Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (May 1-15, 2022)

Lane Closures / Chris Yarzab, CC BY-ND 2.0.

MUSK SEE: Three Reasons Why Congestion Decreases When Cities ‘Delete’ Road Lanes — 05/13/2022, Streetsblog USA
“A wildly inaccurate comment from Elon Musk about the traffic impacts of deleting lanes for drivers is prompting a conversation about the little-known phenomenon of ‘reduced demand’ — and how advocates can better debunk common congestion myths that powerful, but often ill-informed, people continue to promulgate.”

Lawns Are Terrible for the Environment. California’s Water Restrictions May Finally Kill Them — 05/12/2022, Fast Company
“Landscape designers weigh in on how drought conditions could change the look of Southern California — and eventually the rest of the West.”

Ukraine’s ‘Hero River’ Helped Save Kyiv. But What Now for Its Newly Restored Wetlands? — 05/11/2022, The Guardian
“Kyiv repelled Russian forces by opening a Soviet-era dam on the Irpin River. Now, ecologists hope Ukraine’s newest wetlands can survive, or even thrive, after the war.”

Security Features For Outdoor Living Trend In Latest Houzz Survey — 05/10/22, Forbes
“It’s no secret that outdoor living has become a huge trend. ‘It has exploded over the past five years with homeowners desiring to have resort-like backyards,’ declares Reno-based landscape architect and franchisor Ron DuHamel, president of FireSky.

How a Los Angeles Landscape Architecture Firm Is Reclaiming a Hillside for Native Plants — 05/10/2022, Dwell
“Terremoto is spearheading an experimental grassroots project to transform a neglected patch of public land with native species.”

Justice Department Unveils New Environmental Justice Moves (2) — 05/05/2022, Bloomberg Law
“The Department of Justice announced a trio of major environmental justice actions on Thursday, including the launch of a new office and the resurrection of a popular enforcement tool scrapped during the Trump administration.”

A Smarter Urban Design Concept for a Town Decimated by Wildfires — 05/03/2022, Fast Company
“SWA Group—a winner of Fast Company’s 2022 World Changing Ideas Awards—is helping Paradise, California, imagine a safer and more sustainable future with a design that buffers the town with parks, athletic fields, and orchards—areas less likely to burn than forests.”

Removing Benches, Blocking Cycle Paths: Why Are Police Interfering in the UK’s Public Spaces? — 05/02/2022, The Guardian
“The Secured by Design initiative is damaging British cities, robbing them of greenery and public amenities while promoting fear.”

New Park Brings Residents of Los Angeles’ Chinatown Together — 05/01/2022, Parks and Recreation Business
“Designed by the landscape architecture and planning firm, AHBE/MIG, Ord and Yale Street Park represents the transformation of a once-vacant, one-acre hillside into a new pocket neighborhood park for the community.”

Earth Day Interview with Richard Weller: A Hopeful Vision for Global Conservation

Richard J. Weller

Richard J. Weller, ASLA, is the Meyerson Chair of Urbanism and Professor and Chair of landscape architecture and Executive Director of the McHarg Center at The University of Pennsylvania. He is author of seven books, including the forthcoming The Landscape Project, a collection of essays by the faculty at the Weitzman School of Design. He is also the creative director of LA+, the interdisciplinary journal of landscape architecture. In 2017 and 2018, Weller was voted by the Design Intelligence survey as one of North America’s most admired teachers, and his research has been published by Scientific American and National Geographic and exhibited in major museums around the world.

Later this year, the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will meet in China to finalize what is being called a “Paris Agreement for Nature.” The agreement will outline global goals for ecosystem conservation and restoration for the next decade, which may include preserving 30 percent of lands, coastal areas, and oceans by 2030. Goals could also include restoring one-fifth of the world’s degraded ecosystems and cutting billions in subsidies that hurt the environment. What are the top three things planning and design professions can do to help local, state, and national governments worldwide achieve these goals?

Design, Design, and Design!

There are now legions of policy people and bureaucrats, even accountants at the World Bank, all preaching green infrastructure and nature-based solutions. But the one thing all these recent converts to landscape architecture cannot do is design places. They cannot give form to the values they all now routinely espouse.

But design is not easy, especially if it’s seeking to work seriously with biodiversity, let alone decarbonization and social justice. Design has to show how biodiversity— from microbes to mammals— can be integrated into the site scale, then connected with and nested into the district scale, the regional, the national, and, ultimately, the planetary scale. And then it has to situate the human in that network – not just as voyeurs in photoshop, but as active agents in ecosystem construction and reconstruction.

Of course, wherever we can gain influence, this is a matter of planning — green space here, development there. But it’s also an aesthetic issue of creating places and experiences from which the human is, respectfully, now decentered, and the plenitude of other life forms foregrounded.

It’s as if on the occasion of the sixth extinction, we need a new language of design that is not just about optimizing landscape as a machine, or a pretty picture, but that engenders deeper empathy for all living things and the precarious nature of our interdependence.

In 2010, the CBD set 20 ambitious targets, including preserving 17 percent of terrestrial and inland waters and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas by 2020. Of these targets, only 6 have been partially met. On the other hand, almost every week, we hear about billions being spent by coalitions of foundations or wealthy individuals to buy and protect vast swathes of land in perpetuity. And the protection of nature and leveraging “nature-based solutions” is increasingly a global priority. Are you positive or negative about the future of conservation?

In 1962, there were about 9,000 protected areas. Today, there are over 265,000 and counting. If our yardstick is humans setting aside land for things other than their own consumption, then there is reason to be optimistic.

In 2021, the total protected area sits at 16.6 percent the Earth’s terrestrial ice-free surface, not quite 17 percent, but close. The missing 0.4 percent is not nothing – it’s about 150,000 Central Parks and over the last few years my research has been motivated by wondering where exactly those parks should be.

The World’s current protected areas. Image by Rob Levinthal, courtesy Richard Weller

The fact that humans would give up almost a fifth of the Earth during such a historical growth period is remarkable in and of itself. While targets are useful political tools, the question is one of quality not just quantity. And that’s where pessimism can and should set in. Protected areas, especially in parts of the world where they are most needed, arise from messy, not to say corrupt, political processes. They are not always a rational overlay on where the world’s most threatened biodiversity is or what those species really need.

The percentages of protected areas around the world are also very uneven across the 193 nations who are party to the Convention. Some nations, like say New Zealand, exceed the 17 percent target, while others, like Brazil fall way short – and they don’t want people making maps showing the fact. Protected areas also have a history of poor management, and they have, in some cases, evicted, excluded, or patronized indigenous peoples.

Protected areas are also highly fragmented, which is really not good for species now trying to find pathways to adapt to climate change and urbanization and industrialization. The global conservation community is keenly aware of all this but again, while they are good on the science and the politics, they need help creating spatial strategies that can serve multiple, competing constituencies. Under the Convention, all nations must produce national biodiversity plans, and these should go down to the city scale, but these so-called plans are often just wordy documents full of UN speak. There is a major opportunity here for landscape architects to step up.

So, the pessimist’s map of the world shows the relentless, parasitical spread of human expansion and a fragmented and depleted archipelago of protected areas. The optimist’s map on the other hand shows over 160 projects around the world today where communities, governments, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are reconstructing ecosystems at an epic landscape scale.

Rob Levinthal, a PhD candidate at Penn and I call these Mega-Eco Projects. As indicators of the shift from the old-school engineering of megastructures towards green infrastructure on a planetary scale, they are profoundly optimistic.

Mega-Eco Projects taking place in the world today. Image by Rob Levinthal, courtesy Richard Weller

We don’t call these projects Nature Based Solutions. The reason being that “nature” comes with way too much baggage and “solution” makes designing ecosystems sound like a simple fix. These two words reinforce a dualistic and instrumentalist approach, things which arguably got us into the mess we find ourselves in today.

By placing the Mega-Eco Projects within the tradition of 20th century megaprojects — many of which failed socially and environmentally, if not economically, we are taking a critical approach to their emergence, which is important to working out what really makes for best practice as opposed to just greenwashing.

I mean there are great projects like the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative and the Great Green Wall across Sub-Saharan Africa, but when someone like President Trump endorses planting trillions of trees, you have to wonder what’s really going on.

The Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative. Drawing by Oliver Atwood. Courtesy Richard Weller
The Great Green Wall. Drawing by Oliver Atwood. Courtesy Richard Weller

Whereas the definition of old school megaprojects was always financial — say over a billion dollars — our working definition of Mega-Eco Projects is not numerical. Rather, it is that they are “complex, multifunctional, landscape-scale environmental restoration and construction endeavors that aim to help biodiversity and communities adapt to climate change.”

Furthermore, unlike the old concrete megaprojects, Mega-Eco Projects use living materials; they cross multiple site boundaries, they change over time, and they are as much bottom up as top down. The project narratives are also different, whereas megaprojects were always couched in terms of modern progress and nation building, the Mega-Ecos are about resilience, sustainability, and a sense of planetary accountability.

There are four categories of Mega-Ecos. The first are large-scale conservation projects; the second are projects that seek to resist desertification; the third are watershed plans; and the fourth are green infrastructure projects in cities either dealing with retrofitting existing urbanity or urban growth.

As you would expect, landscape architects tend to be involved with this fourth category, but there is a bigger future for the field in the other three, which is part of our motivation for studying them.

By our current assessment, there are about 40 Mega-Eco Projects taking place in metropolitan areas around the world today. These tend to be in the global north and China, notably the Sponge Cities initiative, where so far over $12 billion has been spent in 30 trial cities. We have not yet conducted a comparative analysis of these projects, nor are many of them advanced enough to yet know if they are, or will be, successful.

With specific regard to urban biodiversity, I don’t think there is yet a city in the world that really stands out and has taken a substantial city-wide approach that has resulted in design innovation. It will happen. As they do with culture, cities will soon compete to be the most biodiverse. The conception that cities are ecosystems, and that cities could be incubators for more than human life is a major shift in thinking, and while landscape architecture has a strong history of working with people and plants, it has almost completely overlooked the animal as a subject of design. That said, we shouldn’t romanticize the city as an Ark or a Garden of Eden. The city is primarily a human ecology, and the real problem of biodiversity lies well beyond the city’s built form. Where cities impact biodiversity is through their planetary supply chains, so they need to be brought within the purview of design.

Singapore is a case in point. Because it developed the Biodiversity Index, Singapore has been able to tally its improvements with regard to urban biodiversity and tout itself as a leader in this area. Many other cities are adopting this tool and this is good.

But this is also where things get tricky, because whatever gains Singapore can afford to make in its urban biodiversity need to be seen in light of the nation’s massive ecological footprint.

I mean, Singapore can make itself into a garden because the farm and the mine are always somewhere else. I would call Singapore a case of Gucci biodiversity, a distraction from the fact that they bankroll palm oil plantations in Kalimantan, the last of the world’s great rainforests.

That said, every city is shot through with contradictions. The question then is to what degree do the designers play along or whether they can make these contradictions the subject of their work, as opposed to its dirty little secret. The Gardens by the Bay project, for example, is a brilliant case of creating a spectacle and keeping tourists in town for an extra day, but it’s got nothing to do with biodiversity beyond the boundary of the project.

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore / istockphoto.com

The late E.O. Wilson and other biologists and ecologists have also called for protecting half the Earth’s lands and oceans. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) split the difference in their recent report, calling for 30-50 percent to be protected. What are the extra benefits to protecting 50 percent? What does this mean for the planning and design of existing and future human settlements?

I’d trust E.O. Wilson or better still, James Lovelock, with the calculation for a healthy planet, but the dualism of humans here and biodiversity over there that tends to come with Wilson’s notoriously puritanical position is problematic.

The world is a novel, highly integrated, human dominated ecosystem, and design has to work at improving the symbiotic nature of that condition. Each site needs to be assessed on its own biological and cultural terms as to what can be more deeply integrated or what should be separated out; what has to be actively curated and what can be left to its own devices. As Sean Burkholder and others have pointed out, this means designing time as well as space.

The thing with Wilson is where exactly would his 50 percent be? He never really explained it in spatially explicit terms. Half Earth means another 34.5 percent on top of what we currently have protected. As a priority, it would have to comprise any unprotected forest or other areas of remnant vegetation and whatever can be clawed back in the world’s biodiversity hotspots.

The World’s 36 biological hotspots. Image by Rob Levinthal. Courtesy Richard Weller

But the numbers don’t really add up. About 40 percent of the Earth’s ice-free earth is currently used for food production, 30 percent is desert, and 30 percent is forest – although “forest” is a loose term, and some of that already overlaps with protected areas. Given that the global foodscape is and will probably continue expanding, 30 percent total protected area seems more reasonable than 50. It is my belief that design, if given the chance, can weave viable biodiversity through the contemporary agricultural landscape whilst maintaining overall yield.

Even 30 seems a stretch, because if you project the expansion of crop land by 21st century population growth, we need most of the planet to feed people, so something has to give. Either we massively increase yields from the current agricultural footprint or biodiversity gets pushed further into the mountains. Or billions starve. The prospect of us reducing the planet to a monoculture is very real and very scary on every level.

To your question, the benefits would be that by more or less doubling the current conservation estate, we could create larger patches in the hotspots and seek to achieve connectivity between the existing fragments of protected areas. As landscape ecology teaches, it is only with larger patches and substantial connectivity that we can create a truly resilient and healthy landscape. The problem is of course that the patches and corridors have to be reverse engineered into hostile territory. Human settlements and agriculture have to make way for larger patches and greater connectivity and planned around it. To turn the whole thing on its head, human settlements and human land uses have to protect the global conservation estate. Easy to say.

Biodiversity loss is often considered a result of the climate crisis. But there are other issues also driving increased biodiversity loss and extinction rates worldwide, such as increased development in natural areas, the spread of transportation systems, and pesticide and chemical use. How do explain the relationship between climate change and biodiversity loss?

When people hear “biodiversity” they almost invariably think of charismatic megafauna, but as you indicate, the problem runs deeper and at a much finer grain. Of course, we are now obsessed with chasing every carbon molecule, but for life on and in the land and its waters, the problem is also excess manufactured nitrogen along with other toxins. Ironically, despite ultimately killing microorganisms upon which soil health depends, industrialized fertilizers have slowed the rate of deforestation that would have occurred had the world tried to feed itself without industrial fertilizers because they have, at least in the short term, increased yields.

The main problem from a spatial planning and land use perspective is that species increasingly need to migrate so as to adapt to a changing climate but they find themselves trapped in isolated fragments of protected areas or stranded in unprotected scraps of remnant habit.

There is another part of this though, and that is that the entire discourse and politics of environmentalism is couched in terms of loss. But a truer picture perhaps is that as ever in the chaos of evolution, there will be winners as well as losers. I don’t think we know what is really happening or what will happen, so in that sense we need to design landscapes as insurance policies, as expressions of the precautionary principle where we just try to maximize the potential of life to evolve. In this regard landscape architectural research and design becomes less about finished projects, and more about conducting experiments based on both scientific and cultural questions related to biodiversity.

The Metatron at the Theoretical and Experimental Ecology Station in Moulis, France is a good example. The Metatron is an experimental field of 48 enclosures in which species composition, temperature, light and humidity can be controlled. Each enclosure is connected to the others via small passages that can also be controlled. In this way, the Metatron is a simulator of landscape dynamics, a model microcosm in which each enclosure is understood as a “patch” and each connector a small simulation of a landscape “corridor.” Since 2015, given the limitations of its size, experiments have focused on studying how small species like butterflies and lizards move through the system, but many more species could be studied using a similar system at larger scales. In essence, the Metratron is learner’s kit, helping us understand how best to reconstruct landscapes at scale.

The Metatron. Drawing by Oliver Atwood. Courtesy Richard Weller

Your own research, including the ASLA-award winning Atlas for the End of the World, documents how areas at the edge of sprawling cities around the world are increasingly colliding with biodiversity hotspots, which are defined as highly valuable reservoirs of diverse and endemic species. What are the implications of your research?

By conducting an audit of land use and urban growth with regards to CBD targets in the world’s biodiversity hotspots, the Atlas set the scene for my two current research projects.

The first is the Hotspot Cities Project and the second is the World Park Project. A hotspot city is a growing city in a biodiversity hotspot – the 36 regions on Earth where endemic biodiversity is most diverse and most threatened. We’ve identified which of these cities —over 90 percent— are sprawling on direct collision courses with remnant habitat harboring endangered species.

Hotspot Cities: Each yellow dot represents a city growing in direct conflict with endangered species. Image by Chieh Huang. Courtesy Richard Weller
Los Angeles in the California Floristic Province biodiversity hotspot. Red areas indicate conflict between growth projected to 2050 and the range lands of endangered species. Image by Nanxi Dong. Courtesy Richard Weller

In our mapping we identify the conflict zones between development and biodiversity and then we conduct design case studies as to how the conflict could be mitigated. The argument is that destructive sprawl is not a fait accompli, and designers—especially landscape architects skilled in urban design— can create credible alternatives by taking a holistic, city-wide perspective. This research especially draws attention to peri-urban landscapes that are largely overlooked by the profession, because the design dollar has mainly been invested in city centers.

The World Park Project is a big vision for a new form of conservation landscape, one that actively involves humans in its construction. It’s an answer to the question of where those 150,000 Central Parks should be, as I mentioned earlier.

The idea of the World Park begins with the creation of three recreational trails: the first from Australia to Morocco, the second from Turkey to Namibia, and the third from Alaska to Patagonia.

Passing through 55 nations, these trails are routed to string together as many fragments of protected areas in as many hotspots as possible. The trails are catalysts for bringing people together to work on restoring the ecological health of over 160,000 square kilometers of degraded land in between existing protected areas.

In this way, the Park is about building a coherent and contiguous global network of protected area. It addresses the two biggest challenges facing global conservation today: ensuring adequate representation of biodiversity in protected areas and connectivity between those areas. It sounds crazy, but forging connectivity at this scale is just what we do for every other form of global infrastructure. Humans build networks, and it’s high time to build a green one.

The World Park Project: 3 trails through biodiversity hotspots at a planetary scale. Image by Madeleine Ghillany-Lehar

I was expecting derision from design academics about World Park, because “going big” is generally seen as neo-colonial or megalomaniacal. I was also expecting world weary eye-rolling from the conservationists or outright rejection of the idea because it would suck the oxygen out of their own efforts, but generally the reaction has been very positive.

Most people, particularly in the NGOs, have reacted like “wow – this is exactly what we need right now.” They know they can’t just keep adding more fenced-off fragments of protected area to meet UN targets. There are now so many conservation efforts going on but they are all disconnected from one another. A World Park could galvanize these efforts into something that is greater than just the sum of its parts.

In any event, my research team (Alice Bell, Oliver Atwood and Elliot Bullen) have completed the mapping of the Park’s territory. Now I’m talking with UNESCO about how we might move the idea to a proper feasibility study. Realistically, nothing will happen unless the major NGOs adopt it, along with some philanthropic champions and the relevant ministers in those nations whose sovereign territory is involved.

Only half-jokingly, I think Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson should bring their toys back to earth and take this on. Musk could fund the African trail, Bezos the Americas, and Branson would pick up the Australia to Morocco piece. At current landscape restoration rates, I worked it out at about $7 billion.

That’s an expensive park, but the better question to ask is not what it costs but what is it worth? For a mere $7 billion a World Park could provide investment in impoverished landscapes. It could provide meaningful experiences and jobs for lots of people. Above all, it would be a profound sign of hope that humanity can work together to be a constructive force of nature instead of its executioner.

Lastly, how can landscape architecture academics and practitioners better partner to address the twinned biodiversity and climate crises? What additional research is needed to better weave biodiversity considerations into broader climate solutions?

Well, as someone who has spent a lifetime in both the academy and practice, I would really like to take this opportunity to attest to the value of both. I think it’s a problem that the academy demands young faculty have PhDs but not necessarily any practice experience. Just as I think it’s a problem that certain elements of the profession become anti-intellectual over time and associate this with being savvy professionals.

Academics have the luxury of formulating research questions and methods, whereas practitioners are generally making it up on the run and learning by doing. These are both entirely valid ways of forming knowledge, and they actually need each other.

My work over the last decade has been very big picture, but it means nothing unless it can translate into design. So I think there are two forms of design needed right now with regard to biodiversity and they both bring academics and practitioners together.

The first is taking on a whole-of-city scale and considering the city as an incubator and protectorate for biodiversity and offer plausible scenarios as to how the city’s growth can be best managed to minimize negative impact on existing biodiversity. Until city authorities pay properly for this work, the academics have to act as the start-ups. They can form interdisciplinary teams to find research funding to do this work, preparing the way, as it were, for practitioners to come in and realize specific projects.

Which brings us to the second form of design — the project scale. Take any project at any scale and ask how to approach it if your client was every living thing, not just humans, and then work as if your life really depended on serving all of them – which, incidentally, it does! To answer this takes both time and levels of knowledge beyond landscape architects irrespective of whether they are in the academy or in practice. We are very accomplished at designing for humans but still have everything to learn if we consider biodiversity as our client.

In terms of both professional and academic practice, the role of the landscape architect, now more than ever, is to bring the world of development and the world of conservation together over the same maps and serve as a negotiator.

It sounds like a platitude, but it goes to the core of our job description, and it’s never been more important. There has never been more at stake.

Latest IPCC Report Highlights Opportunities to Stave Off Worst Climate Impacts

ASLA 2019 Professional General Design Honor Awward. Changchun Culture of Water Ecology Park, Changchun, China. SHUISHI / Pan Shuang

ASLA urges governments to focus on cities and nature to meet climate goals.

The third assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change — which was created by nearly 300 scientists in 65 countries over the past seven years, finds that cities are a significant contributor to global emissions.

Recent estimates place cities’ share of global emissions at more than 70 percent. With expected population growth, existing and future cities can either be the primary source of future warming or a key solution.

According to the IPCC, if little is done, future cities could contribute 40 billion metric tons of emissions each year by 2050. But by taking important steps starting this decade, that number could reach as low as 3 billion tons.

“Landscape architects are systems designers. We are already designing the next generation of park, transportation, and water infrastructure needed to make this transformation happen. But we need more policymakers to prioritize these changes,” said ASLA President Jeannie Martin, FASLA.

“Landscape architects plan and design walkable environments that are central to reducing urban energy demand and emissions. This work has involved partnering with planning and design professions to pair public transit with transit-oriented development, and integrate Complete Streets, which offer safe, accessible pedestrian and bicycle access, and trails and greenways,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, ASLA CEO.

ASLA 2019 Professional General Design Honor Awward. The Bentway. Toronto, Ontario, Canada
PUBLIC WORK Office for Urban Design & Landscape Architecture / Nic Lehoux

Designing with nature is also critical to achieving broader urban climate goals. Landscape architects integrate green infrastructure in the form of parks, green roofs, green streets, rain gardens, and bioswales. As the IPCC notes, these strategies not only sequester carbon but also manage stormwater, reduce urban heat islands, increase biodiversity, and improve health and well-being.

ASLA 2021 Professional General Design Honor Awward. Repairing the Rift: Ricardo Lara Linear Park. Lynwood, California. SWA Group / Bill Tatham, David Lloyd, SWA Group

“We design cities to include living systems. Landscape architects store carbon by incorporating diverse ecologies into the urban landscape. This also helps cities become more resilient to climate impacts,” said Scott Bishop, ASLA, Chair of the ASLA Climate Action Committee.

The IPCC’s latest report calls for preserving existing ecosystems outside cities that store carbon as well, such as forests, prairies, peatlands, mangroves, and wetlands. But notes that these ecosystems are also increasingly threatened by rising temperatures, wildfires and other climate impacts, and sprawl.

ASLA 2020 Professional General Design Honor Award. Deep Form of Designed Nature: Sanya Mangrove Park, Sanya Ciy, Hainan Province, China. Turenscape

Renewable energy now powers nearly 40 percent of global electricity, with wind and solar now making up 10 percent of the total. The IPCC report finds that since 2010, the cost of solar panels has decreased by 85 percent and wind turbines by more than 50 percent. Still, governments and companies need to spend an estimated $1.8 to 3.6 trillion each year on renewable power, approximately 3-6 times the current amount, to reach climate goals.

Landscape architects can help plan an expansion of wind and solar across our landscapes in a way that supports ecological restoration and provides greater community benefits.

Solar Strand at University at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY. Hood Design Studio / Image: Douglas Levere

The Green New Deal Superstudio: Designing the Impossible

Protesters march in Parliament Square, London / Photo by Thomas Krych, SOPA Images/Sipa USA. Sipa via AP Images.

By Richard Weller, ASLA

There are two reasons why Superstudio was a good name for an event that would build on the momentum already established by Billy Fleming, ASLA, at the University of Pennsylvania, Kate Orff, FASLA, founder of SCAPE, and Thaddeus Pawlowski at Columbia University to align landscape architecture with the Green New Deal (GND). The first is that with the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF), back in 2020, we had all agreed to launch what was literally a supersized international design studio on the hot topic of the GND. The second reason was that Superstudio also recalls the eponymous Italian architecture group of the late 1960’s that specialized in bombastic imagery and anti-capitalist, anti-design rhetoric. This connection was, for me at least, most important because it signaled that the event we were planning was about design culture, not just political culture. The Superstudio is in this way situated as part of a certain modern tradition of speculation, which in turn provides context for the critical evaluation of its meaning. But before we get to that, let me set the scene a bit for you.

Superstudio (1966–1978), Supersurface: Happy Island, 1972. Collage. Cristiano Toraldo di Francia. / Drawingmatter.org

For the purposes of staging a conversation about the GND and landscape architecture, a jury of LAF board members along with Fleming, Orff, and myself distilled from the 669 submissions the Superstudio received what we thought to be a representative, manageable sample.

The overarching question in the back of the jury’s mind as they foraged through all the work was this: “Are the projects appropriate manifestations of the GND’s ethos and intent, and if so, how?” To evaluate this, the work was superimposed onto the tenets of HR 109, the non-binding congressional resolution introduced on February 7, 2019, by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) and Senator Ed Markey (MA). HR 109 calls on Congress to pass legislation that would achieve the following within ten years:

Net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers; 2) create millions of good, high-wage jobs and ensure prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States; 3) invest in the infrastructure and industry of the United States to sustainably meet the challenges of the 21st century; 4) secure for all people of the United States for generations to come, clean air and water; climate and community resiliency; healthy food; access to nature; and a sustainable environment; and finally, 5) promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.

The improbability of this notwithstanding, HR 109—delivered with AOC’s steely certainty—cut through all the bullshit of contemporary politics with a sense of urgency, authenticity, and above all, the possibility that history really is up to us. By triangulating environmentalism, decarbonization, and jobs around the fulcrum of social justice, HR 109 distinguishes itself from the last half a century or so of environmentalism which, arguably, suffered from too singular a preoccupation with “nature.” For a generation born into a climate changed world and now looking for answers, HR 109 is both prophetic and, at least insofar as it recalls the New Deal, useful.

Of course, as is the nature of political rhetoric, it is also just a bunch of platitudes. Apart from asking us to put all our faith in the heavy hand of government, HR 109 tells us nothing about how we actually get from the world we currently live in to the one in which it says we should. In broad terms, the responses to this are still split along old lines: good old socialism on the one hand, and wicked capitalism on the other. Further to that, there is division within the left itself along a sliding scale that has eco-socialism at one end and eco-modernism at the other. As you would expect, eco-socialists blame capitalism and its shameful colonial history for today’s global inequity and the climate crisis, whereas eco-modernists maintain the faith that free markets and technological innovation can yet solve the world’s socio-economic and environmental problems.

Both have their demons. For example, the eco-socialists are unable to explain—or have conveniently forgotten— socialism’s appalling social and environmental record. Nor can they really explain where all the energy will come from if fossil fuels are suddenly “abolished,” as they like to say. For their part, the eco-modernists downplay technology’s shocking history of unintended consequences and can’t explain how innovation alone can avoid anything but the perpetuation of neoliberal inequality as we know it. With the deployment of more solar, wind, and geothermal energy, the eco-modernists also perform the cardinal sin of touting nuclear energy as a clean alternative to fossil fuels, at least to tide us over until the holy grail of fusion is discovered.

In terms of their landscape visions, the eco-modernists see hi-tech cities “decoupled” from vast wilderness areas. What eco-socialists see instead is less clear, but if I had to guess, it would be a working landscape — the Jeffersonian grid rescaled for permaculture and renewable energy production with a Conservation Corps fanning out in all directions.

Civilian Conservation Corps in the Pacific Northwest, 1930s / National Park Service, Public Domain

For the Green New Dealers, the only way to expiate their demons is massive government programs and investment based on the precedent of the original New Deal, only this time without the racism and quite so much concrete. In today’s political climate, however, both in America and the rest of the world, to expect this form of bold governance any time soon, seems at best, wishful thinking. Making matters worse, because it is a manifesto, not a policy, HR 109 has lent itself to the messianic and the Manichean on both the left and the right. Instead of adding to this, or recoiling into apocalyptic resignation, it is precisely in times like these that landscape architects have a role to play in giving vision and dimension to alternative futures, which is where the thought experiment of the Superstudio comes in.

The last time anything even remotely like the Superstudio happened was the so-called Landscape Exchange, an annual design competition for landscape architecture students in the U.S. that started in 1924 and ended in 1970. Reflecting the profession’s modesty, the projects in the Exchange were generally constrained to the design of gardens and parks on real sites, with real contours. It is interesting that just as the Exchange held its final competition in 1970, Ian McHarg, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote Design with Nature. And here we are, some 50 or so years later, asking students not to design a park or a garden, but to take a shot at nothing less than an entirely new economy and a new society to go with it.

For some, this is landscape architecture reaching its world-changing potential; for others it’s just more overreach that can only lead to the craft’s undoing. Either way, the LAF has to be congratulated for being the first design-related organization in the world to take HR 109 at its word and rally its troops for a creative response. And so too, we must congratulate the teachers, students, and a handful of professionals who stepped up. Kudos to them for facing up to the almost impossible challenge of, per the brief, translating HR 109 “… into actual projects and [showing] where, as a matter of priority these projects should take place, what will they look like, who will they serve, and how will they roll out.”

So, good event, but what about the work?

The jury organized the work into 6 categories based on 6 verbs: Adapt, Cultivate, Empower, Energize, Remediate, and Retrofit. These already tell you a lot about the ethos and focus of work produced under the banner of the Green New Deal. In this sense the perfect GND project would be about adapting to climate change, cultivating the land, empowering marginalized people, (re)energizing with renewables, remediating brownfields, and retrofitting existing buildings and existing infrastructure. This is very a big ask of any landscape project, but, with remarkable consistency, all the submissions stuck to the script and got busy putting these verbs into action. By prioritizing relationships between jobs, justice, and environmentalism and then inscribing them in real space, even if only as a gesture, the Superstudio marks a significant change in sensibility. Participants also made very deliberate choices about where to focus their work and the sorts of programs it should involve. Contrary to where the neo-liberal design dollar has tended to go, almost all Superstudio submissions make a point of allocating resources and design services to neglected communities. And even though, as an academic exercise, participants obviously had the luxury of choice in this regard, taken as a whole, the Superstudio work emphasizes a long overdue reorientation that developers, city authorities, and the profession need to reckon with.

Montage of Green New Deal Superstudio submissions / Landscape Architecture Foundation

Having pegged out the relevant territory, the question then of course is what, especially, makes a GND project that landscape architects wouldn’t just do anyways? And this is where things become a little predictable.

To summarize, the majority of projects submitted to the Superstudio are things like:

• Streetscape retrofits
• Community gardens and parks
• Wetlands
• Small-scale flood mitigation
• Lots of tree planting
• Soil remediation
• Urban farming and food co-ops
• Community centers
• Research centers
• Clean brownfields
• Small solar arrays
• Green school yards
• Recycling centers
• Stream daylighting
• And very occasionally some buildings labeled as “affordable housing” or “green jobs districts.”

As well as their predictability, the submissions also share similar graphic qualities. Crammed with statistics, diagrams, flow charts and slogans, the boards often look like DIY manuals, bureaucratic brochures, school posters, and the sort of stuff left lying around after a community workshop. The actual designs can be hard to find, and when they do appear, the hand of the designer tends only to offer outlines along with some optimistic Photoshop showing “the community” enthusiastically filling in the blanks. Whereas on the other side of town, the mainstream profession makes everything look like a stylish walk in the park, GND landscapes tend to have the feel of a union picnic. And maybe, at the neighborhood scale this kind of communitarian, restorative, eco-agrarian, anti-aesthetic is what a GND ecotopia would really be like. And maybe that’s a good “bottom-up” thing, but the question that has to be asked, as with any landscape representation, is what are these happy, folksy images not showing us? What’s outside the frame? What’s over the horizon?

“Renew Calumet” by Maddie Clark, Adam Deheer, Adriana Hernández, Olivia Pinner, Adam Scott, Nick Zurlini
“Empowered Adaptions” by WRT: Garlen Capita; Zoe Cennami; Keiko Cramer; Zuzanna Drozdz; Charles Neer; Amie Patel; William Wellington; Shuning Zhao

The answers relate to the bigger questions implicated in, but not addressed by HR 109. For example, if fossil fuels are abolished, or quickly phased out, how is the new world phased in? Where does all the new energy come from, exactly? How do we make everything we are accustomed to, without fossil fuels? Or if lifestyles must change, how and in what way? What might be the daily and collective rituals of a post-fossil fueled world and the spaces these play out in? How would lifestyle changes apply to people who don’t have the luxury of making environmentally benevolent choices? How will we sequester the carbon from the skies and filter the nitrogen from the ground at a scale commensurate with the issues? How will America, let alone the world, feed itself without industrial fertilizer and do so without more deforestation? How do we secure the water supply? What, in addition to the hard labor of landscape restoration, are the new “green jobs?” Where are they and how do I get to them? And if there is to be a new Conservation Corps, what is its plan of action? How do we accommodate the human and non-human migrations that climate change will force? Where will at least another 100 million Americans this century live? How will the coast be reorganized to absorb rising seas? How will the suburbs, where most people currently live, be retrofitted? The list goes on.

America’s current energy sources. Atlas for a Green New Deal. Fleming and Weller et al. McHarg Center.

To be fair, only a fool would pretend to have the answers to these questions. But instead of just fast-forwarding to a world without fossil fuels and relabeling it with lots of GND goodies, we have to sit longer with the wicked and often times contradictory nature of the issues. We have to scope them across the full range of scales they entail. We have to understand them before we pretend to change them, and when we do, we have to get inside their systemic natures and be forensic about where they could be inflected, disrupted, rerouted, reimagined and reinvented. And obviously this can’t be done by landscape architects or through the medium of landscape alone. Weaning civilization off fossil fuels in the context of a rapidly changing planetary climate is the greatest challenge civilization has ever faced, so let’s not make it look simple.To do so is not design, it’s just illustration, or worse, propaganda.

A few submissions that went somewhat further afield in their inquiries and propositions concerned topics such as:

• Fire management and forestry practices
• Big riparian corridors
• Reimagining regions through BIPOC lenses
• Prison reuse
• Tools for community scenario planning
• Assertions of indigenous land rights
• Non-romantic takes on offshore wind farms
• Eco-aquaculture
• Light rail corridors
• New trails
• Freeway removal

And one stand-out submission declared “the GND will be won or lost at scale”, and called for land-use planning on a national scale. Again, there is nothing really new in any of this, but the scale and emphasis of this second tranche of work seems more apropos.

“Land Management @ Scale.” OLIN: Jessica M. Henson, Trevor Lee, Andrew Dobshinsky, Joanna Karaman, Claire Casstevens, Sarah Swanseen, Abbey Catig

So where does this leave us? Well, I guess the politicians who support the GND will see it as an endorsement. They might also breathe a sigh of relief that, at least according to landscape architects, their world-changing policies seem to be relatively innocuous. On the other hand, if they are looking for images to “stir men’s blood,” or even just something an advertising agency could use to help persuade Americans to relinquish their fossil-fueled superpowers, they will be disappointed.

Compared to how designers have previously responded to historical moments of heady socialist speculation —for example, the Russian constructivists, the modernists and the megastructuralists—it is remarkable how little speculation there is in the Superstudio results. And I don’t mean this pejoratively. Since its more about the undoing of a world than the building of a new one per se, the GND doesn’t lend itself to a spectacular architectural imagination. It does however lend itself to the more subtle threads of the landscape imagination. But while the Superstudio work has shown how that landscape might take shape at a local level, it has not shown how the sprawling landscape of modernity will be retrofitted and restructured. Along the eco-socialism—eco-modernism scale, studios across the nation have clearly tended more toward to the former, and as such, the work is more an illustration of local socio-political aspirations and allegiances, than it is about technical invention and aesthetic exploration.

Like Ebenezer Howard, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright, Karl Marx called for a blurring of city and country. But he also ridiculed literary and architectural utopias. Going by the Superstudio work one could be excused for thinking that, following in his footsteps, landscape architects working in the spirit of the GND also have very little interest in, if not an actual disdain for aesthetics. This is a mistake. In some GND-related polemic, it is argued that since design is a mechanism through which capitalism and the climate crisis is reproduced, design as we know it is fundamentally incapable of broaching the interrelated social, environmental, and economic issues HR 109 sets out. Adolpho Natalini, the nominal head of the original Superstudio, made more or less the same point back in 1971, writing that “if design is merely an inducement to consume…and if it merely formalizes unjust social divisions…then we must reject design.” But he didn’t mean we abandon aesthetics. On the contrary, for years, in the spirit of rejecting a certain kind of design, Superstudio continued to produce powerfully utopian and dystopian imagery that captured and influenced its zeitgeist. Make of this what you will, but not one submission to the LAF Superstudio dared present a really utopian or dystopian version of the GND.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we should now just make trippy images of alternate realities. But I am asking whether by ignoring the way in which the evolution of modernity into a post-fossil fuel phase is an aesthetic project, we’ve not only left the GND with an image problem, but also left ourselves with no alternatives except deference to “the community” on the one hand and rolling out government-issue green infrastructure on the other. Of course, this is good work and lots of it must be done, and landscape architects are the right people to do it. But I have this terrible feeling that beyond the frame, over the horizon, history is being determined by people looking at a very different set of drawings.

Grounding the Green New Deal: A Summit on Policy, Design, and Advocacy will be held at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. on April 9. Learn more and purchase tickets.

Richard Weller, ASLA, is 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.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (February 16-28)

Drying lake bed / istockphoto.com

5 Takeaways from the Latest United Nations Climate Change Report — 02/28/22, The Washington Post
“The latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a warning letter to a world on the brink. A sweeping survey of the most advanced climate science on the planet, it recounts the effects rising temperatures are already having and projects the catastrophes that loom if humans fail to make swift and significant cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.”

A Bike Plan Revived: Adding a Path to the Olmsted-designed 33rd Street Greenspace — 02/28/22, Baltimore Fishbowl
“The city’s broader goals are to create a safe, well-used trail that makes the best use of the historic, picturesque median designed by the Olmsted Brothers (named a local landmark, along with the Gwynns Falls Parkway median, in 2015) and improves traffic and pedestrian safety at intersections.”

Best Apps for Urban Planning in 2022 – 02/28/22, Planetizen
“Mobile apps continue to redefine the practices of planning—urban planning, regional planning, transportation planning, community planning, and rural planning included.”

How ‘Solar Canals’ Could Help California Survive a Megadrought — 02/25/22, Fast Company Design
“In that 2021 study, we showed that covering all 4,000 miles of California’s canals with solar panels would save more than 65 billion gallons of water annually by reducing evaporation. That’s enough to irrigate 50,000 acres of farmland or meet the residential water needs of more than 2 million people.

How a Philadelphia Road Redesign Went off the Rails — 02/23/22, Bloomberg CityLab
“It isn’t uncommon for complete streets projects to become lightning rods for arguments about gentrification, says Leah Shahum, the founder and executive director of the Vision Zero Network, which pushes communities to adopt a goal of eliminating traffic deaths.”

Biden: Infrastructure Plan Gives $1B for Great Lakes Cleanup — 02/17/22, U.S. News and World Report, Associated Press
“The $1 billion for the Great Lakes from the bipartisan measure enacted in November, combined with annual funding through an ongoing recovery program, will enable agencies by 2030 to finish work on 22 sites designated a quarter-century ago as among the region’s most degraded, officials said Thursday.”

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

Olmsted Brothers-designed Memorial Park in Maplewood, New Jersey. / Bill Benzon, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, via The Architect’s Newspaper

Landslide 2022 Brings Under-threat Olmsted Landscapes into Focus — 02/15/22, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Today, more than 200 Olmsted-designed landscapes are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and many are designated as National Historic Landmarks. And although the Olmsted name brings with it a high level of prestige and recognition it does not, as noted by TCLF president and CEO Charles A. Birnbaum, guarantee any sort of invincibility.”

As Landscape Architects, Two Oregon Women Laid the Groundwork for Many of the Northwest’s Enduring Gardens — 02/11/22, The Oregonian
“In all, [Elizabeth Lord and Edith Schryver] designed more than 200 public and private landscapes and gardens between 1929 and 1969. They introduced many rose cultivars and once-uncommon shrubs such as English boxwood to the region, and they persuaded local growers to propagate other plants that have become garden mainstays.”

Olmsted’s Legacy, Bringing People Together Through Landscape Architecture — 02/11/22, The Pilot
“‘Olmsted saw the capability of landscape design to have beneficial impacts, whether it is physical health or mental health. He viewed landscape design as a way to bring people together,’ said Dede Petri, president and CEO of the National Association for Olmsted Parks.”

Biden’s Infrastructure Bill Includes an Unprecedented $1.1 Billion for Everglades Revitalization — 02/11/22, Inside Climate News
“The money will go toward funding projects in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, a Florida law passed in 2000 that consists of 68 different projects that will cost a total of $23 billion.”

The Untold Story of Super Bowl LVI Stadium in Los Angeles — 02/07/22, Architectural Digest
“The landscape design will allow residents year-round access to the areas outside the stadium itself, introducing new shared spaces in a city that lacks equitable access to public space. ‘This is a destination for the community,’ says [Mia] Lehrer, [founder of Studio-MLA]. ‘It’s not just a place to see a football game or to go shopping; it’s an environment for people to come and be with community.'”

NYC’s Park Avenue Medians Are Getting a Face-Lift — 02/07/22, Bloomberg CityLab
“New York City’s Department of Transportation plans to hire a landscape architect to reinvent the malls that divide Park Avenue along the 11 blocks from Grand Central to East 57th Street. Councilmember Keith Powers, who represents the area, says he expects the request for proposals to be sent out in the coming months. The renovations will proceed in stages and likely won’t be completed for at least 20 years.”

Palm Springs’ Downtown Park Looks Beyond the Desert City’s Midcentury Heyday — 02/02/22, The Architect’s Newspaper
“To that end, the $7.6 million park’s design notably eschews riffing off midcentury design. ‘We made a conscious decision to try to tap into this intrinsic landscape, something more eternal and timeless about Palm Springs,’ said [Nate] Cormier [of RIOS].”

Designing with Carbon

Climate Positive Design case study / Pamela Conrad

As the impacts of the climate crisis become more widespread, landscape architects are increasingly planning and designing landscapes with carbon in mind. At the ASLA 2021 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville, landscape architects offered new approaches and tools for sequestering both operational and embodied greenhouse emissions in their projects and reaching a climate positive state faster.

According to Pamela Conrad, ASLA, founder of Climate Positive Design and principal at CMG Landscape Architecture in San Francisco, approximately 75 percent of all emissions are from the urban built environment, with 40 percent from buildings and 35 percent from transportation and landscapes.

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

To encourage landscape architects to sequester more carbon than they emit through their projects, Conrad founded Climate Positive Design two years ago. The original goal of the effort was to achieve one gigaton of carbon sequestration across all landscape architecture projects by 2050; now that goal has moved up to 2040.

“We need to keep warming to 1.5°C. We can only add 300 gigatons of additional carbon to the atmosphere and need to work within this remaining carbon budget. We need to reduce emissions by 65 percent by 2030 and hit zero by 2040.”

Over the past year, Conrad, along with ASLA, the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA), and Architecture 2030 have encouraged design professionals and global policymakers to strive to achieve these targets. Conrad and ASLA partnered with IFLA to develop a Climate Action Commitment, which represents the voice of 70,000 landscape architecture professionals worldwide across 77 national member organizations of IFLA. All organizations also signed on to Architecture 2030’s 1.5°C COP26 Communiqué, which has the backing of more than one million planning and design professionals worldwide. “This represents a collective commitment,” Conrad said.

The importance of ramping up nature-based carbon sequestration is abundantly clear, but there hasn’t been enough progress. Today, “landscape architects are likely emitting more greenhouse gas emissions than they are sequestering,” Conrad said. “It’s time for radical change in the field of landscape architecture.”

Since its founding, the data in Climate Positive Design’s Pathfinder app has only improved. Thousands of projects have been logged in 85 percent of countries. The tool has helped landscape architects find ways to reduce space for carbon-intensive hardscapes and increase carbon-sequestering trees, shrubs, and grasses. This is critical because the data shows that 75 percent of carbon in landscape projects is embodied in materials like concrete and metal furnishings, while 25 percent is driven by operations, caused by fossil fuel-powered lawn movers and leaf blowers, and fossil fuel-based fertilizers.

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

According to her calculations, when completed, the projects already logged will result in 1.6 million new trees planted, which is equivalent to taking 800,000 cars off the road. “The tool has helped landscape architects increase planting by 18 percent.”

For Conrad, climate-smart design isn’t just about doing good for the planet; it’s also personal. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, she has also experienced the impacts of climate change, like many millions across the world. “I have experienced flooding, devastating fires to the point that I couldn’t go outside, power outages, and, eventually, displacement.”

Chris Ng-Hardy, ASLA, a senior associate landscape architect with Sasaki, a multidisciplinary planning, landscape architecture, and architecture firm, said the contemporary study of ecology and conservation often feels like “we are documenting the end of the world.” But landscape architecture offers a way to shift that mindset. “Design is an optimistic act; it’s productive.”

Sasaki often works at the urban scale, focusing on large and long-range planning projects. They found early site planning decisions can dramatically impact future carbon emissions. “We realized we need to consider carbon from the beginning, before the project even starts.”

Ng-Hardy expects that in the near future developers will increasingly use the landscape portion of large urban projects to offset carbon from the development of buildings and infrastructure.

But in order to accomplish this, developers and designers need solid data on both embodied and operational emissions to guide early planning, and, unfortunately, there are major gaps. “Measuring embodied carbon is about 10-15 years behind the curve in terms of measuring operational carbon.”

To tackle these obstacles, a team at Sasaki used a year-long internal research grant to explore lifecycle assessments and environmental product declarations, developing the Carbon Conscience App in the process. The tool is meant to help with the preliminary planning decisions that determine a project’s long-range carbon footprint. “We are stepping up to help clients integrate this into their work.”

The assumptions underlying the carbon calculations in the tool were developed from a comprehensive academic and professional literature review covering buildings, infrastructure, and landscapes. Ng-Hardy said, for example, data shows that of dry biomass, “about half of the weight is carbon.” The tool could help policymakers get a sense of how much carbon is being sequestered naturally across the U.S.

Carbon Conscience App / Sasaki
Carbon Conscience App / Sasaki

The result of all of the research led to a few conclusions for landscape architects: “don’t destroy ecosystems; add wetlands, prairies, and forests; minimize hardscapes and concrete; and reduce the use of plastics and metals.” Ng-Hardy added that “not all metals are the same — recycled metals are better,” but it’s best to use wood materials wherever possible. And overall, “less is more — everything has impact.”

The conversation then turned to natural carbon sequestration in plants and soil communities. Deanna Lynn, Assoc. ASLA, landscape designer with Wild Land Workshop, a landscape architecture firm that focuses on “endemic landscapes for outdoor living, biodiversity, and water conservation,” said “soil carbon sequestration is hard to study.” But generally, the “more life there is in ecosystems, the more carbon is stored in soils.”

Beneath the surface, there is a complex web, made up of tree roots, organic matter, microbes, earthworms, mycorrhizal fungi, and insects. As described in the book The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World by Peter Wohlleben, just one aspect of this underground world is incredibly fascinating: mycorrhizal fungi, which form a subterranean “world wood web,” enable trees to share carbon, nutrients, and information across their roots.

Nutrient exchanges and communication between mycorrhizal fungi and plants / Wikipedia. Charlotte Roy, Salsero35, Nefronus. CC BY-SA 4.0

Soil ecology is complicated. For example, Lynn said “soil microbial communities are much more important than soil structures” in sequestering carbon. This speaks to the “chemical nature of the organic matter in soils.”

Soils are also “complex, adaptive systems.” When designing for carbon sequestration, it’s important to understand soils as “nested within larger and smaller systems” that change over time. The goal should be to support “self-organizing systems of soil life.”

She argued that when trying to understand the overall carbon sequestered in a landscape, it’s important not to just estimate the carbon in trees with a lot of biomass, like a sequoia, but to examine the whole tree, plant, and soil system. The diversity of plants, including their root range, type, and depth, are also meaningful.

Grove of giant sequoias at Lake at Lake Fulmor, San Bernardino National Forest / U.S. Forest Service, public domain

Lynn has found that more carbon can be stored naturally in ecosystems and soils if species diversity is increased. Landscape architects can introduce more woody plants; warm season grasses; deciduous trees, which are denser; and nitrogen-fixing plants, which enable the productivity of the entire plant communities. Overall, native plants, which have deeper roots, are “more productive and resilient” and therefore will store more carbon over time.

Noe Valley Townhouse, San Francisco, California / Wild Land Workshop

In designing new forested landscapes, Lynn advised referring to a nearby ecosystem and mimicking their arrangements of trees and plants, along with planting an understory of plants that tolerate leaf litter. In all projects, leaf litter should be kept, along with tree logs, which help build carbon in the soil.

In the Q&A, the speakers noted that a “cultural shift” is needed to embrace the “messier” look of ecological design, which has greater carbon and biodiversity benefits. Ng-Hardy said that “the emissions from all the lawns in America are baffling. Lawns are the biggest cash crop in this country. But we need to encourage native plant gardens, a different aesthetic, as our new cultural norm and standard.” Then, landscape architects can increasingly reduce carbon and support biodiversity.

Best Books of 2021

250 Things a Landscape Architect Should Know / Birkhäuser

During another turbulent year, books remain a respite, enabling us to recharge and regroup in our efforts to tackle some of the most pressing problems. Over the holidays, now is a great time to delve into new books that offer fresh perspectives and help us reimagine what is possible. Whether you are looking for the perfect gift for your favorite designer or something to read yourself, explore THE DIRT’s 11 best books of 2021:

250 Things a Landscape Architect Should Know
Birkhäuser, 2021

Landscape architect B. Cannon Ivers, the London-based director of LDA Design, was inspired by architecture critic and educator Michael Sorkin, who authored 250 Things an Architect Should Know and passed away from COVID-19 in 2020. Ivers brings together 50 leading landscape architects, designers, and educators from around the world, including Anita Berrizbeita, Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, James Corner, ASLA, Gina Ford, FASLA, Kongjian Yu, FASLA, and Sara Zewde, who each offer five brief musings, exhortations, poems, or reminders, accompanied by an image. Of the 250 things included: “Know when to throw confetti,” by Martí Franch; “Bitches get stuff done,” by Kate Orff, FASLA; and “Waterscape urbanism as the way forward” by Kotchakorn Voraakhom, International ASLA.

A Blueprint for Coastal Adaptation: Uniting Design, Economics, and Policy / Island Press

A Blueprint for Coastal Adaptation: Uniting Design, Economics, and Policy
Island Press, 2021

“Everyone should read this book [by Carolyn Kousky, Billy Fleming, ASLA, and Alan M. Berger] to see how the field of landscape architecture might help cities adapt to a changing climate, particularly with new federally-funded infrastructure investments. Each chapter of this book reaches beyond the conventional limits of our professional knowledge, by degrees or by leaps,” writes Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA, associate professor of landscape architecture, environmental planning, and urban design at the University of California at Berkeley in her review. “The most important bar this anthology has set for other books about adaptation is to place questions about funding and policy side-by-side with design proposals. For setting that bar higher, we should all thank the editors.” Read the full review.

Dynamic Geographies / Barbara Wilks, ORO Editions

Dynamic Geographies
ORO Editions, 2021

Barbara Wilks, FASLA, founding principal of W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, shares her firm’s work in this new monograph filled with inviting images. In her review, Grace Mitchell Tada, Assoc. ASLA, writes: “As our climate shifts in increasingly surprising ways, the landscape architect’s challenge is to predict how and at what rate our world will change and to create designs that will adapt accordingly. Perhaps, like Wilks argues, allowing for nature’s agency is the key to effective adaptation.” Read the full review.

Ecoregional Green Roofs: Theory and Application in the Western USA and Canada / Springer

Ecoregional Green Roofs: Theory and Application in the Western USA and Canada
Springer, 2021

This comprehensive, 635-page how-to guide by Bruce Dvorak, ASLA, associate professor of landscape architecture and urban planning at Texas A&M University, and a slew of contributors — the rare book that wins an ASLA Professional Research Honor Award — is for any landscape architect or designer serious about integrating biodiversity into their green roof projects. In the forward, landscape architect David Yocca, FASLA, chair of the Green Infrastructure Foundation, says the book makes the case for “greater exploration, trials, and research for ecological surfaces in the face of a rapidly changing climate and substantial investment in the renewal of our cities over the next 50 years and beyond. It is also a satisfying read that ties together often disparate concepts, uniting ecology, technology, and long-term maintenance and stewardship. The [book] makes very real some of the bold visions of future green neighborhoods, villages, and cities…”

København: Urban Architecture and Public Spaces / © Edition DETAIL, Munich

København: Urban Architecture and Public Spaces
DETAIL, 2021

“København (Copenhagen), the capital of Denmark, is at the forefront of many landscape architects and planners’ minds for both its groundbreaking moves towards sustainability and cutting-edge public spaces, bicycle culture, architecture, and food scenes.” In his review, John Bela, ASLA, said “the many innovative ideas and projects described in this book, and the exploration of some of the values and motivations that drive the work, are what make København a valuable resource for landscape architects and planners in the U.S. or anywhere in the world.” Read the full review.

Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America / MoMA

Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America
Museum of Modern Art, 2021

Sean Anderson, associate professor at Cornell University, and Mabel O. Wilson, professor at Columbia University and winner of this year’s Vincent Scully Prize from the National Building Museum, are co-curators of a ground-breaking exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City that issued a “creative challenge” in the form of case studies in ten American cities, which aim to “re-conceive and reconstruct our built environment rather than continue giving shape to buildings, infrastructure, and urban plans that have, for generations, embodied and sustained anti-Black racism.” Walter Hood, ASLA, contributed his multimedia art work Black Towers / Black Power, imagining a set of ten 30-story skyscrapers in Oakland, California for non-profit organizations.

Resilient City: Landscape Architecture for Climate Change / Birkhäuser

Resilient City: Landscape Architecture for Climate Change
Birkhäuser, 2021

Thankfully, Birkhäuser has translated this new book by Elke Mertens, a professor of landscape sciences and geomatics at the Neubrandenburg University of Applied Sciences in Germany, into English. A dive into 11 in-depth case studies of cities across North and South America, this well-researched book makes the case for landscape architecture as the new infrastructure cities need to adapt to climate change. Mertens gets to the heart of the transformation that needs to happen: “Making cities more resilient means equipping them so that extreme climatic and weather events do not have a lasting impact on the inhabitants and infrastructure of a city, but that urban functions can be resumed, or at least rapidly restored, without permanent impairment.”

Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World Atria / One Signal Publishers

Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World
Atria / One Signal Publishers, 2021

Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, and an evangelical Christian living in a conservative part of Texas, outlines how to have meaningful, impactful conversations about climate change with people of different politics, beliefs, and backgrounds. Like a true scientist, she assembles evidence about what approaches work in communicating climate change, and also relays her own successes and failures. She calls for avoiding shaming people into changing their views: “When others attempt to impose their value system on us, we understand, fundamentally, that it is about making themselves feel better at our expense.” Hayhoe also says to avoid spending time trying to persuade the 7 percent of the U.S. population who can be characterized as angry climate “dismissives.”

Schools That Heal: Design with Mental Health in Mind / Island Press

Schools That Heal: Design with Mental Health in Mind
Island Press, 2021

As school communities continue to grapple with gun violence, racism, drugs, and COVID-19, which all undermine a sense of safety and in turn inhibit growth and development, Claire Latané, ASLA, assistant professor of landscape architecture at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and former Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Fellow for Leadership and Innovation, has written a timely, critically important volume on how to incorporate nature-based solutions to improve mental, social, and physical health on school campuses. Latané methodically builds her argument for designing healthy, green learning environments for young people, with spot-on case studies and research. This book should be read by every educational policymaker, school superintendent, and PTA group — and every landscape architect who wants to help them.

Serious Fun: The Landscapes of Claude Cormier / ORO Editions

Serious Fun: The Landscapes of Claude Cormier
ORO Editions, 2021

Marc Trieb and Susan Herrington have managed to do justice to Canadian landscape architect Claude Cormier’s bold, often humorous landscapes, which they argue are far from frivolous, but instead rooted in serious technical and ecological considerations. Landscape and public art projects designed by Cormier and his team offer a rich exploration of “kitsch and camp, gender, technical and biological expertise, and political, environmental, aesthetic, and humanistic aspects.” Immersive photography of the playful Sugar Beach and Berczy Park, with its pop-art dog sculpture fountain, in Toronto, and 18 Shades of Gay, a celebration of Montréal’s gayborhood, are complemented by those of his deeply ecological design at Evergreen Brick Works.

Social Urbanism: Reframing Spatial Design – Discourses from Latin America / Applied Research + Design, ORO Editions

Social Urbanism: Reframing Spatial Design – Discourses from Latin America
Applied Research + Design, ORO Editions, 2021

Gabriel Díaz Montemayor, ASLA, said this book by Maria Bellalta, ASLA, dean of the School of Landscape Architecture at the Boston Architectural College, is “a welcome addition to the growing number of publications on the social justice-oriented form of urbanism, architecture, and public space emanating from Medellín and Colombia. The fact that the book avoids a design focus is refreshing. Social Urbanism instead targets the social and political processes that enabled these projects to exist.” Read the full review.

Buying these books through THE DIRT or ASLA’s online bookstore benefits ASLA educational programs.

ASLA Survey: Significant Increase in Demand for Climate Planning and Design Solutions Over Past Year

ASLA 2021 Professional General Design Honor Award. Orange Mall Green Infrastructure. Tempe, Arizona. COLWELL SHELOR LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE / Marion Brenner

Clients are looking to landscape architects to provide nature-based solutions to climate impacts, with street trees, bioswales, and native, drought-tolerant plants in high demand.

ASLA has released its first national survey on demand for landscape architecture planning and design solutions to climate change. 563 landscape architects, designers, and landscape architecture educators in the U.S. responded to the survey in October 2021.

Nationwide, demand for planning and design solutions to climate change has increased over the past year. 77 percent of landscape architects and designers responding to the survey experienced at least a 10 percent increase in client demand for these solutions in comparison with 2020. And, of these, 38 percent of landscape architects and designers experienced more than a 50 percent increase in demand over the past year.

According to the survey results, city and local governments are the foremost drivers of demand for climate change-related planning and design projects. Non-profit organizations, state governments, and community groups, which may or may not be incorporated non-profit organizations, are also key drivers of demand.

Clients are concerned about a range of climate impacts, but are most concerned with:

  • Increased duration and intensity of heat waves
  • Increased intensity of storms
  • Increased spread and intensity of inland flooding
  • Loss of pollinators, such as bees and bats
  • Changing / unreliable weather, or “weird weather.”

The survey finds that landscape architects are also actively educating public, commercial, and residential clients about the importance of investing in more climate-smart practices.

Nationwide, 65 percent of landscape architects and designers surveyed are recommending the integration of climate solutions to “all or most” of their clients. They are creating demand for more sustainable and resilient landscape planning and design practices through “advocacy by design” approaches that persuade city, local government, and other clients to update policies and regulations.

To increase community resilience and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, landscape architects are planning and designing infrastructure at all scales – from the city and county to district, neighborhood, and site.

The top community-wide infrastructure solution clients are requesting is stormwater management to reduce flooding. Solutions that reduce reliance on fossil-fuel-powered vehicles and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, which account for approximately 30 percent of all U.S. emissions, take up the next top four in-demand solutions: walkability improvements, trails, bike infrastructure, and Complete Streets. Improved bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure also increase community resilience to climate impacts by providing additional layers of safe transportation.

The survey found that projects to increase the resilience of communities and reduce greenhouse gas emissions may also be leading to positive economic impacts. 47 percent of landscape architects and designers surveyed estimate their climate projects have a construction value of more than $1 million, with 29 percent saying the value of this work is more than $10 million.

Also, 45 percent of landscape architects and designers surveyed estimated their climate projects created more than 10 local planning, design, construction, management, or maintenance jobs in the past year. Climate solutions are resulting in well-paying creative and green jobs.

“The survey data shows that communities are greatly concerned about a range of climate risks and impacts. They are looking to landscape architects to provide nature-based solutions that both store carbon and increase resilience to extreme heat, flooding, drought, sea level rise, and other climate impacts,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, ASLA CEO. “There is also concern about biodiversity loss, particularly the loss of pollinators and the native habitat they rely on, and landscape architects are providing solutions that address the twinned climate and biodiversity crises.”

More key findings:

Designing resilience to climate impacts is at the forefront. 48 percent of landscape architects and designers surveyed stated that “all, a majority, or about half” of clients are now requesting plans and designs to increase resilience to existing or projected climate impacts, such as extreme heat, flooding, sea level rise, storm surges, and wildfires.

Specifically, some 43 percent of clients seek to increase resilience to climate shocks projected for the next 2-5 years, while 39 percent seek to address immediate climate risks or impacts.

38 percent of clients seek to increase resilience over the next 5-10 years, while 32 percent of clients are planning now for the long-term and seeking solutions for expected climate risks and impacts 10-50 years out.

Nature-based planning and design solutions are in demand. Public, non-profit, community, and private clients are looking to landscape architects to plan and design nature-based solutions to impacts such as wildfires, sea level rise, flooding, drought, extreme heat, and biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation.

According to landscape architects, designers, and educators surveyed, these are the top solutions requested by clients for each climate impact area. Note: Not all climate impacts are relevant to the respondents’ regions.

Extreme heat solutions:

  • Street trees (64 percent)
  • Shade structures / canopies (60 percent)
  • Tree groves (35 percent)
  • Parks (35 percent)
  • Green roofs (31 percent)

Flooding solutions:

  • Bioswales (62 percent)
  • Rain Gardens (61 percent)
  • Permeable pavers (59 percent)
  • Trees (54 percent)
  • Wetland restoration (45 percent)

Drought solutions:

  • Native, drought-tolerant plants (67 percent)
  • Low-water, drought-tolerant plants (65 percent)
  • Irrigation systems (48 percent)
  • Greywater reuse (36 percent)
  • Landscape solutions that increase groundwater recharge (35 percent)

Biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation solutions:

  • Increase diversity of native tree and plant species (58 percent)
  • Native plant gardens (57 percent)
  • Increase use of plant species pollinators rely on (52 percent)
  • Ecological landscape design (41 percent)
  • Ecological restoration (35 percent)

Wildfire solutions:

  • Firewise landscape design strategies (27 percent)
  • Defensible spaces (22 percent)
  • Land-use planning and design changes (19 percent)
  • Forest management practices (17 percent)
  • Wildfire risk or impact assessment (14 percent)

Sea level rise solutions:

  • Nature-based solutions (33 percent)
  • Erosion management (30 percent)
  • Beach / dune restoration (25 percent)
  • Other coastal ecosystem restoration (21 percent)
  • Berms (19 percent)

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is also now a key focus. Landscape architecture projects can incorporate Climate Positive Design practices so that they absorb more carbon than they emit over their lifespans. Projects at all scales can act as natural and designed carbon sinks, storing carbon in trees, shrubs, and carbon-sequestering materials, such as wood and pavers. 27 percent of respondents stated that “all, a majority, or about half” of clients are requesting projects that reduce or store greenhouse gas emissions now.

The top five strategies sought by clients to reduce emissions include:

  • Parks and open spaces, which include trees and grasses that sequester carbon.
  • Tree and shrub placement to reduce building energy use.
  • Habitat creation / restoration, which can increase the amount of trees and plants in a landscape, remove invasive species, and improve the overall health of natural systems, and the amount of carbon stored in landscapes.
  • Elimination of high-maintenance lawns, which involves reducing the corresponding use of fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and fossil-fuel-powered lawn movers and leaf blowers.
  • Minimizing soil disturbance, which helps keep intact carbon stored in soils.

Clients are also requesting materials that store carbon, such as woods and carbon-absorbing concrete.

Top five solutions:

  • Recycled materials, such as pavers that incorporate a high percentage of industrial byproducts.
  • Reused materials, such as wood or concrete, which eliminate the need to produce new materials.
  • Trees that absorb higher amounts of carbon than others, which include white oak, southern magnolia, London plane tree, and bald cypress trees.
  • Carbon-sequestering shrubs, groundcover, and grasses, such as native grasses with deeper roots than turfgrass.
  • Solar reflective materials that bounce back more sunlight and therefore reduce heat absorption and air conditioning energy use and expenses in adjacent buildings.

See full results of the survey

Women Landscape Architects Take the Lead on Climate Action (Part 1)

Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project at the Tate, UK / Studio Olafur Eliasson

When thinking about climate change, many of us focus on the looming environmental impacts — sea level rise, more intense storms and floods, rising temperatures. And landscape architects are increasingly creating solutions to those “ecological, technical problems,” said Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, professor at the University of Virginia, during the kick-off of Courageous by Design, a day-long conference organized by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) in New York City, comprised entirely of women speakers.

But as landscape architects fix these ecological problems and increase landscape performance, Meyer advised the masked, in-person audience of hundreds not to forget that design also matters. “Landscape architects need to design for the immediate human experience as well as long-term community survival.” Design must support “psychological well-being” today in order to build social resilience for what is to come.

Landscape architects can design with the goal of eliciting “affective responses” to the climate crisis. For example, meaningful “landscape experiences could provoke a young activist to shift their consciousness.” Through landscape design, “we can create a culture of care and spark environmental investigation. By addressing spatial and social justice, we can create transformative socio-economic experiences in public spaces.”

Meyer argued that the latest dire warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) don’t spur on greater climate action in most people. Designers should instead look to Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s Weather series, which evoke “awe, dissonance, and wonder” (see image above). These kinds of immersive, powerful experiences can reduce the disconnect we all feel between reality and climate change. Sir Anthony Giddens’ book The Politics of Climate Change argues that “this disconnect is between what we know and what we do everyday.” Giddens speaks about the “invisibility of climate change” caused by “scalar and relational disconnects.”

Olafur Eliasson’s Icewatch, Paris / Studio Olafur Eliasson

One way to bridge the gap is to treat climate adaptation not just as a technological, ecological process but also as an emotional and social one. “Landscape form matters and can suggest scalar connections that affect mood, emotions, and feelings.” To address the social impacts of climate change, landscape architects can create “new collective experiences based in new spatial and material practices. Feelings also perform and are affective: Awe is a biological reaction and can cause us to care and cultivate compassion.”

Awe can be found in simple, everyday designed places. “Walks in my neighborhood where I experienced awe sustained me during the long pandemic.” Experiencing small moments of awe in designed nature, through experiencing a beautiful garden or bird, can spark “new thoughts about our multi-species co-dependence.” Meyer believes that this kind of “everyday exposure to awe” are also affective experiences.

Frederick Law Olmsted understood these ideas when he said: “A park is a work of art designed to produce certain effects in the minds of men.” Like Olmsted, landscape architects can not only design ecological solutions but also change sensibilities. New landscape design should address climate change, urban form, and social aesthetics together. “This is how we can insert landscape architects into the climate crisis.”

Central Park, NYC / Ed Yourdon, NYC, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

A subsequent series of talks by leading women landscape architects further wove together ideas about how to solve climate challenges and create those personal, immersive experiences that change attitudes and spur on awareness and action.

According to Martha Schwartz, FASLA, founder of Martha Schwartz Partners and a professor of practice at Harvard Graduate School of Design, “there is no place more vulnerable to climate change than New York City.” The city will be impacted by sea level rise, flooding, and rising temperatures, along with increased food insecurity. In the Northeast, which supplies a significant amount of food to NYC, climate change is already impacting agriculture. As things get worse, “we can imagine access to food will become harder as communities stop trading with each other.”

Compounding these risks is the poor state of NYC’s infrastructure, which will lead to “cascading failures.” The subway system is 90 years old, outdated, and dangerous. “It’s dirty, dingy, with leaking roofs, and the city can’t pay for upgrades.” The sewer mains are 80 years old, and overflows from combined sewer outfalls result in 27 billion gallons of sewage and stormwater to enter waterways each year. 50 percent of the city’s streets are now sub-standard.

Schwartz outlined a set of solutions to save NYC, rooted in a few guiding ideas: “the urban landscape needs to be treated as a necessity, not a commodity. The urban landscape is the largest piece of infrastructure.”

Given the importance of the urban landscape, landscape architects need to re-arrange the city to maximize its potential benefits in addressing climate change. “We need to create less dependence on centralized infrastructure. We need bold, more flexible smaller-scale, nature-based systems.” She called for all streets to be lined with actual forests, not just trees, to embed immersive nature experiences into the city.

Another key idea: Instead of further building up NYC as a mega-city, focus on neighborhoods. “Decentralize the infrastructure so it can work at a neighborhood scale.” Schwartz called for “re-spatializing” the city as a set of smaller 15-to-20 minute cities, which is the maximum amount of time pedestrians will walk. New transportation networks will be key to achieving this. NYC doesn’t have a choice but to abandon its “dangerous and unfeasible” subway system in favor of a new above-ground system.

And NYC and other vulnerable cities can be made more resilient by incorporating nature-based solutions that address both flooding and rising urban temperatures. “Copy from nature and create ecological urbanism. NYC can un-build itself through strategic erasures.” The city can install linear farms and forests in the rights-of-way. Using the Miyawaki forest model, New York City could plant dense, biodiverse forests that grow in 2-3 years in polluted areas. “We need real forests instead of street trees.”

Miyawaki forest model, Lahore, Pakistan / Global Village Space

Lisa Switkin, ASLA, senior principal at Field Operations in New York City, more directly engaged with Meyer’s thesis, arguing that too often beauty is pushed to the sidelines as less important in comparison with the scale of environmental and social problems facing communities.

She finds solace and inspiration in the Navaho worldview, Hózhó, which puts beauty at the “center of life and thought.” In Western societies, “beauty is a surface phenomenon,” but the Navaho believe that “beauty is about balance between land and water, place and belonging.” Switkin called for “expanding and redesigning beauty,” creating a new urban nature that conflates the city and wilderness, urbanism with ecology.

Balance and beauty in Navaho worldview: Hózhó, Navajo Beauty, Navajo Weaving, Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, Indiana University

As an example, Switkin pointed to a Field Operations-planned and designed project in Shenzhen, China, the Qianhai Water City, a new “sustainable city” for 4 million people. “Water fingers running through the development will improve water quality. Linear parks that will act as stormwater filters.” 70 percent of the development will be natural, with 13 acres of constructed mangroves. “This project is meant to create immersive natural experiences in a dense city.” The first segment of the project just opened.

Qianhai Water City, Shenzhen, China / Field Operations

Another project Switkin highlighted is Freshkills Park in Staten Island, New York, a 2,200-acre landfill reclamation project Field Operations has been working on for two decades. “The park offers a world of contrasts — both natural and engineered beauty.” The park is designed to capture both landfill gases, which are being transformed into usable methane for Staten Island residents, and leachate. The landscape includes restored creeks and meadows, tree and seed farms, wilderness areas, mountain biking and cross-country skiing — all on a former garbage dump. The park is currently functioning as an environmental research station but will soon open to the public as it becomes more naturalized. “This has been a process of renewal — both in terms of ecology and spirit and imagination.”

Freshkills Park, Staten Island, NY / NYC Parks

“Landscape architects can make a contribution to adapting communities to climate change, but the effort must be collective,” she said. Designers can help foster ecological health and resilience, better connect communities to place, increase health and well-being, and inspire and improve people’s lives.

Like Meyer, Switkin believes that creating immersive experiences and redefining beauty will help ensure landscape architects remain “relevant and resonant” in the midst of the climate crisis. Designing immersive experiences and taking climate action “aren’t in opposition, but central to each other.”

Kate Orff, FASLA, founder of SCAPE, who has recently made the case for the role of landscape architects in addressing climate change in The New Yorker and CNN, relayed her own doubts and questions she has for herself.

Given the scale of the climate crisis, and the fact that “our largest landscapes are dying,” she wonders “whether the unit of a landscape architecture project is sufficient.” An estimated one million plant and animal species are facing extinction. Wetlands are being lost at a rate three times faster than forests. Two-thirds of birds and other wildfire have vanished since 1970. “There is an eco-cide, and we are designing amid that.”

But she thinks that landscape architects are “special and qualified” to do the hard work of restoring biological diversity to our landscapes and finding ways to incentivize communities to protect these places. “We can see the relationships. We can make projects, but not close our eyes. We can listen, make, and unmake.” She said some landscape architects may complain that addressing the climate crisis isn’t design, but we have to “grapple with that, and reflect on what is design and what isn’t.”

She pointed to just a few of SCAPE’s recent projects, including Living Breakwaters in Staten Island, New York, a designed and engineered oyster habitat that will protect communities from storm surges and support local livelihoods and environmental education efforts. In that project, “policy and regulations informed everything we did. Then-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan spent months re-writing code to make that work.” But even this modest $100 million project took eight years of planning and design before construction began in the past few months.

Living Breakwaters, Staten Island, NY / SCAPE
Construction of Living Breakwaters, Staten Island, NY / SCAPE

Orff argued that “working upstream in the policy environment is critical,” but “addressing people and their behavior will enable us to scale up change even faster.” She called on landscape architects to continue to wade into the toughest environmental and social challenges and lead collaborative efforts to de-pave roads, undam rivers and remove the concrete channels around them, and rip-out car-based infrastructure as much as possible.

In the Q&A, Meyer asked how all three women toggle between being humble and listening to communities and being courageous in designing new solutions to the climate crisis.

Orff said “I keep toggling between ‘I gotta get this done,’ and climate grief. I feel humility in knowing my role isn’t enough, but I have the courage to do it anyway.”

“I learned about how methane could be released with the Arctic permafrost, and I basically stopped doing landscape architecture for a few years,” Schwartz said. “I quit because I felt that landscape architecture wasn’t relevant. But I did a deep dive on climate change and read a lot of books. I have a whole new education about Earth systems. I now have a new scale of thinking. Running my own firm for 37 years, I solve problems. I started Mayday, a new non-profit organization focused on climate engineering. We need to cool down the atmosphere while we drawdown carbon. Landscape architects are super important, but are not recognized. We need to broadcast what we do and that everyone needs to do this. We need to envision; use your creativity.”

“Indigenous belief systems offer powerful concepts,” Switkin said. “Beauty is balance. The question for me is what will push people to achieve greater balance with nature. We need to better collaborate. We can bring our realm of expertise, form alliances, and create a shift. We can’t do everything though.”

Orff reiterated this focus on forming new alliances. For a project on the Mississippi riverfront, SCAPE brought together more than 15 organizations involved in separate efforts at different scales. “We can convene organizations, make a map, and pull it together.”

Switkin mentioned the book New Power: How Anyone Can Persuade, Mobilize, and Succeed in Our New Chaotic, Connected Age, which explains “movement culture.” With social media, “there is an exponential growth factor and influence circles outward. Individual actions can make a difference.”

Meyer concluded that “you have to be an optimist as a designer.”

Read part II in the series.