How Can Louisiana Build Back Smarter?

Louisiana flooding / Los Angeles Times
Louisiana flooding / Los Angeles Times

The flooding that hit Louisiana last week affected hundreds of thousands of people over 1,000 square miles. The intense storm claimed 13 lives, and some 30,000 needed to be rescued. Over 60,000 homes have been destroyed, and 100,000 have registered for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance so far. According to the agency, the Louisiana flooding was a 500-year flood event, meaning there was just a 0.2 percent chance of this happening this year. However, this is the 8th 500-year flood event since May, 2015, which beg the questions: With climate change, are flood risk estimates now completely unreliable? And if super-storms are the new normal, what can communities do to build back smarter and make themselves more resilient to the next unexpected, disruptive event?

Wes Michaels, ASLA, a partner with Spackman, Mossop and Michaels, a Louisiana-based landscape architecture firm, said: “More rain fell in 4 days in Louisiana than the last 4 years in Los Angeles. A lot of places considered low-risk areas for flooding got a substantial amount of water, so it’s not just about people living in low-lying, flood-prone areas. These super-floods are unpredictable; they flood areas many people consider high and dry.”

Flooded homes /
Flooded homes /

Super-storms, while unpredictable, are becoming more common with global warming. As David Titley, a meteorology professor and the director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State University, told Fast Company: “Warm air holds more water vapor than cold air, and we’re warming up both the air temperature and we’re warming up the oceans. Welcome to the future.”

The Washington Post editorial board in part blames FEMA’s out-of-date flood maps, “which determine who needs to buy government-sponsored flood insurance,” for the extensive damage. These maps “did not assess large portions of the area hit last week to be at high risk.” In reality, this means many of those hit by the storm will “not be able to call on an insurance policy.” The government only “presses people who live in so-called 100-year flood zones, areas that annually face a 1 percent chance of being flooded, to purchase government-backed flood insurance.”

According to Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon, only 12 percent of homes in Baton Rouge and only 14 percent in Lafayette had flood insurance. As Elizabeth “Boo” Thomas, FASLA, President and CEO, Center for Planning Excellence in Baton Rouge, noted in an appeal posted to ASLA’s LAND, “though the floods affected people of all incomes, early indications show that a majority of victims are working-class or low-income individuals and families.” Many of those hit by the flooding couldn’t afford flood insurance, which is expensive, or didn’t expect they needed it. If a homeowner is insured, FEMA will pay out up to $250,000 in funds to rebuild. Thomas estimates the estimated value of the affected homes is around $5.7 billion.

Area hit by flooding / The New York Times
Area hit by flooding / The New York Times

FEMA only updates its maps each decade or so. But climate change and sprawl, which creates more impervious surfaces prone to flooding, are more rapidly changing the map of flood risk, particularly for coastal areas. Insurance premiums need to be tied to up-to-date flood risk, with higher premiums for higher risk zones.

According to Wired, communities now need “predictive flood maps: projections of flood risk based on modeling. Right now, pretty much all flood insurance comes from FEMA, which, again, updates its maps infrequently and also allows residents to comment and push back on the boundaries, effectively letting them determine their own flood risk. Insurance companies, which might have the capital to invest in models that incorporate climate change, have largely stayed out of the business since the 1920s—partly because it’s too risky, partly because government-subsidized rates are too low for private companies to compete with.”

But some firms, like Risk Management Solutions, are now developing their own flood risk modelling tools, because real-time modelling “could lead to better estimates of risk in certain places, which would allow companies to price policies accordingly and residents to really understand how risky their locations are. And as FEMA enacts some much-needed reforms (like phasing out government subsidies, for one), it may become easier for insurance companies to offer up flood policies, too.” Expanding the areas of people who are encouraged to buy into flood insurance could also help. Wired writes “if the insurance pool included people from 500-year floodplains, the risk would spread out more thinly,” reducing rates.

Beyond making the flood risk insurance system more responsive to a rapidly-changing climate, communities at higher risk of floods also need to rethink the status quo. Thomas believes that “smart, community-driven planning will play a lead role in rebuilding communities designed to thrive against a changing environmental context.”

And Michaels called for that planning effort to include a deeper analysis of the implications of car-based patterns of development. “As landscape architects, we need to be more involved in the design of infrastructure. Some of the unpredictability in flooding patterns comes from the storm itself, but some of it comes from how we design our interstates, roads, dams, bridges, canals and their related drainage systems. We need to think about how infrastructure fits into the larger landscape systems. Roads in particular, being long, linear systems, can drastically change how high intensity flood waters move across the landscape. There is an image in the news of a highway median wall backing up water on one side of the interstate near Walker, Louisiana. This wall may or may not have not caused flooding in other adjacent areas, but it certainly altered the flow of the water. These large infrastructural systems are pushing water around in ways that make the flooding less predictable, which makes planning for disasters more difficult. Our infrastructure needs to be designed to be porous to the flow of water (and species) across the landscape, and adaptable to the landscape at a much larger scale.”

Flooding along highway in Louisiana / Atmosphere Aerial
Flooded highway in Louisiana / Atmosphere Aerial
Flood damage in Denham Springs / Patrick Dennis/The Advocate, via Associated Press
Flood damage in Denham Springs / Patrick Dennis/The Advocate, via Associated Press

He added that landscapes in high flood risk areas also need to be made more resilient: “Landscape architects should be leading the call to design our landscapes to be resilient to flood and disaster. The amount of energy, resources, and effort that will go into ‘re-landscaping’ Baton Rouge is staggering. Not to mention the carbon footprint of all the dying vegetation that must be cleaned up. We can no longer afford to see these disasters as outlying events, and go back to business as usual after the flood waters recede. We need to design landscapes that can be cleaned up with minimal effort after flooding and will adapt to changing soil and climactic conditions over the coming decades. We need to plant resilient perennials that can be chopped to the ground and come back to life. We need to plant trees that can resist flooding, and use soil technologies that allow trees to be healthy in the first place so they can survive stress.”

Michaels concluded: “I don’t think we can design systems that will prevent flooding in a 1,000 year storm. But we can think about the larger implications of our systems and how they will function in super storms at the landscape scale. And we can be smarter about how we design our landscapes and cities, so we can recover from these events more quickly and with less use of limited resources.”

To help with flood relief, donate to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.

Brazilians Use Olympics to Deliver Climate Message

2016 Rio Olympics Opening Ceremony / NBC
2016 Rio Olympics Opening Ceremony / NBC

The estimated 3.3 billion people who watched the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, saw a beautiful and compelling case for fighting climate change. Brazil, which is to critical to global efforts, given its stewardship of the Amazon rainforest, decided to use its big moment on the stage to make the message clear: climate change will impact us all, and we must all do something, even if it’s simply planting a tree.

In the beginning of the ceremony, the Amazon was depicted as the great web of life, a multi-layered network, which is really how a forest functions, according to biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus (see image at top). We then see dancers from the indigenous tribes of Brazil symbolically managing the forest resources in sustainable ways.


But later, we see the forest come apart, as its colonized by the Portuguese, as their ships slice through the sea of greenery. In the ceremony, dancers dramatized the conflict between the native forest dwellers and the Portuguese, between the stewards of ecology and the forces of extraction and trade.

Rio 2016 Olympics Opening Ceremony / Olympics
Rio 2016 Olympics Opening Ceremony / Olympics

We then see dancers representing the millions of slaves brought over from Africa. Then we see how the forest was further broken down, turned into farms, and, finally, urbanized.

As the ceremony progressed, dancers moved off stage and the Brazilian Olympics organizers shifted the focus to educating the world about what the climate models predict, displaying this data showing global temperature increase.

As the narrator states — “the heat is melting the ice cap; it’s disappearing very quickly — an animation displays, showing what a melting North Pole will mean for the world’s waterfront cities, including Amsterdam, Dubai, Lagos, Shanghai, Miami, and, finally, the home of the 2016 Olympics.

After the doom and gloom, a child then walks through to the middle of the stage and sits down next to a sapling, which itself glows, spreading the web of life once again. The answer to climate change, according to the Brazilians, is to protect and renew our forests. 

Rio 2016 Olympics Opening Ceremony /
Rio 2016 Olympics Opening Ceremony /

The ceremony is a reminder that much of the world is very worried about climate change and has moved way beyond any controversies around the science. According to the Pew Research Center, majorities in 40 leading countries say climate change is a “serious concern,” and 54 percent say it’s a “very serious concern.”

While the ceremony may help educate the world, its message may also be directed at some key local audiences. Environmental officials in Brazil have been fighting a tough battle against cattle ranchers, loggers, and farmers who continue to engage in illegal burning and clearing of the rainforest and must have powerful political backers who protect and enable this. And the message may also be aimed at international donors who can bolster Brazil’s fight to save the forest; it’s a plea to ask them to do more to help this developing country.

Deforestation in the Amazon just hit the highest levels in 8 years, with 240,000 acres destroyed in June 2016 alone. About 19 percent of the total Amazon rainforest is gone. It’s clearly time to geo-engineer the planet in a sustainable way: let’s regrow the lost forest and then plant billions more trees. 

Habitat III: Towards a Vision for Sustainable Cities

Habitat III / UN Habitat

“The battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in cities.” So reads the preamble to the New Urban Agenda, a draft document recently released by UN-Habitat ahead of its Habitat III Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, to be held this October in Quito, Ecuador. Habitat III, which picks up 20 years after Habitat II in Istanbul, Turkey, aims to help global cities cope with climate change and exploding population growth by offering a global plan for sustainable urbanization over the next two decades. UN Habitat has spent the past year collecting input from around the world for this new plan; their hope is it represents the latest global thinking on sustainability and cities and captures the collective wisdom of academia, non-governmental organizations, citizens groups, and local and national governments.

Here are some highlighted ideas in the latest draft, which will continue to be debated, but will ultimately become, in some form, part of the agreement among 150-plus national governments meeting in Quito:

Preserve nature to build sustainability and resilience

The New Urban Agenda notes that cities, many of which are on coasts or rivers, are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change. As such, national governments will be asked to commit to sustainable urban development efforts that protect the environment, preserve natural resources, reduce risks associated with natural disasters, and promote economic and social well-being. This is to be done through “environmentally-sound planning, infrastructure, and basic services.”

A very positive step: the current draft gives special consideration to the protection of ecological corridors, urban deltas, coastal areas, “and other environmentally sensitive areas, highlighting their importance as ecosystems’ providers of significant resources for transport, food security, economic prosperity, ecosystem services, and resilience.”

The agenda also focuses on a common issues for cities: their heavy reliance on distant sources of food, water, and energy, and the implications for sustainability and resilience.

While these statements might not sound groundbreaking, they represent a sea change in the thinking on how cities should perform since the Habitat II conference twenty years ago.

Urban form and infrastructure are key to prosperous and equitable cities

The agenda describes affordable housing options and quality public spaces as two ingredients necessary for a prosperous and equitable city for all.

The agenda contains strong language on affordable housing. Adequate housing for all is seen as key to raising urban living standards. Also, cities, the document reads, should focus “on the needs of the homeless and persons in vulnerable situations, while enabling participation and engagement of communities and stakeholders.” This is a change from an earlier draft that some considered weak with regards to supporting under-served populations.

The principles of efficient land use and appropriate density, along with considerations for safety and security, inter-generational interaction, and respect for diversity, will guide the development of public spaces.

Public space is central to sustainable urbanization

The latest draft calls for national governments to commit to “developing universally safe, inclusive, accessible, green and quality public spaces.” This includes parks and public squares but also streets and sidewalks. Multi-functional spaces — those that serve “social interaction and inclusion, economic exchange and cultural expression among a wide diversity of people” — will be prioritized.

Patricia O’Donnell, FASLA, principal of Heritage Landscapes LLC, who has followed the Habitat discussion for several years, believes the agenda can still be improved. “My key issue,” O’Donnell said, “is having Habitat III outcomes recognize the critical intersections of cultural diversity and biodiversity upon which life on earth depends.”

O’Donnell expressed hope that the agenda items and outcomes of the conference would make a difference. “Action will rely on the commitment of leaders at the national level in any country, to champion and give voice to the objectives and programs.”

For too long national governments have not provided enough financial support to cities as they seek to transition to more sustainable forms of growth. Hopefully, Habitat III, which will be approved by all the leading housing and urban development officials of the world, will lead to more smart planning and increased investment in our cities, which are expected to be home to 2.5 billion people by 2050.

James Corner’s Icebergs Float into the National Building Museum

Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM

James Corner, ASLA, is passionate about climate change, but he is also passionate about fun. How can these diametrically-opposed interests be combined? Icebergs, the newest summer installation at National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. created by Corner’s firm Field Operations, aims to show us how.

Facts about these floating ice chunks, which break off from glaciers or ice shelfs, are found on giant iceberg teepees scattered throughout the installation, which visitors can walk around, through, and, in one instance, climb inside to the top. In real life, some 75 percent of icebergs’ mass is found beneath the water line. Corner’s installation clearly illustrates this, using a 20-foot-tall blue mesh ceiling to separate the vast undersea world from the surface, which can be only accessed when you climb up inside one iceberg and look out over the vista of the entire installation.

Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM

Very small icebergs — apparently their technical name is “growlers” — hang from the ceiling, and they can be appreciated both from below and when at the surface. Bean bag chairs shaped like floating ice chunks dot the floors.

Icebergs / Aaron King
Icebergs / Aaron King
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM

Coupled with this subtle education on icebergs is the immersive experience, the fun factor. At the preview, Corner said: “We wanted to design an interactive environment for people that will surprise, delight, and intrigue.” Corner also wanted it to have coolness, and be “literally cool,” hence the blue mesh walls.

Climbing inside a massive iceberg sheathed in dappled blue light, visitors can enjoy a sense of discovery as they climb up to the overlook point and then find the slide, which is very fast and seems primarily designed for kids.

Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Aaron King
Icebergs / Aaron King

As visitors pop out the bottom of the slide, or walk around to end, they come to a shaved ice stand run by local Japanese restaurant Daikaya, which is perhaps the only literally cold aspect in this installation. The interiors of acrylic panel and wood icebergs were fairly balmy and may get even more so as they are packed with sweaty DC-ers and tourists this summer.

Corner made a point of describing the challenges of constructing Icebergs in just two weeks. To make this tight deadline, his team designed the iceberg forms to be modular, using the same-sized isosceles triangle piece, which enabled them to create icebergs 8, 16, 24, 32, and 56 feet tall. But “it was a complicated, herculean effort” accomplished by the National Building Museum’s team of carpenters.

Enjoy the icebergs and shaved ice until September 5. Admission is $10 for members and $16 for non-members, less for students. Corner has also designed a nice series of t-shirts and floaty pens.

The New Landscape Declaration: Perspective and Critique (Part 2)

New Landscape Declaration / LAF

The second day of the Landscape Architecture Foundation‘s New Landscape Declaration:  Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future offered critical responses to the 23 declarations delivered on the first day of the event and looked ahead to the next 50 years. Afternoon sessions were divided into five panels, each representing a different aspect of landscape architecture: academic practice, private practice, public practice, capacity building organizations, and emerging voices. Each panelist gave a short talk before engaging in a group discussion, addressing audience-sourced questions, and offering perspectives on what needs to be achieved over the next 50 years:

Academic practice: Maintain the value of the “long view”

“Academics combine teaching, scholarship, and service” while “taking the long view: looking back, then to now, and forward,” argued University of Illinois professor Elen Deming, ASLA, moderator of the first panel. The panel largely resisted responding to the more-urgent cries for action from the first days’ declarations, with Jacky Bowring, professor at Lincoln University, cautioning, “there is power and danger in the language we use.”

The academicians saw the future of landscape as both cultural art and applied science. While Anu Mathur, ASLA, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, championed “design as a field of inquiry” in which “design tools and techniques are our academic science,” Susan Herrington, ASLA, professor at the University of British Columbia, reminded the largely-professional audience that design schools “do not train scientists,” citing long hours in the studio. Yet a question from the audience concerning the rising costs of education revealed that a lack of scientific rigor in landscape architectural research limits access to external funding that could help lower escalating costs.

Bradley Cantrell studio testing responsive hydrologic systems at the GSD / David J Klein
Bradley Cantrell studio testing responsive hydrologic systems at the GSD / David J Klein

Julia Czerniak, ASLA, professor at Syracuse University, spoke to the power of design writing and criticism in spreading ideas. Other panelists noted the academy’s global reach comes from the increasingly international students it recruits and where schools build partnerships.

Anita Berrizbeitia, ASLA, professor and chair of landscape architecture at Harvard University, delivered four points the panel saw as critical to the future of academic practice: 1) commit to frameworks of learning, 2) avoid binaries and ideologies, 3) encourage student thinking and action, 4) increase diversity and range of students.

Private practice: Lead through collaboration and deep expertise

The private practice panel was moderated by Laura Solano, ASLA, principal at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), who emphasized that practitioners deal with the challenges of not only serving clients and achieving design excellence, but most also “run profitable businesses, all without harming the earth.” In their contribution toward a new declaration, the practice panel called for firms to become increasingly adaptable and gain deeper expertise.

Joe Brown, FASLA, consulting advisor at AECOM, insisted that “practices must respond to students’ ambitious ideals.” He later added that larger firms can act as teaching institutions as well, helping students achieve their new ideas. Thomas Balsey, FASLA, founder of Thomas Balsley Associates, agreed that in private practice, “a commitment to growth and evolution” can come from being open to what students bring. Through internships and the induction of recent graduates, Balsley offered ”student-led seminars” as a bridge between the ideas of the academy and the constraints of contemporary practice. Kathryn Gustafson, FASLA, founding principal at Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, claimed “education in firms will be the biggest draw in future private practice.”

The panel addressed the importance of having both deep expertise and leadership skills as landscape architects manage complex, collaborative projects. Mark Johnson, FASLA, co-founder of Civitas, noted that being a leader isn’t just about being a “good generalist, but also an expert.” Balsley, who saw collaboration as the key for smaller firms to get big commissions, elaborated: “you need preparation and dedication to being an expert to be capable of collaborating.” Or as Gustafson put it, “to let landscape lead, you have to be the smartest person in the room;” but also be pro-active: “know your experts and demand what you need from them.”

Centennial park master plan, Tennessee / Gustafson Guthrie Nichol
Centennial park master plan, Tennessee / Gustafson Guthrie Nichol

Adding a more critical voice to the private practice panel was Keith Bowers, FASLA, founder and principal at BioHabitats. Noting he is often on the other side of these collaborations, providing ecological design services, Bowers re-asserted the importance of private landscape practices to lead by “turning around political and financial institutions.” He emphasized the importance of sticking to your environmental values and having “conviction, spirit, and humility in everything you do.”

Public practice: Change policy to achieve impact

Mia Lehrer, FASLA, president of Mia Lehrer + Associates, led the public practice panel, which advocated for their important role in “defending and expanding” landscape’s role, all the while “creating places of experience that stick with people throughout their lifetime.” Acknowledging the stigma of bureaucracy, Nette Compton, ASLA, senior director of ParkCentral and City Park Development at the Trust for Public Land, said to “young professionals: you can get a lot done at a young age;” her own rise in the New York City parks department being but one example.

Joking that landscape architects are a “shade-loving species,” Mark Focht, FASLA, former ASLA president and senior official in Philadelphia’s parks department, joined others on the panel in suggesting landscape architects must “push themselves out there” into positions of power and “demand design excellence for under-served communities.” This point was affirmed by Deborah Marton, executive director of New York Restoration Project, who noted that “private dollars rarely go into low-income places.”

Going one step further was Christian Gabriel, ASLA, national design director of landscape architecture for U.S. General Services Administration, who encouraged landscape architects to be “infiltrators and insurgents,” using policy as a mechanism to deliver action. Citing his involvement in the Obama administration’s efforts to restore pollinators to health, Gabriel thinks re-conceptualizing policy through ecosystem services “is where our greatest future and capacity lies.”

Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse sustainable landscape for pollinators / Hilltop Landscape architects
Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse sustainable landscape for pollinators / Rios Clementi Hale

Picking up on the Beth Meyer’s keynote speech and Martha Schwartz’s declaration from the first day of the LAF Summit, Edward Garza, CEO Zane Garway and former mayor of San Antonio, challenged landscape architects to “embrace the political world” and even to run for mayor.

Capacity organizations: Design a path to increased diversity

As demonstrated by the summit itself, capacity organizations like LAF play a crucial role in forging the future of landscape architecture. Having heard all the declarations and much of the audience and Q & A, the panel, which included representatives from the LAF, American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architecture (IFLA), Public Architecture, and the Urban Land Institute (ULI), acknowledged how important diversity is to the future of the profession. Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, executive vice president and CEO of ASLA, announced a multi-organizational effort entitled Mirroring the Nation, which is meant to attract and support more minorities to the profession, so that “our profession might better mirror the population it serves.”

The panel also called for landscape architects to have more impact on a global level. Leading the cause was Raquel Penalosa, ASLA, who is using her position as President of IFLA Americas, to “work globally in the service of localities. We must be humble and listen” closely to what communities want. And IFLA president Kathryn Moore said the world’s tens of thousands of landscape architects can have more impact by forming an “interdisciplinary vision” based in “common values,” particularly given the field is one of the fastest growing worldwide.

LAF President Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, and Somerville debated a bit on whether a “new narrative” was needed to achieve greater public awareness, with Deutsch calling for an entirely new set of messages, and Somerville arguing that “we are making progress with our current messages among some groups — like the older, wealthier, and better educated — but need to better reach diverse audiences. We need to get the messages out where they need to be.”

Emerging voices: Promote the next generation

With the help of Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, CEO of OLIN, the emerging voices panel assembled a group of recent LAF Olmsted scholars. An appropriate ending to a summit on “the future of landscape architecture,” these future leaders each wrote their own declarations, which they then presented to the 700-plus crowd.

Leading off was a 2015 University Olmsted scholar Joanna Karaman, Student ASLA. Now working as a landscape designer at OLIN, Karaman challenged landscape architects to “be honest about how we represent what we build.” Her work in time-based media (Karaman is also working on a film about and for the LAF Summit) seeks to bring power to the profession through the use of videos that can make more accessible the volatility and transformational potential of landscapes.

Following Karaman was Nina Chase, ASLA, senior project manager at Riverlife in Pittsburgh, who advocated for “capitalizing on the resurgence of fun” through short-term pop-up projects that can serve as prototypes and catalyze public participation. Embracing the mantra of “test before you invest,” Chase suggested that developing projects incrementally is both good for creating fun, but also for building resilience to climate change.

Scott Irvine, a 2015 University Olmsted scholar from the University of Manitoba, delivered a message from the Canadian plains, cautioning that landscape architects should beware of “becoming overly urban,” and that too often now, “regionalism stops at the edge of the city itself.” Another caution was issued by Timothy Mollette-Parks, ASLA, associate principal at Mithun, who argued that “landscape can’t be formulaic, and we must not lose our dedication as designers.”

Wrapping up the panel was the 2016 National Olmsted scholar, Azzurra Cox, Student ASLA, a recent graduate from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, who called for landscape architects to engage in what she calls “critical ethnography: design as a humanist, political, and narrative act.”

This guest post is by Nate Wooten, Student ASLA, 2016 master’s of landscape architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania School of Design.

The New Landscape Declaration: Visions for the Next 50 Years

India's water crisis / National Geographic
India’s water crisis / National Geographic

Over the next 50 years, landscape architects must coordinate their actions globally to fight climate change, help communities adapt to a changing world, bring artful and sustainable parks and open spaces to every community rich or poor, preserve cultural landscape heritage, and sustain all forms of life on Earth. These were the central messages that came out the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)‘s New Landscape Declaration: Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future in Philadelphia, which was attended by over 700 landscape architects.

The speakers used declarations and short idea-packed talks, and attendees used cards, polls, and an interactive question and commenting app to provide input into a new declaration — a vision to guide the efforts of landscape architects to 2066.

As the 50th anniversary of the original declaration in 1966, many landscape architects looked back to see what has been achieved over the past 50 years. At the same time, through a series of bold statements, they created an ambitious global vision moving forward. As Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, president of LAF, believes: “We are now entering the age of landscape architecture.”

While not a comprehensive review of all the declarations, here are some highlights of the visions of what landscape architects must work to achieve over the next 50 years:

Landscape architects must address the “serious issues of air, water, food, and waste” in developing countries

Alpa Nawre, ASLA, assistant professor of landscape architecture, Kansas State University, called for landscape architects to focus their efforts on the developing world, where the bulk of the current population and most of the future population growth will occur. Today, of the 7.2 billion people on Earth, some 6 billion live in developing countries. There, some 100 million lack access to clean water. The global population is expected to reach 9.6 billion in coming decades, with 400 million added mostly to the cities of the global south. “To accommodate these billions, we must design better landscape systems for resource management.”

Gerdo Aquino, FASLA, CEO of the SWA Group, echoed that sentiment, arguing that “in the future, there will be much more stringent regulations on natural resources” as they become rarer and more valuable. Landscape architects will play a larger role in valuing and managing those resources.

Christophe Girot, chair of landscape architecture, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich, similarly saw the need for “new topical landscapes” for the 9.6 billion who will inhabit the Earth. We must “react, think creatively, and find solutions.”

Landscape architects must improve upon urbanization-as-usual

Instead of pursuing idealized visions of parks that may result in “tidy little ornaments of green that make liberals feel good,” Chris Marcinkowski, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania and partner at PORT Urbanism, said landscape architects must “work with the underlying systems of urbanization and adapt them,” softening them in an era when 1 billion people live in cities.

James Corner, ASLA, founder of James Corner Field Operations, pushed for accelerating urbanization in order to protect surrounding nature. “If you love nature, live in the city.” He called for landscape architects to “embed beauty and pleasure in cities” in the forms of parks and gardens, because we need to make it “so that people should want to live in cities.” Landscape architects must envision a denser urban world as well, and “shape the form of the future city.” His vision of the future city is a “garden city” that takes advantage of the “landscape imagination.” And Charles Waldheim, Hon. ASLA, chair of landscape architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, and Henri Bava, founding partner, Agence TER, similarly made the case for a new “landscape-led urbanism” rooted in ecological processes.

David Gouverneur, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, called for applying novel approaches to the informal communities in which he works in Venezuela, where the conventional planning and design process fails. He proposed retrofitting these places through his “informal armature approach,” which can create both pathways and communal nodes but also areas of flexible growth that allows “locals to invade and occupy.” He argued that new forms of planning and design can better meet the needs of the hundreds of millions living in informal communities in the world.

Informal armature / David Gouverneur
Informal armature / David Gouverneur

And Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, explained how her community-centric approach “creates a scaffolding for meaningful participation that is an active generator of social life.” For her, it’s all about “linking the social to the ecological and scaling that up for communities.”

Carl Steinitz, Hon. ASLA, professor emeritus of landscape architecture and planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, also called for all landscape architects to get more active at the urban and regional scales. “That’s where society needs us the most.”

Landscape architects must create a future for wild nature

“The landscape has been broken into fragments. We need a more inclusive approach, a new philosophical relationship between humanity and nature,” said Feng Han, director, department of landscape studies, Tongji University in Shanghai. That new approach must be rooted in “just landscape planning and design.”

Randolph Hester Jr., FASLA, director, Center for Ecological Democracy, and professor emeritus, University of California, Berkeley, made a similar and compelling argument, saying that “justice and beauty must be found together in the landscape.” The landscape itself is a “community, with the ecological and cultural being indivisible.”

A central part of achieving that just landscape planning and design approach is to better respect the other 2.5 million known species on the planet, argued Nina-Marie Lister, Hon. ASLA, professor at Ryerson University. “We must think of the quality of being for them, too.” To protect their homes, landscape architects must lead the charge in “re-establishing the role of the wild.” E.O. Wilson, in his most recent book, Half Earth, calls for preserving half of the planet for the other species. “That kind of goal is a blunt instrument. Now we need to design what that looks like. We need a planetary strategy that connects remnant fragments. We can create a global mosaic that will be the foundation of a next wave of conservation.”

Projective Ecologies / Harvard University Press
Projective Ecologies / ACTAR, Harvard University Graduate School of Design

A key part of those mosaics will be designed sustainable landscapes, said Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, FASLA, who argued that “sustainability needs to be addressed in every landscape” moving forward. “We must keep every scrap of nature” by certifying projects with systems like SITES.

And in case anyone forgot the essential message: Laurie Olin, FASLA, founder of OLIN, argued that “everything comes from nature and is inspired by nature.”

Landscape architects must dramatically increase in number

Given landscape architects relatively small numbers — there are estimated to be less than 75,000 worldwide — Martha Fajardo, International ASLA, CEO, Grupo Verde, said each must “become ambassadors for the landscape,” speaking loudly wherever they go.

But Mario Schjetnan, FASLA, Mexico’s leading landscape architect, said that may not be enough and more numbers are needed. For example, while there are more than 150,000 architects in Mexico, there are only 1,000 landscape architects.

He said: “There are not enough landscape architects in the developing world. And we need a global perspective. The U.S. and Euro-centric perspective must change. More landscape architects from the developing world studying in the U.S. and Europe need to return to their countries and help.”

Landscape architects must diversify themselves fast

“Minorities are woefully underrepresented” in the field of landscape architecture, argued Gina Ford, ASLA, a partner at Sasaki. “The black and Hispanic populations in the U.S. are growing.” How can we address this? Ford called for the highest levels of academic and firm leadership to bring in and hire minorities. “It’s not about getting warm, fuzzy feelings; it’s about innovation. Diversity begets innovation. Diverse staff resonate with diverse clients. We must diversify to create a shared vision for the future.”

Landscape architects must get even more political

Patricia O’Donnell, FASLA, founder of Heritage Landscapes, who is active in UNESCO, ICOMOS, and other international organizations, said the first step is for landscape architects to “show up” and engage in political debates. Then, they must “collaborate to be relevant.” Working within these complex international fora, O’Donnell herself pushes for “connecting biological diversity with cultural diversity” and encouraging these organizations to value cultural landscapes. To be more relevant, she said, landscape architects should further align their efforts with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Kongjian Yu, FASLA, founder of Turenscape, may be the epitome of the political landscape architect. His work spans planning and design across mainland China, but he spends a good amount of his time and energy on persuading thousands of local mayors and senior governmental leaders alike on the value of “planning for ecological security.” He called for landscape architects to “think big — at the local, regional, and national scales” — and to influence decision-makers.

China ecological security plan / Turenscape
China ecological security plan / Turenscape

Martha Schwartz, FASLA, founder of Martha Schwartz Partners, who is an active advocate and commentator in the UK, where she now lives, threw down the gauntlet, calling for landscape architects to form a political wing that will urge policymakers to fund bold research into geo-engineering techniques that can stave off the planetary emergency caused by climate change. At the same time, “we need to start a political agenda for a Manhattan project to reduce carbon emissions.” Schwartz sees ASLA pushing for climate rescue over the next 50 years, helping us to “buy the time for a second chance to live in balance with the Earth.” For her and others, climate action is the platform for landscape architecture for the next five decades.

And Kelly Shannon, chair of landscape architecture at the University of Southern California, International ASLA, made the case for “changing the unsustainable status quo and inspiring new social movements.” Landscape architects must become “essential game changers.”

Landscape architects must better leverage green infrastructure to achieve broader goals 

Using their knowledge of systems, nature, and people, landscape architects must find new opportunities to regenerate poor communities that have been left out. Tim Duggan, ASLA, Phronesis, called for using green infrastructure as a wedge for creating opportunities. “In consent decree communities, green infrastructure can be leveraged to create wider urban regenerative processes.” Green infrastructure, as Duggan has shown, can become the catalyst for community development.

But to make this happen in New Orleans and Kansas City, he had to “lobby change at the decision-maker level and string together innovative financing mechanisms.” In other words, he had to wade into the broader economic and governmental systems to make change happen.

Landscape architects must keep design central to the human experience 

Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, founder of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), said a “holistic view” was needed, and that landscape architects can’t foresake the important role of art and design in the experience of landscape architecture by focusing exclusively on ecological values. “We need to put the value of landscape architect on the level of the artist.” Harriet Pattison, FASLA, helped him make the point in this segment of her TCLF oral history project:

Blaine Merker, ASLA, Gehl Studio, argued for “making humanism physical and celebrating the human condition” through well-designed space for people. “Plazas and parks increase social connection. This leads to deep sustainability and happiness that reinforce each other.”

Landscape architects must generate new fields of research and design to stay relevant

A fascinating idea: what is on the margins today may be at the center tomorrow. Dirk Sijmons, co-founder, H+N+S Landscape Architects, argued for landscape architects to get more deeply involved in what may be a marginal area for them now: the transition to clean energy. He showed his work animating the energy flows of off-shore wind farms in the North Sea. “We must develop new centers for the discipline.”

Landscape architects educators must “revolutionize the landscape architecture education system” and become more pragmatic

Kongjian Yu also called for the educational system to teach the aesthetic value of ecology and sustainability. “We need deep forms rooted in ecology, not shallow forms. Nature is the bedrock.” Yu calls landscape architecture an “art of survival” that will become increasingly relevant as the world’s problems only multiply. “We need to teach how landscapes can fight flooding, fire, drought, and produce food. We need to generate pragmatic knowledge and basic survival skills to open up new horizons.”

Marc Treib, professor of architecture emeritus, University of California, Berkeley, added that “the sustainable is not antithetical to the beautiful. We can elevate the pragmatic to the level of poetry.”

While these bold ideas do push the landscape architecture agenda forward, what was missing from the LAF event was some critical discussions on how to better collaborate with scientists, ecologists, developers, architects, urban planners, and engineers on forging a common vision that can increase their collective impact in the halls of power; the coming explosion of aging populations; the health benefits of nature — and how the desire for better health could become a central driver of demand for landscape architecture; and sustainable transportation and the future of mobility. Hopefully, we’ll see more on these as LAF continues to hone its vision.

Preparing for a Changing Climate

Gold Coast, Australia, beach erosion /
Gold Coast, Australia, beach erosion /

As the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) formulates a new approach to our changing world, its Board of Trustees sought to learn what other major design associations are doing to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. At ASLA’s mid-year meeting, representatives from the Urban Land Institute (ULI), American Institute of Architects (AIA), American Planning Association (APA), and American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) explained how they are helping their collective membership, which totals hundreds of thousands, face the new challenges.

Serene Marshall, executive director of ULI’s center for sustainability, said their goal is to reduce carbon emissions from buildings — which consume about 40 percent of global energy and produce around the same amount of emissions — by 50 percent by 2030. Strategies that will help include: greater building energy efficiency, education for building tenants on energy consumption, distributed local energy systems, transit-oriented development, urban green areas that help increase the acceptance of density, and local sustainable food production. At the same time, ULI wants to increase the resilience of communities to “floods, fire, droughts, and increased heat.” Developers need to “avoid the unmanageable effects of climate change while managing the unavoidable.” A major part of this involves changing “where they build real estate.”

“Water will be for the 21st century what oil was for the 20th century,” said Jason Jordan, director of policy, APA. Up until now, “water has been too compartmentalized in the planning process.” But Jordan said some forward-thinking communities are already planning for the expected problems that will come with having “too much or too little or too polluted water.” APA has partnered with the Dutch government’s water experts, creating a working group that will lead to a new policy guide for “how to live with water.” APA’s second focus area is planning for hazard mitigation competence at the local level, and they are working with National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to create local standards. Lastly, APA is also focused on creating new models for public engagement and how to “better address social equity issues.”

“If we deal with climate change in isolation, we are not going get to where we need to,” said Joel Mills, director of AIA’s Center for Communities by Design. “1.4 million people are moving to cities around the world each week. Climate change is directly connected with urbanization.” But he also added that there is no one-size-fits-all urban climate solution. For example, “Austin has doubled in population while Detroit is fighting its way back.” To come up with solutions, communities must create their own dialogues based in collaborative approaches. In addition, AIA has signed on to the Architecture 2030 Challenge, which calls for all buildings to be carbon neutral by 2030. And the group has joined the national multi-sector partnership on resilience in the built environment.

“Today’s design criteria and codes are built on the weather of the past — this is the challenge,” said Dick Wright, with ASCE’s committee on the adaptation to a changing climate, which also recently released a comprehensive report on adapting infrastructure to the future. “The challenge is how to deal with uncertainties in the underlying climate data.” ASCE is promoting the use of the “observational method,” a “learn-as-you-go process for a life-cycle 50-100 years out.” Engineers now need to ask themselves “what is most probable scenario in 50 years and design for that, while also providing for the extremes.” As an example, the Lossan railroad, which runs along the coast from Los Angeles to San Diego, is set on pre-cast concrete piers that can be shifted 5-feet up as needed. The piers were constructed to be “deliberately durable to extreme exposures.” Wright concluded: “we’ve reached the end of handbook design — you can’t put in numbers and spit something out. Engineers must use ingenuity and imagination in dealing with uncertainty and adapting to future conditions.”

ASLA President Chad Danos, FASLA, asked how can planning and design organizations actually impact climate policy?

Mills said “every mayor is very interested in this issue,” and working bottom-up from the local level could result in a “grassroots movement.” For Marshall, it was those mayors who created the local actions and political room for the international climate change agreement reached in Paris last December. “The mayors made it easy for the national leaders.” Both Marshall and Jordan said avoiding the “ideology” of climate change was important. Marshall said, “it’s better to just go to communities and ask, ‘do you have flood, drought, or air pollution problems?'”

Jordan thinks a successful strategy for changing climate policy will need to “refocus the discussion and get away from the polarizing dynamics.” The business sector, particularly real estate developers and insurance companies, may help create a “bottom-line approach that will have impact. Capital markets will drive change due to the vulnerability of some assets.”

Most seemed to agree that “policy change will not happen on Capitol Hill,” but will be the result of many state and local efforts.

Also, all agreed that cities and smaller communities only continue to build in vulnerable areas along coasts. As sea levels rise, this is increasingly untenable. Jordan said: “We need to take a hard look at where we are subsidizing risky developments. An honest conversation is needed. That’s in the public interest.”

Can the U.S. Achieve Its Climate Goals?

Electricity transmission / Institute for Energy Research
Electricity transmission / Institute for Energy Research

With the U.S. Supreme Court stay of President Obama’s clean power plan, there are concerns the U.S. will miss its stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by 26-28 percent by 2025. The U.S. made this commitment in advance of the UN Climate Summit in Paris last year. The commitment was viewed as critical to getting China and the rest of the world on board with significant GHGs cuts. In early February, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to halt the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.)’s new rules that will force states to come up with a plan to reduce GHGs from electric power plants by 2020 until it can hear from the 29 states and multiple corporations that sued to stop the rules. Some 18 states, mostly led by Democrats, have decided to move forward, regardless of how the Supreme Court decides.

In an event organized by New America and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions in Washington, D.C., John Larsen, director at the Rhodium Group, explained that even if the Supreme Court upholds the EPA’s rules, it’s still not certain as to whether the U.S. can meet its targets. To date, the U.S. is projected to be off its goal by as much as 10-23 percent, depending on whether the clean power plan moves forward, the economy picks up again, Western forests recover, and Congress renews renewable energy credits and approves new energy efficiency incentives.

From 1990, U.S. GHGs were on an upward trajectory, Larsen explained, until 2008, when they began to fall, ultimately 14 percent below Energy Information Administration (E.I.A.) projections through 2015. About 40 percent of the decline in GHGs is due to the economic recession; 45 percent is due to a reduction in carbon and energy intensity; and 15 percent is due to improved energy efficiency in buildings.

Today, the U.S. has about a 5.5 billion-ton GHG economy, with the power sector accounting for 1.7 billion tons, transportation 1.6 billion tons, industry 1.25 billion tons, and the rest from methane and buildings. Carbon dioxide emissions account for about 80 percent of total emissions, with methane and hydroflurocarbons (HFCs), which are far more potent than carbon in the destructive warming effects, comprising the rest. Methane emissions may be further reduced by improved regulations on oil and gas production and landfills and reductions in meat and dairy consumption, while HFCs, which are released by refrigerators, may be included in a Montreal Protocol amendment, which could reduce their emissions by 150 million metric tons.

The experts on the panel pointed to other ways the U.S. can cut GHGs. More advanced distributed, renewable energy systems, as well as improved public transit and smart growth could reduce emissions, said Larsen. Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center at Georgetown Law, pointed to the new alliance of 8 states and 5 countries that calls for no gas-powered vehicles by 2050. California, which has the 7th largest economy in the world, has signed on to this. Arroyo also said a number of states and cities are setting ambitious targets for moving to renewable energy and starting their own cap and trade systems.

And Scott Fulton, president of the Environmental Law Institute (ELI), added that sustainable materials management, using a life-cycle approach, could cut emissions from product manufacturing. With that approach, “we can realize more benefits from waste, like landfill methane capture.” He also said regardless of governmental action, much of the private sector is moving forward with cutting emissions. This is because, “for investors, carbon intensity is now a big red flag.”

But emissions are only one side of the equation — there is also sequestration, particularly for carbon. And with this, forests and soils are what’s critical. Larsen said this is the tricky part of his national estimates, as the “annual variables are substantial, given drought and wild fires, increased demand for forest-related products, and land use changes, such as sprawl,” which all reduce tree cover. Just last year, California lost 50 percent of its trees due to drought and wild fires.

According to a report by the Society of American Foresters, U.S. forests, which account for 8 percent of the world’s forests, store about 200 million tons of carbon each year — an amount equal to about 10 percent of annual emissions. American forests have essentially remain unchanged in total acreage over the past century. Soils also store millions of tons of carbon, but it’s hard to create a precise figure. (Scientists estimate that soils could potentially store 3.5-11 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide). While the U.S. clearly has a GHG emissions target, there doesn’t seem to be one for sequestration. Why not? Why not invest in a goal of doubling America’s natural sequestration of carbon by 2050? Imagine the positive co-benefits on public health and biodiversity.

For Ellen Williams, director of the advanced research projects agency-energy (ARPA-E), which is investing millions in cutting-edge clean energy technologies, boosting the capacity of soils to store carbon could be a real solution. She believes “innovation can change the boundaries of what is possible.” Some of the teams ARPA-E are financing will use “robotics and big data to see how we can create more sustainable plants that put more carbon in the soil through root growth.” ARPA-E is particularly interested in the “root properties of biofuel plants.”

The Visible Hand of the Landscape Architect

ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Lawn on D / Christian Phillips Photography
ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Lawn on D / Christian Phillips Photography

Gina Ford, ASLA, a landscape architect and principal at Sasaki Associates, keeps coming back to the same question: “How do we make the hand of the landscape architect visible?” Ford posed the question during a lecture at North Carolina State University’s College of Design. She then identified two projects from the multidisciplinary Urban Studio she chairs at Sasaki that demonstrate just a few of the visible roles landscape architects play.

Ford and her team played the roles of planner and designer for Lawn on D in Boston, a 2.5-acre project that grew from Sasaki’s commission to create a master plan for the expansion of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, which Ford called “this ginormous spaceship that landed in the seaport.” In the middle of what was then surface parking and scattered industrial buildings, Ford’s team imagined new development and open space to create meaningful connections between the waterfront, convention center, and the historic South Boston neighborhood.

“The community kept wanting open space, open space, open space,” Ford said. “The question was: How do you create open space that will appeal both to convention-goers, who are here for a weekend, and also to the South Boston community that wants to see this as an extension of their neighborhood?” She said,“this idea of the Lawn on D emerged. We created a landscape that’s temporary, so we can test some ideas about what a park might be like here and what resonates.”

After only nine months for design, bids, and construction, the Lawn on D opened in 2014 on a parking lot abutting the convention center at a cost of $10 per square foot. Using what Ford called “modest means,” the Lawn on D features lawn, asphalt, tennis court paint, a canvas tent, light fixtures, and minimal plants. The plan was to keep it open for about 18 months, to see what users liked and didn’t like, and then to collect design and programming ideas for a permanent open space that would be incorporated into the convention center expansion.

18 months later, the convention center expansion has stalled indefinitely due to budget constraints. But in that time, the Lawn on D has become a Boston landmark. Sasaki’s simple design template — green edges framing a path, a paved lighted plaza, a tent, and a big lawn — accommodate food trucks, movie screenings, concerts, art installations, snow chutes, and other creative, Boston-themed events dreamed up by the firm HR&A Advisors. Ford said one of the art installations — Swing Time by Höweler + Yoon Architecture — has become the selfie capital of Boston.

ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. Lawn on D / Christian Phillips Photography
ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. Lawn on D / Christian Phillips Photography

Ford’s team now faces the enviable challenge of how to retrofit and make permanent a space that was meant to last 18 months but instead became a beloved community destination, enlivening a part of town that used to be simply a midpoint between other iconic Boston neighborhoods.

Another project of Ford’s urban design studio is A Delta for All, the winning proposal from the Changing Course design competition, which seeks to “re-imagine a more sustainable Lower Mississippi River delta.” Sasaki joined a team of specialists led by Baird & Associates to answer the central question posed by the competition brief: As the coastal wetlands between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico disappear at the rate of one football field per day, is it possible to save the cherished communities and ecosystems of the Lower Mississippi Delta?

Here the hand of the landscape architect was perhaps subtler but no less important. Ford’s role was to communicate — to consider the human element and then explain to stakeholders the function and impact of a proposed engineering marvel.

The plan devised by the team’s engineers and specialists, which boast expertise in everything from wetland structure and sediments to river navigation and oysters, essentially would undo the effects of human channeling of the Mississippi River. Ford explained that before human channeling, the river moved like a hose over the landscape, shifting its mouth over centuries, redistributing upstream sediments to create the wetlands as a series of ridge lines with freshwater basins in between. After human channeling, which created set channels, those valuable upstream sediments ended up running off into the Gulf of Mexico, bypassing the wetlands, therefore failing to replenish them.

A Delta for All proposes diverting the mouth of the Mississippi River and then feeding its water and sediment into neglected inter-tidal basins. Over time, “like spigots on a faucet,” the river mouth could be shifted to feed the inter-tidal basins in rotation, mimicking the natural shifts of the pre-channelized river.

A Delta for All
A Delta for All
A Delta for All
A Delta for All

If implemented, A Delta for All would be a complex undertaking, with major implications for communities and industries, natural ecosystems, and long-held ways of life. Ford’s team created graphics and a website to break down the issues, proposed solutions, and expected immediate and long-term benefits for coastal communities.

And they also tackled the challenge of possible re-locations for the wetland communities whose homes wouldn’t be spared. “Most of the federal programs to migrate people out of high-risk zones are just one household at a time, but as we came to understand, people in the delta live in these really tight-knit small communities,” Ford said. “So we suggested maybe there’s a way to phase their inland migration over time, providing some safe haven in the short term for small communities to move inland during storm events, and over time that inland safe haven could become a permanent home.” She added, “perhaps this is a way to start thinking about moving people in the right direction, over a larger period of time, together.”

These projects get to the heart of Ford’s mission to make the hand of the landscape architect visible, or as she also put it, to help people recognize “that landscape is more than the parsley around the pig.” How can we help people to value their landscapes in the same way they value their buildings? When landscape architects transform a community’s physical spaces — whether it’s at the scale of a new park in an evolving urban district or an entire region faced with deep ecological change — they can improve quality of life and nourish the human spirit. Surely that kind of impact will help people to see and value their landscapes and those who design them.

This guest post is by Lindsey Naylor, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, North Carolina State University.

Stormproofing the Atlantic Coast

Atlantic City, New Jersey / Structure of Coastal Resilience
Atlantic City, New Jersey / Structure of Coastal Resilience

The galleries of the Center for Architecture in New York City provide a small view of the large scope of the Structures of Coastal Resilience, a new research and design project from Princeton University. The project is sweeping: new designs for resilience on the Atlantic coastline from New England to Virginia. The exhibition displays just two proposals for Atlantic City, New Jersey, and New York’s Jamaica Bay, but the in-depth, companion web site shows all four proposals, including those for Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, and Norfolk, Virginia. The straightforward exhibition design — mostly architectural boards pinned to the wall — details solutions for buffering against storms in the next hundred years.

A team from Princeton University’s School of Architecture led by architecture professor Paul Lewis, also a principal at Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis (LTL) Architects, proposes to storm-proof a suburban neighborhood of Atlantic City by creating “amphibious suburbs,” elevating road and houses and softening edges between private yards and wetlands (see image above).

The strategies proposed by a team from the City College of New York, led by landscape architecture professor Catherine Seavitt, ASLA, similarly raise roads and form berms to protect bay front settlements in Jamaica Bay, New York, while focusing on urban ecology to restore marshes and improve water flow through the Bay.

Jamaica Bay proposal / Structures of Coastal Resilience
Jamaica Bay proposal / Structures of Coastal Resilience

The Jamaica Bay team broke down its analysis into a series of booklets on display, from a catalog of resident fauna to a history of infrastructural interventions. Unfortunately, the most captivating element of their work is not on view. A series of topographical models of Jamaica Bay cast in soap are a missed opportunity to take advantage of the physical exhibition space to understand the area in question and the modeling processes behind the design proposals. See a few brief videos:

The project’s website provides a better introduction to the design proposals. A team led by landscape architecture professors Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, and Rosetta Elkin at Harvard University Graduate School of Design examines how best to add redundancy to the storm protection capabilities of coastal forests and shrub lands in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay.

Narrangasett Bay proposal / Structures for Coastal Resilience
Narragansett Bay proposal / Structures for Coastal Resilience

And a team lead by landscape architecture professor Anuradha Mathur, ASLA, and architect and planner Dilip da Cunha at the University of Pennsylvania proposes “fingers of high ground” for refuge and new settlements in the tidewaters of Norfolk, Virginia.

Norfolk, Virginia proposal / Structures of Coastal Resilience
Norfolk, Virginia proposal / Structures of Coastal Resilience

These complex and rigorously-scientific proposals have been far less publicized than the work of the other major design research projects prompted by the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The winners of the Rebuild by Design competition are now in the planning phases for pilot projects supported by the U.S. department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The projects of Structures of Coastal Resilience focus on less densely populated landscapes, with the goal of developing recommendations for ongoing projects by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As a result, they appear far less engaged with the human and political dimensions of adaptation to climate change. However, there is more than ecological modeling and housing prototypes to the wholesale transformation of a residential neighborhood. Amphibious suburbs are a response to the political impossibility of total retreat from the sea, but elevating homes and redefining boundaries of public and private space begs discussion, too.

Exhibitions are a great vehicle for bringing such questions to the public sphere, but, for that, they need to speak in a language more compelling than that of the architectural studio.

Structures of Coastal Resilience is on view at the Center for Architecture in New York City through April 2, 2016.

This guest post is by Mariana Mogilevich, a historian of architecture and urbanism, whose research focuses on the design and politics of the public realm.