Interview with Pamela Conrad: Climate Positive Design

Pamela Conrad, ASLA

Pamela Conrad, ASLA, is a principal at CMG Landscape Architecture in San Francisco, California, and founder of Climate Positive Design. She is a recipient of the 2018 Landscape Architecture Foundation Fellowship for the development of the award-winning Pathfinder landscape carbon calculator app and the Climate Positive Design Challenge.

A year ago, you launched Climate Positive Design in an effort to help landscape architects design and build projects that can become climate positive, meaning that over their lifespan they sequester more greenhouse gas emissions than they embody or produce. You also put out a major challenge to the community, stating that if all landscape architects and designers took a climate positive approach, they could sequester an estimated one gigaton of greenhouse gases by 2050. What motivated you to start this effort?

First, I had to dig in and understand all the science and policy. I made a conscious effort to understand the Paris Climate Accord, and more recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report calling for limiting global temperature increase to 1.5 °C (2.7 ˚F).

I was shocked to find out that according to the IPCC, we have less than ten years to prevent catastrophic events from happening to human lives, and that those who have the least, particularly in the global South, will likely be impacted the most.

A few years back, I read the book Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. It was the first time climate solutions were broken down and made accessible. I realized that 20 percent of the outlined solutions are land-based and can be part of landscape architects’ everyday work.

Out of curiosity, I began analyzing case study projects from our work at CMG. I realized it is relatively easy to improve the carbon impacts of our projects without reducing the quality or performance.

I started to grasp that what we do as designers can make a big difference when we scale up all of our work around the world. It was with this understanding that I launched the Climate Positive Design Challenge.

Since launching the Pathfinder app, a tool that helps landscape architects, designers, property owners, design to a carbon positive state, nearly 1,500 projects have been submitted, totaling more than 43,000 acres. In addition to other climate-friendly practices, these projects are expected to plant 777,000 trees, which, in ten years, will result in 1.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gases being sequestered. What have you learned from this first set of projects that have been submitted? What patterns are you seeing?

Within the first year, we’ve seen a gradual improvement in the years-to-positive scores across project sites. This is being achieved by a continuous reduction in greenhouse gas emissions through the embodied carbon and materials and operational carbon in landscapes, and an increase of carbon sequestration. It’s looking at that overall equation for a landscape carbon impact.

In the first few months, we saw a lot of academic projects being logged. It seems that the Pathfinder is being widely used as a teaching tool – which is great! Since realizing that, we’ve added in a feature so those studies can be used as an academic resource, but their data will be excluded from the overall impact numbers.

The current average years-to-positive is 21 years for urban landscapes like plazas and streetscapes, and the target is 20 years to positive, so we’re really close to reaching our goal. We will perhaps make it more challenging going forward.

For parks and gardens, campuses — inherently greener projects – the years to positive target is five years. The average of all the projects received to date is nine years to positive, so we’re not quite there yet. We need to keep pushing, which is the point of a challenge.

Climate Positive Design case study (before) / CMG Landscape Architecture
Climate Positive Design case study (after) / CMG Landscape Architecture

We’ve also seen that the projects across the board have over three times more sequestration than emissions, which is fantastic. This would put us on track to meeting our overall goals.

One of the helpful things about the data we have collected over this past year is that we can see the average emissions and sequestration per square foot. That information will be used in the upcoming landscape carbon SITES and LEED pilot credits. We’re now able to take this data, transform it, and relate it to other rating systems, which will hopefully increase exposure and awareness of Climate Positive Design and other rating systems.

What are the top five things all landscape architects should be doing now in their projects to sequester more carbon and get to climate positive? What things have the biggest bang for the buck, in terms of the climate?

I like to keep things simple. Otherwise, it’s too easy to become overwhelmed and not change our practices.

The top five things to remember are: plant more; pave less; use materials with lower embodied carbon; update your specifications to meet the highest sustainability performance standards, specifically your concrete specifications by using cement substitutions. The fifth is to create operations and maintenance manuals that limit the use of fossil fuels to operate the equipment to maintain landscapes — so use organic fertilizers rather than fertilizers made from fossil fuels.

You note that deciduous trees store a bit more carbon than evergreens. Are there particular species of trees and shrubs that are carbon sequestering powerhouses?

This is perhaps the most frequently asked question. There is no one perfect tree for sequestering the most carbon. The best tree to plant is the one that will grow the fastest, live the longest, and get the biggest. This the tree that is going to sequester the most carbon in the region your project is located.

Carbon is directly correlated to biomass. A redwood tree — a massive tree that lives a very long time — is going to sequester much more carbon than a small, understory redbud tree. This is just as an example where size does matter.

Another interesting example is bamboo. It is a rapidly renewable, woody species that can be converted into building products, such as flooring, furniture, even structures. It’s incredibly strong and actually a grass, so the carbon within its root system can stay in the soil for thousands of years. It is a super sequesterer, but it should be used with caution, because it can be an invasive species.

How can we ensure that plants selected to store carbon also support local ecosystems and provide habitat for pollinators and wildlife?

Bamboo demonstrates how we need to be mindful that we don’t cause more problems than we had before. We must be mindful of not planting invasive species that will take over native plant communities and reduce biodiversity.

I would recommend anyone to refer to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) global standard for nature-based solutions, which outlines ecosystem-based approaches that are specific to geographic locations and address societal changes, supporting human well-being, and include biodiversity benefits.

We can use native species to sequester more carbon where they’re appropriate, increasing biodiversity and reducing water usage at the same time. Native plants are one way to ensure we support local ecosystems.

How can landscapes architects partnering with historically-marginalized and underserved communities, which experience higher climate risks and impacts, use your tool to address climate injustices?

This is one of our biggest challenges to overcome as a profession. I do not have all the answers. But I will say that from my experience, really listening to people and meeting them where they are is a start. If people say what they really need most are jobs, then don’t give them a skate park. Think about how we can partner in non-traditional ways to create jobs that might also improve quality of life and be part of climate solutions – like community jobs programs supporting tree-planting initiatives.The results of something like this can be measured in local school programs through the app for free. It’s my hope that things like this can give the next generation hope that there are solutions out there. We just need to work together on them.

What models or innovations that aren’t widespread today could speed up the carbon sequestering abilities of plazas and streets with large areas of hardscape?

There are definitely innovative products coming out that capture carbon, such as Carbon Cure. But I challenge us not to rely wholly on new models or fancy innovations, and instead step back and think about simplifying things.

This is an opportunity for us to rethink how we design, to do more with less. Let’s rethink the typical plaza. Maybe it doesn’t have to be all concrete. Maybe it can have large trees in a field of stabilized, crushed stone paving, as many historic plazas around the world.

Ferry Building Plaza design proposal (before) / CMG Landscape Architecture
Ferry Building Plaza design proposal (after) / CMG Landscape Architecture

This is my challenge to the profession: let’s think about things differently. Let’s turn this into an opportunity to make a statement that we believe in climate-positive landscapes. We’re taking a stance on climate change, and that’s something that many of our clients will get behind.

What needs to happen in the landscape architecture product marketplace to further accelerate climate positive design? How are you seeing product manufacturers respond to the climate crisis?

Over the past decade, in other disciplines, architecture in particular, product manufacturers have been increasing the transparency of their material and product development processes and revealing associated emissions. Product manufacturers are providing this information through an environmental product declaration (EPD). The data manufacturers provide — the CO2e emissions related to Global Warming Potential (GWP) — is what is used in the Pathfinder calculations.

We hope this increased transparency in the architecture field will migrate to the landscape products space. We must ask landscape product manufacturers to provide EPDs so we can make informed decisions about which product or material to choose.

Vestre, a Norwegian landscape product manufacturer, is currently working with Climate Positive Design to include their products into the app. They’re going to be providing their EPDs for use in the Pathfinder. They do not want us be exclusive, but rather encourage other product manufacturers to provide the same level of transparency and include their products as well, which says a lot about their values.

Vestre

I hope that everyone will jump onboard, because this is an opportunity at a global scale to reduce the impact of these products.

The latest version of your app, Pathfinder 2.0, includes a bunch of new features. What improvements were made? And what do you hope to tackle next?

New features include the ability to compare design alternatives; analyze existing conditions; and understand site impacts, like grading, tree removal, or reused soil imports and amendments. There is also improved data that covers the replacement of materials over time, and more data transparency in the way of pop-ups and information icons.

As I mentioned, we’ll be adding products into the app soon. But we’re also hoping to expand the sequestration data for ecosystem restoration projects. Forest restoration is coming up next. Then, we’re hoping to get financial support, in the form of donations, to expand to coastal wetlands, kelp, mangroves, grasslands, etc.

The goal remains to keep the app free, open, and accessible for all to use and make a difference in projects. This is a commitment I have made. I believe there is an incredible opportunity for landscape architects to re-imagine landscapes so they are not only wonderful places for people, but also help solve the climate crisis.

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

Spotfire training at the Oklahoma State University / T. Johnson, via The Architect’s Newspaper

Friendly Fire: It’s Time for Designers to Embrace Fire as the Ecological and Cultural Force That It Is — 10/29/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“In Tulsa, Oklahoma, controlled burns will soon be part of the maintenance regime for a massive urban wilderness preserve master-planned by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA).”

“Once-in-a-Generation Project”: Memphis Landscape Architect Honored for Big River Crossing — 10/27/20, Commercial Appeal
“Four years after it opened, the landscape architects who helped design Big River Crossing have won a statewide design award for the project, receiving praise for the way the project ties into the area’s relationship with the river.”

Trump to Strip Protections from Tongass National Forest, One of the Biggest Intact Temperate Rainforests — 10/27/20, The Washington Post
“President Trump will open up more than half of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to logging and other forms of development, according to a notice posted Wednesday, stripping protections that had safeguarded one of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforests for nearly two decades.”

Cities Are Pledging to Confront Climate Change, but Are Their Actions Working? — 10/22/20, Brookings Institution
“A team of scholars organized by the Brookings Institution has built and analyzed one of the most comprehensive statistical evaluations of just what’s happening in a cross section of diverse cities on emissions reductions.”

The Little-Known Women Behind Some Well-Known Landscapes — 10/21/20, The New York Times
“‘Women have literally shaped the American landscape and continue to today,’ said Charles A. Birnbaum, president and chief executive of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, ‘but their names and contributions are largely unknown.’”

Landscape Architects Unveil Plans to Save the National Mall’s Tidal Basin – 10/21/20, NPR
“Five landscape architects unveiled proposals Wednesday to save the sinking Tidal Basin on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The plans run the gamut from a conservative approach to radical reimaginings.”

Thanks to a Design Coalition with Community Ties, Philadelphia’s Graffiti Pier Will Live on as a Public Park — 10/19/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“The proposal from Studio Zewde walks a tightrope: Make the area accessible to a wider public and protect it from climate change, but don’t erase the pier’s offbeat spirit in the process.”

Bakari Sellers: “We Need to Leave Our Silos”

Bakari Sellers / SUNY Oswego

In a general session during the Urban Land Institute (ULI)’s virtual fall meeting, Bakari Sellers, author of the memoir My Vanishing County and commentator on CNN, called for Americans to get out of their bubbles and become more empathetic towards others with different identities and beliefs. He challenged everyone to spend a week watching Fox & Friends, then a week watching Morning Joe, and then a third week watching New Day. “It may be difficult for some, but afterward sit back and have some conversations.”

In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests, possibly the largest protest movement in U.S. history, Sellers said we need to ask ourselves: “Where do we go from here?” But before we can answer that, we must also ask: “How far have we come?”

Sellers then spent the early part of his talk walking the online audience through the life story of his father Cleveland Sellers, a professor and civil rights activist.

His father grew up in rural Denmark, South Carolina, a predominantly Black town. After enrolling at Howard University, Sellers met Stokely Carmichael and joined the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG). In the mid-1960s, he became one of the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was sent to Mississippi to register voters, where he was met with intense racism.

In 1968, while in Orangeburg, South Carolina, Sellers was arrested during campus protests against the segregation of a local bowling alley. The protest became known as the Orangeburg Massacre because police shot and killed three Black protesters. Sellers and others were accused of being “outside Black Power agitators.” While the nine policemen accused of using excessive force were acquitted, Sellers was convicted and sentenced to year in jail for inciting a riot. Sellers went on to receive a degree from Harvard University and became the director of African American studies at the University of South Carolina; twenty-five years after Orangesburg he received a full pardon.

Sellers explained his father’s history in detail to remind the audience of “difficult times in the past” and relay the importance of “leaving our silos” and seeing history from another perspective.

Back in the present day, Sellers returned to discussing Denmark, South Carolina, and other rural Black communities in the South that have been left behind. There, local businesses and the hospital have shut down. The schools are in the “‘corridor of shame,’ and students walk through mud to get to classes held in trailers.”

With the pandemic, the lack of access and opportunity has only gotten worse. “People feel anxious and suffocated.” Many in the community feel like they are “on the floor,” and there is no further they can drop. Their ability to “emerge from that soil and become an example has gotten so much tougher.”

Sellers brought up Denmark to explain that there is an “empathy deficit in America.” He said “Black people are in a constant state of grieving.” To help, “we can all do our part, take the time, do the introspection. We have made a lot of progress, but there is still so much farther to go. We need to dream with our eyes open and re-imagine the possibilities.”

Those who are developers, planners, and designers of the built environment have an important role to play in re-imagining the country. One of the first major pieces of civil rights legislation — the Fair Housing Act of 1968 — was about “real estate development.”

Before the legislation, redlining, which significantly reduced home ownership in Black and Latinx communities, was pervasive. Redlining also hampered equitable education reform. Equal access to purchasing of a home is essential to growing local tax bases, which play a large role in funding schools.

Today, much of local property taxes come from commercial properties and new development. Here lies the Catch-22: “you can’t improve schools without bringing in business and development, and you can’t bring in business and new development without better schools.”

Sellers applauded the legislation signed into law by President Trump to create opportunity zones. There are now more than 8,700 zones in the U.S. where low-income communities are seeing an influx of direct investment. In return, developers receive significant tax benefits.

But Sellers also called for a greater focus on “race-based policies to address race-specific issues.” These policies can help undo inequities in access to education, health care, transportation, and other areas.

He said even with all the new investment in opportunity zones, Black people in the U.S. are still far behind whites and other groups in wealth accumulation, in large part because of the legacy of redlining, which denied prospective Black homeowners the ability to take out a mortgage. “If white people stopped making any money now, it would still take Black folks 228 years to catch up.”

When asked by an audience member what white and other allies can do to help, Sellers said: “bringing humility and honesty, and really listening is more important than speaking out.” But then he added that “Black people aren’t the ones who are going to cure racism in this country.”

And then when asked what is holding up further change — a lack of knowledge about racism or denial? — Sellers responded: “it’s partly due to willful ignorance, and partly due to a piss-poor educational system.”

Returning to his theme of breaking down racial and partisan silos, he offered a message of solace and determination: “it’s a courageous thing to love your neighbor, even when they don’t love you back. You have to re-dedicate yourself, even when they don’t love you. For some of us, that’s an awesome responsibility.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (August 1-15)

Statue of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and soldiers before installation at the Eisenhower Memorial / Washington.org

Tuskegee University Receives $100,000 Gift to Advance Young Black Architects — 08/15/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Tuskegee is one of only seven accredited architecture degree programs, which collectively account for approximately half of all African American graduates in architecture.”

LA’s Chief Resilience Officer on Pandemic’s ‘Reveal’ of City’s Vulnerabilities — 08/11/20, The Planning Report
“Having a more reliable energy and water system is important, and not only because it’s more efficient, but it’s more equitable. When the power is cleaner and we’re putting less pollution into the air, it leads to better outcomes for those who are more vulnerable right now.”

Bogotá Is Building its Future Around Bikes — 08/10/20, Bloomberg CityLab
“In February, López announced that the city’s development plan for the next four years would add a total of 280 additional kilometers of bike lanes to the existing 550-kilometer network.”

The New Eisenhower Memorial Is Stunning, Especially at Night. But Is This the Last of the ‘Great Man’ Memorials? — 08/05/20, The Washington Post
“It is unlike any other memorial in Washington, or the world. The design was largely dictated by the awkward site, a four-acre patch of land just south of Independence Avenue, opposite the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.”

Trump Signs Landmark Land Conservation Bill — 08/04/20, The New York Times
“President Trump signed into law the Great American Outdoors Act, a measure with broad bipartisan support that guarantees maximum annual funding for a federal program to acquire and preserve land for public use.”

The ADA at 30: The Battle for an Accessible and Inclusive Future Continues

UC Berkeley protest in the 1970s / Photo by Raymond Lifchez. From his book “Design for Independent Living,” co-authored with Barbara Winslow.

By Alexa Vaughn-Brainard, Assoc. ASLA

July 26 marks the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA grew out of the collective activism of the widely diverse American disabled community, which fought a long and often exhausting battle for access to public space, education, accommodations, transportation, and more. Today, their battle is still ongoing.

As a Deaf woman and as a landscape designer, I have experienced public space in the post-ADA era both personally and professionally. I believe it’s time to examine whether, after three decades, both the ADA and the design professions have done enough to guarantee our right to fully access the public realm.

For architects and landscape architects, the main design guide for access is the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. The most recent version of the standards was released in 2010 and has not been updated since, and, significantly, was not created directly by disabled people. The most recent version of standards were created and are enforced by the Department of Justice under the advisory and maintenance of the U.S. Access Board, which does include disabled members.

A major deficiency of the ADA Standards is that it does not address the broad spectrum of disabilities. It focuses primarily upon physical disabilities (predominantly wheelchair users) and blindness. For example, the standards largely ignore Deaf and hard-of-hearing people or autistic and neuro-divergent people.

Additionally, the guide applies principally to architecture and interiors, rather than for the larger public landscape that disabled people must navigate every day. Today, landscape architects often refer to the Landscape Architectural Graphic Standards. Although these standards contains specific guidelines for outdoor facilities, it takes directly from the ADA Standards and remains a set of baseline minimum requirements lacking in diverse design opportunities.

Despite the legal obligations under the law and the application of ADA Standards, the design professions often operate within the dominant medical model worldview, which infers that disabled people are the problem and that they must “fix” themselves in order to fit seamlessly into our society. And far too often, designers and planners treat ADA standards as an afterthought, a hindrance to creativity, or a headache in construction.

Instead, designers need to switch to a social worldview and recognize that the built environment itself is the real problem, preventing disabled people from being able to fully access and enjoy public spaces. Designers and planners have been directly responsible for the creation of barriers that hinder the estimated one billion people globally who experience some form of disability from being able to comfortably use public space. We can no longer consciously (or sub-consciously) choose to exclude disabled people in our designs. We need to fix and cure the built environment itself, not the people who use it. Access to public space is meant to be a civil right, not a privilege.

Dilworth Plaza in Philadelphia, designed by OLIN / Sahar Coston-Hardy

Universal design is, by definition, flexible and has the capacity to help shape livable and usable cities for everyone, yet it is still not treated as common sense. This is likely due to a reluctance to think about accessibility requirements outside of the narrow legal obligations of the ADA. We need to recognize that although a primary goal of universal design is to provide access to the built environment for disabled people, its benefits go far beyond the disabled community and extend to the broader population. The key is its provision of flexibility and a plethora of options for each user.

Legible Sydney, Sydney, Australia / City of Sydney

Despite the ADA Standards’ limitations, designers and planners have the chance to rethink access and what it means in the public realm. We must open our minds to understand the needs of a large diversity of people and tap into our creativity to think outside the box of the formal standards. ASLA has taken a step in the right direction through its guide to universal design, which sets out principles for the creation of an inclusive public realm that is accessible to as many people as possible.

Today, universal design applications require more thought, practice, and trial (and error), but they must be developed in direct partnership with disabled stakeholders and disabled design experts. We must learn to treat disabled people’s lived experiences as expertise and to trust their needs over our assumptions and intuition.

If we choose to open our minds to universal design’s potential, not only will we honor the ADA on its thirtieth anniversary, but we will take it a step further into a more accessible and inclusive future. We can then begin to dare to dream of a world where disabled people are honored, accepted, and embraced by designers, planners, and the cities they call home.

Alexa Vaughn-Brainard, Assoc. ASLA, is a landscape designer at OLIN in Los Angeles. As a Deaf woman, she has chosen to use identity-first language when talking and writing about disabled people. She feels that claiming a disabled identity is empowering and portrays the disabled community as a distinct and valuable community, worthy of recognition and pride.

Racial Injustice and the Pandemic Are Inextricably Linked

Black Live Matter’s activist protest in Washington D.C. / Lenin Nolly, Sipa USA, AP Images

“I want to express my discomfort that we, as privileged white people, are discussing racial injustice without African American speakers on this panel. I want us to reckon with that,” said Allison Arieff, research and creative director at SPUR and op-ed contributor to The New York Times, during a plenary at the Congress for New Urbanism’s Virtual Gathering.

The non-diverse panel comprising Arieff, Emily Badger, a reporter for The New York TimesThe Upshot blog, and moderator Todd Zimmerman, principal at Zimmerman/Volk Associates, reached the conclusion that the twin crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustices are inextricably linked.

The pandemic and racial injustice protest movement are “exposing how poorly our systems work,” Arieff argued. As SPUR outlined in its recent Letter to White Urbanists, “the city is under strain because these places are not safe and healthy for everyone. White people are the problem and have to fix it.”

Badger, who covers all facets of urban policy for the Times, has been wrestling with a number of questions related to the pandemic when she realized the impacts of COVID-19 were connected with structural racism.

At first, she sought to answer big questions about the pandemic, such as: “Can we reconcile the benefits of density with its risks? Will a fear of density cause people to move to the suburbs? Will a fear of transit cause people to use cars more? Will transit agencies survive the collapse in funding? Will people working from home stay there permanently?”

With the understanding that racial inequalities in housing, education, transportation, land use are all connected, questions shifted to: “How does the police fit in with all of this? They are a part of this ecosystem of inequality and maintain racial segregation. What is their role? Why have segregation and poverty levels hardly budged since the 1960s? Why have income and racial inequalities become even worse? Should we spending more on housing than the police?”

Badger found that “COVID and race are not separate stories. Racial disparities and inequalities are feeding COVID and driving the protests.” Furthermore, COVID is likely to leave “lasting damage in the movement for racial equality,” as everything from deaths from the virus to evictions due to loss of jobs will be disproportionately higher in communities of color.

“Many of us working from home are protected and isolated. We don’t need to acknowledge how poorly the system works for most people,” Arieff said. “But the pandemic shows how fragile the social safety net is. Unemployment insurance doesn’t cover a huge set of workers. We can’t shut off evictions. Many didn’t realize schools feed a vast number of low-income students. Homeless people are now of interest because they could be carrying disease. All our structures are inadequate and need to be deeply rethought.”

One structure that many are calling for a total rethink is the police force. A recent analysis of police budgets in 150 cities by the Times found that police departments on average account for 8 percent of city budgets, and those numbers have gone up over the past 40 years even as crime has declined.

As police forces have grown, they have taken on more responsibilities. “They are now working with homeless populations and in schools. They have become mental health counselors and intervene in domestic abuse,” Badger explained. There is growing debate in many cities about taking away some of their responsibilities or defunding them. “Now that we know the jobs that they are doing, do we want them doing them?”

The ever expanding responsibilities of police forces is linked with the reduction in federal funds for social services and anti-poverty programs. Given there are no other groups mediating what is acceptable behavior in public spaces, “police have by default taken on the role,” Badger said. Instead, “community groups could take over some of the roles police are now playing.” Arieff commented that perhaps defund the police movement could be rebranded as “lightening the load.”

The debate turned to how the built environment professions — planners, architects, landscape architects, engineers — need to change how they work. Arieff said that “there is no easy, pat answer. Design is a top-down, white male-dominated field. But these issues aren’t limited to the design industry.”

The power structures in the built environment “controlled by white people have benefited them. White neighborhoods benefit from exclusionary zoning laws. Property values increase when there is no affordable housing near you,” Badger said.

Arieff argued that critical next steps are to “listen more and make greater effort to recruit panels of color for design conferences.”

To survive and grow, the design world needs to diversify. As an example, she pointed to Next City, a publication focused on cities, that changed the make-up of its editorial staff, significantly diversifying its team of writers. The result was that “readership massively diversified and grew.”

The conversation then veered to whether the concept of “eyes on the street,” and crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) in general, unjustly target people of color.

Arieff argued that “it’s not all or nothing. I’m not ready to dismiss the concept. There are different contexts and behaviors. We can’t homogenize all places. Different people of color use public space differently. We must be more open to how different cultures use public space.”

Zimmerman, the moderator, added that a once common description of a healthy city was that it was safe for a 7 year old. He thinks this should be changed to “safe for a 7 year old black child.”

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Interview with Kate Orff on Earth Day 2020: The 50th Anniversary

Kate Orff, FASLA

Kate Orff, RLA, FASLA, is the founder and principal of SCAPE and also director of the Urban Design Program and Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP). In 2017, Orff was awarded the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and, in 2019, SCAPE received the National Design Award in landscape architecture from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum.

On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans, which at that time was some 10 percent of the population, took to the streets during the first Earth Day, demanding greater protections for the environment and decisive action to improve human health and well-being. 50 years later, the movement is now global, with an estimated one billion participating each year. What role does collective action play in solving today’s climate and ecological crises? What role do landscape architects play?

Earth Day is a chance to pause, take stock of the planet that sustains us, and think and act beyond ourselves to reach the scale of the globe and all its inhabitants. Landscape architects are largely concerned with the “middle scale,” but Earth Day forces us to conceive of the planetary landscape, and what our role is in retrieving the Earth from its climate emergency status.

Our book Toward an Urban Ecology describes the potential of collective action at a landscape scale and gives many examples of digging in, showing up, ripping out, and gardening with your neighbors. At the same time, it’s important to keep focus on the more radical, insidious challenges in our carbon-intensive economy mapped out at a national scale in Petrochemical America, which depicts the American landscape as a machine for consuming oil and petrochemicals with profound impacts on ecosystems and communities.

I guess the lesson here is that on an individual level, we have to consume less. At a neighborhood level, we can work together to repair the landscapes in our immediate environs through community oyster gardening or invasive species removal in a patch of forest. And at a global scale, we have to radically and equitably decarbonize our economy and rebuild the wetland and intertidal landscapes disappearing before our eyes. Our installation at the Venice Biennale called Ecological Citizens bridges these scales of thought and action. Plenty to do!

What connections do you see between the COVID-19 pandemic and our climate and ecological problems? How are environmental and human health connected?

COVID 19 shines a spotlight on our health care system and existing social inequity. The pandemic is truly playing out as a human tragedy on so many levels. It also reveals the incredible and irreversible harm we are inflicting upon non-human species and our extreme interdependence on each other and the natural world.

Whether the virus was transmitted through a bat or pangolin, it’s a parable about the exploitation of “the other” that must stop. This April, 25 tons of pangolin scales were seized in Singapore, taken from nearly 40,000 of these endangered creatures. An estimated 2.7 million are poached every year. It boggles the mind.

On a positive note, one can imagine our “stay at home” behavior, which is intended to curb the pandemic, has the unintended consequences of lowering our personal carbon footprints; and leading us to care for each other more, make time to mend the landscapes in which we live, and prioritize the basics of happiness and survival — food, shelter, clean water, clean air, neighbors, family, and the core of what matters to you.

You founded SCAPE in 2007. Your office’s stated mission is to “enable positive change in communities through the creation of regenerative living infrastructure and public landscapes.” What is regenerative living infrastructure and why do communities need it?

Today’s society faces compounding risks: a climate emergency, increasing social and income stratification, and a biological apocalypse termed “the sixth extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert in her 2014 book of the same name. Together, these forces are rapidly tearing at the fabric of our entangled social and natural worlds. In every SCAPE project, we identify the capacity of design to repair that fabric and regenerate connections over time.

The aim is to not just deliver built work, but envision a program that begins to generate new ties between communities working in, living in, understanding, and loving the landscapes that sustain them. This could take the form of unlocking sediment trapped upstream to nourish protective bay landscapes and cushion the impacts of extreme weather and sea level rise.

ASLA 2019 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Public Sediment for Alameda Creek, Alameda County, California / SCAPE and Public Sediment team

It might manifest as the integration of a state-certified science curriculum with an offshore reef rebuilding project, or reclaiming a forgotten canal and retrofitting it as a public park and water treatment system in partnership with a community-based organization devoted to its stewardship.

The Gowanus Lowlands, Brookyln, New York / SCAPE

For decades, infrastructure has been constructed as “single-purpose,” often designed by engineers to isolate one element of a system and solve for one problem. For example, on Staten Island, during Superstorm Sandy, a levee designed to keep water out was overtopped, resulting in a “bathtub effect” of trapping water inside a neighborhood rather than keeping it out. People perished because of this catastrophic failure. In many places, metal bulkhead walls are being raised in anticipation of sea-level rise only to block drainage during major rain events, flooding adjacent blocks.

Regenerative landscape infrastructure helps to maintain the structure and function of ecosystems embedded in the built environment, accounting for complex systems. This has been the organizing mission of SCAPE: to bring holistic, landscape-driven, and time-based thinking into the places we inhabit.

Through Living Breakwaters in Tottenville, on Staten Island in New York, SCAPE created a layered approach to ecological and social resilience, including oyster habitat restoration on a series of near-shore breakwaters. Working with communities in Boston, SCAPE has developed visions for a more resilient Boston Harbor and Dorchester neighborhoods. What are the benefits of these resilient landscape approaches?

The resilience benefits of these projects are clear. We can’t just look at one facet of the future: We have to synthesize how climate shocks and stressors compound each other. Extreme heat will increase drought and poverty. Extreme hurricanes will increase long-term rainfall projections used as a base for design efforts. How will these shocks and stressors combine to impact people and shape our future?

Robust, intact landscapes can’t do everything, but they can absorb a range of intersectional challenges and create immense protective value. Part of SCAPE’s approach is to begin to address the “sixth extinction” in the intertidal zone, restoring landscapes and habitats for marine critters that could be a lifeline to the future. We not only envisioned the Living Breakwaters project. Over many years, we navigated a federal, state, and local regulatory and budget environment to make it happen. We have a unique perspective on how to advance these kinds of projects despite many roadblocks and challenges.

Living Breakwaters, Staten Island, NY / SCAPE
Resilient Boston Harbor Vision, Boston, Massachusetts / SCAPE

Our team just completed a long-term vision for the rapidly eroding Barataria Basin in Louisiana with an array of collaborators. This project combines marsh creation with bottomland reforestation, sediment diversions, and related landscape restoration and job creation strategies. A healthy and bountiful landscape means better economic opportunities for a wider range of people, rebounding shellfish and fisheries, and a coastal landscape that can absorb and adapt to a range of climate risks on the immediate horizon.

Your firm is also now planning a linear network of greenways and blueways along the Chattahoochee River, which spans 100 miles across the Metro Atlanta region. How does planning and design focused on rivers improve ecological and community resilience? With the risk of flooding increasing, how can communities better live with their rivers?

The Chattahoochee RiverLands is a vision to reconnect Metro Atlanta to its seminal river, building on a decades-long legacy of community planning in collaboration with the Trust for Public Land, Atlanta Regional Commission, Cobb County, and the City of Atlanta. It’s a radical effort to stitch together a historically fragmented public realm along a primary conduit – 125 miles of trail winding along the Chattahoochee that showcase the river’s ecology, history, and link into ongoing restoration and education efforts.

Rivers have such power to bring people together, link up disjointed places, and bring life and mobility into cities. For this project, we cut through red tape, charting a path of access through a mosaic of public and private lands. The overall vision was grounded in over 80 stakeholder and community sessions and events like “river rambles,” educational outings for focus groups to provide hands-on learning experiences.

Public engagement session for the Chattahoochee RiverLands greenway study, Atlanta, Georgia. / SCAPE

Beyond its physical footprint, the goal of the RiverLands is to raise public awareness, improve connections and access, address a long legacy of environmental racism, expand mobility for underserved communities, and build on a strong regional legacy of water resource conservation and protection.

This effort is a testament to open and inclusive design processes structured to empower residents and to shift from conceiving design as a “master” plan to a method of workshopping and co-creating with constituents. Advanced floodplain warning systems and sensors can be integrated into these linear landscapes to ensure public safety.

Lastly, you are also a Professor at Columbia University School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP), where you are director of the Urban Design program. What have you learned from your students – the next generation of leaders – about how to solve our challenges? What new ideas have really astounded you?

Over the past five years, I’ve done a series of studios focused on Water Urbanism – global studios to uncover how water, climate, and migration patterns combine to shape the future of cities. I’ve learned so much from this endeavor and working alongside my incredible co-teachers Geeta Mehta, Dilip Da Cunha, Thaddeus Pawlowski, Julia Watson, and others. We’ve traveled to Amman and Aqaba, Jordan; Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil; Can Tho, Vietnam; and four cities in India: Kolkata, Madurai, Varanasi and Pune, among others.

From our collaborators and students, I’ve learned that excellence emerges in the space between people – in open dialogue, hard work, and collaboration among people with diverse and international backgrounds with a shared purpose.

Columbia University urban design studio in Pune, India / SCAPE

A few years back, I hosted “Water and Social Life in India,” a panel at the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture with Geeta, Dilip, and Alpa Nawre. This session captured some of the big lessons for me. Over the years, we have learned water is not an abstract “issue” to be solved. To embrace a water-resilient future, we have to learn from past practices and small communities managing and communicating with each other. Designing with water is not just about adapting to changing conditions – it is also crucially about fostering forms of social life, maintenance, and care.

The Value of Access

Rural farmers in Ethiopia grow green beans for sale in Europe / Wikipedia

“Accessibility is about how many near or far things you can reach. Mobility is about speed across the network,” argued David Levinson, a professor of transport engineering at the University of Sydney, at the Transforming Transportation conference held at the World Bank Group in Washington, D.C. “Access is opportunity: employment, shops and restaurants, healthcare, and the outside world.”

Levinson has analyzed over 80 cities, mostly in Europe and North America, to determine how many people can access jobs by foot, bicycle, car, or public transit in 30 minutes. He found that “city form varies by continent.” The European Union (EU) has higher walking access to jobs than North America. New Zealand and Australia are somewhere between the U.S. and Europe — they are denser but not as dense as Europe. The U.S. has better auto access to jobs than Europe but not as good as some European cities. For example, Amsterdam has better car access than Los Angeles. He concluded that larger cities have better access to jobs than smaller cities, and the EU has highest access overall.

The challenge for many cities in developing countries is where to focus resources to improve access: land-use development (new nearby neighborhoods or employment centers) or investment in public transit to reduce travel time between destinations. There are also questions of equity and distribution: to simplify, “is it better that two people can access one million jobs or one person can access two million jobs?” Still, the goal in most cities is higher levels of access, which explains why rent in Manhattan is many times more than rent in Winnipeg. “The theory is more access equals greater productivity.”

Conversations at Transforming Transportation, which drew 1,200 attendees over two days, then broadened the definition of access.

For Dagmawit Moges, minister of transportation in Ethiopia, the issue is access to markets. The country has a population of 100 million spread over 1.1 million square miles. 80 percent of Ethiopians live in rural areas. Many of the rural areas aren’t connected by roads to centralized markets. “Our country is very fertile. Farmers grow once a year, but they could be growing four times a year if they had access.”

Through the universal rural road access program, Ethiopia has connected 12,000 out of 15,000 rural districts. Some $2.7 billion in contributions in both cash and labor came from the rural communities themselves. “The collaboration was very high, but we still have disconnected pockets. We still have to import grain from other countries.”

For Etienne Krug, director of the department for management of noncommunicable diseases, disability, violence and injury prevention at the World Health Organization (WHO), true accessibility will only be achieved when road deaths, which now average 1.35 million annually, are zero.

“Half of road deaths are from people using vehicles; the other half are people who accidentally got in the way. The number of road deaths for young children and adolescents is growing, but hardly anyone talks about it.” He called for safety to be a criteria in the planning and design of every transportation project. “And good public transit is the way forward.”

Pamela Smith, executive director of the Society and Disability (SODIS) based in Peru, said getting accessible public transportation systems built in developing countries can be a real challenge given the lack of understanding of the issues facing the disabled. For a new bus rapid transit system (BRT) in Peru, Smith’s group and others participated in a comprehensive public review process. Unfortunately, the resulting system had feeder buses with inadequate safety measures for wheelchair users. Only when a video of woman BRT rider falling out of her wheelchair spread did they update seat belts. “Accessibility impacts people on a daily basis.”

Furthermore, she argued that even if a station is accessible, the area surrounding a station may not be, so investment needs to be made at a system scale.

Bus rapid transit (BRT) line in Lima, Peru / Multiple Cities

Lake Sagaris, a journalist and urban planner based in Chile, made an impassioned case for increasing access to walking and biking through complete streets around the world. In developing countries, “highways are an aberration; people walk or bike way more than they use cars. The basic building block of any transportation system must be the neighborhood; you can’t segregate walking and biking from vehicles.” What’s needed are streets with safe, accessible sidewalks and clear intersections with working traffic lights.

She imagined a woman living in a rural or suburban area who must walk half a kilometer to a transit stop, with children and groceries. That woman “needs an ecology of transit modes: walking, biking, bus; an inter-modal system, not a multi-modal one.” For Sagaris, bike share in developing countries could be the missing link.

To Stop Adding to the Problem, Use Climate Positive Design

Climate Positive Design

Let’s be frank: landscape architecture projects can add to the climate crisis. If projects aren’t purposefully designed and built with their carbon footprint in mind, they may be contributing more greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere than they can sequester over their lifespan. Projects can incorporate too much concrete and other carbon-intensive materials, too few trees and shrubs, or require industrially-produced fertilizers or gas-powered mowers or pruners for long-term maintenance, running up long-term emissions.

Instead, landscape architects can design and build projects that are not only meant to be carbon neutral, but go further and become “climate positive,” meaning that over their lifespan they sequester more greenhouse gas emissions than they embody or produce.

To help landscape architects reach this goal, Pamela Conrad, ASLA, a principal at CMG Landscape Architecture in San Francisco, has created an inventive new platform: Climate Positive Design.

She has also thrown down the gauntlet with a new challenge: if all landscape architects and designers use the approach, they could reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere by 1 gigaton by 2050. That would put landscape architecture well within the top 80 solutions found in the Project Drawdown report.

Climate Positive Design

According to Conrad, Climate Positive Design “is not only an opportunity to re-imagine how we design our world from every aspect, but a responsibility.”

Using the site’s Pathfinder tool, landscape architects and designers can establish and then ratchet up specific sequestration and emission reduction targets for their own projects. “A target of five years is suggested to offset carbon footprints for greener projects like parks, gardens, campuses, and mixed-use developments. For more urban projects that require a greater amount of hardscape to accommodate programming, twenty years is the targeted offset duration.”

Through her research, which includes illustrative and useful case studies produced with CMG, Conrad found that “targets could be met without changing the program or reducing the quality – the projects merely became greener.”

Case study / Climate Positive Design

The website offers a design toolkit that not only shows landscape architects how to incorporate more trees and shrubs and preserve carbon in soils, but also how to replace carbon-intensive materials used in pathways, walls, fences, and furnishings with low-carbon alternatives. Conrad makes it easy to find sustainable options.

A few details about the process: Landscape architects or designers who log a project in the app are asked to input the sources of carbon, which could include “approximately eighty different types of materials used in landscape projects such as paving, walls, fences etc. and their associated ‘embodied carbon’ from extraction, manufacturing, transportation, installation, use/maintenance and replacement. The data is derived from the Athena Impact Estimator.”

Then designers are asked to add in data about the carbon sinks they are incorporating, which could include: “trees, plants, wetlands and certain types of meadows/lawns capture CO2 from the atmosphere and sink carbon into the soil.” Conrad notes that “all data used for calculating sequestration and decomposition for trees and shrubs is obtained from the U.S. Forest Service.”

Lastly, landscape architects and designers can add in the “carbon costs,” which “represent emissions associated with mowing/pruning performed using machinery and fertilizer use for trees and shrubs. These emissions occur regularly over the lifespan of the project and are often referred to as ‘operational carbon.'”

Once this information is submitted, landscape architects will receive a Climate Positive score that indicates how long it will take to offset the carbon embedded in the project or expended through maintenance operations. The website will then send design recommendations for reducing emissions and increasing sequestration much faster. And each project has a dedicated page that can be re-visited and re-evaluated or shared.

Climate Positive Design

Data collected through the app will be reviewed by advisory partners including
the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF), American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), Canadian Society of Landscape Architects (CSLA), International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA), and the Landscape Architecture Canada Foundation (LACF).

Conrad formulated the system during her Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) fellowship. It’s also the result of years of research and collaboration with Atelier Ten.

Go to Climate Positive Design.

Also, check out ASLA’s guide to climate change mitigation and landscape architecture and series of sustainable residential design guides.

More Climate Surprises Expected

Sargassum seaweed in the Gulf of Mexico / NASA, Michael Stein

After the White House suppressed his Congressional testimony on climate change and national security, Dr. Rod Schoonover, a scientist and analyst with the State Department’s bureau of intelligence and research, resigned in protest. Nearly three weeks after his resignation, Schoonover discussed the substance of his testimony with Andrew Light, senior fellow at the World Resources Institute (WRI). His primary conclusions: the U.S. and other countries can expect more “climate-linked surprises;” climate change will cause much more than weather-related impacts, and combined with environmental, social, and political events will become a national security “threat multiplier.”

In a June briefing, the White House allowed Dr. Schoonover to give oral testimony, but blocked the submission of his written testimony drafted on behalf of the bureau into the permanent Congressional record. In internal administration emails uncovered by The New York Times, the reasoning for this was the testimony included science that didn’t correspond with White House policy views. The White House called the testimony part of the “climate alarmist establishment.”

Intelligence experts argue that any scientific analysis included in a risk assessment is by nature objective and rooted in mainstream, peer-reviewed findings. The White House’s actions constituted a “suppression of factual analysis by a government intelligence agency.” And According to The Times, the State department’s bureau of intelligence and research is viewed as one of the most “scrupulous and accurate” in the federal government.

In his conversation with Light, Dr. Schoonover said the U.S. intelligence community has been testifying on the coming impacts of climate change since at least the late 90s, so “this is not new territory.”

National security policy decision making is increasingly of a “technical nature.” Therefore, to give policymakers the best analyses, the intelligence community must incorporate the latest science. The intelligence community doesn’t generate the science, but must interpret it objectively. “We need scientists in the U.S. government to stay current. We need scientists to help us understand nuclear, infectious disease, near space objects, and climate change.”

Light said it has been 12 years since the Center for Naval Analysis and the Military Advisory Board published National Security and the Threat of Climate Change, which identified climate change as a threat multiplier. “Since then, the attribution science, isolating the degree to which climate change has an impact, has only improved.” Another study published in 2015 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) linked climate change, drought, and the onset of civil war in Syria. And in a recent worldwide threat assessment presented to Congress, now-former director of national intelligence Dan Coats identified hot spots where climate change could create conflict, such as Egypt and Sudan.

Dr. Schoonover, who gave up a tenured position teaching complex systems at California Polytechnic State University to work at the federal government, made a few key points that he wasn’t able to elaborate in his abridged Congressional testimony:

The U.S. and other countries should expect more “climate-linked surprises,” which are events with low probabilities but high impacts. For example, no one could have predicted that deforestation in Brazil would lead to fertilizer runoff in the Atlantic Ocean to mix with warming oceanic currents and create massive Sargassum seaweed blooms that would then cover the beaches of the small island nations in the Caribbean. Tons of seaweed now wash up on beaches across the Caribbean every day. “For these countries, Sargassum is a national security threat, as it impacts tourism and economic vitality, strangling their resources.” This is an example of a “surprise element that came out of nowhere. Very rapid changes could occur with dramatic impacts.”

Non-weather climate stressors also create national security risks. He called for moving past a “weather-centric” approach that solely focuses on sea level rise, drought, wildfires, and extreme heat. Peer-reviewed scientific studies find that climate change will also impact ecological food webs and cause mass extinctions and biodiversity loss, which will negatively impact human food systems. Climate change will also impact human health by changing the ranges of infectious disease vectors like mosquitoes. Like with Syria, there is the risk that weather-related climate impacts, such as drought, will cause political and social instability and increase violence.

A final important point: “the bundle of issues is what’s important. Climate change together with environmental degradation and social and political instability is the threat multiplier.”