The plan and guide chart a pathway for landscape architects to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions in their projects and operations and increase carbon sequestration by 2040.
The plan was developed by a high-profile Task Force of five landscape architects chaired by Pamela Conrad, ASLA, founder of Climate Positive Design, and a 17-member Advisory Group. It outlines a bold vision for 2040 and a set of 71 actions to be taken by 2025.
By 2040, all landscape architecture projects will simultaneously:
Achieve zero embodied and operational emissions and increase carbon sequestration
Provide significant economic benefits in the form of measurable ecosystem services, health co-benefits, sequestration, and green jobs
Address climate injustices, empower communities, and increase equitable distribution of climate investments
Restore ecosystems and increase and protect biodiversity
Watch a 13-minute overview of the vision and goals of the plan by ASLA CEO Torey Carter-Conneen during the ASLA 2022 Conference opening general session (see video above).
Then, watch a 60-min presentation on the three goals and six key initiatives of the plan and field guide:
Speakers include the ASLA Climate Action Plan Task Force:
Along the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, a 118-year-old power station has become Powerhouse Arts, a contemporary arts and fabrication space. To protect its waterfront from storm surges and sea level rise, landscape architecture firm Ken Smith Workshop layered in steel and concrete defenses. But they also wove in a nature-based solution to capture stormwater. “It’s both a defensive measure and a living shoreline that will make the site adaptable,” said Ken Smith, FASLA. “It’s how we could use a tight space with a steep slope to do a lot.”
The power station, built at the turn of the 20th century, once housed coal-powered turbines that generated electricity. The three-story red brick building was developed by the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company. It was decommissioned in the late 1930s and by the 1970s reborn as a cardboard incinerating facility. Since then, it has had many lives, becoming home to both artists and squatters. Some of the city’s best graffiti artists left their mark. And in recent decades, it became known as the Batcave, a place for dance parties.
After starting a foundation, hedge funder Joshua Rechnitz purchased the building in 2012. He then hired architects Herzog & de Meuron and PBDW to renovate the power station and graph on a six-story annex, essentially doubling the square footage. “They brought rigor to the project, maintaining the architecture in as straightforward a way as possible,” Smith said during our hardhat tour.
The foundation and architects re-imagined the space as a contemporary artist and fabrication studio that will offer community classes, prototyping spaces, job training, and public exhibitions. But they also wanted to keep its layers of history, including the graffiti.
Exiting the rear of the Powerhouse, the expanse of the Gowanus Canal, one of the most contaminated Superfund sites in the country, came into view. It’s a water body that also continues to receive millions of gallons of combined sewer overflow each year.
The canal has drawn in number of landscape architects over the years. Susannah Drake, FASLA, and her firm DLANDStudio, created the Gowanus Canal Sponge Park™. That began as a plan for lining the 1.5-mile-long canal with absorbent green spaces that could reduce stormwater from further polluting the waterway. An 1,800-square feet pilot sponge park was then completed in 2016 and now captures some 2 million gallons of stormwater each year.
And in 2018, SCAPE Landscape Architecture partnered with the community to create the Gowanus Lowlands Masterplan, a vision for restoring public spaces and the ecology of the canal and its watershed. SCAPE dove into the history of the Gowanus Creek ecosystem that once existed. In the 1850s, the creek was hardened, becoming what is is today — a canal for transportation and industrial manufacturing.
Smith said that during Superstorm Sandy, which pummeled the city in 2012, the canal’s polluted waters rose up by 12 feet, flooding the area. Working with limited space, he decided to reinforce the Powerhouse Arts waterfront with a steel sea wall and concrete yard blocks, protecting it from future storm and climate impacts. “The site was raised considerably. To be good citizens, we went with armature.”
Before Smith began his work, the existing waterfront edge was 5.8 feet above sea level, so not enough to protect against a future storm surge. With the engineering team, Smith brought in 225 feet of black steel sheet pile walls, which were driven 40 feet down into the canal bank. The top of the new sheet pile sea wall is now 10 feet above sea level — higher but not enough for the greatest anticipated storm surges. On land, the sea wall is about the height of an armrest for Smith, 3-4 feet off the ground, so possible to see over.
Behind the sea wall, Smith wove in a 12-foot-wide gravel walkway, ensuring public access to the waterfront. From the back of that path, stepped rows of concrete yard block walls add another 12.75 feet of protection. The 366 concrete yard blocks, sometimes called “mafia blocks,” are lined up in precise rows. The top of the slope is now 19.5 feet above sea level.
Smith said he also used hardcore materials like steel and concrete because he wanted to maintain the site’s “industrial vocabulary.”
He sees potential in this humble grey infrastructure: “Gabions used to be utilitarian; now they are quite fetishized. Concrete yard blocks will become the next gabion.” (And, hopefully, it’s eco-concrete that will be fetishized).
The blocks were also purposefully positioned so they are multi-functional: “They are usable; you can sit on them.”
Above the blocks is a vegetated buffer filled with trees and meadow grasses that will capture water coming from the Powerhouse parking lot. “The beach plum, coffee, and red cedar trees are tough” and will ensure that living shoreline element will endure.
Boulders were plopped to offset the rectilinear building. “I didn’t want the landscape to be too straight forward and direct. I wanted to create an interesting frame for the building.”
Crossing a bridge to the other side of the Gowanus Canal, Smith remarked that the canal is a highly polluted place that is being rapidly re-zoned as a residential area.
Standing at the Sponge Park, and looking across the canal at Powerhouse Arts, one could see a variety of waterfront landscapes — some clearly green spaces associated with residences, some public spaces, and some linked with legacy manufacturing sites. The ad-hoc approach to waterfront resilience in NYC was apparent.
Nature-based solutions to storm surges, such as mangroves and wetlands, are ideal but require enough space on shore. Constructed islands, berms, and reefs can reduce wave power from storms off shore but require enough space in the water and distance from the land.
What is the solution along highly developed canal and river communities where set-backs or off-shore solutions aren’t possible? In many places, New York City has been lifting up, adding elevated park structures as well as sea walls to its waterfront. The Powerhouse Arts project says here, at least along this stretch of canal, resilience means armor. But this also means the next mega storm, made more destructive by climate change, will surge in elsewhere.
The ASLA Fund invites landscape architecture educators to develop succinct and impactful research reviews that investigate evidence of the benefits of landscape architecture solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises.
The goals of the research reviews are to:
Understand and summarize the current state of knowledge.
Synthesize the research literature and provide insights, leveraging key data- and science-based evidence.
Create accessible executive summaries in plain language for policymakers, community advocates, and practicing landscape architects.
Over the next few years, research grants will be issued to explore solutions to a range of issues, but the first two grants in 2023 will focus on:
Landscape Architecture Solutions to Biodiversity Loss ($12,500)
Landscape Architecture Solutions to Extreme Heat ($12,500)
“We need landscape architecture educators’ advanced research skills to build the evidence. Working together, landscape architecture educators, practitioners, and students can help us achieve the goals of the ASLA Climate Action Plan,” said ASLA President Emily O’Mahoney, FASLA.
“Landscape architecture educators are key to driving forward research on solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises. This critically important work helps build the foundations for landscape architecture as design science and support efforts to designate landscape architecture a STEM discipline,” said ASLA CEO Torey Carter Conneen.
The research grant period will run from June to the end of this year. The research surveys will be peer reviewed.
The grants are open to landscape architecture educators who are currently affiliated with a university, have a graduate degree, and have published at least one peer-reviewed research paper.
New research published in The Lancet has found that increasing tree cover in European cities to 30 percent could have reduced premature deaths from urban heat islands by 40 percent.
Currently, the average tree canopy in cities across the continent is approximately 15 percent. Increasing tree coverage to 30 percent would cool cities by 0.7°F (0.4°C) — showing that even seemingly small reductions in summer temperatures could save many lives.
The climate crisis has increased temperatures across Europe and led to more dangerous heatwaves. Last year, the continent experienced its hottest summer and second warmest year overall, which only increased the impacts of urban heat islands.
Heat islands form in urban environments comprised of dark, heat-absorbing materials like asphalt, concrete, and tar-covered roofs. These islands are also found in areas where is a high population density, which means a high number of air conditioners expelling heat, and a lack of trees and plants.
And this is confirmed by previous research. In a study of the West Midlands, United Kingdom cited by the authors, “urban heat islands were estimated to have contributed around 50 percent of the total heat-related mortality during a 2003 heat wave.”
“We already know that high temperatures in urban environments are associated with negative health outcomes, such as cardio-respiratory failure, hospital admission, and premature death,” explained lead author Tamar Iungman, with the Institute for Global Health in Barcelona, Spain. And hotter temperatures and deadlier heat islands will lead to an even “bigger burden to our health services over the next decade.”
The researchers used data from 2015, the latest continent-wide population study, to estimate the summer mortality rates of 57 million Europeans in 93 cities, aged 20 years and older. From June to August 2015, the cities were 2.7°F (1.5°C) warmer on average than surrounding rural areas.
The researchers first looked at a range of strategies to reduce heat islands. The majority are solutions landscape architects plan and design:
Green roofs and walls
Light-colored building roofs, walls, and landscape pavers
Replacing impervious surfaces with plants and soils
Increased tree coverage
But for this study, the researchers decided to hone in on trees. They argue that “planting urban trees offers an important opportunity to mitigate high temperatures and, compared with other strategies, is relatively simple and cost-effective to implement.”
Trees are known to be effective at cooling cities — through the shade they provide and the water vapor they release through transpiration. A study cited by the researchers found that in 600 cities trees cooled urban neighborhoods by an average of 1.8°F (1.1°C) — and up to 5.2°F (2.9°C).
Other studies have backed the 30 percent tree canopy target, which is why many cities have set that as a policy goal as well. “Previous epidemiological studies have suggested health benefits associated with tree coverage of at least 30 percent, including reduced odds of incident psychological distress, and non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.”
Another study found that if European city leaders met World Health Organization recommendations and ensured all their populations lived within 1,000 feet (300 meters) of a green space, 20 deaths per 100,000 people could be avoided each year. This speaks to the importance of distributing trees equitably across all neighborhoods and focusing on historically marginalized and underserved communities with lower tree canopies.
According to The Lancet study, the cities with the highest number of deaths that can be attributed to urban heat islands were in “southern and eastern Europe, particularly in Spain, Italy, Hungary, Croatia, and Romania,” while the lowest were located in “northern Europe including Sweden, Estonia, UK, and northern France.”
Most of the cities with the worst heat islands were also the most densely populated. Dangerous heat islands were found in Paris, France; Thessaloniki and Athens, Greece; Bilbao, Spain; and Brussels, Belgium. These cities have population densities that range from 7,272 to 21,462 people per square km.
The researchers argue that denser cities with lower than average canopies can therefore see even greater benefits from increasing their tree cover than other cities. The issue is finding ways to retrofit these cities to add more trees — a challenge landscape architects can address by adding in new parks, recreational areas, green roofs, and green streets.
Premature deaths that can be attributed to hotter urban temperatures also vary greatly across cities. For example, there were no summer heat-related deaths in Goteborg, Sweden, but 32 premature deaths per 100,000 people in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, The Lancet notes.
Trees were also found to significantly reduce the effects of heat islands during the day because they provide shade along with transpiration. But at night, “the urban canyon (i.e., the geometry formed by a city street and its flanking buildings) more strongly determines urban heat island effects.”
“The night-time intensity of the urban heat island effect is on average three times the daytime intensity. Therefore, urban green infrastructure strategies need to be accompanied by other interventions—especially those that reduce night-time urban heat island effects—to achieve health benefits, such as changing ground surface materials (e.g., from asphalt to granite) and structural interventions that change the sky view factor (i.e., the fraction of visible sky relative to street geometry and building density),” the researchers write.
The researchers’ analysis is based in a “coarse spatial resolution” (1,600 feet by 1,600 feet squares), so it’s not precise. The researchers also note that data on urban tree transpiration rates is hard to measure at a city scale. Typical urban trees’ transpiration rates may be more limited than trees in large parks or the suburbs, because they are “often exposed to harsh conditions (paved soils, air pollution).” The researchers also didn’t factor in how transpiration rates or the shade generated differ by tree size or species. And there was no discussion on how water bodies and features in cities could help further cool communities.
All projects submitted for the prize will be published in the biennial’s book catalogue and featured in an exhibition in Barcelona, Spain, and a website. And 7-11 finalists will be invited by the prize jury to go to Barcelona and lecture at the biennial symposium, which will be held November 27-28, 2023.
The prize jury includes:
Gareth Doherty, ASLA, associate professor of landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design
Martha Fajardo, a Colombian landscape architect and architect
Julio Gaeta, an architect and founder of ELARQA, a research center
Kotchakorn Voraakhom, International ASLA, founder of Landprocess
The organizers state that since the first biennial in 1999, the prize has been a “barometer” of “trends, social concerns,” and achievement in the field of landscape architecture. Prize winners reflect the best examples of “intervention [in] and recovery of landscape and territory.”
“We heard from the community that they want the city to take better care of the park — to pick up trash, improve the bathrooms, reduce the pressure of invasive plants, and restore the landscape to optimal health in a thoughtful and steady way,” said Kristin Frederickson, ASLA, a principal at Reed Hilderbrand.
What the landscape architecture team created is a bold plan that balances immediate maintenance and restoration needs with steps to achieve a long-term vision of improved access, resilience, and equitable benefits. The 450-page plan will take multiple decades and more than $150 million to complete. “And the plan suggests that the city and community can’t pick and chose between addressing climate change, equity, historic preservation — these are synergistic elements, key principles meant to operate together.”
The revitalization of Franklin Park has been a long time coming. For decades, one of the city’s largest parks received little government investment and was instead left to the Franklin Park Coalition to steward and maintain. “They deserve a lot of credit — they have been holding this park together. There were times when visitors were actually driving through the park lawns,” Frederickson said.
The city’s history of racial inequities factors into this. Franklin Park is bordered by some of Boston’s most historically marginalized communities — Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roslindale — along with Jamaica Plain, a wealthier community.
Boston’s 2030 plan highlighted the need to invest in Franklin Park. “There was a realization that we need to stabilize the park in order to save it,” said John Kett, ASLA, principal in charge at Reed Hilderbrand.
The first step was to build trust with communities that have been promised support in the past, but didn’t see that translate into action. The first community engagement meeting, pre-pandemic, brought out more than 300 community members. “There was a lot of excitement but also skepticism,” Kett said.
These meetings brought up issues of representation. “Three-fourths of the surrounding neighborhoods are historically underserved. Residents from Jamaica Plain were very active and showing up, but we weren’t hearing much from the underserved communities at first.”
The Franklin Park Coalition, which had established community support and connections over decades, was key to increasing the involvement of these communities, particularly during the pandemic when the team relied on Zooms and online surveys. The coalition helped the team get hundreds of survey responses.
To build trust, Reed Hilderbrand, Agency Landscape + Planning, and MASS Design Group also participated in playhouse in the park, a long-running summer series. For years, community members have brought their lawn chairs and coolers to watch free performances.
“We set up a pop-up photography booth with Sahar Coston-Hardy, who was able to print portraits in the park, and put them up on clotheslines. People looked good, so by the end there was a line. It was a trust-building exercise with the community — and for them. They shared their stories about the park with us, too.”
Brie Hensold, Hon. ASLA, co-founder of Agency Landscape + Planning, explained that additional community engagement strategies included walking tours in the park and in-depth conversations with key constituencies — the groups that cared most about improving the golf course or tennis courts, restoring the woodlands, or enhancing the playhouse and its amphitheater. And to overcome the digital divide among community members, “we also went canvassing door to door to gather input.”
The result of this equitable community engagement is a plan that calls for spreading investments throughout the park, so that all the communities bordering the park see both immediate and long-term benefits.
In her announcement of the new plan to revitalize Franklin Park, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu highlighted two priorities.
“She focused on the need to restore the ecosystems in the park and also the need to appoint a dedicated park superintendent,” Kett said.
A slew of Boston and state agencies are involved in the park and its boundary areas. Establishing a leader who can move the plan forward was a key goal for the planning and design team.
The plan explored how the park could support affordable housing protections, and build capacity, create more local jobs, and develop the workforce, particularly through city government contracts to nearby vendors. These efforts will require multi-agency partnerships across the city government, which a superintendent can help facilitate.
“Given that trust with surrounding communities has been broken for decades, rebuilding that trust will be a slow process. We focused on only promising what we could deliver,” Kett said.
“The community wants to see continuous maintenance improvements and capital investments over time,” Hensold said. “Trust is a longer-term project.”
Through their journey with the community, the team learned that Olmsted’s design is still deeply appreciated. Even with a clear lack of maintenance and investment, the park still has a “rough beauty,” Frederickson said.
“People love this park; they just want it to be a better version of itself. At the core, people want the park to be taken care of.”
Olmsted’s design still resonates despite the insertion of a hospital, zoo, golf course, widened circuit road, and a four-lane road that diagonally cuts through the park.
“There is the sense that Olmsted reached a logical conclusion in Franklin Park, which is one of his later parks. He did less here; it’s more about putting the land forward,” Frederickson said.
Inspired by the rock outcroppings of the area, he reinforced the edges with stone walls and slopes, creating an “interior haven.” Today, that means that some of the park boundaries are “not super porous.” The plan focuses on “improving porosity where we can” through new accessible entrances better aligned with well-lit crosswalks and supported by new street improvements, parking, and bicycle infrastructure.
The core design of the park remains though. Olmsted followed the flow of “whale-shaped drumlin fields, lacing circulation through them.” The design team recommended reducing or eliminating vehicle access in parts of that circulation system to ensure the park feels safer for pedestrians and cyclists. “But the plan is not anti-car. We actually increase parking in areas,” Frederickson said.
And restoring the varied ecosystems in the park, including its marshes, meadows, and woodlands, remains a top priority for the community and the landscape architects. “It’s an incredible, moving place to be. Its rough beauty is its power. It just needs support.”
Historically marginalized and underserved communities are facing multiple challenges at once: a climate crisis; a health crisis exacerbated by COVID-19; and a racial equity crisis, driven by structural inequities.
One solution to these interconnected challenges is a Black Commons, which involves pooling collective land and resources to stabilize and empower Black communities and support their efforts to generate wealth, argued Kofi Boone, FASLA, the Joseph D. Moore Distinguished Professor at NC State University, during a lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
After experiencing decades of redlining, urban renewal, gentrification, and displacement, Black communities can combat systemic issues by envisioning new communities that are mutually supportive.
Boone outlined a few key pillars that can bolster Black communities in their efforts to create commons:
“Recognition: recognizing and respecting another human, their status, and rights.
Reconciliation: acknowledging responsibility for harm and accelerating healing.
Reparation: restoring and sustaining the capability to live a fulfilling life.”
He then outlined some of the impacts on Black communities that have led him to push for bottom-up, community-driven solutions.
Growing up in Detroit, Michigan, “I thought going to church and using proper English could carry you through systemic forces. But I have learned through research there were policies and decisions made so that some would benefit from the degradation of other people.”
For decades, in the 20th century, the federal government enabled the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation to “map every home in major cities, coding them by color.” Communities marked in red would “receive absolutely no loan. These redlined communities were also predominantly Black.”
In addition to being denied the ability to own property and grow generational wealth, members of redlined communities also didn’t benefit as much from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs in the 1930s.
These programs led to street trees being planted across American cities, creating the deep shade canopies that characterize many neighborhoods today, along with significant investment in infrastructure. Boone said redlined communities didn’t receive that government investment, leading to hotter, more polluted places a century later.
Redlining also made these communities more vulnerable to top-down redevelopment schemes. They became the target of waves of federal policies: urban renewal, de-industrialization, planned shrinkage, mass incarceration, and gentrification. Over the decades, this has led Black communities to experience serial displacement, or “root shock,” as described by Dr. Mindy Fullilove, a psychiatrist and professor of urban policy and health at The New School.
This history leads us to 2020, which was the culmination of health, economic, and environmental crises — and also a racial equity crisis. “The murder of George Floyd led to the largest protest movement in human history. Racial equity came to the foreground because people were seeing a lynching in real time.”
Boone outlined projects he and landscape architecture colleagues at North Carolina State University have undertaken to advance a Black Commons:
The Bennehan and Cameron families once owned the largest plantation in North Carolina, with some 1,000 slaves on 30,000 acres. Much of that land, which Black Americans had involuntarily invested in for generations, has now been preserved as conservation easements on what was formerly the Stagville Plantation. That in effect has excluded Black communities from the opportunity to “own plantation land as a path to liberation.”
Working with Urban Community Agrinomics (UCAN), NC State is helping the Catawba Trail Farm on the former Snow Hill IV Plantation develop a vision for collective community stabilization and wealth generation through urban farming.
At the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum and State Historic Site in Sedalia, North Carolina, NC State landscape architecture professors and students have focused on how to revitalize a campus that was recently identified by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a most endangered site. Charlotte Hawkins Brown was a native of Boston who came to North Carolina and opened the largest college prep school for Black students in the south.
As part of their work with the museum, Boone and his students mapped the web of relationships emanating from the school, which included W.E.B Dubois and Booker T. Washington. “If we don’t value these stories, then we can’t continue telling them.” Their designs outline a way to revitalize the campus as an artists’ retreat while also supporting on-going restoration efforts.
And in Princeville, North Carolina, NC State’s Coastal Dynamics Design Lab, led by Andy Fox, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning, has partnered with a historically Black community that took root in an area that regularly floods.
This was common: Whites would settle on high grounds, while Blacks often settled nearby in lower lying areas, often to be close to plantations where they worked. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Black communities often camped next to Union Armies for protection. One encampment became Freedom Hill, which is more of a symbolic name given it’s not on high ground. After the Freedom Hill community experienced catastrophic flooding, they needed a “long-term strategy to become resilient and thrive.”
Boone said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) came in to assist the community, but ended up “overloading them when they were in crisis, in a bad state.” NC State began facilitating conversations and created an accessible guide to help them better understand their options, which won an ASLA 2018 Professional Communications Honor Award. This grew into broader design-build project that involved landscape architecture students at the Princeville Elementary School, which then won an ASLA 2022 Student Community Service Award of Excellence.
And opportunities arose for a new mobile museum, after the Princeville Museum was damaged by flooding. Partnering with NC State architecture professor David Hill, architecture program students created a welcome center on wheels.
While Boone highlighted a number of inspiring projects that share land ownership and management and support wealth generation and cultural empowerment, one powerful example stood out: Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas.
In 1872, Reverend John Henry “Jack” Yates and other members of the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church and the Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church bought 10 acres of land for $800 in Houston, Texas. They sought to create a public space to celebrate Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery, Boone explained.
In 1916, the park was donated to the city of Houston and turned into a public park. From the 1920s to the 1940s, it was the sole park for the Black community in the city. The park fell into disrepair in the 1970s, but in the 2000s the revitalization process began. In 2013, the Freelon Group and M2L Associates, along with Perkins + Will, started $33 million in renovations, which were completed in 2017.
Emancipation Park is just one example of the positive ripple effects of shared ownership for community benefit.
“Can we sustain our intentions while also expanding our profession?”, asked Sandra Nam Cioffi, ASLA, founding principal, Ink Landscape Architects, at this year’s Cut|Fill, a participatory and collaborative “unconference” on landscape architecture.
In a wide-ranging discussion, five women design leaders delved into how to design with intention and empathy amid the pandemic, inequities, and economic pressures — and preserve mental health and well-being in the process.
According to Maura Rockcastle, ASLA, principal and co-founder of TEN x TEN, sustaining intentions in a mission-driven firm can only be achieved through “radical transparency” — both within the firm and in interactions with clients.
To achieve this level of transparency, TEN X TEN “has adopted a flat-flex leadership model and shared information on salaries. We have undertaken decolonizing, non-violent communications training. We have hosted team retreats on hiring, marketing, and management to refine our vision.”
But maintaining a commitment to mission-driven work while growing a firm is also challenging. “Where do we reinvent ourselves and evolve and where do we save time? How do we focus on health, happiness, and joy, but also balance that with efficiency? Where do we push boundaries and how do we also keep things manageable?”
Maintaining intentions may mean looking outside conventional landscape architecture practice, said Maci Nelson, Assoc. ASLA, a podcaster, educator, designer, and host of The Landscape Nerd Podcast. She often felt like she “didn’t know where she belonged” in the landscape architecture profession. “As a mother of a child with special needs, I didn’t see others in private practice given time off. I saw my friends easily discarded and laid off.”
To “keep her foot in the profession,” Nelson began researching, discovering new perspectives, and finding the connections that weren’t often discussed. “I began focusing on media and storytelling that is accessible for everyone.” To sustain her purpose, she created a podcast designed to “bring out everyone’s inner nerd and connect the nerdoms.”
“In 2010, the economy was bad, and I was struggling to find my place. As a single mom, I needed a flexible work schedule. I hopped around — doing design-build work, public art, and teaching CAD as an adjunct faculty,” said Linda Chamorro, co-founder of the Tierra Media Project, and assistant professor in landscape architecture, environmental, and urban design at Florida International University.
Then, during the height of the pandemic, she became a tenure-track faculty member at Florida International University. In her new role, “I felt pressure to define an academic agenda,” to set her intention.
“Attending the first Cut|Fill event in 2020 in the wake of the murder of George Floyd was an impactful moment for me and helped me find my calling in the field. I have been rethinking so much since 2020, learning and unlearning.”
One learning opportunity was a Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Leadership and Innovation Fellowship, which Chamorro undertook as part of a collective of Latinx landscape architects. Their fellowship explored Latin American conceptions of tierra (land). For a group of expat designers “not fully of the U.S. or Latin America, who exist in a hybrid, in-between space,” it was an opportunity to explore “beautiful and fascinating rabbit holes.”
“When I worked at an architecture firm, there were only three people of color, and we were the only ones working late and on the weekends,” said Fauzia Khanani, founding principal, Studio Fōr. She then realized her intention: “I could practice on my own, address issues for other people of color, and create a community focused on impactful work.”
Now twelve years after founding the studio, Khanani thinks design professions are still “white male-dominated fields, but that’s shifting.” Prior to the pandemic and George Floyd, “I didn’t speak publicly about race and inequality,” but there has been a “fork in the road” with the “mass recognition of police violence against people of color” and that too has changed.
Khanani joined Design as Protest, a design advocacy non-profit organization, which is focused on “making change at the larger scale.” But increasingly, she sees the for-profit and non-profit sides of her work merging. She thinks values are aligning among more young designers of color.
Conversation then shifted to how it’s important for landscape architects to maintain a sense of empathy with the communities they serve. This was viewed as key to preserving a sense of intention and advancing mission-driven work.
However, in some cases, a firm’s client may not fully understand what a community needs or wants. It’s increasingly the role of the landscape architect to start those difficult community conversations and create support for the collaborative, community-led processes needed for projects success.
The added challenge is that many of these approaches may be a “bit unprecedented” with clients and requires “showing up differently,” Rockcastle said. “Empathy is now required. But how can we advocate differently? How can we push projects towards different goals and outcomes?”
“As designers, we need to model the ways that don’t currently exist,” Chamorro said. “We need to model different ways of doing things and push back on expectations.”
“Not everyone speaks and hears in the same way. Observe closely how your client communicates, and how you communicate, and what resonates or not. If you start that process, you can reduce misunderstandings about new design processes,” Nelson argued.
Pursuing mission-driven work during a pandemic, increasing workloads, and rapid economic and social change has led to mental health challenges, including anxiety, depression, and burn-out among designers. “Where can landscape architects go for mental health support?,” Nam Cioffi asked.
“I go inward. If I am not going to take care of myself, who will? I go on walks — if I can interact with my child or pet, a plant or tree, I can connect and find myself again,” Chamorro said.
“I share challenges with my team and make them part of the decision-making process. But I also make sure the workplace is not adding to the stress of their lives,” Khanani said.
“I am empathetic so I absorb and feel the struggles of others. It’s important to be honest and model healthy ways of interacting and not be too emotional. You can have, feel, and name emotions. And then we can bring our empathy to the table with clients,” Rockcastle said.
“Landscape architecture created traumatic experiences for me. It’s important to focus on mental wellness, value your feelings, and share them. I monitor what I say but am honest,” Nelson explained.
Panelists then discussed the value of self-care — seeing a therapist or personal coach; listening to motivational podcasts or audio books; and enjoying cooking, art, and other restorative, creative pastimes.
And amid all the flux, the future remains filled with possibilities. “If you looked at the top 50 professions 50 years ago, you will see most don’t exist today. The job you may want to do may not exist yet, but you still have time to create it,” Nelson said.
The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) and Challenge.Gov are seeking submissions for Access for All, a new universal design competition open to landscape architecture undergraduate and graduate students. The goal of the competition is to “stimulate innovation” and reward universal design concepts that can lead to “barrier-free federal buildings.”
The GSA, which owns and manages over 370 million square feet of real estate, seeks to improve access for “federal workers and members of the public, while optimizing government resources and adding value to taxpayers.” Following executive orders from President Biden, the GSA has a new commitment to “ensuring federal spaces are accessible, equitable, and inclusive.”
“Federal facilities are typically designed with a compliance-based approach in mind. That can create barriers to common access and equal experience, which can impact individuals’ ability to fully participate in public life. As one example, restroom facilities follow and comply with all pertinent building codes, but might not consider access for all. Other examples that could benefit from integrating universal design include using ramps versus elevators-only and innovative new options for low-light energy requirements that consider those with low-vision.”
The GSA argues that these barriers can “disproportionately burden members of the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities (short-term, long-term, visible or not visible, mobility), women, and parents or caretakers of dependents.”
The scope of necessary improvements are broad and include the landscapes surrounding buildings. “By leveraging principles of universal design, GSA looks to shift our focus from layering access to equalizing access. Opportunities can present themselves across the spectrum of design—including in spaces such as entrances and public spaces.”
“Whether you work in a federal building or visit one to get the services you need, you should find a space that allows you to fully participate in public life,” said GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan. “GSA continues to strive toward that ideal, and we want the next generation of designers to bring their great ideas to the table.”
Making progress on universal design is also key to building a more inclusive federal community. “Strengthening accessibility to and within buildings will enhance the federal government’s ability to recruit and retain diverse talent.”
Hopefully, this competition will help lead to new universal design standards that the GSA can then require for its extensive property holdings, helping to shift state and local building development practices in the process.
Submissions are due May 1. Winners will be announced via Challenge.gov on June 14 and will be mailed a gift card prize. The first place winner will receive $2,000; second place, $1,500; and third place, $1,000.
New parks are meant to be accessible to everyone, but in many urban areas, developer-driven parks mostly attract wealthier Americans. Cities benefit from increased development adjacent to these new parks, bringing in higher tax revenues, but that raises questions about whether these spaces can, in effect, lead to community displacement.
“If there really is green gentrification, what can we do about it?,” asked Ted Landsmark, a professor at Northeastern University, civic planner, and board member of Boston Planning and Development Agency, who moderated the panel discussion.
Robert Hammond, a co-founder of the High Line in Manhattan, and founder of the High Line Network, a knowledge sharing platform, said the High Line has had significant impacts, contributing to “cultural displacement and middle class displacement” in the Meatpacking District and Chelsea neighborhoods of lower Manhattan. “The High Line isn’t a failure, but a lot of mistakes were made.”
“The High Line was built for the city, taxpayers, and homeowners; it wasn’t built for the residents of nearby low-income housing.” While the city-owned low-income housing remains, most of the stores the residents relied on were driven out due to the higher rents brought on by the High Line. “We didn’t anticipate the impact on shops.”
“And many of the residents of the housing developments didn’t like our programs,” Hammond said. As a result, early community perception was that the High Line was for wealthy New Yorkers and tourists.
Over the past dozen years since the first phase of the linear park opened, “we have been rethinking our programs, and visitors to the park have become more diverse.” But in retrospect, “the High Line should have formed more diverse community partnerships early on in the planning and design process” to “shape zoning opportunities with the city and state.”
Clyde Higgs, CEO of the Atlanta Beltline, admitted that “ten years ago, when the project first started, we had not expected it to be a wild economic success. We didn’t secure nearby sites for future affordable housing.” With the leadership of a new Atlanta mayor that story has changed, Higgs says. “We have now exceeded affordability goals around the Beltline by 30 percent.”
The Beltline team is now returning to the vision of the park’s framers — they had “contemplated the dangers of developing green space in a vacuum.” With any new green space, “you have to be thinking about community engagement, which is the real measure of success at the end of a project. This involves affordable housing, living wage jobs, environmental clean-up, and the arts — it’s about creating whole communities.”
The High Line and early phases of the Beltline offer cautionary tales and have led to the relatively new consensus that equitable community development is integral to park making.
An “anticipatory, proactive approach” to park planning is “now required by all landscape architects at this point,” argued Jessica Henson, ASLA, a partner at OLIN. “Setting aside parcels for affordable housing, protecting existing tenants, creating land banks — this should all happen before design.”
The 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, D.C., which landscape architecture firm OLIN is co-designing with Dutch architecture firm OMA, is a “great example of how to get into a community ahead of time.” Building Bridges Across the River, the non-profit organization leading the development of the park, set up home buyer’s clubs, created robust property protections, and increased support for local businesses and artists, so more of the community will benefit from the new park, even before it’s built.
The 11th Street Bridge Park is rightfully considered a model, but its development has been more than a decade in the making. Landsmark argued that there will be intense political pressure on state and local governments to spend hundreds of billions from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, to act fast and initiate projects that can create lots of new jobs. How can the rapid distribution of these funds avoid having a gentrifying impact?
“Before dollars are assigned, it’s important to buy parcels for affordable housing ahead of time, near where you think new infrastructure is going to go. Coordinating with community-based organizations, which tend to be more nimble, is key,” Henson said.
“Through research, we have found that you also don’t need to blanket affordable housing everywhere. Prioritize the communities most at risk. Use tools to determine where the pressures are. We can target resources to protect the most vulnerable populations.”
As part of this, planners and landscape architects must also extend greater respect to local partners, paying community members and organizations for their time and ideas, whether it’s related to the new infrastructure funds or not. Communities are expected to show up to provide input that can improve projects, but for some community members there is a cost associated with that, multiple panelists noted.
There are already models for more equitable engagement out there. At the Atlanta Beltline, the “largest department is community engagement. It’s legislatively dictated that we must hold three deep community conversations annually, but we have up to 80 community meetings per year. There are many chances for people to have their say — it’s the people’s project,” Higgs said.
And with the High Line in New York City, one clear win is a program that responded to the needs of local residents: a summer jobs program for teenagers. “High Line Teens has been successful and is in its tenth year,” Hammond said. “We provided what people want — jobs. The question with these projects needs to be: what can we do for you, besides just creating a park?”
There are growing expectations that new parks will be jobs generators for local communities. The Atlanta Beltline has a goal of creating 30,000 permanent jobs along the circular park, prioritizing access to opportunities for those who live nearby. This involves discussions with a “range of organizations, not just industries focused on technology, healthcare, or hospitality. It’s about creating whole communities where residents near the Beltline can access work, church, restaurants, and medical care,” Higgs said.
And Henson noted that in their work on the Los Angeles River Masterplan with Gehry Partners, OLIN has focused on how to create more opportunities for local artists in the 51-mile river corridor revitalization. All panelists called for employing public artists of all kinds — dance, interactive, musical, sculptural, and visual — to create the cultural programs that can connect communities with each other and a new park.