Keep the kitschy but beloved fiberglass Columbian Mammoth family or not? That’s just one of many design decisions facing the three teams who are finalists in a competition to re-imagine a museum, active paleontology research center, and public park, which together make up La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.
According to The Los Angeles Times, problems with the current complex include limited entrances and too many fences around Hancock Park, which is itself “circuitous” with “often confusing pathways,” and outdated display exhibitions in the George C. Page Museum, which is decades old and leaks. The complex is also not well connected to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) next door and the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures just down the road.
The National History Museums of Los Angeles County, which runs the site, called for multi-disciplinary teams of architects, landscape architects, artists, and scientists to create bold concepts for an ecological and accessible educational landscape.
They also purposefully asked for dramatically different concepts stakeholders and the public can parse. One proposal calls for totally redesigning the original museum, which is from the late 70s, and two for remodeling and expanding the museum. One proposal calls for removing parking all together, while others call for burying and covering parking spaces in green space. (Previous excavations for a parking garage in the tar pits yielded skeletons of giant ground sloths, dire wolves, a nearly-intact mammoth, and the partial remains of a prehistoric woman).
All the design teams propose integrating building and landscape into a more cohesive whole and creating new circulation systems through the lakes, green spaces, oil pools, and laboratories that can result in a more immersive experience.
The proposal developed by a team led by Danish architecture firm Dorte Mandrop, which includes landscape architecture firm Martha Schwartz Partners, along with Gruen Associates, Arup, and Kontrapunkt, calls for a layered approach that builds off the Pleistocene landscape to create an ecological museum park that is filled with “wonder and sheer fun.”
The museum is currently submerged within landscape berms, with just its “halo” visible, making it difficult to find from some directions. The team proposes gutting the museum, but keeping its essential form, and then lifting it up so it becomes a center point and covering it with a green roof. Pathways from all corners of the triangular site will lead to this more visible educational hub.
The landscape itself is completely redesigned. Some “cherished aspects,” like a berm kids love to roll down, will take new form. And the mammoth family will stay. New boardwalks will help visitors explore the new park featuring native-plant lawns and gardens and mega fauna-themed playgrounds. “Discovery scaffolds,” or sculptural fencing, will enable visitors to peer into the gurgling tar pits but also keep these research sites secure. And parking will be buried under expanded green space.
Martha Schwartz Partners worked with Pamela Conrad, ASLA, at CMG Landscape Architecture, the founder of Climate Positive Design, to create a landscape design that sequesters an estimated 10,000 metric tons of CO2 through “tiny forests; super-sequestering plants; low-carbon materials like wood, sand, lightweight fill and gravel; and reducing and reusing materials on site.”
According to Conrad, “the carbon footprint will be offset within five years of being constructed – meeting the goals of the Climate Positive Design Challenge.”
The second proposal developed by a team led by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which includes landscape architecture firms Hood Design Studio and Rana Creek Design, along with Nabih Youssef Associates and Arup, embraces the messiness of the oily landscape that seeps asphalt.
The team proposes an entry way into a new museum that will take visitors through the layers of the geological past, sunken plazas where visitors can watch the landscape ooze, an oil creek, and a more seamless tar pit lake.
The team also proposes experimentation and exploration in Hancock Park, including different ecological zones and “test landscapes,” as well an interactive dig site where visitors can get closer to the scientific action.
But the mammoths are gone, as is parking, which they propose moving off the complex, perhaps to avoid digging an underground parking garage that would disturb the ecological and scientific integrity of the site.
The existing Page Museum would be replaced by a glass cube surrounded by four landscape plates that visitors would be able to walk up (and roll down). The plates are an evolution of the sloped roof lawns DS+R created at Lincoln Center in New York City.
Lastly, the concept created by a team led by Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism, which includes Mark Dion, Dr. Carole Gee, Michael Bierut, Karin Fong, and landscape architects Michael Steiner, ASLA, and Robert Perry, ASLA, proposes generally keeping the form of the existing museum, but expanding the overall exhibition space by adding a second elliptical wing and connecting them via a plaza covered in a berm. The overall effect is a sinuous, interconnected complex that is more open and inviting.
This team is the only one to propose an elevated pathway across the tar lake, creating the opportunity for looping pathways and spaces for vast lawns, “pit stops” for play, intimate “paleobotanical gardens,” and close-up encounters with the fiberglass mammoths. The team proposes planting some 400 trees at the edges of the central greens.
A pathway of discovery leads visitors through the tar pit section of Hancock Park, which would feature Pleistocene-themed native plant gardens and a new amphitheater for public events.
A jury will decide on the winning proposal later this fall.
This purpose of this article is to reflect on the Design with Nature Now exhibition that ran over this past summer at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania. The exhibition marked the 50th anniversary of Ian McHarg’s 1969 tome Design with Natureand was curated by Fritz Steiner, FASLA, Karen M’Closkey, Billy Fleming, ASLA, Bill Whitaker, ASLA, and myself.
As curators we worked for well over a year to select the 25 works in the exhibition. We began by asking colleagues around the world for project recommendations. We stipulated in some detail that projects had to be “McHargian” in scale and scope. From well over a hundred nominations, we reached the short list of 25 and organized them into five categories: Big Wilds, Urban Futures, Toxic Lands, Fresh Waters and Rising Waters, which can be explored online.
• Great Green Wall, Africa
• Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, USA and Canada
• National Ecological Security Pattern Plan, China
• Malpai Borderlands, Arizona and New Mexico, USA
• Samboja Lestari, East Kalimantan, Indonesia
• Landscape Regeneration of Western Waiheke Island, New Zealand
• Willamette River Basin Oregon, USA
• Qianhai Water City Shenzhen, China
• Envision Utah Salt Lake City Region, USA
• Medellin, Colombia
• Barcelona Metropolitan Region Plan, Spain
• Emscher Landscape Park, Ruhr Valley, Germany
• Stapleton, Denver Colorado, USA
• Freshkills Park, New York, USA
• Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London, England
• The BIG U, New York, USA
• A New Urban Ground New York, New York, USA
• Fingers of High Ground Norfolk, Virginia, USA
• Zandmotor Ter Heijde, The Netherlands
• 2050—An Energetic Odyssey North Sea, The Netherlands
• Healthy Port Futures Great Lakes Region, USA
• Room for the River The Netherlands Rijkswaterstaat
• Los Angeles River Master Plan California, USA
• Weishan Wetland Park Jining, China
• GreenPlan Philadelphia Pennsylvania, USA
It’s important to note the final list of projects doesn’t mean we completely endorse the work, nor is the exhibition a collection of the “best of.” This is not an awards forum; it is a representative selection of work that we think does a pretty good job of scoping, extending, and in some cases questioning McHarg’s legacy into the 21st century.
Without being too coy about it, we generally think these projects indicate important directions for the future of the profession. A criticism we accept and have worried over is the collection is geographically and culturally quite limited, itself a reflection of landscape architecture’s current professional reach.
So what do we mean by extending McHarg’s legacy? Simply, the works we’ve chosen tend to be “plannerly,” that is, they are big in terms of site and timescale and tend to involve complex socio-political and ecological processes with multiple authors and agencies. In short, there are no gardens, plazas, or streetscapes (to name but a few types) in this collection. This is not to say these are unimportant, they just don’t fit the raison d’etre, or the occasion of this exhibition.
Turning to the question of designing a planet: the functionalist definition of design is to make a tool that will do something more effectively than prior to the tool’s existence. But what’s most important about this—at least what largely seems to distinguish us to some degree from many other species—is that the invention of the tool, or the desire for the invention of the tool, takes place in our minds before it takes place in the world.
Without wanting to at all elevate humans above other species, we do have an exceptional propensity for imagining causality. In a word, we have foresight.
In Greek mythology foresight was the special gift of Prometheus – the father of humanity. We, the “Anthropos” (meaning not only humans, but also “the lower ones”), received our ability for foresight from Prometheus. Under instruction from Zeus, who wanted some pets to alleviate his boredom, Prometheus made the Anthropos out of clay taken from somewhere between the Tigris and Euphrates, and with the admixture of Athena’s breath, here we are!
As the story goes, Zeus told Prometheus to give the Anthropos some degree of free will so as to make them more entertaining, but he stressed not to give them so much that they might then compete with the Gods themselves. Of course, by giving us not only a modicum of foresight, but also fire, Prometheus gave us everything we needed to do exactly what Zeus feared we would. And the rest, as they say, is history.
From the origin of the Anthropos we can trace an arc to the 1960s when, just before McHarg released his manifesto, Stewart Brand, the man responsible for persuading NASA to release the original earth image, pronounced: “We are now as Gods and should get good at it.” This is a hugely significant thing to say, but what’s more is that Brand recently updated his statement to “we are as Gods and MUST get good at it.”
In other words, not only have the Gods abandoned us, but we are now so deeply implicated in the workings of the Earth system that we really have no choice but to try and design it. In so far as we know, for the first time in evolutionary history, there is now a form of networked planetary intelligence registering its own environmental predicament. If so, then humanity is the first species in evolutionary history to attempt to design a planet, a fact as preposterous as it is, according to Brand, a necessity.
The poster child for the historical drama in which we now cast ourselves as both the villain and the hero is the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, who popularized the term Anthropocene. As Crutzen explains, the Anthropocene is an act in three parts: first, the industrial revolution; second, the great acceleration (consumer-driven capitalism since 1950); and now he says we should move into a third phase in which we begin to, and I quote, “steward the earth.”
This of course is exactly what McHarg said 50 years ago. Now you might say that we have already designed the planet. Certainly, humanity has colonized and impacted every square inch of the earth’s surface, but we haven’t really done this with foresight. Until recently, we haven’t done it in a way that is self-conscious in regard to the problem of the tragedy of the commons. The question now is not whether we should design the planet, but how. Ironically then: If it’s true that species naturally over consume their environments to their own detriment, then since we have no major predator, we now need to learn to become unnatural. And in a further semantic twist, according to McHarg and his disciples, we can only do this by designing with nature.
However, the problem is this assumes we know what nature is. Truth be told, we do not. Accepting that fact is important because it protects us against anyone ever using nature as justification for authoritarian politics or any number of other oppressive ideas. Accepting then the partiality of knowledge, all we can do is develop approximations of how nature works and try different ways of productively coexisting with it as such.
We write in the introduction to the exhibition’s eponymous book that by asserting the sum-total of what we mean by design (human foresight) could be based on a singular—and in McHarg’s case, a scientific idea of nature—McHarg created a significant intellectual problem for himself and the profession. This problem is brought to light by Ursula Heise during a keynote at the Design with Nature Now conference, which was held at Penn alongside the exhibition in June, 2019.
Heise explains “the basic goal of cultural studies for the last twenty years has been to analyze and in most cases, to dismantle appeals to ‘the natural’ or ‘biological’ by showing their groundedness in cultural practices rather than facts of nature. The thrust of this work, therefore, invariably leads to skepticism about the possibility of returning to nature as such or of the possibility of places defined in terms of their natural characteristics that humans should relate to.”
Correct though she may well be, the problem with this postmodern skepticism is that if nature is not one thing, it’s everything. And if its everything, its nothing, and if it’s nothing, it can’t very well guide our designs, let alone an entire civilization as McHarg intended.
How then are we to respond to the conditions of ecological crisis? Well, you don’t have to agree with McHarg’s teleology of humanity fitting into a certain idea of nature to accept and use the sheer practicality of his method. Inversely, you also don’t need to be debilitated by the recognition that post-modern nature is a cultural construct. On the contrary, recognizing the design of nature as a cultural construct can be completely consistent with an ecological world view, just not a tyrannical one.
The ecological crisis and the misuse of land that McHarg directly confronted is not just a postmodern cultural construct – it is an appalling reality and McHarg’s importance is that he proposed a simple, replicable, and practical method for addressing it.
McHarg represents then the beginning of modern culture taking responsibility for the land with modern technology. Other societies throughout history have done this in different ways, but a modern method suited to the abstraction of modern development processes had to be created. People like Geddes, Mumford, Leopold, Carson and others provided the narrative and McHarg the method. And that he did this is enough. We don’t need to make him into anything more or less than that.
Designing with Nature Now means designing with the new nature of the Anthropocene. And to understand the Anthropocene we need to turn to both the sciences and the arts. The scientific bible for the landscape of the Anthropocene is, I think, the bookGlobal Change and the Earth System, published in 2005. It is to the Anthropocene what the encyclopedia was to the Enlightenment.
To quote directly from its introduction, the book’s purpose is “to describe and understand the interactive physical, chemical, and biological processes that regulate the total earth system, the unique environment it provides for life, the changes that are occurring in that system and the manner in which these changes are influenced by human actions.” This last expression “…the manner in which these changes are influenced by human actions” is critical because this is not the study of nature as something separate to culture; this is now the study of nature as culture.
Global Change and the Earth System is the work of literally thousands of scientists, all bringing their various models of different phenomena together in an attempt to form a complete, holistic model of the Earth System. The idea being that if we can at least better understand how the Earth system functions then we can make more informed decisions about our actions within that system.
One can imagine the ecological revolution in design, which McHarg catalyzed in regard to settlement patterns and which we are still in the early historical phases of, now means that everything we design will increasingly be conceived, tested, and valued as to how it performs within the larger material flows of the Earth system as a whole. Hyper-McHarg, if you will.
Now, while the scientists are working on their empirical models, the question in the arts is not so much how the Anthropogenic Earth works but what the Anthropogenic Earth means. To wit, just look at the plethora of recent books that use the word Anthropocene in their titles. Notably, almost all are dramatic and apocalyptic. Indeed, thoughout the humanities, there is evidently outright panic about the advent of the Anthropocene. And rightly so, because the old idea of nature as something stable and inviolable, history’s backdrop, has literally just evaporated into the carbon-saturated atmosphere of our own making.
To help make some sense of this panic, I’ve added some keywords to a sample of books on the topic of the Anthropocene (see larger version of the image below). These keywords establish polarizations that demarcate spectrums of current thought, at least as I read it. The first polarization concerns the question of whether or not we should even be calling this the Anthropocene. For its critics, the term naturalizes climate change and casts a new colonizing term over the entirety of the human race, many of whom have had very little to do with the industrial modernity that created the problem in the first place. Instead, they argue this should be called the Capitolocene, which is to say climate change must be apprehended as a cultural matter, and the blame for its advent placed squarely at the feet of first-world capitalism, and presumably communism, since it too has had an appalling environmental record.
First, with regard to the politics of the environmental movement I would place Eco-socialists at one end of the spectrum and Eco-modernists at the other. For the Eco-socialists, technology (unless its green) is a problem before it is a solution, and it is only through a return to communitarian, small scale, low-population, stable-state economies that true sustainability can be achieved. For the Eco-socialists, only the worst of climate change can now be avoided, whereas for the Eco-modernists, modernity is an incomplete project, and through technological rationality the best is yet to come, or at least, the worst can be avoided.
For Eco-socialists climate change warrants socio-political and theological revolution, something Clive Hamilton, the author of Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, for example, calls a “rupture” with history. On the other hand, for the Eco-modernists, history since the agricultural revolution is a continuing saga of environmental modification at the hands of technology. In this sense, even though there is now more at stake, for the Eco-modernists we are just doing now what we’ve always done. This latter position is effectively that taken by the other keynote speaker at the Design with Nature Now conference, the geographer Erle Ellis.
Second, to translate this spectrum of environmental thought into design discourse, I use the terms mitigation and adaptation respectively. Taken seriously, mitigation means taking on the causes of climate change, not only the fossil fuel industry, but also the economics of capitalism and the the philosophy of liberal humanism. Adaptation, on the other hand, means adjusting to the conditions of a changed climate but not necessarily changing its causation and certainly not changing the fundamentally-modern belief in techno scientific rationality to solve our environmental and socio-economic problems.
Per McHarg, adaptation means fitting ourselves benignly into the landscape. But this now seems way too pastoral for a planet of 8 billion people in the throes of rapid climate change. More likely and more frightening is that adaptation will become the rationale for climate engineering: regulating the albedo of the atmosphere and the chemistry of the oceans, and planning vast landscapes so they not only feed us, but also help stabilize the carbon and nitrogen cycles.
Both adaptation and mitigation point towards what is now routinely referred to as resilience. Even though in the illustrative diagram I am situating resilience equidistant between adaptation and mitigation, I think resilience theory and practice tends more towards adaptation than it does mitigation.
The reason for this is that the utopia of sustainability, which is what mitigation implies, has by now proven itself to be something of an impossibility. Accordingly, resilience has been criticized as sustainability without hope. In other words, for its critics, resilience is seen as abandoning any possibility of mitigating the environmental and social crises of modernity. Instead, we, and in particular the poor, must now learn to live with the symptoms. In this sense resilience is palliative, conservative, and at worst complicit in preserving the very systems that created the risk in the first place.
Maybe so, but this is all a little too black and white. I would also add that resilience is realistic, whereas mitigation is hopelessly idealistic. Resilience brings sustainability closer to the indeterminate way that both the natural and cultural worlds actually work. Whereas sustainability was based on an idealized ecology of equilibrium, resilience is based on an interpretation of nature as a state of disequilibrium. I think McHarg hoped ultimately for a world of equilibrium between the natural and the cultural but seems now that this is just not the way the world works.
Turning briefly now to the projects in the Design with Nature Now exhibition, there are two particular aspects of McHarg’s legacy that I want to channel. The first is his aspiration for large-scale impact and the second is his anticipation and use of digital technology. The first is what I call Big Plans and the second is Digital Natures.
Let’s start with Big Plans. On the map below, Global Landscape Connectivity Projects, you see most of the major conservation projects planned or under construction in the world today. This is an extraordinary image because it shows humans now, for the first time in (modern) history, actively and intentionally reconstructing ecosystems at a planetary scale – so yes, effectively designing a planet, or at least treating it as a garden instead of a mine. (See larger map).
McHarg would love this map and it should give us all hope. And yet from a professional perspective much of this restorative activity doesn’t currently involve landscape architects. That we think it should is why we’ve included projects such as the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative in the United States and the Great Green Wall across sub-Saharan Africa in the exhibition.
For example, the Y2Y is a remarkable ongoing story of collaboration (and tension) between land owners over some 2,000 miles of territory in order to create landscape connectivity for species migration. The Great Green Wall is also a remarkable story of what began as a top-down initiative to resist the southward encroachment of the Saharan desert but has since evolved in to a mosaic of bottom-up initiatives to boost local agrarian economies across the 14 impoverished nations it comprises. When completed, if ever that day comes, the Great Green Wall will be the largest living thing ever created by humanity.
A third Big Plan, I’d like to single out that is versed in McHargian methods is the 2008 National Ecological Security Patterns for the whole of China by landscape architecture firm Turenscape, which was founded by Kongjian Yu, FASLA, and the Peking University Graduate School of Landscape Architecture. The plan shows where the ecological security of land in China should be prioritized.
This research coincides with President Xi Jinping’s 2013 declaration that China should transition from a Gross Domestic Product (GDP)-focused civilization to an ecological civilization. And in this regard, while the study represents a powerful breakthrough for landscape architects, it is also something of a Faustian bargain. It raises the question of whether plans done in the name of national ecological health for totalitarian governments could come to overrule local culture in the same way development projects previously did in the name of the national interest. Imagine mass evictions not for hydroelectric dams, but now for biodiversity corridors.
Regarding the second aspect of McHarg’s legacy, the theme of Digital Natures relates to how landscape architects today are increasingly able to simulate environmental conditions in order to guide design decisions. There are two aspects to this. The first is the ability to create one’s own data instead of just passively receiving it from an authority, and the second is the increasing capacity to model complex, chaotic systems such as hydrology, and perhaps eventually entire ecosystems, cities, and ultimately the Earth system itself, as we see in the case of the book Global Change and the Earth System.
The key here is being able to model systems in the fourth, not just the third, dimension. That is, we are moving into an era where the old problem of a map being redundant the moment it is drawn can finally be overcome. It is early days in the emergence of the genre of Digital Natures, but the work of academic practitioners such as Keith Van Der Sys, Karen M’Closkey, Bradley Cantrell, ASLA, Justine Holzman, Sean Burkholder and Brian Davis — all of whom are variously modelling fluvial landscapes — is promising.
For example, the Healthy Port Futures project in the Design with Nature Now exhibition by Burkholder and Davis foregrounds digital modelling to predict sediment flows in the world’s largest inland water body, the Great Lakes of the USA and Canada. The project centers on creating simulations to show how instead of being treated as a useless waste product, sediment can be redirected so as to create new landscapes of ecological and social value. Stemming out of the academic Dredgefest initiative, Burkholder and Davis’ work is significant for its methods and also because with it they are muscling their way into territory otherwise dominated by engineers.
Which leads to what is for me the most extraordinary and perhaps the most compelling work in the exhibition: the so called Sand Motor (Zandmotor) constructed in 2011 off the coast of the Netherlands. The Sand Motor is a novel approach to coastline protection in which sand is mined offshore and added to the beach at a strategic location so that the littoral drift steadily redistributes the material further along the coast, thus reinforcing Holland’s coast against the sea. This could only be done through predictive modelling of the coastal system. Absent recent advancements in computing power, such analysis would have been previously prohibitive. Now, not only could the Sand Motor’s behavior be accurately predicted before it was built, it is also continually monitored, establishing a feedback loop between the digital and the real.
The Sand Motor marks a new technological and predictive level of human engagement with the environment, one that will expand at both macro and micro scales this century. In addition to designing gardens, parks, and plazas as we always will, the kind of systems design the Sand Motor suggests it is as foreboding as it is promising.
Even if unintentionally, the sand motor is also, I think, a highly aesthetic work. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it is one of the great artworks of the early Anthropocene, something land artist Robert Smithson pointed to 50 years ago. I imagine a scene where Professor Marcel Stive, the lead engineer of the Sand Motor, now replaces Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea, not to contemplate God’s awesome creation, but rather ours.
And that brings me full circle to where I began with origin of the Anthropos. For if we have now become Gods then, for all their complexity and contradiction, I do think the projects in the exhibition show that we can be good at it.
This post is by Richard Weller, ASLA, the Martin and Margy Meyerson chair of urbanism, professor and chair of landscape architecture, and co-director of the McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania.
After the White House suppressed his Congressional testimony on climate change and national security, Dr. Rod Schoonover, a scientist and analyst with the State Department’s bureau of intelligence and research, resigned in protest. Nearly three weeks after his resignation, Schoonover discussed the substance of his testimony with Andrew Light, senior fellow at the World Resources Institute (WRI). His primary conclusions: the U.S. and other countries can expect more “climate-linked surprises;” climate change will cause much more than weather-related impacts, and combined with environmental, social, and political events will become a national security “threat multiplier.”
In a June briefing, the White House allowed Dr. Schoonover to give oral testimony, but blocked the submission of his written testimony drafted on behalf of the bureau into the permanent Congressional record. In internal administration emails uncovered by The New York Times, the reasoning for this was the testimony included science that didn’t correspond with White House policy views. The White House called the testimony part of the “climate alarmist establishment.”
Intelligence experts argue that any scientific analysis included in a risk assessment is by nature objective and rooted in mainstream, peer-reviewed findings. The White House’s actions constituted a “suppression of factual analysis by a government intelligence agency.” And According to The Times, the State department’s bureau of intelligence and research is viewed as one of the most “scrupulous and accurate” in the federal government.
In his conversation with Light, Dr. Schoonover said the U.S. intelligence community has been testifying on the coming impacts of climate change since at least the late 90s, so “this is not new territory.”
National security policy decision making is increasingly of a “technical nature.” Therefore, to give policymakers the best analyses, the intelligence community must incorporate the latest science. The intelligence community doesn’t generate the science, but must interpret it objectively. “We need scientists in the U.S. government to stay current. We need scientists to help us understand nuclear, infectious disease, near space objects, and climate change.”
Light said it has been 12 years since the Center for Naval Analysis and the Military Advisory Board published National Security and the Threat of Climate Change, which identified climate change as a threat multiplier. “Since then, the attribution science, isolating the degree to which climate change has an impact, has only improved.” Another study published in 2015 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) linked climate change, drought, and the onset of civil war in Syria. And in a recent worldwide threat assessment presented to Congress, now-former director of national intelligence Dan Coats identified hot spots where climate change could create conflict, such as Egypt and Sudan.
Dr. Schoonover, who gave up a tenured position teaching complex systems at California Polytechnic State University to work at the federal government, made a few key points that he wasn’t able to elaborate in his abridged Congressional testimony:
The U.S. and other countries should expect more “climate-linked surprises,” which are events with low probabilities but high impacts. For example, no one could have predicted that deforestation in Brazil would lead to fertilizer runoff in the Atlantic Ocean to mix with warming oceanic currents and create massive Sargassum seaweed blooms that would then cover the beaches of the small island nations in the Caribbean. Tons of seaweed now wash up on beaches across the Caribbean every day. “For these countries, Sargassum is a national security threat, as it impacts tourism and economic vitality, strangling their resources.” This is an example of a “surprise element that came out of nowhere. Very rapid changes could occur with dramatic impacts.”
Non-weather climate stressors also create national security risks. He called for moving past a “weather-centric” approach that solely focuses on sea level rise, drought, wildfires, and extreme heat. Peer-reviewed scientific studies find that climate change will also impact ecological food webs and cause mass extinctions and biodiversity loss, which will negatively impact human food systems. Climate change will also impact human health by changing the ranges of infectious disease vectors like mosquitoes. Like with Syria, there is the risk that weather-related climate impacts, such as drought, will cause political and social instability and increase violence.
A final important point: “the bundle of issues is what’s important. Climate change together with environmental degradation and social and political instability is the threat multiplier.”
In the global scramble to reduce carbon emissions, planting more trees is always near the top of the list of solutions. Pegged as a low-cost, natural, and scalable approach, projects like the Great Green Wall in North Africa, Pakistan’s 10 Billion Tree Tsunami, and New York City’s Million Tree Program raise the bar for this climate change mitigation strategy. While a new scientific study found there is untapped potential for carbon sequestration through planetary reforestation, other researchers are concerned about how growing new forests could reduce the focus on preserving existing old growth forests or negatively impact the water supply in developing countries.
The recent study published in Science, led by Thomas W. Crowther at ETH-Zürich, posits that an increase in 0.9 billion hectares (2.2 billion acres) of new forests, an amount that would cover about 14 percent of habitable land, could sequester 205 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere. This means a forest roughly the size of the United States or China could sequester more than five times the annual carbon output of the planet.
Under current climate conditions, the Earth could support a maximum of 4.4 billion hectares (10.9 billion acres) of forests. Approximately 2.8 billion hectares (6.9 billion acres) are currently forested. This leaves 1.6 billion hectares (4 billion acres) were additional forest could be planted. The research team removed land used for crop-based agriculture or cities,”which are necessary for supporting an ever-growing human population,” leaving 0.9 billion hectares (2.2 billion acres) available for forest restoration.
Across the lifetime of these proposed new forests, the trees would sequester 205 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere. For reference, we have released 1,510 gigatons of carbon to date (as of 2015), and some 55 percent of that has been sequestered by oceans and plants.
A sequestration strategy of this magnitude would make a sizable dent in the total carbon released into the atmosphere, but needs to be matched with reductions in fossil fuel use and other major forms of greenhouse gas emissions. The World Resources Institute (WRI) reports that 37.1 gigatons of carbon were released in 2018 alone. At this rate, more carbon will be released than can be captured by the new forests during the 50-100 years it will take for the trees to mature.
The research team is correct in asserting that global tree restoration is “our most effective climate change solution to date,” but some researchers fear that addressing one warning light may turn on others.
For example, focusing on planting new forests instead of preserving old growth trees can have negative impacts. Large, old trees, which support greater biodiversity and sequester more carbon than younger trees, are “declining in forests of all latitudes,” according to a 2012 study. Old growth forests are able to sequester more carbon than their younger counterparts because they are still rapidly growing and increasing their carbon storage capacity. Preserving older forests while implementing massive reforestation efforts would yield the greatest potential for carbon capture and forest ecosystem health.
Protecting large old trees is an important part of the climate mitigation effort, and something that landscape architects working at a variety of scales can support. Every reforestation effort, even in an urban park, should take into account existing trees and the role they play in ecosystems.
Trees need water to thrive. The renewed call for mass reforestation across the globe has some researchers worried about the effect this will have on local water supplies.
In a recent study published in Nature, Jaivime Evaristo and Jeffery J. McDonnell examine the impact of forest management practices, such as deforestation, conversion into agricultural land, regrowth, and afforestation (growing new forests), on the availability of water in watersheds. The study develops a vegetation-to-bedrock model, which considers the geology of a given region in relation to its capacity to store water.
The researchers found that deforestation and conversion of forests into agricultural land increases the volume of water present in almost all watersheds, while regrowth of forests and afforestation reduced the volume of water. “The vast majority of the water loss in afforested and reforested areas is from evapotranspiration, which is a combination of evaporation from soil and other surfaces and transpiration from plants.”
Afforestation and deforestation have the largest impacts on streamflow in watersheds. Deforestation can cause flash floods, but reforestation can lead to droughts.
The data also shows the percentage change in tree cover is correlated to the socio-economic status of a country. Developing and least developed countries lose the most tree cover while developed and emerging countries lose the least. The researchers think this correlation between tree-cover change and economic status “suggests that countries that have infrastructure in place for capturing and storing water may be least vulnerable to possible water supply shortages associated with planting schemes.”
Furthermore, the research team concludes the magnitude of a forest management technique is correlated with the water-yield response. Reforesting nearly 14 percent of the landmass is a massive change, one that would surely have consequences for local communities and ecosystems.
The researchers recognize their streamflow analysis could be used most prudently “for re-calibrating the cost-benefit matrix of climate change mitigation schemes (for example, planting and removal) in different geo-climate regions around the world.”
To protect against future super storms and long-term sea level rise, New York City proposed creating a set of landscaped berms around the southern tip of Manhattan, a plan deemed the “Big U.” The city secured some $330 million from the U.S. department of housing and urban development (HUD)’s Rebuild by Design competition in 2014 to kick start the project. After four years of intensive community engagement, the city suddenly switched gears last fall, throwing out those plans in favor of raising the first proposed segment of the Big U — the waterfront park between 25th street and Montgomery Street on the east side — by 10 feet. Instead of berms, the existing 60-acre East River Park will be buried under landfill and its new higher edge will become a wall holding back the East River, which is expected to rise with the Altantic Ocean by 2.5 feet by 2050.
In conjunction with retractable flood gates set within neighborhoods, the park will provide flood protections up to 16 feet above current sea level, protecting 100,000 residents along the east side and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) Drive.
The area near this first segment has an interesting history. Famous (and infamous) city builder Robert Moses cleared the area of “slums” in order to create the FDR Drive (then the East River Drive) highway and to its west, affordable housing complexes. To the east of the drive, the shoreline was built up over landfill into the East River, creating new park space and sports fields for the complexes’ residents, who now cross a less-than-ideal caged bridge over FDR Drive to get there.
David called the park itself a “gallery of fences,” separating the various sports areas, with few pleasant green spaces. Salt water intrusion has killed off a number of the trees. And the ones that remain are “reaching the end of their lives.”
The new vision released by the city last fall has been controversial. According to The New York Times, elements of the community feel like they weren’t consulted on the new sea wall approach approved by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration.
To raise the entire park up, what’s there now will be covered in landfill, which upsets some long time residents, particularly because the city just spent $3 million to renovate it. There are also concerns about the increased project costs. The original plan with the berms would have cost $765 million, while the new raised park will cost nearly $1.5 billion. Carlina Rivera, a councilwoman from the East Village, told The New York Times: “The new plan represents a fundamental departure from anything the City had discussed. The mayor’s office has failed to provide detailed analyses on why the cost increase is necessary.”
NYC parks and recreation commissioner Mitchell J. Silver told The Times that raising the park up is the only way to save it from sea level rise. City representatives have also said they are moving forward on an accelerated planning and design schedule in order to begin construction next year. They have to or will forfeit the $330 million from HUD.
Flood protections are expected to be in place by 2022. But in a compromise with the community, the city will stagger construction so as to reduce impact on the community that depends on the park and all the vehicle drivers who rely on FDR Drive.
The challenge for the design team has been to integrate the sea wall, retractable inland gates, pedestrian bridges, sports facilities, and social spaces bisected by a highway into one cohesive design.
In the latest and nearly final designs, the team widened the important Delancey Street Bridge and created a continuous, accessible pathway across FDR Drive to the park.
The city and design team kept soccer and football fields, basketball courts, tennis courts, but also added an amphitheater, open lawns, and a playground near the north end. “We created more green space in between the fields, creating parks for non-sports people,” said David. Those green spaces will include more than 50 species of trees, much more than the three species there now, including water-friendly black tupelos and cypresses.
Green infrastructure will be incorporated throughout to manage stormwater coming in from the city and FDR Drive. To accommodate major storm events, the park will also include a cistern with a 40-million gallon capacity. “This is for the super storm that happens once every 50 years.”
Caren Yglesias, Affil. ASLA, a landscape historian and author, now based at the University of Maryland, asked David: “what will happen when the sea levels rise and don’t come back down? What will happen after 2050?”
David said the “park will be effective for a period of time, and many lives will be improved.” But the city and team have really only planned for 2050. “Things are changing rapidly. This buys us more time. There is no great solution.”
The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) is helping to grow the next generation of leaders in landscape architecture. At a symposium at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. seven of the 2018-2019 LAF fellows for innovation and leadership, who each received a $25,000 grant, presented the results of their year-long investigations into climate change and sustainable design, community development, visual representations of landscape, and other topics.
Sanjukta Sen: Landscape Resilience in New York City
Hurricane Sandy flooded 51 square miles of New York City, killing 43 people, damaging 12,000 homes, and causing $19 billion in property losses. But you wouldn’t think NYC’s policy makers or developers have learned from what can happen when you develop in areas that naturally flood. Former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration further opened up the waterfront and floodplains to development, a process that continues unabated under Mayor Bill de Blasio. Just one example: 3,500 new apartments will be built in the floodplain in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, Brooklyn. According to Sanjukta Sen, a senior associate at James Corner Field Operations, the “ludicrous” part is that the “net value of property in the floodplain has gone up.”
NYC’s expanded waterfront development fills Sen with both “pride and dread.” Pride because there are all these “amazing new places on the waterfront, which is now much more accessible.” Dread because she worries the city has not effectively and equitably created resilience to rising sea levels. “There are islands of protection that developers can afford but low-income communities don’t have the same protections.”
After Hurricane Sandy, the city quickly mandated that buildings build in protections, like elevating themselves or moving critical infrastructure out of ground or basement levels. But there is no cohesive landscape resilience strategy along public waterfront spaces. One solution is to take more waterfront land from developers for natural flood protection systems that can reduce the entire community’s risks. Sen proposed mandated setbacks and floodwater storage systems and incentives for developers. “Resilience is a social obligation and requires a long-term investment.”
Lauren Delbridge: Rethinking Wastescapes
In 2015, communities had to find a safe storage place for or re-use 117 million tons of coal ash, a by product of coal energy production that accounts for half of all municipal waste. According to Lauren Delbridge, Assoc. ASLA, a landscape designer with Land Design, coal ash is often pumped into poorly-designed ponds that can spill and seep. Coal ash sludge in these ponds, which can span 50 acres, is loaded with dangerous metals like arsenic, mercury, lead, and chromium that can poison groundwater supplies. Even more terrible, these ponds can break their banks, as in the case of the Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee, which released 1.1 billion of coal fly ash slurry into nearby communities and rivers. This kind of disaster could happen to any of the 735 active coal ash ponds in the U.S., many of which don’t meet safety requirements.
In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined coal ash to not be a hazardous waste product, putting the management of this toxic material into the hands of state governments. Some 60 percent of coal ash is recycled into concrete or grout or used to fill up old mines. Some ash fly is being “de-watered” and moved into sealed mounds that have a protective bottom layer and landscaped cap.
Delbridge called for more “imaginative solutions” for these unsightly ash fly-filled mounds, pointing to educational and artful places in Europe that have arisen out of industrial and waste landscapes in Germany, like Zollverein coal mine complex in Essen, which has been “left as is” and now functions as a park; the Tetraeder on Halde Beckstrasse in Bottrop, an inventive art piece on a slag heap mound; and the Metabolon in Lindlar, which includes fun trampolines at the top of the giant mountain of garbage.
Pamela Conrad: Climate Positive Design
Landscape architecture projects can be carbon-intensive but they don’t have to be. Specifying low-carbon materials and low-maintenance green spaces and planting more trees and shrubs helps to ensure projects sequester more carbon than they emit through their life spans. For Pamela Conrad, ASLA, a principal at CMG Landscape Architecture in San Francisco, it’s as simple as doing the math: sources (materials used in a landscape) subtracted from sinks (the carbon captured in a landscape) added to the costs (carbon embodied through long-term maintenance) equals a landscape’s carbon footprint. With this algorithm, landscape architects can achieve carbon positive landscapes in just 5 years for parks and 20 years for plazas.
To spread this approach in the marketplace, she has invented an easy-to-use website and app that will help landscape architects and designers find appealing ways to reduce their project’s carbon footprint.
Material amounts and site dimensions are inputted and then the app calculates the number of years it will take for the project to be carbon positive. The tool also offers recommendations, like cement substitutes, ways to reduce paved surfaces and lawn, add more trees and shrubs, and minimize soil disturbance — all to reduce the time needed to reach a state of carbon positivity.
Conrad believes that if all landscape architects around the world adopted a climate positive approach, the reduction in carbon emissions would equal a gigaton, putting landscape architecture among the top 80 solutions listed in Paul Hawken’s Drawdown book.
Across the country, landscape architects are stepping up to face the growing global climate crisis head-on. In 2018, ASLA’s interdisciplinary Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience issued a report that outlined policy recommendations and design best practices for creating resilient, sustainable communities.
The new Smart Policies for a Changing Climate Exhibition showcases 20 diverse case studies that illustrate the success these recommendations can have in harnessing natural systems, reducing carbon emissions, and improving communities’ resilience to climate change.
Some projects lower carbon emissions from transportation by improving access to bicycle lanes and sidewalks and limiting space for vehicles, like the Jackson Street Reconstruction Project in Saint Paul, Minnesota, by Toole Design Group.
Some projects show how cities can design to prepare for worst-case flooding scenarios using natural systems, like the Buffalo Bayou Promenade in Houston, Texas by SWA Group.
Others integrate renewable energy facilities into communities, like the Solar Strand project in Buffalo, New York by Hood Design Studio.
The exhibition is free and open to the public at ASLA’s Center for Landscape Architecture (636 I Street NW, Washington, D.C., 20001) every weekday from 10am to 4pm EST (excluding holidays) through May 1, 2020.
There is also an expanded companion to the exhibition at the website: climate.asla.org.
To put on the Smart Politics for a Changing Climate Exhibition, ASLA was awarded an Art Works Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. “These awards, reaching every corner of the United States, are a testament to the artistic richness and diversity in our country,” said Mary Anne Carter, acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “Organizations such as the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) are giving people in their community the opportunity to learn, create, and be inspired.”
In the Hudson’s Image– Urban Omnibus, 5/2/19
“Over the last two centuries, artists have painted, sketched and photographed the Hudson, while scientists, surveyors and others have mapped the river landscape as a first step to shaping it with human hands.”
For Colleges, Climate Change Means Making Tough Choices– The Chronicle of Higher Education
“The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation’s awarding of $100 million to reinvent LaSalle Park and to complete a regional trail system represents the largest philanthropic gift ever in Western New York.”
Surrounded by water along 144 miles of shoreline, Norfolk is highly vulnerable to sea level rise. The city is the second largest in Virginia, with a population of 250,000. It’s home to the world’s largest naval base, which hosts 100,000 federal workers and function as a city within the city. Its port is the third busiest in the country. The core of the city is the employment center for a region of 1.5 million people. All of this is under significant threat.
At the American Planning Association (APA) conference in San Francisco, we heard about Norfolk’s recent efforts to live with with water while protecting vulnerable low-income areas, revitalizing and creating new urban centers, and ceding some parts of the city back to the ocean.
According to Martin Thomas, vice mayor of Norfolk, the question is: “how do we create a high quality of live given we are facing rising waters?” The answer involves creative economic, social, and environmental solutions that will lead to a transformed city.
Thomas said 30-40 percent of the regional economy is dependent on federal funding, “so we are diversifying the local economy.” There are disconnected communities with concentrated levels of poverty, so the city is investing in mixed-income redevelopment projects. There is recurrent flooding that can result in 2-3 feet of water rise, so the city is creating the “designed coastal systems of the future.”
An example of what Norfolk is dealing with is the highly vulnerable area of Willoughby Spit, which is 3 miles long and 3 blocks wide and where thousands of residents live. This area is a chunk of the local tax base, but “it won’t exist in a few decades.”
Through its Vision 2100 process, Norfolk mapped its most valuable assets, which included the Naval base, airport, botanical gardens, and the historic downtown core. Through comprehensive public meetings, city policymakers, planners, and residents created a map of where flooding is expected to worsen, where investments in hard protections and green infrastructure will be focused, and where the “future urban growth of the city will be built.”
The vision organizes the city into four zones: red, yellow, green, and purple.
Red areas on the map are vital areas that will see “expanded flood protection zones; a comprehensive 24-hour transportation network; denser mixed-use developments; diversified housing options; and strengthened economic options.” These include the naval base, universities, ports, shipyards, and medical facilities that can’t be moved. Future housing and economic growth will be steered into these areas, which will be made denser. The red zone will receive priority levels of investment in both hard and green resilient infrastructure while maintaining access to the water.
The yellow zone will be where the city helps Norfolk residents adapt to rising waters and where it also cedes land back to the water. Programs there will aim to “exploit new and innovative technologies to reduce flood risk to the built environment; focus infrastructure investments on improvements that extend resilience; educate current residents about the risks of recurrent flooding; develop mechanisms to enable property owners to recoup the economic value lost to sea level rise; and develop a solution for sea level rise adaptation in historic neighborhoods.” Here, the focus is on more resilient housing, raised 3-feet above flood levels, and the widespread incorporation of green infrastructure.
The green zone features communities already on higher ground, safe from flooding, where Norfolk will create new transit-oriented development and resilient urban centers that can accommodate future growth.
The purple zone is where Norfolk will create the “neighborhoods of the future,” improving connections to key assets, creating affordable housing, and redeveloping under-performing residential and commercial areas. According to Vision 2100, the city found that 40 out of 125 neighborhoods were deemed assets and therefore not subject to major “transformation” — a euphemism for redevelopment or letting them be subsumed by rising waters. In many of these historic neighborhoods, which are found in the purple zones, small-scale improvements will be made to improve the quality of life — more parks, sidewalks, libraries, and community centers.
Norfolk’s 2030 comprehensive plan, green infrastructure plan, and resilience zoning code are the primary ways in which the city is moving towards this vision.
George Homewood, Norfolk’s planning director, said that zoning requirements are a “blunt instrument” that they tried to make more flexible through a “resilient zoning quotient,” a system that developers and property owners can use to accumulate points to meet requirements. The zoning system itemizes “must do’s, should do’s, and nice to do’s (bonuses) for developers.”
Requirements differ depending on the expected level of risk to water rise, but must-do’s include green infrastructure for stormwater management, risk reduction through raising homes by 3-feet above flood levels, and energy self-sufficiency. The zoning ordinance seems critical to achieving the city’s ambitious green infrastructure plan, which also fits together with the vision and 2030 plan.
Back-up power generation is not only required for the usual places like hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities, but also important community utilities like pharmacies, grocery stores, banks, and gas stations.
Vlad Gavrilovic with EPK, planning consultants to Norfolk, further explained that the new zoning code built off of existing neighborhood, landscape, and building design standards, the “pattern language” so critical to informing neighborhood character.
Homewood believes “climate change and sea level rise are very real to the folks who suffer from recurrent flooding.” But rolling-out the new, more complex zoning ordinance hasn’t been without its challenges, and the city planning department is on their fourth round of tweaks to address “unintended consequences.” Perhaps that is to be expected given it’s the “first, most-resilience focused zoning ordinance in the country.”
In a later conversation, Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, former ASLA president and long-time resident of Norfolk, who was deeply involved in these planning efforts for decades, said that Old Dominion University in downtown Norfolk was key to kick-starting the multi-decade-long effort to make Norfolk more resilient. “Back in 2010, the university started an initiative to prepare Norfolk for sea level rise, asking Larry Atkinson in the oceanography department to lead a cross-disciplinary effort and create a coalition with the community that exists to this day. That was many years ago, but it was then that the seeds were planted for the approach we see today.” That approach, Rinner said, uses public-private partnerships and creates bottom-up, community-driven solutions that transcend politics. “Environmental issues are so close to people in Norfolk and Hampton Roads; it doesn’t matter if you are Democrat or Republican.”
For her, Norfolk’s resilience plans and codes are a true model for other communities because they show what can happen after years of effort — “major change seems to coalesce all of the sudden.”