Since I began my landscape architecture career in 2004, the profession has expanded to new territories; our knowledge of natural systems combined with our design and leadership skills has earned landscape architects a reputation as an authority in urban design and visioning of the 21st century city. In New York City, where I work, the design market is thriving. Landscape architects form strong alliances, and we provide narratives and imagery that captivate the public imagination for a better, greener, resilient city. Many of New York’s most successful public projects of the last decades, such as the High Line, gained traction as community organizations utilized landscape architectural ingenuity and design competitions to promote their visions. It is clear that the public wants what our visions can provide: a healthier, greener urban environment. In 2013, when the devastating impact of Superstorm Sandy increased public awareness of climate change, the initiative Rebuild by Design invited multidisciplinary teams, many led by landscape architects, to address macro-scale climate challenges with technologically innovative design. The initiative has inspired a collaborative, design driven approach to solving climate related issues at the community level, and the proliferation of green infrastructure design has been a great benefit for landscape architects. The paradox, however, is that while a technological approach unquestionably improves the defense capacity of our cities, we still lack a proactive solution to the bigger problem of global warming, a problem that will eventually outpace our defense solutions.
The Paris Agreement, the global action plan to limit global warming, requires nations to adopt a long-term commitment to curb carbon emissions by 2020. The difficulty of nations to reach an agreement demonstrates that enacting a global initiative to restrain fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions is counterintuitive for governments under corporate influence. Fortunately, however, the solution depends not only on cooperation of our leaders, but also on the mutual cooperation of individuals and organizations, and we can lead by example. The Landscape Architecture Foundation’s New Landscape Declaration vows to “strengthen and diversify the global capacity of our profession”, and “cultivate a bold culture of inclusive leadership”. Expanding on this, I pose that we have the ability to organize, lead, and advocate for a more responsible ecological stewardship. Ecological stewardship recognizes the interdependence of all living species and systems, and the equal rights of all forms of life to the earth’s resources. It is a conservation-based approach to resource consumption that prioritizes the regeneration and replenishment of resources for the continued use of all forms of life. If we transition away from our current paradigm of resource consumption, towards a new paradigm of ecological stewardship, we will unequivocally take steps towards better protecting the climate and providing a better future for all forms of life.
I propose five ways for landscape architects to work towards a more responsible ecological stewardship:
1. We need ecological visionaries in landscape architecture: professionals, academics and students who speak and write to promote protection and responsible use of our land, air and water. We can follow the footsteps of pioneers like Ian McHarg, whose treatise Design With Nature remains as relevant now as in 1969. Visionaries will promote the need for ecological stewardship in the planning, design and construction of landscapes. We will form social coalitions for advocacy of a just and egalitarian approach to ecological stewardship. We will collaborate with ecologists, engineers, and other specialists in both quantitative and qualitative research. Through speculation and investigation, visionaries can find emergent pathways between natural systems and the urban environment, such as the effects of landscape permeability on urban stormwater patterns, urban wildlife, and climate. Presenting and publishing our research advances the need for a responsible ecological stewardship.
2. We must become experts at integrating sustainable energy production technologies into our projects. Our fossil fuel based standard of living is unquestionably detrimental to the earth’s climate. We will envision and advocate a future based on renewable resource energy production, such as solar and wind. Prioritization of clean-fuel transportation, share-cooperatives, smaller development footprints, and energy efficiency are no longer novel ideas – they are essential to the solution. By integrating sustainable energy systems into ecological design, we take a step towards independence from fossil fuels. As experts on the benefits and design of renewable energy systems, we can guide clients on the integration of these technologies. Our graphic presentation skills will support our sustainable energy advocacy; illustrative renderings are an important tool for visualizing the integration of sustainable technologies into the landscape.
3. We must help reveal and rethink the global landscape of consumption. Present-day manufacturing seeks cheap labor in faraway nations, and it is now common practice for a product to travel to multiple countries in preparation for sale. While many of us try to follow the creed to shop local, the complex landscape of global supply chains keep us in a state of uncertainty about the carbon footprint of every purchase. Graphic presentation skills, such as mapping, can support an effort to reduce demand for globally transported goods. Mapping is an excellent tool for visualizing the life span of a product from cradle to grave. Each journey from farm to table, from factory to doorstep, or from street to landfill, is a landscape narrative of consumption. We have the skills to trace these trajectories, and present them in an understandable, quantitative format. An individual who is better informed of product origins, transport miles, and disposal consequences will make better-informed purchasing decisions that prioritize responsible ecological stewardship.
4. We must lead by example, by improving resource consumption in our own discipline. In professional practice, we make daily decisions that result in extraction of resources and manufacturing of products. By making inquiries into the origins of materials we specify, we will minimize or eliminate the use of materials that have negative extraction consequences in favor of materials that are sustainably harvested. In my own experience with construction, I have found that the handling and manufacturing of soils is one of the most impractical procedures of site construction. Regulated disposal of contaminated soils often requires trucking to remote locations for cleaning. Importation of borrowed fill and manufacturing of engineered soils use resources to strip and transport materials far from their place of origin. And in the case that soil re-use is an option, storage methods often destroy the soil microbiome. Soil degradation is a real and present danger to our profession and future. If we are willing, we have the resourcefulness to influence industry. Inquiry and investigation leads to industry innovation and more sustainable alternatives to current unsustainable standard practices.
5. We must volunteer and share our knowledge with nonprofit and civic organizations. When we volunteer our services to the communities where we live, we reach beyond the familiarity of our professional networks. Environmental justice and stewardship organizations have large member-bases with whom we will build coalitions. The Gowanus Canal Conservancy, a local community-based environmental non-profit with whom I volunteer, has over 1,000 volunteer members and a strong environmental stewardship mission in one of the most polluted watersheds in Brooklyn. Programming has grown to encompass an urban forestry program, a bioswale maintenance certification program, and urban ecology education program for grade school students. Local teachers have created a curriculum around Gowanus canal stormwater topics, so the students gain a proficient understanding of everything from local insect population to the local combined sewer system. These intelligent and motivated youth are now developing a research platform to address climate change and are extremely quick to realize the value of ecological stewardship. The Gowanus Canal Conservancy’s powerful vision of a cleaner and greener watershed gives hope that a healthy ecological balance can be restored in the future. When we connect with hope and get our hands dirty, we feel better, and we begin to reflect on the world in a kinder and more ecologically responsible manner.
It is time we take practical steps towards ecological solvency to slow climate change. Resource consumption must occur in a responsible and sustainable way that does not upset the ecological balance of our natural systems. The solution is simple: to have a determined vision of a clean and livable planet, to adopt a new behavioral paradigm to achieve the vision, to promote ecological awareness through education, and to act responsibly as ecological stewards of the earth.