Designing Decarbonization, Jobs, and Justice (Part I)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red, Black, and Green New Deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Part II

Earth Day Interview with Richard Weller: A Hopeful Vision for Global Conservation

Richard J. Weller

Richard J. Weller, ASLA, is the Meyerson Chair of Urbanism and Professor and Chair of landscape architecture and Executive Director of the McHarg Center at The University of Pennsylvania. He is author of seven books, including the forthcoming The Landscape Project, a collection of essays by the faculty at the Weitzman School of Design. He is also the creative director of LA+, the interdisciplinary journal of landscape architecture. In 2017 and 2018, Weller was voted by the Design Intelligence survey as one of North America’s most admired teachers, and his research has been published by Scientific American and National Geographic and exhibited in major museums around the world.

Later this year, the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will meet in China to finalize what is being called a “Paris Agreement for Nature.” The agreement will outline global goals for ecosystem conservation and restoration for the next decade, which may include preserving 30 percent of lands, coastal areas, and oceans by 2030. Goals could also include restoring one-fifth of the world’s degraded ecosystems and cutting billions in subsidies that hurt the environment. What are the top three things planning and design professions can do to help local, state, and national governments worldwide achieve these goals?

Design, Design, and Design!

There are now legions of policy people and bureaucrats, even accountants at the World Bank, all preaching green infrastructure and nature-based solutions. But the one thing all these recent converts to landscape architecture cannot do is design places. They cannot give form to the values they all now routinely espouse.

But design is not easy, especially if it’s seeking to work seriously with biodiversity, let alone decarbonization and social justice. Design has to show how biodiversity— from microbes to mammals— can be integrated into the site scale, then connected with and nested into the district scale, the regional, the national, and, ultimately, the planetary scale. And then it has to situate the human in that network – not just as voyeurs in photoshop, but as active agents in ecosystem construction and reconstruction.

Of course, wherever we can gain influence, this is a matter of planning — green space here, development there. But it’s also an aesthetic issue of creating places and experiences from which the human is, respectfully, now decentered, and the plenitude of other life forms foregrounded.

It’s as if on the occasion of the sixth extinction, we need a new language of design that is not just about optimizing landscape as a machine, or a pretty picture, but that engenders deeper empathy for all living things and the precarious nature of our interdependence.

In 2010, the CBD set 20 ambitious targets, including preserving 17 percent of terrestrial and inland waters and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas by 2020. Of these targets, only 6 have been partially met. On the other hand, almost every week, we hear about billions being spent by coalitions of foundations or wealthy individuals to buy and protect vast swathes of land in perpetuity. And the protection of nature and leveraging “nature-based solutions” is increasingly a global priority. Are you positive or negative about the future of conservation?

In 1962, there were about 9,000 protected areas. Today, there are over 265,000 and counting. If our yardstick is humans setting aside land for things other than their own consumption, then there is reason to be optimistic.

In 2021, the total protected area sits at 16.6 percent the Earth’s terrestrial ice-free surface, not quite 17 percent, but close. The missing 0.4 percent is not nothing – it’s about 150,000 Central Parks and over the last few years my research has been motivated by wondering where exactly those parks should be.

The World’s current protected areas. Image by Rob Levinthal, courtesy Richard Weller

The fact that humans would give up almost a fifth of the Earth during such a historical growth period is remarkable in and of itself. While targets are useful political tools, the question is one of quality not just quantity. And that’s where pessimism can and should set in. Protected areas, especially in parts of the world where they are most needed, arise from messy, not to say corrupt, political processes. They are not always a rational overlay on where the world’s most threatened biodiversity is or what those species really need.

The percentages of protected areas around the world are also very uneven across the 193 nations who are party to the Convention. Some nations, like say New Zealand, exceed the 17 percent target, while others, like Brazil fall way short – and they don’t want people making maps showing the fact. Protected areas also have a history of poor management, and they have, in some cases, evicted, excluded, or patronized indigenous peoples.

Protected areas are also highly fragmented, which is really not good for species now trying to find pathways to adapt to climate change and urbanization and industrialization. The global conservation community is keenly aware of all this but again, while they are good on the science and the politics, they need help creating spatial strategies that can serve multiple, competing constituencies. Under the Convention, all nations must produce national biodiversity plans, and these should go down to the city scale, but these so-called plans are often just wordy documents full of UN speak. There is a major opportunity here for landscape architects to step up.

So, the pessimist’s map of the world shows the relentless, parasitical spread of human expansion and a fragmented and depleted archipelago of protected areas. The optimist’s map on the other hand shows over 160 projects around the world today where communities, governments, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are reconstructing ecosystems at an epic landscape scale.

Rob Levinthal, a PhD candidate at Penn and I call these Mega-Eco Projects. As indicators of the shift from the old-school engineering of megastructures towards green infrastructure on a planetary scale, they are profoundly optimistic.

Mega-Eco Projects taking place in the world today. Image by Rob Levinthal, courtesy Richard Weller

We don’t call these projects Nature Based Solutions. The reason being that “nature” comes with way too much baggage and “solution” makes designing ecosystems sound like a simple fix. These two words reinforce a dualistic and instrumentalist approach, things which arguably got us into the mess we find ourselves in today.

By placing the Mega-Eco Projects within the tradition of 20th century megaprojects — many of which failed socially and environmentally, if not economically, we are taking a critical approach to their emergence, which is important to working out what really makes for best practice as opposed to just greenwashing.

I mean there are great projects like the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative and the Great Green Wall across Sub-Saharan Africa, but when someone like President Trump endorses planting trillions of trees, you have to wonder what’s really going on.

The Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative. Drawing by Oliver Atwood. Courtesy Richard Weller
The Great Green Wall. Drawing by Oliver Atwood. Courtesy Richard Weller

Whereas the definition of old school megaprojects was always financial — say over a billion dollars — our working definition of Mega-Eco Projects is not numerical. Rather, it is that they are “complex, multifunctional, landscape-scale environmental restoration and construction endeavors that aim to help biodiversity and communities adapt to climate change.”

Furthermore, unlike the old concrete megaprojects, Mega-Eco Projects use living materials; they cross multiple site boundaries, they change over time, and they are as much bottom up as top down. The project narratives are also different, whereas megaprojects were always couched in terms of modern progress and nation building, the Mega-Ecos are about resilience, sustainability, and a sense of planetary accountability.

There are four categories of Mega-Ecos. The first are large-scale conservation projects; the second are projects that seek to resist desertification; the third are watershed plans; and the fourth are green infrastructure projects in cities either dealing with retrofitting existing urbanity or urban growth.

As you would expect, landscape architects tend to be involved with this fourth category, but there is a bigger future for the field in the other three, which is part of our motivation for studying them.

By our current assessment, there are about 40 Mega-Eco Projects taking place in metropolitan areas around the world today. These tend to be in the global north and China, notably the Sponge Cities initiative, where so far over $12 billion has been spent in 30 trial cities. We have not yet conducted a comparative analysis of these projects, nor are many of them advanced enough to yet know if they are, or will be, successful.

With specific regard to urban biodiversity, I don’t think there is yet a city in the world that really stands out and has taken a substantial city-wide approach that has resulted in design innovation. It will happen. As they do with culture, cities will soon compete to be the most biodiverse. The conception that cities are ecosystems, and that cities could be incubators for more than human life is a major shift in thinking, and while landscape architecture has a strong history of working with people and plants, it has almost completely overlooked the animal as a subject of design. That said, we shouldn’t romanticize the city as an Ark or a Garden of Eden. The city is primarily a human ecology, and the real problem of biodiversity lies well beyond the city’s built form. Where cities impact biodiversity is through their planetary supply chains, so they need to be brought within the purview of design.

Singapore is a case in point. Because it developed the Biodiversity Index, Singapore has been able to tally its improvements with regard to urban biodiversity and tout itself as a leader in this area. Many other cities are adopting this tool and this is good.

But this is also where things get tricky, because whatever gains Singapore can afford to make in its urban biodiversity need to be seen in light of the nation’s massive ecological footprint.

I mean, Singapore can make itself into a garden because the farm and the mine are always somewhere else. I would call Singapore a case of Gucci biodiversity, a distraction from the fact that they bankroll palm oil plantations in Kalimantan, the last of the world’s great rainforests.

That said, every city is shot through with contradictions. The question then is to what degree do the designers play along or whether they can make these contradictions the subject of their work, as opposed to its dirty little secret. The Gardens by the Bay project, for example, is a brilliant case of creating a spectacle and keeping tourists in town for an extra day, but it’s got nothing to do with biodiversity beyond the boundary of the project.

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore / istockphoto.com

The late E.O. Wilson and other biologists and ecologists have also called for protecting half the Earth’s lands and oceans. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) split the difference in their recent report, calling for 30-50 percent to be protected. What are the extra benefits to protecting 50 percent? What does this mean for the planning and design of existing and future human settlements?

I’d trust E.O. Wilson or better still, James Lovelock, with the calculation for a healthy planet, but the dualism of humans here and biodiversity over there that tends to come with Wilson’s notoriously puritanical position is problematic.

The world is a novel, highly integrated, human dominated ecosystem, and design has to work at improving the symbiotic nature of that condition. Each site needs to be assessed on its own biological and cultural terms as to what can be more deeply integrated or what should be separated out; what has to be actively curated and what can be left to its own devices. As Sean Burkholder and others have pointed out, this means designing time as well as space.

The thing with Wilson is where exactly would his 50 percent be? He never really explained it in spatially explicit terms. Half Earth means another 34.5 percent on top of what we currently have protected. As a priority, it would have to comprise any unprotected forest or other areas of remnant vegetation and whatever can be clawed back in the world’s biodiversity hotspots.

The World’s 36 biological hotspots. Image by Rob Levinthal. Courtesy Richard Weller

But the numbers don’t really add up. About 40 percent of the Earth’s ice-free earth is currently used for food production, 30 percent is desert, and 30 percent is forest – although “forest” is a loose term, and some of that already overlaps with protected areas. Given that the global foodscape is and will probably continue expanding, 30 percent total protected area seems more reasonable than 50. It is my belief that design, if given the chance, can weave viable biodiversity through the contemporary agricultural landscape whilst maintaining overall yield.

Even 30 seems a stretch, because if you project the expansion of crop land by 21st century population growth, we need most of the planet to feed people, so something has to give. Either we massively increase yields from the current agricultural footprint or biodiversity gets pushed further into the mountains. Or billions starve. The prospect of us reducing the planet to a monoculture is very real and very scary on every level.

To your question, the benefits would be that by more or less doubling the current conservation estate, we could create larger patches in the hotspots and seek to achieve connectivity between the existing fragments of protected areas. As landscape ecology teaches, it is only with larger patches and substantial connectivity that we can create a truly resilient and healthy landscape. The problem is of course that the patches and corridors have to be reverse engineered into hostile territory. Human settlements and agriculture have to make way for larger patches and greater connectivity and planned around it. To turn the whole thing on its head, human settlements and human land uses have to protect the global conservation estate. Easy to say.

Biodiversity loss is often considered a result of the climate crisis. But there are other issues also driving increased biodiversity loss and extinction rates worldwide, such as increased development in natural areas, the spread of transportation systems, and pesticide and chemical use. How do explain the relationship between climate change and biodiversity loss?

When people hear “biodiversity” they almost invariably think of charismatic megafauna, but as you indicate, the problem runs deeper and at a much finer grain. Of course, we are now obsessed with chasing every carbon molecule, but for life on and in the land and its waters, the problem is also excess manufactured nitrogen along with other toxins. Ironically, despite ultimately killing microorganisms upon which soil health depends, industrialized fertilizers have slowed the rate of deforestation that would have occurred had the world tried to feed itself without industrial fertilizers because they have, at least in the short term, increased yields.

The main problem from a spatial planning and land use perspective is that species increasingly need to migrate so as to adapt to a changing climate but they find themselves trapped in isolated fragments of protected areas or stranded in unprotected scraps of remnant habit.

There is another part of this though, and that is that the entire discourse and politics of environmentalism is couched in terms of loss. But a truer picture perhaps is that as ever in the chaos of evolution, there will be winners as well as losers. I don’t think we know what is really happening or what will happen, so in that sense we need to design landscapes as insurance policies, as expressions of the precautionary principle where we just try to maximize the potential of life to evolve. In this regard landscape architectural research and design becomes less about finished projects, and more about conducting experiments based on both scientific and cultural questions related to biodiversity.

The Metatron at the Theoretical and Experimental Ecology Station in Moulis, France is a good example. The Metatron is an experimental field of 48 enclosures in which species composition, temperature, light and humidity can be controlled. Each enclosure is connected to the others via small passages that can also be controlled. In this way, the Metatron is a simulator of landscape dynamics, a model microcosm in which each enclosure is understood as a “patch” and each connector a small simulation of a landscape “corridor.” Since 2015, given the limitations of its size, experiments have focused on studying how small species like butterflies and lizards move through the system, but many more species could be studied using a similar system at larger scales. In essence, the Metratron is learner’s kit, helping us understand how best to reconstruct landscapes at scale.

The Metatron. Drawing by Oliver Atwood. Courtesy Richard Weller

Your own research, including the ASLA-award winning Atlas for the End of the World, documents how areas at the edge of sprawling cities around the world are increasingly colliding with biodiversity hotspots, which are defined as highly valuable reservoirs of diverse and endemic species. What are the implications of your research?

By conducting an audit of land use and urban growth with regards to CBD targets in the world’s biodiversity hotspots, the Atlas set the scene for my two current research projects.

The first is the Hotspot Cities Project and the second is the World Park Project. A hotspot city is a growing city in a biodiversity hotspot – the 36 regions on Earth where endemic biodiversity is most diverse and most threatened. We’ve identified which of these cities —over 90 percent— are sprawling on direct collision courses with remnant habitat harboring endangered species.

Hotspot Cities: Each yellow dot represents a city growing in direct conflict with endangered species. Image by Chieh Huang. Courtesy Richard Weller
Los Angeles in the California Floristic Province biodiversity hotspot. Red areas indicate conflict between growth projected to 2050 and the range lands of endangered species. Image by Nanxi Dong. Courtesy Richard Weller

In our mapping we identify the conflict zones between development and biodiversity and then we conduct design case studies as to how the conflict could be mitigated. The argument is that destructive sprawl is not a fait accompli, and designers—especially landscape architects skilled in urban design— can create credible alternatives by taking a holistic, city-wide perspective. This research especially draws attention to peri-urban landscapes that are largely overlooked by the profession, because the design dollar has mainly been invested in city centers.

The World Park Project is a big vision for a new form of conservation landscape, one that actively involves humans in its construction. It’s an answer to the question of where those 150,000 Central Parks should be, as I mentioned earlier.

The idea of the World Park begins with the creation of three recreational trails: the first from Australia to Morocco, the second from Turkey to Namibia, and the third from Alaska to Patagonia.

Passing through 55 nations, these trails are routed to string together as many fragments of protected areas in as many hotspots as possible. The trails are catalysts for bringing people together to work on restoring the ecological health of over 160,000 square kilometers of degraded land in between existing protected areas.

In this way, the Park is about building a coherent and contiguous global network of protected area. It addresses the two biggest challenges facing global conservation today: ensuring adequate representation of biodiversity in protected areas and connectivity between those areas. It sounds crazy, but forging connectivity at this scale is just what we do for every other form of global infrastructure. Humans build networks, and it’s high time to build a green one.

The World Park Project: 3 trails through biodiversity hotspots at a planetary scale. Image by Madeleine Ghillany-Lehar

I was expecting derision from design academics about World Park, because “going big” is generally seen as neo-colonial or megalomaniacal. I was also expecting world weary eye-rolling from the conservationists or outright rejection of the idea because it would suck the oxygen out of their own efforts, but generally the reaction has been very positive.

Most people, particularly in the NGOs, have reacted like “wow – this is exactly what we need right now.” They know they can’t just keep adding more fenced-off fragments of protected area to meet UN targets. There are now so many conservation efforts going on but they are all disconnected from one another. A World Park could galvanize these efforts into something that is greater than just the sum of its parts.

In any event, my research team (Alice Bell, Oliver Atwood and Elliot Bullen) have completed the mapping of the Park’s territory. Now I’m talking with UNESCO about how we might move the idea to a proper feasibility study. Realistically, nothing will happen unless the major NGOs adopt it, along with some philanthropic champions and the relevant ministers in those nations whose sovereign territory is involved.

Only half-jokingly, I think Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson should bring their toys back to earth and take this on. Musk could fund the African trail, Bezos the Americas, and Branson would pick up the Australia to Morocco piece. At current landscape restoration rates, I worked it out at about $7 billion.

That’s an expensive park, but the better question to ask is not what it costs but what is it worth? For a mere $7 billion a World Park could provide investment in impoverished landscapes. It could provide meaningful experiences and jobs for lots of people. Above all, it would be a profound sign of hope that humanity can work together to be a constructive force of nature instead of its executioner.

Lastly, how can landscape architecture academics and practitioners better partner to address the twinned biodiversity and climate crises? What additional research is needed to better weave biodiversity considerations into broader climate solutions?

Well, as someone who has spent a lifetime in both the academy and practice, I would really like to take this opportunity to attest to the value of both. I think it’s a problem that the academy demands young faculty have PhDs but not necessarily any practice experience. Just as I think it’s a problem that certain elements of the profession become anti-intellectual over time and associate this with being savvy professionals.

Academics have the luxury of formulating research questions and methods, whereas practitioners are generally making it up on the run and learning by doing. These are both entirely valid ways of forming knowledge, and they actually need each other.

My work over the last decade has been very big picture, but it means nothing unless it can translate into design. So I think there are two forms of design needed right now with regard to biodiversity and they both bring academics and practitioners together.

The first is taking on a whole-of-city scale and considering the city as an incubator and protectorate for biodiversity and offer plausible scenarios as to how the city’s growth can be best managed to minimize negative impact on existing biodiversity. Until city authorities pay properly for this work, the academics have to act as the start-ups. They can form interdisciplinary teams to find research funding to do this work, preparing the way, as it were, for practitioners to come in and realize specific projects.

Which brings us to the second form of design — the project scale. Take any project at any scale and ask how to approach it if your client was every living thing, not just humans, and then work as if your life really depended on serving all of them – which, incidentally, it does! To answer this takes both time and levels of knowledge beyond landscape architects irrespective of whether they are in the academy or in practice. We are very accomplished at designing for humans but still have everything to learn if we consider biodiversity as our client.

In terms of both professional and academic practice, the role of the landscape architect, now more than ever, is to bring the world of development and the world of conservation together over the same maps and serve as a negotiator.

It sounds like a platitude, but it goes to the core of our job description, and it’s never been more important. There has never been more at stake.

Celebrate Olmsted with Birthday Wishes and Events

Cherry blossoms at Branch Brook Park, Newark, New Jersey / Olmsted200

The day we’ve been waiting for — Olmsted’s 200th birthday on April 26 — is almost here, and we couldn’t be more excited to reflect on Olmsted’s living legacy and usher in the next 200 years of parks for all people.

As we prepare to #CelebrateOlmsted, the campaign needs help showing the depth and breadth of Olmsted’s fan base. The National Association of Olmsted Parks (NAOP) and the Olmsted 200 campaign are crowdsourcing birthday wishes for Frederick Law Olmsted’s special day.

In the form of short video submissions, we are asking ASLA chapters and chapter members to send birthday messages in honor of this monumental occasion. Record a message alone, film it with a friend, or get the entire chapter or office involved — the possibilities are endless! Videos will be collected and included in a special birthday project. The deadline to submit is April 21.

We also hope that you’ll join us in-person! Next week, Olmsted 200 will be in New York to #CelebrateOlmsted with our founders, partners, and friends. If you happen to be in the city, please join us for park tours and other programming happening in Manhattan and throughout the other boroughs.

Can’t get to New York? No worries! Meet us on social media (@Olmsted200) for exciting live content— like our Instagram Live with Central Park Conservancy on April 25 at 10:30 am ET. Or find a birthday party happening near you.

Birthday parties will be held across the country and include:

Find other celebration events on the Olmsted 200 national calendar.

The website also includes a lively blog, Shared Spaces, which features many new and exciting updates. Olmsted 200 will continue throughout 2022 and is interested in sourcing blog posts from ASLA members willing to share information about local projects, personal reflections, site histories, and more. To submit blog posts, contact Olmsted 200.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (April 1-15, 2022)

Colorado Mountain Park System, Denver, CO, 2014. / Barrett Doherty, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

The TCLF Will Honor Frederick Law Olmsted, the Father of Landscape Architecture, with a New Digital Guide Ahead of His 200th Birthday — 04/14/22, Archinect
“The 20th in the TCLF’s series of ‘What’s Out There’ guides, this edition gives equal weight to the 30 National Historic Sites and hundreds of other lesser-known designs associated with Olmsted, including Vermont’s Shelburne Farms and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, which he long held to be his masterpiece.”

New Research Highlights the Role of Green Spaces in Conflict — 04/14/22, University of British Columbia
“Green spaces can promote well-being, but they may not always be benign. Sometimes, they can be a tool for control. That’s the finding of a new paper that analyzed declassified U.S. military documents to explore how U.S. forces used landscapes to fight insurgency during the war in Afghanistan.”

James Corner Field Operations’ Tunnel-topping San Francisco Park Is Set for July Debut — 04/13/22, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Visitors to Presidio Tunnel Tops will find winding cliffside trails, picnic areas, extensive gardens and meadows filled with native vegetation, a 2-acre natural play area for children dubbed the Outpost, and several elevated overlooks offering sweeping city and bridge views. The new swath of parkland will fuse back together the waterfront and Crissy Field, a former air field that now serves as a popular recreation hotspot, with the Presidio’s bustling historic Main Post.”

Why JW Marriott Is Planting Edible Gardens in Every One of Its Hotels — 04/13/22, Fast Company Design
“The terrarium was designed by Lily Kwong, whose eponymous landscape design studio has previously worked with H&M, St-Germain, and the French fashion designer Joseph Altuzarra (who is also her cousin). The terrarium is part of a broader initiative called the JW Garden, for which the hotel chain plants fruits, vegetables, and herbs to use in its kitchen and spas.”

Green Transportation Projects Face Costly, Time-consuming Environmental Reviews — 04/13/22, The San Francisco Examiner
“Transit agencies across California are ready to move forward with more than three dozen green transportation projects, ranging from bus rapid transit lines to bike lanes. But unless the Legislature takes action, these projects could be mired in years of costly, time-consuming analysis and lawsuits on the basis that they are bad for the environment.”

Special Report: U.S. Solar Expansion Stalled by Rural Land-use Protests — 04/07/22, Reuters
“Solar currently makes up 3% of U.S. electricity supply and could reach 45% by 2050 to meet the Biden administration’s goals to eliminate or offset emissions by 2050, according to the Department of Energy. To get there, the U.S. solar industry needs a land area twice the size of Massachusetts, according to DOE. And not any land will do, either. It needs to be flat, dry, sunny, and near transmission infrastructure that will transport its power to market.”

Latest IPCC Report Highlights Opportunities to Stave Off Worst Climate Impacts

ASLA 2019 Professional General Design Honor Awward. Changchun Culture of Water Ecology Park, Changchun, China. SHUISHI / Pan Shuang

ASLA urges governments to focus on cities and nature to meet climate goals.

The third assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change — which was created by nearly 300 scientists in 65 countries over the past seven years, finds that cities are a significant contributor to global emissions.

Recent estimates place cities’ share of global emissions at more than 70 percent. With expected population growth, existing and future cities can either be the primary source of future warming or a key solution.

According to the IPCC, if little is done, future cities could contribute 40 billion metric tons of emissions each year by 2050. But by taking important steps starting this decade, that number could reach as low as 3 billion tons.

“Landscape architects are systems designers. We are already designing the next generation of park, transportation, and water infrastructure needed to make this transformation happen. But we need more policymakers to prioritize these changes,” said ASLA President Jeannie Martin, FASLA.

“Landscape architects plan and design walkable environments that are central to reducing urban energy demand and emissions. This work has involved partnering with planning and design professions to pair public transit with transit-oriented development, and integrate Complete Streets, which offer safe, accessible pedestrian and bicycle access, and trails and greenways,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, ASLA CEO.

ASLA 2019 Professional General Design Honor Awward. The Bentway. Toronto, Ontario, Canada
PUBLIC WORK Office for Urban Design & Landscape Architecture / Nic Lehoux

Designing with nature is also critical to achieving broader urban climate goals. Landscape architects integrate green infrastructure in the form of parks, green roofs, green streets, rain gardens, and bioswales. As the IPCC notes, these strategies not only sequester carbon but also manage stormwater, reduce urban heat islands, increase biodiversity, and improve health and well-being.

ASLA 2021 Professional General Design Honor Awward. Repairing the Rift: Ricardo Lara Linear Park. Lynwood, California. SWA Group / Bill Tatham, David Lloyd, SWA Group

“We design cities to include living systems. Landscape architects store carbon by incorporating diverse ecologies into the urban landscape. This also helps cities become more resilient to climate impacts,” said Scott Bishop, ASLA, Chair of the ASLA Climate Action Committee.

The IPCC’s latest report calls for preserving existing ecosystems outside cities that store carbon as well, such as forests, prairies, peatlands, mangroves, and wetlands. But notes that these ecosystems are also increasingly threatened by rising temperatures, wildfires and other climate impacts, and sprawl.

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

Renewable energy now powers nearly 40 percent of global electricity, with wind and solar now making up 10 percent of the total. The IPCC report finds that since 2010, the cost of solar panels has decreased by 85 percent and wind turbines by more than 50 percent. Still, governments and companies need to spend an estimated $1.8 to 3.6 trillion each year on renewable power, approximately 3-6 times the current amount, to reach climate goals.

Landscape architects can help plan an expansion of wind and solar across our landscapes in a way that supports ecological restoration and provides greater community benefits.

Solar Strand at University at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY. Hood Design Studio / Image: Douglas Levere

Yosemite Shaped Olmsted’s Vision of Public Parks

Yosemite National Park, California / MarcPo, istockphoto.com

There are many explanations as to how the idea of National Parks originated. One theory is it spontaneously arose around a campfire in Yosemite National Park. Another is that conservationist John Muir or President Teddy Roosevelt came up with it. But in a new book, Olmsted and Yosemite: Civil War, Abolition, and the National Park Idea, Ethan Carr, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, and Rolf Diamant, a professor at the University of Vermont, argue that the work and writings of Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of American landscape architecture, inspired the creation of parks to benefit the public.

In an online discussion organized as part of Olmsted 200 and moderated by Sara Zewde, a professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, they argued that instead of considering National Parks distinct from urban parks, they should both be understood as part of the same broad movement towards public spaces. And Olmsted was a key figure in advancing this movement.

In 1864, when Olmsted was invited by the state of California to chair a commission on the Yosemite land grant, he was already an “important public intellectual,” Carr said. He was well-known for his opposition to slavery and the cotton plantation economy of the South. In California, they knew of his work with Calvert Vaux on Central Park in New York City and his prior work with the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

Olmsted came to Yosemite with the idea that parks were a way to “renew the Republic” after the destruction and division wrought by the Civil War. And while Central Park in New York City and Yosemite National Park are wildly different parks, they shared a common purpose for Olmsted — to expose the general public to landscape beauty. He believed this form of natural beauty wasn’t just aesthetic, but “necessary for public health,” Carr said.

Yosemite National Park, California / Tanarch, istockphoto.com.
Central Park, New York City / MargaretW, istockphoto.com

Prior to public parks, landscape beauty was accessible to the very few who had grand estates. But while the first public parks benefited more of the U.S. population, they also had negative impacts. To make way for Central Park, the New York City government displaced Seneca Village, a Black community. At Yosemite, indigenous communities who had cared for the landscape for thousands of years were also eventually pushed out. These actions were justified as part of a “doctrine of public interest.” These landscapes were viewed as part of “public health infrastructure,” like water and sewage projects.

For the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, public parks had a purpose — to help “reforge a national identity out of war.” Carr argued that in the climate of the time, calling for great public parks was a “radical political act.” Cities at the time were urban, diverse, and industrial. They were widely criticized by the South.

Cities “had to work as a concept,” or the entire vision of Northern cities as superior to the South would be untenable. Central Park, which was initiated in 1857, was a proof point that Northern cities weren’t foul, polluted places, but could instead create landscape beauty. One newspaper called it the “big artwork of the Republic.”

Central Park, New York City / Orbon Alija, istockphoto.com

While the late 19th century conception of landscape beauty can now seem “dated and elitist,” Carr argued the ideas behind the term still ring true. What Olmsted and others were talking about was the biophilic connection humans have to nature and the human health benefits that arise from being in nature. Today, we discuss children suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder, but in the late 1800s, the issue was presented as a lack of common access to landscape beauty.

Central Park, New York City / WillEye, istockphoto.com

The 1865 report commissioned by the state of California about how to shape Yosemite National Park didn’t form the basis of National Parks, but it included Olmsted’s core argument for public parks in general — the “justification to act” by governments at all levels.

Rolf Diamant provided additional context about the era in which Yosemite was preserved.

In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, an effort was underway to create a new national identity that could bridge the divisions between North and South. In 1862 and 1863, a system of national banks and the U.S. Department of Agriculture were formed. The Homesteading Act also passed in 1862, accelerating the settlement of western territories, giving each family 160 acres of land.

And a decade later, this same desire to legislate a new shared America led to the Yosemite National Park Act, the land grant preserving the Yosemite Valley “in trust for the whole nation.” The legislation enshrined the idea that U.S. citizens are “entitled to enjoy spectacular landscapes,” Diamant explained.

To gloss over the divisions between North and South, a new narrative was formed based in the “untrammeled nature” of Yosemite and other seemingly pristine Western landscapes. Of course, this narrative, which was also forged by John Muir and President Teddy Roosevelt, required “forcing out Native Americans” and ignoring their claims to ancestral lands.

Diamant argued that Olmsted’s role in creating the argument for preserving Yosemite and other Western landscapes was later brushed over in prevailing narratives because he was too closely associated with anti-slavery causes and the very urban Central Park of New York City. He was simply too divisive a figure for the new narrative.

Amid a new rising narrative in the South — the revisionist “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy, the rest of the country was focused on reconciliation — “it became a national obsession.” As a result it’s possible that “history and the legacy of Olmsted became decoupled.”

In the Q&A, Zewde wondered whether Central Park was as central to public park history as many landscape architects believe.

“Central Park represented an investment in the creation of a new park at a scale previously unseen before. While the park displaced Seneca Village, it was the beginning of something,” Carr said. Immediately after its creation, cities across the country took up their own significant park building projects.

The Mall at Central Park, New York City / zxvisual, istockphoto.com

Together, Central Park and Yosemite are “public parks that captured American imagination.” They also led to the forming of new institutions — the National Park Service and hundreds of state and city park systems. While the origin of these places are not without “faults or flaws,” they succeeded in helping to reframe American identity.

The flip side of this pervasive new narrative rooted in a falsely pristine West was the dispossession of Native Americans from their land. In his analysis of Yosemite, Olmsted made almost no mention of the Native Americans who had called Yosemite home for generations. “They were outside his view of the world; it’s his blind spot.” That blind spot would also help to create a legacy of displacement through public land and park acquisition.

Olmsted Point at Yosemite National Park / Supercarwaar, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikipedia

Also, ironically, the meadows of Yosemite Olmsted and others so enjoyed and which reminded them of England, were actually the result of “deliberate burning by the Native Americans who lived there,” Carr said. What Olmsted and others thought was untouched was actually a “cultural landscape managed for thousands of years.”

The Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation on their homeland at Yosemite National Park / National Park Service
The Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation on their homeland at Yosemite National Park / National Park Service

There had been complaints that the Native American lit fire to the landscape and didn’t know how to manage it. But when Americans took over the ownership of Yosemite, they found trees kept intruding on the meadows and had to be cut down to preserve the views. This is something that would have been accomplished with periodic burning. And ecologists now understand the wisdom of Native American landscape management practices.

The concept of pure National Parks became a “white middle class vision” and part of the mythology of the country. The vision led to “problematic marketing” of the West and its formation, Carr argued. “This is a narrative that we can’t continue. We can’t cling to early 20th century stories.”

A new, inclusive story about National Parks, both rural and urban, must be told, including Native Americans and Buffalo Soldiers, “U.S. colored troops” who played a key role preserving early National Park landscapes and helped build support for the rights of African Americans.

Buffalo soldiers at Yosemite National Park, 1899 / National Park Service

The story of National Parks is really a story about federalism. Olmsted came down on the side of increased public investment in infrastructure, which he believed included parks. Debate over the past few decades about raising fees to access National Parks and private fundraising to maintain them are an evolution of earlier debates about what should be for the public benefit and how those benefits should be financed. For Carr, another form of the debate is the continuing battle over voting rights for all.

Olmsted 200 Celebrates FLO’s 200th Birthday

Prospect Park, New York City / AndreyGatash, istockphoto.com

Frederick Law Olmsted, social reformer and founder of American landscape architecture, was born on April 26, 1822, so this year marks the 200th anniversary of his birth. To explore and celebrate his life, work, and legacy, the National Association of Olmsted Parks (NAOP), ASLA, and other founding partners launched Olmsted 200.

As part of the celebration, the U.S. House of Representatives recently acknowledged Olmsted’s important contributions to American society. On March 29, Representatives French Hill (AR) and Debbie Dingell (MI) introduced a bipartisan proclamation honoring Olmsted’s legacy, which included a reference to ASLA being co-founded by his son.

April marks the peak of the Olmsted 200 celebration. Throughout the week of April 25, Olmsted 200 will be sharing content live from New York City, where NAOP, ASLA, and other founding partners will be celebrating. Olmsted’s New York City parks will be hosting Olmsted 200 partners and friends during multiple events.

Although the Olmsted Birthday Gala has sold out, there are several other events — many free — happening in NYC, for those who are local to the area or visiting for this monumental occasion.

The Olmsted 200 website also features an ever-changing national calendar full of in-person and virtual programs and events.

Upcoming events include:

Central and Prospect Park in New York City share many similarities, while also reflecting Olmsted’s evolution as a park designer. On April 12 at 12.30pm, the Central Park Conservancy and Turnstile Tour guides will simultaneously livestream from each park as they highlight, compare, and contrast Central Park’s arches, meadows, and natural features to parallel features found in Prospect Park. Learn about Olmsted’s lasting influence on landscape design and public space and see examples of how these designs have been adapted to better fit with modern-day recreational uses and ecological practices overtime. This is a virtual program over zoom; suggested donation $10.

“The Genius of the Place”: Frederick Law Olmsted, Landscape Architecture, and Arkansas on April 14 at 6.30 pm CT. Kimball Erdman, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Arkansas, will speak about Olmsted and the history of landscape architecture. Tom Hill of Hot Springs National Park will discuss Olmsted’s brief encounter with Arkansas. And Chris East of StudioMain will address landscape architecture possibilities next to the Main Library in Little Rock.

Olmsted 200 is teaming up with Central Park Conservancy for a very special Instagram Live on April 25 at 10:30 am ET.

The Evolution of Olmsted’s Sudbrook Park from The Baltimore Architecture Foundation and friends will be held virtually on April 29.

Franklin Park: Past, Present, Future on April 30 from 2-4 pm ET. The Boston Society of Landscape Architects is organizing a free walking tour with John Kett, ASLA, principal, and Lydia Gikas Cook, ASLA, senior Associate, with Reed Hilderbrand Landscape Architecture. The firm is leading an interdisciplinary team with Agency Landscape + Planning and MASS Design Group to re-imagine Olmsted’s Franklin Park, part of the original Emerald Necklace.

The National Association for Olmsted Parks’ Chicago Bicentennial Gala will be in-person on June 17 and include several tours.

Explore all upcoming events.

For previously recorded presentations, including the most recent Conversations with Olmsted program, visit YouTube.

Also, hosting an Olmsted 200 event of your own? Submit it to the calendar, and please consider using the press kit and press release templates to share with local media.

Olmsted 200’s website also includes a blog, Shared Spaces, which features diverse voices exploring Olmsted’s living legacy. Olmsted 200 will continue throughout the year and is interested in posts from those willing to share information about local projects, personal reflections, site histories, and more. To submit blog posts, contact Olmsted 200.

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

Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., designed by Beatrix Farrand / Jane Padelford, ASLA

Meet the Unsung Heroine of the Nation’s Most Celebrated Gardens — 03/29/22, Fast Company Design
“During a five-decade career based in deep horticultural knowledge and a style-agnostic approach guided by detailed interaction with her clients, Beatrix Farrand came to be one of the most famous landscape designers in the world. It’s an unlikely tale told in the biography Beatrix Farrand: Garden Artist, Landscape Architect, by Judith B. Tankard, out today from Monacelli Press. If some consider Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted the father of American landscape architecture, Farrand could easily be called the mother.”

Turning Cities Into Sponges to Save Lives and Property — 03/29/22, The New York Times
“Around the world officials are moving away from the traditional, hard infrastructure of flood barriers, concrete walls, culverts and sewer systems, and toward solutions that mimic nature. They are building green roofs and parks; restoring wetlands, swales and rivers; digging storage ponds; and more. Such projects — called by various names, including sponge cities, porous cities or blue-green infrastructure — also improve city dwellers’ quality of life.”

A Rogue Leader’s Plan for the Heart of Budapest — 03/26/22, Bloomberg CityLab
“The project is a way for Orban to put his mark on Hungary’s imposing capital, a city that since the end of communist rule in 1989 has grown into a confident, more cosmopolitan mix of foreign students, cuisine from around the world and yet with strong Hungarian identity rooted in its 19th century architecture. But, as ever with such urban revamps, there’s controversy, and in Hungary it’s political as well as historical and financial.”

Report: Over Half of U.S. Waters Are Too Polluted to Swim or Fish — 03/24/22, High Country News
“Back in 1972, U.S. legislators passed the Clean Water Act with a 10-year goal: Make it safe for people to fish and swim in the nation’s waters. Fifty years later, around half of all lakes and rivers across the country that have been studied fail to meet that standard, according to a recent report by the Environmental Integrity Project, a D.C. watchdog and advocacy nonprofit.”

Gary Hilderbrand Is the New Chair of Harvard GSD’s Department of Landscape Architecture — 03/23/22, The Architect’s Newspaper
“‘Gary’s sensibilities as a teacher and as a practitioner are one and the same—his unyielding efforts to reconcile imminent, often intractable forces of urbanization with ecological sustainability, cultural history, vegetative regimes, and thoughtful kindness are central to his pedagogy and practice both,’ said Sarah M. Whiting, dean of the Harvard GSD.”

Father Figure: Landscape Architect Frederick Law Olmsted Celebrated as Originator of U.S. Public Parks System — 03/19/22, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
“April 26 marks the 200th anniversary of his birth, and Olmsted 200 is a movement celebrating his vision — a vision that included public parks for all people. He believed that parks are an important part of any community. Not only do they provide a gathering place for family and friends, but they improve air and water quality, protect the groundwater and provide a home for birds and animals.”

New Book on Megaregions Provides a Framework for Large-Scale Public Investment — 03/17/22, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy
“Written by planning scholars Robert D. Yaro, Ming Zhang, and Frederick R. Steiner, Megaregions and America’s Future explains the concept of megaregions, provides updated economic, demographic, and environmental data, draws lessons from Europe and Asia, and shows how megaregions are an essential framework for governing the world’s largest economy.”

The Green New Deal Superstudio: Designing the Impossible

Protesters march in Parliament Square, London / Photo by Thomas Krych, SOPA Images/Sipa USA. Sipa via AP Images.

By Richard Weller, ASLA

There are two reasons why Superstudio was a good name for an event that would build on the momentum already established by Billy Fleming, ASLA, at the University of Pennsylvania, Kate Orff, FASLA, founder of SCAPE, and Thaddeus Pawlowski at Columbia University to align landscape architecture with the Green New Deal (GND). The first is that with the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF), back in 2020, we had all agreed to launch what was literally a supersized international design studio on the hot topic of the GND. The second reason was that Superstudio also recalls the eponymous Italian architecture group of the late 1960’s that specialized in bombastic imagery and anti-capitalist, anti-design rhetoric. This connection was, for me at least, most important because it signaled that the event we were planning was about design culture, not just political culture. The Superstudio is in this way situated as part of a certain modern tradition of speculation, which in turn provides context for the critical evaluation of its meaning. But before we get to that, let me set the scene a bit for you.

Superstudio (1966–1978), Supersurface: Happy Island, 1972. Collage. Cristiano Toraldo di Francia. / Drawingmatter.org

For the purposes of staging a conversation about the GND and landscape architecture, a jury of LAF board members along with Fleming, Orff, and myself distilled from the 669 submissions the Superstudio received what we thought to be a representative, manageable sample.

The overarching question in the back of the jury’s mind as they foraged through all the work was this: “Are the projects appropriate manifestations of the GND’s ethos and intent, and if so, how?” To evaluate this, the work was superimposed onto the tenets of HR 109, the non-binding congressional resolution introduced on February 7, 2019, by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) and Senator Ed Markey (MA). HR 109 calls on Congress to pass legislation that would achieve the following within ten years:

Net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers; 2) create millions of good, high-wage jobs and ensure prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States; 3) invest in the infrastructure and industry of the United States to sustainably meet the challenges of the 21st century; 4) secure for all people of the United States for generations to come, clean air and water; climate and community resiliency; healthy food; access to nature; and a sustainable environment; and finally, 5) promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.

The improbability of this notwithstanding, HR 109—delivered with AOC’s steely certainty—cut through all the bullshit of contemporary politics with a sense of urgency, authenticity, and above all, the possibility that history really is up to us. By triangulating environmentalism, decarbonization, and jobs around the fulcrum of social justice, HR 109 distinguishes itself from the last half a century or so of environmentalism which, arguably, suffered from too singular a preoccupation with “nature.” For a generation born into a climate changed world and now looking for answers, HR 109 is both prophetic and, at least insofar as it recalls the New Deal, useful.

Of course, as is the nature of political rhetoric, it is also just a bunch of platitudes. Apart from asking us to put all our faith in the heavy hand of government, HR 109 tells us nothing about how we actually get from the world we currently live in to the one in which it says we should. In broad terms, the responses to this are still split along old lines: good old socialism on the one hand, and wicked capitalism on the other. Further to that, there is division within the left itself along a sliding scale that has eco-socialism at one end and eco-modernism at the other. As you would expect, eco-socialists blame capitalism and its shameful colonial history for today’s global inequity and the climate crisis, whereas eco-modernists maintain the faith that free markets and technological innovation can yet solve the world’s socio-economic and environmental problems.

Both have their demons. For example, the eco-socialists are unable to explain—or have conveniently forgotten— socialism’s appalling social and environmental record. Nor can they really explain where all the energy will come from if fossil fuels are suddenly “abolished,” as they like to say. For their part, the eco-modernists downplay technology’s shocking history of unintended consequences and can’t explain how innovation alone can avoid anything but the perpetuation of neoliberal inequality as we know it. With the deployment of more solar, wind, and geothermal energy, the eco-modernists also perform the cardinal sin of touting nuclear energy as a clean alternative to fossil fuels, at least to tide us over until the holy grail of fusion is discovered.

In terms of their landscape visions, the eco-modernists see hi-tech cities “decoupled” from vast wilderness areas. What eco-socialists see instead is less clear, but if I had to guess, it would be a working landscape — the Jeffersonian grid rescaled for permaculture and renewable energy production with a Conservation Corps fanning out in all directions.

Civilian Conservation Corps in the Pacific Northwest, 1930s / National Park Service, Public Domain

For the Green New Dealers, the only way to expiate their demons is massive government programs and investment based on the precedent of the original New Deal, only this time without the racism and quite so much concrete. In today’s political climate, however, both in America and the rest of the world, to expect this form of bold governance any time soon, seems at best, wishful thinking. Making matters worse, because it is a manifesto, not a policy, HR 109 has lent itself to the messianic and the Manichean on both the left and the right. Instead of adding to this, or recoiling into apocalyptic resignation, it is precisely in times like these that landscape architects have a role to play in giving vision and dimension to alternative futures, which is where the thought experiment of the Superstudio comes in.

The last time anything even remotely like the Superstudio happened was the so-called Landscape Exchange, an annual design competition for landscape architecture students in the U.S. that started in 1924 and ended in 1970. Reflecting the profession’s modesty, the projects in the Exchange were generally constrained to the design of gardens and parks on real sites, with real contours. It is interesting that just as the Exchange held its final competition in 1970, Ian McHarg, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote Design with Nature. And here we are, some 50 or so years later, asking students not to design a park or a garden, but to take a shot at nothing less than an entirely new economy and a new society to go with it.

For some, this is landscape architecture reaching its world-changing potential; for others it’s just more overreach that can only lead to the craft’s undoing. Either way, the LAF has to be congratulated for being the first design-related organization in the world to take HR 109 at its word and rally its troops for a creative response. And so too, we must congratulate the teachers, students, and a handful of professionals who stepped up. Kudos to them for facing up to the almost impossible challenge of, per the brief, translating HR 109 “… into actual projects and [showing] where, as a matter of priority these projects should take place, what will they look like, who will they serve, and how will they roll out.”

So, good event, but what about the work?

The jury organized the work into 6 categories based on 6 verbs: Adapt, Cultivate, Empower, Energize, Remediate, and Retrofit. These already tell you a lot about the ethos and focus of work produced under the banner of the Green New Deal. In this sense the perfect GND project would be about adapting to climate change, cultivating the land, empowering marginalized people, (re)energizing with renewables, remediating brownfields, and retrofitting existing buildings and existing infrastructure. This is very a big ask of any landscape project, but, with remarkable consistency, all the submissions stuck to the script and got busy putting these verbs into action. By prioritizing relationships between jobs, justice, and environmentalism and then inscribing them in real space, even if only as a gesture, the Superstudio marks a significant change in sensibility. Participants also made very deliberate choices about where to focus their work and the sorts of programs it should involve. Contrary to where the neo-liberal design dollar has tended to go, almost all Superstudio submissions make a point of allocating resources and design services to neglected communities. And even though, as an academic exercise, participants obviously had the luxury of choice in this regard, taken as a whole, the Superstudio work emphasizes a long overdue reorientation that developers, city authorities, and the profession need to reckon with.

Montage of Green New Deal Superstudio submissions / Landscape Architecture Foundation

Having pegged out the relevant territory, the question then of course is what, especially, makes a GND project that landscape architects wouldn’t just do anyways? And this is where things become a little predictable.

To summarize, the majority of projects submitted to the Superstudio are things like:

• Streetscape retrofits
• Community gardens and parks
• Wetlands
• Small-scale flood mitigation
• Lots of tree planting
• Soil remediation
• Urban farming and food co-ops
• Community centers
• Research centers
• Clean brownfields
• Small solar arrays
• Green school yards
• Recycling centers
• Stream daylighting
• And very occasionally some buildings labeled as “affordable housing” or “green jobs districts.”

As well as their predictability, the submissions also share similar graphic qualities. Crammed with statistics, diagrams, flow charts and slogans, the boards often look like DIY manuals, bureaucratic brochures, school posters, and the sort of stuff left lying around after a community workshop. The actual designs can be hard to find, and when they do appear, the hand of the designer tends only to offer outlines along with some optimistic Photoshop showing “the community” enthusiastically filling in the blanks. Whereas on the other side of town, the mainstream profession makes everything look like a stylish walk in the park, GND landscapes tend to have the feel of a union picnic. And maybe, at the neighborhood scale this kind of communitarian, restorative, eco-agrarian, anti-aesthetic is what a GND ecotopia would really be like. And maybe that’s a good “bottom-up” thing, but the question that has to be asked, as with any landscape representation, is what are these happy, folksy images not showing us? What’s outside the frame? What’s over the horizon?

“Renew Calumet” by Maddie Clark, Adam Deheer, Adriana Hernández, Olivia Pinner, Adam Scott, Nick Zurlini
“Empowered Adaptions” by WRT: Garlen Capita; Zoe Cennami; Keiko Cramer; Zuzanna Drozdz; Charles Neer; Amie Patel; William Wellington; Shuning Zhao

The answers relate to the bigger questions implicated in, but not addressed by HR 109. For example, if fossil fuels are abolished, or quickly phased out, how is the new world phased in? Where does all the new energy come from, exactly? How do we make everything we are accustomed to, without fossil fuels? Or if lifestyles must change, how and in what way? What might be the daily and collective rituals of a post-fossil fueled world and the spaces these play out in? How would lifestyle changes apply to people who don’t have the luxury of making environmentally benevolent choices? How will we sequester the carbon from the skies and filter the nitrogen from the ground at a scale commensurate with the issues? How will America, let alone the world, feed itself without industrial fertilizer and do so without more deforestation? How do we secure the water supply? What, in addition to the hard labor of landscape restoration, are the new “green jobs?” Where are they and how do I get to them? And if there is to be a new Conservation Corps, what is its plan of action? How do we accommodate the human and non-human migrations that climate change will force? Where will at least another 100 million Americans this century live? How will the coast be reorganized to absorb rising seas? How will the suburbs, where most people currently live, be retrofitted? The list goes on.

America’s current energy sources. Atlas for a Green New Deal. Fleming and Weller et al. McHarg Center.

To be fair, only a fool would pretend to have the answers to these questions. But instead of just fast-forwarding to a world without fossil fuels and relabeling it with lots of GND goodies, we have to sit longer with the wicked and often times contradictory nature of the issues. We have to scope them across the full range of scales they entail. We have to understand them before we pretend to change them, and when we do, we have to get inside their systemic natures and be forensic about where they could be inflected, disrupted, rerouted, reimagined and reinvented. And obviously this can’t be done by landscape architects or through the medium of landscape alone. Weaning civilization off fossil fuels in the context of a rapidly changing planetary climate is the greatest challenge civilization has ever faced, so let’s not make it look simple.To do so is not design, it’s just illustration, or worse, propaganda.

A few submissions that went somewhat further afield in their inquiries and propositions concerned topics such as:

• Fire management and forestry practices
• Big riparian corridors
• Reimagining regions through BIPOC lenses
• Prison reuse
• Tools for community scenario planning
• Assertions of indigenous land rights
• Non-romantic takes on offshore wind farms
• Eco-aquaculture
• Light rail corridors
• New trails
• Freeway removal

And one stand-out submission declared “the GND will be won or lost at scale”, and called for land-use planning on a national scale. Again, there is nothing really new in any of this, but the scale and emphasis of this second tranche of work seems more apropos.

“Land Management @ Scale.” OLIN: Jessica M. Henson, Trevor Lee, Andrew Dobshinsky, Joanna Karaman, Claire Casstevens, Sarah Swanseen, Abbey Catig

So where does this leave us? Well, I guess the politicians who support the GND will see it as an endorsement. They might also breathe a sigh of relief that, at least according to landscape architects, their world-changing policies seem to be relatively innocuous. On the other hand, if they are looking for images to “stir men’s blood,” or even just something an advertising agency could use to help persuade Americans to relinquish their fossil-fueled superpowers, they will be disappointed.

Compared to how designers have previously responded to historical moments of heady socialist speculation —for example, the Russian constructivists, the modernists and the megastructuralists—it is remarkable how little speculation there is in the Superstudio results. And I don’t mean this pejoratively. Since its more about the undoing of a world than the building of a new one per se, the GND doesn’t lend itself to a spectacular architectural imagination. It does however lend itself to the more subtle threads of the landscape imagination. But while the Superstudio work has shown how that landscape might take shape at a local level, it has not shown how the sprawling landscape of modernity will be retrofitted and restructured. Along the eco-socialism—eco-modernism scale, studios across the nation have clearly tended more toward to the former, and as such, the work is more an illustration of local socio-political aspirations and allegiances, than it is about technical invention and aesthetic exploration.

Like Ebenezer Howard, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright, Karl Marx called for a blurring of city and country. But he also ridiculed literary and architectural utopias. Going by the Superstudio work one could be excused for thinking that, following in his footsteps, landscape architects working in the spirit of the GND also have very little interest in, if not an actual disdain for aesthetics. This is a mistake. In some GND-related polemic, it is argued that since design is a mechanism through which capitalism and the climate crisis is reproduced, design as we know it is fundamentally incapable of broaching the interrelated social, environmental, and economic issues HR 109 sets out. Adolpho Natalini, the nominal head of the original Superstudio, made more or less the same point back in 1971, writing that “if design is merely an inducement to consume…and if it merely formalizes unjust social divisions…then we must reject design.” But he didn’t mean we abandon aesthetics. On the contrary, for years, in the spirit of rejecting a certain kind of design, Superstudio continued to produce powerfully utopian and dystopian imagery that captured and influenced its zeitgeist. Make of this what you will, but not one submission to the LAF Superstudio dared present a really utopian or dystopian version of the GND.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we should now just make trippy images of alternate realities. But I am asking whether by ignoring the way in which the evolution of modernity into a post-fossil fuel phase is an aesthetic project, we’ve not only left the GND with an image problem, but also left ourselves with no alternatives except deference to “the community” on the one hand and rolling out government-issue green infrastructure on the other. Of course, this is good work and lots of it must be done, and landscape architects are the right people to do it. But I have this terrible feeling that beyond the frame, over the horizon, history is being determined by people looking at a very different set of drawings.

Grounding the Green New Deal: A Summit on Policy, Design, and Advocacy will be held at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. on April 9. Learn more and purchase tickets.

Richard Weller, ASLA, is the Martin and Margy Meyerson chair of urbanism, professor and chair of landscape architecture, and co-director of the McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Grounding the Green New Deal: A Summit on Design, Policy, and Advocacy

Grounding the Green New Deal Summit: Design, Policy + Advocacy. April 9, 12-5pm. National Building Museum, Washington, DC. / Landscape Architecture Foundation

By Heather Whitlow

Addressing the climate crisis will require an unprecedented scale, scope, and pace of landscape transformation. There is an essential role for the built environment disciplines in re-imagining this future and translating the goals of decarbonization, jobs, and justice into on-the-ground practices and built works.

Through panel discussions, Grounding the Green New Deal: A Summit on Design, Policy, and Advocacy on April 9 at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. will identify ways to accelerate individual and collective actions to effect change.

Speakers and panelists include:

  • Roxanne Blackwell, Hon. ASLA, Director, Federal Government Affairs at ASLA
  • Dana Bourland, The JPB Foundation
  • Kevin Bush, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
  • Billy Fleming, ASLA, Weitzman School of Design McHarg Center
  • Bryan Lee Jr., Colloquate
  • Kate Orff, FASLA, Columbia Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes
  • Colette Pichon Battle, Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy
  • Nikil Saval, Pennsylvania State Senate
  • Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The summit builds from the Green New Deal Superstudio, a year-long open call that attracted the participation of more than 3,000 students and practitioners in the built environment disciplines. Some 670 design and planning projects were submitted to give form to the goals of the movement-led vision. A select set will be on display during the event.

The summit is being presented in partnership with the NBM as part of its Climate Action Weekend and Climate Action/Building/Community (ABC) program series. The Museum is presenting a family and community event the following day on April 10, Planet Curious – A World of Climate Curiosity, which is open to the public, free of charge.

The Grounding the Green New Deal Summit and Superstudio are an initiative of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) in association with the Weitzman School of Design McHarg Center, the Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), and the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA).

Learn more and purchase tickets.

Heather Whitlow, Hon. ASLA, is senior director of programs and communications at the Landscape Architecture Foundation.