or splash pads, perceived heat can have a greater intensity.”
Fernandez Bibeau emphasized that the data used in Boston’s plan is “rooted in perceived heat,” which she called “revolutionary.” The city decided not to use federal data, instead creating new climate datasets and modeling that they argue tell a truer picture of what heat feels like on the ground in different conditions.
The city brought together a multidisciplinary team, which was led by Sasaki, a landscape and planning firm, and includes All Aces, a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultancy; Klimaat, which provided heat data, modeling, and visualizations; and WSP, which examined how to finance heat solutions.
Equity was a major focus for the team. Boston has a dark racial past, and “many areas of the city were redlined and subject to disinvesment by the Boston city government,” said Warburg. When the Sasaki team identified the hottest areas of the cities, they found they almost perfectly lined up with the communities that had been redlined.
The city focused on these previously redlined areas, what they call “environmental justice communities” — Chinatown, Dorchester, East Boston, Mattapan, and Roxbury.
According to Fernandez-Bibeau, these are not what have been described as vulnerable communities. “There are vulnerable conditions and infrastructure, not vulnerable communities. These communities are actually incredibly resilient, but their environment doesn’t serve them.”
In the five neighborhoods, temperatures can be up to 7.5 degrees hotter, which means the difference between 83 and 90 degrees. And the communities are even hotter at night. “They have 70 percent less parks and open space and 30 percent fewer street trees than communities that weren’t redlined,” Warburg said.
Chinatown was found to be Boston’s hottest neighborhood. “89 percent of it is impervious, and there is little greenery or shade.” The community is a heat island, which is caused by paved streetscapes and the thermal masses of buildings. “Those buildings radiate heat at night, reducing the ability of the community to cool down.”
To kick-start the work in the neighborhoods, the city and the planning team set up advisory boards, hosted open houses, sent out surveys, and hosted youth charrettes.
Sasaki also asked Bostonians to mark on a map where they felt hot. “In the comments, recurring themes came up — the lack of shade and trees, the impacts of pollution, and affordability issues,” Warburg explained. And the comments also outlined where Bostonians go for cooling relief.
City residents could use a website to create their own three-panel comic strip, choosing colors to indicate how uncomfortable they are. “It was qualitatively helpful.”
And with each neighorhood, the team also drew possible solutions on top of a transect, showing how trees, parks, shade structures, and green roofs could be woven in.
Sasaki and Klimaat tested the cooling benefits of a range of strategies, including converting streets to parks, planting street trees and tree groves, and adding shade structures. They also examined the different cooling benefits of green roofs; cool roofs, which are painted white; and shaded green roofs.
The team looked at how to make transportation systems more heat-resilient, too. Through pocket parks and cool streets, walking to the bus or subway will be made a cooler experience. So will “cool bus stops” with shade canopies. All these strategies together form an implementation toolkit.
The plan covers how to increase equitable access to cooling. In the past, the city had opened up cooling centers but asked for personal information, such as name, phone number, and health insurance information.
Warburg said the unintended effect was to drive away many prospective visitors. “This was asking too much info,” particularly for the unhoused; immigrants, who may not have documentation; and others concerned with their privacy. Warburg learned that many instead “went to public libraries, which have water, bathrooms, wi-fi, and a place to sit.”
As a result of the research, the city will “move away from asking for IDs” at the cooling centers in the future, Fernandez-Bibeau said.
The city government and Sasaki piloted the creation of new outdoor cooling areas at a few public libraries, which provided free wi-fi, shade, and misters. “At the East Boston public library, the plan was to keep up the temporary outdoor cooling pop-up for a few weeks; it ended up staying for four months,” Warburg said. (see image at top).
To increase resilience, the plan calls for operationalizing heat management, including heat risk notifications through the city’s 311 system. Other priorities include: mobilizing city government workers with heat wave resources; and targeting utility assistance programs and long-term home energy retrofits towards at-risk community members.
Building community capacity to manage heat solutions is another focus area. “Neighborhood champions can help ensure older residents are using fans and drawing their shades,” Warburg said.
“Heat resilience is layered. All solutions are needed to mobilize communities,” Fernandez-Bibeau said.
Now the hard part. Implementation challenges will need to be addressed, such as securing the capital budgets to develop new cooling nature-based solutions and the maintenance budgets to support that work.
And some underserved communities are already concerned that adding trees will have a gentrifying impact. “What if by adding trees we make it less affordable to live here?” Warburg worried.
Tree maintenance issues are a factor. Cities like Philadelphia and Boston have planted thousands of trees but seen many of them die because neighbors didn’t have the time or resources to take care of them. “During drought and heat waves, trees need extra care; without that, it impacts their ability to thrive,” Fernandez-Bibeau said. The city now has four arborists on staff who can help watch over the canopy.
And to ensure future development doesn’t cause more heating, projects not only need to include energy and carbon modeling, but also thermal comfort modeling as a matter of course. “Any development’s impact should be understood relative to existing heat conditions.”
Fernandez-Bibeau said more planning will be needed to advance the heat plan as well. “Heat adaptation will require studies involving the city’s urban forest plan, open space and recreation plans as well.”
“Boston faces some extreme challenges. Inequities and climate climate are interconnected,” Fernandez-Bibeau said. And to date, the city has been “hindered by old systems and structures, which are not enabling communities to grow in an equitable way.”
While the heat solutions are rolled out over the coming years, Fernandez-Bibeau urged policymakers and landscape architects to use projected weather data for 2050 and even 2070 and “design for the future.”
With climate change, wildfires and heat waves are becoming increasingly dangerous. In many communities, they occur at the same time in summer months, putting the public’s health at even greater risk. And children, which are one of the most vulnerable populations, are being impacted and having to stay home from school.
During these climate events, “can we open school buildings as shelters and safe community spaces?” asked Abby Hall, senior advisor for local and regional planning at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), during the Living Future conference in Washington, D.C.
Hall, a citizen of the Cherokee nation, works in the EPA’s Office of Policy, where she focuses on local and regional planning and leads projects that involve urban design, landscape architecture, and sustainable architecture. She also leads a partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to support “better disaster recovery and climate adaptation planning.”
As part of this partnership with FEMA, Hall and her collaborators are developing county-wide hazard mitigation plans and pilot programs that increase resilience to extreme heat and wildfires in Oregon and Arizona.
“When we think of cooling centers, we may think of malls, movie theaters, faith-based facilities, community centers, parks, recreation centers, schools, and libraries,” Hall said. Many of these places can also serve as clean air centers. “These places can be respites, resilience hubs.”
For this effort, the EPA is focusing on schools in particular, and how to improve their infrastructure so they can serve as both cooling and clean air centers. The EPA is looking at schools because kids are among the most groups most impacted by heat and smoke. And if they need stay home from school, a parent also needs to stay home, causing ripple effects in communities.
Landscape architecture firm Spackman Mossop Michaels is consulting with the EPA for the multi-year effort. “We are helping focus attention on the priorities when we talk about vulnerabilities. There are lots of needs, but not enough resources,” said Emily Bullock, ASLA, a principal with the firm.
The planning team, which also includes Glumac, an engineering firm that is a subsidiary of Tetra Tech, is partnering with pilot communities in Kittitas and Multnomah counties in Oregon, and Pima County in Arizona, which includes tribal lands.
The team has conducted stakeholder meetings, run population and risk assessments, and developed action plans that function as “playbooks.”
What will also come out of the process with pilot communities is an “intentionally simple tool any community can use to identify threats and vulnerable populations, determine level of access to cooling and clean air centers, and identify the feasibility and costs of updating school facilities,” Bullock said.
In each community, both extreme heat or wildfire smoke were top issues, but one was slightly higher priority than the other.
In Multnomah County, which includes Portland, the team first explored: Where are the big impacts? Where are the most vulnerable?
Age is an important factor in determining vulnerability. Both children and older adults are at greater risk. The team also looked for communities with high percentages of asthma cases, people who work outside, and those with income below $50,000 per year.
The next level of analysis then meant to answer the questions: “How can we serve the most number of people? Where can we have the biggest bang for the buck?” Bullock said.
The team looked at census blocks and transit access to find the schools in the hottest locations, near the most numbers of vulnerable people, and where there was the highest population densities.
Then, an additional layer of analysis examined: “Which schools would be the easiest to upgrade? Which have the capacity for assembling large number of people, beyond students?”
Across western states, there have been increasingly “hot and dry summers.” This weather creates conditions for “worst case scenarios — a super hot day with wildfire smoke,” Bullock said.
“And while heat and smoke require different solutions, children are the common factors,” Hall said.
Children face greater risks from heat because “their bodies are smaller, so it’s harder for them to cool down. They forget to drink water. They are less able to adapt to extreme heat because of physiological differences,” Hall explained.
And smoke is also a greater danger for them because “children continue to develop their lungs and have narrower airways. They take twice as many breaths as adults. They are lower to the ground where particulate matter rests. And they have more permeable skin.”
The risks facing children, older adults, and outdoor workers are worsened by systemic inequities. Previously redlined neighborhoods are hotter because of historic lack of investment in trees and green spaces. And these communities also often have lower levels of air conditioning in homes.
And in communities comprised of diverse cultures, “there may be different ways to cool bodies, based on age, ethnicity, or whether someone works outside.” So historic inequities and diversity must also be factored in.
Whether communities are dealing with heat or smoke, there are health risks for the entire population. Extreme heat can lead to heat stroke and cardiovascular, respiratory, and kidney disorders. Smoke can create eye, respiratory, and cardiovascular problems and exacerbate diseases. And asthma is worsened by smoke.
For children in school, heat and smoke also have significant impacts on learning ability. Studies demonstrate that test scores go down in warmer classrooms or when there are wildfires. And asthma is the leading cause of absenteeism in schools. “Reducing these impacts is really part of the business case for schools. Test scores are how they measure success,” Hall said.
The conversation then focused on how the pilot programs may help create national guidelines on heat and smoke for schools. “When should sports be cancelled? When should schools be closed? We need to do more work there,” Hall said.
The pilot programs will also offer best practices on how to upgrade HVAC systems and better prepare schools, teachers, and the community.
In many Pacific Northwest communities, air conditioning is rare because it hasn’t been needed. But with climate change, there is now a need to address increasingly common summer temperatures over 90 degrees. “Most of Portland, Oregon’s schools don’t have air conditioning,” Bullock said. “Where will they find the resources to upgrade?”
The analysis created by the EPA, Spackman Mossop Michaels, and Glumac also looks “beyond the HVAC” to roofs, campus streetscapes, tree canopies, and transportation systems as solutions.
“Our message is that schools are a safe place. Keep your children in school,” Hall said.
And last fall at COP27 in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt, the administration released the “first national strategy on nature-based solutions,” a roadmap that offers “strategic recommendations” to “unlock the full potential” of these approaches to “address climate change, nature loss, and inequity.” In other words, the administration believes if planned and designed well, nature-based solutions can provide integrated carbon drawdown, resilience, biodiversity, and equity benefits.
In Miami, Harris argued that “natural infrastructure reduces the impact of storm surges and hurricanes. And by the way, natural infrastructure is often more effective than concrete barriers and retaining walls.”
Earlier this year, Harris spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Miami, where landscape architect Kate Orff, FASLA, founder of SCAPE Landscape Architecture, also presented. Perhaps it was there that Harris and her team learned about Living Breakwaters in Staten Island, New York City, which leverages oyster reefs to reduce the impact of storm surges.
Back in Miami for Earth Day, Harris said “we will restore oyster reefs. And that work will diminish the impact of tropical storms and hurricanes and clean our oceans by filtering out polluted runoff from our cities.”
Harris made clear that the benefits of nature-based solutions aren’t theoretical. “All of this makes sense. And it works! It is very doable; it is within our grasp. And that is why I am so optimistic about all of this.”
The Vice President also recognized the economic benefits of designing with nature to address climate change. “These investments will not only protect our environment but also strengthen our economy. For example, here in Florida, our work will create jobs for construction workers, environmental engineers, and landscape architects.”
Landscape architect Aida Curtis, ASLA, co-founder of Curtis + Rogers Design Studio, attended Harris’ speech in Miami. She was personally invited by the White House because of her long-time leadership on nature-based solutions in Miami.
Curtis’ team instead “envisioned vegetated shorelines with mangroves along with strategically-placed bermed islands in the Bay that would attenuate wave action during storm surges. This is a grey/green solution, not all nature-based, but it would be much better for the community and environment and increase park access.”
“Vice President Harris’ recognition that nature-based solutions can be more effective than concrete barriers and walls was enlightening. Her optimism and commitment to coastal communities gives me hope for Miami. It gives me a huge boost to continue our efforts to advocate for and design nature-based solutions,” Curtis told us.
And on a personal level, “it was amazing to hear the Vice President recognize the work that we — landscape architects — do on climate adaptation and resilience. The fact that nature-based solutions was at the heart of her message gives me great encouragement that we are on the right path.”
Harris announced that $562 million in IRA funds will go to a few key NOAA-managed programs. This is because “demand for funding focused on preparing for and adapting to climate change is high,” NOAA states. Funding requests made by communities to date have exceeded what is available.
Of the $526 million, $477 million will be dedicated to “high-impact projects” that provide multiple benefits at once:
“creating climate solutions by strengthening coastal communities’ ability to respond to extreme weather events, pollution and marine debris
restoring coastal habitats to help wildlife and humans thrive
building the capacity of underserved communities to address climate hazards and supporting community-driven restoration
and creating jobs in local communities.”
$46 million will be distributed through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation National Coastal Resilience Fund to “help communities prepare for increasing coastal flooding, sea-level rise and more intense storms, while improving thousands of acres of coastal habitats.”
And $39.1 million in non-competitive funding will go to 34 state and territorial coastal management programs and 30 national estuarine research reserves.
According to NOAA, these programs provide “essential planning, policy development and implementation, research, education, and collaborative engagement with communities.” The goal is to “protect coastal and estuarine ecosystems important for the resilience of coastal economies and the health of coastal environments.”
Deb Guenther, FASLA, LEED AP, SITES AP, is a partner and landscape architect at Mithun, based in Seattle, Washington. She was a Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Leadership and Innovation Fellow from 2021-2022 and awarded the President’s Medal by the American Society of Landscape Architect in 2010.
Equity is increasingly being seen as central to landscape architects’ climate action work. How do you define equity in your planning and design work? And what about terms like climate equity and climate justice?
We spend time discussing equity for each project, even if the project doesn’t explicitly have equity goals. It’s different for each community.
We focus on understanding the historical injustices that have happened over time and how those show up in day-to-day lives today. Disproportionate underinvestments in communities have impacts. We try to understand how those show up in power dynamics of not only race and gender but also income and class. We want to be able to understand the power dynamics before we come in the room.
Climate injustices have disproportionately affected communities of color. Often these communities have been redlined, are lower lying, and experience more flooding, or have less trees and experience more intense summer heat. These communities often don’t have the infrastructure to prevent flooding.
We need to build trust with communities to be able to do effective work and learn with community members. I think the big takeaway for me from the fellowship was that I was just catching up to a lot of the things that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color have known for a long time.
People with the lived experience in the community are the greatest resource for finding the solutions. We can’t do work that is meaningful to communities without first investing time. So all of that comes back to: how can we build a design process that is more relational and less transactional? How do we do the pre-design work that leads to greater trust?
Community design centers are ready to do this long-term, place-based work. Partnering with a community over time is a different exercise with different results than coming in and out of a community. Staying with a community builds understanding.
I have also heard about flood control districts and park districts that are starting to band together regionally because they know they can’t address all the climate adaptation needs individually as agencies. So we need to take a broader or regional view, and at the same time, look at what community leaders know about their specific neighborhoods. It’s a back and forth, regional and local.
We can’t move climate justice work forward and do our best work without building trust first. Climate work is so urgent that we have to go slow to go fast. We have to take the time to build the trust in order to be able to move quickly enough to respond to climate in effective way.
You’re a partner at Mithun, a mission-driven integrated design firm that began in Seattle, Washington, and later expanded to offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In Washington State and elsewhere, Mithun is partnering with tribes on a range of planning and design projects. What have you learned working with tribes and their approaches to long-term sustainability and resilience? And what are some examples of how their ethos has been translated into landscape architecture projects with your firm?
We are so grateful for the relationships we have with First Nations. Twenty years ago we were learning about co-design and co-creation through our engagements with First Nations.
We were going to their events. We were having meals with the elders. We were getting to know sites together by sleeping overnight in the sagebrush steppe in eastern Washington while working with the Wanapum on their Heritage Center. We were invited to share in some very special ceremonies. We were getting to know each other and each other’s culture in a deeper way.
We also learned about holding the capacity for difficult conversations. As facilitators of these conversations, we’ve learned a lot over the years about how to allow those uncomfortable conversations to happen, how we can have those together in a room and still walk out together at the end and be better for it. That’s a big lesson learned over the years.
The importance of investing in youth is another area where we’ve learned so much from First Nations. The canoe journey is a multi-tribal event that happens every other year among many of the tribes in the Pacific Northwest. Youth are reclaiming their connection to traditional lifeways through a canoe journey where they travel to a hosting tribe. They come together for a major gathering at the end. Preparing for these journeys influences many youth.
And it had a direct result creating the House of Awakened Culture that we designed with the Suquamish tribe. They built that project in anticipation of hosting a canoe journey. Now they can also host future canoe journeys and larger gatherings as a tribe.
The Sea2City Design Challenge in Vancouver, Canada led to an exciting re-imagining of False Creek, a central inlet in the city. Mithun worked with representatives and cultural advisors from Host Nations, including the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh, and the community to envision a decolonized approach to coastal climate adaptation planning. What do decolonized landscapes look like? And how did you leverage traditional tribal communications forms, including spoken word and storytelling, to envision this decolonization process?
We went directly to the Host Nation cultural advisors, Tsleil-Waututh Nation knowledge keeper Charlene (Char) Aleck, and Squamish artist Cory Douglas and asked: what does a decolonized landscape look like to you? They wanted to imagine a place where they feel like they belonged. Right now, the way the False Creek area is set up, there aren’t many places where they feel they belong.
One of the places on seawall promenade that resonated with Cory was this cluster of cedar trees peeking out of the asphalt. So we built on the idea of the cedars, harvesting plants and food for cultural uses, and being able to be in a place where land and water is nourishing. Those are the ways of belonging they were speaking to.
A significant moment in this project is when went on a boat ride up and down False Creek with Char and Cory and the team. During that boat ride, we heard from Char about reciprocity and exchange, what is given and what is taken, and how that all influences their cultural outlook on what it means to have a place they belong in.
Afterwards, we threw out all of our design work and started again with this idea of going back to the historic natural shoreline. We have to go back to where things were taken. Not only does that make sense from a sea level rise protections, flooding, contamination standpoint, but it also makes sense from a reciprocity standpoint. Decolonized landscapes are about finding the ways to ensure people feel like they belong.
It is interesting to think that our next experiences as landscape architects may be about deconstruction rather than construction. The return to the historic shoreline is predicated on buildings that are aging out. Instead of replacing buildings that have aged out, we can rezone upland areas that can take more development and not displace people or businesses. We can plan for the gradual movement of people and businesses and housing up slope. This is a way of building in protections against sea level rise and allowing for marine life to flourish. It’s also a way to clean a contaminated waterway over time.
As part of Bay Area Resilient by Design Challenge, Mithun led an interdisciplinary team of ecological, design, planning, economic, and social justice organizations to create ouR-HOME, a comprehensive planning effort in Richmond, California, a low-income community that has experienced a range of environmental injustices and is facing significant sea level rise and flooding impacts. The Resilient by Design effort sought to envision what structural equity looks like, how to protect the community from gentrification and displacement, and create new wealth, while also using nature to increase resilience to future climate impacts. It’s a great example of equity-based climate adaptation work. How did those ideas came together and how they are being pursued in projects that have evolved from the planning effort?
This is a very special project and place with a lot of wonderful people. There’s such a strong environmental justice history in North Richmond. This community has had to build their sense of self-determination because they were ignored, redlined, and subject to disinvestment.
So there are multiple generations of community leaders, like Whitney Dotson, Cynthia Jordan, Dr. Henry Clark, Annie King-Meredith, Princess Robinson who have led and are leading significant change. They are working in so many ways to advance locally-driven solutions.
The Bay Area tends to approach things regionally. A lot of Resilient by Design was happening at the regional level. But that wasn’t going create change in North Richmond because of its history.
As part of the shoreline collaboration plan, we’re now working on what the governance strategy can be with the community. The goal is to evaluate how to connect immediate benefits from the work they’re doing on nature-based solutions. We’re designing a living levee there that will allow marine life to transition and protect the wastewater district facility that serves the entire West Contra Costa County. We’ve also co-designed with a community advisory group a five-mile strategy of collaboration between property owners that would protect a much larger swath of the neighborhood and other infrastructure.
Some of those direct benefits are building up community knowledge through a co-design process, workforce development, and land trusts that guard against gentrification. And there are projects that will provide more access to the shoreline through trails and destinations, like interpretive centers and overlooks.
A lot of the residents that were involved in the co-design process during Resilient by Design have remained involved as champions of various projects. Folks really grabbed on to the pieces they were interested in and shepherded those forward.
In the co-design process as part of Resilient by Design, we had public agency folks in the room with community residents, business leaders, various nonprofit organizations. They all knew each other before Resilient by Design. But they knew each other in the context of presenting information to each other, not really working shoulder to shoulder. During the process we conducted, they were working shoulder to shoulder to solve issues, having more casual dialogue. This is the main thing we heard at the end of the process — that resident advisors wanted this kind of work to continue.
What we noticed is that there is cyclical process with funding, right? There wasn’t a convener that could keep the group going until West Contra Costa County Wastewater District stepped up to do their work on the levee. They were able to bring a similar group together again.
As designers, we need to think about how we keep shoulder-to-shoulder dialogue going with communities, even when there isn’t a project driving it. So many relevant projects come out of those kinds of processes.
Mithun states that it uses affordable housing developments to create “active social hubs,” and it leverages its “integrated design approach” as a vehicle for social equity. Your firm’s landscape architects are often involved in these projects, weaving in green spaces, play areas, rooftop gardens, pedestrian bicycle access, and public art. A few projects — the Liberty Bank Building in Seattle, Washington, and Casa Adelante at 2060 Folsom in San Francisco — seems to highlight the value of landscape architects in these projects. Can you talk about how landscape architects on your team are shaping these projects?
Common space in affordable housing projects is such highly valued space. You can imagine when the goal is to house people, every square foot is going to be carefully scrutinized.
At the beginning of these projects, the landscape architect’s role at Mithun is to do that massaging, that working back and forth between the indoor and the outdoor space, to not only program the shared spaces outside but also the spaces inside.
We look at those adjacencies where people can run into each other naturally, where are they going to get their mail, where are they going to for daily life experiences. Running into each other causes people to know their neighbors and builds a stronger sense of community.
Those are the two areas where we’re shaping these projects the most. The first is being present at the beginning to do that shaping of how the common space is tied to the lifeways of the residents. And the second is figuring out how those adjacencies are built into the framework of the design. All the other stuff is gravy if you get the adjacencies right.
Mithun has invested in being a responsible design firm. It has offset all its emissions since 2004, offers bike parking at its offices, and finances employees’ home energy efficiency retrofits. It donates pro-bono design services, raises funds for local community groups, and its leaders are involved in the boards of civic organizations. How does Mithun plan to further evolve to address the climate crisis?
We are looking at the North Richmond work and thinking about how we can work geographically like that in other areas and build long-term relationships. We’ve been there now for seven years continuously and built a more relational way of working. Ultimately, we feel that is the most equitable way to work, because we have that deeper understanding and a shared sense of reciprocity.
We’re participating in conversations happening in communities that we’re a part of. And then we bring those ideas to our projects. We’re tying ideas together and building momentum. This is just how we live as a community, right?
We never want to underestimate the value of social resilience. The greatest predictor of survival in a crisis is how well you know your neighbors, your community. In a climate justice context, we want to model what we think is valuable for all communities. We want to design places where people can get to know each other, where they can practice adaptation together, and therefore be better prepared to work together when they need to respond to climate impacts.
Built environment industry leaders came together for the first time at one table on March 14, 2023 in Seattle, Washington, to discuss a potential coalition on how to rapidly reduce embodied carbon in the built environment.
“ASLA is thrilled to participate in this vitally important group. Embodied carbon is the greenhouse gas emissions that come from extracting, manufacturing, transporting, installing, maintaining, and disposing of materials. The ASLA Climate Action Plan calls for all landscape architecture projects to achieve zero emissions by 2040. The only way we can get there is by significantly reducing the embodied carbon in our projects,” said ASLA CEO Torey Carter-Conneen.
The group was composed of representatives from non-profit organizations and professional commitment groups that are engaged in gathering embodied carbon data from the built environment. They are gathering this data for professional carbon reduction commitment programs or certification systems, along with awareness and engagement activities.
We are at a critical moment where reducing the carbon footprint of the built environment is possible today. But collaboration among industry leaders is necessary to enable a rapid market transformation toward regenerative carbon strategies in the coming years and decades.
The group explored working together to:
streamline embodied carbon data collection and reporting
align on key terminology
build awareness around solutions that building materials can achieve
speak together with a harmonized voice to accelerate progress
Together, this collaboration will accelerate the transition of the built environment towards positive environmental outcomes through design practices and material choices.
As organizations currently or imminently gathering embodied carbon data from the built environment industry, creating tools and resources, and building awareness about this critical issue, we believe that we can move faster together.
ASLA chapters are organizing in-person and virtual events to advance the goals of the ASLA Climate Action Plan. Landscape architects are seeking to build stronger climate action partnerships with allied professionals, academia, government, community leaders, and members of the public, so all are welcome and encouraged to participate.
how to reduce emissions and increase sequestration
how to adapt to sea level rise and rising urban temperatures
how to increase biodiversity
how to maximize green schoolyard, transportation, and healthy communities initiatives
“As a region on the front line of climate impacts, Southern California has an incredible opportunity to lead the way. Our chapter is passionate about equipping landscape architects with practical tools and empowering the next generation of students to create a better, more sustainable future. Together, we can make a real difference in the fight against climate change,” said Evan Mather, FASLA, principal and director of landscape architecture, MIG, and ASLA Southern California Past President and Climate Action Committee Chair.
The webinar will be the first in a series of discussions and presentations as the chapter delves into climate action planning. “Whether you’re a sole practitioner or part of a large firm, private practice or public sector, every scale matters. Let’s figure this out together,” BSLA writes.
“For all of us who live in Boston, Superstorm Sandy in 2012 was a wake-up call. Since then, we have collectively worked to understand the vulnerabilities of the city, particularly related to sea level rise. We also now have a greater understanding of other climate impacts, such as urban heat islands,” said Jason Hellendrung, ASLA, with Tetra Tech and BSLA Climate Action Committee Chair.
“As we’ve shared our story with colleagues throughout New England, we’ve learned they share some of the same concerns — how heat will impact rural areas in western and northern New England; how climate change will affect forestry and the economy, including tourism and skiing. As landscape architects, we are each working towards solutions in different ways at multiple scales. We recognize that we have lots to do and lots to learn from each other.”
Bishop will provide an overview of the Climate Action Plan and highlight some of his firm’s projects that exemplify the plan’s goals. For example, the Point, a coastal project south of Boston, envisions a park and ferry terminal built behind a living coastal bluff. The project is “designed to protect the neighboring community and unique habitats of the park from sea level rise and increased storm intensity,” Bishop said.
“The Point project checks several boxes of the Climate Action Plan by looking at public transportation options, including electric ferries; using living systems as infrastructure; protecting and enhancing biodiversity; and sequestering carbon dioxide with trees and wetlands.”
The plan and guide chart a pathway for landscape architects to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions in their projects and operations and increase carbon sequestration by 2040.
The plan was developed by a high-profile Task Force of five landscape architects chaired by Pamela Conrad, ASLA, founder of Climate Positive Design, and a 17-member Advisory Group. It outlines a bold vision for 2040 and a set of 71 actions to be taken by 2025.
By 2040, all landscape architecture projects will simultaneously:
Achieve zero embodied and operational emissions and increase carbon sequestration
Provide significant economic benefits in the form of measurable ecosystem services, health co-benefits, sequestration, and green jobs
Address climate injustices, empower communities, and increase equitable distribution of climate investments
Restore ecosystems and increase and protect biodiversity
Watch a 13-minute overview of the vision and goals of the plan by ASLA CEO Torey Carter-Conneen during the ASLA 2022 Conference opening general session (see video above).
Then, watch a 60-min presentation on the three goals and six key initiatives of the plan and field guide:
Speakers include the ASLA Climate Action Plan Task Force:
Along the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, a 118-year-old power station has become Powerhouse Arts, a contemporary arts and fabrication space. To protect its waterfront from storm surges and sea level rise, landscape architecture firm Ken Smith Workshop layered in steel and concrete defenses. But they also wove in a nature-based solution to capture stormwater. “It’s both a defensive measure and a living shoreline that will make the site adaptable,” said Ken Smith, FASLA. “It’s how we could use a tight space with a steep slope to do a lot.”
The power station, built at the turn of the 20th century, once housed coal-powered turbines that generated electricity. The three-story red brick building was developed by the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company. It was decommissioned in the late 1930s and by the 1970s reborn as a cardboard incinerating facility. Since then, it has had many lives, becoming home to both artists and squatters. Some of the city’s best graffiti artists left their mark. And in recent decades, it became known as the Batcave, a place for dance parties.
After starting a foundation, hedge funder Joshua Rechnitz purchased the building in 2012. He then hired architects Herzog & de Meuron and PBDW to renovate the power station and graph on a six-story annex, essentially doubling the square footage. “They brought rigor to the project, maintaining the architecture in as straightforward a way as possible,” Smith said during our hardhat tour.
The foundation and architects re-imagined the space as a contemporary artist and fabrication studio that will offer community classes, prototyping spaces, job training, and public exhibitions. But they also wanted to keep its layers of history, including the graffiti.
Exiting the rear of the Powerhouse, the expanse of the Gowanus Canal, one of the most contaminated Superfund sites in the country, came into view. It’s a water body that also continues to receive millions of gallons of combined sewer overflow each year.
The canal has drawn in number of landscape architects over the years. Susannah Drake, FASLA, and her firm DLANDStudio, created the Gowanus Canal Sponge Park™. That began as a plan for lining the 1.5-mile-long canal with absorbent green spaces that could reduce stormwater from further polluting the waterway. An 1,800-square feet pilot sponge park was then completed in 2016 and now captures some 2 million gallons of stormwater each year.
And in 2018, SCAPE Landscape Architecture partnered with the community to create the Gowanus Lowlands Masterplan, a vision for restoring public spaces and the ecology of the canal and its watershed. SCAPE dove into the history of the Gowanus Creek ecosystem that once existed. In the 1850s, the creek was hardened, becoming what is is today — a canal for transportation and industrial manufacturing.
Smith said that during Superstorm Sandy, which pummeled the city in 2012, the canal’s polluted waters rose up by 12 feet, flooding the area. Working with limited space, he decided to reinforce the Powerhouse Arts waterfront with a steel sea wall and concrete yard blocks, protecting it from future storm and climate impacts. “The site was raised considerably. To be good citizens, we went with armature.”
Before Smith began his work, the existing waterfront edge was 5.8 feet above sea level, so not enough to protect against a future storm surge. With the engineering team, Smith brought in 225 feet of black steel sheet pile walls, which were driven 40 feet down into the canal bank. The top of the new sheet pile sea wall is now 10 feet above sea level — higher but not enough for the greatest anticipated storm surges. On land, the sea wall is about the height of an armrest for Smith, 3-4 feet off the ground, so possible to see over.
Behind the sea wall, Smith wove in a 12-foot-wide gravel walkway, ensuring public access to the waterfront. From the back of that path, stepped rows of concrete yard block walls add another 12.75 feet of protection. The 366 concrete yard blocks, sometimes called “mafia blocks,” are lined up in precise rows. The top of the slope is now 19.5 feet above sea level.
Smith said he also used hardcore materials like steel and concrete because he wanted to maintain the site’s “industrial vocabulary.”
He sees potential in this humble grey infrastructure: “Gabions used to be utilitarian; now they are quite fetishized. Concrete yard blocks will become the next gabion.” (And, hopefully, it’s eco-concrete that will be fetishized).
The blocks were also purposefully positioned so they are multi-functional: “They are usable; you can sit on them.”
Above the blocks is a vegetated buffer filled with trees and meadow grasses that will capture water coming from the Powerhouse parking lot. “The beach plum, coffee, and red cedar trees are tough” and will ensure that living shoreline element will endure.
Boulders were plopped to offset the rectilinear building. “I didn’t want the landscape to be too straight forward and direct. I wanted to create an interesting frame for the building.”
Crossing a bridge to the other side of the Gowanus Canal, Smith remarked that the canal is a highly polluted place that is being rapidly re-zoned as a residential area.
Standing at the Sponge Park, and looking across the canal at Powerhouse Arts, one could see a variety of waterfront landscapes — some clearly green spaces associated with residences, some public spaces, and some linked with legacy manufacturing sites. The ad-hoc approach to waterfront resilience in NYC was apparent.
Nature-based solutions to storm surges, such as mangroves and wetlands, are ideal but require enough space on shore. Constructed islands, berms, and reefs can reduce wave power from storms off shore but require enough space in the water and distance from the land.
What is the solution along highly developed canal and river communities where set-backs or off-shore solutions aren’t possible? In many places, New York City has been lifting up, adding elevated park structures as well as sea walls to its waterfront. The Powerhouse Arts project says here, at least along this stretch of canal, resilience means armor. But this also means the next mega storm, made more destructive by climate change, will surge in elsewhere.
The ASLA Fund invites landscape architecture educators to develop succinct and impactful research reviews that investigate evidence of the benefits of landscape architecture solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises.
The goals of the research reviews are to:
Understand and summarize the current state of knowledge.
Synthesize the research literature and provide insights, leveraging key data- and science-based evidence.
Create accessible executive summaries in plain language for policymakers, community advocates, and practicing landscape architects.
Over the next few years, research grants will be issued to explore solutions to a range of issues, but the first two grants in 2023 will focus on:
Landscape Architecture Solutions to Biodiversity Loss ($12,500)
Landscape Architecture Solutions to Extreme Heat ($12,500)
“We need landscape architecture educators’ advanced research skills to build the evidence. Working together, landscape architecture educators, practitioners, and students can help us achieve the goals of the ASLA Climate Action Plan,” said ASLA President Emily O’Mahoney, FASLA.
“Landscape architecture educators are key to driving forward research on solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises. This critically important work helps build the foundations for landscape architecture as design science and support efforts to designate landscape architecture a STEM discipline,” said ASLA CEO Torey Carter Conneen.
The research grant period will run from June to the end of this year. The research surveys will be peer reviewed.
The grants are open to landscape architecture educators who are currently affiliated with a university, have a graduate degree, and have published at least one peer-reviewed research paper.