Like many organizations, ASLA released a statement condemning the decision. ASLA found the ruling “short-sighted” because it “ignores science and the well-documented hydrological understanding of the interconnection of water sources.”
This statement was rooted in ASLA’s long-held, science-based policy positions on the waters of the United States and wetlands, and a legacy of comments sent to administrations, including the Biden-Harris administration during its last rule making process in 2022. ASLA’s positions were crafted from feedback from members who found recent definitions of waters of the U.S. and policies unclear and not grounded in hydrological or climate science.
According to a national poll issued by The New York Times, 72 percent of Americans also disagreed with the recent Supreme Court decision and believe the “Clean Water Act should be read broadly and include things like wetlands.”
And as landscape architects and ecologists know, “what is a wetland isn’t as black and white as the Supreme Court defined,” said Steven Spears, FASLA, project principal with Momark Development and GroundWork.
“The Supreme Court decision was wrong for a number of reasons,” said Keith Bowers, FASLA, president and founder of Biohabitats and a professional wetland scientist. “The decision was not based on science.”
According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the recent Supreme Court ruling defines waters of the U.S. as “relatively permanent bodies of water connected to traditional navigable waters.”
It defined some wetlands as waters of the U.S. if they have a “continuous surface connection to other jurisdictional waters, so that there is no clear demarcation between the bodies.” But the decision excludes other wetlands that are “neighboring waters but are separated by natural or artificial barriers.”
“The ruling interpreted wetland adjacency differently. The Supreme Court said a wetland needs to have a surface nexus with a stream, river, or navigable water to be federally protected. But we know wetlands are connected to other water bodies through both groundwater and surface flows, which may be continuous or not,” Bowers said.
“There is a lot to unpack with the Supreme Court ruling and more clarity will come in time,” Spears said. But the Supreme Court decision “just sees wetlands on a black and white basis. It also fails to account for wetland quality.”
The Sacketts sued the EPA in 2008 because it classified wetlands on their property in Idaho as waters of the U.S. The wetlands were near a ditch that fed into a creek, which then fed into Priest Lake, a navigable, intrastate lake.
In its recent decision, the Supreme Court essentially found that “the wetlands were not waters of the U.S. because they were separated from the lake by a road – even though they were connected to the lake under that road by a culvert,” Spears said.
Spears thinks it’s possible the wetlands in question were low-quality and that filling them in had little impact on the broader water quality of the lake. But it’s hard to tell because the ecosystem services of the particular wetlands weren’t measured.
“The Supreme Court decision is frustrating because it just states a wetland is either a wetland or not, regardless of the performance of the wetland and what ecosystem services it provides.”
At Austin Green in Austin, Texas, Spears and his firm, GroundWork, led a redevelopment of a former sandy gravel mine that was created before the Clean Water Act went into effect in 1972.
The brownfield site included both high-quality wetlands and other low-quality wetlands that happened to form out of the dredging process. The 2,100-acre redevelopment preserves and enhances more than 850 acres of high-performing wetlands and other ecological assets as part of a public park along the Colorado River.
The team – which included landscape architects at Lionheart Places and ecologists at ACI Consulting – used the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Ft. Worth District’s Texas Rapid Assessment Model (TRAM) to score the ecological service quality of the wetlands on the site and win approval of the project.
“We used the tool to conduct a land suitability analysis and planning process.This process informed the landscape architecture-led planning and design team as to which environmental systems were most desirable for protection and enhancement.”
“The model was used to identify high-quality wetlands that scored a 70 out of 100. We focused on how to raise their quality level to an 80 or 90. The redevelopment plan and park and open space network were curated around these ecological assets. There were also low-quality wetlands that scored a 1 out of 100, and some of those were filled in. What’s important to figure out is how a wetland performs, what is their worth. And if you need to fill in a wetland, mitigate or offset that elsewhere.”
While he doesn’t support the Supreme Court ruling, “now that it is the law of the land, how do we move forward?”
Spears wants to see a tool like the Army Corps’ TRAM as a national approach, with adjustments for important regional wetland and geomorphological differences. He noted that some Army Corps districts have wetland scoring tools and some don’t.
“Landscape architects can lean in and help establish the criteria for a new wetland scoring system. That will help us get away from ‘this is a wetland and that is not.’ We need to influence and help create a new wetland modeling process.”
Bowers thinks the ruling will open up lots of land and wetlands that were historically regulated to new development that will not be subject to federal approvals.
He thinks this is bad news for watersheds overall. “If you impact a river at its mouth, it won’t impact the system. But if you impact the wetlands – the headwaters – the water system can collapse. Wetlands are where you establish the ecological processes and then they migrate down the ecosystem.”
“I think all wetlands should be protected, as some wetlands that are low-quality today may not have been historically. As landscape architects, we should not impact any wetland if it’s in our power. With the climate and biodiversity crises, we need wetlands to sequester carbon and provide habitat. We need to do everything to minimize or mitigate impacts.”
For him, tools like TRAM can be useful in prioritizing which wetlands to save and restore. But he thinks the evaluation of any particular wetland’s quality should be rooted in a broader understanding of the watershed in which the wetland exists. He said the Supreme Court decision will increase the importance of watershed planning and the role of landscape architects in comprehensive planning for water resources.
The ruling also muddies the waters, so to speak, about how ephemeral waters will be considered in the future, potentially opening up future litigation.
According to CRS, “the majority opinion does not explicitly address ephemeral waters, which flow only in response to precipitation, or intermittent waters, which flow continuously during certain times of year, such as when snow pack melts. At a minimum, the majority’s interpretation would appear to exclude ephemeral waters.”
But a majority of Supreme Court justices also recognized that “‘temporary interruptions in surface connection’ – such as from low tides or dry spells” – happen in wetlands. “It is not clear how temporary such an interruption must be in order to preserve a wetland’s jurisdictional status.”
Hearing this, Spears seemed exasperated. In Texas, this lack of clarity on seasonal waters may impact how ephemeral streams and agricultural stock tanks are considered. “The Supreme Court seemed to create more problems than they solved.”
As regulations are rewritten, he sees opportunities for landscape architects to offer their deep expertise in designing with water and creating innovative approaches. He wants landscape architects to shape the next generation of water policy. “The reaction to Sackett vs EPA that is coming can help solve our water problems over the long-term.”
For Bowers, it’s important for landscape architects to be strong advocates for the preservation and restoration of wetlands through their projects and in their communities. “Try to insert policy standards and push for updates to zoning regulations.” And landscape architects can reach out to their Congressional representatives. “Legislators need to further clarify the definition of waters of the U.S.”
What else to know about waters of the U.S.
Since 1972, the Clean Water Act has protected the country’s aquatic environments from pollution. It was created by Congress to keep water bodies safe for wildlife and fishing and swimming. It has also protected communities’ drinking water supplies.
After the Act established federal jurisdiction over navigable waters, there have been a number of rulings by the Supreme Court. This is because the Clean Water Act never clearly defined what waters of the U.S. meant and instead authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and EPA to create that definition through regulations.
Legislators understood that it comprised “all the relevant parts of an aquatic ecosystem, including streams, wetlands, and small ponds—things that aren’t necessarily connected to the tributary system on the surface, but that still bear all kinds of ecological relationships to that system and to one another.”
And up until the 2000s, NRDC says, that inclusive definition of the waters of the U.S. was largely upheld through court cases.
The Supreme Court ruling in May came after multiple lawsuits filed in opposition to the Biden-Harris administration waters of the U.S. definition, which went into effect March 20, 2023. Those lawsuits halted implementation of the use of the definition in 27 states.
After the Sackett vs EPA decision, new guidance on the waters of the U.S. is being developed by the EPA and will be released in September.
The EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will also need to revise or amend a slew of regulations to be compliant with the Supreme Court decision.
To be specific, the ruling impacts many EPA regulations and programs that rely on a definition of waters of the U.S., including:
Water quality standards and total maximum daily loads
Oil spill prevention and preparedness programs
State and tribal certification under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act
Pollutant discharge permits
Dredged and fill material permits
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates in close collaboration with the EPA, will also need to update or revise its approach to military and civil engineering projects and permits that involve non-tidal and tidal wetlands.
Changes to these federal regulations and programs will also lead to cascading revisions of state regulations.
The Clean Water Act requires that state regulations adhere to its minimum requirements. It also allows states to go beyond the Clean Water Act and issue more stringent regulations. Some states have surpassed the federal level of water protection, while others have passed laws stating that only the bare federal minimum will be followed.
The institution of slavery shaped landscapes on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. And in turn enslaved and free Africans and their descendants created new landscapes in the United States, the Caribbean, and Sub-Saharan Africa. African people had their own intimate relationships with the land, which enabled them to carve out their own agency and culture.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, slaves brought from Sub-Saharan Africa were central to the production of many U.S. and Caribbean commodities, including cotton, tobacco, rice, rum, and sugar, and the industrialization and financial markets that resulted from them. The success of the Domino Sugar Company and its refinery on the waterfront of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was a direct result of enslaved labor. As such, “Brooklyn is a part of the Black Atlantic,” said Emily Holloway, a PhD student at Clark University. “Slavery in the south and Caribbean underwrote industrialization in the North.”
Holloway uses multiple academic disciplines to disentangle the “messy reality of racial capitalism,” which runs from Africa to Haiti, Cuba to the Northeast. This economic system relied on slaves and the accumulation of capital, which took the form of buildings and infrastructure.
The success of the Domino Sugar Company can also be understood as a result of a slave rebellion, which drove major changes in the sugar cane economy of the Caribbean. “The beginnings of the Domino Sugar Company leads back to the Haitian revolution,” Holloway said.
Self-liberated Haitians rose up and defeated the French colonial army, which caused sugar plantation owners on the island to flee to eastern Cuba. There, they clear-cut the land and reinstalled their slave-based sugar cane economy. This sugar was then sent to New York City for processing as the granular table sugar consumers bought in stores.
William Havemeyer, the founder of a company that later grew into Domino Sugar Company and later Domino Foods, Inc., formed a sugar refinery in lower Manhattan in 1807. Fifty years later, his firm moved to Williamsburg, where they built a larger refinery.
After that burnt down, the company built a colossal building in 1883 that could produce a million pounds of sugar a day. The company took up four city blocks and created a “densely populated industrial ecosystem.” Today, the building is being redeveloped as an office building, and the Domino waterfront has become “gentrified” and transformed into a park.
This industrialization process was mirrored in the sugar cane plantation landscapes of Cuba. Small farms multiplied and grew in size. Enslaved and then free laborers were still needed to harvest the cane but the processing at the farms became increasingly mechanized. “This history has been largely erased in the archives,” Holloway said, and a “more creative approach to research is needed.”
Justin Dunnavant, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, approaches the history of the Caribbean through multiple academic lenses as well.
He said there are researchers exploring the ideas of Black ecology, which examines the unique ways Black people interact with nature and how they are also erased from the environment. And there are also researchers focused on historical ecology, looking at how relationships between societies and environments have changed over time.
His goal is to synthesize these approaches into the new study of Black historical ecology, which can explore how ecological relations changed because of the slave trade. This will involve weaving together multiple narratives to examine the plantation system’s impact on both terrestrial and marine ecosystems. His hope is it can result in “a call to action to redress.”
Dunnavant has focused on the island of St. Croix, which was part of the Danish West Indies and is now part of the U.S. Virgin Islands. As part of an archeological research collective, he and his team are investigating the ecological impacts of slavery and plantations, including the deforestation that occurred to clear lands for sugar cane; the soils that were degraded by agriculture and development; and the coral mined for buildings. His work is also a part of the Estate Little Princess Maritime and Terrestrial Archaeology Field School, which trains Crucian high-school students in archaeology while investigating the remnants of Danish slavery.
At the same time, he is also uncovering the little known legacy of the maroons that claimed isolated areas of the island. Maroons were Black slaves who freed themselves by escaping, and some were their descendants. They formed self-sufficient communities throughout the Caribbean and southern United States. They often mixed with Indigenous peoples, forming new creole communities. In St. Croix, they led a slave rebellion that ended slavery in 1848.
The part of the island where the maroons found sanctuary was “unmapped” in Danish historical records, but it was actually a “rich area of Black freedom.” Using Lidar data and other archeological tools, Dunnavant’s team is uncovering the remnants of what he calls a “Black geography.” He is interested in how the maroons terraced the land for agriculture and created fortifications and leveraged the dense landscape to protect themselves. “Uncovering their stories is a form of redress.”
Matthew Francis Rarey, a professor at Oberlin College, then took the audience to Brazil to focus on the Portuguese colonial empire and its deadly campaign against maroons.
Approximately 80 fugitive slaves had made a home at Buraco do Tatu, on the coast of Bahia in Northeast Brazil. Their quilombo, or fugitive community, was destroyed by colonial forces. And that destruction was documented in a unique map that accompanied a letter to the viceroy.
The map was meant to provide evidence of the colonial power’s success in suppressing maroons, but it has become an “icon of scholarship,” as it is one of the few comprehensive aerial perspectives on how maroons organized themselves.
The map depicts a community nestled in sand dunes and blended into surrounding trees and shrubs. At its outer perimeter are fields of surrounding wood spikes. There are spiked trap holes. And there’s also a single path to the sea. The inner sanctum, the community itself, is organized on a grid, with homes arranged by streets. And there are food gardens and a trellis for growing passion fruit. “It shows a rebellion landscape,” Rarey said.
The maroons would use the path to reach roads where they would rob wayfarers. “They were fighting against inequality and capitalism.” The maroons would also target enslaved Black people going to market in an attempt to strike a blow at the plantation economy. “Their goal was to dismantle plantations from the inside” by “weaponizing blackness” and making plantation owners “look foolish,” Rarey said. They also participated in informal exchanges to build their supply of guns and gunpowder.
The map includes a legend that explains how the maroon community were killed in the onslaught by Portuguese colonial forces. One maroon woman was labeled a sorceress and “defamed after her death.” Many others killed themselves instead of risking re-enslavement. In the map, the corpses become “part of the subjugated landscape.”
The Portuguese process of mapping the community is an attempt to reinstate colonial order on a free Black landscape. Rarey said you can sense the “anxiety of the cartographer” as they had “no reference point.”
The institution of slavery shaped landscapes on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. And in turn enslaved and free Africans and their descendants created new landscapes in the United States, the Caribbean, and Sub-Saharan Africa. African people had their own intimate relationships with the land, which enabled them to carve out their own agency and culture.
Thaisa Way, FASLA, director of the garden and landscape studies department at Dumbarton Oaks, said the symposium was the fourth in a series meant to “curate a people’s history of landscape.”
African slaves in the United States’ Southern states and the Caribbean were forced to work in their owners’ plantations. They were seen as cogs in an industrial farming system driven by a trans-Atlantic capitalist market economy. But many owners also set aside land slaves could use to grow, trade, and sell food. “This was advantageous for the slave owner,” said C.C. McKee, a professor at Bryn Mawr College and the University of Copenhagen, as it meant having to spend less on feeding them.
McKee is intrigued by a painting by the artist simply known as Le Masurier, created in the French colony of Martinique in the 1770s (see image above). It clearly shows slave children eating sugar cane, the result of the plantation monoculture, but also the “Afro-Caribbean ecologies,” the many African and native trees and plants slaves planted at the edges of plantations, including cashew and tamarind, pea, and starfruit.
According to historical accounts of plantation life during that time, slaves also planted potatoes, yams, cabbages, herbs, and melons. They blended native Caribbean and African plants, taking a “creolized approach to food production.”
The edges of plantations were places where African social structures could be asserted. In these remnant spaces, slaves could decide how to parcel and cultivate the land. And while slave ownership of these areas was impossible, in some communities, hereditary claims were made on parcels, and kinship structures could play a role. In some communities, they functioned as a slave commons. They were “sites of resistance” to the slave owner’s world.
What isn’t seen in the painting McKee highlights is a depiction of the important role indigenous Caribbean peoples played in cultivating trees and plants, and on many islands, their role in teaching Africans how to harvest and prepare food from them. “The indigenous people have been ghosted because they were completely expelled by the 18th century. They were exterminated and exported; it was genocide.”
Slave children also had a complex relationship with the landscapes of the American South, explained Mikayla Janee Harden, a PhD student at the University of Delaware. They were put at greater risk by a dangerous landscape but also “knowingly imprinted on that landscape,” she said.
Children were left on their own or in the care of an elder while their parents worked the fields. Depending on their age, many were also tasked with clean-up and other responsibilities.
On plantations, slaves lived near untamed landscapes. Children who worked and played in these places without shoes were at great risk from snake bites. The few references to slave children in historical records relate to the medical knowledge gleaned from these bites. Children’s lack of “experience, wisdom, and judgement increased their risk of environmental harm.”
But children could also benefit from their “tacit knowledge” of the landscape. While still enslaved, some apprenticed at a young age to learn important trades. Harden highlights the example of Edmond Albius. Enslaved as a child on the French island colony of Reunion, he discovered a highly efficient way to cultivate vanilla that is still used today.
Landscape was a source of “pain and pleasure” for enslaved children. Untended by their working parents, they could be bitten by snakes or have accidents but could also learn, play, and imagine. Harden is next exploring the material culture — the corn-husk dolls and games enslaved children created — and how these objects transmitted African folklore and culture to the next generation.
The conversation then shifted to the other side of the Atlantic. The landscapes of the Falémé Valley in western Sub-Saharan Africa are a source of deep interest for Jacques Aymeric-Nsangou, a professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada. The valley provides insights into how African people avoided the process of enslavement and commodification.
Aymeric-Nsangou decided to research the hinterlands because most Africans captured and enslaved came from the interior, not the coasts. “Many had never seen the ocean before” when they were loaded into slave ships at coastal ports.
The Falémé River spans approximately 250 miles and flows south to north — from northern Guinea, through Mali and Senegal. It flows through mountains, forests, and deserts, and experiences dramatic seasonal changes. It is a tributary of the Senegal River, which flows east to west, so it could be used by slavers to carry captured people to ports on the western coast.
The landscape of the valley included both independent kingdoms and villages of the varied Madinka (otherwise known as the Manlinke or Mandingo) people, who are of similar ethnic origins. They were targeted by the Muslim Fulani (or Fulu) kingdom for capture as part of jihad (holy war). Enslavement had a long history in this part of the world. For centuries, captives were taken as a product of war. People could also be enslaved if, after a trial, they were deemed criminal or for other reasons.
Aymeric-Nsangou explored the few remnants of Tatas, the fortified defensive homes and landscapes of the region, with a team of archeologists. “The Tatas didn’t appear before the 18th century; they increased because of the slave trade,” Aymeric-Nsangou said.
There are no remaining, intact Tatas in the region, because the French colonial government largely destroyed them. But historic photographs show they were made with raw mud cement and stone.
The interiors of the Tatas were labyrinthine and had multiple layers of walls. Noble families occupied the innermost Tata, which also had the strongest walls. Outside, wood palisades, which are still seen in many communities today, provided an extra layer of security against slavers. And these communities also sometimes “weaponized African bees.” These insects are famously aggressive. And “there are stories that villagers could command them to attack.”
While the Tatas could offer defense, they could also be a trap. Another strategy villagers in the region took was to keep their community small so they could quickly relocate.
It is that invocation from Alison Sant that propels the narratives in her book — From the Ground Up: Local Efforts to Create Resilient Cities. She presents how people in cities across the U.S. are creating equitable communities that can withstand the changes wrought by climate change. Sant features places and projects that depend on community-grounded efforts to realize their outcomes, though she notes strong grassroots activism and community involvement can’t affect change alone. The most successful examples she relates “bring together the energy of community activists, the organization of advocacy groups, the power of city government, and the reach of federal environmental policy.” And, importantly, they do so in ways suited to their city.
Sant is a partner and co-founder of the Studio for Urban Projects, and its interdisciplinary interests are apparent in the various project types, organizations, and individuals included in her book. From activists and community organizers, landscape architects and city planners, policy makers and city officials, Sant’s cast of characters demonstrate the complexity and nuance that go into creating urban change. It’s the details from her interviews that make this book a valuable tool. Seeing how change is made allows readers to understand how, in their own communities, they too might be able to forge fruitful relationships to dismantle racist histories in favor of equity while equipping their city to handle climate change.
The book is organized into four sections, each tackling a different domain of the built environment. “Reclaim the Streets” showcases cities that are re-imagining streets to accommodate more than vehicular traffic. “Tear up the Concrete” highlights places that are embracing their role in their watersheds, whether by removing concrete or installing green infrastructure. In “Plant the City,” Sant presents how cities are encouraging tree planting. And “Adapt the Shoreline” illustrates how rising sea levels are altering cities’ relationships to their waterfront. The common thread throughout the sections: the understanding that any change striving for equity within our urban environments must be rooted in its community.
In New York, that community rootedness was critical when introducing Citi Bike to Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. The neighborhood, where the majority of residents are Black and have household incomes below NYC’s median, has few public transit options, yet most residents initially did not use the bike share program.
Then the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, a community-based organization, and other partners collaborated with Citi Bike, creating communications campaigns that spotlighted residents of colors who rode the bikes. Within a year, Citi Bike trips in the neighborhood ballooned, as did membership. “Bike share only became relevant to the community of Bedford-Stuyvesant once it was shaped by the community intended to use it,” Sant writes.
The same can be said about green infrastructure. Sant recounts how various cities are shifting to become “sponges for stormwater.” In New Orleans, community leaders are teaching their neighborhoods to add green infrastructure—rain garden and bioswales, street trees and permeable paving. But there’s more to it: “What is most important to me is to make sure that people had tangible assets on their property and for them to understand its functionality…the pumps, the drains, and the canals,” said Angela Chalk, executive director of Healthy Community Services. “By understanding this, we can take charge of ourselves.”
Mami Hara, ASLA, CEO at U.S. Water Alliance, writes in a contributing essay that “without community support and effective supporting policies and practices, green infrastructure can be an agent of displacement.”
The boon of tree planting has long been a part of American history. Benefits of urban tree planting have become further understood over time. From creating beauty, reducing noise pollution, mitigating the urban heat island effect, and increasing groundwater infiltration, urban trees have myriad benefits. Yet, Sant points out, like other urban amenities, trees, too, do not have equitable dispersal. Less affluent neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color do not have as many trees.
Sant chronicles efforts in Washington, D.C., and New York City to increase their urban tree canopies, which span community activists’ efforts, public-private partnerships, and public investment in street trees and public parks. Baltimore, too, is working to grow the city’s canopy, but perhaps more novel, however, is Baltimore’s use of urban wood. “Utilizing dead trees is as important as tending live ones, especially in the context of climate change,” Sant writes. Trees are usually seen as waste and sent to landfills where they release carbon.
To alleviate this issue, the U.S. Forest Service and local partners have established the Baltimore Wood Project. The program offers living-wage jobs to residents—many formerly incarcerated—who work to deconstruct some of the thousands of abandoned buildings in the city while salvaging their materials. It’s met success, both in its extremely low recidivism rate, and in its environmental impact. As a result, Baltimore’s sustainability plan emphasizes workforce development programs like this one.
In the book’s final section, Sant addresses three cities—San Francisco, New York, and New Orleans—built atop former wetlands. As sea levels rise, each must brace themselves for a much wetter future—especially because those buffering wetlands are no longer present to lessen incoming tides and storm surges. The projects Sant compiles here, too, are based in robustly leveraging community support.
In San Francisco, like in many other cities, the communities most at risk of flooding are low-income, and often neighborhoods of color. Sant details the community processes leading to Hunters Point Shoreline Park and India Basin Shoreline Park, which included landscape architects with RHAA Landscape Architects and Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, respectively. Both are in Bayview–Hunter’s Point, a historically Black waterfront neighborhood, and it was critical that their designs reflected its community while making space for rising waters. Jacqueline Flin, a Bayview native who now works for APRI, said involving the community throughout the process ensures that the park “is being grown from within and that the community takes ownership of it.”
On the opposite coast, the Billion Oyster Project, which strives to grow one billion water-filtering oysters in the New York–New Jersey Harbor Estuary, also necessarily demands the public’s assistance, from monitoring reef structures to putting them together. SCAPE’s post-Superstorm Sandy project, Living Breakwaters, which employs oyster restoration practices, has furthered public understanding about how nature-based strategies can mitigate the effects of sea-level rise.
“The only way to adapt, while keeping the biodiversity of estuaries and oceans intact, is by adopting radically anticipatory methods based on mimicking natural processes,” writes University of California at Berkeley professor Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA, in a guest essay. “When that doesn’t work, managing retreat is a better strategy than building rigid defenses that create exacerbated risks of catastrophic failure.”
Sant wrote this book during the earlier days of the Covid-19 pandemic, and during the racial reckoning that arose following the murder of George Floyd. She writes of the changes that we witnessed in cities, such as the “new ways of making streets for people.” Despite all the awfulness of 2020, there was a moment when it seemed the world would be irrevocably different: certainly we would more equitably, and more sustainably, inhabit cities moving forward.
National expert on the built environment and equity Tamika L. Butler speaks to that hope in her contributing essay: “It feels like we might be building something new, from the ground up.” Yet she also expresses the hesitancy that many of us likely feel now as we watch the world slip back into pre-2020 habits: “But what if it is all a façade? What if we build something up just to fortify the foundation of White supremacy that was already there?”
And this is the call to action: May the anger and the grief, the state of emergency of the pandemic, and the work that Sant so carefully describes prompt us to act—toward true change.
A Radical Vision for Reinventing the Suburbs – 07/25/2022, Fast Company
“Outside Toronto, in a field surrounded by farmland, the seeds of a seemingly implausible high-density, transit-oriented community are taking root.”
Ford House Completes Restoration of Historic Lagoon and Pool – 07/24/2022, Detroit Free Press
“’Before the restoration, the landscape behind the pool had become overgrown. It lost its hierarchy, the diversity of material, and the layering that were meant to replicate a northern Michigan landscape,’ said Stephen White, principal and director of landscape architecture and urban design for Albert Kahn Associates.”
Elks Children’s Eye Clinic Creates Landscape Design for All – 07/12/2022, Healthcare Design Magazine
“As the landscape architect for a sensory garden at Elks Children’s Eye Clinic in Portland, Oregon, Mayer/Reed (Portland) considered ways to create a welcoming environment for children whose sight may be limited.”
Study: Rising Seas Are Weakening Nature’s Storm Shields – 07/11/2022, Grist
“Barrier islands shield the mainland from hurricanes, waves, erosion, and flooding, taking the brunt of a storm’s early blows. Without them, experts say hurricane damage to towns and cities inland would be even worse.”
GGN’s Design for Umekita Park in Osaka, Japan Is Under Construction – 06/27/2022, Archinect
“Seattle-based landscape architecture firm GGN’s design for an urban park in Osaka, Japan is now under construction. This public/private collaboration is focused on creating sustainable urban public spaces and ecosystems that realize quality of life improvements for residents and visitors to Osaka, Japan.”
Where Did All of the Public Benches Go? – 06/27/2022, Arch Daily
“The design and functionality of public spaces in cities are always under scrutiny. But now a new issue and one that lives at a smaller scale is starting to arise- where did all of the public seats go?”
The Living City: Weaving Nature Back Into the Urban Fabric – 06/23/2022, Yale Environment 360
“Urban ecologist Eric Sanderson focuses on the natural history of cities. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he explains why recovering and restoring streams, salt marshes, and woodlands should be a vital part of how cities adapt to climate change in the 21st century.”
He’s Turning Dodger Stadium into a World-Class Garden, One Native Plant at a Time – 06/23/2022, Sunset Magazine
“It took five years for Perea and his crew to wholly reimagine and replant the hillsides and concrete planters, and meet the requirements for official accreditation from Botanic Gardens Conservation International. But today, the former hodgepodge of geraniums and petunias, ivy and lantana is now home to dozens of California natives, dotted with succulents, complete with a ‘tequila garden’ brimming with spiky agaves.”
Designer Julia Watson on Reaching the Age of the Symbiocene – 06/16/2022, Metropolis
“[Watson’s] 2019 book, Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism, spotlighted nature-based infrastructures that have been honed over millennia, from the Living Root Bridges of the Khasis people in India to the floating island homes of the Ma’dan in Iraq, made from qasab reeds. As the creative world searches for planet-positive design solutions in the face of climate change, the book shows they have existed for centuries but have been overlooked.”
HGA and Nelson Byrd Woltz Complete Design Refresh at Monticello’s Burial Ground for Enslaved People – 06/16/2022, The Architect’s Newspaper
“The UNESCO World Heritage Site-designated mountaintop plantation was designed and inhabited by the third president of the United States from 1770 until his death in 1826. The Burial Ground serves as a final resting place for an estimated 40 enslaved African people who lived and toiled on the (originally) 5,000-acre plantation, cultivating tobacco and later wheat.”
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.
Meet the Unsung Heroine of the Nation’s Most Celebrated Gardens — 03/29/22, Fast Company Design
“During a five-decade career based in deep horticultural knowledge and a style-agnostic approach guided by detailed interaction with her clients, Beatrix Farrand came to be one of the most famous landscape designers in the world. It’s an unlikely tale told in the biography Beatrix Farrand: Garden Artist, Landscape Architect, by Judith B. Tankard, out today from Monacelli Press. If some consider Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted the father of American landscape architecture, Farrand could easily be called the mother.”
Turning Cities Into Sponges to Save Lives and Property — 03/29/22, The New York Times
“Around the world officials are moving away from the traditional, hard infrastructure of flood barriers, concrete walls, culverts and sewer systems, and toward solutions that mimic nature. They are building green roofs and parks; restoring wetlands, swales and rivers; digging storage ponds; and more. Such projects — called by various names, including sponge cities, porous cities or blue-green infrastructure — also improve city dwellers’ quality of life.”
A Rogue Leader’s Plan for the Heart of Budapest — 03/26/22, Bloomberg CityLab
“The project is a way for Orban to put his mark on Hungary’s imposing capital, a city that since the end of communist rule in 1989 has grown into a confident, more cosmopolitan mix of foreign students, cuisine from around the world and yet with strong Hungarian identity rooted in its 19th century architecture. But, as ever with such urban revamps, there’s controversy, and in Hungary it’s political as well as historical and financial.”
Report: Over Half of U.S. Waters Are Too Polluted to Swim or Fish — 03/24/22, High Country News
“Back in 1972, U.S. legislators passed the Clean Water Act with a 10-year goal: Make it safe for people to fish and swim in the nation’s waters. Fifty years later, around half of all lakes and rivers across the country that have been studied fail to meet that standard, according to a recent report by the Environmental Integrity Project, a D.C. watchdog and advocacy nonprofit.”
Gary Hilderbrand Is the New Chair of Harvard GSD’s Department of Landscape Architecture — 03/23/22, The Architect’s Newspaper
“‘Gary’s sensibilities as a teacher and as a practitioner are one and the same—his unyielding efforts to reconcile imminent, often intractable forces of urbanization with ecological sustainability, cultural history, vegetative regimes, and thoughtful kindness are central to his pedagogy and practice both,’ said Sarah M. Whiting, dean of the Harvard GSD.”
Father Figure: Landscape Architect Frederick Law Olmsted Celebrated as Originator of U.S. Public Parks System — 03/19/22, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
“April 26 marks the 200th anniversary of his birth, and Olmsted 200 is a movement celebrating his vision — a vision that included public parks for all people. He believed that parks are an important part of any community. Not only do they provide a gathering place for family and friends, but they improve air and water quality, protect the groundwater and provide a home for birds and animals.”
New Book on Megaregions Provides a Framework for Large-Scale Public Investment — 03/17/22, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy
“Written by planning scholars Robert D. Yaro, Ming Zhang, and Frederick R. Steiner, Megaregions and America’s Future explains the concept of megaregions, provides updated economic, demographic, and environmental data, draws lessons from Europe and Asia, and shows how megaregions are an essential framework for governing the world’s largest economy.”
During Courageous by Design, a day-long conference organized by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) in New York City, women leaders outlined what can be done as landscape architects, designers, and horticulturalists to address the twinned climate and biodiversity crises. From the federal and state to local and site levels, landscape architects can advocate through design to change policies, shift mindsets, and introduce more sustainable and resilient practices. Each landscape project, no matter how small, offers an opportunity for positive change and to set new standards for climate-responsible design.
For Heather Morgan, director of climate risk adaptation at AECOM, partnering with the federal government can be challenging because there are “layers of hundreds of years of rules and regulations.” Furthermore, “federal systems can’t move with the pace, agility, and innovation needed to face our climate crisis.” But she urged landscape architects to take the time to figure out the rules of engagement in the federal system.
She called on landscape architects to improve federal decision-makers’ understanding of nature-based solutions. “Many federal workers want to try these approaches and have a passion for them, so don’t assume they don’t.” Take time to empower public servants through workshops and educational opportunities. Educate Congressional representatives and their staff and invite them on site tours. At the state and local levels, advance the understanding of non-federal sponsors of projects. Infrastructural projects led by the Army Corps of Engineers require 35 percent of funding to come from state and local sources. Those local project sponsors and financing sources can be a more direct way to incorporate nature-based solutions.
Landscape architects can use “funded and real” state-funded projects to “push for more climate positive actions,” said Signe Nielsen, FASLA, a founding principal at MNLA in New York City. She asked landscape architects to “look for opportunities in site constraints to advance climate resilience and circumvent ‘this can’t be done’ attitudes.”
For example, her firm’s work on Hunts Point Riverside Park in the South Bronx, New York (see image at top), the first new park in that underserved community in 60 years, involved navigating complex state and local regulations and required a herculean effort to convince regulators to abandon sewer and water lines to the park so that the totality of an 100-foot easement could be used for the public landscape.
She also told the story of how it took her seven years to convince regulators to incorporate solar-powered, instead of hardwired, street lamps in a new park on the Lower East Side in an area at high risk of flooding. After years of providing testimonials, working with the manufacturer to study prototypes, and sharing findings with regulators, “at last, we prevailed,” and solar-powered street lamps will “be the standard in near-future flood risk areas.” Her lessons learned: “be tenacious, find solutions, and keep persevering — even small projects can make a big impact.”
Annette Wilkus, FASLA, founding partner of SiteWorks, pivoted the conversation to how to move forward ecological restoration, improve biodiversity, and realize climate-responsible landscapes through permitting, design construction, and maintenance. She said “permitting doesn’t stop when construction begins. Unexpected things happen in construction, which require more permits.” She sees her role as transforming “what landscape architects seek to evoke through their designs” into a reality that can be preserved and maintained over time.
This work involves thinking through the economic sustainability and long-term maintenance plans of new climate-smart projects. As part of the re-imagining of the Houston Botanic Garden, a project planned and designed by landscape architecture firm West 8, Wilkus worked with the garden’s board of trustees to create a staff and budget plan, wading into the organizational chart to determine where new resources need to be added to ensure the new sustainable gardens are well-supported.
And for a new project by MNLA at the 25-acre Roberto Clemente State Park in Bronx, New York, Wilkus created an easy-to-understand and highly visual maintenance manual with the team charged with maintaining the site. “The maintenance staff were ecstatic about it.” She urged the audience to “really think about maintenance” requirements at the beginning to ensure that climate solutions “survive over time.”
The conversation then shifted to how landscape architects can become better stewards of biodiversity in the age of “eco-cide,” which is caused by climate change, habitat loss, and development and a process in which ecosystems are collapsing, more species face extinction, and the number of animals, plants, and insects in our landscapes continues to decline.
At Brooklyn Bridge Park (BBP) in Brooklyn, New York, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), the landscape architecture firm that has led the development of the park over the past twenty years, purposefully designed diverse wildlife habitats into a park visited by millions of people each year, said Rebecca McMackin, the park’s director of horticulture. BBP includes wetlands and grasslands, providing critical habitat for a range of birds that fly over. Even these relatively small stop-over points are vitally important given the U.S. has lost 30 percent of its bird population in the last 50 years and over 50 percent of grassland birds.
Together with the BBP team, they crafted an ecological approach rooted in “adaptive evolution” that enabled the park to thrive as a biodiverse hub in the midst of the city. While most urban landscapes are designed with plants in a fixed place, MVVA created a series of landscapes that function like ecosystems, with plants duking it out over light, water, and resources, creating a subtly shifting park in which plants “compete, die, and reproduce.” This requires a new approach to stewardship.
McMackin evoked a sense of wonder at the profound impact of trees. When a tree shed its leaves in the fall, those leaves provide a layer that protects the tree’s roots during the winter but also creates a very “biologically active space” for beetles, bumblebees, and other insects. She showed photos of foxes and owls diving into this layer for food during lean, cold months. Those leaves also decompose and turn into soil that in turn nourishes the tree and aids carbon uptake. She explained all of this to say that “it’s important to leave the leaves, which enables all of this to happen. Gardeners at BBP have been trained to get out of the way of the natural cycle.” In the meadows, gardeners are careful when they cut back the grasses in the spring to leave seeds on the ground for birds that have nested. When trimming back Aster trees, they also do this carefully to not disturb the caterpillars that live on the roots at the base of the trees.
All of this precision stewardship of the wildlife has great benefits for park visitors, too. Katydids have transformed the park with their music, creating a biophilic response that aids in relaxation. Because BBP doesn’t spray herbicides in the park, aphids have survived, which in turns attracts charming ladybugs. Walking Stick insects have been recently spotted in the park; “they haven’t been seen in NYC for ages.” BBP is also now home to a very rare bee — the blueberry digger bee. Brooklyn Bridge Park shows that organically-managed parks, with organically-grown native plants and trees, can “become an ecological refuge in cities.” Over the long-term, “respectful, adaptive management” is key to success (and so is buying native plants not treated with any chemicals).
Deeply concerned about the impact of climate change on the next generation, and their already tenuous connection with nature, Barbara Wilks, FASLA, founding principal of W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, cited a recent survey of 1,000 park goers in New York City that found 50 percent haven’t experienced nature outside of the five boroughs. With this understanding, it’s crucial that every available space be used to advance climate positive design and also to provide pockets of biodiversity, which can forge those connections to nature so critical to future stewardship. “Landscape architects can bring systemic thinking to the small scale,” and these smaller projects can be connected into “large-scale infrastructure.”
Urban forestry presents a major opportunity to address the climate crisis and increase biodiversity. A broad-based campaign among non-profit groups in the city calls for achieving a 30 percent tree canopy by 2035; currently, only 21 percent of the city is estimated to be covered by trees, far lower than other major American cities. Her streetscape projects in the city over the past twenty years have layered in diverse tree species in urban woodlands that go beyond the typical street tree format. Wilks has also proposed “marine streets” where dead-end streets that come to the water could be transformed into living, dynamic edges. “Give nature agency” wherever possible, “keep it wild,” and embrace “the dynamics of messy landscapes.”
“Every landscape needs to be an act of activism on biodiversity,” argued East Hampton, New York-based landscape designer Edwina Von Gal, Affil. ASLA, founder of the Perfect Earth Project. Her organization is focused on creating non-toxic landscapes free of pesticides and filled with native plants.
“We’ve lost 2.9 billion birds over the past 50 years. Birds have been impacted by a loss of habitat, pesticides, and loss of insect populations.” To address this crisis, she has also launched a campaign — two-thirds for the birds and asked for a commitment from the audience of hundreds of designers to design better habitat for birds, with at least two-thirds native plants in every project. “That means two native plants for every other plant” and zero pesticides.
She also called for “less mow and blow, less pollution, cleaner water, more on-site composting and biomassing.” Appalled by pristine landscapes free of fallen leaves and insects, she said “design has become so reduced, simplistic, and controlled. That tidy look is the direction we can’t go; that sanitized look can no longer be aspirational. Nature is so beautifully designed and messy. We need to support all the little wild lives that support us.”
As British environmental writer George Monbiot argues, “human survival is now a niche interest.” Von Gal took this further, arguing that landscape architects and designers “can create places for biodiversity — nature-based places — and massively enlarge the niche.”