Designing Decarbonization, Jobs, and Justice (Part I)

Grounding the Green New Deal / Allison Shelley/Landscape Architecture Foundation

“It’s not good enough to just be active designers, we also need to be influencing policy upstream,” said Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, CEO of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF), during the kick-off of Grounding the Green New Deal, a day-long summit held at the National Building Museum (NBM) in Washington, D.C. Landscape architects can “create a feedback loop in which we test designs and overcome barriers,” advancing climate, water, and infrastructure policy through innovative projects.

In 2020, LAF, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, ASLA, and the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA) launched a collective, open source Green New Deal Superstudio focusing on how to plan and design the key goals of the Congressional legislative proposal H.R. 109, which are jobs, justice, and decarbonization. Some 180 universities, 3,000 students, and hundreds of practitioners submitted 670 projects. Of these, 55 projects have been highlighted by Superstudio curators, and many were featured in an exhibition at the NBM during the summit.

Grounding the Green New Deal / Allison Shelley/Landscape Architecture Foundation
Grounding the Green New Deal / Allison Shelley/Landscape Architecture Foundation
Grounding the Green New Deal / Allison Shelley/Landscape Architecture Foundation

In a lecture to introduce the first panel, Billy Fleming, ASLA, the Wilks Family Director at the McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania, gave an introduction to the broad Green New Deal agenda, which was introduced in Congress in 2019. The agenda was seen as a criticism of the economic recovery package passed under the Obama administration, which was viewed as “too targeted, too Wall Street, and only one-time funding,” Fleming said. The economic havoc wrecked by the market collapse of 2008 was viewed by many liberals as a “crisis wasted.” The Green New Deal outlined an ambitious vision for addressing climate change while also tackling deep-rooted inequities in American society.

Like the original New Deal from the 1930s, which was a response to the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, the Green New Deal would yield thousands of public projects that would reshape communities. But in contrast to the original New Deal, which was not equitable in its distribution of public funds and reinforced the racist Jim Crow-era patterns of disinvestment in Black communities, the Green New Deal would be “more collaborative” and focused on lifting up long marginalized communities.

At the start of a wide-ranging panel discussion, Fleming argued that “carbon is mostly a technical problem.” Landscape architects, planners, and architects can’t focus solely on decarbonization, with “life the same afterwards.” Instead, he and other supporters of the Green New Deal argue that decarbonization should serve a broader economic and social transformation. Solving climate change can be connected to improving the quality of housing, creating new local jobs, and forging a more equitable society.

Grounding the Green New Deal / Allison Shelley/Landscape Architecture Foundation

Nikil Saval, a Pennsylvania State Senator who represents Center City, Philadelphia, said the intersections of all these issues can be found when you “turn on your lights or stove.” Because of “historical redlining and disinvestment in Black and brown communities, many homes in these communities lack insulation and are in disrepair. As a result, the energy needed for lighting, heating, cooling is much more expensive.” Saval said this inequality in the end-use of energy mirrors an unjust “political economy of gas infrastructure” that also disproportionately impacts communities of color.

He argued that communities need to instead “attack the role of racism and inequality” in the current energy infrastructure while investing in energy efficiency in low-income communities and affordable renewable energy. Otherwise, a new clean energy system may simply reinforce many of the injustices of the current fossil fuel-based approach.

Colette Pichon Battle with the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy was displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The disaster changed the trajectory of her legal career, and since then she has focused on environmental and climate justice in Louisiana, Mississippi, and other southern states.

Her organization and others in 13 southern states launched the Red, Black, and Green New Deal, an initiative that aims to tackle the drivers of climate change — economic and social inequality — and their impacts on communities, rather than focusing on “invisible atmospheric changes.”

Red, Black, and Green New Deal

The current economic system that leads to environmental and climate damages and injustices must be the focus of climate action efforts, Pichon Battle argued. For example, post-Hurricane Katrina, many cities in Louisiana were submerged under water for years. An incredible amount of trash accumulated and was eventually moved into landfills. Those landfills now form the foundation of new housing subdivisions marketed to low-income Black residents. “Those landfills are going to go under water again at some point and become toxic. Those Black folks marketed to weren’t just happened upon but targeted.”

“We need to be careful about talking about climate justice at a high level; it’s easy to decouple the issues from humanity,” argued Bryan Lee, another speaker on the panel, an architect and founder of Colloqate Design. “If you are talking about it at a high level, it means you don’t know your community. You need to know the people to know the climate impacts.”

Linda Shi, a professor of urban planning at Cornell University, asked everyone in the audience the question: “Who is part of the resilient future? Who makes space for others’ resilience dreams?” She argued that in any discussion about climate change, “we must center equity or it’s not about equity.”

She added that one challenge is that many engineering professions involved in building new climate infrastructure “have never been trained to deal with social issues.” Furthermore, governments and the private sector are more focused on reducing risk and legal liabilities with new infrastructure. “These legal concerns are different from justice, equity, and creating a sense of place.” This is where planners and landscape architects, who are skilled in equitable community planning and design, can help.

The Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act created enormous opportunities for communities to improve their park, water, and transportation infrastructure. $50 billion has been allocated for improving water infrastructure alone, with 20 percent of that for water efficiency and reuse.

For Katherine Baer with River Network, the bill is a “transformative moment” and creates opportunities to design green infrastructure to achieve greater water equity. “We believe in connecting communities to their rivers, centering rivers in their life. In the built environment, there are too many buried rivers, creeks, and culverts. And these buried rivers impact some communities more than others.”

Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture and planning at MIT, highlighted the ways landscape architects can empower underserved communities, address injustices, and increase climate resilience.

When her father took her to the March on Washington in 1963, “her life was transformed.” The march helped hone her life-long passion for “civil rights, environmental action, and beauty.” However, studying ecological design with Ian McHarg at the University of Pennsylvania, she found design academia at the time was “deaf to civil rights.”

Beginning 40 years ago, Spirn began partnering with communities through the West Philadelphia Landscape Project. White flight had led to disinvestment, but Spirn sought to keep people in cities by improving their environmental health and beauty. Realizing that “no one was going to pay me for this work,” she left private practice and took a job in academia. Using her salary she helped “communities who didn’t know they needed a landscape architect.” Through her “action research” approach, Spirn helped communities improve their landscape literacy. With the founding of her project, her goal was to “improve the natural environment and racial justice.”

ASLA 2021 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. West Philadelphia Landscape Project. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA

She found that in low-income Philadelphia communities there is a lot of vacant land, which is almost always in the floodplain and often on buried streams. While she couldn’t convince the city government in the 1970s and 80s, she called for transforming those vacant lots into green infrastructure to manage water. She started partnering with middle school students to discover the communities’ environmental history. “I learned that landscape literacy could change the future. We need to empower youth. These kids are brilliant.”

ASLA 2021 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. West Philadelphia Landscape Project. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA / Melissa Isador, West Philadelphia Landscape Project

Spirn and the West Philadelphia communities were eventually vindicated when the city reached more than a decade ago out to discuss its then-nascent Green City, Clean Waters plan. But she is now concerned all the green infrastructure improvements that have occurred in West Philadelphia as a part of her advocacy efforts are “catalyzing speculation and gentrification.”

ASLA 2021 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. West Philadelphia Landscape Project. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA / Melissa Isador, West Philadelphia Landscape Project

She urged the audience to “think five to ten years ahead to the possible displacement impacts of your vision.” Any improvements in community green infrastructure should be coupled with “education, jobs training, affordable housing, and community land trusts.”

Read Part II

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (January 16-31)

Rodney Cook Sr. Park / © 2021 Paul Dingman/courtesy HDR, via Fast Company Design

This 16-acre Atlanta Park Was Built to Flood — 01/28/22, Fast Company Design
“[Atlanta] didn’t just want to replace low-lying flooded homes with a low-lying flooded park. They worked with HDR on a design that would turn the empty acreage into a thriving public space that could also serve as an engineered drain, safely taking in the water during heavy storms and gradually releasing it underground. The park is designed to flood—and protect the surrounding neighborhood.”

Transportation Dept. Outlines Plan to Address Rising Traffic Deaths — 01/27/22, The New York Times
“‘Fatalities among pedestrians and bicyclists have been increasing faster than roadway fatalities overall in the past decade, which has a chilling effect on climate-friendly transportation options such as walking, biking or taking public transportation,” the report said. ‘To unlock the climate benefits of those modes, we need road and street systems that feel safe and are safe for all road users.'”

This Map Shows the Dozens of U.S. Cities That Will Get New Public Transit in 2022 — 01/26/22, Fast Company Design
“For public transit, 2022 could be a huge year. Across the U.S. and around the world, dozens of new train, bus, and streetcar lines are scheduled to begin operations, according to a newly released overview of transit projects compiled by urban researcher Yonah Freemark.”

5 U.S. Cities Where Bike Commuting Is Booming — 01/26/22, Bloomberg CityLab
“A new report from the League of American Bicyclists traces how long-term planning and infrastructure investments allowed some cities to grow their share of bicycle commuters.”

Australia Just Opened the Climate Change-focused Museum of the Future—And It’s Beautiful — 01/25/22, Architectural Digest
“For the highly specific landscaping, the Bundanon visionaries turned to landscape architects Wraight Associates and Craig Burton, who rather than place the primary focus on the aesthetic, made ecology the centerpiece of the grounds.”

Landscape Architect Wannaporn Pui Phornprapha Masters Her Craft — 01/21/22, Hospitality Design
“Many who experience landscape architect Wannaporn Pui Phornprapha’s projects may never notice her creative fingerprints. Stone paths, lush foliage, and a sense of harmony are the major takeaways.”

New Green Spaces Don’t Have to Lead to Gentrification

Dequindre Cut, Detroit / The High Line Network, SmithGroup

Decades of redlining and urban renewal, rooted in racist planning and design policies, created the conditions for gentrification to occur in American cities. But the primary concern with gentrification today is displacement, which primarily impacts marginalized communities shaped by a history of being denied access to mortgages. At the ASLA 2021 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville, Matthew Williams, ASLA, with the City of Detroit’s planning department, said in his city there are concerns that new green spaces will increase the market value of homes and “price out marginalized communities.” But investment in green space doesn’t necessarily need to lead to displacement. If these projects are led by marginalized communties, they can be embraced.

For example, efforts to enhance the Dequindre Cut in Detroit by transforming it into a 2-mile-long greenway were rooted in community needs and therefore have been supported. While the planning and design work by SmithGroup on the greenway corridor has led to positive economic impact, including growing nearby entrepreneurship and visitor engagement, it also expanded open space, expanded community development, and lifted up local graffiti artists. “We allowed the graffiti to stay and created canvases for more to come. It’s an avant-garde form of historic preservation, and a way to activate a latent, forgotten place.”

Dequindre Cut, Detroit / SmithGroup
Dequindre Cut, Detroit / SmithGroup

Another project is Ella Fitzgerald Park, in the Fitzgerald community, one of 10 key neighborhoods where the planning department has focused housing, park, and economic development investment. Given the neighborhood is experiencing high levels of bankruptcies and foreclosures, many remaining homeowners in the neighborhood can’t sell their homes. Instead of seeing a new community park and greenway designed by landscape architecture firm Spackman, Mossop, and Michaels and built by the city as a gentrifying force, it was welcomed as a safe place for children to play. “It was a needed change,” Williams said.

Ella Fitzgerald Park, Detroit / Earthscapeplay.com
Ella Fitzgerald Park and Greenway / Spackman, Mossop, and Michaels

The Joe Louis Greenway, named after the famous athlete, spans 27.5-miles from downtown Detroit to Dearborn, once a segregated Black city. A “vision of inclusive design, the project is a form of green reparation,” Williams argued. The city has overlaid where redlining had the most destructive impact in Detroit and surrounding communities and has used green amenities to undo part of the damage. “We can focus on those red areas on the redlining maps, transforming them into productive, innovative, and ecological areas.” Planning and design efforts with SmithGroup included significant community engagement. Strategic green spaces, rooted in community desires, are one of “our best tools to address the mistakes of the past.”

Joe Louis Greenway, Detroit / SmithGroup
Joe Louis Greenway community planning meeting, Detroit / SmithGroup

Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, director and professor of landscape architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington and current fellow at Dumbarton Oaks, received a 2020 research prize from the SOM Foundation for her work, Reclaiming Black Settlements: A Design Playbook for Historic Communities in the Shadow of Sprawl. Her research has involved mapping Black Freedmen’s communities across Texas and included seven research projects in the Dallas / Ft. Worth area. Along the Trinity River, Allen has been immersing herself in “the bottom lands, the industrial lands” where many Black communities made their home. Despite the long-term environmental justice issues, these communities are still facing displacement pressures. “Riverfronts are hot right now, the place to be,” she said.

The existing community isn’t reacting negatively to Harold Simmons Park, a park planned on the Trinity River by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates because it would create “healthy social spaces along the river.” To ensure housing prices in Black communities near the park don’t go up, a development corporation linked with a local church is “getting ahead of the curve and stabilizing and renovating homes.”

Harold Simmons Park, Dallas, Texas / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
Harold Simmons Park, Dallas, Texas / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

Another community down river, the Garden of Eden, founded by a Black family in 1881, has been impacted by concrete companies that dug industrial gravel pits along the river. Once leases on the land ended, the companies were supposed to fill in those gravel pits but never did. So the community is “reclaiming those pits through green infrastructure, creating recreational spaces.”

And at the last of the seven sites studied along the river, Joppa, a historic Freedmen’s town, there is the Joppee Lakes project, the site of a railroad and concrete plant which is being re-imagined as a stormwater solution for downtown Dallas. The Army Corps of Engineers turned the site over to the City of Dallas, which is in turn working with Black community there to revamp the Honey Springs Branch Park surrounding the lake as a community hub with green infrastructure that can handle both sewage treatment and provide recreation.

To avoid green gentrification, Allen said it’s key to “understand the history of each place. Design has to be grounded, and history is really powerful.” Black Freedmen’s communities along the Trinity River have created a community roundtable and are “envisioning the future together.” They are sharing “funding and grant sources, and talking about the issues.” Freedmen’s town groups are also “linking green spaces, creating a trail that will connect them all.” They are “very smart about the politics and policy and the air quality issues around transportation and cement plants.” Landscape architects can work with communities like these to help them “articulate the issues” and “promote and enhance connections with each other.”

Joppee Lakes, Texas / DesignJones LLC

Boston has invested $5 million to re-imagine Frederick Law Olmsted’s Franklin Park in Boston’s Dorchester, Jamaica Plains, and Roxbury neighborhoods. A team led by landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand is spearheading the action plan effort and includes MASS Design Group, which is focusing on the “city edge’s and neighborhood connections,” and Agency Landscape + Planning, which is focusing on public engagement, planning, and programming. According to Sierra Bainbridge, ASLA, a landscape architect and senior principal with MASS Design Group, her organization is seeking to answer questions like: “Can we connect present and future generations to the park? Can the surrounding neighborhoods benefit from the procurement process for a redesigned park?”

Franklin Park Action Plan / Agency
Franklin Park Action Plan / MASS Design Group

Bainbridge argued that park’s ill-conceived boundaries are keeping many people out. The edges, which are “prohibiting access,” include 3-4 lane streets with no lighting for crosswalks. There are also no local businesses along the park, so if food trucks aren’t there, visitors need to bring in their own food and drink. “There is a huge opportunity to increase connections between the park and local community, particularly through large events.”

Franklin Park Action Plan, Boston, Massachusetts / Agency, MASS Design Group, Reed Hilderbrand

While planning and zoning changes need to happen to grow local business presence around the park, Bainbridge said procurement is also a powerful tool for increasing community engagement with the revamped Olmsted park. Looking to MASS Design Group’s work in Rwanda as a model, she said training and hiring local artists, masons, and workers was key to creating a sense of ownership around the organization’s community healthcare projects. “The question for many was ‘who is this project for?; we showed them that it is for them.” As a result, community members who worked on the project began to trust in the mission and started going to the care center and hospitals.

In the same vein, Franklin Park can create opportunities for local artists and workers. There is some flexibility in Boston’s procurement procedures if the amounts are under $10,000. “There is potentially a way to also phase larger projects in smaller amounts” to give more local businesses and artists chances to bid. As part of the project, the team is also training small minority- and women-owned businesses to take advantage of these opportunities. “Training costs less than 10 percent of the project, but the impact is multiplied throughout the community. Training is embedded in the plan.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More key findings:

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

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

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

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

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

Extreme heat solutions:

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

Flooding solutions:

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

Drought solutions:

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

Biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation solutions:

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

Wildfire solutions:

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

Sea level rise solutions:

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

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

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

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

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

Top five solutions:

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

See full results of the survey

ASLA Urges Nations to Commit to More Ambitious Climate Action at COP26

ASLA 2021 Professional General Design Honor Award. From a Concrete Bulkhead Riverbank to a Vibrant Shoreline Park—Suining South Riverfront Park. Suining City, Sichuan Province, China. ECOLAND Planning and Design Corp. Sichuan Provincial Architectural Design and Research Institute CO., LTD. / Arch-Exist Photography

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26), which just began in Scotland and will continue over the next two weeks, is the crucial moment where global leaders must commit to achieving a 65 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the end of this decade. ASLA calls upon governments, particularly of nations with the largest historical emissions, to rapidly change course or risk breaching the 1.5C (2.7F) planetary warming limit established as part of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

A recent report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that countries are already failing to live up to their commitments as outlined in the Paris agreement. With current nationally determined contributions (NDCs), global greenhouse gas emissions are on track to increase by 16 percent by 2030, compared to 2010 levels. And earlier this year, the International Energy Agency warned that greenhouse gas emissions in 2021 are expected to total 33 billion tonnes, an increase of 4.6 percent over 2020, and the second largest annual jump on record.

Over the course of the next two weeks, ASLA and its Climate Action Committee will be closely monitoring progress of the negotiations in Scotland. ASLA will be working in coordination with its climate action partners – The International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA), Climate Positive Design, Architecture 2030, We Are Still In, and The American Institute of Architects (AIA) — to share information in real time.

“We will be looking for more ambitious commitments – increased investments in nature-based approaches to sequestering greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change and more equitable climate actions that undo climate injustices. We are hopeful COP26 will result in progress on our key goals as outlined through our commitments with IFLA and Architecture 2030,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, ASLA CEO.

In October, ASLA ratified the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA)’s Climate Action Commitment, joining a global coalition of 70,000 landscape architects in 77 countries in committing to limiting planetary warming to 1.5°C (2.7 °F). The IFLA Commitment brought together the largest coalition of landscape architecture professionals ever assembled to advance climate action.

ASLA also signed on to the Architecture 2030 1.5°C COP26 Communiqué, which calls for all governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 65 percent by 2030 and achieve zero emissions by 2040. The call, the most ambitious climate challenge ever issued by the built environment professions, accelerates the current timeline to achieve emission reductions outlined in the Paris Climate Accord by a decade.

“By working closely with our built environment partners, we can amplify the voice of landscape architects in these critically important climate discussions,” said Tom Mroz, FASLA, ASLA President. “We must all do our part to get on a path to achieving a 65 percent reduction in emissions by 2030.”

Landscape architects plan and design with nature to help all communities reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate. Landscape architects use climate positive design approaches that transform parks and open spaces into natural carbon sinks. They develop resilient nature-based solutions that reduce the impacts of extreme heat; coastal, ground, and inland flooding; sea level rise; pollution; and wildfires. They also increase biodiversity and protect and restore ecosystems, which underpin life on Earth. Learn more at: https://climate.asla.org

Brooklyn Bridge Park Wins 2021 Rosa Barba International Landscape Prize

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park: A Twenty Year Transformation. Brooklyn, NY. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Alex Maclean

Brooklyn Bridge Park, which spans 85 acres and 1.3 miles along the East River waterfront in Brooklyn, New York, beat out 10 other projects around the world to win the 2021 Rosa Barba International Landscape Prize at the 11th International Landscape Architecture Biennial in Barcelona, Spain. Designed over twenty years by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), a New York-based landscape architecture firm, the project has “transformed an industrial site of abandoned warehouses, obsolete piers, and decaying bulkheads into a vibrant public space,” the prize jury said.

Brooklyn Bridge Park, which pre-Covid boasted 5 million visitors a year, was the first major park to be created in Brooklyn since Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s Prospect Park in the late 19th century. Five flat, concrete piers were re-imagined as sports fields, gardens, and playgrounds, all connected through interwoven green spaces and paths. A new berm reduced noise from the nearby Brooklyn Queens Expressway, an elevated highway that once produced a deafening “roar,” so much so that it was difficult to talk.

Brooklyn Bridge Park sound berm / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

The first public meeting for the master plan of the park was way back in 1998. In just a few months, the final segment — Emily Warren Roebling Plaza — will open. A video with Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, from 2009, as construction begins, offers a sense of his enduring passion for this transformative, two-decade-long project:

MVVA explains that the original “idea for the park came from Brooklynites, who live in the NYC borough with the least amount of park space.” Communities around the site couldn’t access the waterfront when it was a shipping terminal owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. More than a decade of advocacy by local community groups finally convinced elected leaders to stop the Port Authority’s plans to transform the defunct terminal into a profit-generating mixed-use development and instead created a city and state-financed public park.

Over the course of more than 400 public meetings while planning and designing the project, MVVA heard a few key messages: the park should “feel democratic,” and in order to accomplish that, should offer “many programs within its whole,” including desperately-needed space for recreation. The park should also feel friendly and accessible — “a space for everyday life, a place to relax.”

Brooklyn Bridge Park / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
Brooklyn Bridge Park / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

Brooklynites also wanted more than just views; they wanted to feel immersed in a restored natural environment along the East River – “to step into the water, smell the breeze, and feel surrounded by the landscape.” To bring those benefits to multiple surrounding neighborhoods, MVVA created a plan that “stretched both ends of the park” beyond its originally conceived boundaries.

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park: A Twenty Year Transformation. Brooklyn, NY. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Elizabeth Felicella

The park itself is a model of urban reuse. Instead of tearing down the pier infrastructure, MVVA found ways to reuse both the stronger and weaker parts of it, arranging park uses on the surface based on the piers’ structural capacity. Some piers had piles that would only support limited weight so any programs on the surface had to be “light and relatively thin.” Pier 1 had the strongest supports, so it became possible to build up new land forms.

Within the park itself, yellow pine wood from a demolished factory was reused as site furniture; piles and pier structures became playground and park elements; granite was broken up and became rip rap; and bulk fill from a subway tunnel extraction was used to build up land. A shed found on Pier 2 shed was also reimagined as a shade structure for basketball courts, and a pile field at Pier 1 was kept to protect a new salt marsh.

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park: A Twenty Year Transformation. Brooklyn, NY. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Alex Maclean
ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park: A Twenty Year Transformation. Brooklyn, NY. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Scott Shigley
ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park: A Twenty Year Transformation. Brooklyn, NY. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Etienne Frossard

MVVA carved out land forms within the site, creating sweeping lawns and gardens down to the waterfront that also act as a resilient flood basin during storm surges. More than 3,000 trees were planted along with a rich understory of native plants, all guided by an ecological approach. As in nature, the trees and plants compete for resources and adapt over time, instead of being isolated specimens like in a typical urban park. Plants were also selected to “support human comfort, wind shelter, and shade.”

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park: A Twenty Year Transformation. Brooklyn, NY. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Julienne Schaer

“If you ask a hundred different people why they come to Brooklyn Bridge Park, you could easily get a hundred different answers. Sports are interspersed with epic views, social spaces, natural beauty, and quiet moments,” Van Valkenburgh explains.

The Rose Barba prize jury also honored another innovative space: Parques del Río Medellín in Medellín, Colombia, designed by Sebastian Monsalve Gomez and Juan David Hoyos Taborda. The park, also decades in the making, creates new access to the Medellín River and partly de-channelizes the river and restores its ecosystem.

Parques del Río Medellín in Medellín, Colombia / 11th International Landscape Architecture Biennial

The Rosa Barba International Landscape Prize included an award of €15,000 ($17,439). The prize jury included Esteban Leon, UN-Habitat; Cristina Castelbranco, a landscape architect and professor at the University of Lisbon; Kongjian Yu, FASLA, a leading Chinese landscape architect and founder of Turenscape; James Hayter, a landscape architect and president of the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA); and Julie Bargmann, a landscape architect, professor at the University of Virginia, and winner of the first Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize.

ASLA Ratifies International Federation of Landscape Architects’ Climate Action Commitment

ASLA 2021 Professional Urban Design Honor Award. Xuhui Runway Park, Shanghai, China. Sasaki / Insaw Photography

Landscape Architects Unite in Advance of Key United Nations Climate Change Conference

ASLA announced it will join a global coalition of 70,000 landscape architects in 77 countries in committing to limiting planetary warming to 1.5°C (2.7 °F). This is the largest coalition of landscape architecture professionals ever assembled to advance climate action.

IFLA’s Climate Action Commitment will be issued to sovereign nations at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will be held in Scotland, October 31 – November 12.

ASLA has committed to the six goals outlined in the IFLA Climate Action Commitment:

1) Advancing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs)
ASLA and its member landscape architects and designers will accelerate efforts to protect and repair ecosystems.

2) Attaining Global Net Zero Emissions by 2040
ASLA and its members will dramatically reduce operational and embodied carbon emissions produced by projects, increasingly harness the unique capacity of landscapes to draw down carbon dioxide, and continue to advocate for low-carbon multi-modal transport systems.

3) Enhancing Capacity and Resilience of Livable Cities and Communities
Implementing green infrastructure approaches, ASLA and its members will increase efforts to mitigate the urban heat island effect and reduce climate impacts associated with fire, drought, and flooding.

4) Advocating for Climate Justice and Social Well-Being
ASLA and its members will maintain our priority on equity and equality and ensure the right to nearby green spaces and clean water and air.

5) Learning from Cultural Knowledge Systems
ASLA and its members commit to respecting and working with indigenous communities and honoring cultural land management practices to mitigate climate change impacts and continue work towards reconciliation.

6) Galvanizing Climate Leadership
Landscape architects are uniquely positioned to lead the built environment community’s response to the climate crisis. ASLA will continue to collaborate with clients, suppliers, and allied professions to champion climate positive landscapes, which involves planning and designing landscapes that sequester more greenhouse gas emissions than they emit.

“ASLA is proud to be joining forces with IFLA and the global community of landscape architects in advancing our climate action goals,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, CEO, ASLA. “We speak as one voice, globally, when it comes to advancing climate action.”

“As landscape architects we can make a tremendous difference to climate change and to climate action through our work, so thinking globally but acting locally is critical,” said IFLA President James Hayter.

“In a year marked by historic flooding in Europe and China and deadly wildfires and heat waves in the United States, it’s clear we’re running out of time to start healing a century’s worth of harm done to our Earth and its atmosphere,” said Tom Mroz, FASLA, ASLA President.

“I am gratified that Climate Positive Design has been incorporated into the global Commitment,” said Pamela Conrad, ASLA, Founder of Climate Positive Design, Principal at CMG Landscape Architecture in San Francisco, and IFLA Climate Change Working Group Vice Chair. “All landscape architects must rapidly scale up their work transforming designed landscapes into natural carbon sinks.”

The IFLA Climate Action Commitment is the second major coalition ASLA has joined this year. ASLA also signed on to Architecture 2030’s 1.5°C COP26 Communiqué, calling for built environment industries to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.

Landscape architects plan and design with nature to help all communities reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate. Landscape architects use climate positive design approaches that transform parks and open spaces into natural carbon sinks. They develop resilient nature-based solutions that reduce the impacts of extreme heat; coastal, ground, and inland flooding; sea level rise; pollution; and wildfires. They also increase biodiversity and protect and restore ecosystems, which underpin life on Earth.

“Landscape architects are already helping communities adapt to climate impacts. We are having a particularly big impact on reducing dangerous urban temperatures, saving many lives in the process,” said Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, former ASLA President and ASLA representative to the IFLA Climate Change Working Group.

ASLA Announces 2021 Professional Awards

ASLA 2021 Landmark Award. Portland Open Space Sequence, Portland, Oregon. PLACE.

ASLA announces the 2021 Professional Award winners. The 40 winning projects exemplify the highest level of achievement in the profession, and the professionals themselves will be honored at ASLA’s Conference on Landscape Architecture, Nov. 20 in Nashville, TN.

Winners each year are chosen by a jury panel representing a broad cross-section of the profession, from the public and private sectors, as well as academia. The 40 winners were chosen from 486 submissions from around the world. Award categories include: General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, and Research. In addition, one Landmark Award is also selected each year.

“This year’s winners demonstrate how landscape architects are increasingly leading the planning and design of healthy and resilient communities for all,” said Torey Carter- Conneen, CEO of ASLA. “Landscape architects are advancing communities’ diversity, equity, and inclusion goals in significant ways.”

Professional Award recipients, their clients, and advisors will be honored in-person at the awards presentation ceremony during the ASLA 2021 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville, TN on Saturday, November 20th, at 6pm ET.

Explore the full list of this year’s Professional Award winners

Kongjian Yu Defends His Sponge City Campaign

An example of a true sponge city project. Sanya Dong’an Wetland Park, Sanya, Hainan Province, China / Turenscape

Two recent articles in the American media — one from The New York Times and another from The Christian Science Monitor — raised questions about the efficacy of China’s sponge city concept in the face of climate change. As storms become more powerful and release more water faster, the flood control mechanisms of Chinese cities are being overrun. News stories have focused on recent dangerous flooding in Zhengzhou, a city of 12 million on the banks of the Yellow River, which killed more than 300 people and trapped others in tunnels and subways. The articles questioned whether nature-based solutions, rooted in the sponge city approach, can handle the increasing amounts of stormwater inundating Chinese cities on rivers and coasts.

In a Zoom interview, Kongjian Yu, FASLA — founder of Turenscape, one of China’s largest landscape architecture firms, and creator of the sponge city concept — said, “first of all, Zhengzhou is not a true sponge city. There has still been way too much development and grey infrastructure.” And many Chinese cities have been using the term “sponge city as a political slogan” and a way to attract central government funding, given the deep support for the approach from Chinese president Xi Jinping.

He believes the benefits of the sponge city approach, which involves designing and constructing city-wide systems of ponds, wetlands, and parks that retain stormwater, have been proven. “Since ancient times, Chinese cities along the Yellow River with monsoon climates have used ponds to manage flooding and stormwater. So we know these approaches worked for over 2,000 years because these cities survived.”

ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Honor Award. Tianjin Qiaoyuan Park: The Adaptation Palettes. Tianjin City, China / Turenscape
ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Honor Award. Tianjin Qiaoyuan Park: The Adaptation Palettes. Tianjin City, China / Turenscape
ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Honor Award. Tianjin Qiaoyuan Park: The Adaptation Palettes. Tianjin City, China / Turenscape

Chinese cities today are required to maintain 30 percent of the city as green space. Another 30 percent is dedicated to community space. For Yu, this means there is more enough space to create more ponds and water-absorbing parks that can capture vast amounts of water. “In 60 percent of the land in cities, we can use nature to retain water so it doesn’t drain away. In China, we have a saying — ‘water is precious, don’t let it go.’ There is plenty of space to be used to retain water.”

ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. A Green Sponge for a Water-Resilient City: Qunli Stormwater Park. Haerbin City, Heilongjiang Province, China / Turenscape

Yu outlined the key components of the sponge city approach. Stormwater should be captured using green infrastructure at its source, where it falls. Sponges should be evenly distributed and permeable so they can absorb water instead of shifting it somewhere else. “If properly designed, it’s a democratic water management system” made up of very local solutions.

Yu claims that with the story of Zhengzhou, the “media is seeking conflict and targeting something that isn’t a sponge city. Sponge cities can only solve the problem. We need more sponges, not less.”

Despite a recent video of a talk he gave, which he says has been viewed by more than 100 million Chinese citizens, there still needs to be more public education about the benefits of sponge cities. “Some of the public still doesn’t understand the sponge city concept, and some may find it a waste of money. Furthermore, some civil and hydrological engineers in China have been attacking the sponge city, nature-based approach because it takes away their jobs.”

If a sponge city is working as it should, “there would be no flooding. People forget when they don’t have disasters.”

When asked about NYC’s new approach to handling sea level rise-induced flooding in lower Manhattan, which will involve constructing a sea wall along with large-scale cisterns to store water, he said: “cisterns are unsustainable.” The concrete cisterns “have to be huge and therefore expensive and high maintenance.” Furthermore, this approach wastes water, which is a “living resources and when combined with plants and soils creates more natural resources.”

Yu calls for greater capacity building among the landscape architecture and civil engineering professions in China and elsewhere in the sponge city concept. “The issue in China is that some designers and engineers are building parks but not building in the stormwater management capacity needed.” In China, stormwater is still the responsibility of civil and hydrological engineers.

To address issues with the design and implementation of sponge cities, Yu will be hosting a summit with the leadership of the civil and hydrological engineers at his research and educational campus. “We will have a high-level discussion aimed to bridge the gaps.”

Furthermore, Yu’s team is publishing a new book in Mandarin — Performance Study of Designed Ecologies — that includes real data about sponge city projects. In addition to his videos, he has also produced a textbook for China’s thousands of mayors, who he said are on board with the approach.

“Flooding in the era of climate change presents an opportunity for landscape architects. We have an opportunity to build up our approach. Landscape architects can solve these problems — not with concrete pipes and cisterns — but with nature.”

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

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (July 16-31)

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

To Curb Urban Flooding, China Is Building ‘Sponge Cities.’ Do They Work? — 07/29/21, The Christian Science Monitor
“Yu Kongjian, a professor of landscape architecture at Peking University, is credited as the main architect of the sponge city concept. In a 2019 video for the World Economic Forum, he described the previous approach to flood prevention as ‘totally wrong.'”

National ‘Vision Zero’ Resolution Introduced — 07/28/21, Streetsblog
“After months of intense campaigning from advocates, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) introduced a bi-cameral resolution Tuesday expressing the desire of the legislature to ‘reduce traffic fatalities to zero by 2050.'”

As China Boomed, It Didn’t Take Climate Change Into Account. Now It Must. — 07/26/21, The New York Times
“Yu Kongjian, the dean of the School of Landscape Architecture at Peking University, is credited with popularizing the idea in China. He said in a telephone interview that in its rapid development since the 1980s, China had turned to designs from the West that were ill-suited for the extremes that the country’s climate was already experiencing. Cities were covered in cement, ‘colonized,’ as he put it, by ‘gray infrastructure.'”

The Architectural League Celebrates 2021 President’s Medal Recipient Walter Hood — 07/22/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“As noted by the League, Hood, as an artist and designer dedicated to ‘creating beauty in everyday environments, revealing hidden histories, renewing connections, guiding the way to co-existence in all our multiplicity and difference,’ was a ‘fitting person to honor at the moment of our re-engagement of public life.'”

How to Give a Modernist Icon a Makeover — 07/22/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Hiroshi Sugimoto’s renovation of the Hirshhorn Museum’s sculpture garden will bring the Japanese designer’s touch to a space long acclaimed as a modernist landmark.”

In Order to Achieve Tree Equity, the U.S. Must Plant 522 Million Trees in Urban Areas — 07/20/22, The Urbanist
“In order to make up for discrepancies between levels of tree coverage in neighborhoods lacking resources and more affluent, often White majority neighborhoods, the United States must commit to planting 522 million trees in urban areas.”