According to the panel, designing with nature helps communities become more resilient to climate change. Living Breakwaters and the Tottenville Shoreline Protection Project in Staten Island, New York City, demonstrate how coastal communities can adapt to rising seas and increasingly intense storms. These innovative projects, led by landscape architects, work in tandem to reduce wave action and beach erosion, create wildlife habitat, and enhance public recreation.
The built environment not only includes buildings and concrete infrastructure, but also landscapes, which are increasingly critical for adapting to climate change. Landscape architects are responsible for planning and designing these nature-based solutions that bring maximum benefits to communities.
The two projects in Staten Island grew out of New York City’s response to Superstorm Sandy, which struck in October 2012. The storm was a wake-up call for the city to better prepare for the impacts of climate change.
Sandy’s impact is understood to have been intensified by climate change — higher ocean temperatures and sea levels may have contributed to the heavy rainfall and the stronger storm surge, which inundated parts of Staten Island and led to the death of several residents and billions of dollars in damage.
Living Breakwaters is currently being constructed in the Raritan Bay. The Tottenville Shoreline Protection Project will be built on the shore itself. The landscape architects leading these projects will explain why we need to re-imagine our coastlines for climate change and future superstorms and how to do it.
Over her forty years of practicing landscape architecture, Solano has continuously looked to Olmsted’s works and writings for inspiration.
“Olmsted believed that landscape architects don’t make nature, but provide the circumstances for nature to take hold. He viewed landscapes as therefore enduring and endurable.”
Some of his other key principles:
“Landscapes are interconnected constructed natural systems that must work on multiple levels.”
“Nature is democratic.” Given the opportunity, it will find space in cities to thrive and therefore urban nature can be restored.
“Landscape architecture is a public health intervention.”
Solano invited Anjelyque Easley DeLuca, a landscape architect and planner based in greater Pittsburgh, to explain her approach and how it relates to Olmsted.
“I look at the layers of the landscape from the ground up,” she said, observing how people use the space, where vegetation grows, how wildlife lives on the land. She explores the connections between human and ecological systems. “Olmsted knew that people share the landscape, and we can create interactions with nature.”
Bryce Donner, Student Affil. ASLA, a landscape architect and graduate student at the University of Florida, also approaches landscape as systems, like Olmsted did.
“Landscape architecture is about bringing together systems — hydrology, geology, wildlife, and people. Even a 1,500 square foot garden is an opportunity to reconnect with larger systems and support the food web, which is the infrastructure we all rely on.”
Donner starts every project with a series of questions in order to understand the systems at work: “What would happen if we did nothing? What would happen to the people, animals, water, and plants? Where would water go?”
Solano said Olmsted’s genius is he understood the underlying systems of landscape as well — engineering and drainage. “So much is hidden in landscape architecture.”
Olmsted also designed and advocated for democratic public spaces — places where “all classes and creeds could see and be seen,” Solano argued.
But since then, “landscape architects have made some mistakes. They haven’t created landscapes with a sense of place that appeals to entire communities.” To overcome past errors, how can landscape architects recognize people who have been erased and forgotten?
Jorge “Coco” Alarcon, a Peruvian landscape architect and architect pursuing a Ph.D in public health at the University of Washington, said that participatory design processes are key. “There is not a recipe for doing this. The approach needs to be customized for each community.”
For example, with indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon, Alarcon found typical planning and design workshops don’t work. “You don’t get straight answers.” Instead, encouraging communities to draw their ideas has yielded more meaningful participation.
This is about “meeting people where they are,” Solano said.
As she researched post-enslaved Black communities and post-WWII Jewish landscapes and communities, Easley DeLuca has learned to listen in order to empower communities.
“I am interested in finding out what happened, the whole story, and how that is reflected in the design of landscapes. It’s important to speak with people instead of at them, seeing how they react to sharing information that will provide you, the designer, with personal benefits, which may eventually provide them with benefits.”
Many of the sites she visited throughout Europe now recognize past atrocities. There are often contemporary markers for the Jewish cemeteries that were destroyed. But she said the same recognition hasn’t happened for Black cemeteries and other important sites in the U.S., which in too many communities have been paved over and forgotten.
“Preserving Black cemeteries is about who has right to the land and telling stories. Olmsted was also interested in telling stories through the landscape by either visual means or a mixture of elements that guide interaction with spaces.”
Olmsted also believed parks and green spaces were critical to public health. He understood the physical and mental health benefits of nature. His values were never more important that during the pandemic, Solano argued.
He may have been influenced by psychologist William James, a contemporary who came up with the concept of “soft fascination,” which is what humans experience in nature, a kind of indirect, non-taxing form of attention. This fascination allows the mind to wander in a way that restores our cognition and mood. “That was unfortunately lost in the pandemic, as we were frightened and stayed indoors.”
During the pandemic, public space became even more crucial to a “healthy body, mind, and soul,” Donner said. “Landscapes provided the ability to say to hi to someone you know safely. Parks and playgrounds enabled interaction or to go solo. They were critical to maintaining spiritual, mental, and physical health and well-being.”
For many communities, landscape also provided more than physical and mental health benefits but also a means of survival. Alarcon noted that during the height of the pandemic, when transportation systems and markets ceased to function, rural Peruvian communities he partnered with increased production of food through their gardens. This enabled them to trade or buy other food.
Another Amazonian community used large gazebos they co-designed with architects and landscape architects as Covid-safe meeting spaces to share health information. “Landscapes became a platform for mediating issues. They were never more important.”
Lastly, Solano asked: What can young designers learn from Olmsted today?
For Easley DeLuca, Olmsted teaches the importance of “being observant. You are not the only person interacting with a landscape; hundreds or thousands are. It’s important to verbalize what you are seeing to discover if others have the same opinions or interests.”
“Olmsted saw landscapes as an entire system.” Applying this approach is “what makes someone a landscape architect,” Donner argued.
“Olmsted teaches you that zooming in and zooming out are both necessary. Zooming out is needed even more these days” to understand the broader social forces that shape a landscape, Alarcon said.
Richard J. Weller, ASLA, is the Meyerson Chair of Urbanism and Professor and Chair of landscape architecture and Executive Director of the McHarg Center at The University of Pennsylvania. He is author of seven books, including the forthcoming The Landscape Project, a collection of essays by the faculty at the Weitzman School of Design. He is also the creative director of LA+, the interdisciplinary journal of landscape architecture. In 2017 and 2018, Weller was voted by the Design Intelligence survey as one of North America’s most admired teachers, and his research has been published by Scientific American and National Geographic and exhibited in major museums around the world.
Later this year, the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will meet in China to finalize what is being called a “Paris Agreement for Nature.” The agreement will outline global goals for ecosystem conservation and restoration for the next decade, which may include preserving 30 percent of lands, coastal areas, and oceans by 2030. Goals could also include restoring one-fifth of the world’s degraded ecosystems and cutting billions in subsidies that hurt the environment. What are the top three things planning and design professions can do to help local, state, and national governments worldwide achieve these goals?
Design, Design, and Design!
There are now legions of policy people and bureaucrats, even accountants at the World Bank, all preaching green infrastructure and nature-based solutions. But the one thing all these recent converts to landscape architecture cannot do is design places. They cannot give form to the values they all now routinely espouse.
But design is not easy, especially if it’s seeking to work seriously with biodiversity, let alone decarbonization and social justice. Design has to show how biodiversity— from microbes to mammals— can be integrated into the site scale, then connected with and nested into the district scale, the regional, the national, and, ultimately, the planetary scale. And then it has to situate the human in that network – not just as voyeurs in photoshop, but as active agents in ecosystem construction and reconstruction.
Of course, wherever we can gain influence, this is a matter of planning — green space here, development there. But it’s also an aesthetic issue of creating places and experiences from which the human is, respectfully, now decentered, and the plenitude of other life forms foregrounded.
It’s as if on the occasion of the sixth extinction, we need a new language of design that is not just about optimizing landscape as a machine, or a pretty picture, but that engenders deeper empathy for all living things and the precarious nature of our interdependence.
In 2010, the CBD set 20 ambitious targets, including preserving 17 percent of terrestrial and inland waters and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas by 2020. Of these targets, only 6 have been partially met. On the other hand, almost every week, we hear about billions being spent by coalitions of foundations or wealthy individuals to buy and protect vast swathes of land in perpetuity. And the protection of nature and leveraging “nature-based solutions” is increasingly a global priority. Are you positive or negative about the future of conservation?
In 1962, there were about 9,000 protected areas. Today, there are over 265,000 and counting. If our yardstick is humans setting aside land for things other than their own consumption, then there is reason to be optimistic.
In 2021, the total protected area sits at 16.6 percent the Earth’s terrestrial ice-free surface, not quite 17 percent, but close. The missing 0.4 percent is not nothing – it’s about 150,000 Central Parks and over the last few years my research has been motivated by wondering where exactly those parks should be.
The fact that humans would give up almost a fifth of the Earth during such a historical growth period is remarkable in and of itself. While targets are useful political tools, the question is one of quality not just quantity. And that’s where pessimism can and should set in. Protected areas, especially in parts of the world where they are most needed, arise from messy, not to say corrupt, political processes. They are not always a rational overlay on where the world’s most threatened biodiversity is or what those species really need.
The percentages of protected areas around the world are also very uneven across the 193 nations who are party to the Convention. Some nations, like say New Zealand, exceed the 17 percent target, while others, like Brazil fall way short – and they don’t want people making maps showing the fact. Protected areas also have a history of poor management, and they have, in some cases, evicted, excluded, or patronized indigenous peoples.
Protected areas are also highly fragmented, which is really not good for species now trying to find pathways to adapt to climate change and urbanization and industrialization. The global conservation community is keenly aware of all this but again, while they are good on the science and the politics, they need help creating spatial strategies that can serve multiple, competing constituencies. Under the Convention, all nations must produce national biodiversity plans, and these should go down to the city scale, but these so-called plans are often just wordy documents full of UN speak. There is a major opportunity here for landscape architects to step up.
So, the pessimist’s map of the world shows the relentless, parasitical spread of human expansion and a fragmented and depleted archipelago of protected areas. The optimist’s map on the other hand shows over 160 projects around the world today where communities, governments, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are reconstructing ecosystems at an epic landscape scale.
Rob Levinthal, a PhD candidate at Penn and I call these Mega-Eco Projects. As indicators of the shift from the old-school engineering of megastructures towards green infrastructure on a planetary scale, they are profoundly optimistic.
We don’t call these projects Nature Based Solutions. The reason being that “nature” comes with way too much baggage and “solution” makes designing ecosystems sound like a simple fix. These two words reinforce a dualistic and instrumentalist approach, things which arguably got us into the mess we find ourselves in today.
By placing the Mega-Eco Projects within the tradition of 20th century megaprojects — many of which failed socially and environmentally, if not economically, we are taking a critical approach to their emergence, which is important to working out what really makes for best practice as opposed to just greenwashing.
Whereas the definition of old school megaprojects was always financial — say over a billion dollars — our working definition of Mega-Eco Projects is not numerical. Rather, it is that they are “complex, multifunctional, landscape-scale environmental restoration and construction endeavors that aim to help biodiversity and communities adapt to climate change.”
Furthermore, unlike the old concrete megaprojects, Mega-Eco Projects use living materials; they cross multiple site boundaries, they change over time, and they are as much bottom up as top down. The project narratives are also different, whereas megaprojects were always couched in terms of modern progress and nation building, the Mega-Ecos are about resilience, sustainability, and a sense of planetary accountability.
There are four categories of Mega-Ecos. The first are large-scale conservation projects; the second are projects that seek to resist desertification; the third are watershed plans; and the fourth are green infrastructure projects in cities either dealing with retrofitting existing urbanity or urban growth.
As you would expect, landscape architects tend to be involved with this fourth category, but there is a bigger future for the field in the other three, which is part of our motivation for studying them.
By our current assessment, there are about 40 Mega-Eco Projects taking place in metropolitan areas around the world today. These tend to be in the global north and China, notably the Sponge Cities initiative, where so far over $12 billion has been spent in 30 trial cities. We have not yet conducted a comparative analysis of these projects, nor are many of them advanced enough to yet know if they are, or will be, successful.
With specific regard to urban biodiversity, I don’t think there is yet a city in the world that really stands out and has taken a substantial city-wide approach that has resulted in design innovation. It will happen. As they do with culture, cities will soon compete to be the most biodiverse. The conception that cities are ecosystems, and that cities could be incubators for more than human life is a major shift in thinking, and while landscape architecture has a strong history of working with people and plants, it has almost completely overlooked the animal as a subject of design. That said, we shouldn’t romanticize the city as an Ark or a Garden of Eden. The city is primarily a human ecology, and the real problem of biodiversity lies well beyond the city’s built form. Where cities impact biodiversity is through their planetary supply chains, so they need to be brought within the purview of design.
Singapore is a case in point. Because it developed the Biodiversity Index, Singapore has been able to tally its improvements with regard to urban biodiversity and tout itself as a leader in this area. Many other cities are adopting this tool and this is good.
But this is also where things get tricky, because whatever gains Singapore can afford to make in its urban biodiversity need to be seen in light of the nation’s massive ecological footprint.
I mean, Singapore can make itself into a garden because the farm and the mine are always somewhere else. I would call Singapore a case of Gucci biodiversity, a distraction from the fact that they bankroll palm oil plantations in Kalimantan, the last of the world’s great rainforests.
That said, every city is shot through with contradictions. The question then is to what degree do the designers play along or whether they can make these contradictions the subject of their work, as opposed to its dirty little secret. The Gardens by the Bay project, for example, is a brilliant case of creating a spectacle and keeping tourists in town for an extra day, but it’s got nothing to do with biodiversity beyond the boundary of the project.
The late E.O. Wilson and other biologists and ecologists have also called for protecting half the Earth’s lands and oceans. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) split the difference in their recent report, calling for 30-50 percent to be protected. What are the extra benefits to protecting 50 percent? What does this mean for the planning and design of existing and future human settlements?
I’d trust E.O. Wilson or better still, James Lovelock, with the calculation for a healthy planet, but the dualism of humans here and biodiversity over there that tends to come with Wilson’s notoriously puritanical position is problematic.
The world is a novel, highly integrated, human dominated ecosystem, and design has to work at improving the symbiotic nature of that condition. Each site needs to be assessed on its own biological and cultural terms as to what can be more deeply integrated or what should be separated out; what has to be actively curated and what can be left to its own devices. As Sean Burkholder and others have pointed out, this means designing time as well as space.
The thing with Wilson is where exactly would his 50 percent be? He never really explained it in spatially explicit terms. Half Earth means another 34.5 percent on top of what we currently have protected. As a priority, it would have to comprise any unprotected forest or other areas of remnant vegetation and whatever can be clawed back in the world’s biodiversity hotspots.
But the numbers don’t really add up. About 40 percent of the Earth’s ice-free earth is currently used for food production, 30 percent is desert, and 30 percent is forest – although “forest” is a loose term, and some of that already overlaps with protected areas. Given that the global foodscape is and will probably continue expanding, 30 percent total protected area seems more reasonable than 50. It is my belief that design, if given the chance, can weave viable biodiversity through the contemporary agricultural landscape whilst maintaining overall yield.
Even 30 seems a stretch, because if you project the expansion of crop land by 21st century population growth, we need most of the planet to feed people, so something has to give. Either we massively increase yields from the current agricultural footprint or biodiversity gets pushed further into the mountains. Or billions starve. The prospect of us reducing the planet to a monoculture is very real and very scary on every level.
To your question, the benefits would be that by more or less doubling the current conservation estate, we could create larger patches in the hotspots and seek to achieve connectivity between the existing fragments of protected areas. As landscape ecology teaches, it is only with larger patches and substantial connectivity that we can create a truly resilient and healthy landscape. The problem is of course that the patches and corridors have to be reverse engineered into hostile territory. Human settlements and agriculture have to make way for larger patches and greater connectivity and planned around it. To turn the whole thing on its head, human settlements and human land uses have to protect the global conservation estate. Easy to say.
Biodiversity loss is often considered a result of the climate crisis. But there are other issues also driving increased biodiversity loss and extinction rates worldwide, such as increased development in natural areas, the spread of transportation systems, and pesticide and chemical use. How do explain the relationship between climate change and biodiversity loss?
When people hear “biodiversity” they almost invariably think of charismatic megafauna, but as you indicate, the problem runs deeper and at a much finer grain. Of course, we are now obsessed with chasing every carbon molecule, but for life on and in the land and its waters, the problem is also excess manufactured nitrogen along with other toxins. Ironically, despite ultimately killing microorganisms upon which soil health depends, industrialized fertilizers have slowed the rate of deforestation that would have occurred had the world tried to feed itself without industrial fertilizers because they have, at least in the short term, increased yields.
The main problem from a spatial planning and land use perspective is that species increasingly need to migrate so as to adapt to a changing climate but they find themselves trapped in isolated fragments of protected areas or stranded in unprotected scraps of remnant habit.
There is another part of this though, and that is that the entire discourse and politics of environmentalism is couched in terms of loss. But a truer picture perhaps is that as ever in the chaos of evolution, there will be winners as well as losers. I don’t think we know what is really happening or what will happen, so in that sense we need to design landscapes as insurance policies, as expressions of the precautionary principle where we just try to maximize the potential of life to evolve. In this regard landscape architectural research and design becomes less about finished projects, and more about conducting experiments based on both scientific and cultural questions related to biodiversity.
The Metatron at the Theoretical and Experimental Ecology Station in Moulis, France is a good example. The Metatron is an experimental field of 48 enclosures in which species composition, temperature, light and humidity can be controlled. Each enclosure is connected to the others via small passages that can also be controlled. In this way, the Metatron is a simulator of landscape dynamics, a model microcosm in which each enclosure is understood as a “patch” and each connector a small simulation of a landscape “corridor.” Since 2015, given the limitations of its size, experiments have focused on studying how small species like butterflies and lizards move through the system, but many more species could be studied using a similar system at larger scales. In essence, the Metratron is learner’s kit, helping us understand how best to reconstruct landscapes at scale.
Your own research, including the ASLA-award winning Atlas for the End of the World, documents how areas at the edge of sprawling cities around the world are increasingly colliding with biodiversity hotspots, which are defined as highly valuable reservoirs of diverse and endemic species. What are the implications of your research?
By conducting an audit of land use and urban growth with regards to CBD targets in the world’s biodiversity hotspots, the Atlas set the scene for my two current research projects.
The first is the Hotspot Cities Project and the second is the World Park Project. A hotspot city is a growing city in a biodiversity hotspot – the 36 regions on Earth where endemic biodiversity is most diverse and most threatened. We’ve identified which of these cities —over 90 percent— are sprawling on direct collision courses with remnant habitat harboring endangered species.
In our mapping we identify the conflict zones between development and biodiversity and then we conduct design case studies as to how the conflict could be mitigated. The argument is that destructive sprawl is not a fait accompli, and designers—especially landscape architects skilled in urban design— can create credible alternatives by taking a holistic, city-wide perspective. This research especially draws attention to peri-urban landscapes that are largely overlooked by the profession, because the design dollar has mainly been invested in city centers.
The World Park Project is a big vision for a new form of conservation landscape, one that actively involves humans in its construction. It’s an answer to the question of where those 150,000 Central Parks should be, as I mentioned earlier.
The idea of the World Park begins with the creation of three recreational trails: the first from Australia to Morocco, the second from Turkey to Namibia, and the third from Alaska to Patagonia.
Passing through 55 nations, these trails are routed to string together as many fragments of protected areas in as many hotspots as possible. The trails are catalysts for bringing people together to work on restoring the ecological health of over 160,000 square kilometers of degraded land in between existing protected areas.
In this way, the Park is about building a coherent and contiguous global network of protected area. It addresses the two biggest challenges facing global conservation today: ensuring adequate representation of biodiversity in protected areas and connectivity between those areas. It sounds crazy, but forging connectivity at this scale is just what we do for every other form of global infrastructure. Humans build networks, and it’s high time to build a green one.
I was expecting derision from design academics about World Park, because “going big” is generally seen as neo-colonial or megalomaniacal. I was also expecting world weary eye-rolling from the conservationists or outright rejection of the idea because it would suck the oxygen out of their own efforts, but generally the reaction has been very positive.
Most people, particularly in the NGOs, have reacted like “wow – this is exactly what we need right now.” They know they can’t just keep adding more fenced-off fragments of protected area to meet UN targets. There are now so many conservation efforts going on but they are all disconnected from one another. A World Park could galvanize these efforts into something that is greater than just the sum of its parts.
In any event, my research team (Alice Bell, Oliver Atwood and Elliot Bullen) have completed the mapping of the Park’s territory. Now I’m talking with UNESCO about how we might move the idea to a proper feasibility study. Realistically, nothing will happen unless the major NGOs adopt it, along with some philanthropic champions and the relevant ministers in those nations whose sovereign territory is involved.
Only half-jokingly, I think Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson should bring their toys back to earth and take this on. Musk could fund the African trail, Bezos the Americas, and Branson would pick up the Australia to Morocco piece. At current landscape restoration rates, I worked it out at about $7 billion.
That’s an expensive park, but the better question to ask is not what it costs but what is it worth? For a mere $7 billion a World Park could provide investment in impoverished landscapes. It could provide meaningful experiences and jobs for lots of people. Above all, it would be a profound sign of hope that humanity can work together to be a constructive force of nature instead of its executioner.
Lastly, how can landscape architecture academics and practitioners better partner to address the twinned biodiversity and climate crises? What additional research is needed to better weave biodiversity considerations into broader climate solutions?
Well, as someone who has spent a lifetime in both the academy and practice, I would really like to take this opportunity to attest to the value of both. I think it’s a problem that the academy demands young faculty have PhDs but not necessarily any practice experience. Just as I think it’s a problem that certain elements of the profession become anti-intellectual over time and associate this with being savvy professionals.
Academics have the luxury of formulating research questions and methods, whereas practitioners are generally making it up on the run and learning by doing. These are both entirely valid ways of forming knowledge, and they actually need each other.
My work over the last decade has been very big picture, but it means nothing unless it can translate into design. So I think there are two forms of design needed right now with regard to biodiversity and they both bring academics and practitioners together.
The first is taking on a whole-of-city scale and considering the city as an incubator and protectorate for biodiversity and offer plausible scenarios as to how the city’s growth can be best managed to minimize negative impact on existing biodiversity. Until city authorities pay properly for this work, the academics have to act as the start-ups. They can form interdisciplinary teams to find research funding to do this work, preparing the way, as it were, for practitioners to come in and realize specific projects.
Which brings us to the second form of design — the project scale. Take any project at any scale and ask how to approach it if your client was every living thing, not just humans, and then work as if your life really depended on serving all of them – which, incidentally, it does! To answer this takes both time and levels of knowledge beyond landscape architects irrespective of whether they are in the academy or in practice. We are very accomplished at designing for humans but still have everything to learn if we consider biodiversity as our client.
In terms of both professional and academic practice, the role of the landscape architect, now more than ever, is to bring the world of development and the world of conservation together over the same maps and serve as a negotiator.
It sounds like a platitude, but it goes to the core of our job description, and it’s never been more important. There has never been more at stake.
The new book Wild Design: Nature’s Architects by science writer and essayist Kimberly Ridley is a slim, charming look at some of the most interesting results of billions of years of evolution — the beautiful and always highly functional forms of plants, fungi, insects, spiders, avians, and mammals. Through more than 70 well-curated antique illustrations, along with thoughtful and concise essays, Ridley tells stories of the wondrous diversity of natural forms.
As Janine Benyus, founder of Biomimicry 3.8 and the Biomimicry Institute, explained in an ASLA interview, “life has been on the planet for 3.8 billion years, and, in that time, it has learned what works and what lasts here on Earth. That’s a long line of good ideas and unprecedented longevity. What doesn’t work is recalled (made extinct) and what does work is optimized with each generation. Natural selection prizes those things that work best in place as well as those that create conditions conducive to life.”
These kind of ideas clearly inspire Ridley, who urges the reader to “notice nature’s creative genius.” She worries that “staring at our phone and computer screens, we isolate ourselves from the wild world, cutting ourselves off from a powerful source of inspiration, delight, and wonder.”
But beyond the power of nature to improve our spirit and sense of well-being, we must also pay closer attention to nature for even more important reasons. With the world becoming more fixated on technology, and development diminishing more wild places, the inspirations provided by nature can sometime feel less immediate and resonant. This not only impacts our well-being and ability to be optimistic, but also our ability to be passionate stewards and grow the next generations of Earth protectors.
As we face worsening biodiversity and climate crises, both a result of a fundamental disconnect with nature, Ridley argues we must take a “deeper look at the wild inventiveness all around us” because “it may be key to our survival.”
On the positive side: the specific needs of trees, plants, insects, birds, and animals have shaped the design of gardens and landscapes for thousands of years and inspired countless paths, features, and spaces. Landscape architects and designers have been leveraging and mimicking nature’s designs before there were even terms like biomimicry and biophilic and ecological design.
And in the past few decades, with the growth of the biophilic and ecological design movements, there has perhaps been an even more intentional effort to maximize the benefits of nature and create cities, landscapes, and buildings that function more like ingenious living systems.
Wild Design will encourage any designer who looks to nature for ideas and systems thinking and cares about the continuation of natural systems and, in turn, humanity.
Ridley examines the microscopic wonders created by diatoms, minute algae, and radiolarians, marine zooplankton. She explains that these tiny life forms “use their cell membranes as molds to create mesh frames of hardened silica–structures that are remarkably durable.” It easy to see these forms inspiring new kinds of efficient protective materials.
In a section on “fabulous fungi,” Ridley explains that fungi are in a separate kingdom from plants, with more than 200,000 known species and an estimated 5 million more that scientists have yet to catalog. They provide two critical functions: they act as “demolition crews,” breaking down dead plant material, which is vital to the health of any forest; and also form networks — a prime example being mycorrhizal fungi, which help trees and plants absorb nutrients and water and communicate risks. This latter kind of fungi forms the basis of a subterranean “world wood web” scientists have only recently begun to understand. Ridley argues that “terrestrial life wouldn’t exist if not for these bizarre and ancient beings.” Landscape architects can design with fungi to improve soil and ecological health and better sequester carbon. We can also learn from fungi how to design resilient, adaptable networks and systems.
“Plants are the design wizards of the natural world,” Ridley writes. Seemingly like magic, they use sunlight to transform carbon dioxide and water into sugars they live on while generating the oxygen the rest of us rely on. Scientists have organized the approximately 400,000 species of plants into four groups: mosses and liverworts, ferns, coniferns, and flowering plants. As Ridley describes, trees have inspired everything from Greek and Roman columns to the vaulted ceilings of medieval churches. Throughout history, landscape architects and architects have been drawn to designing with trees and plants and incorporating woods, one of the most sustainable, carbon-sequestering materials.
In a section on arthropod engineers — spiders and insects — Ridley argues that “despite their miniscule brains,” these beings have “solved some of the most complicated problems in architecture and engineering” — and offer a model of efficient and sustainable uses of resources. As Darwin noted, a honeycomb created by bees is “absolutely perfect in economizing wax and labor.” And centuries before, in 36 BC, Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro proposed what came to be known as “honeycomb conjecture,” arguing that “dividing a flat plane into equal hexagons is the most efficient way to pack the most surface area into the smallest perimeter.” Exploring the amazing structures designed by bees, along with spiders, termites, and ants, we can learn from some of the original master designers how to build resilient, pre-programmed structures using natural materials.
Additional chapters explore the varied and surprising nests birds design, and the elaborate tunnels and dens formed by prairie dogs and beavers. Birds can inspire all designers practicing in our era of increasingly limited resources: they constantly re-use what they find, crafting only what they need. For example, an adaptive Carolina wren will either create a dome-like nest in open cavities 3-6 feet off the ground or simply design a nest out of abandoned “clothespin bags, plant pots, boots, bags, and even the pocket of a jacket left outside.”
Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA, is President and CEO of HargreavesJones and leads the firm’s offices in New York City, San Francisco, and Cambridge. HargreavesJones has been recognized with the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award and the Rosa Barba International Landscape Prize.
Interview conducted at the ASLA 2021 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville.
Across Tennessee, HargreavesJones has transformed inaccessible, polluted industrial riverfronts into rich, multifaceted parks. What has investment in the revitalization of Tennessee’s riverfronts meant to you? What trends are you seeing in Tennessee with public space more broadly?
It’s not just Nashville and Tennessee. We have found mid-tier cities are not just thinking about their post-industrial riverfronts, but also their place in the market and their ability to draw businesses and people. They’re more open to transformation, so that’s how we ended up doing major riverfront projects in cities such as Louisville, Kentucky; Chattanooga and Nashville, Tennessee; and Davenport, Iowa.
The steel industry left the riverfront in Nashville in a post-industrial state. The community embraced the idea of truly making something completely different out of their riverfront because they had nothing. It’s harder to come into cities like Los Angeles, New York City, or San Francisco with such sweeping transformations. In Nashville, Chattanooga, and Louisville, landscape architects can design signature waterfront experiences, address the dynamics of rivers, and restore ecosystems that can be a healthy part of a river system.
In Nashville, your firm designed the 6.5-acre Cumberland Park as part of a broader riverfront revitalization plan. The park is a model of sustainability and resilience, reuses a bridge structure, sources geothermal, preserves the flood plain, captures and reuses a million gallons of stormwater, remediates toxic soils, and improves biodiversity. How did you make all these pieces fit together?
It was so evident; the opportunities were there. Just focusing on stormwater for a minute: there were walls beneath the gantry structure, so the first thing we said was, “don’t take this gantry structure down, it’s beautiful. Not only will we build a bridge to it and let it become an overlook, we’ll also leave the heavy-duty concrete retaining walls below it. Let’s use the space to create an outlet for stormwater from the site and from the two bridges into a cistern.” We created a cistern that has an open air top so it’s actually quite beautiful to look down on, like a reflecting pool. You kind of want to jump in. Then there’s the river, so in flood times, it spills over to the river.
Bio-remediation is just dealing with the soil, which is the case on almost every project we do. We have to either bake or bury and cap soils, depending on the toxic substances and conditions. Geothermal became part of the building, an existing piece of infrastructure from the steel industry, which was then retrofitted by architects on our team to become the stair tower, concessions booth, and park office building. Even the toilets are mindfully designed for low water usage. With science, there are all these opportunities.
In Chattanooga, Tennessee, your firm also designed a 23.5-acre Renaissance Park, which transformed a former industrial site into a wetland park, and the 21st Century Waterfront Park, which reconnects the city to its riverfront and has led to $1 billion in new residential and retail development. How do you design for multiple needs at once — social life, economic development, equitable access, and environmental restoration? How do you prioritize?
As landscape architects, that’s our job. That is the beauty of landscape architecture. We are not just doing the science; it’s not just a matrix of solving problems. We also create places people will love. The result of that will be economic investment and stewardship. If we don’t make places people love, they won’t be taken care of.
We create social and economic change around these projects, but at the same time we’re providing something to the neighborhood around these projects. We’re revitalizing these neighborhoods.
We don’t think we can just restore nature. We can’t just make form, design, and feel good about that. We have to do both those things and think about what is fiscally responsible because that’s what is ultimately going to give a project its long life.
Another significant new riverfront park in the South HargreavesJones designed is Crescent Park along the Mississippi River in New Orleans. By reusing surplus wharfs and derelict railroad sites a new public space was formed that celebrates the city’s infrastructural legacy instead of wiping it. What is the best way to tell landscape stories using the past? What are the other benefits of adapting and reusing legacy infrastructure?
Sometimes adaptive reuse — reinventing and reinterpreting remnants — makes your budget spread farther. An early groundbreaking project in this regard was Richard Haag’s Gas Works Park in Seattle. He left the old structures as is and created a green space around them.
But we’re taking it further now. There are remnants, but we interpret them in new ways. We aren’t just saving the rail tracks, we’re making gardens that follow the path of those rail tracks. We’re not strictly preserving, we’re amplifying through reinterpretation and twisting things that makes you see the infrastructure in a new way.
The transformation of Oklahoma City has been accelerated by the 70-acre Scissortail Park, the grand new central park that will connect the city to its waterfront and realize its core to shore plan. How did your firm’s design for the park advance the plan?
We were really interested in the transition from urban to river and making that legible in the park design. Rather than thinking of the park as one piece, we thought of it as a gradation of landscape types, so it progresses quite a lot as you move toward the river in terms of its design, landscape, and materials. Of course, there are some consistencies. The promenade and the lighting of the promenade go all the way from core to shore, but the landscapes and the planting around it evolve quite a bit, as do some of the uses.
We wanted to accentuate that experience of moving toward the river, so that as a visitor, you become aware you’re entering a landscape that gets wilder and wetter. There’s an upper park and lower park, and they’re linked by the fabulous Skydance Bridge designed by Hans Butzer, who was part of our team. Before, visitors couldn’t see the river because of the levy along the river, so we created a high point at the southern terminus of the project, closest to the river.
We also designed the park to respond to climate change. That area of the city floods, so the design of the park accommodates floodwater with a big lake. The lake is also a holding basin for irrigation.
During construction, we had 60 straight days of rain, and the whole lake filled, unfortunately, before it was fully shaped, so that really delayed construction. Then, we were forced to plant trees in August, because the Mayor had promised the citizens a concert on opening day. So we planted trees at 4 a.m., because it was too hot any later in the day. We did everything to keep the trees alive. Once the project was built, they had a freak ice storm in early fall when all the leaves were still on all the trees. The city lost hundreds and hundreds of trees, which is very tragic. And do you remember that cold spell that hit that part of the country later that winter, when it was below 10 degrees for 10 straight days? All the plants got hit. So climate change is impacting us. That’s where large parks are important because they can have a built-in resilience and robustness. They’re large enough to recover their systems.
A few years ago, HargreavesJones with Diller, Scofidio + Renfro designed a new “National Park” for Russia, the 35-acre Zaryadye Park in Moscow, next to St. Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, and the Kremlin. The largest new public space in the city in 50 years, the park is based on the principle of wild urbanism, which is meant to complement Moscow’s historically symmetrical public spaces. You have stated the park “samples Russia’s distinct regional landscapes, tundra, steppe, forest, and wetland forest.” What is wild urbanism and how did you realize it through regional inspirations?
Our proposal was part of an international competition, and we were the only American team. We didn’t think we would win, especially since our scheme was based on openness and being welcoming, a very democratic idea of porosity and inclusion. We wanted to contrast the traditional parks of Moscow that are very rigid — their pathways have edges and there’s 500 tulips all the same color, and then the next row, a different color. Very, very formal. We wanted to create an informality.
In Moscow, the landscapes were formal and rigid in the city, but outside the city was nature. The Russians love their forests. Forests are a part of their fairy tales, music, ballets, their lore. We thought why not bring the forest into the city and make a place of the city but not of the city where you could move through it and at times completely lose the city and then come out of it to the steppe landscape, which is a big meadow on a big hill. And then suddenly, you’re in the heart of these UNESCO World Heritage sites. All the new architecture in the park is tucked into the folds of the new topography. The site slopes considerably from high to low toward the river, so we were able to then interpret topographically from tundra to lowland.
Substantial buildings were created as part of this park, but they’re all below your feet, folded into these topographic waves that cascade from high to low. The paving is pixelated across the site so there are no edges. The landscape morphs from all paving to a blend of paving and landscape to all landscape in ways that allow you to move through the site fairly freely without very prescribed routes. The landscape eats into the paved surfaces and then selection of plants added to the informality.
We had to work really hard with the locals to understand we did not mean annuals. We did not mean 500 tulips. We really did mean perennials that are less controlled, still quite beautiful, and pollinator heaven. We created a kind of wildness that people love.
I think the project is extremely important because it is so public and open and gives people a sense of freedom, to some of the authorities, maybe a little too much. They discovered early on that people were making out in the forest — and we kind of love that, but there are so many security cameras that it’s not a real issue.
People love in it and love it because they feel it’s unique. The idea was to create a new perspective on a place you think you’re familiar with, that you think you know, and kind of rattle you out of that. Of course, there are the features that are fantastic, like the flyover bridge that takes you out over the river and boomerangs you back. At first, they said, “why would anybody want to go out there? You can’t cross the river; you just go out and come back.” People now line up to go out and come back. There are yoga studios at the end of it. You’re out there and suddenly you’re looking back at the city. You have a perspective of the river and the city you don’t have any other way.
This year is the 20th anniversary of your firm’s design of a now iconic park: Crissy Field in San Francisco. In the past two decades, the park has welcomed millions of visitors and become beloved by both locals and tourists. What is the primary legacy of this project? What has it meant for the field of landscape architecture?
When I go back to San Francisco, I almost always go to Crissy Field, not just as a designer observing one’s own work but just because I love to be there. It was a groundbreaking project for the National Park Service. They had never done a project that was so sustainable. All the material was kept on site — there was stuff below grade we dealt with it on site instead of carting it off.
The project was also unique for the National Park Service, because we were working with both their natural resource and cultural resource staff, and they had very different, in some ways opposing goals. They could have found themselves in a position of doing nothing because they couldn’t see how to fully realize the restoration of both cultural resources and natural resources. We convinced them that Crissy Field could do both, become a palimpsest and layer together.
There is a stormwater wetland and a tidal marsh. It may not have the highest habitat value you could possibly have, but that can be accomplished 20 miles away. Here in the city, create a marsh with a bridge across it. There was a big battle about the bridge.
The tidal marsh is not as big as they might have liked it, but that’s because there is a grassy airfield that is a historic landmark and needed to be restored. So the marsh creeps around that grassy airfield, and the airfield becomes a kind of plinth, or almost a pier into the marsh. We blended them, overlaid them in a way.
We moved a hundred thousand cubic yards of dirt but it was not high budget. When we started, many people told us: “Don’t mess it up. What’s out there has a kind of awesome rawness we love.” Well, it was mostly asphalt and chain-link fence but still it had a quality that people loved.
As you’re walking down the promenade and come upon the airfield, the airfield is quite a bit above your head, because we made the airfield almost a flat plane. As you walk west along the gently sloping promenade adjacent to the grassy airfield, you get to the tip of it — and it’s at your feet, so you’ve made eight feet of grade change in that walk along this planar landscape. So there are big moves, and that’s what makes it last.
There’s nothing fussy at Crissy Field, because that would not last. As you stated, millions of people visit it to run, bike, picnic, play with their kids and dogs. It’s one of the top windsurfing spots in the world. And the mouth of the marsh continues to move. It’s a dynamic landscape.
During Courageous by Design, a day-long conference organized by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) in New York City, women leaders outlined what can be done as landscape architects, designers, and horticulturalists to address the twinned climate and biodiversity crises. From the federal and state to local and site levels, landscape architects can advocate through design to change policies, shift mindsets, and introduce more sustainable and resilient practices. Each landscape project, no matter how small, offers an opportunity for positive change and to set new standards for climate-responsible design.
For Heather Morgan, director of climate risk adaptation at AECOM, partnering with the federal government can be challenging because there are “layers of hundreds of years of rules and regulations.” Furthermore, “federal systems can’t move with the pace, agility, and innovation needed to face our climate crisis.” But she urged landscape architects to take the time to figure out the rules of engagement in the federal system.
She called on landscape architects to improve federal decision-makers’ understanding of nature-based solutions. “Many federal workers want to try these approaches and have a passion for them, so don’t assume they don’t.” Take time to empower public servants through workshops and educational opportunities. Educate Congressional representatives and their staff and invite them on site tours. At the state and local levels, advance the understanding of non-federal sponsors of projects. Infrastructural projects led by the Army Corps of Engineers require 35 percent of funding to come from state and local sources. Those local project sponsors and financing sources can be a more direct way to incorporate nature-based solutions.
Landscape architects can use “funded and real” state-funded projects to “push for more climate positive actions,” said Signe Nielsen, FASLA, a founding principal at MNLA in New York City. She asked landscape architects to “look for opportunities in site constraints to advance climate resilience and circumvent ‘this can’t be done’ attitudes.”
For example, her firm’s work on Hunts Point Riverside Park in the South Bronx, New York (see image at top), the first new park in that underserved community in 60 years, involved navigating complex state and local regulations and required a herculean effort to convince regulators to abandon sewer and water lines to the park so that the totality of an 100-foot easement could be used for the public landscape.
She also told the story of how it took her seven years to convince regulators to incorporate solar-powered, instead of hardwired, street lamps in a new park on the Lower East Side in an area at high risk of flooding. After years of providing testimonials, working with the manufacturer to study prototypes, and sharing findings with regulators, “at last, we prevailed,” and solar-powered street lamps will “be the standard in near-future flood risk areas.” Her lessons learned: “be tenacious, find solutions, and keep persevering — even small projects can make a big impact.”
Annette Wilkus, FASLA, founding partner of SiteWorks, pivoted the conversation to how to move forward ecological restoration, improve biodiversity, and realize climate-responsible landscapes through permitting, design construction, and maintenance. She said “permitting doesn’t stop when construction begins. Unexpected things happen in construction, which require more permits.” She sees her role as transforming “what landscape architects seek to evoke through their designs” into a reality that can be preserved and maintained over time.
This work involves thinking through the economic sustainability and long-term maintenance plans of new climate-smart projects. As part of the re-imagining of the Houston Botanic Garden, a project planned and designed by landscape architecture firm West 8, Wilkus worked with the garden’s board of trustees to create a staff and budget plan, wading into the organizational chart to determine where new resources need to be added to ensure the new sustainable gardens are well-supported.
And for a new project by MNLA at the 25-acre Roberto Clemente State Park in Bronx, New York, Wilkus created an easy-to-understand and highly visual maintenance manual with the team charged with maintaining the site. “The maintenance staff were ecstatic about it.” She urged the audience to “really think about maintenance” requirements at the beginning to ensure that climate solutions “survive over time.”
The conversation then shifted to how landscape architects can become better stewards of biodiversity in the age of “eco-cide,” which is caused by climate change, habitat loss, and development and a process in which ecosystems are collapsing, more species face extinction, and the number of animals, plants, and insects in our landscapes continues to decline.
At Brooklyn Bridge Park (BBP) in Brooklyn, New York, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), the landscape architecture firm that has led the development of the park over the past twenty years, purposefully designed diverse wildlife habitats into a park visited by millions of people each year, said Rebecca McMackin, the park’s director of horticulture. BBP includes wetlands and grasslands, providing critical habitat for a range of birds that fly over. Even these relatively small stop-over points are vitally important given the U.S. has lost 30 percent of its bird population in the last 50 years and over 50 percent of grassland birds.
Together with the BBP team, they crafted an ecological approach rooted in “adaptive evolution” that enabled the park to thrive as a biodiverse hub in the midst of the city. While most urban landscapes are designed with plants in a fixed place, MVVA created a series of landscapes that function like ecosystems, with plants duking it out over light, water, and resources, creating a subtly shifting park in which plants “compete, die, and reproduce.” This requires a new approach to stewardship.
McMackin evoked a sense of wonder at the profound impact of trees. When a tree shed its leaves in the fall, those leaves provide a layer that protects the tree’s roots during the winter but also creates a very “biologically active space” for beetles, bumblebees, and other insects. She showed photos of foxes and owls diving into this layer for food during lean, cold months. Those leaves also decompose and turn into soil that in turn nourishes the tree and aids carbon uptake. She explained all of this to say that “it’s important to leave the leaves, which enables all of this to happen. Gardeners at BBP have been trained to get out of the way of the natural cycle.” In the meadows, gardeners are careful when they cut back the grasses in the spring to leave seeds on the ground for birds that have nested. When trimming back Aster trees, they also do this carefully to not disturb the caterpillars that live on the roots at the base of the trees.
All of this precision stewardship of the wildlife has great benefits for park visitors, too. Katydids have transformed the park with their music, creating a biophilic response that aids in relaxation. Because BBP doesn’t spray herbicides in the park, aphids have survived, which in turns attracts charming ladybugs. Walking Stick insects have been recently spotted in the park; “they haven’t been seen in NYC for ages.” BBP is also now home to a very rare bee — the blueberry digger bee. Brooklyn Bridge Park shows that organically-managed parks, with organically-grown native plants and trees, can “become an ecological refuge in cities.” Over the long-term, “respectful, adaptive management” is key to success (and so is buying native plants not treated with any chemicals).
Deeply concerned about the impact of climate change on the next generation, and their already tenuous connection with nature, Barbara Wilks, FASLA, founding principal of W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, cited a recent survey of 1,000 park goers in New York City that found 50 percent haven’t experienced nature outside of the five boroughs. With this understanding, it’s crucial that every available space be used to advance climate positive design and also to provide pockets of biodiversity, which can forge those connections to nature so critical to future stewardship. “Landscape architects can bring systemic thinking to the small scale,” and these smaller projects can be connected into “large-scale infrastructure.”
Urban forestry presents a major opportunity to address the climate crisis and increase biodiversity. A broad-based campaign among non-profit groups in the city calls for achieving a 30 percent tree canopy by 2035; currently, only 21 percent of the city is estimated to be covered by trees, far lower than other major American cities. Her streetscape projects in the city over the past twenty years have layered in diverse tree species in urban woodlands that go beyond the typical street tree format. Wilks has also proposed “marine streets” where dead-end streets that come to the water could be transformed into living, dynamic edges. “Give nature agency” wherever possible, “keep it wild,” and embrace “the dynamics of messy landscapes.”
“Every landscape needs to be an act of activism on biodiversity,” argued East Hampton, New York-based landscape designer Edwina Von Gal, Affil. ASLA, founder of the Perfect Earth Project. Her organization is focused on creating non-toxic landscapes free of pesticides and filled with native plants.
“We’ve lost 2.9 billion birds over the past 50 years. Birds have been impacted by a loss of habitat, pesticides, and loss of insect populations.” To address this crisis, she has also launched a campaign — two-thirds for the birds and asked for a commitment from the audience of hundreds of designers to design better habitat for birds, with at least two-thirds native plants in every project. “That means two native plants for every other plant” and zero pesticides.
She also called for “less mow and blow, less pollution, cleaner water, more on-site composting and biomassing.” Appalled by pristine landscapes free of fallen leaves and insects, she said “design has become so reduced, simplistic, and controlled. That tidy look is the direction we can’t go; that sanitized look can no longer be aspirational. Nature is so beautifully designed and messy. We need to support all the little wild lives that support us.”
As British environmental writer George Monbiot argues, “human survival is now a niche interest.” Von Gal took this further, arguing that landscape architects and designers “can create places for biodiversity — nature-based places — and massively enlarge the niche.”
Meet Artist Kristi Lin: Bringing a Natural Balance — 11/29/21, The San Diego Union-Tribune
“Like many local artists, Lin grew up knowing she had artistic inclinations, but was worried about the financial impracticalities that come with being a working artist. In the field of landscape architecture, she says she found that balance; a profession that allows her to be creative and inspired while also paying the bills.”
How to Design a City for Sloths — 11/29/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“As pedestrians, sloths do not walk as much as ooze, inching forward commando-style with their bellies to the ground, as if trying to dodge a museum’s laser-security system. From a distance, the 10 long minutes it takes an average sloth to walk across the street might look more like the end of a yoga class.”
Africa’s Rising Cities— 11/19/21, The Washington Post
“Several recent studies project that by the end of this century, Africa will be the only continent experiencing population growth. Thirteen of the world’s 20 biggest urban areas will be in Africa — up from just two today — as will more than a third of the world’s population.”
Minneapolis’ Newest Park Is Like a Front Porch on the Mississippi River— 11/17/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Damon Farber Landscape Architects led the design team with HGA designing the pavilion, MacDonald and Mack as historic consultants, and the 106 Group as archaeologists. The Healing Place Collaborative brought in Dakota artists and language experts to design covers for the fire pits and interpret the rainwater collection and use of Native plants.”
This Stunning High-Rise Would Absorb More Carbon Dioxide Than It Produces
— 11/15/21, Fast Company Design
“Wrapping the buildings are algae-filled facades that produce biofuels that can power the building. Inside, structural components made of biological materials and insulation made from hemp sequester carbon throughout the building’s lifetime. Built-in direct air capture systems pull CO2 out of the air and either store it or make it available for industrial use.”
Clients are looking to landscape architects to provide nature-based solutions to climate impacts, with street trees, bioswales, and native, drought-tolerant plants in high demand.
ASLA has released its first national survey on demand for landscape architecture planning and design solutions to climate change. 563 landscape architects, designers, and landscape architecture educators in the U.S. responded to the survey in October 2021.
Nationwide, demand for planning and design solutions to climate change has increased over the past year. 77 percent of landscape architects and designers responding to the survey experienced at least a 10 percent increase in client demand for these solutions in comparison with 2020. And, of these, 38 percent of landscape architects and designers experienced more than a 50 percent increase in demand over the past year.
According to the survey results, city and local governments are the foremost drivers of demand for climate change-related planning and design projects. Non-profit organizations, state governments, and community groups, which may or may not be incorporated non-profit organizations, are also key drivers of demand.
Clients are concerned about a range of climate impacts, but are most concerned with:
Increased duration and intensity of heat waves
Increased intensity of storms
Increased spread and intensity of inland flooding
Loss of pollinators, such as bees and bats
Changing / unreliable weather, or “weird weather.”
The survey finds that landscape architects are also actively educating public, commercial, and residential clients about the importance of investing in more climate-smart practices.
Nationwide, 65 percent of landscape architects and designers surveyed are recommending the integration of climate solutions to “all or most” of their clients. They are creating demand for more sustainable and resilient landscape planning and design practices through “advocacy by design” approaches that persuade city, local government, and other clients to update policies and regulations.
To increase community resilience and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, landscape architects are planning and designing infrastructure at all scales – from the city and county to district, neighborhood, and site.
The top community-wide infrastructure solution clients are requesting is stormwater management to reduce flooding. Solutions that reduce reliance on fossil-fuel-powered vehicles and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, which account for approximately 30 percent of all U.S. emissions, take up the next top four in-demand solutions: walkability improvements, trails, bike infrastructure, and Complete Streets. Improved bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure also increase community resilience to climate impacts by providing additional layers of safe transportation.
The survey found that projects to increase the resilience of communities and reduce greenhouse gas emissions may also be leading to positive economic impacts. 47 percent of landscape architects and designers surveyed estimate their climate projects have a construction value of more than $1 million, with 29 percent saying the value of this work is more than $10 million.
Also, 45 percent of landscape architects and designers surveyed estimated their climate projects created more than 10 local planning, design, construction, management, or maintenance jobs in the past year. Climate solutions are resulting in well-paying creative and green jobs.
“The survey data shows that communities are greatly concerned about a range of climate risks and impacts. They are looking to landscape architects to provide nature-based solutions that both store carbon and increase resilience to extreme heat, flooding, drought, sea level rise, and other climate impacts,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, ASLA CEO. “There is also concern about biodiversity loss, particularly the loss of pollinators and the native habitat they rely on, and landscape architects are providing solutions that address the twinned climate and biodiversity crises.”
More key findings:
Designing resilience to climate impacts is at the forefront. 48 percent of landscape architects and designers surveyed stated that “all, a majority, or about half” of clients are now requesting plans and designs to increase resilience to existing or projected climate impacts, such as extreme heat, flooding, sea level rise, storm surges, and wildfires.
Specifically, some 43 percent of clients seek to increase resilience to climate shocks projected for the next 2-5 years, while 39 percent seek to address immediate climate risks or impacts.
38 percent of clients seek to increase resilience over the next 5-10 years, while 32 percent of clients are planning now for the long-term and seeking solutions for expected climate risks and impacts 10-50 years out.
Nature-based planning and design solutions are in demand. Public, non-profit, community, and private clients are looking to landscape architects to plan and design nature-based solutions to impacts such as wildfires, sea level rise, flooding, drought, extreme heat, and biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation.
According to landscape architects, designers, and educators surveyed, these are the top solutions requested by clients for each climate impact area. Note: Not all climate impacts are relevant to the respondents’ regions.
Extreme heat solutions:
Street trees (64 percent)
Shade structures / canopies (60 percent)
Tree groves (35 percent)
Parks (35 percent)
Green roofs (31 percent)
Bioswales (62 percent)
Rain Gardens (61 percent)
Permeable pavers (59 percent)
Trees (54 percent)
Wetland restoration (45 percent)
Native, drought-tolerant plants (67 percent)
Low-water, drought-tolerant plants (65 percent)
Irrigation systems (48 percent)
Greywater reuse (36 percent)
Landscape solutions that increase groundwater recharge (35 percent)
Biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation solutions:
Increase diversity of native tree and plant species (58 percent)
Native plant gardens (57 percent)
Increase use of plant species pollinators rely on (52 percent)
Ecological landscape design (41 percent)
Ecological restoration (35 percent)
Firewise landscape design strategies (27 percent)
Defensible spaces (22 percent)
Land-use planning and design changes (19 percent)
Forest management practices (17 percent)
Wildfire risk or impact assessment (14 percent)
Sea level rise solutions:
Nature-based solutions (33 percent)
Erosion management (30 percent)
Beach / dune restoration (25 percent)
Other coastal ecosystem restoration (21 percent)
Berms (19 percent)
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is also now a key focus. Landscape architecture projects can incorporate Climate Positive Design practices so that they absorb more carbon than they emit over their lifespans. Projects at all scales can act as natural and designed carbon sinks, storing carbon in trees, shrubs, and carbon-sequestering materials, such as wood and pavers. 27 percent of respondents stated that “all, a majority, or about half” of clients are requesting projects that reduce or store greenhouse gas emissions now.
The top five strategies sought by clients to reduce emissions include:
Parks and open spaces, which include trees and grasses that sequester carbon.
Tree and shrub placement to reduce building energy use.
Habitat creation / restoration, which can increase the amount of trees and plants in a landscape, remove invasive species, and improve the overall health of natural systems, and the amount of carbon stored in landscapes.
Elimination of high-maintenance lawns, which involves reducing the corresponding use of fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and fossil-fuel-powered lawn movers and leaf blowers.
Minimizing soil disturbance, which helps keep intact carbon stored in soils.
Clients are also requesting materials that store carbon, such as woods and carbon-absorbing concrete.
Top five solutions:
Recycled materials, such as pavers that incorporate a high percentage of industrial byproducts.
Reused materials, such as wood or concrete, which eliminate the need to produce new materials.
Trees that absorb higher amounts of carbon than others, which include white oak, southern magnolia, London plane tree, and bald cypress trees.
Carbon-sequestering shrubs, groundcover, and grasses, such as native grasses with deeper roots than turfgrass.
Solar reflective materials that bounce back more sunlight and therefore reduce heat absorption and air conditioning energy use and expenses in adjacent buildings.
The legislation includes a five-year re-authorization of transportation programs and dramatically increases funding for safe, active, and low-carbon transportation programs, such as the Transportation Alternatives program, the Safe Routes to School program, and the Complete Streets initiative.
The package creates new programs that will allow landscape architects to lead projects nationwide. These include the Healthy Streets Initiative, as well as programs to remove invasive plants, create habitat for pollinators on highway rights-of-way, and plan and design new wildlife crossings.
There are also some first steps to address the legacy of environmental and social inequities in cities created by highways that have divided communities for decades. The Reconnecting Communities program provides $1 billion to remove highways and reconnect communities through multi-modal transportation options, boulevard-like green spaces, and new connections to economic opportunity. These are projects landscape architects are poised to lead.
The legislation increases funding for the Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Fund programs, which landscape architects will be able to access to help communities address their water quality and quantity issues.
The legislation will also create five new Stormwater Centers of Excellence. These will enable landscape architecture educators to explore new types of nature-based green infrastructure methods to improve existing designs and strategies for financing and rate-setting, public outreach, and professional training.
1) Increased funding for the Transportation Alternatives program, and new regulations allowing states to allocate funding to counties, local governments, and Metropolitan Planning Organizations, as well as other regional transportation organizations, increasing local control over funding and projects.
2) Expanded eligibility under the Highway Safety Improvement Program to include projects covered by the Safe Routes to School Program, such as sidewalks, crosswalks, signage, and bus stop shelters.
3) Increased federal highway funding for states to create a Complete Streets program and projects.
4) Funding to create seamless active transportation networks and spines within and between communities.
5) A pilot program aimed at helping underserved communities tear down urban highways and rebuild the surrounding neighborhoods.
6) Elevate Context Sensitive Solutions as a tool in the decision-making and design process for transportation projects, particularly for projects in underserved communities.
7) Dedicated funding from the National Highway Performance Program for the protection of wildlife corridors that intersect with vehicle rights-of-way and establish critical reporting and training opportunities on the issue.
8) Emphasize design techniques that address pedestrian and bicyclist safety in our nation’s rights-of-way and support Vision Zero goals.
9) Invest in transit and transit-oriented development to meet growing demand for expanded public transportation.
Detailed list of programs and funding in the legislation:
Active Transportation Infrastructure: $1 billion over five years to build active transportation networks that connect people with public transportation, businesses, workplaces, schools, residences, recreation areas, and other community activity centers.
Healthy Streets Program: $500 million over five years ($100 million a year) for a new trust fund-financed grant program that can be used for cool and porous pavements and expanding tree cover in order to mitigate urban heat islands, improve air quality, and reduce impervious surfaces, stormwater runoff, and flood risks. Priority is given to projects in low-income or disadvantaged communities. Maximum grant amount is $15 million.
Invasive Plant Elimination: $250 million over five years to eliminate or control existing invasive plants along transportation corridors.
Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program: $350 million over five years from the Highway Trust Fund. At least 60 percent of funding must go to projects in rural areas. Projects must seek to reduce the number of wildlife-vehicle collisions and improve habitat connectivity for terrestrial and aquatic species.
Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program: $1 billion over five years for a pilot program to reconnect communities that were divided or were separated from economic opportunities by previous infrastructure projects. Planning and capital construction grants will be available.
Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA): $1.25 billion in Federal credit assistance in the form of direct loans, loan guarantees, and standby lines of credit to finance surface transportation projects of national and regional significance.
Complete Streets Initiative: Each state and Metropolitan Planning Organization will now set aside funding to increase safe and accessible options for multiple travel modes for people of all ages and abilities. Funds could be used for: creating Complete Streets standards, policies, and prioritization plans; new transportation plans to create a network of active transportation systems; or projects that integrate active transportation and public transportation, improve access to public transportation, connect communities through multi-use active transportation infrastructure, increase public transportation ridership, and improve the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians. Also covered are regional and mega-regional planning and transportation plans that support transit-oriented development.
Safe Routes to School: Codifies the program, expands federal funding sources, and includes high schools.
Safe Streets & Roads for All Grant Program: $5 billion in emergency funding over five years ($1 billion per year) for a new program to support local initiatives to reduce traffic crashes and fatalities on roadways. Grants will be provided to Metropolitan Planning Organizations and local and Tribal governments to develop and carry out comprehensive safety plans to prevent death and injury on roads and streets, especially cyclists and pedestrians — sometimes known as “Vision Zero” initiatives.
Congestion Mitigation & Air Quality Improvement Program: Eliminates current formula for calculating annual state apportionments for the program and replaces it with set dollar amounts — increasing from $2.5 billion for fiscal year 2022 to $2.7 billion for fiscal year 2026. Projects now eligible include shared micro-mobility projects, such as bikeshare and shared scooters.
Multimodal Transportation Investments: $13.5 billion in emergency appropriations over five years for multimodal infrastructure, including $5.0 billion for RAISE (previously known as BUILD or TIGER) grants, $7.5 billion for local and regional projects of significance.
Support for Pollinators: $10 million over five years to benefit pollinators on roadsides and highway rights-of-way.
With regards to water infrastructure, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act incorporates numerous recommendations ASLA has also sent to the Biden-Harris administration.
ASLA water priorities incorporated into the legislation:
1) Increase funding for the Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds, which provide critical resources to states, localities, and water systems to improve water treatment infrastructure and includes funding, research, and other tools to implement green infrastructure projects.
2) Adequately fund the Chesapeake Bay program and Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Specific projects include improving water quality, combating invasive species, and restoring habitat and addressing shoreline erosion.
Detailed list of programs and funding in the legislation:
The Act provides $55 billion over 5 years, specifically reauthorizing the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) and the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) at $11.7 billion each. Many landscape architects access funds from these programs to design and implement water management projects.
Sewer Overflow and Stormwater Reuse Grants: $1.4 billion over five years for critical stormwater infrastructure projects, including those with combined sewer overflows and sanitary sewer overflows.
Clean Water Infrastructure Resilience and Sustainability Grant Program: $125 million for a program administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that provides grants to help communities strengthen the resilience of their publicly owned treatment works against the threats of natural hazards.
Stormwater Infrastructure Technology Program: $25 million for five new Stormwater Centers of Excellence. The EPA will administer an application process for colleges and universities, research organizations, and nonprofit groups to become centers of excellence. These centers will explore new types of nature-based green infrastructure, methods to improve existing designs, and strategies for financing and rate-setting, public outreach, and professional training.
ASLA national lands recommendations incorporated into the legislation:
1) Invest in our nation’s public lands, including providing for construction, maintenance, and restoration projects at the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Forest Service.
2) Support increased funding for Federal Emergency Management Agency hazard mitigation revolving loan fund.
Detailed list of programs and funding in the legislation:
Federal Lands Transportation Program: $311 million over five years to improve roads, bridges, and other transportation infrastructure in parks.
Nationally Significant Federal Lands and Tribal Projects Program: $55 million a year and up to an addition $300 million a year to address large repair projects in our parks and other public and tribal lands. This program also prioritizes sustainable and natural designs to improve the resilience of park roads and bridges to intensifying climate threats.
Also included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act: $46 billion to mitigate damage from floods, wildfires, and droughts.
Roxanne Blackwell, Hon. ASLA, Esq., is director of federal government affairs at the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA).
COP26: ‘Moment of Truth’ as World Meets for Climate Summit – 10/31/21, BBC News
“Delegates from around 200 countries are there to announce how they will cut emissions by 2030 and help the planet. With the world warming because of fossil fuel emissions caused by humans, scientists warn that urgent action is needed to avoid a climate catastrophe.”
As E-Bikes Speed Up, a Policy Dilemma Looms— 10/29/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“The newest electric bikes can go much faster than pedal-only riders, which could spur a backlash from pedestrians and a crackdown from regulators.”
Hundreds Turn out to Celebrate New Downtown Park in Palm Springs — 10/21/21, Desert Sun
“‘Nellie Coffman’s mantra is she believed in space, stillness, solitude and simplicity and I hope this project really conveys those ideas,’ park designer Mark Rios said. ‘Tonight we are here to celebrate and I think we really want to celebrate that it worked.'”