Earth’s Due

by Alli Wilson

ASLA 2021 Professional Honor Award in Urban Design. The CityArchRiver Project, St. Louis, MO. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / image: Scott Shigley

A Call for Creative Responses to Climate Change

Responses to something as sprawling, manifold, and complex as the climate change crisis can take many forms, from advocacy to art, from research to action plans. While the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation is accepting video submissions from emerging artists on the climate change emergency, here on The Field, the Sustainable Design and Development Professional Practice Network (PPN) is seeking creative responses to climate change from landscape architects. Today, we are featuring a poem by Alli Wilson, along with more from Alli on what inspired her to write. We welcome your submissions, and look forward to highlighting other entries here on The Field in the future.
– ASLA’s Sustainable Design and Development PPN leadership team

This Earth is Due Diligence

Tell me, landscape architect
Do you truly think
Our environment is resilient
Or is it more on the brink

Is earth and its climate
Healthy, equitable, and safe
Or against our core values
Is reality starting to chafe

We claim we are stewards
Protecting this earth
Yet of meaningful actions
I am finding a dearth

Individual colleagues
Do good work, to be sure
But we can’t all then claim
To be part of the cure

So let’s turn our mission
Into more than a statement
Those old wasteful habits
Let’s see more abatement

Those large format sheets
We print every day
The educational lunches
All in their own tray

Those shipments of rock
With tons of emission
When we look for materials
Let’s source with contrition

Planting non-natives
Pushes birds off that land
Their inevitable extinction
Then goes hand-in-hand

We focus on aesthetics
While the planet gets hotter
Will boulder color matter
If a project’s under water?

Invasives, like cigarettes
Once thought of as healthy
We know now it’s untrue
Yet we still plant them plenty

Just stop with the bottles
Of single use plastic
For community meetings
Carboys aren’t all that drastic

Leave that leaf litter
To naturally decompose
Don’t have it removed
That system just blows

We drive cars to meetings
A quick bike ride away
And should insist irrigation
Is recycled or grey

Have on-site compost
Built into designs
Why ship fertilizer
You can make it just fine

With metal structures
Bolt it, don’t weld
This makes reuse easy
When it needs to be felled

Our furnishing choices
Have long enough lumbered
Use reused, then recycled
You’ll feel unencumbered

Concrete doesn’t cure
Our problems at all
The soil can’t breathe
Plus emissions aren’t small

Until addressing these costs
Is part of each build
Our title of steward
Remains unfulfilled

If we do this right
It’s our time to shine
Our potential is sitting
Like fruit on the vine

Let’s set industry standards
Our peers by our side
So construction isn’t wasteful
But pointed to with pride

So let us start small
With our own pollution
Be more than a profession
Let’s be a solution

As a landscape architecture student in Oregon, I was surrounded by teachers and classes focused on environmental health, ecosystem impacts, and the various consequences associated with different material choices. I assumed these values would be part of the profession when I got out of school and entered the workforce. Unfortunately, what I found was a lack of ownership in making meaningful change and, often, a view that our profession was in fact already a climate savior simply because through the effects of our work, some trees got planted.

While trying to find a bridge between this divide, I happened to also have a baby, which put into stark contrast the world I have been able to grow up in, with camping trips in nature, wild animals, and rivers filled with fresh snow melt, and the world my child would grow up in, with threatening weather events, species extinctions, and massive pollution and waste—not to mention plastic.

It seems a natural fit for landscape architects, who deal with creating outdoor environments, to have our lives and our workplaces showcase these values. If we “environmental stewards” aren’t willing to make lifestyle and workplace changes, why would any other discipline feel the need to? We can be setting industry-wide examples of how things can, and should, be done, in the hope that other professions see our example and join us, thus creating a larger and more meaningful change in our world.

There are specific things that can be done to get started, but it is an evolving landscape of ideas which will take all of us to get right. We can be leveraging our professional societies and working groups to tackle big picture items, like citywide waste management associated with construction, and the amount of native habitat we actually need as a region for our ecosystems to survive. We can also talk on a smaller scale about specific project improvements, standard office behavior which may be outdated, and ways a more sustainable-minded view can change your habits at home as well.

Here are a few of the efforts that are easier to tackle as a larger group:

  • Are there ways to reduce, or reuse, demoed material associated with construction? Is there a network of construction sites in your area, one getting rid of concrete rubble another could grind into a base material, or tossing formwork material that could be re-finished for use in a raised bed? Tree trimmings that could be used as a mulch for a project instead of taken to a landfill?
  • Is there influence we can have with our furniture and materials reps? Talk with them about higher quantities of recycled content in their products, and the lifecycle and reusability of the product components. If we collectively only spec’d sustainably minded products and materials, there’d be no reason to make the more wasteful items anymore.
  • Are there large landholders, such as local governments, road networks, and public utilities, which can be convinced to create native habitat, wildlife corridors, areas for local agriculture, or public green space on unused land?
ASLA 2021 Professional Honor Award in Urban Design. Market + Georgia Public Space, Chattanooga, TN. WMWA Landscape Architects and Genesis the Greykid / image: WMWA Landscape Architects

Amongst our individual projects, there is often room for some type of environmentally conscious improvement:

  • What materials and supplies aren’t sourced locally? Can they be, or is there an inventive replacement you can use instead? Are you fixating on a specific product, like a new bench which needs to be manufactured and shipped from overseas, instead of the intent, which is a place to sit which can be artfully crafted from local reused material?
  • Can you work with maintenance crews to use green waste on-site instead of hauling it off while, at the same time, paying to bring in compost and mulch? This could be a closed loop system, while also encouraging less gas-powered machinery and noise pollution.
  • One way to reduce waste is for our industry to back statewide measures to recycle construction waste. Colorado is already doing this, so the rest of us just have to copy and paste and see what works in our states. See how Fort Collins, Colorado is handling it as an example.
  • Have you considered exclusively using native plants on your site? This brings down the amount of water and plastic used on the site, through irrigation reductions, while also adding habitat.
  • Are you only using non-native lawn where it has a functional use, and have you talked with local nurseries about native grass options to replace it?
  • When a client or architect mentions not wanting trees blocking their building for marketing value, do you mention the statistics showing increased value, visitors, and quality of life when trees are planted?
  • Are you looking for alternatives to concrete hardscape and making sure the ground plane is porous when at all possible?
image: Nareeta Martin on Unsplash

Some office culture is baked-in from previous generations when the climate was less dire. Since we know that times have most definitely changed in regards to the environment, it’s time to see if times have changed in our office habits as well:

  • How much do you really need to print out versus look at digitally? Can you convince clients and consultants to go digital too? Of the large format sheets you end up needing to print, are there local schools or libraries that would want them after the fact for children’s craft projects?
  • What waste is associated with your events? There are lots of items that fall under this category of standard office waste, so the best way is to think about the end of an event and what you find yourself throwing away. Was it avoidable? Single-use plastic water bottles could have been a refillable water jug, with people bringing their own bottles. Stick-on name tags could have been a more permanent magnet or pin each employee gets with their name on it. Food can be picked up in reusable containers. Food scraps can go to a composting organization. Free swag that people throw away when they get home—probably avoidable.
  • Is there an office bike for nearby meetings, an incentive to use public transportation, or, at the least, a will to carpool in the most efficient vehicle?
ASLA 2021 Professional Honor Award in General Design. Ferrous Foundry Park, Lawrence, MA. STIMSON / image: Ngoc Doan

The thing is, if we start actively changing our habits at work, this will likely bleed over into our lifestyles at home and the choices of those around us. We need as many people on this bandwagon as we can get, and it’s easier to find the ways which work best for your individual life and your individual firm, and to try them out. Our profession can make meaningful, impactful, and long-lasting change through our actions, and show ourselves to be sincere by how we live our lives. The environment could use some conscientious stewardship, so let’s make the most of our moment in time. If we can get ourselves up to the diving board, I’m hoping you’ll find it tempting to dive in.

ASLA 2021 Professional Honor Award in Analysis and Planning. Mosswood Park Master Plan and Community Engagement, Oakland, CA. Einwiller Kuehl Inc., LMS Architecture, and Art is Luv / image: Project Team

I was lucky to grow up in a nature loving family, with long camping trips and visits to my grandfather’s homestead. A love of design led me into architecture at the University of Arizona, which was followed up with graduate studies at the University of Oregon in both architecture and landscape architecture, where I got to see guiding principles of those professions being used towards making the world a better place. I currently work designing regenerative agriculture projects, with the goal of positively affecting both the site and it’s users, and would love to see this niche become common practice.

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