Do landscape architects understand climate peril?

By Steve Austin

I am a proud member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). Unfortunately, it appears the fine folks at the organization just don’t understand how much peril we face because of climate change.

They’ve recently released a sustainable transportation initiative that makes many vital points in an understandable way, but which absolutely misses the mark on what must happen with carbon emissions if we are to have any chance of our civilization surviving climate change.

Here’s the relevant section:

Low-emission: Sustainable transportation systems don’t contribute to climate change; instead, they encourage low-emission modes of transportation such as mass transit, biking, or walking. Sustainable land use practices such as transit-oriented development facilitate multi-modal systems where residents can easily walk or bike to meet basic daily needs. Landscape architects plan regions, cities, and neighborhoods and design streets that support widespread adoption of low-emission transportation options.

The issue is simple: there can no long be any such thing as LOW EMISSIONS. There can only be ZERO EMISSIONS combined with excess carbon dioxide DRAWDOWN by environmental or engineered means.   We must STOP emissions completely, and then REVERSE the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.

“Low emissions” are simply a SLOW but CONTINUE pattern that will keep us on the highway to hell.  CO2 emissions are currently nearing 410 ppm in the atmosphere, well above the 280ppm that the human species evolved in. The devastation that this CO2 concentration is already causing to planetary systems and human lives is blatantly apparent.

If this is unacceptable – and I realize that to many people it may not be – then we cannot continue to increase emissions, at whatever rate. Nor can we simply try to keep atmospheric CO2 at the level it is now. That is why “low emissions” (SLOW but CONTINUE) is no longer a viable strategy: this strategy actually will continue to INCREASE atmospheric CO2 concentrations, making everything worse.

Yet until everyone honestly confronts the dire predicament we are in, we will continue to get well meaning but worthless advice such as this.   While walking and biking are sensible adaptations, transit oriented developments are in no way, shape, or form a solution to climate change. It is too late for that. We will go into the below zero era  with the settlements what we have – we don’t get a do over.

Sadly, we also do not get to have a future where “landscape architects plan regions, cities, and neighborhoods and design streets that support widespread adoption of low-emission transportation options.” That is a 20th century understanding of the value of our profession. The key – and perhaps only – way in which landscape architects can be relevant in the future is by showing the world how to live as well as possible within the 21st century paradigm demanded by STOP and REVERSE. This will be very difficult, and deeply unpopular. But so what: landscape architects should be the leaders in guiding us to a world that is not on fire.

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