New Orleans experiences the worst urban heat island effect in the country, with temperatures nearly 9 F° higher than nearby natural areas. The city also lost more than 200,000 trees from Hurricane Katrina, dropping its overall tree canopy to just 18.5 percent.
But more importantly, the plan also seeks to equalize the canopy, so at least 10 percent of all 72 neighborhoods are covered in trees. Currently, more than half of neighborhoods are under the 10 percent goal.
Wes Michaels, ASLA, a founding partner at SMM, explained that some communities in the city are almost entirely concrete and asphalt and have canopies as low as 1 percent, while others, like the famous Garden District, have nearly 30 percent.
This causes an inequitable distribution of heat risks. “With Hurricane Ida, the foremost cause of death wasn’t flooding but heat. The storm knocked out electricity, so people were in their homes without air conditioning,” explained Emily Bullock, ASLA, a principal with SMM.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, trees and plants really do have a significant cooling benefit. “Trees and vegetation lower surface and air temperatures by providing shade and through evapotranspiration. Shaded surfaces, for example, may be 20–45°F (11–25°C) cooler than the peak temperatures of unshaded materials. Evapotranspiration, alone or in combination with shading, can help reduce peak summer temperatures by 2–9°F (1–5°C).”
The New Orleans Reforestation Plan offers a new, more equitable model for reducing dangerous extreme heat — the number one climate killer — and flooding, while also lowering energy use.
“Conventional urban reforestation plans are focused on achieving an overall canopy percentage, and there is often an equity component. But this plan centers equity so that it frames all goals,” Bullock said.
“The plans we reviewed from other cities were all similar, kind of boilerplate. We needed a plan that recognizes the unique neighborhoods of New Orleans,” said Susannah Burley, executive director of SOUL. “We wanted to find a local firm that understood the context of our city.”
Burley, who has a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Louisiana State University (LSU), spearheaded the complex reforestation planning effort over the past two years.
With Traci Birch, a LSU professor and planner, SOUL organized four round table discussions with local stakeholders from the public, private, and non-profit sectors, and seven community meetings.
“Spackman Mossop Michaels was a stakeholder in those early conversations. We knew they were already invested in the plan and understood the steps taken,” Burley said.
The firm was then hired to analyze the complex GIS data gathered by SOUL, facilitate more meetings across the city, and develop the plan.
“Landscape architects know the challenges and how to intersect with utilities. We helped facilitate concrete conversations with stakeholders. We examined city regulations and came up with recommendations so that these systems can work a little better. The goal is to make planting trees a smoother, easier process,” Bullock said.
The firm’s community engagement experience also helped SOUL frame the conversations.
“Not everyone in the community is 100 percent behind planting more trees. Landscape architects know that trees = good, but we can also meet communities where they are. We heard concerns like: ‘what if a tree falls on my house or leaves clog up my gutters? What if their roots break up my driveway?'”, Michaels said.
Research shows that trees increase property values. But SMM didn’t hear concerns that more trees could lead to gentrification or displacement. “The questions were more about: ‘who will maintain the trees in rights of way? Where will the maintenance funds come from?,'” said Bullock.
In the historic Garden District, tree roots can transform sidewalks into jagged small hills, making them inaccessible. And in other older parts of the city, sidewalks are very narrow, leaving little room for trees. How will the city fit in more?
“We didn’t get into these kinds of issues, which were beyond the scope. We want to make sure we don’t repeat the current issues, including with overhead and underground utilities. The goal is to create a unified tree policy with stakeholders, including the utilities providing power, water, sewage. The idea is to create a new policy together,” Michaels explained.
The plan outlines detailed steps SOUL, other organizations, and the city can take to build capacity and ramp up tree planting to achieve the 2040 goal. But before scaling up, the plan calls for a full-year of community engagement. “This will help educate communities about the benefits of trees and lay the groundwork for the planting programs to come,” Michaels said.
In five diverse, underserved neighborhoods, pilot tree planting efforts will be rolled out over coming years. In some of these neighborhoods, planting more trees will be fairly straightforward given there are open green spaces available. In other more difficult neighborhoods, which already have lower tree canopies, additional funds and support will be needed to break up and remove concrete rights of way.
According to Burley, the biggest barrier to implementing the plan is lack of funding. “In New Orleans, the Department of Parks and Parkways is extremely underfunded. The plan is an advocacy tool — it shows what can be done with additional funds and how to make it happen.”
And this is why the team focused on making the plan so easy-to-understand. “Most reforestation plans I saw were missing the human component. Our plan is meant to be highly accessible, so it can be picked-up by any city government official or neighborhood association.”
This plan also offers an approach other landscape architects can apply. “Reforestation plans are in landscape architects’ wheelhouse. These plans are at the intersection of ecology, culture, and public health. It’s not just about overall tree canopy numbers. But how to plant the most trees in places where they are needed, and in the shortest amount of time, with limited resources,” Michaels said.
The American Society of Landscape Architects Calls on National Governments to Commit to 30 x 2030 and the Global Goal for Nature: Nature Positive by 2030
ASLA urges national governments at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) COP15 in Montréal, Canada, to commit to far more ambitious global conservation and biodiversity goals, including protecting at least 30 percent of terrestrial, coastal, and marine ecosystems by 2030 (30 x 2030).
In advance of the CBD COP15, ASLA has also joined 340 organizations worldwide in signing the Global Goal for Nature: Nature Positive by 2030. The Call to Action makes an appeal for “improving the state of nature by 2030; ensuring rights-based approaches to nature-based solutions and to conserving effectively and equitably 30 percent of land, freshwater, and seas by 2030; and directly tackling the drivers of nature loss,” among other goals.
“In our recently released Climate Action Plan, ASLA identified the connections between climate change and biodiversity loss. We made a clear commitment to advance 30 x 2030. We also called on all landscape architecture projects to restore ecosystems and protect biodiversity on a global scale by 2040 – and we call on national governments to be equally as bold,” said ASLA CEO Torey Carter-Conneen.
“In Montréal, now is the time for a global agreement to address the biodiversity crisis and increase protections for nature. Biodiversity underpins all natural systems on Earth. Protecting our remaining biodiversity and bolstering and restoring ecosystems are critical to our long-term survival,” said ASLA President Emily O’Mahoney, FASLA.
According to the United Nations, one-million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, and seventy-five percent of the Earth’s ice-free land surface and two-thirds of the oceans have been significantly altered by humanity.
ASLA and its members understand there is both a biodiversity crisis and a climate crisis, and they are interconnected:
A changing climate is resulting in sea level rise, extreme heat, increased flooding, and drought, which impacts both communities and non-human species.
Biodiversity loss is largely driven by unsustainable agricultural practices, sprawl, and habitat fragmentation, but climate change is accelerating the alteration of habitats and species migration, which increases extinction risks.
Biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation undermine the natural systems humanity relies on to provide a range of critical ecosystem functions, including nature-based approaches to sequestering carbon and adapting to climate impacts.
“Landscape architects are uniquely qualified to plan denser communities and protect natural areas, combating the sprawl that threatens remaining ecosystems and biodiversity hotspots. We can also increase biodiversity through the incorporation of native tree and plant species, planning and designing habitat connections and corridors, and restoring degraded ecosystems – all of which have important climate benefits as well,” said O’Mahoney.
Given the failure of the global community to meet the 2020 Aichi biodiversity targets, ASLA calls on national governments to significantly increase investment and support for conservation, habitat defragmentation and connection, and ecosystem restoration over the next decade.
In global discussions, ASLA also urges national governments to increasingly connect the climate and biodiversity crises, to not address them in a siloed manner. An integrated approach can increase the focus on nature-based solutions, including ecosystem-based mitigation and adaptation approaches, that address the climate and biodiversity crises together.
In future COPs of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), nature-based solutions must be elevated and seen as integral to reducing emissions and increasing resilience.
Through advocacy, planning, and design efforts with urban, suburban, and rural communities, landscape architects can work with nature to help address both biodiversity and climate impacts. Landscape architects also support the rights and leadership of indigenous communities in conservation efforts worldwide.
ASLA notes that the Convention, which entered into force in 1993, has been ratified by 196 countries. The United States remains the only UN member country that has signed but not yet ratified the multilateral treaty. This has put the U.S. government and U.S. based organizations advocating for biodiversity at a disadvantage in global negotiations.
“We asked ourselves — if we could move 1,200 trees through a city center for over 100 days, then imagine what else we could do,” said Bruno Doedens, a Dutch landscape architect and land artist, who created the wonderful Bosk public art installation in the city of Leeuwarden with his collaborator, the late Joop Mulder.
Over 100 days this summer, teams of volunteers pushed large and small trees along a 2.1-mile (3.5-kilometer) route as part of Arcadia, a triennial arts festival in Friesland.
The organizers explain that the installation moved in stages through neighborhoods on weekdays, led by traffic controllers and captains, “so the forest decreased in one place while growing somewhere else.”
Streets that had few trees temporarily became lush forests, changing the character of communities, significantly cooling air temperatures, and slowing the pace of life. The Guardian reported hotels and businesses also benefited from the traveling forest, though some residents were upset by having to park elsewhere.
The trees were planted in more than 800 wooden containers that were then loaded into wheeled carts. They included more than 60 native species, such as alder, ash, elm, maple, oak, and willow.
The Bosk team labeled each tree with a QR code, so residents could learn more about the species. Soil sensors also alerted the team when any tree needed more water.
Just planting 1,200 trees around the city would have perhaps been easier but “would have had less impact than a moving forest,” Doedens said. The logistical challenges of transporting trees through traffic in a coordinated way “forced citizens to really face the effect of a forest in the city center.”
“The success of Bosk lies in the combination of radical imagination and mobilizing large communities of people,” he argued. The residents of Leeuwarden can now imagine “a new relationship with nature — one based in the idea of enriching the planet rather than polluting and destroying.” With rising urban temperatures, a new relationship rooted in nature will become increasingly important.
The message of the interactive public art work was reinforced through a broader immersive program that included a “summer school for Leeuwarden neighbourhoods, a Bosk news program for primary school pupils, and a whispering garden full of inspiration,” the festival organizers write.
In his essay Planet Paradise, Doedens argues that collective art projects like the walking forest can change mindsets and spur on greater climate action. They inspire communities to re-imagine what is possible. Designers and artists therefore play a critical role.
“Allow all creative minds from all cultural disciplines – music, dance, theater, poetry, literature, film, architecture, visual arts – together with scientists and pioneers from the practice to dare to dream and think big and even bigger. Give them room for imagination and intuitive thinking to radically reassess our current values and our actions. Allow them to develop new languages that touch our hearts and create new stories and images that help us realize we are walking in the mist, that seductive illusions intoxicate us, and that we need to change radically.”
Landscape architects and artists everywhere can create “new stories that reassure us in a playful way that we can reverse the negative effects of our treatment of the Earth into something positive. They must also be optimistic, empathetic, hopeful, and challenging without being blind to the sizeable and far reaching task ahead of us.”
The Bosk installation ended August 14, and the organizers have since found permanent homes for the traveling trees throughout the city, with many planted in underserved communities.
The need to rapidly adapt to climate change has rightfully taken center stage. But the connections between climate change and stormwater management are often overlooked. Climate change impacts the hydrological cycle by increasing water scarcity and the frequency and intensity of flooding while contaminating waterways. Better managing stormwater is key to managing water resources and protecting our safety and the health of our environment.
Unfortunately, stormwater management is usually portrayed as a purely technical issue to be solved at the site. Instead, stormwater management systems should be valued as critical green infrastructure that provides design opportunities and are foundational to giving form to the broader built environment.
While stormwater management may not be sexy, it is vital to understand and integrate as part of larger efforts to protect our ecosystems and environment. The book Working Water: Reinventing the Storm Drain by landscape architecture and planning firm Wenk Associates argues challenges to “any city’s water supply and urban stormwater management can be addressed, in part, by changing how we manage our urban water resources as part of systems that employ the widespread use of natural technologies.” The firm, founded by landscape architect William Wenk, FASLA, has incorporated stormwater into the design of built environments and landscapes in the West and Midwest for over 35 years.
Projects in the book exemplify how stormwater, generally considered a nuisance, can be managed and integrated as a resource in the design of landscapes, making communities more livable as well as restoring ecological function and health. The selected projects range from built work early in the office’s practice to contemporary projects that explore the integration of function and beauty in managing stormwater at various project scales — from a small rain garden outside their early office in Denver to restoring the natural functioning of the Los Angeles River. In addition to cataloging projects, the author thoughtfully reflects on lessons learned, revealing both successes and failures as they suggest new approaches to create “the next generation of stormwater infrastructure, resulting in healthier urban and natural systems, making our cities better places in which to live.”
Wenk himself outlines his trajectory from a boy growing up on a farm in Michigan, to his foundational undergraduate studies in landscape architecture at Michigan State University, his observations about arid environments revealed while traveling across Europe and North Africa, and the influential work of artists, writers, and thinkers he explored during graduate studies at the University of Oregon. These experiences combine to inform the theoretical foundations for his life’s work.
He also shares his early career lessons regarding the value of urban green infrastructure that were strengthened while working closely with civil engineers. These professional experiences ultimately led to the founding of his practice in Denver, Colorado. Wenk desires to “reinvent the storm drain,” a metaphor for “expanding — down to the most basic details — the components of stormwater systems to invent new strategies for effective stormwater controls, and to promote the restoration of the natural functions of urban waterways in ways that add beauty and value to the urban landscape.”
The first part of the book explains the close relationship of water resource management to culture and technology and clearly describes the impacts of urbanization on the water cycle and the land. Explaining how positive aspects of both ancient and contemporary water management systems can be integrated to address contemporary issues of water scarcity and improve water quality, the book sets the stage to examine how urban water resources can be better planned and designed. Ultimately, successful projects restore the function of ecological systems while creating meaningful places for people to gather.
Then, the book provides a carefully curated selection of Wenk Associates’ projects that exemplify what is meant by “working water.” The scale, type, and complexity of the highlighted projects vary greatly from small site design to large river corridors. Each of the case studies, which cover sites, districts, and corridors, demonstrate the rigor of the designers’ intent. Each projects’ context, vision, design strategies, constraints, and results are thoughtfully communicated with clear jargon-free narratives, diagrams, renderings, and attractive photographs of the built work.
The third part of the book reviews the critical factors leading to the success of Wenk Associates’ built works, along with lessons learned about legal, financial, and other challenges involved in implementing natural technologies, and the profession of landscape architecture’s involvement in integrating “multiple values and functions into the city’s infrastructure” and communicating “those values to affected communities.” The lessons go further than most books on stormwater do by calling for incentivizing district-scale stormwater control systems, identifying barriers to implementations of natural technologies, and calling on practicing professionals and the public to be advocates for change.
Simultaneously, the scope of the book has limitations. Because this is a monograph, Working Water thoughtfully represents the experiences and philosophy of just one firm.
Missing from Working Water is also a stronger acknowledgement that underserved, historically marginalized communities are disproportionately hurt by the mismanagement of stormwater and that residents of these communities can play a greater role in designing a healthier and more livable environment.
The Menomonee Valley Redevelopment is an example that intentionally enriched underserved neighborhoods in Milwaukee by creating over 1,400 jobs, connecting neighborhoods with a new network of streets and green spaces, and providing access to a healthier and a cleaner river. Surely, this project included community input during the design processes to achieve these beneficial results. However, the residents and the role they played in this process are not given the prominence they deserve.
Working Water is a needed addition to the body of literature on how to integrate designed green infrastructure with stormwater management to create more livable cities for a couple of reasons. It addresses issues specific to the temperate Midwestern climate of the savanna and steppe ecosystems, while most books focus on the more humid environments of the East and West coasts. It also contributes examples of beautiful projects that demonstrate regionally appropriate responses from the drumlin-inspired landscapes of Wisconsin to the semi-arid grasslands of the Colorado Rocky Mountain Front Range.
Working Water is intentionally written as an educational resource for students, decision-makers, regulators, municipal staff, designers, developers, and community advocates. A pleasant surprise included at the end of the book is a “working water glossary” that provides the reader with a general understanding of the definitions of terms and concepts used in the book.
Wenk Associates were early leaders in the integration of stormwater design. Their work has been so successful, it is now considered common in the practice of landscape architecture. The functional requirements of successful stormwater management are so well integrated in each project that the unprecedented nature of the designs may be overlooked.
The monograph is written similarly. It is humble; it is not flashy and does not use fancy words. It offers straightforward yet beautiful graphics and diagrams with no enigmatic collages; just solid, well-crafted, thoughtful work.
Like Ian McHarg’s layering process, the incorporation of stormwater management has been so integrated into landscape architecture that it is unrecognized when done well. This collection of completed projects when assembled as a monograph, may seem simple, as though anyone could do it. But don’t be deceived, Working Water: Reinventing the Storm Drain demonstrates how Wenk Associates makes the messy and difficult work of envisioning and implementing a complex project look simple, clean, and elegant, with a vision for the future.
“The planning practices of the past are inadequate for today’s challenges,” said David Rouse, ASLA, a landscape architect and planner, at the American Planning Association‘s National Planning Conference in San Diego. Rapid technological change, socio-economic inequities, natural resource depletion, and climate change are forcing planning and design professionals to adapt. “How can the practice of planning evolve to be more sustainable and equitable?”
In the 1920s, the Standard Zoning Enabling Act and the Standard City Enabling Act were passed. In the 1960s, the conventional 20th century planning model, which focused on land use policy and planning, came into being. In the 1980s, there was a shift to smart growth and “visionary, values-based planning.” In 2010, the American Planning Association began a process of rethinking past planning approaches through its Sustaining Places Initiative, which provided models and standards for how to prioritize sustainability through local planning.
According to Rouse, today’s comprehensive plans require a new 21st century model rooted in four key aspects. First, sustainability, resilience, and equity need to be at the center of all planning decisions. Second, a systems-thinking approach is needed. “A community is a system made up of sub-systems.” Third, any planning effort requires “authentic participation” and true community engagement that can answer the questions: “Where are we headed? Where do we want to go? How do we get there?” And lastly, there must be “accountable implementation,” including priorities for action, funding streams, policies that can guide decision-making, and specified responsibilities.
Planning processes must now include an engagement and communications strategy rooted in the issues and values of a community and be designed to reach all segments of a population. Any planning effort in 2022 also needs to be based in an understanding of the “impact of the past on the present.”
A vision statement is needed to kick-start these comprehensive planning efforts — “one with brevity, clarity, and the ability to inspire,” Piro said.
Land-use maps are still an important component of any comprehensive plan but they need to be smarter. In its plan adopted in 2012, Austin, Texas, created a “growth concept map” that includes places and their aspects (see image at top). Aurora, Colorado, included a “place typology” that includes a “sophisticated matrix” and a “place-based approach” in its plan.
All communities are systems that include natural, built environment, social, economic, health, and regional connection sub-systems.
“Planning for natural systems has come out of the landscape architecture field,” Rouse argued. “Ecosystem planning should now happen in communities and in context with other planning elements instead of piecemeal.”
Planners and landscape architects need to increasingly plan for land, water, atmospheric, and biodiversity change within communities. And instead of planning for water use and quality alone, an entire watershed approach should also be integrated into comprehensive planning efforts.
The ecosystem component that landscape architects focus on can be integrated with the built environment components that planners focus on. Through the involvement of multiple disciplines, plans can address “land use, character, ecology, mobility, community design, and civic spaces, and public art.”
Other important systems that need to be included in any new comprehensive plan are social systems that improve equity — “the social infrastructure” of communities, including housing and education.
Economic systems also need to be re-thought for the 21st century. “Economic resilience is about creating opportunities for all in a fair and sustainable way. We can move to a circular economy and rely on local assets and regional resources. We need to move away from a linear, throw-away society.”
Health systems need to be factored into any planning effort, and this is not just “about disease prevention, but about healthy transportation and food systems. How we move and interface with the built environment impacts our health.”
There are now many lens — a “climate lens, equity lens, health lens. Can we bring the lenses together?”
Both Rouse and Piro returned to the idea that any planning effort can only happen with real community engagement.
Once the voice of the community in its totality has been considered, then a plan can be developed that results in the revision of regulations, codes, and ordinances to help achieve that plan. The next steps are to shift public and private investments to meet goals, align interests and decision-making processes within communities, and form public, private, and non-profit sector partnerships that can lead implementation.
In the 21st century, planners need to be “prepare communities for change, be proactive, and take an integrated approach instead of just reacting,” Rouse said.
The challenge is that planners are also operating within a “cone of uncertainty.” In the short term, there are tactics that can be used to manage community change, which may be foreseen or unforeseen and therefore disruptive. In the medium term, planners can set strategies and plans. But over the long-term, they will need durable visions. “All of this planning must happen sequentially and simultaneously.”
In their book, Rouse and Piro outline five core themes, including equity and engagement, climate change mitigation and adaptation, systems thinking, people-centered technology, and effective implementation.
“Equity must be interwoven, and an equity lens must be brought to all goals. Climate resilience must be a guiding principle of all planning work. Technology must be harnessed to serve communities. Planning participation is about co-creation with the community,” Rouse said.
“Planning is an art and a science. Our jobs are to anticipate the unanticipated. How can we do it better?” Out of the hundreds of plans that Rouse and Piro reviewed, “we couldn’t find one that did this well. It’s a journey society — and planners — must take. It’s the future of comprehensive planning.”
During the Q&A, one audience member asked whether “top-down, paternalistic comprehensive plans” are a thing of the past. A city comprehensive plan assumes there is one community in agreement, whereas there are many communities with different interests. The antithesis of a comprehensive plan is a neighborhood plan.
Community engagement is critical to forging consensus as is transparency about budgets and timelines, Piro argued. Ensuring grassroots buy-in is the “path to success.” But neighborhood plans need to be integrated with comprehensive plans and implemented in tandem. “You need consistency and coordination.” Ecological, social, and other systems “can’t be addressed in isolation.”
Another audience member wondered how comprehensive plans can address the communities who have been displaced due to gentrification. “How do we plan for who is not there?”
Rouse argued that it’s critical to retain populations by helping them create their own visions. “We can account for the past and systemic racism,” and planners and other design professions’ roles in creating those inequities.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Next Level in Sustainability: Nature Restoration — 03/15/22, The New York Times
“Landscape architects from Surfacedesign in San Francisco focused on extensive natural habitat restoration for the project, a former industrial site that at one point was two piers in Elliott Bay filled in with garbage. That meant meters-deep soil replacement to ease the seeding of native plants, grasses and a coastal meadow.”
Atlanta Takes Major Step Forward in Establishing Its First Park with Chattahoochee River Access — 03/15/22, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Per New York- and New Orleans-based landscape architecture and urban design studio SCAPE, which is leading a multidisciplinary design team for the effort, Chattahoochee RiverLands is a vision to ‘reunite the River with the Metro Atlanta Region and link suburban, urban, and rural communities into a continuous public realm that centers the River as a regional resource.'”
From One Parking Spot to 100 Public Parks: The History of San Francisco’s Street Transformation — 03/11/22, Fast Company Design
“In January 2020, San Francisco realized a long-envisioned goal of eliminating cars from 10 blocks of its central commercial corridor, Market Street. Improvements at intersections were installed to make the street safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Within the first two months, bike and scooter usage increased by 25%, and bus travel speeds went up an average of 6%.”
An Architect Who Mixes Water and Nature to Build Resilience — 03/07/22, The New York Times
Kotchakorn Voraakhom, International ASLA: “There are many benefits to being a woman; particularly the connection to nature. I think with motherhood, the cycles of the body, we’re more in touch with nature in our bodies and our hearts.”
Landscape Architecture Is All About Finding Balance with Nature — Outside Magazine
“As a landscape architect, Ryley Thiessen understands that finding balance is key. While his work requires him to design four-season resorts around the world—and make them accessible and enjoyable for all visitors—he never wants to take too much from nature.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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)
Bioswales (62 percent)
Rain Gardens (61 percent)
Permeable pavers (59 percent)
Trees (54 percent)
Wetland restoration (45 percent)
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)
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.
The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), which represents 15,000 landscape architects, is dismayed by the slow, incremental progress made by world leaders at the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference (COP26), in Glasgow, Scotland, towards achieving a 1.5°C limit to global warming.
According to the well-regarded Climate Action Tracker, commitments by countries as part of their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) would currently result in an increase of at least 2.4°C of warming by 2100. The group states that “with all target pledges, including those made in Glasgow, global greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 will still be around twice as high as necessary for the 1.5°C limit.” Furthermore, “stalled momentum from leaders and governments on their short-term targets has narrowed the 2030 emissions gap by only 15-17% over the last year.”
“Landscape architects are disappointed by the lack of progress and ambition at COP26,” said Tom Mroz, FASLA, ASLA President. “While there were some positive steps taken, including the recognition of the role of nature and nature-based solutions in addressing climate change, there is zero time to waste in getting on a path to cutting emissions by 50%, at a bare minimum, by 2030. The impacts of wildfires, extreme heat, flooding, and other forms of climate change on our communities and natural environments only continue to worsen.”
ASLA acknowledges some limited progress occurred at COP26. The Glasgow Climate Pact, signed by over 200 countries, includes a commitment to update NDCs and ratchet up greenhouse gas emission reduction targets next year at COP27 in Egypt, rather than waiting until 2025, as previously agreed as part of the Paris Climate Accord.
The importance of ecosystems in addressing climate change was also recognized and incorporated into the pact. World leaders highlighted the key role of healthy terrestrial ecosystems, particularly forests, wetlands, and prairies, in both reducing greenhouse gas emissions and helping communities adapt to climate change.
Also, a clear connection was made between the worsening climate and biodiversity crises. Countries recognized that preserving and restoring ecosystems is crucial to protecting the world’s remaining biodiversity. Indigenous communities managing much of the world’s remaining intact ecosystems should play a lead role in future conservation efforts.
This text in the pact was a step forward:
[The Conference of the Parties] emphasizes the importance of protecting, conserving, and restoring nature and ecosystems, including forests and other terrestrial and marine ecosystems, to achieve the long-term global goal of the Convention by acting as sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases and protecting biodiversity, while ensuring social and environmental safeguards.”
“World leaders need to do much more to address both climate change and biodiversity loss. With greater ambition and support at the national level, landscape architects can do even more to achieve key climate goals through large-scale ecological planning and design,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, ASLA CEO.
ASLA also supports additional coalition pledges announced at the Glasgow conference:
Ending Deforestation by 2030: More than 100 world leaders, representing 85% of the world’s forests, agreed to end and reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030. Twelve countries have committed $12 billion of public funds and companies have committed an additional $7.2 billion in private investment for conservation and restoration, including $1.7 billion for Indigenous peoples. In the U.S., House Majority Leader Stenny Hoyer introduced legislation that would establish a $9 billion trust fund at the U.S. State Department to finance bilateral forest conservation efforts in developing countries.
“Since the very beginning of our profession with Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architects have focused on conserving and restoring ecosystems and enhancing biodiversity,” Mroz said. “We can play a critical role in helping all communities protect and restore ecosystem functions, particularly those that lack green spaces.”
Global Methane Pledge: More than 100 world leaders also committed to reduce emissions of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases, by 30% by 2030, as part of an initiative led by the U.S. and European Union. According to EU estimates, a 30% cut in methane emissions could reduce projected warming by 0.2°C (0.36°F). The pledge covers countries that are responsible for 50% of all methane emissions. Methane is released from livestock, agriculture, the production of natural gas, and landfills.
“Communities impacted by landfills are typically among the most historically marginalized and underserved. Landscape architects have proven they can plan and design solutions that safely capture methane emissions from landfills. We can help more communities around the world transform toxic garbage dumps into green spaces that capture and store methane,” Carter-Conneen said.
Landscape architects plan and design with nature to help all communities reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate. Landscape architects use Climate Positive Design approaches that transform parks and open spaces into natural carbon sinks. They develop resilient nature-based solutions that reduce the impacts of extreme heat; coastal, ground, and inland flooding; sea level rise; pollution; and wildfires. They also increase biodiversity and protect and restore ecosystems, which underpin life on Earth. Learn more at: https://climate.asla.org