The global movement to protect at least 30 percent of the planet’s lands and 30 percent of its oceans by 2030 achieved a major breakthrough this week. At the One Planet Summit, the High Ambition Coalition (HAC) for Nature and People, which is led by Costa Rica, France, and the United Kingdom, announced 50 countries on six continents have agreed to protect 30 percent of their land and oceans by 2030. This commitment is a major step towards setting a new global target among all nations at the Convention on Biological Diversity COP15, which will be held in Kunming, China this year.
The global 30 x 30 campaign is one of the most high-profile efforts to reduce extinctions and save the Earth’s irreplaceable remaining terrestrial and marine ecosystems. According to The Guardian, the campaign’s goal is to make the upcoming Convention on Biological Diversity the “Paris Climate Accord for Nature.” However, pessimists note that government leaders have not met previous conservation commitments, and much greater financing for land and ocean conservation efforts is also needed to ensure new commitments can be realized.
The High Ambition Coalition includes major economies like Canada and Japan. A number of biodiversity powerhouses in Africa joined, such as Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Rwanda, Republic of Congo, Uganda, and others. In Europe — beyond France and United Kingdom — Denmark, Slovenia, Switzerland, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Finland, and the European Commission, along with other countries, got on board. In Latin America and the Caribbean — beyond Costa Rica — Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, and Grenada joined. The U.S., as represented by the Trump administration, Russia, China, and Brazil didn’t sign on.
There is a history of setting ambitious global conservation targets. More than a decade ago, 190 countries, as part of the Convention on Biological Diversity, agreed to the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, which called for “at least 17 percent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas” to be conserved by 2020. When those targets were created in 2010, just 13 percent of the world’s terrestrial areas were under any protection, and there were hardly any protections for ocean ecosystems. Fast forward to today and just 15 percent of terrestrial ecosystems and 7 percent of oceans are now legally protected. The world missed these relatively low targets, in large part because of the lack of financing.
In 2019, a major report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) — the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services — found that 75 percent of terrestrial environment have been “severely altered” to date by human actions, along with 66 percent of marine environments. Furthermore, there has been a 47 percent reduction in “global indicators of ecosystem extent and condition against their estimated natural baselines.” In other words, the health of remaining ecosystems is also dramatically falling.
The report’s central finding was a shock: “around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.” Of existing species, “more than 40 percent of amphibian species, almost 33 percent of reef-forming corals, and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened.”
Globally, landscape architects and planners have a crucial role to play in reducing plant, animal, and insect extinctions; restoring ecosystem health; and expanding legally-protected natural areas. The United Nations calls for the adoption of “multi-functional landscape planning, cross-sector integrated management,” and the expansion of ecologically-sound agricultural practices. They state that cities and suburbs also present opportunities for the preservation of natural areas and biodiversity. These are all domains in which landscape architects can help plan and design smart solutions that also increase people’s connection to nature.
Landscape architects and planners can also partner with and empower indigenous communities, which currently manage nearly 25 percent of the world’s remaining natural areas.
In the U.S., President-Elect Joseph Biden has committed to protecting 30 percent of American land and waters by 2030. His nominee for U.S. Interior Secretary — New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland — has sponsored legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to support the 30 percent by 2030 commitment. With such powerful advocates, there is now a greater chance of achieving the goal.
As the Sierra Club outlines, more work needs to be done to achieve the 30 percent target in the U.S. The group notes that 1 million acres of nature is lost to development each year. Due in large part to the loss of habitat to development, the number of birds in the U.S. and Canada have declined by 3 billion, or nearly 30 percent, in the last half century. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, half of all freshwater and saltwater wetlands have also been lost. Protecting 30 percent of U.S. lands and water would not only preserve remaining ecosystems and biodiversity but also help offset an estimated 21 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions.
After this challenging year, Marina Abramović, perhaps the world’s most famous performance artist, recommends everyone vent their frustrations to a favorite tree in a public park. She tells you to hug one tightly for no less than 15 minutes and pour out your woes to it. Your angst will be “absorbed in the bark,” and you will feel “rejuvenated.” This is tree-hugging on a whole other level.
Abramović believes there is a degree of energy flow between us and our arboreal friends. “Complaining to the tree is also a way of getting energy out of the tree—to you. And healing you.”
This participatory performance work — Complain to a Tree — is part of series of exercises called the “Abramović Method,” which was developed by the artist to “practice being present.” In Abramović’s most well-known art work, The Artist Is Present, she sat nearly immobile at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City for 736 hours, facing 1,545 visitors over the span of weeks. Being present became a form of “endurance art.”
In the video, Abramović states that “trees are like human beings. They have intelligence. They have feelings. They communicate with each other. And also, they are perfectly silent listeners. You can complain to them.” And she notes that many cultures worship and commune with trees.
For those inclined to try this out in public, Abramović offers guidance:
“One important thing is that you really choose a tree that you like. It can be small and even not that beautiful a tree. But you have some relation to this tree, emotionally. Don’t pick the tree because of the beauty of the tree. Pick the tree because of its smell, the bark, the leaves. Whatever triggers your affection. So look around, and take the tree you like.
Don’t immediately hug the tree. Just feel the energy of the tree. Even not touching it but just holding your hands a little bit above.
And then complain your heart into it. This is the whole idea. Have any of you ever complained to a tree before? No. So this is something that you will be doing for the first time. This is like a journey into the unknown. So get out of your security box and do something that is different.
I hope we can create some kind of trend, that actually people are going to run to the parks and start complaining to the trees. This is one way of healing at this moment of our history.
Complaining to the tree is also a way of getting energy out of the tree—to you. And healing you. So the tree is actually healing the complaint. You’re opening your heart. You’re just telling all your negativity and what bothers you in your life. And the tree is a silent listener. And everything is absorbed into the bark of the tree. And you feel rejuvenated. You feel happy after that.
This is the message for the public. Please—go to the park near you. Pick the tree you like. Hold the tree tight. Really tight. And just pour your heart into it. Complain to the tree for a minimum of 15 minutes. It’s the best healing that you can do.”
The performance was part of a 5-hour public program Abramović produced for the Sky Arts TV channel in the United Kingdom in early December.
Impact: The Effect of Climate Change on Coastlines, aerial photographer Alex MacLean’s latest book, captures our Atlantic and Gulf coastal communities at their most vulnerable. Even in a media environment inundated with images of climate change, MacLean’s photos have the ability to shock.
Trained as an architect, MacLean is well-known for his decades-long work photographing landscapes from above. A cursory review of MacLean’s aerial photography shows a fixation with the seams and stitches at the edge of our built environment. Those interstitial zones offer valuable insight into our relationship with rising sea levels. Impact’s photos show us pristine lawns and asphalt driveways grafted on to lagoons, mansions pinned to subsiding cliffs, and suburban housing divisions encircled by tumultuous waves.
Impact’s photos are endowed with an instant nostalgia. Knowing that sea level rise is in the process of re-configuring the pictured landscapes, Impact feels similar to a yearbook, freshly published. “Remember when,” one might find themselves saying while flipping through the images years from now. Remember when Casino Pier extended proudly from the boardwalk at Seaside Heights in New Jersey? The Jet Star roller coaster perched on top, not crumpled in the water like it was found after Hurricane Sandy?
MacLean dedicates a portion of his book to the documentation of hurricane devastation, showing what high winds and flood waters can do to the built environment. But we’ve seen these photos before, haven’t we? And after Superstorm Sandy humbled Seaside Heights, Casino Pier was rebuilt, complete with a new roller coaster, Hydrus. So what lessons does Impact have for us that we haven’t already declined to learn? That depends on the reader, but MacLean’s photos will leave an impression, regardless.
Impact’s most sublime photos are those that maximize nature in the frame. It’s easy to cover the strip of land shown in some if his images with a hand, giving the page over to ocean. MacLean has captured the radical flatness of his coastal environments, where buildings and people are co-planar with the sea.
MacLean expresses slight repulsion at the opulence on display at some of the beachfront communities he photographed. The recreational boating, the ostentatious architecture. He seems to desire that nature be re-grafted back over the development.
It’s tough to argue with him given the glut of development MacLean photographs. Faux-Italian villas situated on barrier islands seems comical. So do the beachfront homes supported by more stilts than there is likely lumber in the house’s frame. MacLean cuts any humor though with images of the aftermath of devastating storms. Stilts remain upright, but there’s hardly a house left to support.
What many of us know and have come to accept is that our foothold in coastal areas is precarious. Most would acknowledge our coasts receding and anticipate our structures drowning. But we count on insurance recouping us. We may even choose to rebuild in hazard zones. Whether these two latter statements remain true, this stance underestimates the willful endangerment we’ve engaged in at the coast.
Perhaps Impact’s most striking photo is of the Sabine Pass liquified natural gas production facility in Louisiana, sitting directly in the path of future hurricanes. When critical infrastructure, energy, and waste facilities are impacted by sea level rise, we will be left with very different, less desirable memories than we hoped for.
If, like me, over the course of 2020 you’ve had thoughts like there has to be a better way or what the world needs now are better leaders, then Leadership for Sustainability: Strategies for Tackling Wicked Problems may just be the book you need to prepare for 2021 and beyond. Written for professionals working in sustainability and environmental security, the new book by authors R. Bruce Hull, David P. Robertson, and Michael Mortimer provides a roadmap of the challenges and opportunities of the Anthropocene, a leadership toolbox, and a storybook of wicked leadership in practice. This practical guide provides clear leadership strategies that support emerging and seasoned planning and design professionals alike.
Roadmap for the Anthropocene
Humanity is just 70 years into the Anthropocene, the age where “humans create Earth’s conditions that support or threaten civilization.” In our new epoch, the problems we have created and need to solve are “wicked.”
Wicked problems — climate change, inequality, urbanization, water scarcity, agriculture, energy, and the linear economy — are “extraordinarily difficult to define and even more difficult to solve.” Wicked problems are polarizing; exist across interconnected systems; span cultures, borders, institutions, governments, and markets; and “no one organization or sector of society can know in advance how to solve” them. Throughout these systems are people who adhere to diverse beliefs and whose values are often not in alignment with our own. How do we establish trust, facilitate meaningful communication, and hold space for the beautiful natural diversity that exists in our world to create a sustainable future? With leadership strategies for sustainability, of course.
For readers looking for an entry point that relates to their personal interests or area of professional focus, you may wish to start with a quick review of the “Introducing Leadership Stories” section. Specifically, the Navigating the Leadership Stories table, which maps Anthropocene challenges (stormwater, biodiversity, urbanization etc.) to the key actors and the leadership practices illustrated in the respective case study, while also referring to where in the toolbox the practice is explained.
Toolbox for Wicked Leadership
Wicked problems require leadership that empowers everyone to “lead from where you are,” regardless of title or recognized authority. To provide context, Hull and his co-authors unpack the necessary leadership practices required in wicked situations as compared to what is required in tame and crisis situations.
Leadership for wicked problems is defined by the concepts of “direction, alignment, and commitment,” which occurs only when “stakeholders agree on a direction for their efforts, align their resources as needed to achieve that direction, and commit to delivering those resources as well as supporting each other.”
A key point here is that everyone is responsible for achieving direction, alignment, and commitment. What makes this approach such a powerful tool is that it is clear, can be applied broadly, and it “works in most cultures, contexts, and situations,” as the case studies section demonstrates.
At this point in the book, the authors begin to illuminate a better way and introduce readers to leadership practices, which support professionals to “connect across space and time, collaborate across differences, and adapt to uncertainty” when problems are wicked. Caution is noted here: professionals need to understand that these practices must be used appropriately for the given set of circumstances.
To that end, specific strategies are detailed, which serve as a guide to achieving self and situational awareness, so that appropriate action plans can be implemented. For example, to connect across space and time leaders might establish a “community of practice,” so that “professionals can learn from each other and become more effective in their respective practices.”
In this reviewer’s opinion, the section on collaborating across differences is perhaps the most valuable because it provides strategies for navigating what often blocks individuals and groups from successful outcomes — our differences. How do we collaborate when people “hold different identities, agendas, factual beliefs, world views and values?”
The first step is self-awareness and requires understanding our individual preferences, values, influencing style, and approach to dealing with conflict, all of which evolve over time. With this awareness we can better communicate who we are, develop greater capacity for empathy and respect for difference. In turn, increased self-awareness better prepares us for the practices of adaptive leadership.
The chapter on “Adapting to Change, Uncertainty, and Failure” delves into achieving direction, alignment and commitment, when “situations are characterized by confounding uncertainty and dynamism.” Readers are introduced to a powerful sense-making tool, and strategies for collaborative innovation specific to sustainability.
Storybook: People Practicing Wicked Leadership
In the final section of Leadership for Sustainability, we meet the people in the field who have successfully implemented the leadership practices for achieving direction, alignment, and commitment — by leading from where they are to find solutions to the greatest challenges of our time. It is through their stories that we find our own opportunities and inspiration to make new connections, collaborate, and adapt our way to a better future. Thank goodness we now have a new set of tools that we can customize for the task.
Susan Apollonio is a leadership coach who writes from Phoenix, Arizona. She partners with natural resources and design professionals to develop their leadership presence for professional and personal success.
In 1964, architect, engineer, and critic Bernard Rudofsky curated the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibition Architecture Without Architects in order to shatter the exclusive and discriminatory canon of architectural history, which was long overdue for redress. The exhibition examined “non-pedigreed architecture,” which, “for want of a generic label,” Rudofsky called “vernacular, anonymous, spontaneous, indigenous, rural.”
Julia Watson continues that discussion in her necessary new book Lo–TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism and introduces a new term: Lo–TEK—a meshing of “lo-tech” and TEK, which abbreviates Traditional Ecological Knowledge—redefines indigenous innovation and technology as models of symbiosis between humankind and nature–ones we direly need to confront the crisis of climate change. Radical indigenism advocates refashioning knowledge systems to include indigenous philosophies and create new discourses. Design that incorporates radical indigenism creates sustainable and climate-resilient infrastructure.
Lo–TEK catalogues indigenous technologies from across the globe, positing that scaling and hybridizing them with conventional technologies can provide a new vocabulary of sustainable innovations in the built environment. Watson, an Australia-born and New York–based architect, activist, academic, and founder of both Julia Watson and A Future Studio, researched and wrote Lo–TEK over six years. Exploring 18 countries, she pinpointed the inherent advantage of Lo–TEK design: it is “both an everyday response for human survival and an extraordinary response to environmental extremes, such as famine, flood, frost, drought, and disease.”
The technologies she presents span ecosystems and purposes: they purify water, grow food, maintain biodiversity, collect rain and groundwater, and enable habitation of aquatic and arid locales, to name a few.
The Ifugao people’s palayan rice terraces in the Philippines simultaneously irrigate, filter water, and support community-based rice farming. The Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania construct boma acacia corrals that prompt desert afforestation and ecological succession in lands grappling with desertification.
Sustainable agricultural practices increase productivity and preserve biodiversity. In Mexico, the Mayan people’s milpa system uses a cycle of burning, mulching, and fallowing to encourage forest succession, soil fertility, and polyculture gardens. In Tanzania, the Chagga people’s kihamba forest gardens support over 500 species by inter-cropping trees with agriculture.
The Ma’dan people in Iraq and the Uros people in Peru demonstrate how to live with water using buoyant, biodegradable infrastructure. All innovations are local, affordable, and made by hand. They enable the sustenance of both people and resources, not their exploitation. They rely upon indigenous communities remaining on their ancestral lands—unlike many conservation efforts. And “rather than primitive, as Le Corbusier would say, this knowledge is primal and known to us all,” Watson writes.
Designers in search of new tools and models to counter the mounting threats posed by climate change will find this book an accessible compilation of sustainable landscape innovations. Structured by ecosystem, the book categorizes the technologies as mountain, forest, desert, or wetland.
Each innovation receives a detailed description of its use and integral role inside the culture that created it. Sometimes interviews delve further into a design and its culture, like Jassim Al-Asadi’s insight into the floating civilizations of the Iraqi wetlands. Drawn diagrams break down each innovation. One could imagine a design firm nonchalantly co-opting certain elements—maybe the bheri wastewater treatment system used by the Bengalese people in Kolkata, or the waru waru cut-and-fill micro-topography of the Inca in Peru—within otherwise non-radical designs.
What will be harder to co-opt is the spirituality intrinsic to these indigenous technologies and the cultures from which they emerge. A worldview encompassing religion, ethics, and systems of belief is inherent to their ecosystem management.
In Bali, the Subak people, who maintain highly biodiverse and productive subak rice terraces, practice water temple rituals based in their belief that the goddess Dewi Danu provides their irrigation water. J. Stephen Lansing, director of the Complexity Institute at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, notes such understandings are not so-called “‘magical’ ideas.” They’re critical to the operation of these landscapes; the temples are the locus of a cooperative water distribution system. Though the technologies themselves are innovative, the people tending them ultimately ensure their performance through their systems of belief. Lansing writes: “the wedding of these ideas with the managerial capacity of temple networks provides powerful tools for communities to impose an imagined order on the world.”
It’s in part the very dearth of the spiritual that Watson asks her readers to question. In championing indigenous technologies, she invites readers to critique the mythology of technology that has dominated the world since the Enlightenment.
Adherence to this myth—itself an outgrowth of humanism, colonialism, and racism—has fueled resource extraction and the dismissal of natural systems. Questioning it means interrogating its hegemony, homogeneity, and sidelining of indigenous peoples and wisdom. After all, in many indigenous cultures, “spirituality in the landscapes is directly related to sustainability and resource management.” Watson suggests embracing a different and new mythology of technology, one that unites humanism with radical indigenism.
Advocating that nuanced practices deeply rooted in indigenous cultures can be extricated from their contexts and duplicated, hybridized, or adapted engenders a tricky balancing act. Watson herself notes that popular culture in our current eco-friendly era encourages milquetoast versions of greenwashing premised upon a merged spiritual and scientific understandings of the environment.
It’s dangerously easy to cross the line into romanticizing indigenous cultures, as has been wont over the past several hundred years. In the US landscape, for instance, permutations of the mythology of technology materialized as manifest destiny and the fiction of empty space. “Like imperialism itself, landscape is an object of nostalgia in a postcolonial and postmodern era,” writes W. J. T. Mitchell, “reflecting a time when metropolitan cultures could imagine their destiny in an unbounded ‘prospect’ of endless appropriation and conquest.”
Watson, from the vantage of our postcolonial era, nods to this nostalgia by asserting indigenous techniques as components of myth. But in also calling out technology as myth, she proposes a subversion of it with a co-evolved mythology that joins the two. She checks myth with myth.
The danger in Watson’s proposal would be that in building this new mythology, indigenous innovations and the people behind them become assimilated and appropriated by technology’s homogenizing forces. Throughout Lo–TEK, Watson repeats that indigenous technologies offer “clues,” “inspiration,” and “models” for a future built environment of soft systems that collaborate with nature, but she stops short of articulating precisely how. “They are not instructions, but, like a compass, they provide an orientation rather than a map for the future,” she writes.
Nonetheless, one may still crave more specificity from Watson, who from her thorough field research certainly has some ideas. If Lo–TEK offers a timely, overdue, and respectful catalogue of indigenous technologies that can bring wisdom, other voices, and heterogeneity to our current unsustainable paradigm, the next effort lies in determining how to realize and maintain those heterogeneities.
Humanity has become totally out of synch with the planet’s biophysical systems — for proof, just look to climate change, COVID-19, environmental degradation, ocean acidification, and the accelerated extinction of species. As we now begin to understand, the planet is a single organism, a complex, inter-connected system that can either be healthy and in balance — or not. Furthermore, our health and well-being are intrinsically connected to the health and well-being of natural systems.
In Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves, a new book edited by Drs. Howard Frumkin and Samuel Myers, we are given a roadmap for how to undo the damage to the Earth and live in a way that is more respectful of the planet’s limited capacity. The authors convince us to take this path not just for nature’s sake but also for our own future health and well-being.
Dr. Howard Frumkin is former Dean of Public Health at the University of Washington and former director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Samuel Myers is principal research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Together, they have put together a thought-provoking and rich 500-page overview of the emerging field of planetary health, which is increasingly used by UN organizations, governments, non-profits, and universities as a framework for understanding the relationship between human and environmental health.
Frumkin and Myers and their contributors build their case so methodically, with loads of persuasive data, that by the end of the book, it seems difficult to imagine a better framework for understanding Earth’s contemporary human-environmental dynamics. This book is a must-read for anyone passionate about creating better outcomes for more people, far into the future.
In their introduction, the editors explain how today is “the best of times and the worst of times.” On one hand, it has “never been a better time to be a human being.” In the past 65 years, the percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty fell from 63 percent to 10 percent, despite the population tripling in size. Child mortality rates are the lowest in recorded history.
But on the other hand, human activity is “driving biophysical change at rates that are much steeper than have existed in the history of our species.” 40 percent of the planet is now dedicated to agriculture, at the expense of natural systems. Habitat destruction and the anticipated extinction of up to a million species threatens the underlying biodiversity that maintains the resilience of natural systems.
Some may see promise in the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch created by humans, and imagine a future planet optimized by direct human control. But in reality, the poor human management of the planet’s biophysical systems to date means that more of the status quo will lead to civilizational collapse.
According to Frumkin and Myers, we have disrupted the climate system; polluted air, water, and soils; caused rapid biodiversity loss; reconfigured biogeochemical cycles; made pervasive changes in land use; and depleted fresh water and arable land. These changes all have significant health implications for billions of people. A new approach rooted in planetary health is needed.
The book first provides a background on the intellectual history of the concept of planetary health, which only began as a systems-scale field of research in the 1990s. As Dr. Warwick Anderson explains in his essay, the field made a big leap in 2010, when The Lancet, a major research journal, and the Rockefeller Foundation partnered with other public health groups to promote a “new health discipline — public health 2.0.” In 2015, with the release of the seminal Lancet – Rockefeller Foundation commission report Safeguarding Human Health in the Anthropocene Epoch, Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, deemed the new field of inquiry “planetary health,” which Anderson states, “rapidly gained currency.”
The book then lays out the scale and complexity of the problems and offer some positive models to addressing them:
A chapter by a team of esteemed researchers from organizations such as the Population Council, Population Reference Bureau, and Population Institute explore how the growth in human population and consumption are driving environmental change. They argue that “given the tight interconnectedness of the two drivers, it may be best to see them as coequal challenges.”
These contributors call for disincentivizing the excessive consumer consumption of the U.S. and western Europe, which would doom the planet if expanded to a global scale. They also point to the connected drivers that can further reduce population growth, including greater investment in the education of girls and women around the world, which helps to empower them to make their own decisions, and the expansion of access to contraceptives.
Their conclusion: a “multi-pronged strategy that integrates education, sound policies, and high-quality health services — all while guaranteeing the rights and respecting the dignity of all people — could dramatically accelerate the transition to truly sustainable levels of human population and consumption.”
A companion essay outlines the environmental impacts of the twinned growth in population and consumption. The authors argue: “We live on a different planet than the one our great-grandparents called home a century ago. It is a warmer planet, a more crowded planet, a planet with fewer species, a planet marked by widespread contamination and altered biogeochemical cycles.”
In this chapter, we learn about humans’ many impacts on the environment — ranging from the climate to the nitrogen cycle in agriculture, from land use and cover to water scarcity, biodiversity loss, and pollution.
Through a series of essays, Planetary Health delves into how those specific environmental changes — all driven by human behavior — are in turn jeopardizing human health and well-being by increasing risks in the area of nutrition, infectious diseases, non-communicable diseases, population displacement and conflict, and mental health.
In the section on nutrition, Myers explains how rising temperatures and carbon dioxide levels increase risks in the agricultural sector, impacting everything from the amount of time farm workers can stay in the heat to the nutritional yield of important mainstay plants. He also flags the lack of genetic diversity of the few plant species we rely on and the need to greater protect plant diversity.
A chapter on infectious diseases by Richard Ostfeld, with the Cary Institute of Ecological Studies, and Felicia Keesing, a biologist at Bard College, explains the growing risks of various infectious diseases. They write: “key environmental drivers, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, land use change, pollution, and alteration of biogeochemical cycles cause changes in the abundance, distribution, physiology, and behavior of important species involved in the transmission of both zoonotic and nonzoonotic pathogens to humans.” They analyze the relationships between land use, biodiversity, and diseases like malaria, lyme disease, and schistosomiasis, among others.
Non-communicable diseases, which include cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes, and other conditions, account for 70 percent of global deaths each year. In this chapter, Frumkin and Andy Haines, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Diseases, lay out the data on how climate change, urbanization, and air pollution increase non-communicable disease risk. Of particular interest for landscape architects and planners is a section on the dangers of automobile-dependent communities.
A team of researchers then connect the dots between environmental change, migration, conflict, and heath impacts, explaining how the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, is now understood as the first “modern climate change conflict,” and how we can expect more to come.
One of their arguments for investing in climate solutions is worth re-stating: “Adaptation to global environmental change is part of preventing migration. Adaptation can reduce vulnerability to both sudden shocks and long-term trends. Examples include switching farming practices to drought-tolerant crops and soil-conserving techniques, not building in floodplains, constructing levees and sea walls, restoring coastal barrier systems (mangroves, vegetated dunes, coral reefs, wetlands), and altering building codes to put key utilities on roof instead of in basements.”
Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster, provides a much-needed overview of the expected mental health impacts of climate and environmental change. She collects many useful studies in one place, providing a valuable reference.
One worrying conclusion: “Higher temperatures can provoke increased aggression. This manifests in many ways: from pitchers beaning batters during baseball games and drivers aggressively honking their horns, all the way to violent crime, particularly when combined with frustration over limited access to resources, such as fresh water or arable land.” One of her key solutions is expanding access to nature, particularly in cities. “Reconnecting with nature…offers a range of direct and indirect mental health benefits.”
Planetary Health then turns to building the case for systemic changes in our societies and economies, including a shift away from using gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of growth and instead using gross national happiness and other metrics that better account for human health, well-being, and environmental health. Central arguments include: “happiness and human health are intertwined; natural environments make people happy; and happiness production is not resource-intensive.” In other words, more experiences in nature create happiness, not the latest purchases.
After wading through the problems, we then get to the solutions — healthier models for various sectors: energy, chemicals, cities, economic development, and private sector growth. The chapter on urban places and planetary health is particularly worth reading as it makes the health argument for “integrated green urbanism,” transit-oriented development, bicycle infrastructure, and urban food systems. Iryna Dronova, a professor of landscape architecture at UC Berkeley, contributes to this discussion. The chapter on chemicals outlines how to reduce the risk of endocrine disruptors and create new green chemicals.
This significant new book also proposes how to create a set of planetary health ethics that can guide current and future action — a mutual promise to do no further harm in our era of climate and environmental change. Here, the contributors call for a “social movement, a scientific framework, an attitude towards life, and a philosophy of living that fosters resilience and adaptation.”
The core message: If we truly commit to maximizing human and environmental health in all communities, and undertaking all that entails, we will get on a pathway to saving the planet.
The Little-Known Women Behind Some Well-Known Landscapes — 10/21/20, The New York Times
“‘Women have literally shaped the American landscape and continue to today,’ said Charles A. Birnbaum, president and chief executive of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, ‘but their names and contributions are largely unknown.’”
Photographers have taken to the air en masse. With drones loaded with high-resolution cameras, aerial photographers are capturing surprising and beautiful scenes from both nature and cities, giving us a fresh perspective on the planet’s complexity. After receiving submissions from 126 countries, the Siena Awards Festival selected their latest Drone Photography Awards. The grand prize winner took home €500,000 (US$586,000) of aerial photography equipment.
Photograph of the year went to Love Heart of Nature by Australian photographer Jim Picôt (see above), who captured an amazing scene in which a shark chases a fish within a heart-shaped school of salmon.
In the urban category, aerial photographer Tomasz Kowalski describes the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as an alien landscape.
Dmitrii Viliunov, the winner of the wildlife category, explains that “many think herons make nests in reeds or in a swamp. In fact, they nest in the tops of huge trees.” With a drone, it’s possible to get a sense of their home life.
In the sports category, photographer Roberto Corinaldesi captures swimmers “taking refuge between the blue carpet and the white foam of the waves.”
And in a wonderful photograph by Joseph Cheires, winner of the nature category, we see a gray whale who seems to enjoy interacting with whale watchers. Cheires writes: “at the end of the gray whale season, I was told about a whale that for the last three years played with the boats, pushing them gently. So we went back the year after, and incredibly the gray whale appeared.”
Lastly, in the abstract category, we get a glimpse of the incredible resilience of nature. Aerial photographer Paul Hoelen captures the results of the transformation of a toxic industrial mining site at Lake Owens in California into a shorebird reserve. Hoelen writes: “after a destructive past and the creation of the most toxic dust bowl in America, migratory birds are returning, and life is beginning anew.”
The photographs are now on display in an exhibition entitled “Above Us Only Sky” in Siena, Italy, through the end of November.
It is especially gratifying to be recognized on the 120th anniversary of the birth of the man who established landscape architecture as “the mother of all arts”—Sir Jellicoe himself.
My Roots in the Village
I’d like to begin by talking a bit about my childhood, which ultimately had a profound influence on the way I’ve come to approach my work. I was born to a peasant family in Dong Yu village in southeast China’s Zhejiang Province. The village is located where White Sand Creek and the Wujiang River meet.
I swam in the creek during the summer and caught big fish when the monsoon season came. When I was small, I took care of a water buffalo, which grazed along the waterways and between the paddy fields. There were seven ponds, a patch of sacred forest and two big camphor trees in front of the village, under which many legendary stories about my ancestors were told.
The land was extremely productive. We planted three crops throughout the year, including canola, wheat, buckwheat, rice, sugar cane, peanut, sweet potato, corn, soybeans, carrot, turnip, radish and lotus.
The land and water were precious, but the weather could be unpredictable, so we had to design and manage our farm fields wisely, following nature’s cycle and wasting nothing, and adapting in order to make a living.
We worshipped the Earth God, Water God, and Yu the Great, the legendary king who knew how to manage water and plan the land. We also worshipped our ancestors, who had the wisdom of adapting to nature and cultivating the land.
In all likelihood, I would have followed in the footsteps of my father, who taught me how to cultivate the land, manage water, and be a productive farmer.
But it was a difficult time. Although we were a peasant family, we had also been landowners. During Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, my family was labeled as members of the “landlord class.” Our land was seized and redistributed to communes, after which we collectively farmed it. More significantly for me, children from the landlord class were prohibited from attending school.
But in 1978, an army veteran who came to teach in my village, Mr. Zhou Zhangchao, caught up with me one day while I was riding my water buffalo home. He told me that Deng Xiaoping had reversed the policies that barred the children of the landlord class from going to school. I immediately enrolled in school and began studying hard to catch up.
In 1980, after 17 years working on the commune, I passed the national university entrance examination. I was the sole lucky university entrant out of 300-plus students in our rural high school.
On the Shoulders of Giants
By chance, I was chosen to enroll in Beijing Forestry University as one of 30 students in the entire nation to study gardening, which had been cancelled for ten years during the Cultural Revolution. I was fortunate to have some of the best landscape gardening professors in the nation as my mentors, including Wang Juyuan, the founder of the Landscape Gardening Program at the Beijing Forestry University; Chen Youming, my Master’s thesis advisor; and Sun Xiaoxiang and Chen Junyu.
In a certain sense, leaving the dusty countryside to make beautiful gardens in the city was a dream for me and my parents.
But when I finished college and was starting my career of teaching and making beautiful gardens for the city, I returned home to find that my village had been destroyed. The sacred forest and the camphor trees had been cut and sold off. The creek itself had become a gravel quarry, and the fish disappeared.
I began to ask myself: Was there something more I should be doing? What about my village and my fellow villagers? What about the land beyond the garden walls and beyond the city walls—where, at the time, almost three-quarters of a billion Chinese lived?
At this same time, I began looking abroad to learn more. In 1992, I was accepted at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. I spent the next four years working with Carl Steinitz, Hon. ASLA, along with landscape ecologist Richard Forman and GIS and computing expert Stephen Ervin. I would often encounter Ian McHarg, Michael Van Vulkenburgh, FASLA, Peter Rowe, and others in the hallways.
For me, it was a tremendously exciting time. It was a chance to meld the village-level concepts of the Earth God, Water God, and Yu the Great, from my childhood, with the ideas of the great Chinese “gardening” masters—and some of the best minds in the West.
The concepts of landscape and urban ecology, people-oriented urbanism, landscape perception and revolutionary anthropology, landscape and architectural phenomenology, etc., enlightened the left side of my brain. Design works by contemporary masters including Peter Walker, FASLA, Laurie Olin, FASLA, Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, Richard Haag, FASLA, Maya Lin, Martha Schwartz, FASLA, Peter Latz, Bernard Tschumi, and so on, inspired the right side of my brain.
It happened to be a time of great debate within academia, and I found myself fascinated by the tensions between design as political procedure versus design with nature, and art versus ecology.
I was captivated by two questions, which have subsequently driven my entire career:
Conservation vs. Development: Spatial planning based on the idea of balance –when land and space are limited, how can we balance ecological protection with development?
Sustainability vs. Beauty: The creation of Deep Form — what is the relationship between sustainability and beauty, how can we unite ecology and art?
After graduating, I was recruited by SWA in Laguna Beach, California. There, I was able to work with Richard Law, FASLA, on luxury properties, new urban development, and projects in the booming Asian market. Life on the beach was pretty good.
But while I was happily designing luxury properties and imagining the grandeur of new cities, I found that the land at home was under assault. Old buildings were torn down; hills were leveled; lakes and wetlands filled and polluted; rivers channelized and dammed; and public squares and boulevards were built at gargantuan size. It was the opposite of everything I had learned about how to create livable cities and landscapes.
And it turned out to be a national-scale challenge. Over 80 percent of Chinese cities suffer air pollution, which kills 1.2 million people each year. Flooding causes some US$ 100 billion in damage. Four hundred of 662 cities suffer water shortages. Seventy-five percent of the nation’s surface water is polluted, and 64 percent of cities’ groundwater is polluted. 50 percent of wetlands have disappeared in past 50 years, resulting in tremendous losses of wildlife habitat.
Meeting the challenges
(1) Start with Education and a New Identity
I landed at Peking University as a professor in 1997 and was immediately joined by my lifelong friend Li Dihu. Together we started the landscape architecture program in the Department of Geography. We hoped to help an important new profession establish a foothold across a vast landscape. But we had humble beginnings: We started with a grand total of 3 students. (Today, we have 200 students enrolled, with more than 600 graduates.)
But people still tended to see me simply as “a gardener,” with no relation to urban development, land and water management, flood control, or ecological restoration.
In China, there’s a legend about “The Land of Peach Blossoms,” a magical realm of peace, a sort of Shangri-La. To a certain extent, I have always thought of Dong Yu village, where I grew up—with the two big camphor trees under which I heard the stories of my ancestors and the sacred forest where they rest–as the Land of Peach Blossoms. And landscape architecture, to me, seemed a way to recover the lost Land of Peach Blossoms.
So I felt compelled to reclaim the importance of landscape architecture itself and began describing it as “The Art of Survival.” In doing this, I was inspired by Ian McHarg’s pugnacious call to arms: “Don’t ask us about your garden. Don’t ask us about your bloody flowers …. We’re going to talk to you about survival.”
We launched a new magazine, Landscape Architecture Frontiers, to promote our new approach. We brought in top thinkers in the field to lecture and held over 15 landscape architecture conferences to educate a young generation and begin creating a consensus.
(2) Trying to reverse the damage and inspire policy change
We felt that immediate action had to be taken to reverse the damage, so we launched the concept of “Inverse Planning” (反规划 fǎn guīhuà), which emphasizes the protection of existing natural functions and prioritizes what is not built—what should be protected instead.
I also realized that the only way to reverse the damage caused by conventional planning procedure was to convince decision makers to change the policies. So I kept writing and talking and lecturing to decision makers, from top authorities to township leaders. I delivered over 300 lectures to municipal decision makers and ministers.
In 2006, I made a proposal to then-Premier Wen Jiabao that, to my surprise and gratification, initiated the process of national security pattern planning and ecological red line regulation.
These two concepts help identify and protect critical landscapes to safeguard natural, biological, cultural and recreational values and functions, thus securing this wide range of ecosystems services essential for sustaining human society. The State Council has since issued four state regulations to safeguard national ecological security.
(3) The “Big Foot” Revolution
I also realized that bad decisions were being made simply because of a misguided mentality about civilization and misguided aesthetic sensibilities. For thousands of years, the “civilized” urban elite worldwide has insisted on the privilege of defining civilization, beauty, and good taste. Bound feet, deformed heads, and twisted bodies are only a few such expressions of cultural practices that, in trying to elevate city sophisticates above rural bumpkins, have rejected nature’s inherent principles of health, survival, and productivity.
In China, for more than a thousand years, young girls were forced to bind their feet in order to be able to be considered beautiful enough to marry urban elites. Natural, “big” feet were considered rustic and rural. The obsession with “little feet” sacrificed function and dignity for ornamental value.
Today, landscaping and city building, by far, are the most visible and extensive manifestations of the folly of civilization and aesthetic standards defined from above—what I think of as “little foot” urbanism and the “little foot” aesthetic.
On one hand, the “manicured little foot” grey infrastructure simply lacks resilience and is a waste of energy and materials. On the other hand, urban elites with “little foot” aesthetics trying to elevate city sophisticates above rural peasants have rejected nature’s inherent goals of health and productivity.
These kinds of “little foot” grey infrastructure and aesthetics are not only expensive, but also wasteful and unsustainable. China’s carbon emissions in 2017 accounted for 28 percent of the world total. And according to 2018 figures from the World Economic Forum, China consumes 59 percent of the world’s cement and 50 percent of its steel and coal.
So I began advocating for what I call a Big Foot Revolution. This movement begins with questioning some of the basic values I have mentioned above, and my hope is that it will mirror an earlier revolution in the way Chinese thought about their own bodies and culture.
In the early 20th century, The New Cultural Movement was launched by teachers and students at Peking University, and ultimately led to the rejection of foot binding and a re-embracing of the natural beauty of the human form.
I believe the Big Foot Revolution will happen at three levels of action:
Planning the Big Feet (planning ecological infrastructure across scales)
Creating Working Big Feet (creating nature-based engineering models inspired by ancient wisdom)
Making Big Feet Beautiful (new aesthetics to create deep forms).
“Planning the Big Feet” or planning ecological infrastructure across scales, is critical for securing ecosystems services, and weaving green infrastructure together with grey infrastructure. Inspired by the ancient concept of sacred landscape—and by modern game theory¬—I developed the concept of the Landscape Security Pattern, which focuses on protecting the critical landscape patterns needed to ensure that natural processes can continue.
“Creating working Big Feet” means creating nature-based engineering models inspired by ancient wisdom, particularly from agriculture. We have developed replicable modules based on traditional farming techniques of terracing, ponding, diking, and islanding to address climate change and related problems at a massive scale in a cost-effective manner.
In China, all rivers are dammed and channelized with concrete flood walls. China has more than half of the world’s dams greater than 15 meters in height. More than US $20 billion is invested to control flooding each year, but US $100 billion is lost and 10 million people are affected every year. We need to accept and embrace flooding as a natural phenomenon, and turn grey infrastructure into green to help temper the damage of inevitable floods.
Due to the monsoon climate, over 62 percent of Chinese cities suffer from urban flooding. How much more flooding could be managed better if nature-based solutions were implemented nationwide? Using sponge city concepts would greatly increase water resilience.
In China, 75 percent of surface water is contaminated. Globally, 85 percent of sewage goes untreated. But the landscape can be a living system to clean water. Terraced, constructed wetland can be used to remove nutrients through biological processes.
We have already incorporated many of these ideas at several parks throughout China. In Zhejiang Province’s Taizhou City, we redesigned the Yongning Park as a “floating garden” with ecological embankments that can reduce peak flood flow by more than half, and create a seasonally flooded natural matrix of wetland and natural vegetation that sustains natural processes. This park demonstrates an ecological approach to flood control and stormwater management, while also educating people about new and forgotten solutions to flood control beyond engineering.
In Zhejiang’s Jinhua City, water-resilient terrain and planted vegetation were designed to adapt to monsoon floods. A resilient bridge and path system was designed to adapt to the dynamic flows of water and people. The river currents, the flow of people, and the gravity of objects are all woven together to form a dynamic concord. This is achieved through meandering vegetated terraces, curvilinear paths, a serpentine bridge, circular bioswales, planted beds, and curved benches.
In Harbin, in the far north, we turned the Qunli Stormwater Park into a “green sponge” that filters and stores urban stormwater while providing other ecosystem services, including the protection of native habitats, aquifer recharge, recreational use and aesthetic experience, which together help foster sustainable urban development.
At Dong’an Wetland Park on Hainan Island, off the coast of southern China, creating a green sponge in the center of the urban environment was an essential adaptation strategy for increasing resilience to climate change, particularly in an area where tropical storms can easily overwhelm conventional drainage systems.
In this case, a heavily polluted 68-hectare site was filled with non-permitted buildings and illegally dumped urban debris. Inspired by the ancient pond-and-dike systems and islanding techniques in the Pearl River Delta, and using simple cut-and-fill methods, a necklace of ponds and dikes was created along the periphery of the park that catches and filters urban runoff from the surrounding communities.
In the central part of the park, dirt and fill were used to create islands that are planted with banyan trees to create a forested wetland. Both ponding and islanding will dramatically increase the water-retention capacity of the park and increase the eco-tones between water and land to speed up the removal of nutrients. The constructed wetland can accommodate 830,000 cubic meters of storm water, dramatically reducing the risk of urban inundation.
Along the Huangpu River in Shanghai, we designed Houtan Park as a regenerative living landscape on a former industrial brownfield. The park’s constructed wetland, ecological flood control, reclaimed industrial structures and materials, and urban agriculture are integral components of an overall restorative design strategy to treat polluted river water and recover the degraded waterfront in an aesthetically pleasing way. The 10-hectare park, which is 1,700 meters long, filters phosphorous and other nutrients from 2,400 cubic meters of water per day, which is enough water for 5,000 people.
The Meshe River in Haikou has suffered flooding due to the monsoon climate and water pollution caused by sewage and non-point source pollution from urban and suburban runoff. The river had been channelized with concrete for the sole objective of flood control, which destroyed its ecological resilience.
We used nature-based solutions to create resilient green infrastructure that has revived the river. The concrete flood walls have been removed and the river was reconnected to the ocean so that tides could once again enter the city. Wetlands and shallow river margins were reconstructed so that mangroves could be restored. A terraced mosaic of wetlands along the banks of the river was designed as natural water-treatment facilities that catch and cleanse nutrient-laden runoff, and a significant amount of wildlife habitat has been recovered in the dense city center.
The Mangrove Park in Sanya City, on the island of Hainan, is another example of nature-based climate resilience. To mitigate urban flood risk caused by climate change, it was critical to restore mangrove along the waterways and coastal shorelines. One of the key challenges was finding an efficient and inexpensive method to reestablish the mangrove habitat that had been extensively destroyed due to rapid urban development. To that end, fill composed of urban construction debris and concrete from the demolition of the flood wall was recycled on site.
Cut-and-fill techniques were subsequently used to create a gradient of different riparian eco-tones for diverse fauna and flora, particularly different species of mangroves. An interlocking-finger design was used to lead ocean tides into the waterways, while also attenuating the impact of both tropical storm surge and flash floods originating in the urban and upland area upstream, both of which can harm establishment of mangroves. This also maximized habitat diversity and edge effects, which increase the interface between plants and water; this, in turn, enhances ecological processes such as nutrient removal from the water.
The dynamic aquatic environment that follows the rise and fall of tides and provides several aquatic species with the daily water-level fluctuation they need for survival. Terraces between city streets and the river have been augmented with bioswales to catch and filter urban stormwater runoff. In just three years, an area of lifeless land fill within a concrete flood wall in the center of the city was transformed into a lush mangrove park. This type of mangrove rehabilitation can be implemented at a large scale efficiently.
In China, 60 percent of urban soil is contaminated, and conventional remediation is usually very expensive. In Tianjin’s Qiaoyuan Park, I wanted to show how we can let nature do the work, by using nature-based soil remediation techniques. Through regenerative design and by sculpting land forms and collecting rainwater, the natural process of plant adaptation and community evolution was introduced to transform a former shooting-range-turned-garbage-dump into a low maintenance urban park. The park provides diverse nature-based services for the city, including retaining and purifying storm water to regulate pH, providing opportunities for environmental education and creating a cherished aesthetic experience.
Making Big Feet Beautiful means promoting the new aesthetics to create deep forms. In this, I was inspired by Anne Whiston Spirn’s New Aesthetics that “encompasses both nature and culture, that embodies function, sensory perception, and symbolic meaning, and that embraces both the making of things and places and the sensing, using, and contemplating of them.”
The timeless interdependence of culture and nature is most visible in the bond between peasants and their farmlands, and practices such as cut and fill, irrigate and fertilize, frame and access, grow and harvest, recycle and save — all of which embody some of the principles of new aesthetics that inspired my design.
In Qinhuangdao, I put a ribbon on the river to frame and transform the messy nature into an ordered urban park. Winding through a background of natural terrain and vegetation, the “red ribbon” spans five hundred meters and integrates lighting, seating, environmental interpretation and orientation. This project demonstrates how a minimal design solution can dramatically improve the landscape, while preserving as much of the natural river corridor as possible during the process of urbanization.
China has 20 percent of the world’s population, but only 8 percent of the world’s arable land—10 percent of which has been lost in the past 30 years due to urban development. Our project on the Shenyang Jianzhu University Campus uses rice paddies to simultaneously define the structure of the landscape design and introduce a productive landscape into the urban environment. It is a demonstration of a method to resolve the tension between urban development and food production in today’s developing world.
In Quzhou’s Luming Park, we embraced the concept of agricultural urbanism. On a site surrounded by dense new urban development, we created a dynamic urban park by incorporating the agricultural strategy of crop rotation and a low-maintenance meadow. An elevated floating network of pedestrian paths, platforms and pavilions creates a visual frame for this cultivated swath and the natural features of the terrain and water. Using these strategies, a deserted, mismanaged landscape was dramatically transformed into a productive and beautiful setting for urban living, while preserving the natural and cultural patterns and processes of the site.
I have also tried to show the possibilities of reusing and recycling. While China has been on an incredible building boom, it has also demolished large parts of its cities. In 2003, for instance, some 325 million square meters of new buildings were constructed, while 156 million square meters was demolished. Thousands of villages and factories were wiped out.
The Zhongshan Shipyard Park near Guangzhou, inaugurated in 2002, was an effort to show that existing building and other structures can be incorporated into new development. The park reflects the remarkable 70-year history of socialist China and has been lauded as a breakthrough in Chinese landscape architecture. The original vegetation and natural habitats were preserved and only native plants were added. Machines, docks, and other industrial structures were retained not only for functional purposes, but also to educate and because of their aesthetic appeal. The park demonstrates how landscape architects can create environmentally-friendly public places full of cultural and historical meaning on sites not previously designated for attention and preservation. Its design supports use by the common people, as well as the environmental ethic that “weeds are beautiful.”
For over 20 years, we have tested and built over 500 projects in 200-plus cities and showcased numerous replicable models for healing and transforming our land at various scales.
Looking back, I have a better understanding of how my village-level landscape experiences, melded with modern concepts of landscape and urbanism, sustainability and aesthetics, which were developed by my many teachers and mentors, have helped me to address some of the common challenges that our profession is facing today.
I find myself thinking often of my roots in Dong Yu village. I think of King Yu the Great, who had the vision of healing the earth and living with nature. I think of the peasants who transform the landscape in which they live with their own hands. And I want to think like a king, but act like a peasant.
This is an incredibly sobering time to contemplate the relationship between humans and the natural world. The global pandemic is a powerful reminder that any belief in the conquest of nature is pure folly. We are all living in a new era of humility.
Yet I also believe that the pandemic—together with climate change—is also highlighting how important it is to create landscapes that can not only heal bodies and minds, but also the planet itself.
It is such a great honor to be in the company of the many great and thoughtful landscape architects who come together under the banner of IFLA. As former IFLA president Martha Fajardo said in 2005: “Landscape architect is the profession of the future.”
Thank you, and I wish everyone the best in collectively keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe.
I recently joined with landscape architecture faculty colleagues Bart Johnson, David Hulse, and Chris Enright, along with other scientists, in a study of wildfire risks in the southern Willamette Valley of Oregon. Our National Science Foundation project employed complexity science to simulate prospective landscape change and wildfire scenarios over fifty years. We simulated landscape change scenarios many times across an actual large area. The factors that influenced the simulations were different climate projections, consequent vegetation changes, likely behaviors landowners told us they would engage in, and fire behavior.
Very few of our numerous 50-year simulations suggested the likelihood of as many simultaneous, intense, and extensive wildfires as were seen in western Oregon in the first two weeks of September. This suggests the incidence of large and severe wildfires in the West is not linearly related to advancing climate change, as we and others have thought. With a warming climate, there may be more of an exponential, but still variable, growth in the incidence of large, and often simultaneous, very costly wildfires.
The extensive intensity of increasingly frequent wildfires promises to consume ever more forests, lives, and property in out-of-control ways, overpowering conventional wildfire prevention, amelioration, and suppression measures.
Outbreaks of multiple hazardous and simultaneous wildfires happen when several regional factors converge to produce “blowtorch” conditions. These can include extremely dry fuels (after months of drought), high temperatures, very low humidity, high winds, accumulated fuel loads, and forests stressed by advancing diseases and mortality. The resulting wildfires often exceed those of historically natural ones. Those natural wildfires tended to foster forest health because they often burned with less intensity, more variable intensity across landscapes, and less average overall acreage.
The only effective long-term solution is to reverse climate change, which will not slow down in the near term. But in the meantime, forests can be managed to be more resilient to fire.
Fuels reduction is the only known option to increase forests’ resilience. Prescribed portions of young or smaller trees, dead wood, and shrubs could be reduced in hundreds of millions of acres in the American West, and again, later on, in the forests of the eastern states. This is happening at a growing pace, but piecemeal, wherever funding and political support coalesce. It’s not enough to meet the larger challenge.
Sporadic projects tend to occur near suburban or exurban areas where risks are appreciated due to recent wildfires. In national parks, legal mandates promote the restoration of native, low-fuel ecosystems by prescribed fire, another method of fuels reduction. Badly burned forests must be replaced by more fire-adapted forests, but this is rare.
The implementation of an adequately extensive forest fuels reduction program is beset by ideological blame-shifting and politically prohibitive costs. There is also a shortage of well-trained professionals dedicated to this task, who can manage risks and build support for projects by sensitively and creatively engaging with local landowners and communities.
Conservatives deflect blame to scientific managers and conservationists by asserting that most forests have been “mismanaged” because they have not been freely and widely commercially thinned and harvested for wealth production at no cost to taxpayers. Ecologically-oriented environmentalists deflect blame to conservatives by asserting that most forests have been “mismanaged” because they have not been managed to emulate natural processes, like prescribed fire, as opposed to ecologically-destructive management geared only toward short-term profits. Everyone else is to blame in such incendiary partisan narratives: No one takes responsibility to fix the problems or bear the costs.
This broad, divisive notion of “mismanagement” is vexing. People dealing with real forests in real places can rarely identify a simple and obviously correct management approach. There are always questions of what, why, where, and when in decisions about budgets, biological systems, interacting and conflicting goals, alternative techniques, public and logger safety, wildlife, amenities, and the politics of local and regional stakeholders. Fuels reduction must be a major goal, but the best way to achieve this must be carefully tailored to each forest in its social and ecological context.
There will be forests where commercially profitable fuels reduction is appropriate, but there are many where this will be impossible, because costs exceed the value of marketable products.
There will be forests where prescribed fire is appropriate and efficient, but not everywhere. Numerous homes have been built within many forests. This makes prescribed fires more difficult to execute. Homeowners are often averse to perceived or actual risks, the intentional production of smoke, and changes to landscape amenities.
Climate change is also reducing the frequency and duration of weather conditions and fuel moisture levels required for safe prescribed fires. Prescribed fire is also difficult to safely control in increasing areas of forest with many weak or dead trees. If poorly planned, fuels reduction can impose risks to long-term forest health, net carbon sequestration, wildlife habitats, soils, biodiversity, and long-term sustainability of local timber or recreation economies; and it can’t be universally implemented.
A national program of extensive, well-planned forest fuels reduction and increased carbon sequestration would be very costly. Forest landowners are already shouldering growing insurance costs. It would require bipartisan, constructive, sustained, and large investments in public forest capital.
A complete, valid, and public GIS database of forest conditions in all western states must be rapidly created and maintained.
A private-public partnership with a clear mandate to foster forest health and resilience would need to award funds and coordinate and enable work across states, localities, landowners, and agencies. New, well-crafted rules would need to set fuels reduction and carbon sequestration goals with strong performance standards. These must clarify how projects must not be cheap and quick, but locally-appropriate to produce long-term forest health and beautiful, diverse forests.
Professional local planning, public participation, honest environmental reviews, and carefully proficient implementation would all be imperative.
Rob Ribe, FASLA, is professor and director of the master’s of landscape architecture program in the department of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon. He holds a master’s degree in landscape architecture and a PhD in land resources. Ribe was a lead scientist in studying the social acceptability of timber harvests and forest planning in the Pacific Northwest following the spotted owl controversy. He has also studied private landowners’ forest management choices.