Nancy Somerville: Landscape Architects Play Crucial Role in Fight Against Climate Change

Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, ASLA CEO and Executive VP at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia / EPNAC

This speech was given by Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, ASLA CEO and Executive Vice President, at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Sunday, October 21.

Every year at this meeting I’m reminded of the incredible variety of ways landscape architects serve their communities. The diverse talents and skills of this profession came home to me recently when I was visiting CMG Landscape Architecture in San Francisco. They are addressing issues of social equity as part of the revitalization of public parks. They are designing a resilient solution to a three-mile stretch of coastline infrastructure vulnerable to earthquakes and sea level rise. And one of their staff is pioneering a method for calculating the carbon footprint of landscape architecture projects.

Seawall Resiliency Project, Port of San Francisco / CMG Landscape Architecture

The landscape architects at CMG, all of you, and your colleagues across the country have much to offer a world that, more than ever, needs responsible stewards of the built and natural environments. For those of us on staff at ASLA, it is a privilege to be an advocate for what you do.

Before I get started, you may have noticed that ASLA has a fresh, new graphic identity. We think it not only works well in all contemporary media, it better reflects the energy and forward-thinking nature of the Society and its members, while remaining connected to our heritage and our values. Importantly, it will also help unify and strengthen the identity of the Society at the national and chapter levels.

Of course our identity doesn’t just come from our graphics. It comes from what we do and who we are.

I’m happy to announce that the Board has added inclusion and diversity to our statement of corporate values and culture.

This comes as we have convened our sixth successful diversity summit.

The summits, and our work throughout the year, reflect our unwavering commitment to increasing diversity in the Society and within the profession, and to build future leaders who truly reflect the communities we serve.

In addition to diversity, our other top priorities are advocacy and public awareness.

On the federal level, we maintained our strong advocacy efforts to protect important federal programs and policies, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Although the LWCF expired on September 30, it is still funded through December 7, 2018, and a bill to permanently reauthorize this critical program was approved in both the House of Representatives and Senate committees.

Thanks to your advocacy, multiple amendments that would have derailed this legislation were defeated by wide margins, allowing the bill to move forward. Unfortunately, the fight is not over. Both the full House of Representatives and the Senate now must pass a final bill before December 7. Please continue to contact your legislators to support LWCF.

Also under active consideration in Congress—and getting closer to final passage—are bills to address the maintenance backlog in the national parks and continue the Every Kid in a Park program. Our Government Affairs team worked with coalition partners and allied organizations to move these critical bills through Congress. Your continued support and participation in our iAdvocate Network has been critical—and will continue to be critical—every step of the way.

On the state side, this year we again saw record numbers of challenges to licensure. Some specifically targeted landscape architects along with other professions and occupations. Some were more indirect threats—including broad licensure reform legislation and executive orders for licensure review.

Our chapters are hard at work countering the attacks—and working pro-actively to educate their legislators about the work of the profession and its impact on public health, safety, and welfare. This year we expanded our annual state Advocacy Summit. In a partnership with the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards, our member advocates were joined by their counterparts from the state licensing boards. The joint summit has already resulted in stronger communications and partnerships in many states—all of which will enhance our licensure defense efforts in the coming years.

On the priority of public awareness, we have continued our successful programs, like World Landscape Architecture Month, and our PARKing Day activities, and have also taken on new initiatives. Our signature “This is Landscape Architecture” campaign continues to be extremely popular—and very successful at increasing our visibility and enhancing public understanding of the profession. This campaign will continue again next April during World Landscape Architecture Month—with an added focus on involving more of the global landscape architecture community.

This is Landscape Architecture campaign / ASLA, image from ASLA 2017 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Klyde Warren Park. Office of Jim Burnett. Gary Zonkovic Photography

Just started this year is a multiyear communications initiative in collaboration with our partners in what we call the Presidents Council—ASLA, the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards, the Landscape Architecture Foundation, the Landscape Architectural Accreditation Board, and the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture. We have engaged the FrameWorks Institute to help develop a comprehensive communications strategy for communicating about the profession—and its value. What makes FrameWorks so interesting, and why we selected them for this project, is that they focus on how underlying cultural values shape attitudes—and use that as a frame for identifying communication messages and strategies that resonate with those deep-seated values.

In the first phase of the work, FrameWorks is mapping the gaps between the public understanding of landscape architecture and how those within the profession think and talk about it. Early next year, FrameWorks will report back on the gaps and deliver preliminary recommendations on how to bridge them. In the next phase, they will develop and test specific messages and strategies for effectively communicating the value of the profession.

Getting the public to really understand—and appreciate—the profession of landscape architecture has been a longtime goal. And while we have seen a significant increase in media coverage over the last 10 years, we have a long way to go. Developing a better understanding of the profession will support not only our public awareness goals, but also our government affairs advocacy, and our efforts to build a more diverse pipeline of future professionals.

Landscape architects, of course, operate at the nexus of the built and natural environments, which means that by definition this profession has a crucial role to play in addressing the issues of climate change, sustainability, and resilience.

This summer we released Smart Policies for a Changing Climate, the report and recommendations of the ASLA Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience. The report identifies the most important design and planning approaches for creating healthy, climate-smart, and resilient communities. And it makes specific public policy recommendations to support those approaches. The recommendations are informing our professional development programming and our advocacy and communications priorities. We are promoting the recommendations directly with public policy makers, as well as through our coalition networks and partnerships.

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate / ASLA

Last month I was honored to represent ASLA as a delegate at the Global Climate Action Summit. The conversations there were both deeply alarming and very encouraging. But I came away with one very clear takeaway for ASLA and the profession. While there are many voices and many experts leading the charge on reducing carbon emissions, there are fewer voices and even fewer experts who understand what needs to be done to help communities adapt to the changing climate.

This profession has unique knowledge and a profound responsibility to help address the issues of climate adaptation and community resilience. That’s why we’ve enhanced and reorganized our online resources devoted to sustainability, resilience, and climate change, making this vast knowledge base even more accessible to our members and the public.

How important is all of this? Two weeks ago the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a startling new report outlining the catastrophic consequences if the global community fails to take significant action in the next 10 years. The U. N. report reinforces the need for all those responsible for shaping human environments to redouble their efforts to mitigate climate effects and to ensure the resilience of communities already seeing the effects of the changing climate.

This commitment to action is why ASLA has also signed on to the We Are Still In initiative. This coalition of over 3,500 organizations from all sectors of society is a way of publicly standing by the Paris Climate Agreement and its goals of reducing emissions and fostering resilience.

Finally, I want to talk about a very special project ASLA is undertaking in Washington, D.C.

With urban infrastructure in crisis, ASLA believes it’s time for new thinking on how the civic realm can better serve public needs and meet environmental goals. What better place to put those ideas into action than the street on which ASLA’s headquarters sits in the Chinatown neighborhood of Washington, D.C.? The Chinatown Green Street project will renew the entire block using a blend of green, complete, and smart street strategies—a “test kitchen” of innovative concepts. It will serve as a national case study for design professionals, municipal officials, policymakers, advocates, and the public.

ASLA Chinatown Green Street / Design Workshop

Unlike many organizations, ASLA is willing to make its principles more than just ideas on paper. We make them tangible and visible. With landscape architects at the forefront, ASLA first demonstrated its commitment to a sustainable future with a pioneering Green Roof on its headquarters building. Then, we transformed the building itself into the Center for Landscape Architecture following the highest standards of sustainable design and occupant wellness. Now, we are taking our principles directly to the street and the city.

Please visit the Chinatown Green Street page to learn more about the project and how you can support it.

Rotterdam Redesigns Itself to Handle More Water

Port of Rotterdam / Wikipedia

Rotterdam in the Netherlands is the largest port in Europe. This 800-year-old city, which has a population of 630,000, is split into north and south sides by the River Nieuwe Maas. While the river is a major asset, it also increases vulnerability to climate change as sea levels rise. In a session at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Dutch government officials, landscape architects, and planners discussed efforts to adapt Rotterdam and the rest of Holland to new realities.

After flooding in the early 1950s killed some 1,800 people, the Dutch were determined this would never happen again. According to Tim Van Der Staaij, a resilience officer with the Rotterdam city government, the country created a multi-layered system of “delta works” — a series of dikes, polders, and sluices to defend land against water. This system made Rotterdam, most of which is 6-7 meters below sea level, and its port possible.

But in recent years, climate change has made the intricate system that protects Rotterdam vulnerable. Van Der Staaij said the water management system has become “more unpredictable due to sea level rise, river discharge, groundwater rise, and excess rainfall.”

Given the city is already below sea level, Rotterdam has taken the approach that “we must accept the water; it’s better than fighting.” Once that conclusion was reached, city leaders saw an opportunity to redesign the city as part of a new Rotterdam resilience strategy, a set of “holistic, multi-level, multi-stakeholder” approaches.

In the past few years, the Dutch have invented new ways to “accept water,” including the water square by landscape architecture firm De Urbanisten, which is usually a public plaza with basketball court, but in extreme rain events becomes a temporary water storage space that “holds the water while the sewage system is over-taxed and then lets the water go later.”

Water plaza / Rotterdam Resilience Strategy

Van Der Staaij said the city is now working on redesigning all public spaces to store water, including the new central station now in development. As part of this, Rotterdam has invested heavily in putting all that water to good use through its “water sensitive city” program, which invests in green roofs, tree planting, street-level gardens, and new green “tidal parks” along the river.

Water sensitive Rotterdam / Urban Green-Blue Grids

Han Dijk, an urban planner working with the city on its resilience plans, highlighted the tidal parks along the Nieuwe Maas — also to be designed by De Urbanisten — as central to creating a Rotterdam that can bounce back from repeated flooding. “The city will build new land with fill, soften the river’s coasts, and open up and connect islands.”

Proposed tidal park in Rotterdam / De Urbanisten, Rotterdam Climate Initiative

And Gerda Roeleveld, a landscape architect with Deltares, a independent research institute, explained how the Netherlands has invested in 3D simulated models to help local policymakers, planners, and designers — as well as the general public — understand the potential impacts of climate change.

She showed off some sophisticated animations that visualize climate impacts, including the distribution of water — from the national to the site-levels. A set of these adaptation support tools, based in real-time data, are supporting Dutch communities in their efforts to devise new climate resilience and adaptation strategies, which they obligated to create by 2019.

Climate resilience planning tool / Deltares

Learn more about Rotterdam’s resilience and adaptation strategy.

Landscape Architects: Now Is the Time for Climate Action

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Climate Positive Design / Pamela Conrad, ASLA, CMG Landscape Architecture

Earlier this month, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a bombshell report concluding that the world has as little as twelve years to act to stave off the worst impacts from a warming climate.

Despite the weight of that assessment, a panel on climate action and landscape architecture at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia gave reasons to be hopeful and presented new tools that may help landscape architects reduce their climate impact.

“The next few years are probably the most important in our history,” said Pamela Conrad, ASLA, a senior associate at CMG Landscape Architecture. “We believe our profession can be part of the solution, and that it’s time to work together.”

ASLA past-president Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, enumerated the many climate-focused initiatives ASLA has undertaken in recent years, including the ASLA Center Green Roof, the Chinatown Green Street, advocacy efforts, online resource guides, collaboration with federal agencies to develop resources and toolkits, and the recently convened Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience and its report: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate. 

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ASLA Chinatown Green Street / ASLA, Design Workshop

Rinner stressed the need for landscape architects to become more involved with discussions around public policy. “We all have to advocate–that’s the first step,” she said. “If we can’t change policies, so many things will just continue as is.”

Collen Mercer Clarke, chair of the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects (CSLA) committee on climate adaptation, gave an overview of CSLA’s efforts, which include the creation of a series of primers on climate adaptation and the promulgation of design standards that were written taking climate change into account.

Clarke urged the audience to think globally. “The world is waiting. I haven’t seen another profession that can provide the kind of leadership we can on this issue.”

Martha Schwartz, FASLA, CEO of Martha Schwartz Partners, highlighted recent work by the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) in the spirit of the organization’s 1966 Declaration of Concern. In 2016, fifty years after that initial declaration, the LAF convened to draft the New Landscape Declaration, which places climate change at the center of the profession’s focus for the 21st century.

“After centuries of mistakenly believing we could exploit nature without consequence, we have now entered an age of extreme climate change marked by rising seas, resource depletion, desertification, and unprecedented rates of species extinction,” the statement reads.

“The urgent challenge before us is to redesign our communities in the context of their bio-regional landscapes enabling them to adapt to climate change and mitigate its root causes.”

Earlier this month, LAF released a ten-point plan for landscape architects to act on this declaration. Action items include: designing with nature, setting measurable goals for climate-performance metrics, leading by example, developing interdisciplinary partnerships, serving in community organizations, and voting.

“We’ve got to be tougher and better at doing this,” Schwartz said. “It’s not enough to be a good designer, but an active designer, to take leadership in the era of climate change and stay relevant in an ever changing world.”

LAF is also supporting leadership on climate change through its fellowship program, which began in 2017 and provides funding for active professionals to pursue innovative research ideas. As an LAF Fellow, Pamela Conrad has developed a calculator that predicts the emissions and carbon sequestration potential

“A few years back, I assumed I could go online and download a tool that would tell me exactly what I wanted to know. But frankly, those tools really only exist for architects right now. Because we have the ability to sequester carbon, perhaps we need our own tools to measure these impacts.”

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Landscape Carbon Calculator / Pamela Conrad, CMG Landscape Architecture

Conrad’s tool, which is still in beta testing and has not yet been publicly released, measures sources of embodied emissions in landscape materials against the sequestration potential of vegetation on a site to calculate both the carbon footprint of a project and the amount of time it will take for sequestration to completely offset emissions. Past that point, the project will  sequester additional atmospheric carbon dioxide, a condition Conrad calls being “climate positive.”

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Climate Positive Design / Pamela Conrad, CMG Landscape Architecture

Using the calculator, Conrad has been able to estimate the carbon footprints of her recently completed projects and, by tweaking the input parameters, model strategies that could have reduced their climate impacts.

“We can plant more trees and woody shrubs; we can minimize paving, especially concrete; we can minimize lawn areas; we can use local or natural recycled materials.” With these strategies, Conrad estimates that she could have cut the time it will take for her projects to become carbon neutral in half.

“The design of those projects didn’t change at all, or the quality for that matter. But what a difference it could have made if we just had the resources to inform our design decisions.”

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Carbon Positive Design / CMG Landscape Architecture

Conrad argued that, through climate sensitive design, landscape architects could be responsible for the sequestration of as much as 0.24 gigatons of carbon over the next thirty years, enough to place landscape architecture in the list of 80 solutions to climate change studied in Paul Hawken’s Drawdown project.

And “if we were to include other work we do, like incorporating green roofs into projects or making cities more walkable and bikeable, that would put landscape architecture within the top 40 solutions.”

Conrad plans to release the calculator to the public next year and hopes that it will be used to set measurable goals for designing climate-friendly projects and create opportunities for accountability.

“How are we going to keep tabs on ourselves to make sure that we’re actually doing these things?” she asked her fellow panelists. “What would it take for us to have a 2030 challenge specific to landscape architecture?”

“ASLA or the LAF should do that — there’s no reason why we can’t!” said Schwartz.

“We all have to stand up for what this profession is founded on,” Schwartz said. “This is the foundation of who we are. This century is the golden age of landscape architecture. The world really needs you. It needs what you know and what you believe in. Now is the time.”

ASLA Annual Meeting Opens with Calls to Action

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ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting General Session, Saturday, October 20 / EPNAC

The ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting officially commenced Saturday morning in Philadelphia with outgoing ASLA president Greg Miller, FASLA, making the case for the importance of landscape architecture in a world facing many challenges.

While the problems of climate change, inequality, strained resources, and aging infrastructure are daunting, they also create opportunities for the field to expand its influence and scope of activity. “These are exciting times for landscape architects,” who are “solving complex issues with simple solutions that meaningfully impact peoples’ lives.”

“Seeing what is being accomplished across the spectrum of landscape architecture, I’ve realized that we’re defined by our wisdom, and that is what has put us in a position to take the profession to new heights.”

Miller said this wisdom is composed of “knowledge (the easy part), experience, perspective, foresight, and judgement. When these come together, the results of our wisdom are beautiful and special. Through our actions, we can make people’s lives better, protect our lands, and craft a better world.”

Laurie Olin, FASLA, and NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg then took the stage for a wide-ranging conversation on Olin’s influences and current work.

Laurie Olin, FASLA, and Susan Stamberg in conversation / EPNAC

Olin initially studied architecture but found himself shifting to landscape after traveling in Europe and being “absolutely blown away” by the landscapes.

At the same time, Olin was beginning to bristle at architecture’s limitations. “I realized architecture really didn’t satisfy some of my concerns. The 60’s were a turbulent time. Buildings were objects and didn’t seem to involve society, the public realm, and other factors I thought were really important.”

Olin said that his travel in Europe ignited his love for and interest in cities and urban design. “I had gone off to Europe to look at one thing, and then I discovered cities, and fell in love with them. I realized there was a structure to cities, and they could be organized around public spaces. I learned that people were actually designing the streets and linking public spaces before the buildings came. I thought that’s really important.”

Olin also observed these same influences were critical for Frederick Law Olmsted, who “channeled all this energy and these ideas about health and public spaces and fresh air and parks” into his work in the United States.

In Europe, Olin discovered “you had to go see it for yourself. Part of learning is being out there and actually seeing things. The books don’t do it; the slides don’t do it. The problem with landscape is it’s diverse, big, and in lots of places. You have to travel, and it takes a while to see it. Finding the good stuff is like raisins in the pudding – it’s not everywhere.”

His work as a designer has been shaped by these early insights and grew out of the same humane impulses that animated Olmsted’s work.

In his redesign of New York City’s Bryant Park, Olin sought to highlight the park’s characteristically-French elements but also make a space for people.

“I realized looking at it that it was a very French park,” he said. “It was basically a bunch of quotes from the Jardin du Luxembourg.” So, “if it’s going to be this French park, we should have movable furniture,” a simple move that “radically changed the place.”

ASLA 2010 Landmark Award. Bryant Park, New York City. OLIN / Peter Mauss, ESTO

At Battery Park City, also in New York City, Olin worked with Alex Cooper to create a master plan to draw people to the edge of the Hudson River. “It seemed so clear that what we had to do was get people out of the city onto the edge of the river and give the entire perimeter over to the public.”

In the wake of 9/11, Olin won a competition to redesign the base of the Washington Monument to deter a terrorist attack. However, the site needed much more than just security upgrades.

“People forget, it was a kind of nasty place in some ways. It was a complete ruin of the public realm in a place that was supposed to be the most generous and welcoming.”

Olin’s goal was “to make it as if it had always been a beautiful place,” he explained. “Why don’t we make it the way people think it always was?”

To achieve this effect, Olin’s design referred to the low retaining walls used on the opposite end of the mall by none other than Olmsted and Vaux. These walls encircle the monument, directing visitors and preventing a vehicle from getting too close. “The answer was right there, except at the other end of the mall!”

Washington Monument, Washington, D,C. OLIN / OLIN

Stamberg brought the conversation to a close by asking Olin to reflect on the future of the profession.

“The future is always going to be a distorted view of the present,” he said. “We don’t know how the pieces will play out.”

He identified climate change as a uniquely-pressing issue both for landscape architects and the world at large. Olin urged landscape architects to assert themselves in important conversations on the world’s most difficult challenges.

“As a profession, we can help society find out where it wants to go. We should not wait for the phone to ring. We should be leading.”

“We have to become political in a thoughtful, non-strident, but effective way.”

“How to make the world safe for children in the next generation is your job,” he said to the audience. “It’s our job.”

To Limit Global Warming, We Must Transform the Planet

Permafrost thaw ponds on peatland in Hudson Bay, Canada / Flickr

To limit planetary warming to 1.5° Celsius (C), we need to undertake an immediate, multi-trillion-dollar transformation of global energy, land-use, food production, transportation, and urban systems, stated the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in a new report that aggregates the findings of thousands of scientific studies. Humanity can only put a maximum of 420 more gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere if we want a good chance of only increasing temperatures by 1.5° C (2.7° Fahrenheit), instead of 2° C (3.6° Fahrenheit). At the current pace, our remaining carbon budget will be used up by 2030. The transformation that has already begun in many parts of the world must accelerate and scale across the globe.

To date, global temperatures have increased 1° C (1.8° F) above pre-industrial levels. The IPCC argues that limiting warming to just another half a degree Celsius will still have terrible global impacts, but stave off some of the worst effects and make a major difference for several hundred million people.

Achieving the 1.5° C limit can only happen in the very near term. IPCC states if the planet can achieve net-zero emissions in the coming decades that would essentially halt warming. But if emissions reductions instead occur at a much slower pace up until 2100, then planetary feedback loops — like defrosting permafrost perpetuating warming trends — would make halting warming at 1.5° C impossible.

There are significant differences between 1.5° C and 2° C increases. A 1.5° C temperature increase would mean about 4 inches less of sea level rise by 2100, and at a much slower rate of rise. This would buy time to help the hundreds of million of people who live on coasts and deltas to adapt their infrastructure with resilient natural systems that can also restore and bolster important coastal habitats.

With a 1.5° C increase, some 6 percent of insects, 8 percent of plants, and 4 percent of vertebrates are projected to “lose over half of the climatically-determined geographic range” — meaning their habitat will disappear. While this is awful, the scenario at 2° C increase is far worse: 18 percent of insects, 16 percent of plants, and 8 percent of vertebrates. Impacts from forest fires and invasive species would also be commensurably more at 2° C.

The chance of an ice-free Arctic Ocean during summer is far less with a 1.5° C scenario. But coral reefs face a dire future under both 1.5° C and 2° C scenarios: either a 70-90 percent loss with 1.5° C or near-total extinction with 2° C.

Climate change is also expected to have major impacts on food production, resulting in reduced yields and less nutritious crops. Limiting warming to just 1.5° C would result in “smaller reductions in yields of maize, rice, wheat, and other cereal crops, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Center and South America.” The report authors are also semi-confident that limiting warming to 1.5° C would also reduce the populations affected by water shortages by 50 percent. Still, millions of people would be impacted.

The IPCC report outlines potential pathways to zero carbon. Essentially, greenhouse gas emissions must drop by 45 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050. This would require “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban, and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems.”

IPCC admit that the changes are unprecedented in terms of scale — but not speed. Previous economic and social transformations have occurred with a few years; think of the US economic transformation during World War II or the appearance of smartphone apps in 2007 and their widespread application today.

The report estimates the damage of a 1.5° C increase to the global economy to be tens of trillions a year as soon as 2040. To avoid this, major investments must be made. The report calls for investing $2.4 trillion a year on renewable energy through 2035, which would be about 2.5 percent of global GDP annually, while weaning off coal. The planet would also need another 10 million square kilometers in forests, taken back from agricultural land, and a dramatic reduction in emissions from buildings and transportation systems through energy efficiency and smart growth.

A recent analysis conducted as part of Drawdown, a publication that ranks the 80 most effective ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, yielded solutions where landscape architects and planners can help accelerate the transformation. These include: afforestation (#15); mass transit (#37); water savings at home (#46); restoring and protecting coastal wetlands (#52); walkable cities (#54); bike infrastructure (#59); and green roofs (#73). There are also some landscape architects involved in siting renewable energy infrastructure, restoring farm land, managing forests and peatlands, which all rank highly.

IPCC is confident this global transformation can occur. If a mix of adaptation and mitigation measures can be “implemented in a participatory and integrated manner,” they can enable a “rapid systemic transition.” Adaptation measures don’t have to be purely defensive — they can also help communities improve, ensuring “food and water security, reducing disaster risks, improving health conditions, maintaining ecosystem services, and reducing poverty and inequality.” Now, the political will is needed to act.

Read about the recommendations of the ASLA Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience, which span adaptation and mitigation, and explore ASLA’s guides to climate change mitigation and resilient design.

Parks Are a Critical Solution to Climate Change

PS 15 The Roberto Clemente School in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan, a “state of the art green infrastructure playground” / Maddalena Polletta, The Trust for Public Land

Parks boost community resilience because they offer a place to develop deeper neighborhood connections. They improve community health by reducing stress, restoring cognition, and providing a place to exercise. Parks mitigate the urban heat island effect, improve air quality, and absorb carbon from the atmosphere. They support local biodiversity and can act as buffer zones for flooding or mudslides. Parks are both important social and environmental infrastructure.

To sum it up: “we need more parks if we want our cities to be more resilient to climate change,” said Joshua Alpert, director of special projects for C40, at an event organized by The Trust for Public Land and JBP Foundation during the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.

“We need public space if we want to know our neighbors,” explained Joshua Stanbro, with the city and county of Honolulu, Hawaii. Parks are the “platform for social interaction,” but if designed and built with the community, they can also help forge stronger community connections.

Those connections are more likely to happen in parks that communities actually want. So it’s important that “we meet communities where they are,” said Diane Regas, president and CEO of The Trust for Public Land.

In New York alone, The Trust just built their 200th green schoolyard in an effort to build social networks so these communities can then better fight for climate equity.

Regas said some one-third of the population of the US doesn’t have a park within a 10-minute walk. Through their innovative 10-minute walk campaign, The Trust and its partners aim to undo that inequity.

Brady Walkinshaw, CEO of Grist, said the campaign is the kind of clear, simple communication that is needed because it successfully distilled complex urban planning ideas into an easy-to-understand message people can get behind, like the $15-an-hour minimum wage movement.

Urban parks are also important because they provide the foundation of urban forests, which help cities both mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to a changing climate. According to Jad Daley, CEO of American Forests, urban forests absorb some 100 million tons of carbon each year, about 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Trees found in these green areas can reduce energy use up to 7 percent because they provide wind blocks for homes in the winter and cooling in the summer.

In an effort to achieve equity, American Forests is now working with vulnerable urban populations to plant millions of trees. Daley said this work is more critical than ever because deaths from extreme heat are expected to increase ten fold by 2050.

Arturo Garcia-Costas, program officer for the environment with the New York Community Trust, said a more connective approach needs to be taken with green spaces in cities. He pointed to the Ramblas in Barcelona and the High Line in New York City as examples. “We need to think of the broader system and greater connectivity, with green space as the priority.”

Ramblas, Barcelona / Wikipedia

Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), said ubiquitous “pave the planet” approach to development hasn’t been “healthy or climate-smart.” In fact, the approach make communities even more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. To increase safety, communities must instead create built environment systems that work in concert with natural systems. This is because “we are never going to tame Mother Nature.”

As an example, she said there is a great opportunity to design parks — and cities more broadly — to act like natural sponges that absorb stormwater. The great additional benefit of this green infrastructural approach: “It’s a much healthier system.”

ASLA 2009 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Buffalo Bayou, Houston, Texas, SWA Group / Bill Tatham

But Somerville also called for better science and data-based models in order to optimize design interventions in cities. With more accurate data-based geographic models and maps, policymakers can understand where the worst urban heat islands are, the most flooding is, the areas most impacted by mudslides, and then create the most effective parks that solve those challenges. “The lack of modelling remains a key gap.”

In comments on the session, landscape architect Mia Lehrer, FASLA, CEO of Studio-MLA, noted that in dense cities, the only remaining spaces that can be turned into parks are brownfields. Remaking those contaminated spaces is a “complicated and expensive process” that requires expert landscape architects.

Adrian Benepe, Hon. ASLA, senior vice president at The Trust for Public Land and former head of NYC Parks and Recreation, agreed, arguing that “landscape architects are system thinkers” who can help communities maximize park benefits.

Lehrer, Alpert, Somerville, and Walkinshaw saw further densification as a critical future challenge for cities. Walkinshaw said: “densification is the cause of most fights in cities, as it brings up racial, civil rights, public space, and climate issues.”

Alpert believes green public space in the ultra-dense mega-cities of the near-future may end up being dis-aggregated into networks of not only parks but also rooftops and terraces, wherever space is available.

Landscape Architecture in the News (September 16 – 30)

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SWA Group’s park at the base of JPMorgan Chase Tower in 2015 / Cody Duty, The Houston Chronicle

Award-winning Landscape Architect Creates Gardens That Elicit Emotions Star2, 9/18/18
“He does not sweat the small stuff in life but when it comes to his gardens, no detail is too small. Sweeping the top awards at the recent Singapore Garden Festival (SGF) 2018 is Malaysian veteran landscape architect Lim In Chong, better known as Inch Lim.”

‘For Me, This Is Paradise’: Life in the Spanish City That Banned Cars The Guardian, 9/18/18
“People don’t shout in Pontevedra – or they shout less. With all but the most essential traffic banished, there are no revving engines or honking horns, no metallic snarl of motorbikes or the roar of people trying make themselves heard above the din – none of the usual soundtrack of a Spanish city.”

Dallas May Now Get Two New Trinity River Parks D Magazine, 9/19/18
“Last Saturday, two groups held workshops planning their versions of the future Trinity River Park. Were they competitive or complementary?”

Buffalo’s Frederick Law Olmsted Legacy: the Park System That Started It All NewYorkUpstate.com, 9/20/18
“Frederick Law Olmsted is probably the best-known landscape architect in American history. And rightly so. In 1868, after designing New York’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park with his partner Calvert Vaux, Olmsted was invited to Buffalo, with the hope that he would design something similar here.”

Can You See the Future of Houston at Park(ing) Day? The Houston Chronicle, 9/21/18
“You may not totally get it,” says Lisa Girard, who helped organize Houston’s PARK(ing) Day this year with the regional chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and the Rice Design Alliance (RDA). (Disclosure: I used to work for RDA and helped organize the event in the past.) “But you’re out there, which means you’re engaging, which means it’s doing its job. It’s creating a dialogue.”

National Parks Are Warming Twice as Fast as the U.S. Overall High Country News, 9/24/18
“Climate change is having an outsized impact on national parks in the U.S., according to research conducted by scientists at the National Park Service, the University of California Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin Madison.”

A Call for Prescribed Burns in Forests

Prescribed burn in Yosemite National Park / PBS

Across the United States, there has been a five-fold increase in wildfires over the past few decades. In 2017 alone, there were some 100,000 wildfires that burned some 10 million acres. With climate change, the zone in which trees burn has increased by two-thirds.

Unwise management of forests has only exacerbated the impacts of our changing climate. Instead of setting prescribed burns to manage fires, like Native Americans have done for centuries, natural resource policymakers suppressed all wildfires in an effort to protect communities. The result has been an explosion in difficult-to-control wildfires.

At Science to Action Day, an event associated with the Global Climate Action Summit, in San Francisco, Patrick Gonzalez, principal climate change scientist with the U.S. National Park Service, said “a century of suppressing wildfires has built up fuel in forests.”

When all fires are suppressed, smaller, more frequent fires can’t clear out dead trees and underbrush. The result is accumulated flammable biomass that eventually explodes into unmanageable conflagrations.

Many state-level forestry departments have suppressed fires because more and more communities are now living in — or close to — areas that once frequently burned.

It’s an inherently risky and short-sighted approach to development. And communities in these wildfire zones aren’t just risking their property but also their long-term health.

Kari Nadeau, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford University, argued that “there is no safe distance from a wildfire.” Inhaling smoke itself is hazardous. But blazes that consume homes and garages filled with household cleaners like Drano release other dangerous particles into the atmosphere.

“Even one part per million” of toxic wildfire smoke negatively impacts those highest at risk — children, the elderly, and those with asthma.

After five days of wildfires in California, the number of hospital visits for asthma attacks went up a whopping 400 percent. And the number of strokes increased by 42 percent. Being exposed to just one wildfire’s worth of smoke is equal to smoking a pack of cigarettes every day for a year. “That’s the real data.”

Nadeau said there is important research being conducted on prescribed burns, which are smaller, more contained fires that revitalize forest ecosystem function.

“We need to support the increased use of this practice. It can be done safely.” When small, fires give off smaller amounts of nasty pollutants. Burns can also be scheduled when air pollution levels are low and the wind is blowing away from neighboring communities.

Jonathan Jarvis, former director of the National Park Service and now head of the Institute for Parks, People, and Biodiversity at University of California at Berkeley, argued that national parks may be the best place to try out climate adaptation approaches like controlled burns. “We need to experiment at the landscape scale — at the scale of very large ecosystems.” Indeed, the National Park Service is now prescribing burns in Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks, as is the U.S. Forest Service in some of its forests, but the approach needs to become more widespread.

In the interim, there is a need for better early warning systems for communities at risk from fast-moving wildfires. Ben Lee Preston, director of infrastructure resilience at RAND, said remote sensing technologies can be installed in the landscape to give communities and firefighters more advance notice. We would add there is a need to use landscape design to fireproof homes and relocate homeowners in very high-risk areas to other locations.

Wildfires are responsible for the majority of the carbon natural systems released into the atmosphere. But forests that have undergone a prescribed burn are estimated to release less carbon over time, given the controlled burn improves their overall ecological health.

New Report: US Cities Already Feeling Impacts of Climate Change

Flooding from Hurricane Harvey in Port Arthur, Texas / Wikipedia

According to a new report from the Alliance for a Sustainable Future, some 95 percent of 158 American cities surveyed have experienced a “change related to at least one climate impact in the past five years.” A vast majority of cities — some 76 percent — have seen more damage from heavy rain events or inland flooding. 65 percent saw greater impacts from heat waves; 51 percent noted changing drought conditions; and 18 percent stated that wildfires were growing more destructive. Some 5 percent of cities have relocated populations due to extreme weather.

The Alliance for a Sustainable Future, a joint effort of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), polled some 158 small, medium, and large U.S. cities in both red and blue states that represent some 50 million Americans. The group presented their findings at an event at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.

To address changing impacts, the report stated that 60 percent of cities have “launched or significantly expanded a climate initiative or policy in the past year.”

Most common climate-smart policies and programs include:

  • Bus transit (94 percent)
  • Bike lanes (92 percent)
  • Promoting bicycle commuting (81 percent)
  • Greenhouse gas emission tracking (75 percent)
  • Energy efficiency policies for existing municipal buildings (72 percent)
  • Routine energy audits for municipal buildings / operations (71 percent)
  • Energy efficiency policies for new municipal buildings (70 percent)
  • Purchasing renewable electricity for city operations (65 percent)

Some 83 percent of cities also seek to increase their partnerships with businesses in order to achieve their goals for renewable energy, building energy efficiency, and sustainable transportation.

At the event hosted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and C2SE in San Francisco, C2SE president Bob Persciasepe, who was deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the Obama administration, said cities must dramatically scale up their partnerships with the private sector, especially given the absence of any meaningful federal action on climate change.

“From 1850 to 1999, we put 1,000 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. From 2000 to 2018, we put in 500 gigatons. We can only put in 300 more gigatons before we start to see catastrophic effects. That means we can put in 30 tons a year for the next 10 years. We don’t have much time. We must increase our ambitions. We must build more partnerships so we can go faster.”

Mayors then highlighted a few partnerships between city governments and businesses that demonstrate how to achieve a carbon-neutral economy and society:

Mayor Jackie Biskupski from Salt Lake City, Utah, explained how her city partnered with Rocky Mountain Power to create a plan for achieving 100 percent clean energy for all municipal operations, including Salt Lake City airport, by 2032. As part of their agreement the city, Rocky Mountain Power expanded their WattSmart communities program, which offers incentives and discounts for energy upgrades in homes and businesses, and promised to spend $10 million on electric vehicle infrastructure, including a new e-bus charging complex.

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie said Iowan governments at all levels are partnering with MidAmerican Energy to achieve 100 percent renewable power for the entire state. The company has invested $7.5 billion in Iowan wind farms since 2004.

And Mayor John Mitchell from New Bedford, Massachusetts, said his old whaling city is now a port for the giant wind turbines that will soon be installed off the coasts of Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. Vineyard Wind, a company established by Danish off-shore wind firms, is already using New Bedford to launch a $2.2 billion wind farm off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard with turbines approximately double the size of ones found on land.

Mayor Mitchell said the US offshore wind market is on the “cusp of a rapid expansion” and could potentially overtake the capacity installed in Europe’s North Sea. “Millions of square miles of the east coast have already been leased by renewable energy companies.” He also sees opportunities for state and local governments to partner with offshore wind companies in California, Hawaii, and elsewhere.

A Romantic Kind of Resilient Design

Hunters Point South Waterfront Park Phase 2 / David Lloyd, SWA, courtesy SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi

The first part of Hunter’s Point South Watefront Park, which opened in August 2013, announced a new era of park-making in New York City. The first significant waterfront park in years, Hunter’s Point South in Long Island City, Queens, was not only an example of stunning landscape design but also a manufactured place that can withstand storms and sea level rise — and be fully resilient to a changing climate.

Now, five years later, the 5.5-acre phase two of Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park has opened, extending south, so the entire park now encompasses 11 acres in total. The new segment provide a green buffer for the 30-acre development that will eventually be home to 5,000 units of housing in multiple towers, 60 percent of which will be affordable.

In contrast to the first phase of the park, which includes a playground, sports field, and restaurant, phase two feels like more of a true escape from the city — a green oasis right on the East River.

Hunters Point South Waterfront Park Phase 2 / David Lloyd, SWA, courtesy SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi

According to SWA/Balsley, the landscape architects, and Weiss/Manfredi, the architects — who co-designed the park and partnered with engineers at Arup on the project — this section of the park is also a model of resilient design. But its approach is a bit different from the first phase. Instead of the muscular waterfront promenade designed to survive any onslaught, phase two takes a “soft” approach, using tidal marshes to protect the coast of Queens.

There is a meandering waterfront passage, with romantic lighting at night, that brings visitors right up to the very edge of the East River. Walking there one sunset, it was surreal to both commune with nature while taking in the breathtaking views of Manhattan across the river.

The path loops through the tidal marsh, where visitors can see all the plants growing in.

Hunters Point Park South, Phase 2 / Albert Vecerka, ESTO, courtesy SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi

Thomas Balsley, FASLA, principal at SWA/Balsley, told us: “The tidal marsh required an engineered rip-rap embankment, the top of which we transformed into a lush trail on which to stroll. The journey takes in shifting marsh habitat and skyline perspectives.”

Hunters Point South Waterfront Park, Phase 2 / David Lloyd, SWA, courtesy SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi

Both low and high marsh plants were used to stabilize the sediment and control shoreline bank erosion. A variety of plants also enhance the quality of the water and provided habitat for a range of aquatic and terrestrial wildlife.

Paths in the interior of the park and along the waterfront take you to a dramatic overlook, an elevated promenade that brings you up and immerses you in the skyline of New York City. Cantilevering 50 feet out over the landscape and some 20 feet up in the air, the overlook creates the sense you are in the bow of a great ship.

Hunters Point South Waterfront Park Phase 2 / David Lloyd, SWA, courtesy SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi

In contrast to the first phase, there are also many more nooks and crannies, areas the designers call “break-out lounges,” off the various pathways. These intimate spaces, often hidden in tall native bluestem grasses, enhance the sense of retreating into nature. Criss-crossing pathways through the grasses seem designed to invite further investigation and discovery.

Exploring the site, visitors will come across Luminescence, an art installation by New York-based artist Nobuho Nagasawa, which represents the phases of the moon through etched concrete discs that glow at night.

Hunters Point South Waterfront Park, Phase 2 / Bill Tatham, SWA, courtesy SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi

The second phase of Hunter’s Point South waterfront park and related infrastructure for the housing development cost some $100 million, which was financed by the NYC Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC). The entire park was designed in partnership with NYC Parks and Recreation, which also manages and maintains it.