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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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 Eisley, 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.
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
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.
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.
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