Climate Positive Design at the Global Climate Action Summit

by Pamela Conrad, ASLA

Are creating climate positive cities possible? San Francisco is discussing the possibility. / Image: CMG Landscape Architecture

On September 12, 2018, San Francisco hosted international leaders of various countries, states, regions, cities, and businesses, celebrities and environmental justice pioneers invited by California Governor Jerry Brown for three days at the Global Climate Action Summit. This group shared Climate Action initiatives to support the Paris Agreement goals and made bold new pledges for a future low carbon economy – specifically to prevent a 1.5 degree Celsius increase and to ensure a climate turning point of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations by 2020.

As part of the Summit, CMG Landscape Architecture hosted an event titled “Climate Positive City Design” – a multidisciplinary panel discussion and salon bringing together over one hundred people to discuss how thinkers, academics, innovators, and designers can work together to strive beyond neutrality, and bring about positive change to our climate. The group of nationally recognized leaders in environmental design and policy included Ryan Allard – Senior Fellow at Project Drawdown, Claire Maxfield – Director at Atelier Ten, Lisa Fisher – Sustainability City Team Lead, San Francisco Planning Department, and myself with panel moderation by Chris Guillard, ASLA – Partner at CMG.

The community comes together at the “Climate Positive City Design” Salon. / Image: CMG Landscape Architecture

The conversation ranged from how designers can implement solutions from Project Drawdown to how we can collaborate with City agencies to make policy adjustments towards a lower carbon urban environment – but unanimously across the panel and around the room, the message was clear – we all need and want to take action.

The climate is changing. Temperatures are rising along with sea level, and the IPCC recently produced an updated report on the urgency of the situation. It is clear that we have a critical role to play in adapting to the effects of climate warming along coastlines, but is there anything we can do as a profession to mitigate the causes of climate change?

The landscape architects role in climate change is two-fold, both addressing adaptation and mitigation. / Image: CMG Landscape Architecture

Today we understand that preventing the forecasted temperature increase through emissions reductions alone is not possible and to cause real change we will have to draw greenhouse gas concentrations down from the atmosphere. And because landscape architects are the only design profession that contains carbon sinks (i.e., carbon sequestering trees and shrubs), can we contribute to the solution?

Landscapes have the ability to sequester carbon dioxide, 20% of which ultimately remains in the soil. / Image: CMG Landscape Architecture

One challenge for our profession is understanding the carbon footprint of our projects and how to calculate and compare how much carbon those projects sequester over time. Architects have tools to measure carbon footprints and energy outputs for buildings and set goals to become net zero or carbon neutral through initiatives like the 2030 Challenge. But because landscape projects use far less energy over time, perhaps we could have different goals? And because we can sequester C02 through our sites, can we strive beyond being carbon neural, for a more ambitious goal of being climate positive?

Can landscape architecture projects’ sequestration surpass their carbon footprints over time? / Image: CMG Landscape Architecture

Being able to measure our carbon footprints is just one piece of the larger puzzle – and there is no magic bullet. As landscape architects, we each have tools in our everyday toolkit to improve the environment, but we also need to support one another in this uncharted territory. Leading professional organizations, including the ASLA, CSLA, IFLA, and LAF are working to have a greater combined impact and have teamed up to present Climate Action – Now! at the annual ASLA Conference in Philadelphia on October 21. I will be moderating a panel that includes Colleen Mercer Clarke (CSLA/IFLA), Vaughn Rinner, FASLA (ASLA)and Martha Schwartz, FASLA (LAF), focused on presenting and discussing initiatives from each of the organizations.


Many solutions exist today to reduce the carbon footprints of our sites. / Image: CMG Landscape Architecture


Other solutions can be implemented to increase carbon dioxide sequestration. / Image: CMG Landscape Architecture

We hope you will join us in a conversation about what we can do as a profession and walk away ready to rise to the challenge.

By Pamela Conrad, ASLA, PLA, LEED AP
Senior Associate, CMG Landscape Architecture 

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