Drawing the Green New Deal and Humanizing the Design Process

by Dr. Carl A. Smith, FRSA, FRGS, CMLI, Int. ASLA

Student poster for a Green New Deal for the Ozark mountains, fall 2020 (detail). / image: courtesy of Jessica Shearman, Student ASLA

Landscape architecture students and faculty across the country, and further afield, are currently tackling the important task of putting together tangible proposals according to the tenets of the Green New Deal resolution (GND). The resolution, published by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey around two years ago, sets forth an economic stimulus and mobilization framework for decarbonization and social equity. This forms the central charge for the Green New Deal Superstudio launched last summer under the joint auspices of ASLA, the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture, the Landscape Architecture Foundation, the Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes (at Columbia University), and the McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology (at the University of Pennsylvania).

Of course, design studios are quite different from practice work, even if projects—as encouraged by the Superstudio brief, for instance—occur in collaboration with practitioners. Studio allows time and space to experiment with technique, ideas, and representation, while drawing on the field’s shared vocabulary of written and built works. It is one particular challenge in my own GND Superstudio that I want to briefly focus upon here: the practice of drawing sites as a way of understanding landscape in addition to the more normative methods of site evaluation, data collection, and speculation. This discussion might have broader currency for other educators and practitioners involved in progressive projects, but may also have wider poignancy as we all contemplate reconnecting with our somewhat estranged landscapes in the time of COVID.

As a little background, I offer these brief comparative remarks about the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal of the 1930s; after all, the very name of the new GND resolution invites such comparisons. The original New Deal was the roll-out of dozens of programs over a relatively short amount of time, addressing the devastation of the Great Depression and leaving a notable legacy of building, conservation, and infrastructural works. Likewise, the Green New Deal looks to stimulate an ailing economy, while weaving together social and environmental objectives with broad implications. However, unlike its eponym, the GND—still in its infancy as a political project—is yet to emerge with a strong visual language and consistent graphic messaging to help translate broad rhetoric into local, relatable action. While still in the earliest phases of its formulation, the Green New Deal has merely offered nostalgic imitations of bold New Deal imagery.

Of course, properly considered, nostalgia—with its strong associations with place and home—could yet prove a persuasive graphic strategy for communicating and winning local favor for a Green New Deal, just as regionally distinct forms and traditions could inform the design and planning approaches to landscapes of decarbonization.

Figure 1. Student poster for a Green New Deal for the Ozark mountains, fall 2020. The graphics are specific to a place and the crucial local challenges of siting and designing renewable energy within sensitive uplands. The graphic-approach leverages a strong sense of nostalgia for the imaging of the original New Deal from the 1930s. / image: courtesy of Jessica Shearman, Student ASLA (2020)
Figure 2. Éoliennes Bollée, a distinct form of “hydraulic wind turbine” that proliferated across early twentieth century France and could provide a regionally-distinct and place-specific vernacular for renewable energy infrastructure today. This 1902 example, the “Clône Turbine” in Pons, Charente-Maritime was designed by engineer E. Lebert. / image: photograph by P.Charpiat (2007)

However, there are challenges with leveraging nostalgia as an architectural and graphical strategy. Nostalgia is a deeply personal construct—etymologically taking in concepts of both home-places and longing—and collective nostalgia might lead to reductive thinking in design and in representation while striving for shared approval. Deep political divisions, regional and generational differences, etc., certainly suggest a need for broad and rapid consensus if the GND is to be successful. However, we must also consider the relative sophistication of a 21st century American audience and the inherently systemic (not just site) issues addressed by the GND that are diffuse, multi-scalar, indeterminate, and temporal. The architectural community has the tools to design with, and represent these ideas, thanks to more than 20 years of landscape urbanism discourse. Elsewhere, initiatives such as the Land Art Generator Initiative in Seattle (who are kindly supporting my own studio efforts) and the Solarpunk movement have ably demonstrated a range of approaches to renewable planning and design that run from the elegant and graceful, to the whimsical and sublime.

Figure 3. “Unwind” by David Donley and Michael Cinalli. The team presented this playful and kinetic project for the Land Art Generator Initiative’s 2018 competition site at St. Kilda, Victoria, Australia. The town is described by the team as playful and vital, and their proposals, in described form and function and in the manner of representation, clearly speak to this sense of place. / image: courtesy of the Land Art Generator Initiative (2018)

All this suggests that realizing the Green New Deal will have to be a pluralistic endeavor that might be much more than placation through nostalgia. As well as helping to figure out how to design the GND project, my upcoming superstudio and other early studio forays are also formulating how to draw it. The superstudio, and exercises to follow, can speculate on the appropriate leavening of objectivity with subjectivity, space with place, site with system, and information with placation. It will be fascinating to see what emerges over the coming months.

One tactic that is worth considering is leveraging the democratization of cultural production via theories and practices of creative ecology. Returning momentarily to the original New Deal, one of the concerns of the suite of federal programs was unwarranted governmental overreach. Any development and construction programs that result from the GND would be well-served to align adopted planning and design methodologies with the democratic spirit of the resolution itself. This suggests a prominent role for design and place, drawing with and by local communities affected by GND programs and sites, along with other established methods of community participation and public engagement. In this sense, we begin to see the possibility of authentic community ideas of place (and nostalgia), layered into the mapping and expression of data as baseline conditions. Stories, aspirations, and memories become part of the modelling for appropriate landscape change, along with resource and resiliency planning, population forecasting, etc.

Figure 4: Drawing with a community group undertaken by the author in collaboration with SWA Dallas for a project in Conway, Arkansas. The exercise helped us to understand local concerns, aspirations and memories relating to a downtown area, slated to become a low impact development park to aid the city’s hydrological resilience. The project is also a vital component in the urban regeneration of a historically African American neighborhood. Though the drawings are of value in and of themselves, it was through the conversation, insight and reflection in response to, and simultaneous to the ideation of the drawings, that key concepts arose: congregation, celebration, and self-expression. / images: Carl Smith

This humanizing of the design process might also be evident in the modes that designers themselves engage with sites for GND and similarly progressive projects. The act of abstract place-drawing, and its manifestation of internal beliefs, values, and aesthetic sense is, I believe, a critical and necessary counterpoint to the abundance of seemingly objective data that is now available to evaluate landscape and forecast appropriate planning, design, and management. Drawings completed, or at least begun, on site provide a complex interchange of the personal and universal, the subjective and objective, and the internal and external that gives rise to the kinds of understandings that echoes in place theory—the emotional claiming of geography—which also has a long association with ecological thought (consider Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, and Rachel Carson’s observational ecology from the early to mid-20th century, and the transcendentalists and romantics that preceded them). Non-literal site-drawing, in particular, has considerable power as a tool to document the landscape responses and values that are simultaneously specific to the place at hand, while nodding to the broader eco-social constructivism of the perceiver. This documentation is vital for catalyzing curiosity and provoking the pursuit, testing, and synergy of ideas with rational understanding and readings, often in collaboration with other disciplines from the physical and social sciences and the humanities such as engineering, ecology, and history.

Figure 5: Pin-up space in my studio, where eidetic photomontage and abstract charcoal drawings that respond to perceptions of site, precede, inform, and ultimately share the wall with the curiosity-driven investigations of ecology, botany, climate and history that they catalyzed. / image: Carl Smith

In closing, I embark on my own Green New Deal Superstudio with excitement and anticipation of the kind of work that will be produced by the students, and by the landscape architecture community more broadly. This initial experiment is a critical first step in testing how the field can make a telling contribution to the realization of the GND. Rather than recoil from the idea that we might be the ones to provide the art, poetry, and romance of visualizing the landscape of a post-carbon economy, we might seize this as an opportunity to add value, contributing to the form, aesthetic, and representation of the GND while moving beyond the notion of sustainable landscape as a generic type, and moving methods and ideas that, hitherto, have dwelled largely within the bounds of disciplinary discourse into venues of public dissemination and understanding. To contribute to the design and planning of the Green New Deal, it is imperative that our work is readable, democratic, collaborative, and beguiling, and that it speaks authentically to the places and communities for which it is intended.

Dr. Carl Smith is an Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at the Fay Jones School of Architecture & Design at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. He is also a Visiting Professor of Architecture at the University of Sheffield, and a Chartered Landscape Architect in the UK. His work focuses on the intersection between anthropogenic landscape and urban change, and the values and beliefs of those affected. Ultimately his twin aims are to inculcate and sharpen a sense of place-consciousness within himself and his students, and to understand place-consciousness as it relates to the sustainability and resiliency of landscapes and cities in Arkansas and beyond. For thirteen years, since relocating to the state from the UK, Carl has contributed to the preparation of landscape architects, planners and architects across Arkansas and the nation. His studio teaching has garnered a number of awards for his students and himself, including the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture Excellence in Studio Teaching Award. Carl has also served as a visiting professor or critic at a number of design institutions domestically and internationally, while his scholarship has received a number of national and international awards and has been recognized through appointments at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Center and Library at Harvard University, and the British School at Athens. In 2019, he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in London, and in 2020, he was conferred the Award of Merit for services to architecture and planning by the Arkansas Chapter of the American Society of Architects.

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