Landscape Architecture and the Green New Deal

Image © Steve Austin. Used with permission.

By Steve Austin, JD | ASLA | Clinical Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, Washington State University

Overview 

As we enter into a new decade, humanity, and thus by extension, landscape architecture, is at a critical point.  We face unprecedented enormous and wicked ecological predicaments including rapid loss of biodiversity, increasing pollution, diminishing resources, mass extinctions and most immediately, the climate crisis.  To address, and hopefully end, the dreadful impacts of our destructive patterns, people around the world have begun formulating plans under “Green New Deal” banners.  As the predicaments we face are systemic and intertwined with land and people – landscape architecture’s essence – it is vital that landscape architects should be supporters and participants in framing the evolution of these Green New Deal plans. 

The Climate Crisis

“The climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than most scientists expected,” says Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Program.She continues, “It is more severe than anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity.” This is because the planet is heating rapidly. 2019 ended likely as the second hottest year on record, and includes several all time monthly high average temperatures. Annual global temperatures between 2010-2019 were the hottest of any decade on record. 

The heating is caused by an increase of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide as a result of burning fossil fuels. Unfortunately, greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow globally, despite the pledges to reduce them in the Paris Climate Accord. In the four years since that agreement, greenhouse gas emissions have risen by 4%.  A recent New York Times article states that this “trajectory is terrible for the future of humanity.” 

Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 exceeded 410 parts per million (ppm) at the end of 2019, up from 280ppm in the pre-industrial era.  According to NASA, the last time Earth’s atmosphere contained more than 400 ppm CO 2 was about 3-5 million years ago. Earth’s surface temperatures were two-to-three degrees Celsius warmer, ice sheets at both poles had melted, and seas were as much as 40 meters higher than today.  

Further, global heating is threatening to trigger as many as nine eco-systemic tipping points, which would make climate change irreversible.  A report by the University of Exeter warns that these “cascades” of changes could “threaten the existence of human civilizations.”   

To avoid this fate, humanity must cease burning fossil fuels as rapidly as possible.  According to climate scientist Glen Peters, “CO₂emissions must go to zero to stop global warming at its current level.” But the “current level” is too hot: to lower global temperatures, humanity must reduce atmospheric CO2ppm by the drawing down excess CO2 by various means.  Ultimately, stopping the increase of CO2ppm in the atmosphere, and then reducing excess CO2, are the only actions that matter for humanity’s safety.

To quote the UN’s Environment Program director: “We face a stark choice: set in motion the radical transformations we need now, or face the consequences of a planet radically altered by climate change.”  Those “radical transformations” are the ending of burning fossil fuels and the entire economic structure that that burning underpins.  Climate scientist Kevin Anderson describes our situation very simply: “There is no non-extreme future.” 

A Green New Deal 

In order to effectively confront these stark realities, progressive political leaders around the world have made initial proposals for large-scale government actions under the umbrella title of a “Green New Deal” (GND).  The term “New Deal” originally refers to the coordinated social, economic, and public works projects instituted by Democratic President Roosevelt in response to the Great Depression in the US in the 1930s.  Both the idea and the term “Green New Deal” is over 15 years old; Barack Obama even included it in his 2008 presidential platform. 

Very broadly, a Green New Deal as envisioned in the US calls for rapid and sweeping measures to cut carbon emissions through the elimination of burning fossil fuels – from electricity generation to manufacturing, and in transportation and agriculture. The plan calls for large investments in renewable energy and carbon capture technologies.  In doing these things, a Green New Deal aims to create jobs and create an equitable, sustainable economy.  Obviously such ambitious and comprehensive government interventions will touch every corner of American life. 

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the sponsors of the US Green New Deal, has injected vital urgency into this era, saying, “We don’t have time to sit on our hands as our planet burns. For young people, climate change is bigger than election or re-election. It’s life or death.”  Hopefully, and wonderfully for landscape architects, she adds further, “the Green New Deal is a chance to rediscover the power of public imagination.”

Landscape Architecture and a Green New Deal 

The Green New Deal presents landscape architects the most important challenge, and opportunity, in the profession’s history.  While there is no guarantee that even a successful GND can abate the climate crisis, there are now no other options, save doing nothing.  Either choice will result in a fundamental remaking of our economy and society, and thus our profession.  

Our choice should be obvious. To thrive, while retaining our morality and integrity, we should join with those who understand the urgency and the scale needed to address the crisis. 

There is no more time for incremental, half-hearted measures.  Landscape architecture’s support of all facets of a GND will improve the chances of success.  Landscape architects have a proven track record in building the broad coalitions and demonstrating the creative, intellectual, and leadership abilities needed to envision and administer projects that will emerge from a GND.   The sooner that landscape architects assume roles as allies, and where appropriate, leaders, the sooner that GND plans can be shaped to do the necessary things.  

What will this take?  In an important commentary for Places Journal, Billy Fleming, director of the McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania, challenges landscape architects to internalize and then exude the “politics of design.”  This is an explicit acknowledgement that landscape architecture is political, touching as it does on the deepest of things – land and communities – with an ability to either reinforce the ecocidal status quo or create a regenerative future.  To those who would caution against taking political stances in order to retain our “objectivity,” I would respond that silence is a political statement too. In this case, who and what will benefit from our silence?

However, we cannot embrace the politics of the past and present that has led us into the crisis; instead we must align ourselves with the new movements, many youth led, that are emerging. And to be most effective at the politics of design in the crisis time, I believe landscape architects must be allied as activists, not just advocates. 

This is because the climate crisis is ultimately a violation of human rights, demanding justice in response. Fortunately justice, the definitive Olmstedian value, is at the core of landscape architecture.  Unique among design professions, only landscape architecture comes with such a clear mandate for public good from its founding.  That makes landscape architecture ideally suited to help implement GNDs, which are instruments of social, economic, and environmental justice. 

Olmsted used landscape architecture to make these justices visible. Today, we accept that radical idea as a given and are grateful for a legacy of local, state, and national parks, conservation areas, and progressive urban planning and infrastructure for public health and quality of life.  But these successes were won not only through design but also through activism.  They were won in multitudes of political battles that required great courage and tenacity. We must find those characteristics anew in our profession and ourselves.  Advocating apolitically for justice – our role, at best, over the last few decades – is not the same as acting directly to ensure justice.

There are many paths to do this.  Overarchingly, we need to hold ourselves accountable for our current carbon emissions, and then begin to eliminate them entirely from our work.  We cannot be fully committed to justice until we have ended that which is creating the injustice.  

This post carbon era demands that we reconceive our work. While there will be a need for what the McHarg Center’s Fleming calls “client driven site-specific design,” it will not be in pre-crisis forms.  Post carbon landscape architecture now must advance carbon dioxide drawdown through effusive planting while also helping us adapt to the crisis through the creation and restoration of biodiverse, regenerative landscapes, especially in frontline communities and ecologies.  Our skills and perspectives will also be vital on projects for what I term “the great undoing,” the transformation of high carbon urban and suburban infrastructure into regenerative, nature based systems.  Meeting all these needs without fossil fuels will demand new design, construction, and ethical paradigms from us

Beyond that, we need a renewed commitment to public service.  The McHarg Center’s Fleming urges us to “lean into the Green New Deal” and become more active in all levels of government in order to “not cede that space to the usual crowd of technocrats.”  His vision includes “revitalizing the constellation of alphabet agencies devoted to the design and management of the built environment” to work on national scale land, housing, and transportation planning projects. 

We’ll be needed too to apply our training in analysis, synthesis, and visualization for holistic bioregional planning, addressing such things as ecological conservation and restoration, managed retreat and appropriate patterns and locations for resettlement.  These last are examples of vital work that creates no emissions. 

There are new horizons for us as well. Landscape architects can train to become environmental justice lawyers and expert witnesses. We can serve as politicians as well as in community organizations and non-profits dedicated to a just adaptation to the post carbon era. We can develop into carbon mitigation and drawdown researchers and teachers. We can work as climate risk assessors and management advisors. We can share our knowledge and experiences as writers, speakers, and artists. Further, our experiences and training will make us valuable as ethicists in the new era. 

Beyond our professional work, we should commit to community organizing around GND projects and participating in climate strikes and other peaceful non-violent direct actions.   Let’s let all of our actions point to the world we must achieve.

Conclusion

Climate science tells us that there are no solutions that will enable us to continue to live as we have. Either humanity does everything in its power to avert the worst of the multiple crises and begin regeneration, or it doesn’t. Either way, everything will change.  Landscape architects now more than ever need to reaffirm our commitment to justice, our profession’s original value, and become allies and activists for Green New Deals. Doing anything else will only make things worse. What good would the ideal of landscape architecture be then? 

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