Climate reckoning for landscape architecture

By Steve Austin

The summer of 2018, with its unprecedented global heat, fires and droughts, is forcing a reckoning upon landscape architects. The full effects of climate change are now clearly visible. The world has warmed more than one degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. We are on track for more than 2 degrees Celsius warming. What are we to do?


The chart above shows the actions that must be taken to avoid the existential threat of even more global warming: humans must essentially cease using fossil fuels within 30 years.   And more than that, we must take actions to drawdown excess carbon dioxide (CO2), so that in the years after 2050 a climate balance can regained. If we are to ensure a livable climate, we must enter the below zero era. These are the prescriptions outlined by the Paris Climate Accord, which unfortunately has become a political casualty in the USA.

Landscape architects will be vital in helping to achieve the goal of keeping the climate within the boundaries conducive to continued civilization. Yet, this chart portends that the processes, tools, and materials that we use in our work today will not be available to us. This in turn will have dramatic implications for design and professional practice.

Ultimately this chart tells us that within the lifetimes of many landscape architects practicing now, the profession of landscape architecture must change. The sections below lay out the key areas of our profession that will be impacted.

Energy and Materials

Eliminating the use of fossil fuels would radically alter the materials and construction methods we take for granted. Fossil fuels provide 80% of the energy our society uses. Their elimination will immediately mean that society will have drastically less energy overall to use.

It is usually here in the discussion when “green energy” is mentioned as a solution. Unfortunately, renewables – which are the only large-scale form of “green energy” – are not a significant substitute for fossil fuels: they are not “plug and play.”

Renewables, which currently provide less than 10% of our total energy supply, will always be limited by unalterable planetary constraints. More importantly, renewables only provide electricity. But it is fossil fueled fire that powers our industrial civilization. It is fire that transports our supplies and moves our construction machinery. It is fire that provides us with our most commonly used materials.

And yet this chart tells us that we must end the use of fire if we are to stop and reverse global warming. It is unknown, but seems unlikely, that renewably generated electricity alone can provide us with all the energy and materials that we have grown accustomed to.

The end of industrial uses of fire will likely mean the end of mass use of common construction materials such as concrete, bricks, steel, and plastics. Those materials all need high heat for production and CO2 is a byproduct of their creation. In the below zero era, we cannot continue to have any significant carbon dioxide emissions; we must get to below net zero carbon dioxide emissions.

For all that, however, it is doubtful that the need for the functions provided by those materials will decrease correspondingly. Landscape architects will need to employ deep creativity to address those needs effectively.


Construction methods will also be directly affected. Most landscape architectural projects involve fossil fueled machinery. Delivery trucks, backhoes, skid steers, and earthmovers: all depend on fire. While it is possible to run some equipment on electricity, it is doubtful that we could count on the amount of energy and machinery we utilize today.   Therefore, landscape architecture in the below zero era will have to look to other means to perform much of our necessary work.


These realities will change our design thinking. Currently, we take insufficient notice of embodied and required carbon in both materials and construction methods and almost none of the methods and necessity of drawing down excess CO2. In the future, those concerns will be at the absolute forefront of our design processes. We will need to learn to work with different materials, including reused and repurposed ones, and find new ways of accomplishing the construction process. Design for maintenance without dependence on fossil fuels will be essential.

The below zero era will also greatly impact professional landscape architecture practice. Energy limits will likely change practice scope and project locations. Management of construction projects will become much different than today. Ethical considerations such as what types of projects to use limited energy on will become more important. Landscape architectural education will need to adjust to these realities as well.


Many landscape architects will hope that these realities are overhyped. A faith in progress and “technology” will be assumed to enable business as usual into the future. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that any magic elixir exists that will enable us to continue to pour CO2 into the atmosphere without unimaginable consequences. It is clearly known what it will take to mitigate the worst effects of climate change: ending the use of fossil fuels, with all the nearly unimaginable changes to our entire civilization that will come with it.

Landscape architects, like the rest of the world, face two stark choices for moving forward.   We can indulge in willful ignorance about what is needed to be done and hope that our civilization, and our profession, can somehow survive with our morality intact. Or we can accept reality and choose to embrace a future without fossil fuels, and use our creativity and passion to enable our profession to lead the world into a better future.


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