Design and the Green New Deal

If landscape architects want to remake the world, we can start by remaking our discipline.

Rooftop of the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, along the San Francisco Bay.
Wish it were public: Rooftop garden at the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, along the San Francisco Bay. [Designed by CMG Landscape Architecture with Gehry Partners; photo by Trey Ratcliff]

I don’t know when the myth of landscape architects as climate saviors began, but I know it’s time to kill it. The New Landscape Declaration — a book emerging from a 2016 summit attended by the brightest thinkers in our field — frames landscape architecture as an “ever more urgent necessity,” if not the foundation of civil society. As engineers shaped the built environment of the 19th century and architects the 20th, landscape architects have claimed this century as their own. 1 That’s a bold statement for an obscure profession whose 15,000 U.S. members spend most of their time designing small parks, office courtyards, and residential projects for private clients. Yet it’s not just landscape architects who see a big future for the field. Famed industrial designer Dieter Rams has said that if he were starting his career today, he’d focus on landscapes, not machines. And public officials have recruited landscape architects to the front lines of urban development (as James Corner’s High Line and Thomas Woltz’s Public Square frame Hudson Yards) and climate resilience (as the federal program Rebuild by Design ties hurricane recovery to coastal defense). 2

I don’t know when the myth of landscape architects as climate saviors began, but I know it’s time to kill it.

But if The New Landscape Declaration sought to articulate and elevate our professional ideals, mostly it exposed the gap between rhetoric and reality. The book arrived in fall 2017, a few months after David Wallace-Wells published his alarming article, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” with its memorable opening line quaking, “It is, I promise, worse than you think.” That 7,000-word jeremiad was later expanded into a bestselling book, with acknowledgments thanking the dozens of climate writers, scientists, and activists who informed the author’s research. This is mainstream media’s most comprehensive account of the climate movement, and it contains no mention of work by landscape architects. There is no commentary on Rebuild by Design. It’s as if landscape architecture does not exist. Setting aside the justified critiques of Wallace-Wells’s apocalyptic framing, what does it mean that landscape architects are missing from this prominent book on a topic we claim as our own? Is our discipline a necessity? Are we closing the gap between ideals and practice? We are not, I promise, saving the world. 3

Ian McHarg
Ian McHarg. [Courtesy of the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania]

In 1969, Ian McHarg published Design with Nature, which famously argued that landscape architects “must become the steward[s] of the biosphere.” 4 Since then an entire genre of self-important design writing and advocacy has emerged from the premise that social and ecological crises are best addressed through design in general and landscape architecture in particular. Much of this takes the form of propaganda about our profession’s primacy and exceptionalism — positing seriously that a more beautiful flood barrier in lower Manhattan, a few oyster reefs near Staten Island, or a pocket park surrounded by luxury towers are ideal works of design, exemplars of what Erle Ellis calls the “good Anthropocene.” 5 The New Landscape Declaration is one such work of propaganda. This essay is not.

From where I sit — in McHarg’s former department, in a center bearing his name, on the 50th anniversary of his most important book — that rhetoric rings hollow. As my colleague Richard Weller observes, “When the word stewardship is uttered, landscape architects either nod approvingly or roll their eyes. On the one hand, our declarations of stewardship distinguish us a profession and are appropriate to the magnitude of the ecological crisis. On the other, claims to stewardship are, as James Lovelock indicated at the outset, just hubris: in our case, a small profession with an inferiority complex inspired by a charismatic leader … continuing to make inflated statements about both its purpose and capacity.” 6

I’ve spent most of my professional life outside of the elite institutions that have shaped design culture in the United States. I grew up in a working-class home in rural Arkansas and studied landscape at the state university, before drifting into politics, joining the Obama administration and then the organized opposition to Trump. 7 It’s never been obvious to me that landscape architecture belongs at the center of today’s social movements, and it troubles me that so many colleagues make that claim, effectively erasing the work of community organizers and activists, not to mention the tangible support from allies in fields like sociology, law, and science who work for systemic change. Like the other design professions, landscape architecture as practiced today is a largely apolitical affair, organized around relationships with clients and projects, mainly serving the interests of an economic elite. We may yearn to impart systems-level change, but we are working on discrete sites, with incrementalist tools, within structures that produce injustice. Before we ask the world to view design as an urgent necessity, we must look at those sites, tools, and structures and remake our disciplines to be more useful, in the moment, for the movements and ideals we aspire to serve.

Hurricane Sandy flooding on the New Jersey coast.
Flooding on the New Jersey coast after Hurricane Sandy. [Mark C. Olsen / U.S. Air Force]

A Failure to Rebuild by Design

What would designers do with one billion dollars to spend on climate resilience? Thanks to a federal competition, we know the answer. In 2013, the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development conceived Rebuild by Design, which sought to “promote innovation by developing regionally scalable but locally contextual solutions that increase resilience.” 8 Reflecting the ideology of the Obama administration — and the sympathies of HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, himself an architect — the program was conceived as a design competition, pitting teams and communities against one another for a limited pool of resources. Experimental proposals for resilience would be tested by private actors in (to use the language of neoliberalism) a marketplace of ideas. 9

This was unusual. Most disaster recovery efforts, at least in the United States, seek to rebuild cities following a single, unified plan. They aim to restore the status quo, even if that means putting people, buildings, and infrastructures back into high-risk zones. Such efforts avoid the big questions about how to organize landscapes differently; they are also often hindered by redundant or counterproductive programs. Rebuild was premised on a belief that designers, working closely with communities, could do better. 10

We don’t need playful design proposals; we need high-impact built projects — prototypes for the resilient futures we’ve been promised.

The initial call attracted nearly 150 proposals, and ten teams were chosen to participate in the competition. After a process of regional analysis and site selection, HUD announced, in June 2014, that six winning designs would receive substantial funding for further development and construction. In New York City, the largest share of that money went to a team led by Bjarke Ingels Group, which proposed The BIG U, a flood barrier system around Lower Manhattan, comprising berms and retractable floodwalls, stitched together with waterfront parks and recreational amenities ($335 million). There were also major awards to SCAPE and colleagues, who would develop Living Breakwaters, a program of ecosystem restoration and shoreline stabilization along Staten Island ($60 million), and the University of Pennsylvania and Olin Studio, which would lead Lifelines, a project to fortify Hunts Point Market in The Bronx ($20 million). 11 Outside the city, there were comprehensive plans for the Meadowlands by MIT, ZUS, and Urbanisten ($150 million), for Hoboken by OMA ($230 million), and for Nassau County by Interboro ($125 million).

Although several of these projects are now stalled or curtailed, Rebuild by Design has enjoyed remarkably favorable press coverage, a testament to the sophistication of its boosters and to the general lack of fluency about design and climate change at many media outlets. The images flit across our newsfeeds. Yet those glossy renderings don’t help us see what landscape architects might (or might not) bring to recovery efforts in Houston and Galveston after Hurricane Harvey; Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands after Maria; the Carolinas after Florence; the Western states after another devastating wildfire season; or the Midwest, severely flooded as I write. We don’t need playful design proposals; we need high-impact built projects — prototypes for the resilient futures we’ve been promised.

SCAPE’s Living Breakwaters proposal for Rebuild by Design.

Outside the academic press, the first truly substantive critique of New York’s laggard hurricane recovery came in a 2016 article in Rolling Stone. Climate journalist Jeff Goodell quoted an anonymous architect who said, of BIG’s vision, “when it’s done, it’s just going to be a big, dumb wall,” a prediction born out three years later, when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a “new plan to climate-proof Lower Manhattan” with only a vestigial trace of BIG’s work. Rebuild also came in for criticism in a 2017 interview in The Baffler, in which environmental historian Ashley Dawson questioned the notion that community involvement in the design process could meaningfully disrupt the neoliberal disaster recovery regime: “There’s a danger that we’re so desperate to have some hopeful perspective that we’re really not engaged in the bigger critique of what capitalism is doing and the ways that development is continuing to endanger vulnerable people in cities.” 12 But independent reviews of Rebuild by Design are rare. More common are articles that read as lightly reworked press releases, or self-funded program evaluations that find only minor flaws with the execution. 13

The outcomes do not match the scale of the climate emergency or the claim that Rebuild by Design could do things better and faster than, say, the Army Corps of Engineers.

Yet here we are, more than six years after the hurricane, and not one of these works is under construction. The BIG U is effectively dead. Although many of the same design firms are involved in the new scheme for Lower Manhattan, the city has tossed out years of community planning and announced a conventionally engineered solution: extend the land area with fill, add near-shore walls, and unleash another round of hyper-luxury real estate development to help pay for the cost of new coastal infrastructure. Meanwhile, Lifelines has been renamed the Hunts Point Resiliency Project, and new consultants are working on a small pilot, producing concept studies for backup power generation at two food distribution centers. Gone is the vision of creating green-collar jobs through a “resilience incubator,” where new flood control methods and materials could be tested. And no funding has been secured for the proposed tri-generation plant and micro-grid that would transition the community to a cleaner energy source. Off the south shore of Staten Island, the oyster reefs of Living Breakwaters are still moving forward, but without the planned slate of amenities and recreational development. 14

None of this is surprising. Infrastructure projects often go through extensive public review; early design and planning processes inform later rounds; funding comes in stages, or not. But here the outcomes do not match the scale of the climate emergency or the claim that Rebuild by Design could do things better and faster than, say, the Army Corps of Engineers. As these proposals wind their way through New York City’s review and documentation process, they look less like the products of an innovative design competition and more like the kind of coastal protection and living shoreline projects proposed by Mayor Bloomberg’s Special Initiative for Recovery and Resilience report — works of civil engineering rather than landscape architecture. 15 Yet that has not stopped HUD and the Rockefeller Foundation from promoting Rebuild as a global template for community-driven climate adaptation. The National Disaster Resilience Competition and the Resilient by Design challenge in the San Francisco Bay Area involved many of the same actors, methods, and ideas, even though no one can show that the climate-adaptation-through-competition model is effective. 16

Design proposals by BIG
With various partners, BIG has proposed to fortify Lower Manhattan (Rebuild by Design); protect San Francisco’s Islais Creek with floating superblocks (Resilient by Design); and build cities for climate refugees in the open ocean (UN-Habitat).

Let’s imagine that Lower Manhattan eventually gets its wall and Staten Island its shoreline stabilization, after the high-concept designs are cost-engineered down into big dumb infrastructures. Can a design competition be considered a success if it fails to deliver projects that wouldn’t otherwise have materialized? Should we replicate this model — which has spurred intense rivalry between communities for limited resources, perpetuated a cycle of public officials over-promising results to vulnerable residents, and exacerbated planning fatigue — and export it to other places? 17 Should we be running splashy contests in coastal cities saturated with design talent, places that will devise climate adaptation plans with or without HUD and Rockefeller, as the rest of the nation drowns and burns? In capitalist democracies, there is typically a short window for completing major infrastructure projects in the post-disaster period, when national funding pours in and the complex politics of managed retreat and urban development are temporarily shaken up. Cities that get a chance to make a generational investment in infrastructure, resettlement, and equitable adaptation cannot afford to squander it.

If Rebuild by Design were cancelled, it would represent a failure to re-politicize the profession, to determine what is possible in and through our work by building a movement.

In New York, the de Blasio administration has already walked back commitments to affordable housing and transit infrastructure. 18 If another storm should hit before the Rebuild projects break ground, the city would have an excuse to reset adaptation plans and revert to the sort of technocratic, engineered solutions that it’s historically favored. There is also the possibility of political or economic disruption: a government shutdown that delays or kills the projects, or a revocation of federal funds by a rogue administration. Recently, news broke that one of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Rebuild spinoffs, the 100 Resilient Cities Initiative, appears likely to dissolve before any of its plans are realized. 19 If Rebuild by Design were canceled entirely, like California’s High-Speed Rail, it would not necessarily be the fault of the design firms involved. But it would represent a larger and more important failure for landscape architecture, a failure to re-politicize the profession and determine what is possible in and through our work by building a movement to support urban development aligned with our values. Our current reliance on elite benevolence to bring about change undermines every stated goal in The New Landscape Declaration.

And even if these projects were completed as designed, we could be disappointed by the results. BIG’s makeover might accelerate gentrification on the Lower East Side. SCAPE’s oyster reefs could fail to deliver the promised surge protection. Landscape architecture’s agnosticism toward issues of social justice, and its obsession with unproductive debates like the proper disciplinary balance of art and science, have produced blind spots in how we relate to the world. Can a practice tied to luxury real estate and urban development deliver anything meaningful to communities impacted by global warming and extreme inequality? Put another way, can landscape architecture be both an instrument of neoliberalism and an activist force in the fights against climate change and for social justice? If it can’t, we need to find new ways of imagining our mission and disciplinary scope.

Contemporary practice is focused on sites, not systems; and on elite desires, not public interests. Our work is limited in scale and subordinate to client mandates. Rather than challenging or subverting these core structural constraints, Rebuild merely tweaks the machine of disaster recovery and redevelopment. Such incrementalism has been a key feature of landscape architecture — and much design-based activism — for decades. Though some scholars have credited designers with central roles in social and environmental movements — from the Progressive Era, to the New Deal, to the radical politics of the 1960s and ’70s in America — I would argue that that landscape architects rarely contributed to the organizing and the politics of those movements. 20 By and large, we have been bystanders to progress, not principal actors. If the gap between our ambitions and impact is ever to be narrowed, it won’t be through declarations of our principles. We must rethink how landscape architecture engages with social and political movements.

Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, Ocean Parkway
Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed Ocean Parkway in New York, which featured the first bike path in the United States. [via NYC Parks]


We might start by reconsidering those earlier eras. Landscape architects, planners, and urbanists found themselves thrust into new roles during times of cultural change — not because they were movement leaders, but because they were attuned to the movements happening around them. Celebrate designers’ participation in Progressive or New Deal reforms, if you wish, but don’t forget that designers have often been pulled in other directions — for example, by becoming complicit in programs of urban renewal in the 1950s and ’60s and of neoliberal city-making from the 1980s to today.

Historians usually trace the rise of American landscape architecture to the polymathic genius of Frederick Law Olmsted. 21 A child of wealthy, well-connected parents, Olmsted was a successful journalist before embarking on a career that would profoundly shape the new field of landscape architecture. He planned and oversaw the construction of New York City’s Central Park, led the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the Civil War, and founded a firm that designed dozens of parks and college campuses across the country, including Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Chicago’s suburban Riverside, and Boston’s Emerald Necklace. Olmsted was also involved in the conservation of Yosemite and Niagara Falls, the first state-managed parks. But he did not achieve these things as a lone hero. He benefited from the work of activists and organizations who led the settlement housing and city beautification movements, and he participated in public health campaigns that aimed to remediate the problems with overcrowding and pollution in American cities.

We seem to have forgotten an important lesson about Olmsted: his eagerness to enter the political arena and challenge the status quo.

Olmsted’s privileged and wide-ranging career set the template for landscape architecture as a generalist enterprise that could handle any aspect of planning, designing, or managing built and natural environments. That so much human activity falls within that scope may be why landscape architects feel empowered to make large disciplinary claims today. But we seem to have forgotten a more important lesson: Olmsted’s eagerness to enter the political arena and challenge the status quo. His writings and designs advocated a powerful — even radical — reconfiguration of American land use, making room for generous public spaces in cities and laying the groundwork at Yosemite and Niagara for federal land protection. 22 His argument for master-planning suburban Riverside was based on sharp political analysis; he understood both the revolution in rail transportation technology and the need to keep bedroom communities compact and connected to urban centers. And he recognized the vast, growing power of the federal government, placing himself as close to it as he could.

In an essay connecting Olmsted’s early works to the public health movements of the 1860s, Theodore Eisenman finds an “echo” of the “lungs of the city” thesis promoted by social reformers. The American Medical Association’s Committee on Public Hygiene, for example, had been advocating for the creation of urban parks since 1849, when the future designer of Central Park was still a gentleman farmer and journalist. 23 Garrett Dash Nelson, writing on the 28-year-old Olmsted’s travels in England, shows that his politics preceded his design sensibility:

Though Olmsted’s work as a landscape architect is the source of his continued fame and interest to scholars, reorienting his intellectual history around this formative year shows that … Olmsted was a social critic first, and a landscape designer second … that his aesthetic sensibility was predicated on principles of social reorganization.

Well before Olmsted found his professional calling, he “understood that the landscape was a record of social desire, and that it could also be an instrument of social reform.” 24 If the American Society of Landscape Architects wants to hold up Olmsted as a founding father, let’s also hold up the political credo that animated his work: “It is the main duty of government, if it is not the sole duty, to provide the means of protection for all its citizens in the pursuit of happiness against the obstacles, otherwise insurmountable, which the selfishness of individuals or combinations of individuals is liable to interpose to that pursuit.” 25

Greenbelt, Maryland, planned by the Resettlement Administration during the New Deal
Greenbelt, Maryland, was planned and built by the Resettlement Administration under Rexford Guy Tugwell during the New Deal. [Jason Reblando, from New Deal Utopias]

The social and political movements that shaped Olmsted’s practice would lay the groundwork for the reforms of the Progressive era and later for President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Urbanists and environmental designers like Jane Addams, Gifford Pinchot, Martha Brooks Hutcheson, and Benton MacKaye formed a bridge from the Progressive era to the New Deal, and when they had the chance they entered public service, fighting for housing justice, land conservation, and environmental resource management at all levels of government. New Deal programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority, Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, National Planning Board, and Resettlement Administration funneled power and resources to landscape architects, providing non-political professionals with a steady flow of work designing new towns, planning national parks and forests, building public infrastructure, and developing resource management plans in the rural south and west. 26

In the early 20th century, urbanists and designers entered public service, fighting for housing justice, land conservation, and environmental resource management at all levels of government.

But here again we see designers as participants in, not leaders of, the social movements of their time. In the postwar era, they went through the same cultural realignment as the rest of the country, reorienting away from public works and land conservation and toward greenfield development and roadside parks, away from cities and toward suburbs. Landscape designers also made what was in retrospect the fatal mistake of lending their technical skills to urban renewal programs that reinforced racial segregation. 27 When the backlash to urban renewal began — sparked by Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities — planners and designers lost much of their access to large-scale projects, and those who still worked for public agencies saw their power diminished. As Thomas Campanella argues, they became professional caretakers, “reactive rather than proactive, corrective instead of preemptive, rule bound and hamstrung and anything but visionary.” 28

The environmental movement galvanized by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring achieved great success in regulating pollution — influencing the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency — but it was less successful in compelling a truly sustainable program of land use. Put another way, it had tremendous influence over how we live, but almost none over where we live. It was in this era that Ian McHarg produced the seminal work that would make him the most consequential landscape architect of the last half century. McHarg was a singular figure in the field, a public intellectual who mixed with people like Margaret Mead, Julian Huxley, and Loren Eiseley, moving between academia (as chair of landscape architecture at Penn), government (as an adviser to White House commissions, task forces, and environmental policy boards), and popular media (as host of the CBS show The House We Live In); and through these activities he sought to place environmental design at the center of American life. He aimed to reinvent nearly everything about the discipline of landscape architecture — its methods of inquiry, its scope and scale of impact, and its cultural and political position. For a brief moment, it seemed he would succeed.

Ian McHarg
Ian McHarg. [Courtesy of the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania]

In Design with Nature, McHarg laid out both a new philosophy of landscape architecture and a new analytic method in which a place is understood by sifting through and organizing its ecological data. He pioneered the “layer cake” model underlying the Geographical Information Systems (GIS) framework that today dominates the field. At the core of this worldview was a deep faith in positivism — the philosophy of science which holds that objectivity is possible, that knowledge is produced through empirical deduction, and that through scientific observation we learn generalizable truths about the social and physical world. McHarg believed that landscape architects’ skills were uniquely suited to this mode of environmental analysis, and, further, that rationalizing the design process would elevate the profession and give it a “passport to relevance and productive social utility.” 29 Landscape architects could become consummate mappers and data synthesists, using their skills of analysis and visualization to join the rising technocracy within the federal government, and wielding the power that came with that.

Hubristic and techno-utopian, McHarg’s positivism expanded the field, opening up new opportunities for territorial-scale environmental planning and analysis. But McHarg also set outer limits on that expanded field, prescribing certain methods of analysis, specific modes of operation and invention that still define our work, especially in the public sector. In his view, landscape architecture was to be an exercise in problem-solving, in which the “right” answer waited to be uncovered. 30 A persistent theme in McHarg’s writing was that data — especially Big Data — would shift policy for the better, as if the only thing preventing humanity from enjoying a more just, healthy, sustainable society was a failure to put the right statistics in front of the right people. 31 Moa Carlsson has traced McHarg’s role in the proliferation of data-driven landscape architecture. As she writes, he “viewed ecology as offering ‘emancipation to landscape architecture’ and he visualized it as ‘the only bridge between the natural sciences and the planning professions.’” 32 Barely a decade after Design with Nature, however, ecologists had to contend with the devolutionary politics of the Reagan era. And in our own time of weaponized disinformation, McHarg’s faith in science and rationality seems quaint. 33

Landscape architects have not yet dealt with the fact that McHarg’s rational philosophy and technocratic approach left the field ill-equipped to negotiate the rise of neoliberalism.

Landscape architects have not yet meaningfully dealt with the unforeseen consequences of McHarg’s rational philosophy; with the fact that his technocratic legacy would leave the field ill-equipped to negotiate the major cultural and political realignments of neoliberalism — the hollowing out of governments at every level, the privatization of public services, and a waning belief in the ability of governments to bring about big, positive change. 34 Beginning in the 1980s, urbanists and designers were forced to defend everything from clean air to mass transit to public education through the narrow lens of cost-benefit analyses. Landscape architecture, a small and client-centric profession, with no real institutional or political presence, was overwhelmed by the rise of an anti-government, anti-science movement amongst conservatives. By the end of the century, landscape architecture had become once again a largely project-driven enterprise, dependent upon the elite, private interests that now shape urbanization, even in ostensibly public spaces. 35

At key political flashpoints of the past decade — Occupy Wall Street, the Standing Rock protests, and, now, the Green New Deal — landscape architects have been conspicuously absent. Our field has responded to neoliberalism with ever larger global corporate practices, a proliferation of boutique design firms, and a retreat from public service. We have ceded most government work to engineers. Professional societies have further depoliticized the field, ensuring that landscape architects are locked out of the policymaking process and constrained by the limits it imposes. 36

Chart of annual global temperatures from 1850-2018
Annual global temperatures from 1850-2018, covering 1.35°C. [Ed Hawkins]

Designing a Green New Deal

Now we face a new reckoning. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns us that to avoid catastrophe, human societies have twelve years to wholly transform the way we use energy and land, making changes on a scale for which “there is no documented historic precedent.” 37 Whatever the field of landscape architecture has been, from Olmsted to Hutcheson, from McHarg to SCAPE, it must now be something else. It must be systems-driven, it must abandon messianic self-regard, and it must seek solidarity and engagement with the resurgent left, which is coalescing around environmental and social justice. In the great political projects of our generation, we will achieve more than we ever could through apolitical stewardship. 38

The Green New Deal is a generational investment in planning and design that will radically transform the landscape of the United States. It is the biggest design idea in a century.

In the American context, that means designers should be lining up behind the Green New Deal, which is the only movement of people working fast enough and thinking big enough to address the climate crisis. 39 As currently formulated, the Green New Deal is a set of risky, ambitious positions, involving the decarbonization of the economy, national investments in climate adaptation, and a fusion of working-class and environmental politics with a program of social justice. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez framed her congressional resolution supporting these principles as a “Request for Proposals.” In other words: “We’ve defined the scope and where we want to go,” and now we have to identify and collaborate on “projects.” (She’s speaking the language of landscape architects!) Much of the policy development so far has been led by Rhiana Gunn-Wright and colleagues at the think tank New Consensus. But their work is necessarily focused on national economic and political strategies. No organization has stepped up to articulate the extraordinary scale, scope, and pace of landscape change that is implied. 40

Of course, a request for proposals is not a plan. But FDR’s New Deal was not a plan either; it was an improvisational series of programs, some of which were successful and some not, and all of which evolved over time. Similarly, the Green New Deal is a generational investment in planning and design that will radically transform the social and physical landscape of the United States. It is the biggest design idea in a century.

And it is happening without us. In February, I raised this point to an audience of a thousand or so professional landscape architects at a conference in Atlantic City. In the smoke-tinged ballroom of a casino, in a city ravaged by Donald Trump, on a barrier island soon to be erased, I closed my address by noting the endorsement of the Green New Deal by the American Institute of Architects (no bunch of radicals, that). I asked when the ASLA might follow suit. I didn’t realize that the society’s president, Shawn Kelly, was in the audience, and I didn’t expect him to use his brief remarks the following day to disparage both “that green plan” and me personally for raising the issue. Kelly called me a “grump” who doesn’t understand how national politics works.

That didn’t stop members from pressuring the leadership to issue a statement on the Green New Deal a few days later — albeit a tepid, non-binding resolution containing “several recommendations about social and economic issues that are beyond the scope of the Society’s mandate and existing policies, matters about which we can take no formal position,” which disappointed proponents even as it angered some more conservative members. 41 Let me just say, as a grump who has at least a faint idea about how politics works, landscape architects need to be building coalitions with non-designers in the climate movement if we want to participate professionally in the world-historical project of addressing the impacts of climate change.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey discuss the Green New Deal at a press conference in February. [Senate Democrats]

But the resolution is not really the point. I began this essay by suggesting that if landscape architects wish to remake the world we must first reconstitute our discipline as something more than a client-driven enterprise. That resonates with a recent article by Places editor Nancy Levinson, in which she asks how designers can “contribute to a realignment of politics, a reinvigoration of public service, and a renewed commitment to the project management of the nation.” 42 The answer is staring us in the face. We can begin where FDR’s New Deal left off — and where the Green New Deal has yet to be defined — by revitalizing the constellation of alphabet agencies devoted to the design and management of the built environment. Political leaders will lay out the broad strokes: investments in clean energy research, a new federal industrial policy, public spending for climate adaptation in vulnerable communities. But landscape architects are in a position to realize the projects necessary to the Green New Deal — the creation of a distributed smart grid and high-speed rail network, the retrofitting of vulnerable cities with green infrastructure, and the managed retreat from coastal and desert areas — and to argue that success will depend on our ability to plan, design, and administer radical transformations. The revival of an activist federal design bureaucracy is necessary to the success of a Green New Deal. It also presents a unique opportunity to create alternative models of practice in landscape architecture.

The revival of an activist federal design bureaucracy is necessary to the success of a Green New Deal. It also presents a unique opportunity to create alternative models of practice in landscape architecture.

To a significant degree, this design bureaucracy is already in place; it just needs a bigger mandate and more funding — and more of us, landscape architects, finding our way into public service. Existing levers of power include the Tennessee Valley Authority and Rural Utilities Service, the principal agencies tasked with building out and maintaining electric, water, and telecommunications services in communities not served by the markets and private industry. We also have the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Land Management, and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which are equipped with national-scale missions to transform the built environment. The Army Corps operates major infrastructures along American coastlines and interior waterways and could be responsible for developing a national adaptation strategy. Similarly, the BLM could oversee a national conservation plan that places half of the nation’s land in protected areas — following the logic of E. O. Wilson’s Half-Earth proposal. 43 FERC could oversee a radical reconstruction of the national grid as a distributed network of clean energy generation, transmission, and storage infrastructure, led by local energy co-operatives. 44 We might also imagine a stronger public works mission within the Appalachian Regional Commission and Delta Regional Authority — the primary channels through which federal investments are funneled into these under-resourced regions. They already exist as de facto planning organizations. We just need alternative visions for how to use them in ways that further the social and spatial ambitions of the Green New Deal.

And we can imagine reviving the agencies that were dissolved as the New Deal coalition collapsed. A 21st-century Resettlement Administration would manage internal migration, unbuilding the places we’ll lose to climate change and building new communities to absorb the coming wave of climate refugees. A restored Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration would be conduits for a federal jobs guarantee, putting millions to work building a national network of green roofs and green infrastructure, and remediating every toxic landscape in the country. A new Farm Services Administration would manage the rapid transformation of our agricultural system, as changes in precipitation and temperature shift viable farmland from the Southeast and Midwest to the Great Plains and Pacific Northwest. We could also revive New Deal-era programs in writing, photography, and other documentary arts, to help the nation cope with upheaval and loss. And we’ll need new place-based authorities, similar to the ARC and DRA, but in other areas of the country, especially along the Gulf Coast and in the Great Plains. Creating and operating these managerial instruments is work that landscape architects can do well. But we have to lean into the Green New Deal, and not cede that space to the usual crowd of technocrats — economists, engineers, planners, and a few architects — who will compete for managerial roles.

A panel at the Landscape Architecture Foundation summit
Panel at the Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future, Philadelphia, 2016. [You Wu]

That means our professional societies need to find ways to train a rising generation of landscape architects for careers in public service — or, as the organizers behind The Architecture Lobby have shown us, we will need to build new institutions. Starting tomorrow, the ASLA and Landscape Architecture Foundation could offer awards and fellowships for designers engaged in bureaucratic and political work, as they do for excellence in private practice. They could make the case that truly public spaces and infrastructures are funded by taxes and run by governments, not by corporate partners or the donor class. We need to dismantle the philosophies of neoliberalism and philanthrocapitalism that underwrite many urban development projects, and withdraw support for disruptive urban tech startups. As Levinson writes, “not only are the self-appointed change agents unwilling to push for meaningful action that might threaten the systems that have allowed them to accumulate vast wealth; often as not they’ve caused or contributed to the very problems they are claiming to solve. The modus operandi is not structural reform but personal generosity. The arena is not electoral politics but the free market. The ethos is patronage and volunteerism.” 45 Too many leaders in our field occupy positions of incredible power and prestige, while maintaining that they must make the best of a bad system. But we cannot be content with merely narrowing the gap between our ideals and our reality. The politics of design belong at the center of landscape architecture, and our institutions have an obligation to do more.

We need to train a rising generation of landscape architects for careers in public service. Students will need coursework in public administration and finance, political theory, and community organizing.

Educators, too, have a unique responsibility to change the culture of the profession. The students who wish to fill the ranks of the new design bureaucracy need coursework in public administration and finance, political theory, and community organizing. We can offer scholarships and awards for public-interest achievement, and give internship credit for working with political campaigns or community organizations. And we can acknowledge — through our public programs, our scholarship, and other aspects of design education outside the studio — the extraordinary moment we are in, our complicity in creating it, and our responsibility to develop alternatives.

Whatever form the Green New Deal eventually takes, it will be realized and understood through buildings, landscapes, and other public works. Landscape architects have knowledge and skills — from ecological management to systems analysis to mapping and visualization — that are essential to that project. Now is our chance to re-institutionalize design expertise in government and, at the same time, to break the stranglehold of neoliberalism that has long undermined the ambitions of landscape architecture. Let’s get started. 46

Author’s Note

Thank you to Frederick Steiner, Richard Weller, Karen M’Closkey, Kian Goh, Sean Burkholder, and Daniel Aldana Cohen, who offered invaluable feedback on earlier drafts of this essay. I’m also grateful to Ananya Roy, Melany De La Cruz-Viesca, Laure Murat, Abel Valenzuela, and their colleagues at UCLA for inviting me to begin workshopping these ideas for a lecture in November 2017. Finally, I cannot thank Josh Wallaert, Nancy Levinson, and their colleagues at Places Journal enough for their generous feedback, time, and energy, without which this essay would never have been possible.

  1. “We are entering the age of landscape architecture,” said Barbara Deutsch, executive director of the Landscape Architecture Foundation, at the 2016 summit in Philadelphia leading to the publication of The New Landscape Declaration, which synthesized discussions among landscape architects about the future of the field. (The summit marked the 50th anniversary of the original “A Declaration of Concern.”) In an introduction to the resulting book, Richard Weller wrote, “We find ourselves in a historically and culturally significant position … [as] engineers led the nineteenth century, architects the twentieth, and this is now our time.” Kelly Shannon used her declaration to frame landscape architecture as “an ever more urgent necessity,” and she later organized a conference on that theme at the University of Southern California. Read Weller and Shannon (and many others) in The Landscape Architecture Foundation, The New Landscape Declaration: A Call to Action for the Twenty-First Century (Rare Bird Books, 2017). [This note was edited after publication to clarify that The New Landscape Declaration was issued after the summit.]
  2. For an excellent profile of Dieter Rams, see Alexandra Lange, “What We’ve Learned from Dieter Rams, and What We’ve Ignored,” The New Yorker, November 28, 2018. Landscape architects are now regularly commissioned for high-profile public works that, in previous generations, were the domain of architects. That includes Corner’s High Line (“Landscape architects, no longer handmaidens,” Lange put it) and Woltz’s Public Square (described by Shannon Mattern, in her definitive essay on Hudson Yards, as “an extraordinary challenge … [that] must knit together the buildings and negotiate vast disparities in scale). See Lange, “Lessons from the High Line,” Design Observer, October 31, 2011; and Mattern, “Instrumental City: The View from Hudson Yards, circa 2019,” Places Journal, April 2016, For a more recent critique of how architecture, landscape, and neoliberalism converge at Hudson Yards, don’t miss Kate Wagner, “Fuck the Vessel,” The Baffler, March 21, 2019. Other landscape projects treated as contemporary canon include New York City’s Bryant Park (OLIN) and Brooklyn Bridge Park (MVVA) and Chicago’s Lurie Garden at Millennium Park (Gustafson Guthrie Nichol), all luxury urban spaces produced in cities of global import at tremendous public expense. For a wonderful overview of current practice, see Brian Davis and Thomas Oles, “From Architecture to Landscape,” Places Journal, October 2014,
  3. I feel compelled to note that I am extremely troubled by the framing, narration, and conclusions in Wallace-Wells’s book. One consequence of the climate illiteracy at many large media companies is that what little they publish or elevate on the subject is hyper-apocalyptic. (More nuanced, accurate stories on climate change don’t get clicks and ratings.) But it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy to intentionally scare the shit out of people and treat our collective ruin as inevitable. This is precisely the kind of book I would expect from a writer new to this subject and a media ecosystem fundamentally unequipped to deal with climate science and politics. Good reporting needs to help readers envision alternate futures (as landscape architects are trained to do). See Richard Campanella, “How Humans Sank New Orleans,” The Atlantic, February 6, 2018; Neena Satija, Kiah Collier, Al Shaw, and Jeff Larson, “Houston’s Perfect Storm,” The Atlantic, March 4, 2016; and Kate Wagner, “The Palace and the Storm,” The Baffler, October 23, 2018.
  4. McHarg’s Design with Nature (Doubleday, 1969) remains the bestselling book in landscape architecture and is often placed alongside Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1962) as one of the most important texts of the 1960s environmental movement. He’s also one of the few landscape architects famous enough to get an obituary in The New York Times. [This endnote was corrected after publication to indicate that he was not the only landscape architect to receive an NYT obituary, as originally reported.]
  5. See Erle C. Ellis, “Science Alone Won’t Save the Earth. People Have to Do That,” The New York Times, August 11, 2018; and An Ecomodernist Manifesto (2015), a much-hyped position paper from The Breakthrough Institute which includes Ellis among its co-signers. He argues that a “good Anthropocene” involves a purposeful decoupling of human activities and the natural world, which will requires social, economic, and technological transformations in where we live, how we live, and how we use land. In this sense, he belongs to the camp of techno-utopians who would have us believe that innovation and inventiveness — rather than behavioral and political change — are the way out of the climate crisis. I find that reasoning incredibly troubling, especially as it is taken up by design educators and professionals who co-opt Silicon Valley myths that are increasingly exposed as fraudulent.
  6. Richard Weller, “Stewardship Now? Reflections on Landscape Architecture’s Raison d’etre in the 21st Century,” Landscape Journal 33(2): 85-108,
  7. During the Obama administration, I worked in the White House Domestic Policy Council’s Office of Urban Affairs and Economic Opportunity, where I helped coordinate interagency grant programs, rulemaking and regulatory reviews, and collaborative efforts around housing, urban development, and environmental policy. There I met Ezra Levin and Leah Greenberg, who are now co-directors of the team behind the Indivisible movement. I was a co-author of The Indivisible Guide (2016) and spent much of the following year helping establish Indivisible as a viable, and now immensely powerful, political organization. Those experiences shaped how I think about design, and especially its absence from the political and civic life of this country.
  8. This description of Rebuild by Design is in New York City’s Special Initiative for Recovery and Resilience report, “A Stronger, More Resilient New York” (2013). Rebuild was a model for the Obama administration’s practice of partnering with local governments and philanthropic organizations on jointly-funded, jointly-administered projects, particularly in the domains of design and disaster policy. In this case, the Rockefeller Foundation and HUD led the program, while the competition research was directed by Eric Klinenberg of New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge, and various administrative responsibilities were picked up by the Regional Plan Association, the Municipal Art Society, and the Van Alen Institute. Nearly 200 other government agencies and more than 500 community organizations were involved with Rebuild and reported directly to the Hurricane Sandy Task Force, created by President Obama to oversee broader regional recovery efforts.
  9. This, too, was a hallmark of the Obama administration’s policy style. One high-profile example is the “Race to the Top” education program, which provided relatively small grants to states and districts that found creative ways to pursue a reform agenda. This competitive, neoliberal approach was widely criticized by teachers’ unions, the NAACP, the Urban League, and many other public education advocates. See Michele McNeil, “Civil Rights Groups Call for New Federal Education Agenda,” Education Week, July 26, 2010; and Seyward Darby, “Obama’s Education Agenda Isn’t Anti-Minority,” The New Republic, July 27, 2010.
  10. For an overview of the federal disaster recovery regime in the United States, see Robert Olshansky and Laurie Johnson, Clear as Mud: Planning for the Rebuilding of New Orleans (Routledge, 2010); Jaimie Hicks Masterson, et al., Planning for Community Resilience: A Handbook for Reducing Vulnerability to Disasters (Island Press, 2014); Karl Kim and Robert Olshansky, guest editors, “Planning for Disaster Recovery,” special issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association 80(4); and Liz Koslov, “The Case for Retreat,” Public Culture 28(2): 359-87, Disaster recovery has tracked the broader trends of privatization and “reinventing government,” popularized by Reagan and implemented under Clinton. For more on the privatization of disaster recovery, see Kevin Fox Gothan and Miriam Greenberg, Crisis Cities: Disaster and Redevelopment in New York and New Orleans, (Oxford University Press, 2014); and Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Picador, 2008).
  11. Disclosure: Penn’s Weitzman School of Design, which was on the Lifelines team, is my professional home (as director of The McHarg Center) and one of Places Journal’s academic partners. See the journal’s Statement of Editorial Independence.
  12. Jeff Goodell, “Can New York be Saved in the Era of Global Warming,” Rolling Stone, July 5, 2016; Bill de Blasio, “My New Plan to Climate-Proof Lower Manhattan,” New York Magazine, March 13, 2019; Joseph Hanania, “To Save East River Park, the City Intends to Bury It,” The New York Times, January 18, 2019; and Zach Webb, “An Uneven Disaster: Q & A with Ashley Dawson,” The Baffler, September 15, 2017.
  13. The Rockefeller Foundation has funded several reports, events, and a book, which have been generally exuberant about the successes of Rebuild by Design while downplaying the acknowledged shortcomings. See Rebuild by Design (2015) [PDF], and program evaluations conducted by the Urban Institute, “Evaluation: Rebuild by Design Phase 1” (June 2014) [PDF] and “Preliminary Outcome Evaluation” (December 2016) [PDF]. Among the better independent critiques, see Robert Lewis, “Why ‘The Big U’ Storm Barrier Could End Up as ‘Half a J,’WNYC, October 27, 2017; and Kian Goh, “Flows in Formation: The Global-Urban Networks of Climate Change Adaptation,” Urban Studies 10(1): 1-19,
  14. The outlook for this innovative project is unclear. Oysters are no longer found in the coastal zone off the southern shore of Staten Island, and no one knows if the reefs can attract enough oysters to grow vertically as sea levels rise, which will be key to realizing the promise of coastal protection. Rapidly increasing ocean acidity is also a threat. For more on the relationship between climate change, acidity, and shellfish population collapse, read Richard A. Feely, et al., “Scientific Summary of Ocean Acidification in Washington State Marine Waters: Washington Shellfish Initiative Blue Ribbon Panel,” NOAA Special Report (November 2012) [PDF]; Nina Bednarsek et al., “Extensive Dissolution of Live Pteropods in the Southern Ocean,” Nature Geoscience 5(2012): 881-85,; Anaelle Lemasson, et al., “Linking the Biological Impacts of Ocean Acidification on Oysters to Changes in Ecosystem Services: A Review,” Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 492(2017): 49-62,; George Waldbusser, et al., “Oyster Shell Dissolution Rates in Estuarine Waters: Effects of pH and Shell Legacy,” Journal of Shellfish Research, 30(3): 659-69,; and Trevor Branch, et al., “Impacts of Ocean Acidification on Marine Seafood,” Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 28(3): 178-86,
  15. The SIRR report, “A Stronger, More Resilient New York,” (see note 8) outlines “an integrated system of discrete coastal projects that, together, would constitute the elements of a multi-layered approach [that] also involves resiliency measures for buildings and protections for critical infrastructure.” In practice, this means building several hundred small coastal engineering projects — levees, bulkheads, seawalls, living shorelines, enhance beach nourishment, tide gates, and other structural and non-structural forms of protection. The plan thus bets on the city’s ability to keep water out, following what landscape architect Jack Ahern describes as a “fail-safe” mentality. See Ahern, “From fail-safe to safe-to-fail: Sustainability and Resilience in the New Urban World,” Landscape and Urban Planning 100(4): 341-43, Two of the main differences between the SIRR approach and Rebuild by Design are (a) SIRR proposes a systems-based approach to adaptation (albeit highly flawed), while RBD focuses on one-off projects and hopes they will be (somehow!) replicated at a larger scale; and (b) SIRR proposes mono-functional, hard infrastructure while RBD attempts to build multi-functional green and gray infrastructure.
  16. Notably, Resilient by Design lacked a funding mechanism for project development and construction. The designs were meant to inspire public support and funding, which hasn’t happened yet. See John King, “For a World of Rising Sea Levels, a Showcase of Proposed Solutions,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 12, 2018.
  17. In interviews with more than 30 designers, community leaders, and administrators directly involved in Rebuild by Design, one view was nearly universally shared: that the structure of a competition forced teams — of designers on one end and community organizations on the other — to invest incredible amounts of time and energy to a process that was not guaranteed to yield anything for them. This proved acceptable to the design firms, who saw it as a business development opportunity and were happy to take a loss on Rebuild by Design if it led to bigger, more lucrative commissions. But for the communities in question — the Lower East Side, Hunts Point, and portions of Staten Island — it was viewed as just one more instance of exploitation, in which some of the city’s most vulnerable residents invested hopes in a planning process that produced little, if any, material improvement. See more in my forthcoming book Drowning America: The Nature and Politics of Adaptation (Penn Press, expected 2020).
  18. Ameena Walker, “Bill de Blasio’s Affordable Housing Initiative Failing Low-Income New Yorkers, Says Report,” Curbed, September 16, 2017.
  19. Christopher Flavelle, “Rockefeller’s Climate Resilience Program Said to Be in Jeopardy,” Bloomberg, March 28, 2019.
  20. For a survey of landscape architects’ and designers’ role in the New Deal, see Phoebe Cutler, The Public Landscape of the New Deal (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985). For more on the apolitical orientations of design, see Daniel M. Abramson, Arindam Dutta, Timothy Hyde, and Jonathan Massey (Aggregate), Governing by Design: Architecture, Economy, and Politics in the Twentieth Century (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012); and Damian White, “Just Transitions/Design for Transitions: Preliminary Notes on a Design Politics for a Green New Deal,” Capitalism Nature Socialism (2019): 1-20,
  21. There is extensive scholarship on Frederick Law Olmsted by urban and environmental historians and critics. For starters, see Thomas Fisher, “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Campaign for Public Health,” Places Journal, November 2010,; and Witold Rybczynski, A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century (New York: Scribner, 2005).
  22. It should be noted that the founding principles of that federal conservation system are now contested. Though filmmaker Ken Burns has posited that national parks were perhaps the best idea in American history, scientists now question the desirability of “fortress conservation,” or the bounding of protected, wild lands, rather than integrating them into residential areas. Further, (white) historians have just begun to reckon with the ways in which land conservation is implicated in the violent dispossession of indigenous people.
  23. Theodore Eisenman, “Frederick Law Olmsted, Green Infrastructure, and the Evolving City,” Journal of Planning History, 12(4): 287-311,
  24. Garrett Dash Nelson, “Walking and Talking through Walks and Talks: Traveling in the English Landscape with Frederick Law Olmsted, 1850 and 2011,” Journal of Historical Geography, 48(2015): 47-57.
  25. Frederick Law Olmsted, “The Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Trees: A Preliminary Report (1865),” Landscape Architecture 43(1952): 12-13.
  26. Cutler describes this as an expansionary era for landscape architects, which funneled hundreds of young designers into civil service. Their work ranged from developing their own plans and projects to serving as project managers on larger, more complex sites developed for the Tennessee Valley Authority and Resettlement Administration. Importantly, this work was largely managerial; landscape architects in relatively anonymous, bureaucratic stations supervised a significant portion of the public works projects delivered in this era.
  27. Charles Waldheim and other contemporary proponents of landscape urbanist theory have attempted to reinterpret some work from the urban renewal period, searching for scraps of redeemability in projects like Lafayette Park (Detroit) that arose through slum clearance and redlining practices. Although Waldheim claims, without citation, that Lafayette Park was intended to be (and to this day remains) a mixed-income, mixed-race community, his arguments are fundamentally asocial. They depend on claims that Lafayette Park anticipated post-Fordist, post-WWII sprawl and is thus a model for dispersed development patterns elsewhere in the United States, providing “central city housing to a middle-class group of residents with the perceived amenities of the suburbs.” Read more in chapter 6 of Waldheim, Landscape as Urbanism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016). But note: the Lafayette Park neighborhood is 2.5 whiter than the Detroit average, residents earn 1.4 times more; and educational attainment is 2.5 times higher.
  28. Thomas Campanella, “Jane Jacobs and the Death and Life of American Planning,” Places Journal, April 2011, Campanella is not alone in his assessment of Jacobs’s legacy. Katherine Einstein and colleagues at Boston University analyzed the minutes from nearly 100 planning and zoning board meetings on new housing construction in Massachusetts. They found that both elected and appointed officials were likely to treat public meetings as the only source of community input in their decision-making process, and that the participants in those meetings were disproportionately “older, male, longtime residents, voters in local elections, and homeowners,” who “overwhelmingly oppose the construction of new housing,” often at multiple meetings. See Katherine Levine Eastman, Maxwell Palmer, and David M. Glick, “Who Participates in Local Government? Evidence from Meeting Minutes,” Perspectives on Politics 17(1): 28-46,
  29. Ian McHarg, “An Ecological Method for Landscape Architecture,” Landscape Architecture, 57(2): 105-07.
  30. Susan Herrington, “The Nature of Ian McHarg’s Science,” Landscape Journal, 29(1): 1-20, For more on McHarg’s design philosophy and its reception, see Frederick Steiner, “Green the Earth, Restore the Earth, Heal the Earth,” in Frederick Steiner, Richard Weller, Karen M’Closkey, and Billy Fleming, Eds., Design with Nature Now (Lincoln Institute of Land Policy Press, 2019); and Richard Weller and Billy Fleming, “Has Landscape Architecture Failed?,” The Dirt, March 23, 2016.
  31. For more on the contemporary fetishization of Big Data and decision-making, read Shannon Mattern’s “Databodies in Codespace,” Places Journal, April 2018,; and Shannon Mattern, “Methodolatry and the Art of Measure,” November 2013,
  32. Moa Karolina Carlsson, “Environmental Design Systems Thinking and Human Agency: McHarg’s Ecological Method and Steinitz and Rogers’s Interdisciplinary Education Experiment,” Landscape Journal, 37(1): 37-52. She quotes McHarg, “An Ecological Method,”
  33. Carlo Florenzi, “It Never Went Away,” Jacobin, March 4, 2018.
  34. As we approach the 50th anniversary of Design with Nature, we can view the last half-century of landscape architecture as a response to McHarg and his methods. His philosophy inspired adherents but also revolt — part of a broader, cyclical pattern in landscape architecture, as the pendulum swings between an emphasis on science and art, sustainability and beauty, social impact and intrinsic value. James Corner articulated the motivations behind the current revolt, complaining that “contemporary landscape architecture [under McHarg’s influence] has drawn more from objectivist and instrumental modes of ecology, while design creativity has all too frequently been reduced to dimensions of environmental problem solving and aesthetic appearance.” Many practitioners feel stifled by the notions of optimization and fitness championed by McHarg, and they have sought to re-center design, rather than planning, within the practice of landscape architecture. See Corner, “Ecology and Landscape as Agents of Creativity,” in George Thompson and Frederick Steiner, Eds., Ecological Design and Planning (Wiley, 1997), 80-108.
  35. The privatization of public services and public space is central to the dilemma of contemporary landscape architecture, as designers’ rhetorical positions on justice and climate are often at odds with the financial and political interests guiding urban development in the United States. James Corner, in Landscape Urbanism: A Manual for the Machinic Landscape, Ed. Mohsen Mostafavi and Ciro Najle (AA, 2003), argues that the central ambit of landscape urbanism is reclaiming structural influence over projects. (Paraphrased in Richard Weller, “Landscape (Sub)urbanism in Theory and Practice,” Landscape Journal 27(2): 247-67.) Implicit in this structural reclamation is an abandonment of the other processes in which landscape architecture once exerted itself, such as environmental policy, social and environmental movements, and large-scale planning. In successfully litigating their position, Corner and other landscape urbanists have driven the profession away from a McHargian emphasis on politics, policy, and planning; and toward a focus on representation, phenomenology, and a muted mode of practice organized around projects and clients.
  36. Political engagement by the American Society of Landscape Architects is usually bipartisan, which renders it moot. The society tends to take positions on bills that are already guaranteed to pass through Congress — complete streets and infrastructure legislation, conservation funding in the Farm Bill, and so forth. On issues where ASLA has a chance to take riskier, and potentially more meaningful positions, the society usually expresses ambivalence. Below, I present the recent example of a weak statement on the Green New Deal.
  37. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Global Warming of 1.5 °C,” special report, October 2018. For a clear explanation of the Green New Deal in the context of the IPCC report, read David Roberts, “The Green New Deal, Explained,” Vox, December 21, 2018, updated March 30, 2019; and David Roberts, “This is an Emergency, Damn It,” Vox, February 23, 2019.
  38. In a digital roundtable, the McHarg Center began collecting ideas on design and activism in 2018. Two comments seem particularly relevant here. Kian Goh writes, “Designers must move beyond simple allyship with social movements and be accomplices to change. This is a thorny proposition for professions that are often complicit with institutions of political power and capital. [But] designers need to be in movements, taking seriously theories of social change, learning from and to be part of political organizing.” Her colleague at UCLA, Ananya Roy, argues that “urban planning, urban design, and architecture are often conveniently at a distance from such unpleasant topics.” The rush to depoliticize landscape architecture, which spurred innovations in representation and methods, also severed connections between the profession and the community residents and activists it has long aspired to serve. The full text of their contributions, and others, can be read online.
  39. For the most engaging writing on this topic to date, read Kate Aronoff, “With a Green New Deal, Here’s What the World Could Look Like for the Next Generation,” The Intercept, December 5, 2018; Daniel Aldana Cohen, “A Green New Deal for Housing,” Jacobin, February 8, 2019; and Greg Carlock and Julian Brave Noisecat, “What’s Your Green New Deal?,” Crooked Media, February 6, 2019.
  40. See Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter thread on February 10, 2019, invoking the frame of a “request for proposals.” To date only two organizations have developed anything approaching a framework or scoping analysis for further developing the Green New Deal. One is New Consensus, which advised Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the resolution she introduced in the House. Their work is best represented by Rhiana Gunn-Wright and Robert Hockett, “The Green New Deal: Mobilizing for a Just Prosperous and Sustainable Economy” (February 2019) [PDF]. See the New Consensus website for updates. The other organization doing good work is Data Progress, the progressive think tank directed by Sean McElwee, where Green New Deal research is led by Greg Carlock of World Resources Institute. See Greg Carlock, Emily Mangan, and Sean McElwee, “A Green New Deal: A Progressive Vision for Environmental Sustainability and Economic Stability” (September 2018).
  41. Check out the comments section at “ASLA Statement on the Green New Deal,” The Dirt, February 13, 2019.
  42. Nancy Levinson, “Open and Shut,” Places Journal, January 2019,
  43. E. O. Wilson, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (Liveright, 2017).
  44. See Myles Lennon, “Decolonizing Energy: Black Lives Matter and Technoscientific Expertise amid Solar Transitions,” Energy Research & Social Science, 30(2017): 18-27,
  45. Levinson, ibid.
  46. With Daniel Aldana Cohen and Kate Aronoff, I’m organizing an event, “Designing the Green New Deal,” in September 2019 at The McHarg Center, University of Pennsylvania. It will be paired with an advanced, interdisciplinary studio in the fall semester, focused on the built environment implications of the proposal. As of this writing, confirmed speakers include Naomi Klein, Jane McAlevey, Stephanie Kelton, Kate Orff, Varshini Prakash, Julian Brave Noisecat, Rhiana Gunn-Wright, David Roberts, Leah Stokes, Kerene Taylor, Raj Patel, Nicholas Pevzner, Nancy Levinson, Jennifer Light, and Peggy Deamer. See details at Eventbrite.
Billy Fleming, “Design and the Green New Deal,” Places Journal, April 2019. Accessed 08 Jun 2023.

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