Julie Bargmann Is the Winner of the First Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize

Julie Bargmann / Photo by Barrett Doherty, courtesy of TCLF

The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) announced Julie Bargmann has won the inaugural Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize for her innovative work that regenerates neglected, often polluted, communities. The biennial award of $100,000 will include two years of public engagement focused on Bargmann’s work and the state of contemporary landscape architecture. The prize is named after German-born Canadian landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, FASLA, who passed away from complications from Covid-19 earlier this year at age 99. TCLF states that the prize is bestowed on a recipient who is “exceptionally talented, creative, courageous, and visionary” and has “a significant body of built work that exemplifies the art of landscape architecture.”

The Oberlander Prize jury said Bargmann, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia and founder of D.I.R.T. (Dump It Right There) Studio, has been “a provocateur, a critical practitioner, and a public intellectual. She embodies the kind of activism required of landscape architects in an era of severe environmental challenges and persistent social inequities.” She is known for her work regenerating “contaminated, neglected, and forgotten urban and post-industrial sites.”

In her own words: “unearthing the raw ingredients of design from waste and wastelands defines my life’s work.” And this passion has driven her to “seek a larger canvas, namely, post-industrial cities and regions. There exists massive potential and sublime beauty in places that may seem, at first blush, to be trashed. Sites, neighborhoods, entire cities—they are full of energy waiting to be recognized, released, and given new form.”

TCLF states that Bargmann’s aesthetic approach is “strongly influenced by the work and writings of Robert Smithson, the American artist known for his land art installations including Spiral Jetty, and the American artist Eva Hesse. Bargmann describes her approach as ‘rigorous intuition or intuitive rigor.'”

Bargmann and D.I.R.T. are known for leading conceptual landscape designs that guide multi-disciplinary collaborations with architects, historians, engineers, hydro-geologists, artists, and the communities with which she engages.

A few of Bargmann’s key projects:

For the Vintondale Reclamation Park in Vintondale, Pennsylvania, which was completed in 2002, Bargmann collaborated with historic preservationist T. Allan Comp, hydrologist Bob Deason, and sculptor Stacy Levy on a 35-acre site in coal country designed as a “natural filtration system” that addresses polluted mine runoff. Entitled Acid Mine Drainage and Art: Testing the Waters, this “model of bioremediation” helped Bargmann win the 2001 National Design Award from the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Museum. She explains that “Vintondale is the project that I feel launched D.I.R.T. and still defines its trajectory.”

Acid mine drainage / Julie Bargmann
Vitondale excavated ponds / Julie Bargmann

Her work on the Urban Outfitters Headquarters at the U.S. Navy Yard in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania won Bargmann an ASLA Professional Award in 2014. According to TLCF, the project “became a model for the artistic and ecologically sound reuse of materials, including concrete chunks nicknamed ‘Barney and Betty Rubble,’ as well as brick, rusted metal, and other materials.” The project shows that reusing materials is not only beautiful but also reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Reusing concrete and buried train tracks saves the tons of embodied carbon emissions in these materials and avoids creating new materials that generate more emissions. A greater focus on reused and recycled landscapes is needed in the age of the climate crisis. The ASLA awards jury also noted that the “site perviousness was increased by about 800 percent.” For this project, Bargmann worked with architects at Meyer Scherer & Rockcastle, engineers with Advanced GeoServices, Corp., and environmental engineers with Blue Wing Environmental.

ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Urban Outfitters Headquarters at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Philadelphia, PA. D.I.R.T. Studio / JJ Tiziou
ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Urban Outfitters Headquarters at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Philadelphia, PA. D.I.R.T. Studio / D.I.R.T. Studio

And in 2019, in Detroit, Michigan, Bargmann designed the 8,000-square-foot Core City Park in partnership with developer Philip Kafka of Prince Concepts, architect Ishtiaq Rafiuddin, and project manager Randy Pardy. The park is another ingenious model of artful reuse — almost all design elements were unearthed from the site, including “pieces of a demolished late-19th century fire station, the walls of a bank vault, and other excavated artifacts.” TCLF also calls the park an urban woodland, with tree groves that “allow visitors to break away from the city without leaving it.”

Core City Park, Detroit, MI / Photo courtesy of Prince Concepts and TCLF
Core City Park, Detroit, MI / Photo courtesy of Prince Concepts and TCLF

Bargmann’s projects will be added to TCLF’s What’s Out There® database, and she will be the focus of an upcoming Pioneers of American Landscape Design® video oral history.

Stay tuned for upcoming public programs organized by John Beardsley, Oberlander Prize curator at TCLF and former director of garden and landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks.

ASLA Calls Upon Governments to Achieve Zero Emissions by 2040

ASLA 2020 Professional Research Honor Award. Climate Positive Design. Pamela Conrad, ASLA

ASLA has joined with Architecture 2030 to call for all sovereign governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 65 percent by 2030 and achieve zero emissions by 2040, which would accelerate the current timeline to achieve emission reductions outlined in the Paris Climate Accord by a decade.

The call, the most ambitious climate challenge ever issued by the built environment professions, is detailed within Architecture 2030’s 1.5°C COP26 Communiqué submitted to the Biden-Harris administration and world leaders attending the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Scotland.

According to Architecture 2030, the built environment is the world’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for at least 40 percent, not including the carbon already embodied within the structures and materials of buildings and landscapes.

Signatories of the Communiqué, which include global organizations representing the landscape architecture, planning, and architecture professions and 60 of the world’s largest international design firms, have committed to taking specific actions to achieve the same levels of greenhouse gas emission reductions, as outlined in the call to sovereign governments.

“We have a responsibility to take whatever actions are necessary to more rapidly reduce greenhouse gases emitted by the built environment,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, CEO of ASLA. “As the leading organization of landscape architects, we can play a significant role in encouraging the expansion of Climate Positive Design strategies and natural carbon sinks in our projects, as well as reducing the impacts of climate change, such as increasingly dangerous urban temperatures, on underserved communities.”

“Landscape architects are committed to this interdisciplinary coalition, joining with allied professionals on climate action. Together, we need to scale up the new inclusive, climate-smart planning and design practices required to achieve zero emissions in the built environment by 2040,” said Scott Bishop, ASLA, Chair of the ASLA Climate Action Committee and Founder of Bishop Land Design.

ASLA has been a long-time leader among built environment organizations in calling for more ambitious climate action. According to a review of associations by the Kresge Foundation, ASLA is just one of nine associations taking a holistic approach to educating their members and the public about climate change “that includes adaptation, mitigation, and the explicit consideration of social justice.” Since 2018, ASLA has been a member of the We Are Still In movement, a national coalition of 3,500 states, cities, companies, and organizations that remain committed to achieving US greenhouse gas emission reduction targets as part of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Landscape architects plan and design nature-based solutions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and communities’ risks from climate impacts, such as flooding, extreme heat, drought, and sea level rise. Learn more about landscape architects’ work.

ASLA Announces 2021 Professional Awards

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASLA Announces 2021 Student Awards

ASLA 2021 Student General Design Honor Award. The Interaction Between Masks And Desertification: A Paradigm of Family Sand Control by Mongolian Herdsmen. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Xi Zhao; Xue Li; Xinyu Yang; Qiong Wang, Student International ASLA, Beijing Forestry University

ASLA announces the 2021 Student Award winners. The 35 winning projects exemplify the highest level of achievement by future landscape architect professionals. The students themselves will be honored at the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture, Nov. 20 in Nashville, TN.

Winners each year are chosen by a jury panel representing a broad cross-section of the profession, from the public and private sectors, as well as academia. The 35 winners were chosen from 440 submissions of projects from around the world. Awards categories include: General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, Research, Student Collaboration, and Community Service.

“This program not only honors the tremendous creativity and passion of these future landscape architect leaders, it also highlights the extraordinary contributions they will make to communities upon graduation,” said Torey Carter- Conneen, CEO of ASLA.

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

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

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

Los Angeles, Wildfires, and Adaptive Design / Greg Kochanowski, GGA

Los Angeles, Wildfires and Adaptive Design: Greg Kochanowski on Creating New Futures — 09/15/21, ArchDaily
“At UCLA, I additionally became interested in landscape, particularly through an interest in a more holistic way of thinking about the built environment. This has subsequently become a passion of mine to, the point of becoming a licensed landscape architect, and has significantly shaped my personal ideology and methodology of working. I see the world holistically as a complex series of relationships between cultural and organic systems – from cities to climate, buildings to landscapes, racial inequality to ecosystems.”

SCAPE’s Living Breakwaters Project Begins In-water Construction Off of Staten Island — 09/14/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Earlier this week, the New York State Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery (GOSR) announced that Living Breakwaters, the $107 million coastal resiliency-slash-marine biodiversity project was now taking shape off the South Shore area of Staten Island; an area pummeled by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.”

Wildfire Destroyed His Kids’ School. So This Dad Designed a Fireproofed Replacement — 09/14/21, Fast Co. Design
“Landscape architect Pamela Burton designed the grounds of the school, creating large buffers between the campus and the surrounding natural hillsides, and using large boulders and wide patios to break up the space.”

Report: To Close the Park Access Gap, Open up Schoolyards — 09/13/21, Grist
“The nonprofit environmental advocacy group The Trust for Public Land, or TPL, estimates that 100 million people in America, including 28 million kids, don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk of their home. Race plays a major role in the divide: The group estimates that, in the 100 largest U.S. cities, communities of color have access to an average of 44 percent less park space than predominantly white neighborhoods.”

Lessons from the Rise and Fall of the Pedestrian Mall — 09/09/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Car-free shopping streets swept many U.S. cities in the 1960s and ’70s, but few examples survived. Those that did could be models for today’s ‘open streets.'”

What We Talk About When We Talk About Gentrification — 09/05/21, Vox
“Our focus on gentrification might lead people to believe that it is the dominant form of inequality in American cities (our outsized focus on the phenomenon may be due in part to the fact that gentrification scholars, journalists, and consumers of digital media tend to live in gentrifying neighborhoods themselves). But the core rot in American cities is not the gentrifying neighborhoods: It is exclusion, segregation, and concentrated poverty.”

Studio-MLA and Mia Lehrer, FASLA, Win Cooper Hewitt National Design Award

Mia Lehrer, FASLA / Studio-MLA

Studio-MLA won the 2021 Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for landscape architecture. The firm, which has been led by Salvadorian-born landscape architect Mia Lehrer, FASLA, for 25 years, seeks to “integrate landscape architecture, urban design, and planning to create places that inspire human connection, unite communities, and restore environmental balance.” The firm’s staff of 45, based in Los Angeles and San Francisco, includes landscape architects, planners, ecologists, and botanists.

Studio-MLA staff / Studio-MLA

On winning the award, Lehrer said: “we’re indebted to our collaborators, in particular our visionary clients, non-profit partners, and design teams for their commitment to building places that create social justice and equity, and projects that tell the stories layered within places — stories of people, neighborhoods, hope and conflict, water, air, ecology, and empowerment.”

The firm’s design philosophy is focused on creating broader impact: “Through our projects, pro bono efforts, and strategic relationships, we advocate by design. For over twenty years, our role as catalyst has educated and empowered people to translate ideas into culturally-relevant and climate-appropriate places.”

In an interview with ASLA, Lehrer, who has been an advocate for climate action and restoring ecosystems, said: “I didn’t grow up in the U.S., but my parents were community activists. We all don’t have a choice but to be engaged and educated about the dire situation we’re all in.”

Studio-MLA is known for taking on highly complex large-scale landscape planning projects that involve navigating layers of government jurisdictions. They often use legacy infrastructure as an opportunity to address climate impacts, restore ecosystems, and reconnect underserved and immigrant communities. In particular, the firm has led large-scale landscape planning efforts that re-imagine outdated river infrastructure, so these systems become more ecological and accessible. The firm’s goal is to create healthier human-ecological systems at all scales.

The firm recently won a major landscape planning and design project — the River-Side Gateway Project Suite in Riverside, California, which includes a series of nine sites along seven-miles of the Santa Ana River. The project seeks to “create access to water and recreation for citizens while also designing solutions for stormwater mitigation, threatened habitat, and air quality impacts,” explained Matt Romero, ASLA, landscape designer at Studio-MLA.

Los Angeles River Downtown Design Dialogue / Studio-MLA

Another recent landscape planning project is the Upper Los Angeles Rivers & Tributaries Revitalization Plan, which proposes imaginative ways to transform the “heavily channelized waterways that meander eastward through the San Fernando Valley.” To develop the plan, Studio-MLA “mapped spatial obstacles and constraints including, but not limited to, government jurisdictions, land use, park access, pollution load, ecological habitat, water quality, flood risk, safe access, and connectivity.” This information enabled them to examine existing economic, environmental, and social impacts, and create a new equitable framework for reconnecting communities to more natural rivers and tributaries.

Destination Crenshaw in Los Angeles is also an exciting large-scale effort that demonstrates the firm’s inclusive planning and design approach. A new “community-inspired” 1.1-mile-long, outdoor museum along Crenshaw Boulevard, where a new Metro line and stations will surface, will become a “living celebration of Black Los Angeles” in the “heart of the largest black community west of the Mississippi River.” Studio-MLA, along with Perkins+Will, Raw International, and Gallagher & Associates is imagining the urban and landscape design for the project, which will include community-driven public art.

Destination Crenshaw / Studio-MLA, Perkins+Will, Raw International, Gallagher & Associates
Destination Crenshaw / Studio-MLA, Perkins+Will, Raw International, Gallagher & Associates
Destination Crenshaw / Studio-MLA, Perkins+Will, Raw International, Gallagher & Associates

Throughout Lehrer’s projects, there is a commitment to inclusive engagement, particularly with underserved and immigrant communities. In an ASLA interview, she said that through a planning process, “you can embolden people, allow them to feel comfortable that it’s their right to communicate, not necessarily demand, but to be part of a dialogue. It’s education, creating a set of tools, and allowing people to understand they can be advocates for their own needs.”

The firm’s built community and residential projects are also characterized by a deep respect for water and native plants. A prime example is the 10-acre Vista Hermosa Natural Park in Los Angeles, which was carefully designed to capture 95 percent of the precious rainwater that falls on the site through an interconnected system of “permeable paving, green roofs, grassy meadows, vegetated swales, and a 30,000-gallon cistern that supplies irrigation.” The park was designed with native plants to educate visitors about the Southern Californian landscape.

Vista Hermosa Natural Park, Los Angeles / Studio-MLA, Tom Lamb

This commitment is further reflected in a series of op-eds Lehrer wrote for THE DIRT in 2015 How to Save Water, the Californian Way (Part 1) and (Part 2) — where she offered a series of practical recommendations, rooted in a nuanced understanding of natural systems.

“In nature, creeks and streams collect rain that falls on the mountains and hillsides. Trees and vegetation soak up the water, shade the soil, and drop leaves that decompose to become habitat, a protective layer of mulch, and eventually soil. The soil acts like a sponge, holding water for long enough periods of time for native plants to make it through the summer. You can mimic nature at home by reducing impermeable surfaces, grading to keep rainwater on site, planting climate-appropriate shade trees and plants, and adding a thick layer of mulch to conserve soil moisture.”

While often working at the scale of miles, Lehrer seems to say no site is too small to make a positive impact.

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

ASLA Smart Policies for a Changing Climate. NatureScape, Orange County, California / Jodie Cook Design, Inc.

Is Artificial Turf Right for You? 3 Things to Consider Before Installing a Fake Lawn — 08/12/21, Architectural Digest
“According to San Clemente landscape designer Jodie Cook, although grass requires potable water and turf doesn’t, that’s too narrow a comparison. Other elements of the water cycle are a major issue. Plants, even grasses, create water themselves. ‘When you put turf down and replace a living plant, you’re removing moisture from the environment,’ she explains. ‘You’re removing atmospheric water.'”

Native Land Acknowledgments Are Not the Same as Land — 08/12/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“The growing practice of acknowledging Indigenous land ancestry is a positive change, but tribal stewardship must be the end goal.”

The Senate Infrastructure Bill Includes $1 Billion to Address Devastation Caused by Freeways. Experts Say It’s Not Enough — 08/11/21, Fast Company
“The latest edition of the Congress for New Urbanism’s Freeways Without Futures report highlights 15 projects that it says are primed for a transformation, including Interstate 244 in Tulsa, Interstate 5 in Seattle, and Interstate 980 in Oakland.”

Your Garden May Be Pretty, but Is It Ecologically Sound? — 08/11/21, The New York Times
“Some gardeners react to any mention of ecological landscaping — the merging of environmental science and art — as if it were a compromise or concession meant to limit their creativity. Darrel Morrison, a landscape architect who has been practicing and teaching this philosophy for some five decades, begs to differ.”

Study: Protected Bike Paths Saved Lives During COVID — 08/10/21, Streetsblog
“In a report released today, researchers from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety dug into the nuances of America’s (still-ongoing) pandemic-era bike boom by scrutinizing the spatial and temporal distribution of pre- and post-lockdown bicycle trip counts and crash counts in the city of Arlington, VA.”

Using Nature to Combat Climate Change — 08/09/21, CNN
“Landscape architect and founder of SCAPE Kate Orff describes how regenerative living infrastructure can help mitigate the devastating impacts of climate change.”

The Seas Are Rising. Could Oysters Help? — 08/02/21, The New Yorker
“A great deal of [Kate] Orff’s work addresses the inescapable fact that the Atlantic Ocean is rising, and coming for the land. She’s the founder of the design firm scape, the director of the Urban Design Program at Columbia University, and the first landscape architect to win a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant. She’s also at the forefront of an emerging approach to climate resilience that argues we should be building with nature, not just in nature.”

New IPCC Report: There Is Still Time to Limit Climate Change

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first major report as part of its sixth assessment of global climate science — the first significant analysis of research since 2014, covering more than 14,000 studies. Its core finding: global warming of 1.5°C (2.7 °F) over pre-Industrial Revolution levels is inevitable over coming decades, but if we act now, we can stave off further, more dangerous warming of 2°C (3.6°F), or, even worse, 3°C (5.4°F), which is what the world is now on a trajectory to experience. As climate reporter Andrew Revkin notes, humans are currently adding “40-billion-plus tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere each year (and rising).” The IPCC argues that limiting warming to 1.5°C is only possible if the world’s governments accelerate efforts to reduce emissions by transitioning to renewable energy and net-zero communities and transportation systems. “Achieving global net-zero carbon dioxide emissions is a requirement for stabilizing carbon dioxide-induced global surface temperature increases.”

In this first comprehensive analysis of physical sciences, which was approved by 195 governments, the IPCC states that “many of the changes observed in the climate are unprecedented in thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years.” Analyzing the IPCC’s findings, The New York Times reports that “the last decade is quite likely the hottest the planet has been in 125,000 years. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have not been this high in at least 2 million years.”

Changes in global surface temperature relative to 1850-1900 / IPCC

To date, the report finds, “emissions from human activities are responsible for approximately 1.1°C (2°F) of warming since 1850-1900.” If the world can achieve “immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions” in the near term, climate change could be stalled at a 1.5°C increase. And 1.5°C of warming, while dire, will be far less destructive than 2°C.

“For 1.5°C of global warming, there will be increasing heat waves, longer warm seasons, and shorter cold seasons. At 2°C of global warming, heat extremes would more often reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health.” A 2°C temperature increase would force almost unimaginable adaptations and migrations.

High-level findings from the IPCC highlight the need to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also scale up climate adaptation efforts and plans to retreat from soon-to-be uninhabitable areas. Landscape architects not only help communities reduce emissions by planning and designing low-carbon transportation systems and applying Climate Positive Design; they also engage with communities on nature-based adaptation and retreat plans.

Jackson Street Reconstruction Project, Saint Paul, Minnesota / Bruce Buckley Photography for Toole Design

According to the IPCC, warming is occurring across all parts of the planet, but most in the Arctic and on land.

With every increment of global warming, changes get larger in regional mean temperature, precipitation and soil moisture / IPCC

The impacts of climate change also already go beyond warming to include “changes to wetness and dryness, to winds, snow and ice, coastal areas, and oceans.” Climate change is intensifying the water cycles, which will lead to more intense rainfall and flooding but also more intense drought. In higher latitudes, there will likely be more rain, while it will decrease in the sub-tropics, which will get even hotter.

Model of precipitation and soil moisture changes / IPCC

This is where landscape architects can plan and design nature-based solutions. In areas of higher flooding, landscape architects plan and design green infrastructure or sponge city approaches that safely retain stormwater; in areas experiencing drought, they design sustainable landscapes that collect and reuse water and reduce water use.

ASLA 2020 Professional General Design Honor Award. Deep Form of Designed Nature: Sanya Mangrove Park, Sanya City, Hainan Province, China. Turenscape
The University of Texas at El Paso Campus Transformation, El Paso, TX / Ten Eyck Landscape Architects

The IPCC finds that the high end of temperatures and heatwaves have increased due to human-driven greenhouse gas emissions. “It is virtually certain that hot extremes (including heatwaves) have become more frequent and more intense across most land regions.”

Research has found that the parks landscape architects plan and design can reduce nearby community temperatures by at least 6°F degrees. Communities with streets lined with shade trees are also up to 10°F cooler during the daytime.

ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Honor Award. Contrasting Shade: Building a Sustainable Urban Grove at Central Wharf Plaza, Boston, MA. Reed Hildebrand / Charles Mayer Photography

Seas, which have risen 8 inches over the past century, are expected to continue to rise, causing more frequent and severe flooding in low-lying areas and increased erosion and coastal habitat loss. “Extreme sea level events that previously occurred once in 100 years could happen every year by the end of this century.”

This is where landscape architects and planners are helping communities either manage retreat and relocation or become far more resilient to flooding through nature-based approaches. Landscape architects, planners, and ecologists are also helping to create room for coastal species at risk to migrate and adapt.

ASLA 2019 Professionl General Design Honor Award. Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park Phase II: A New Urban Ecology, Long Island City, NY. SWA/BALSLEY and WEISS/MANFREDI with ARUP/ Vecerka / ESTO

Since 1993, the rate of warming in oceans has doubled, and oceans will continue to experience “more frequent marine heatwaves, ocean acidification, and reduced oxygen levels. These changes affect both ocean ecosystems and the people that rely on them.” Coastal and indigenous communities at risk will need further support from landscape architects in adapting their way of life and livelihoods.

The IPCC indicates that the loss of seasonal snow cover, glaciers and ice sheets, and Arctic sea ice is expected to accelerate. Artic sea ice is at its lowest levels since at least 1850. The temperatures of Arctic and Boreal permafrost have also increased, heightening risks of releasing billions of tons of stored carbon dioxide and methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Landscape architects can help increase the health and resilience of Artic ecosystems by reducing man-made impacts that further disturb these soils.

Lastly, the IPCC finds that the effect of climate change in cities, where 56 percent of the global population now resides, “may be amplified, including heat (since urban areas are usually warmer than their surroundings), flooding from heavy precipitation events, and sea level rise in coastal cities.”

With the help of landscape architects and planners, cities are applying resilient green infrastructure or sponge city approaches that combat both increased heat and flooding at once.

ASLA 2009 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Buffalo Bayou Promenade, Houston, Texas. SWA Group / Bill Tatham
ASLA 2009 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Buffalo Bayou Promenade, Houston, Texas. SWA Group / Tom Fox

Explore expected regional impacts through IPCC’s new Interactive Atlas, which includes fact sheets and technical summaries. Also, learn more about landscape architects’ solutions to climate change.

Kongjian Yu Defends His Sponge City Campaign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Real About Sea Level Rise: Landscape Architecture, Policy, and Finance

A Blueprint for Coastal Adaptation: Uniting Design, Economics, and Policy / Island Press

By Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA

Over the next hundred years, average global sea levels are expected to rise faster than they have in the last 8,000 years. By 2050, storm surges and high tides could flood homes, subways, and roads that are currently one or two feet higher in elevation than the homes, subways, and roads that have already flooded over the last twenty years in New Orleans, New York, Zhengzhou, and Boston. Hundreds of millions of people living in coastal cities and rural areas will be affected, even if communities stop burning fossil fuels completely today.

Adaptation to climate change is essential. But do landscape architects and planners understand the most important impacts of higher seas, assuming the goal is to design for adaptation without accidentally blowing it? And how will communities prioritize and achieve the social goals of adaptation in a systematically unequal society? Who will pay, who will benefit, and how can communities take the first steps? As this figure based on innovative planning in the UK reveals, there’s a long lead time before coastal communities can live in safety, so those first steps need to happen now.

ONE Architecture and Urbanism

Carolyn Kousky, Billy Fleming, ASLA, and Alan M. Berger, the editors of the new book A Blueprint for Coastal Adaptation: Uniting Design, Economics and Policy, set out to answer these questions. In their introductory essay, they make the claim that landscape architects and planners already have most of the tools needed to help communities adapt. The challenge, in their view, is the lack of action. They close the last paragraph of their introduction with the (overly?) triumphant claim that if we start now, “the future is ours.” Ouch. Remind me who “we” are? And is it a good thing for anyone to claim possession of the future, which will have its own claims? I realize this introductory chapter is a pitch, not a research paper, and the chapters themselves are far more self-reflective. But I want to start by putting this review in context, simply because the book is so important.

As a scholar and designer in the field of landscape architecture, I ask myself every day whether design professionals have the synthetic understanding needed to advise urban decision makers to act. For example, while the authors in this anthology consider flooding driven by saltwater, rainwater, and rivers overflowing their channels, not a single essay grapples with the risk that shallow coastal groundwater will rise through the soil and/or move laterally into river channels in response to rising seawater. Recent research indicates that groundwater-driven flooding may cause more water-related failures of urban infrastructure and buildings than seawater and that it will add to river and rainwater flooding. If landscape architects and planners haven’t considered the compounded physical and ecological risks created by rising coastal groundwater, it’s premature for us to give professional advice on adaptation.

To be “professional,” our advice has to go beyond selling a proposal. That advice has to reflect the shared knowledge of a field, or it won’t meet the standard of professionalism; at that point, we might as well be selling used cars. If we recommend spending billions of dollars to use levees to keep the sea out, our shared knowledge tells us that we will also need to pump the rainwater and groundwater out from behind the levees and design the protected district to be resilient to catastrophic failures of coastal structures. Levees and movable gates won’t keep coastal land from flooding by themselves, especially where the rock or sand under a city is very permeable.

The upshot is that the mantra of “sponge cities” or “sponge wetlands” won’t work in high groundwater conditions, because the “sponge” will already be full of groundwater. The really bad news is that changes in the elevation or flow direction of coastal groundwater could end up sending us to a dystopian ‘80’s theme party. New flows of groundwater can mobilize soil pollution that was capped in the 1980’s or 1990’s and carry it under buildings where people will be exposed to old pollution in new ways. Most cities don’t even have maps of their shallow water table. Rising groundwater will corrode and shift building foundations, fill old sewer pipes and basements, corrode electrical conduits, and make extreme shaking more likely in an earthquake. Groundwater management must be part of any viable climate adaptation strategy.

The ambition of the editors to consider the trifecta of hurdles in funding, policy, and design is what makes this book eminently worth reading. Although no one confronts coastal groundwater impacts, the authors in this book provide a robust set of useful ideas, many of which have been tested in practice.

On the design side, Matthijs Bouw, associate professor of practice at the Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania, presents useful examples from his professional design experience in New York and Boston clearly and intelligently.

ONE Architecture and Urbanism

It was (and is) hard for a European firm to encounter and adjust to the state of American infrastructure. Adaptation is made more difficult by the fact that American cities coast on bridge and pipe investments made 100+ years ago and have cultivated a strategy of neglect since then. Bouw’s description of a more abstract ideas competition in San Francisco is less effective than his other examples, but together his experiences allow him to sincerely observe that adaptation with equity is in doubt in the U.S., where we continue to live under the long shadow of systemic racism and growing economic inequality.

Karen M’Closkey and Keith VanDerSys, co-founders of PEG office of landscape architecture, use their experience in the same California ideas competition as the basis for an argument that adaptation will also be a housing problem, as lower-income renters will need new options. They do an excellent job of bringing in the bigger national picture, suggesting policy avenues and making it clear that the gravity and scale of the housing problem is impossible to solve with design tools alone. All of these design chapters are well-referenced and thoughtfully written.

Susannah Drake, FASLA, founder of DLANDStudio, and Rafi Segal, associate professor of architecture and urbanism at MIT, describe their proposals for coastal New Jersey and Long Island and Jamaica Bay, New York, more in the style of a manifesto or a competition submission. They have an interesting core of ideas and intriguing claims, but without a critical frame, deeper references, or details, the chapter reads more as a point of departure than a fully-reasoned landscape architecture strategy. For example, their image of dense housing inserted at the edge of a marsh reveals the fundamental conflict between human housing needs and the needs of coastal ecosystems.

Rafi Segal & DLANDstudio

There is no question that putting housing in that location would degrade the quality of the habitat for the egret shown in the image. As we get real about climate, we also need to face the fact that real tradeoffs result from developing coastal ecosystems. This proposal shows an opportunity for landscape architecture to lead adaptation through an ambitious use of land form as an armature for adaptation, instead of concrete and steel walls.

The same site, Jamaica Bay, is also the subject of a proposal in another chapter led by Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, ASLA, professor and director of graduate landscape architecture program at the Spitzer School of Architecture, The City College of New York, which is also provocative but isn’t presented with enough detail to understand how the ecosystems of the Bay would not suffer from introducing new tide gates or how higher groundwater would be managed at the edge of the Bay. As in the Segal and Drake proposal, some separation (physical, temporal or behavioral) would be needed between marshes and lagoons that are managed for housing or recreation and marshes and lagoons that are intended to support diverse ecosystems. It’s a complex landscape, so perhaps this is considered but not described.

On the planning and finance side, several chapters deserve particularly careful reading. Joyce Coffee, founder of Climate Resilient Consulting, and Sarah Dobie, a PhD student at the Taubman College at the University of Michigan, describe strategies at the municipal scale, contrasting the retreat by attrition that is occurring in a small town in Louisiana with Miami Beach’s efforts to raise its streets to adapt in place. Their frank and clear presentation stresses the glaring differences between a community whose tax base and land area are shrinking and a city where a growing population and continued investment is expanding its capacity to adapt in place. It’s not as clear that they have translated the cases into recommendations, which raises the question of whether we know how to prioritize the goals of adaptation. What outcomes are acceptable and to whom?

Thomas Ruppert, a coastal planning specialist at Sea Grant Florida, examines the genuinely frightening prospect that abandoned coastal properties will cause pollution hazards and concludes that current legal tools are insufficient to prevent this dystopian outcome. Carlos Martin, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, makes a spirited case for public funding for adaptation as public works, and Allison Lassiter, an assistant professor at the Weitzman School of Design at Penn, describes the risks of sea level rise for urban drinking water in Philadelphia, which draws its water from the tidal Delaware River, along with New York. Fadi Masoud, assistant professor and director of the Centre for Landscape Research at the University of Toronto, and David Vega-Barachowitz, director of urban Design at WXY architecture + urban design, take a speculative approach to zoning, describing environmental overlay zones as a strategy for implementing incremental change and making it clear that designers should understand the history and legal context of zoning before altering it.

The real stand-out chapter in this section is by Shannon Cunniff, scientific advisor at Stone Living Lab, and her co-authors. They present environmental impact bonds as a new financing tool that has already been used in Washington D.C., Baltimore, and Atlanta, and considered in many others. To the extent that cities continue to rely on private capital to pay for adaptation, or simply to accelerate innovative pilot projects, impact bonds are a very useful strategy. Taking this one chapter seriously could make the difference between kick starting adaptation or failing by delay.

Reprinted with permission of Quantified Ventures

Overall, the book has a strong emphasis on conditions and strategies in the Mid-Atlantic and Gulf coasts. This is a limitation for translating some of the design ideas to the west coast, because different regions have different problems (earthquakes vs. hurricanes, karst geology vs. granite, etc.). The book also doesn’t include innovations from design or financing that have been adopted in California or the Pacific Northwest, outside of the rather abstract recent ideas competition in the San Francisco Bay area. But it’s strong on arguments for the East coast and Gulf.

The editors have taken a light-handed approach. Each chapter is encountered on its own without a broader synthesis or set of recommendations at the scale of a section or the book, leaving the reader challenged to identify gaps and draw conclusions by themselves. For example, in spite of the editors’ hopes, it’s not clear that any of the authors have a strategy for increasing social equity in U.S. cities while adapting to flooding. In that sense, some of the limits in this anthology reflect the genuine boundaries of what has been tried and even proposed. To achieve greater equity, several of the authors seem to conclude that we will need more radical strategies.

Everyone should read this book to see how the field of landscape architecture might help cities adapt to a changing climate, particularly with new federally-funded infrastructure investments. Each chapter of this book reaches beyond the conventional limits of our professional knowledge, by degrees or by leaps. But the most important bar this anthology has set for other books about adaptation is to place questions about funding and policy side-by-side with design proposals. For setting that bar higher, we should all thank the editors. Every future book on this topic should accept that challenge and rise to it. Without progressive new policies that can direct the sources and uses of funds for adaptation, even the best designs for adaptation will only reinforce the unequal status quo.

Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA, is the director of the Institute of Urban and Regional Development and associate professor of landscape architecture & environmental planning and urban design at the University of California at Berkeley College of Environmental Design. She is writing a book about adaptation to sea level rise.