ASLA Ratifies International Federation of Landscape Architects’ Climate Action Commitment

ASLA 2021 Professional Urban Design Honor Award. Xuhui Runway Park, Shanghai, China. Sasaki / Insaw Photography

Landscape Architects Unite in Advance of Key United Nations Climate Change Conference

ASLA announced it will join a global coalition of 70,000 landscape architects in 77 countries in committing to limiting planetary warming to 1.5°C (2.7 °F). This is the largest coalition of landscape architecture professionals ever assembled to advance climate action.

IFLA’s Climate Action Commitment will be issued to sovereign nations at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will be held in Scotland, October 31 – November 12.

ASLA has committed to the six goals outlined in the IFLA Climate Action Commitment:

1) Advancing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs)
ASLA and its member landscape architects and designers will accelerate efforts to protect and repair ecosystems.

2) Attaining Global Net Zero Emissions by 2040
ASLA and its members will dramatically reduce operational and embodied carbon emissions produced by projects, increasingly harness the unique capacity of landscapes to draw down carbon dioxide, and continue to advocate for low-carbon multi-modal transport systems.

3) Enhancing Capacity and Resilience of Livable Cities and Communities
Implementing green infrastructure approaches, ASLA and its members will increase efforts to mitigate the urban heat island effect and reduce climate impacts associated with fire, drought, and flooding.

4) Advocating for Climate Justice and Social Well-Being
ASLA and its members will maintain our priority on equity and equality and ensure the right to nearby green spaces and clean water and air.

5) Learning from Cultural Knowledge Systems
ASLA and its members commit to respecting and working with indigenous communities and honoring cultural land management practices to mitigate climate change impacts and continue work towards reconciliation.

6) Galvanizing Climate Leadership
Landscape architects are uniquely positioned to lead the built environment community’s response to the climate crisis. ASLA will continue to collaborate with clients, suppliers, and allied professions to champion climate positive landscapes, which involves planning and designing landscapes that sequester more greenhouse gas emissions than they emit.

“ASLA is proud to be joining forces with IFLA and the global community of landscape architects in advancing our climate action goals,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, CEO, ASLA. “We speak as one voice, globally, when it comes to advancing climate action.”

“As landscape architects we can make a tremendous difference to climate change and to climate action through our work, so thinking globally but acting locally is critical,” said IFLA President James Hayter.

“In a year marked by historic flooding in Europe and China and deadly wildfires and heat waves in the United States, it’s clear we’re running out of time to start healing a century’s worth of harm done to our Earth and its atmosphere,” said Tom Mroz, FASLA, ASLA President.

“I am gratified that Climate Positive Design has been incorporated into the global Commitment,” said Pamela Conrad, ASLA, Founder of Climate Positive Design, Principal at CMG Landscape Architecture in San Francisco, and IFLA Climate Change Working Group Vice Chair. “All landscape architects must rapidly scale up their work transforming designed landscapes into natural carbon sinks.”

The IFLA Climate Action Commitment is the second major coalition ASLA has joined this year. ASLA also signed on to Architecture 2030’s 1.5°C COP26 Communiqué, calling for built environment industries to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.

Landscape architects plan and design with nature to help all communities reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate. Landscape architects use climate positive design approaches that transform parks and open spaces into natural carbon sinks. They develop resilient nature-based solutions that reduce the impacts of extreme heat; coastal, ground, and inland flooding; sea level rise; pollution; and wildfires. They also increase biodiversity and protect and restore ecosystems, which underpin life on Earth.

“Landscape architects are already helping communities adapt to climate impacts. We are having a particularly big impact on reducing dangerous urban temperatures, saving many lives in the process,” said Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, former ASLA President and ASLA representative to the IFLA Climate Change Working Group.

The Incredible Opportunity of Community Schoolyards

NY Public School 366 (before image) / Trust for Public Land
NY Public School 366 (after image) / Trust for Public Land

A new report from The Trust for Public Land (TPL) makes a compelling case for transforming underperforming, paved public schoolyards into green oases for the entire community. While the benefits for schools and their educational communities are clear, TPL sees an opportunity to open up these facilities to surrounding neighborhoods after school hours, on weekends, and when school is out. If all 90,000 public schools in the country had a “community schoolyard,” more communities could tackle the persistent park equity issue — in which too few communities, particularly undeserved ones, enjoy access to nearby high-quality public green spaces. TPL argues that opening up all schoolyards, essentially turning them into part-time all-access community hubs, would “put a park within a 10-minute walk of nearly 20 million people — solving the problem of outdoor access for one-fifth of the nation’s 100 million people who don’t currently have a park close to home.”

TPL found that “only a tiny fraction” of current public schoolyards met their criteria for a community schoolyard. While some communities have been greening their schoolyards — adding trees, gardens, and stormwater management systems — and others have opened their schoolyards to the public after hours, very few have done both. TPL calls for massively scaling up efforts to revamp schoolyards and make them more accessible through more federal funding and support through their organization and others.

Community schoolyards are the result of planning and design efforts, most often led by landscape architects and designers, to transform “overheated, vacant, and uninspired” places into green healthy ones. These spaces include trees, which provide ample shade and cool the air; gardens that increase biodiversity and provide environmental educational opportunities; stormwater management systems that help reduce flooding; and tracks, fields, and play equipment that offer space for exercise and building social skills and community engagement.

NY public school 152 before image / Trust for Public Land
NY public school 152 before image / Trust for Public Land

These shade-producing spaces, designed to cool and clean the air, offer benefits to any surrounding community, but help some even more. Research from TPL found that nationwide, “36 percent of the nation’s 50.8 million public school students attended school in a heat island, which is defined as 1.25 degrees warmer or more, on average, than the surrounding town or city. Among that group, 4.1 million students to a school in a severe heat island of 7 degrees ore more, while 1.1 million attend school in an extreme heat island of 10 degrees or more. In some communities, the heat anomaly exceeded 20 degrees.”

Income is correlated with exposure to heat risks. Average household incomes in the communities with more dangerous heat islands were estimated to be $31,000 less than the income in the coolest parts of communities. Some of the discrepancies can be explained by the enduring and dangerous legacy of racist urban planning. A study published in 2020 in the journal Climate found that communities that experienced redlining and disinvestment are 2.6°C (4.6°F) hotter than neighboring communities that didn’t. This is because that legacy resulted in a lack of street trees and public green spaces. Indeed, in the 100 largest cities, neighborhoods where people predominantly identify as people of color have access to an average of 44 percent less park acreage that predominately white areas.

One case study demonstrates the great gains that can be made by investing in public schools in historically marginalized and underserved communities. In Newark, New Jersey, a new half-acre green schoolyard at the K-8 Sussex Avenue School, co-designed by third and fourth graders and Heidi Cohen, ASLA, a landscape architect with TPL, resulted in a new turf field and running track, trees and flowering shrubs, a drinking fountain (for the first time), and an outdoor classroom space.

K-8 Sussex Avenue School / Trust for Public Land
K-8 Sussex Avenue School / Trust for Public Land
K-8 Sussex Avenue School / Trust for Public Land

The investment in students’ health and well-being resulted in noteworthy benefits: “Average daily attendance climate from 90 percent to 96 percent almost immediately after the renovation. Disciplinary actions declined, while test scores went up among the school’s 500 students, 95 percent of whom qualify for a free or reduced lunch.”

Given climate change is increasing the dangers of already hot, and unfairly hot, urban heat islands, future investment in high-quality public schoolyards is now a climate justice issue. TPL cites a study in NYC that found a correlation between rising temperatures and test scores. Another study by the Harvard Kennedy School, the College Board, and others offered “evidence that cumulative heat hurts cognitive development.” While a community schoolyard can’t solve all problems, they can improve health and educational outcomes for students. The health benefits of access of green space are increasingly well-understood, and a growing body of research shows that views of green spaces can improve cognition, mood, and learning. “By virtue of their shade, Community Schoolyard projects could help students improve their test scores,” TPL argues. Shaded areas can be up to 50 degrees cooler than a similar area in full sun.

The report also covers the many climate resilience benefits of community schoolyards. Like other sustainable landscapes, they can effectively manage stormwater using green infrastructure. TPL’s community schoolyards in NYC are estimated to capture 19 million gallons of stormwater a year; and in Philadelphia, these schoolyards capture 17 million gallons annually. “Installing green infrastructure at public schools reduces flood risk throughout the neighborhood.” Planting and maintaining school rain gardens also provides environmental education opportunities for students of all ages.

LaCima charter school, Brooklyn, NYC before photo / Trust for Public Land
LaCima charter school, Brooklyn, NYC after photo / Trust for Public Land

ASLA Calls Upon Governments to Achieve Zero Emissions by 2040

ASLA 2020 Professional Research Honor Award. Climate Positive Design. Pamela Conrad, ASLA

ASLA has joined with Architecture 2030 to call for all sovereign governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 65 percent by 2030 and achieve zero emissions by 2040, which would accelerate the current timeline to achieve emission reductions outlined in the Paris Climate Accord by a decade.

The call, the most ambitious climate challenge ever issued by the built environment professions, is detailed within Architecture 2030’s 1.5°C COP26 Communiqué submitted to the Biden-Harris administration and world leaders attending the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Scotland.

According to Architecture 2030, the built environment is the world’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for at least 40 percent, not including the carbon already embodied within the structures and materials of buildings and landscapes.

Signatories of the Communiqué, which include global organizations representing the landscape architecture, planning, and architecture professions and 60 of the world’s largest international design firms, have committed to taking specific actions to achieve the same levels of greenhouse gas emission reductions, as outlined in the call to sovereign governments.

“We have a responsibility to take whatever actions are necessary to more rapidly reduce greenhouse gases emitted by the built environment,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, CEO of ASLA. “As the leading organization of landscape architects, we can play a significant role in encouraging the expansion of Climate Positive Design strategies and natural carbon sinks in our projects, as well as reducing the impacts of climate change, such as increasingly dangerous urban temperatures, on underserved communities.”

“Landscape architects are committed to this interdisciplinary coalition, joining with allied professionals on climate action. Together, we need to scale up the new inclusive, climate-smart planning and design practices required to achieve zero emissions in the built environment by 2040,” said Scott Bishop, ASLA, Chair of the ASLA Climate Action Committee and Founder of Bishop Land Design.

ASLA has been a long-time leader among built environment organizations in calling for more ambitious climate action. According to a review of associations by the Kresge Foundation, ASLA is just one of nine associations taking a holistic approach to educating their members and the public about climate change “that includes adaptation, mitigation, and the explicit consideration of social justice.” Since 2018, ASLA has been a member of the We Are Still In movement, a national coalition of 3,500 states, cities, companies, and organizations that remain committed to achieving US greenhouse gas emission reduction targets as part of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Landscape architects plan and design nature-based solutions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and communities’ risks from climate impacts, such as flooding, extreme heat, drought, and sea level rise. Learn more about landscape architects’ work.

ASLA Announces 2021 Professional Awards

ASLA 2021 Landmark Award. Portland Open Space Sequence, Portland, Oregon. PLACE.

ASLA announces the 2021 Professional Award winners. The 40 winning projects exemplify the highest level of achievement in the profession, and the professionals themselves will be honored at ASLA’s Conference on Landscape Architecture, Nov. 20 in Nashville, TN.

Winners each year are chosen by a jury panel representing a broad cross-section of the profession, from the public and private sectors, as well as academia. The 40 winners were chosen from 486 submissions from around the world. Award categories include: General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, and Research. In addition, one Landmark Award is also selected each year.

“This year’s winners demonstrate how landscape architects are increasingly leading the planning and design of healthy and resilient communities for all,” said Torey Carter- Conneen, CEO of ASLA. “Landscape architects are advancing communities’ diversity, equity, and inclusion goals in significant ways.”

Professional Award recipients, their clients, and advisors will be honored in-person at the awards presentation ceremony during the ASLA 2021 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville, TN on Saturday, November 20th, at 6pm ET.

Explore the full list of this year’s Professional Award winners

ASLA Announces 2021 Student Awards

ASLA 2021 Student General Design Honor Award. The Interaction Between Masks And Desertification: A Paradigm of Family Sand Control by Mongolian Herdsmen. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Xi Zhao; Xue Li; Xinyu Yang; Qiong Wang, Student International ASLA, Beijing Forestry University

ASLA announces the 2021 Student Award winners. The 35 winning projects exemplify the highest level of achievement by future landscape architect professionals. The students themselves will be honored at the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture, Nov. 20 in Nashville, TN.

Winners each year are chosen by a jury panel representing a broad cross-section of the profession, from the public and private sectors, as well as academia. The 35 winners were chosen from 440 submissions of projects from around the world. Awards categories include: General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, Research, Student Collaboration, and Community Service.

“This program not only honors the tremendous creativity and passion of these future landscape architect leaders, it also highlights the extraordinary contributions they will make to communities upon graduation,” said Torey Carter- Conneen, CEO of ASLA.

Student Award recipients will be honored in-person at the awards presentation ceremony during the ASLA 2021 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville, TN on Saturday, November 20th, at 6pm ET.

Explore the full list of this year’s Student Award winners

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

Ivory-billed Woodpecker by John James Audubon / Audubon Society

US to Declare Ivory-billed Woodpecker and 22 More Species Extinct — 09/29/21, The Guardian
“It’s a rare move for wildlife officials to give up hope on a plant or animal, but government scientists have exhausted efforts to find these 23 species and warned that the climate crisis, on top of other pressures, could make such disappearances more common.”

Record $5 Billion Donation to Protect Nature Could Herald New Green Era of Giving — 09/29/21, The Guardian
“Last week, a group of nine philanthropic foundations made the largest ever donation to nature conservation, pledging $5bn to finance the protection of 30% of land and sea by the end of the decade.”

Forget Coworking. Your Next Desk Could Be in the Middle of a Forest — 09/28/21, Fast Company Design
“The Finnish city of Lahti takes the concept of remote work literally. In partnership with creative agency TBWA\Helsinki and Finnish design company Upwood, the lakefront city has installed a series of open-air desks for remote working out in the middle of the wilderness.”

More Americans Are Moving into Fire-Risky Areas — 09/24/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“‘Only a few clients in the last year or so have told me they don’t want to live here because the fire risk is too great,” [Dave McLaughlin] said from his own home on Malibou Lake, an affluent neighborhood where dozens of homes were destroyed in 2018 and which has seen surging sales in the past year. ‘Covid erased people’s wildfire fears.'”

Here’s What’s in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill — 09/23/21, CNN
“Here’s what we know so far about the latest version of the infrastructure package, according to the CBO report, an updated fact sheet provided by the White House, as well as the bill text and 57-page summary.”

How America’s Hottest City Is Trying to Cool Down — 09/20/21, Vox
“As Phoenix deals with a rising frequency of extreme heat waves — which can be deadly, but also cause worrisome spikes in energy demand — the city is looking to trees as part of its heat mitigation strategy. Phoenix isn’t devoid of trees, but they’re distributed unevenly across the city.”

Maya Lin’s Ghost Forest, a Memorial to Climate Change

Ghost Forest by Maya Lin / Andy Romer

In Manhattan, across the street from the Flatiron building in Madison Square Park, public artist, landscape designer, and architect Maya Lin has created the stark and beautiful memorial Ghost Forest, a set of 49 cut Atlantic white cedar trees that will slowly turn grayer over the course of six months. According to the Madison Square Park Conservancy, which commissioned the project, it represents “a memory of germination, vegetation, and abundance, and a harsh symbol of the devastation of climate change.” The trees, set in a grove within the lawn of the park, are approximately 40 feet tall and were selected to “overwhelm the human scale” and provide a bracing symbol of what the future may hold.

Ghost Forest by Maya Lin / Andy Romer
Ghost Forest by Maya Lin / Andy Romer

Ghost forests are dead woodland, remnants of past vibrant ecosystems, and are sadly becoming more common. They are found where salt water has intruded into coastal ecosystems, where hurricanes and storms have stripped trees bare, where wildfires have left charred trunks. According to Lin and the conservancy, Atlantic white cedar forests on the East Coast are “endangered by past logging practices and threats from climate change.” The trees used in this public art installation were already slated to be cut from the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, cleared as part of broader ecological restoration efforts. Lin explains that it’s an “extremely vulnerable site of the Atlantic coastal pine barrens ecosystem that encompasses more than one million acres.”

Accompanying the visual experience of Ghost Forest is a soundscape Lin created that uses snippets of sound gathered from the Macaulay Library sound archive at the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. She highlights the sounds of native animals once found in Manhattan. (See link on lower left side of this page).

Ghost Forest by Maya Lin / Andy Romer

While raising awareness of climate change’s great toll on ecosystems through the bleached-out trunks, the Conservancy will also also host a series of public programs focused on positive nature-based solutions that can help reduce emissions, help communities adapt, restore ecosystems, and support biodiversity. To create a sense of hope as well, 1,000 trees and shrubs will be planted in five public parks in New York City. The Conservancy states that over ten years, the trees will also store 60.5 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, more than ten times the amount produced by shipping and assembling the art work. The installation will become carbon positive over time.

Lin became famous for winning the commission to create the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. at the age of 21. In recent years, Lin’s interactive art works have deeply engaged with environmental and climate issues. In 2014, she created the powerful web-based piece, What Is Missing?, a virtual memorial designed to raise awareness about the biodiversity crisis — a site worth exploring in detail.

What Is Missing? / Maya Lin

And in Unchopping a Tree, a video memorial to the world’s forests, with music by Brian Eno and Brian Loucks, Lin highlights how quickly glorious parks around the world would be cut down if they experienced the same rate of deforestation as Amazonian rainforests. At 90 acres per minute, Central Park would be gone in just 9 minutes.

Lin told Artforum that “one could argue that none of my memorials have been monuments. Rather, they have been anti-monuments—even the Vietnam memorial. I like to reinvent things.”

Ghost Forest will be free and accessible to the public in Madison Square Park until November 14, 2021.

In Iceland, Drawing Down Carbon Dioxide Straight from the Air

Orca, Iceland / Climeworks

To date, carbon capture and storage systems, which have sought to divert and bury carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and industrial facilities, have been controversial. Often associated with the oil and gas industry, these systems are seen as an expensive and complicated solution that may only help to postpone the inevitable shift to renewable energy. But Orca, a new facility in Iceland by Swiss firm Climeworks and Icelandic startup Carbfix, promises to de-couple carbon capture and storage from fossil fuels and instead scrub excess carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere.

Using a set of fans and filters packed into boxes the size of 40-foot shipping containers, this new facility is expected to remove 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the air annually, injecting it deep into the ground, where it will eventually mineralize into rock. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), that amount of carbon dioxide equals annual emissions from around 870 cars. Climeworks hopes to remove 500,000 tons by 2030 and eventually 300 million tons a year, but this would still only account for 1 percent of global emissions. For reference: in 2020, 31.5 billion tons of greenhouse gases were emitted.

At the opening ceremony of Orca, Icelandic Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir said: “this is indeed an important step in the race to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, which is necessary to manage the climate crisis.”

Orca, which in Icelandic is phonetically the same as “energy,” is entirely powered by renewable energy. According to The Guardian, the system uses fans to push air into a collector with filters that separate out the carbon dioxide. As the filter material fills with CO2, the gas is heated to approximately to 212°F (100°C), which enables concentrated CO2 to be separated out, mixed with water, and injected 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) underground in basalt caverns, where the mixture becomes hydride of sulphur (HS2) in approximately four months and then dark grey rock 20 months afterwards. The system is expected to work well with the geology of Iceland, but it’s unclear whether it can succeed in other geologies, and what amount, type, and quality of water is required to inject and mineralize the gas.

Orca, Iceland / Climeworks
Orca, Iceland / Climeworks

Another issue is the comparatively high-cost of the nascent technology: about $600 to $800 per ton of carbon storage, which is much higher than the $100 to $150 needed to make the system cost-competitive without subsidies or a corporate benefactor. The companies involved believe that as they scale up their facilities, costs can be reduced to $200 to $300 per ton by 2030 and half that again by 2040.

The Washington Post states that injecting CO2 into the ground is just one way to handle excess CO2 captured from the atmosphere. Climeworks’ 15 other installations across Europe harvest CO2 into order to recycle for other uses: It can be mixed with hydrogen to make fuels. Farmers can feed their plants CO2. Soda companies can use it to create bubbles.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argues that methods to actively draw down greenhouses gases from the atmosphere will be required to achieve the goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C. The International Energy Agency contends that carbon capture and storage systems will need to pull 1 billion tons out of the atmosphere by 2050 to be viable in helping to achieve that goal. While Orca may increase interest and investment in scaling up machine-based carbon capture and storage, another solution that offers so many additional benefits shouldn’t be forgotten — trees.

An average tree absorbs an estimated 48 pounds of CO2 per year, so by the time it reaches 40 years old, it has stored a ton of carbon. Given the relatively long time frame for trees to sequester carbon and the world’s more immediate carbon draw down needs, many scientists and environmental groups have called for planting vast forests at a much faster pace. The United Nations’ trillion tree campaign, supported by the World Economic Forum and American Forests, seeks to “conserve, restore, and grow” one trillion trees around the world by 2030.

American old growth forest / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Scientists are also looking more broadly at tree planting as a tool to restore forest ecosystems and store more carbon terrestrially over the longer term. A 2019 study in the journal Science found that “ecosystems could support an additional 0.9 billion hectares of continuous forest. This would represent a greater than 25 percent increase in forested area, including more than 200 gigatonnes of additional carbon at maturity. Such a change has the potential to store an equivalent of 25 percent of the current atmospheric carbon pool.”

So trees alone are also not the answer to the climate crisis, but they offer many other ecological and human health benefits beyond their ability to naturally capture and store carbon — supporting sustainable water cycles and biodiversity, providing shade, and cooling and cleaning the air. Many trees also offer usable wood: the only building material that stores carbon.

ASLA 2016 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Metro-Forest Project, Prawet, Bangkok, Thailand. Landscape Architects of Bangkok (LAB) / Rungkit Charoenwat
ASLA 2020 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Dilworth Plaza, Philadelphia. OLIN / Sahar Coston-Hardy

Landscape architects plan and design parks, plazas, and streetscapes, increasing the percentage of communities that are forested. A key next step is to bring the benefits of these beautiful carbon sinks to all communities in an equitable way. American Forests states that 522 million trees need to be planted and protected in U.S. cities alone to achieve tree equity.

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

Los Angeles, Wildfires, and Adaptive Design / Greg Kochanowski, GGA

Los Angeles, Wildfires and Adaptive Design: Greg Kochanowski on Creating New Futures — 09/15/21, ArchDaily
“At UCLA, I additionally became interested in landscape, particularly through an interest in a more holistic way of thinking about the built environment. This has subsequently become a passion of mine to, the point of becoming a licensed landscape architect, and has significantly shaped my personal ideology and methodology of working. I see the world holistically as a complex series of relationships between cultural and organic systems – from cities to climate, buildings to landscapes, racial inequality to ecosystems.”

SCAPE’s Living Breakwaters Project Begins In-water Construction Off of Staten Island — 09/14/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Earlier this week, the New York State Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery (GOSR) announced that Living Breakwaters, the $107 million coastal resiliency-slash-marine biodiversity project was now taking shape off the South Shore area of Staten Island; an area pummeled by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.”

Wildfire Destroyed His Kids’ School. So This Dad Designed a Fireproofed Replacement — 09/14/21, Fast Co. Design
“Landscape architect Pamela Burton designed the grounds of the school, creating large buffers between the campus and the surrounding natural hillsides, and using large boulders and wide patios to break up the space.”

Report: To Close the Park Access Gap, Open up Schoolyards — 09/13/21, Grist
“The nonprofit environmental advocacy group The Trust for Public Land, or TPL, estimates that 100 million people in America, including 28 million kids, don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk of their home. Race plays a major role in the divide: The group estimates that, in the 100 largest U.S. cities, communities of color have access to an average of 44 percent less park space than predominantly white neighborhoods.”

Lessons from the Rise and Fall of the Pedestrian Mall — 09/09/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Car-free shopping streets swept many U.S. cities in the 1960s and ’70s, but few examples survived. Those that did could be models for today’s ‘open streets.'”

What We Talk About When We Talk About Gentrification — 09/05/21, Vox
“Our focus on gentrification might lead people to believe that it is the dominant form of inequality in American cities (our outsized focus on the phenomenon may be due in part to the fact that gentrification scholars, journalists, and consumers of digital media tend to live in gentrifying neighborhoods themselves). But the core rot in American cities is not the gentrifying neighborhoods: It is exclusion, segregation, and concentrated poverty.”

Studio-MLA and Mia Lehrer, FASLA, Win Cooper Hewitt National Design Award

Mia Lehrer, FASLA / Studio-MLA

Studio-MLA won the 2021 Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for landscape architecture. The firm, which has been led by Salvadorian-born landscape architect Mia Lehrer, FASLA, for 25 years, seeks to “integrate landscape architecture, urban design, and planning to create places that inspire human connection, unite communities, and restore environmental balance.” The firm’s staff of 45, based in Los Angeles and San Francisco, includes landscape architects, planners, ecologists, and botanists.

Studio-MLA staff / Studio-MLA

On winning the award, Lehrer said: “we’re indebted to our collaborators, in particular our visionary clients, non-profit partners, and design teams for their commitment to building places that create social justice and equity, and projects that tell the stories layered within places — stories of people, neighborhoods, hope and conflict, water, air, ecology, and empowerment.”

The firm’s design philosophy is focused on creating broader impact: “Through our projects, pro bono efforts, and strategic relationships, we advocate by design. For over twenty years, our role as catalyst has educated and empowered people to translate ideas into culturally-relevant and climate-appropriate places.”

In an interview with ASLA, Lehrer, who has been an advocate for climate action and restoring ecosystems, said: “I didn’t grow up in the U.S., but my parents were community activists. We all don’t have a choice but to be engaged and educated about the dire situation we’re all in.”

Studio-MLA is known for taking on highly complex large-scale landscape planning projects that involve navigating layers of government jurisdictions. They often use legacy infrastructure as an opportunity to address climate impacts, restore ecosystems, and reconnect underserved and immigrant communities. In particular, the firm has led large-scale landscape planning efforts that re-imagine outdated river infrastructure, so these systems become more ecological and accessible. The firm’s goal is to create healthier human-ecological systems at all scales.

The firm recently won a major landscape planning and design project — the River-Side Gateway Project Suite in Riverside, California, which includes a series of nine sites along seven-miles of the Santa Ana River. The project seeks to “create access to water and recreation for citizens while also designing solutions for stormwater mitigation, threatened habitat, and air quality impacts,” explained Matt Romero, ASLA, landscape designer at Studio-MLA.

Los Angeles River Downtown Design Dialogue / Studio-MLA

Another recent landscape planning project is the Upper Los Angeles Rivers & Tributaries Revitalization Plan, which proposes imaginative ways to transform the “heavily channelized waterways that meander eastward through the San Fernando Valley.” To develop the plan, Studio-MLA “mapped spatial obstacles and constraints including, but not limited to, government jurisdictions, land use, park access, pollution load, ecological habitat, water quality, flood risk, safe access, and connectivity.” This information enabled them to examine existing economic, environmental, and social impacts, and create a new equitable framework for reconnecting communities to more natural rivers and tributaries.

Destination Crenshaw in Los Angeles is also an exciting large-scale effort that demonstrates the firm’s inclusive planning and design approach. A new “community-inspired” 1.1-mile-long, outdoor museum along Crenshaw Boulevard, where a new Metro line and stations will surface, will become a “living celebration of Black Los Angeles” in the “heart of the largest black community west of the Mississippi River.” Studio-MLA, along with Perkins+Will, Raw International, and Gallagher & Associates is imagining the urban and landscape design for the project, which will include community-driven public art.

Destination Crenshaw / Studio-MLA, Perkins+Will, Raw International, Gallagher & Associates
Destination Crenshaw / Studio-MLA, Perkins+Will, Raw International, Gallagher & Associates
Destination Crenshaw / Studio-MLA, Perkins+Will, Raw International, Gallagher & Associates

Throughout Lehrer’s projects, there is a commitment to inclusive engagement, particularly with underserved and immigrant communities. In an ASLA interview, she said that through a planning process, “you can embolden people, allow them to feel comfortable that it’s their right to communicate, not necessarily demand, but to be part of a dialogue. It’s education, creating a set of tools, and allowing people to understand they can be advocates for their own needs.”

The firm’s built community and residential projects are also characterized by a deep respect for water and native plants. A prime example is the 10-acre Vista Hermosa Natural Park in Los Angeles, which was carefully designed to capture 95 percent of the precious rainwater that falls on the site through an interconnected system of “permeable paving, green roofs, grassy meadows, vegetated swales, and a 30,000-gallon cistern that supplies irrigation.” The park was designed with native plants to educate visitors about the Southern Californian landscape.

Vista Hermosa Natural Park, Los Angeles / Studio-MLA, Tom Lamb

This commitment is further reflected in a series of op-eds Lehrer wrote for THE DIRT in 2015 How to Save Water, the Californian Way (Part 1) and (Part 2) — where she offered a series of practical recommendations, rooted in a nuanced understanding of natural systems.

“In nature, creeks and streams collect rain that falls on the mountains and hillsides. Trees and vegetation soak up the water, shade the soil, and drop leaves that decompose to become habitat, a protective layer of mulch, and eventually soil. The soil acts like a sponge, holding water for long enough periods of time for native plants to make it through the summer. You can mimic nature at home by reducing impermeable surfaces, grading to keep rainwater on site, planting climate-appropriate shade trees and plants, and adding a thick layer of mulch to conserve soil moisture.”

While often working at the scale of miles, Lehrer seems to say no site is too small to make a positive impact.