Planners Must Now “Anticipate the Unanticipated”

Imagine Austin Growth Concept Map / City of Austin

“The planning practices of the past are inadequate for today’s challenges,” said David Rouse, ASLA, a landscape architect and planner, at the American Planning Association‘s National Planning Conference in San Diego. Rapid technological change, socio-economic inequities, natural resource depletion, and climate change are forcing planning and design professionals to adapt. “How can the practice of planning evolve to be more sustainable and equitable?”

In the 1920s, the Standard Zoning Enabling Act and the Standard City Enabling Act were passed. In the 1960s, the conventional 20th century planning model, which focused on land use policy and planning, came into being. In the 1980s, there was a shift to smart growth and “visionary, values-based planning.” In 2010, the American Planning Association began a process of rethinking past planning approaches through its Sustaining Places Initiative, which provided models and standards for how to prioritize sustainability through local planning.

According to Rouse, today’s comprehensive plans require a new 21st century model rooted in four key aspects. First, sustainability, resilience, and equity need to be at the center of all planning decisions. Second, a systems-thinking approach is needed. “A community is a system made up of sub-systems.” Third, any planning effort requires “authentic participation” and true community engagement that can answer the questions: “Where are we headed? Where do we want to go? How do we get there?” And lastly, there must be “accountable implementation,” including priorities for action, funding streams, policies that can guide decision-making, and specified responsibilities.

Rocky Piro, executive director of the Colorado Center for Sustainable Urbanism and former planning director of Denver, said Rouse and himself reviewed hundreds of plans for their new book — The Comprehensive Plan: Sustainable, Resilient, and Equitable Communities for the 21st Century. They found that “authentic engagement is foundational” to any new planning effort.

Planning processes must now include an engagement and communications strategy rooted in the issues and values of a community and be designed to reach all segments of a population. Any planning effort in 2022 also needs to be based in an understanding of the “impact of the past on the present.”

A vision statement is needed to kick-start these comprehensive planning efforts — “one with brevity, clarity, and the ability to inspire,” Piro said.

Land-use maps are still an important component of any comprehensive plan but they need to be smarter. In its plan adopted in 2012, Austin, Texas, created a “growth concept map” that includes places and their aspects (see image at top). Aurora, Colorado, included a “place typology” that includes a “sophisticated matrix” and a “place-based approach” in its plan.

Placetype plan / City of Aurora, Colorado

All communities are systems that include natural, built environment, social, economic, health, and regional connection sub-systems.

“Planning for natural systems has come out of the landscape architecture field,” Rouse argued. “Ecosystem planning should now happen in communities and in context with other planning elements instead of piecemeal.”

ASLA 2021 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Parsons Island Conservation and Regeneration Plan. Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, United States. Mahan Rykiel Associates

Planners and landscape architects need to increasingly plan for land, water, atmospheric, and biodiversity change within communities. And instead of planning for water use and quality alone, an entire watershed approach should also be integrated into comprehensive planning efforts.

The ecosystem component that landscape architects focus on can be integrated with the built environment components that planners focus on. Through the involvement of multiple disciplines, plans can address “land use, character, ecology, mobility, community design, and civic spaces, and public art.”

Other important systems that need to be included in any new comprehensive plan are social systems that improve equity — “the social infrastructure” of communities, including housing and education.

Economic systems also need to be re-thought for the 21st century. “Economic resilience is about creating opportunities for all in a fair and sustainable way. We can move to a circular economy and rely on local assets and regional resources. We need to move away from a linear, throw-away society.”

Health systems need to be factored into any planning effort, and this is not just “about disease prevention, but about healthy transportation and food systems. How we move and interface with the built environment impacts our health.”

There are now many lens — a “climate lens, equity lens, health lens. Can we bring the lenses together?”

Both Rouse and Piro returned to the idea that any planning effort can only happen with real community engagement.

Once the voice of the community in its totality has been considered, then a plan can be developed that results in the revision of regulations, codes, and ordinances to help achieve that plan. The next steps are to shift public and private investments to meet goals, align interests and decision-making processes within communities, and form public, private, and non-profit sector partnerships that can lead implementation.

In the 21st century, planners need to be “prepare communities for change, be proactive, and take an integrated approach instead of just reacting,” Rouse said.

The challenge is that planners are also operating within a “cone of uncertainty.” In the short term, there are tactics that can be used to manage community change, which may be foreseen or unforeseen and therefore disruptive. In the medium term, planners can set strategies and plans. But over the long-term, they will need durable visions. “All of this planning must happen sequentially and simultaneously.”

In their book, Rouse and Piro outline five core themes, including equity and engagement, climate change mitigation and adaptation, systems thinking, people-centered technology, and effective implementation.

“Equity must be interwoven, and an equity lens must be brought to all goals. Climate resilience must be a guiding principle of all planning work. Technology must be harnessed to serve communities. Planning participation is about co-creation with the community,” Rouse said.

“Planning is an art and a science. Our jobs are to anticipate the unanticipated. How can we do it better?” Out of the hundreds of plans that Rouse and Piro reviewed, “we couldn’t find one that did this well. It’s a journey society — and planners — must take. It’s the future of comprehensive planning.”

During the Q&A, one audience member asked whether “top-down, paternalistic comprehensive plans” are a thing of the past. A city comprehensive plan assumes there is one community in agreement, whereas there are many communities with different interests. The antithesis of a comprehensive plan is a neighborhood plan.

Community engagement is critical to forging consensus as is transparency about budgets and timelines, Piro argued. Ensuring grassroots buy-in is the “path to success.” But neighborhood plans need to be integrated with comprehensive plans and implemented in tandem. “You need consistency and coordination.” Ecological, social, and other systems “can’t be addressed in isolation.”

Another audience member wondered how comprehensive plans can address the communities who have been displaced due to gentrification. “How do we plan for who is not there?”

Rouse argued that it’s critical to retain populations by helping them create their own visions. “We can account for the past and systemic racism,” and planners and other design professions’ roles in creating those inequities.

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

Lane Closures / Chris Yarzab, CC BY-ND 2.0.

MUSK SEE: Three Reasons Why Congestion Decreases When Cities ‘Delete’ Road Lanes — 05/13/2022, Streetsblog USA
“A wildly inaccurate comment from Elon Musk about the traffic impacts of deleting lanes for drivers is prompting a conversation about the little-known phenomenon of ‘reduced demand’ — and how advocates can better debunk common congestion myths that powerful, but often ill-informed, people continue to promulgate.”

Lawns Are Terrible for the Environment. California’s Water Restrictions May Finally Kill Them — 05/12/2022, Fast Company
“Landscape designers weigh in on how drought conditions could change the look of Southern California — and eventually the rest of the West.”

Ukraine’s ‘Hero River’ Helped Save Kyiv. But What Now for Its Newly Restored Wetlands? — 05/11/2022, The Guardian
“Kyiv repelled Russian forces by opening a Soviet-era dam on the Irpin River. Now, ecologists hope Ukraine’s newest wetlands can survive, or even thrive, after the war.”

Security Features For Outdoor Living Trend In Latest Houzz Survey — 05/10/22, Forbes
“It’s no secret that outdoor living has become a huge trend. ‘It has exploded over the past five years with homeowners desiring to have resort-like backyards,’ declares Reno-based landscape architect and franchisor Ron DuHamel, president of FireSky.

How a Los Angeles Landscape Architecture Firm Is Reclaiming a Hillside for Native Plants — 05/10/2022, Dwell
“Terremoto is spearheading an experimental grassroots project to transform a neglected patch of public land with native species.”

Justice Department Unveils New Environmental Justice Moves (2) — 05/05/2022, Bloomberg Law
“The Department of Justice announced a trio of major environmental justice actions on Thursday, including the launch of a new office and the resurrection of a popular enforcement tool scrapped during the Trump administration.”

A Smarter Urban Design Concept for a Town Decimated by Wildfires — 05/03/2022, Fast Company
“SWA Group—a winner of Fast Company’s 2022 World Changing Ideas Awards—is helping Paradise, California, imagine a safer and more sustainable future with a design that buffers the town with parks, athletic fields, and orchards—areas less likely to burn than forests.”

Removing Benches, Blocking Cycle Paths: Why Are Police Interfering in the UK’s Public Spaces? — 05/02/2022, The Guardian
“The Secured by Design initiative is damaging British cities, robbing them of greenery and public amenities while promoting fear.”

New Park Brings Residents of Los Angeles’ Chinatown Together — 05/01/2022, Parks and Recreation Business
“Designed by the landscape architecture and planning firm, AHBE/MIG, Ord and Yale Street Park represents the transformation of a once-vacant, one-acre hillside into a new pocket neighborhood park for the community.”

How to Navigate Politics While Planning Climate Resilience

Resilient Houston plan / City of Houston

Across red, blue, and purple states, the impacts of climate change are increasingly real. The number of natural disasters that have caused a billion or more in damages has only increased. Since 2015, there have been 100 of them, said Marissa Aho, Chief Resilience Officer for Washington State Department of Natural Resources, during a session at the American Planning Association (APA)‘s National Planning Conference in San Diego. “Last year, weather-related disasters caused $145 billion in damages.”

While more Americans are aware of the increasingly expensive impacts of climate change and believe they are being impacted, planners, landscape architects, and other designers continue to face a host of challenges planning climate solutions with communities. In some places, the words “climate change” can’t even be said for fear of turning off the communities meant to be helped. Aho said many planners and designers need “resilience therapy on how to navigate political issues.” But beyond red, blue, or purple distinctions, the key is to avoid politics all together and focus on how to build local resilience.

Prior to joining the Washington state government, Aho was Chief Resilience Officer of Houston. She said while being a red state, Texas has a considerable amount of climate resilience planning. El Paso, Dallas, Houston, and Austin all have Chief Resilience Officers.

In 2019, the Texas state legislature created the Texas Infrastructure Resilience Fund, which directed billions to flood management. And in 2020, Houston created its Resilient Houston plan, controversially, with a $1.8 million grant from oil giant Shell. The plan was created out of a “community-driven process and includes 62 actions,” Aho said. The goal of the plan is to ensure “resilience at all scales — because if one scale isn’t resilient, than none of them are.”

In Washington State, Aho has been working on a watershed resilience adaptation plan, a “tree to sea plan for landscape scale restoration and salmon recovery,” which also has an interactive dashboard. Washington has been in the news for its increasingly severe climate impacts, including wildfires, drought, and heatwaves. The state is now trying to “tie climate change planning into everything.”

Wildfire in Yakima County, Washington / istockphoto.com, lightasafeather

Anna Friedman, with the Resilient Cities Catalyst, said red state Florida is increasing its focus on climate resilience, with a state-wide $400 million resilience grant program. There’s a state-level Chief Resilience Officer, and “every country and city has one, too.” Her organization partnered with Tampa to create a resilience plan with 58 initiatives, and a significant equity focus.

To get around the politics of climate action, Friedman advised focusing on issues at the neighborhood level, conducting workshops, and using a community-driven process. “Climate change is triggering in some communities. It’s important to find out what people need in their neighborhood and meet people where they are.”

But she added that there are new opportunities to advance climate planning beyond what was possible a few years ago. COVID-19 has helped more communities realize that “equity and climate are connected.” More communities now know “what cascading impacts of vulnerability and resilience feel like.” Friedman thinks anyone planning climate solutions “needs to leverage this key moment.”

Jacksonville, Florida, on the Atlantic Ocean, is embedded in a “web of water,” said Anne Coglianese, Chief Resilience Officer for the city. The largest city governed by a Republican Mayor, Jacksonville faces extreme flood risks. In addition the ocean, “there are 54 tributaries of the St. John’s River” that flow through the city. Extreme heat is also a danger, and the city is undertaking an urban heat study as part of a resilience strategy that is now in development. “Any politician in Florida is aware of the financial risks of climate change.”

Map of Jacksonville, Florida / GISGeography.com

Coglianese noted that Louisiana, another red state, developed the Louisiana Coastal Masterplan in 2017, which includes 124 projects to be completed over a 50-year period. The state plans to spend $50 billion on resilience and build 800 square miles of land in order to combat accelerated coastal erosion and save an estimated $150 billion in climate change-related damages. “There was universal bipartisan legislative support for the plan,” she said.

Land loss in coastal Louisiana, 1932-2013, NOAA / Public domain

And just a few months ago, the state government announced it was developing the first climate action plan in the Gulf South. The goal is to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 through deep cuts in oil and gas infrastructure emissions. A 23 member task force, which includes oil and gas and environmental justice representatives, unanimously approved the plan.

Throughout the session, the speakers used Mentimeter to poll the hundreds of session attendees in real time about how they are approaching climate action in their communities.

Asked about the relationship between equity and climate change, 52 percent of the audience stated that “equity is at the core of climate change planning,” while 24 percent stated that “climate change is at the core of equity planning,” and another 24 percent argued that equity and climate are separate issues. For Friedman, this means that “76 percent find that climate and equity are interconnected; we can’t disentangle the two.”

Aho argued that given underserved communities have “underlying vulnerabilities,” they are impacted by “climate change in the most severe way.” The question is: “Who can rebound faster?” Coglianese added that “everyone may face the same storm, but not everyone is in the same boat; some are in a yacht, and some are in a row boat.”

Another poll to the audience asked: how often planners are encountering politics when planning for climate change? 55 percent of the audience said “more frequently,” 36 percent said “about the same,” while 9 percent said “less frequently.”

This is a sign that the “country is polarized around national issues” like climate change, Aho said. The solution is to “keep it local, which is less polarizing. Keep politics out of the conversation.”

The Green New Deal: What’s Next for Landscape Architects?

“Renew Calumet” / wkshp/bluemarble

By wkshp/bluemarble

A Green New Deal means designers can live up to their potential to address the wicked problems of our time. Landscape architects, planners, and architects may be familiar with the Green New Deal Superstudio, which was a call for designers to “spatially manifest” the Green New Deal, or to imagine projects centering jobs, justice and decarbonization.

The Superstudio marks an inflection point for landscape architecture. Grounded in policy and the context of climate change and social unrest, the Superstudio is the landscape architecture community’s public acknowledgement that our work is deeply intertwined with politics.

As a collective of young practitioners, we understand the significance of the Green New Deal conversation happening within and outside of our profession. ASLA and the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) have embraced the Green New Deal, and organized students and practitioners to imagine its tangible implications within the built environment. These steps represent real action towards the shift in practice that Billy Fleming, ASLA, the Wilks Family Director at the McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania, called for in his 2019 article, Design and the Green New Deal. Like Fleming and the profession’s organizations, we recognize a shift that needs to happen if landscape architecture is to stand a chance.

It is crucial for landscape architecture to change if we are to have a meaningful contribution toward a habitable future. As Superstudio participants, Wkshp, a team of emerging professionals, viewed the Superstudio as a way to imagine both future projects and adapted practice.

For us, the Superstudio was fulfilling in several ways. With limited experience in professional practice, we found a shared sentiment that our professional experiences were not in complete alignment with what we were sold in school – a sometimes romanticized version of our personal career paths and the impact they will have. After a couple of years in practice, we have maintained faith in the potential of landscape architecture to make large-scale change. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Superstudio was that it prompted us to make space to rekindle our passions and sense of purpose, in ways that often don’t fit into typical modes of practice.

“Understanding the GND through Landscape Architecture” / wkshp/bluemarble

What exactly doesn’t fit into existing practice and why? While developing our Superstudio submission, our time was dedicated to identifying barriers to implementation and asking questions. Repeatedly, we were brought back to the same power dilemmas, which are beyond the scope of the typical landscape architecture project, but were centered in our Superstudio work: structural racism, a patriarchal society, colonialism, severe economic inequity, and environmental injustice, among others.

“Towards a Just Transition — Community Activist in the Calumet Region” / wkshp/bluemarble

Working under the framework of the Green New Deal was liberating – it meant that we could transcend the constraints of the current market, and a model of practice formulated to serve it. It allowed us to imagine design processes and projects to serve geographies and communities that have been economically, socially, and environmentally abandoned, while considering how we can work differently.

We imagine a culture that has moved beyond megalomania, utopianism, and individualism. In the Superstudio, we find the seeds of a collaborative realism and inclusive organizing that we are now working to scale and ground. So, a Green New Deal project is not necessarily a “new project” in its built form, but the where, how, and for whom represent a practice transformed. The Green New Deal creates living infrastructure in places that need it but can’t afford it, repairing landscapes that have been endlessly extracted from, preparing underserved communities for unpredictable futures, with an emphasis that it will all be co-designed. This is a new means and mode of practice — one of which does not yet exist, but desperately needs to.

The Superstudio was an experiment in process, just as much as it was a design project. wkshp/bluemarble, a non-hierarchical collective with collaborators from multiple firms working together across three time zones, embodied this ethos throughout. We understand that ethics of flexible leadership and constant growth are critical for facing the challenges of our generation.

“Renew Calumet” / wkshp/bluemarble

The Modernist approach exemplified by architects Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright is a deeply flawed, failed model. We cannot rely on individuals to save the planet. In the same vein, we must stop placing individuals on a pedestal within design culture as a whole. Almost nothing in our field is created — or even conceived — by a single individual, and it’s time to acknowledge the power of a team as well as elevate the power of the ideas, rather than praise a single person. On this note, we reject destructive criticism by those in power within our tiny profession. Young designers need support, especially those willing to dedicate a career (or even one year as a thought experiment) to re-conceiving our collective future.

With this transformational spirit, the Superstudio summit, Grounding the Green New Deal, was an opportunity to begin imagining next steps with fellow Superstudio participants and leaders. The summit organized by LAF, with the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, ASLA, and the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA) at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., featured a curated selection of projects and speakers from practice, policy, and advocacy. The summit which was thought-provoking, informative, and beautifully executed, igniting a series of deep reflections.

Both the immediate and more distant futures of the profession were on display at the summit. For those seeking spark notes on advancing jobs justice and decarbonization, here are some general themes we came away with:

  • Connect with and lend support to organizers, center the visions of frontline communities, and grapple with and address the relationship between ourselves, our communities, and our professions to colonialism, racism, and structural inequalities.
  • Gain a better understanding of both power and implementation pathways, both locally and nationally, so you can make things happen now.
  • Concurrently work to advance policies like the GND that aim to create change at scale in the future, work to change institutions that hold power, and when working with developers and politicians make them think that your transformative idea is their idea.
  • Above all, to make a real impact, we need to get organized and plan our actions.

We were especially inspired by the work and vision of organizers such as Colette Pichon Battle, Esq., the executive director of Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy, an organization that is actively bringing justice to front line communities in the Gulf Coast Region, and represents the type of organization that designers could support in projects akin to the Green New Deal. The voices of those with public sector experience stood out as well, such as Mitchell Silver, Hon. ASLA, former Commissioner of New York City Parks & Recreation department. These panelists shared their strategies of working within existing institutions to produce projects embodying the pace, scale, and justice-orientation of the Green New Deal in the now.

Kate Orff, FASLA, founder of SCAPE, and Fleming, both key figures in the Superstudio and the profession at large, provided essential framing through presentations that served as a prompt for advocacy and guide for implementation.

We felt that the lack of organized dialogue among the mass of Superstudio participants was a missed opportunity, and that the format of the summit, while inspiring, felt devoid of the popular, inclusive spirit of the Superstudio. Some challenges – mostly of the “how do I start doing this right now?” variety – still need further testing in the real world. For example, once we connect with community organizers, are we prepared to work differently from our normal practice? Can this work happen at scale outside of academic spaces? How does this work get done where there isn’t an existing implementation structure, or the structure cannot transcend existing forms of development? How do we scale up this transformative practice outside of the most populous, resource-rich regions of the country?

Urgency is in the air. The summit must be the beginning of a conversation, yes, but most importantly must further contribute to radical action both within and beyond the field locally and globally. Now is the time for landscape architecture to evolve.

Here are our next steps: capacity building, organizing, and, most critically, doubling down on the collective imagination that the Superstudio so radically and meaningfully engaged.

wkshp/bluemarble is a team of emerging professionals working for transformations within practice and the world at large.

Adriana Hernández Aguirre, Associate ASLA, Coleman & Associates
Maddie Clark, Design Workshop
Olivia Pinner, Associate ASLA, SWA
Adam Scott, PLA, Associate ASLA, SWA
Nicholas Zurlini, Associate ASLA, GGLO

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

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

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.

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

The Beach at Expedia Group, Seattle, Washington. Surfacedesign / Marion Brenner

The Next Level in Sustainability: Nature Restoration — 03/15/22, The New York Times
“Landscape architects from Surfacedesign in San Francisco focused on extensive natural habitat restoration for the project, a former industrial site that at one point was two piers in Elliott Bay filled in with garbage. That meant meters-deep soil replacement to ease the seeding of native plants, grasses and a coastal meadow.”

Atlanta Takes Major Step Forward in Establishing Its First Park with Chattahoochee River Access — 03/15/22, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Per New York- and New Orleans-based landscape architecture and urban design studio SCAPE, which is leading a multidisciplinary design team for the effort, Chattahoochee RiverLands is a vision to ‘reunite the River with the Metro Atlanta Region and link suburban, urban, and rural communities into a continuous public realm that centers the River as a regional resource.'”

From One Parking Spot to 100 Public Parks: The History of San Francisco’s Street Transformation — 03/11/22, Fast Company Design
“In January 2020, San Francisco realized a long-envisioned goal of eliminating cars from 10 blocks of its central commercial corridor, Market Street. Improvements at intersections were installed to make the street safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Within the first two months, bike and scooter usage increased by 25%, and bus travel speeds went up an average of 6%.”

The Case for Preserving Spontaneous Nature in Cities — 03/10/22, Bloomberg CityLab
“From roadside weeds to accidental gardens, cities are full of significant natural spaces that don’t get their due, argues Matthew Gandy in a new book.”

An Architect Who Mixes Water and Nature to Build Resilience — 03/07/22, The New York Times
Kotchakorn Voraakhom, International ASLA: “There are many benefits to being a woman; particularly the connection to nature. I think with motherhood, the cycles of the body, we’re more in touch with nature in our bodies and our hearts.”

Landscape Architecture Is All About Finding Balance with NatureOutside Magazine
“As a landscape architect, Ryley Thiessen understands that finding balance is key. While his work requires him to design four-season resorts around the world—and make them accessible and enjoyable for all visitors—he never wants to take too much from nature.”

Latest IPCC Report: “Safeguarding and Strengthening Nature Is Key to Securing a Livable Future”

ASLA 2019 Professional Landmark Award. Crosswinds Marsh Wetland Interpretive Preserve. Sumpter Township, MI. SmithGroup / Aaron Kiley

ASLA is deeply concerned by the latest scientific findings outlined in Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, the second research assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and supports the increased global focus on restoring ecosystems and implementing “climate resilient development” practices to help more vulnerable communities stave off the worst impacts.

“This is the direst warning yet from the IPCC, and only reiterates to us the critical importance of our shared vision, which guides our work — to plan and design healthy and resilient communities for all,” said ASLA President Eugenia Martin, FASLA. “Working closely with other planning and design disciplines, we must accelerate our collective efforts to protect and restore natural systems and help communities get onto more resilient pathways. We must help communities around the world get ready for a much different world in 2100.”

“Landscape architects have been increasingly alarmed by the climate impacts they have heard from communities, researched, and witnessed themselves. The vast majority of practicing landscape architects surveyed last year have been actively educating their partners about the need to adopt climate resilient practices to address extreme heat, flooding, and other increasingly dangerous impacts immediately,” said ASLA CEO Torey Carter-Conneen. “We are committed to advancing resilience strategies that will help communities not only in the U.S. but also internationally.”

This latest IPCC review of climate science, which was approved by 195 countries, finds that approximately 3.3 to 3.6 billion people, or nearly half of the global population, now live in places highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. 1.5 to 2 billion people live in areas facing water scarcity. Up to 1 billion people are now at risk from sea level rise. And as temperatures incrementally increase, climate change will put even greater numbers of people at risk.

Many expected climate impacts are now “increasingly irreversible” and worse than anticipated even a few years ago. All regions of the globe will be impacted by increasing temperatures and extreme weather events, with the highest impacts in regions that are already among the most vulnerable. For example, the report finds that between 2010 and 2020, 15 times more people died from floods, droughts, and storms in Africa, South Asia, and Central and South America than in other parts of the world.

In North America, the report outlines a range of expected climate impacts:

  • Increased deaths, illnesses, and mental health impacts from rising temperatures, extreme weather events, and climate change-induced hazards.
  • Increased degradation of land, coastal, and marine ecosystems, including loss of biodiversity, ecosystem functions, and their protective benefits.
  • Reduced availability of freshwater, which could not only impact communities but also ecosystems, and degraded water quality.
  • Increased risk of food and nutritional insecurity through changes to agriculture, livestock, hunting, fisheries, and aquaculture productivity and access.
  • Increased risks to well-being, livelihoods, and economic activities from cascading and compounding climate hazards, including risks to coastal cities, settlements, and infrastructure from sea level rise.

According to the report, a key solution to addressing all these challenges is increasing investment in vitally important ecosystems. “Healthy ecosystems are more resilient to climate change and provide life critical services such as food and clean water,” argues Hans-Otto Pörtner, IPCC Working Group II Co-Chair, in a press release.

But given human health, well-being, and livelihoods depend on the services provided by ecosystems, there is also significant concern that natural systems themselves may fail to adapt to rising temperatures and other climate impacts, undermining all other efforts.

The report states: “Increased heatwaves, droughts, and floods are already exceeding plants’ and animals’ tolerance thresholds, driving mass mortalities in species such as trees and corals. These weather extremes are occurring simultaneously, causing cascading impacts that are increasingly difficult to manage.”

Up to 14 percent of all species, depending on degree of temperature rise, also now face “a very high risk of extinction.” ASLA believes these latest findings show the critical need to increase investment in protecting biodiversity through supporting ecosystems and their restoration, greater ecosystem connectivity, and species migration corridors.

While global campaigns to protect and enhance 30 percent of terrestrial and marine ecosystems have gained momentum, the IPCC instead calls for “restoring degraded ecosystems and effectively and equitably conserving” 30 to 50 percent of “Earth’s land, freshwater and ocean habitats.”

What the IPCC calls “climate resilient development,” which combines climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts, can also help communities reduce their vulnerabilities to anticipated impacts. This would involve the rapid transformation of the global energy system to renewable sources, along with significant investments to help communities adapt to the challenges now faced.

ASLA 2021 Professional Research Award. Ecoregional Green Roofs: Theory and Application in the Western USA and Canada. Bruce Dvorak, ASLA

The report highlights cities, particularly inequitable ones, at high risk of climate impacts, but also notes that urban systems provide opportunities to dramatically increase resilience.

Green infrastructure and ecosystem services, sustainable land use and urban planning, sustainable urban water management, improved water efficiency, integrated coastal zone management and coastal defenses – all areas in which landscape architects plan and design solutions – are highlighted as key adaptation solutions in the report, and many also have high climate mitigation benefits.

ASLA 2021 Professional General Design Honor Award. Orange Mall Green Infrastructure. Tempe, Arizona. COLWELL SHELOR LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE / Arizona State University
ASLA 2021 Professional General Design Honor Award. From a Concrete Bulkhead Riverbank to a Vibrant Shoreline Park—Suining South Riverfront Park. Suining City, Sichuan Province, China. ECOLAND Planning and Design Corp. / Arch-Exist Photography

ASLA agrees with the IPCC’s assessment that global adaptation efforts to date have often been limited and short-sighted. The report’s authors write: “Most observed adaptation is fragmented, small in scale, incremental, sector-specific, designed to respond to current impacts or near-term risks, and focused more on planning rather than implementation.” Adaptation efforts are also highly inequitable, with far more investment in developed countries.

ASLA believes it’s important to partner with all communities to provide comprehensive, equitable, and long-range climate adaptation planning. Landscape architects understand the connections between climate, human health and well-being, ecosystems, and biodiversity, and can help communities better understand to reduce their risks. We must plan and design with nature to protect ourselves.

Designing with Carbon

Climate Positive Design case study / Pamela Conrad

As the impacts of the climate crisis become more widespread, landscape architects are increasingly planning and designing landscapes with carbon in mind. At the ASLA 2021 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville, landscape architects offered new approaches and tools for sequestering both operational and embodied greenhouse emissions in their projects and reaching a climate positive state faster.

According to Pamela Conrad, ASLA, founder of Climate Positive Design and principal at CMG Landscape Architecture in San Francisco, approximately 75 percent of all emissions are from the urban built environment, with 40 percent from buildings and 35 percent from transportation and landscapes.

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

To encourage landscape architects to sequester more carbon than they emit through their projects, Conrad founded Climate Positive Design two years ago. The original goal of the effort was to achieve one gigaton of carbon sequestration across all landscape architecture projects by 2050; now that goal has moved up to 2040.

“We need to keep warming to 1.5°C. We can only add 300 gigatons of additional carbon to the atmosphere and need to work within this remaining carbon budget. We need to reduce emissions by 65 percent by 2030 and hit zero by 2040.”

Over the past year, Conrad, along with ASLA, the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA), and Architecture 2030 have encouraged design professionals and global policymakers to strive to achieve these targets. Conrad and ASLA partnered with IFLA to develop a Climate Action Commitment, which represents the voice of 70,000 landscape architecture professionals worldwide across 77 national member organizations of IFLA. All organizations also signed on to Architecture 2030’s 1.5°C COP26 Communiqué, which has the backing of more than one million planning and design professionals worldwide. “This represents a collective commitment,” Conrad said.

The importance of ramping up nature-based carbon sequestration is abundantly clear, but there hasn’t been enough progress. Today, “landscape architects are likely emitting more greenhouse gas emissions than they are sequestering,” Conrad said. “It’s time for radical change in the field of landscape architecture.”

Since its founding, the data in Climate Positive Design’s Pathfinder app has only improved. Thousands of projects have been logged in 85 percent of countries. The tool has helped landscape architects find ways to reduce space for carbon-intensive hardscapes and increase carbon-sequestering trees, shrubs, and grasses. This is critical because the data shows that 75 percent of carbon in landscape projects is embodied in materials like concrete and metal furnishings, while 25 percent is driven by operations, caused by fossil fuel-powered lawn movers and leaf blowers, and fossil fuel-based fertilizers.

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

According to her calculations, when completed, the projects already logged will result in 1.6 million new trees planted, which is equivalent to taking 800,000 cars off the road. “The tool has helped landscape architects increase planting by 18 percent.”

For Conrad, climate-smart design isn’t just about doing good for the planet; it’s also personal. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, she has also experienced the impacts of climate change, like many millions across the world. “I have experienced flooding, devastating fires to the point that I couldn’t go outside, power outages, and, eventually, displacement.”

Chris Ng-Hardy, ASLA, a senior associate landscape architect with Sasaki, a multidisciplinary planning, landscape architecture, and architecture firm, said the contemporary study of ecology and conservation often feels like “we are documenting the end of the world.” But landscape architecture offers a way to shift that mindset. “Design is an optimistic act; it’s productive.”

Sasaki often works at the urban scale, focusing on large and long-range planning projects. They found early site planning decisions can dramatically impact future carbon emissions. “We realized we need to consider carbon from the beginning, before the project even starts.”

Ng-Hardy expects that in the near future developers will increasingly use the landscape portion of large urban projects to offset carbon from the development of buildings and infrastructure.

But in order to accomplish this, developers and designers need solid data on both embodied and operational emissions to guide early planning, and, unfortunately, there are major gaps. “Measuring embodied carbon is about 10-15 years behind the curve in terms of measuring operational carbon.”

To tackle these obstacles, a team at Sasaki used a year-long internal research grant to explore lifecycle assessments and environmental product declarations, developing the Carbon Conscience App in the process. The tool is meant to help with the preliminary planning decisions that determine a project’s long-range carbon footprint. “We are stepping up to help clients integrate this into their work.”

The assumptions underlying the carbon calculations in the tool were developed from a comprehensive academic and professional literature review covering buildings, infrastructure, and landscapes. Ng-Hardy said, for example, data shows that of dry biomass, “about half of the weight is carbon.” The tool could help policymakers get a sense of how much carbon is being sequestered naturally across the U.S.

Carbon Conscience App / Sasaki
Carbon Conscience App / Sasaki

The result of all of the research led to a few conclusions for landscape architects: “don’t destroy ecosystems; add wetlands, prairies, and forests; minimize hardscapes and concrete; and reduce the use of plastics and metals.” Ng-Hardy added that “not all metals are the same — recycled metals are better,” but it’s best to use wood materials wherever possible. And overall, “less is more — everything has impact.”

The conversation then turned to natural carbon sequestration in plants and soil communities. Deanna Lynn, Assoc. ASLA, landscape designer with Wild Land Workshop, a landscape architecture firm that focuses on “endemic landscapes for outdoor living, biodiversity, and water conservation,” said “soil carbon sequestration is hard to study.” But generally, the “more life there is in ecosystems, the more carbon is stored in soils.”

Beneath the surface, there is a complex web, made up of tree roots, organic matter, microbes, earthworms, mycorrhizal fungi, and insects. As described in the book The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World by Peter Wohlleben, just one aspect of this underground world is incredibly fascinating: mycorrhizal fungi, which form a subterranean “world wood web,” enable trees to share carbon, nutrients, and information across their roots.

Nutrient exchanges and communication between mycorrhizal fungi and plants / Wikipedia. Charlotte Roy, Salsero35, Nefronus. CC BY-SA 4.0

Soil ecology is complicated. For example, Lynn said “soil microbial communities are much more important than soil structures” in sequestering carbon. This speaks to the “chemical nature of the organic matter in soils.”

Soils are also “complex, adaptive systems.” When designing for carbon sequestration, it’s important to understand soils as “nested within larger and smaller systems” that change over time. The goal should be to support “self-organizing systems of soil life.”

She argued that when trying to understand the overall carbon sequestered in a landscape, it’s important not to just estimate the carbon in trees with a lot of biomass, like a sequoia, but to examine the whole tree, plant, and soil system. The diversity of plants, including their root range, type, and depth, are also meaningful.

Grove of giant sequoias at Lake at Lake Fulmor, San Bernardino National Forest / U.S. Forest Service, public domain

Lynn has found that more carbon can be stored naturally in ecosystems and soils if species diversity is increased. Landscape architects can introduce more woody plants; warm season grasses; deciduous trees, which are denser; and nitrogen-fixing plants, which enable the productivity of the entire plant communities. Overall, native plants, which have deeper roots, are “more productive and resilient” and therefore will store more carbon over time.

Noe Valley Townhouse, San Francisco, California / Wild Land Workshop

In designing new forested landscapes, Lynn advised referring to a nearby ecosystem and mimicking their arrangements of trees and plants, along with planting an understory of plants that tolerate leaf litter. In all projects, leaf litter should be kept, along with tree logs, which help build carbon in the soil.

In the Q&A, the speakers noted that a “cultural shift” is needed to embrace the “messier” look of ecological design, which has greater carbon and biodiversity benefits. Ng-Hardy said that “the emissions from all the lawns in America are baffling. Lawns are the biggest cash crop in this country. But we need to encourage native plant gardens, a different aesthetic, as our new cultural norm and standard.” Then, landscape architects can increasingly reduce carbon and support biodiversity.