This Too Shall Pass: Landscape Architecture and the Green Industry in a Post-COVID World

by Michael Igo, Affiliate ASLA, PE, LEED AP

Aerial photo of the ancient city of Persepolis
The Persian city of Persepolis, ordered by Darius, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes, designed/built by artisans / image: “Persepolis” by s1ingshot, CC BY 2.0

In 1859, presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln addressed the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society.  He told the fable of a Persian sultan who asked his trusted sage to summarize concisely a way to describe the perpetual and ephemeral nature of human affairs.  Lincoln continued, “They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction! ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’”

I, like all of us in the landscape architecture, green, and construction industries, could have never predicted the shift towards our business during the global COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years. When we braced for the worst, many of my colleagues in all AEC sectors have experienced unprecedented growth. While we are busier than ever and despite the longer hours, we need to stop, reflect, and be grateful for the position that we are in as COVID-19 has taken a substantial toll on our society. Take a moment to remember those that lost their lives suffering with this illness, their family members who grieved their loss while in isolation, first responders and front-line medical workers, grocery and box store cashiers, stockers, and delivery persons supplying us while sequestered in our homes.  Let us remember that the business that flowed towards us flowed away from local retail stores and restaurants. We need to continue to give them our continued support in business and tips for their troubles.

After more than two years of a global pandemic and coming out on the other side, we can start to think about what is coming next and how it will impact our business and profession.

Here are some things to consider regarding recent news:

Biden-Harris Infrastructure Plan

According to “Landscape Architects Poised to Lead New Era of Infrastructure,” a statement by Torey Carter-Conneen, CEO, ASLA, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) “will upgrade our nation’s transportation, water, energy technologies, and broadband infrastructure. The legislation incorporates 13 of ASLA’s transportation, water, and natural resources infrastructure recommendations sent to the House and Senate transportation and infrastructure leaders and to the Biden-Harris administration.”

ASLA 2020 Professional Urban Design Award of Excellence. Dilworth Park. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. OLIN. / image: James Ewing / OTTO

With this $1.2 trillion investment, the federal government will restore their critical partnership with cities and states to modernize our nation’s roads, bridges, transit systems, drinking water pipes, school facilities, broadband, ports, airports, and more (“ASCE Statement On President Biden Signing The Infrastructure Investment And Jobs Act Into Law“).

Things to consider:

  • It is anticipated there will be more opportunities for public sector work in our field.
  • However, competition to win IIJA work will be fierce as it will be limited, difficult to navigate through (e.g., General Services Administration projects), and rolled out over time.
  • Should firms look to public sector projects to diversify our booked contract work? Or should firms pass on IIJA Requests for Proposals and seek more opportunities for green building and infrastructure in the private sector?
  • With interest rate increases, how does this impact IIJA funding and, ultimately, the timing of this bill?

Federal Reserve Interest Rate Hikes

At the outset of the pandemic in 2020, the U.S. Federal Reserve, along with the world’s central banks, instituted quantitative easing (QE) policies to, in essence, increase liquidity (cash) into existence by lowering interest rates and buying bonds “to support economic activity by lowering borrowing costs and stimulating credit flows.” While it got us through the major parts of the pandemic, QE now leaves us with price inflation for a limited basket of goods and service. Hence, the Fed now wants to curb inflation by increasing interest rates.

However, Deutsche Bank predicts that, due to the Fed’s recent interest rate increases, a recession in the United States will be triggered and manifested by the end of 2023.

Consider:

  • If the U.S. and global economies contract, how does this impact our clients?
  • Will clients stop spending on real estate and infrastructure if money becomes harder to come by and capital financing costs more?
  • Will endowments and portfolios shrink, causing institutions to think twice about capital improvements (e.g., 2008)?
  • Or will they double down on infrastructure to find ways to save money on water, electricity, and hydrocarbon fuels? Decreasing reliance on outside resources can make our developments more resilient and achieve greater resource autonomy in a throttled economy.

War and Economic Sanctions

As the Russian war on Ukraine continues, the United States and the West have placed severe economic sanctions on Russia. While the West has yet to intercede with direct military support, sanctions may prove to be as difficult on other nations as they may be for Russia, including the United States.

Consider:

  • Will Western economic sanctions on Russia impact design and construction in the U.S.? Global instability has already impacted the price and availability of all hydrocarbon products such as gasoline, plastic, and bitumen.
  • Russia is the third top producer of nickel in the world and provides many rare earth metals needed for electronics that are integral throughout our economy.
  • How will China and India, major economic and manufacturing partners to the United States, respond to Russia and what will be the United States’ counter-response?

Considering all that is happening in the world around us now, how much will this impact the business of landscape architecture and the green industry?

The answer: it depends. In my opinion:

  • Firms with strong networks will be buoyed through tough times.
  • Firms that place customer satisfaction and on-time delivery as a priority will win out in a competitive market.
  • Firms that are adept with current technology and receptive to frontier technology will have a marketable edge over competitors.
  • Firms that diversify their project portfolio with a blend of residential, commercial, and institutional markets will insulate themselves in the event that one sector falters.
  • Firms that have burgeoning networks and portfolios may have to run a volume-based business—turning down nothing, as competition will be fierce.

Despite all of this, how will current events and the economy impact the profession of landscape architecture and the green industry?

The answer: it won’t.

Set aside the religious source for a moment and consider the following scripture written about 2,200 years ago describing artisans (potters, blacksmiths, painters, carpenters, masons, road builders, etc.):

All these trust to their hands
and everyone is wise in his work.
Without these cannot a city be inhabited
and they shall not dwell where they will,
nor go up and down:
They shall not be sought for in public counsel,
nor sit high in the congregation:
they shall not sit on the judges’ seat,
nor understand the sentence of judgment:
they cannot declare justice and judgment;
and they shall not be found where parables are spoken
But they will maintain the state of the world,
and all their desire is in the work of their craft.

Our role in society has existed for millennia. Competent designers and builders of today, by ethics and by law, “maintain the state of the world” by providing safe and efficient infrastructure for civilization. As this passage describes, artisans (both designers and builders) were recognized to be the roots of a hierarchal social tree even though they did not have excessive money, power to govern, or even the inclination to philosophize (“where parables are spoken”). All we have, as artisans, is our craft, and we pour everything we have into it, down to each minute detail, to provide a product or service that is worthy of the community in which we live.

But the community and society at large, in turn, does not care about the details as “they (the artisans) shall not be sought for in public counsel.” There really is no difference in society’s expectation of designers and builders in today’s world, and this can be summarized by: “just do what we want—we can’t be bothered with the details.” Therefore, it is up to us to maintain our world as we know it.

So, what is our role in maintaining the world as it constantly changes around us?

  • Providing sites that maintain the human and ecological health and safety of private and public spaces—this will always be paramount in our profession.
  • Providing sites that minimize the use of critical resources such as potable water and fossil fuel-generated electricity:
    • Continue to push the limits on harvesting and reusing wastewater in landscapes.
    • Designing with and around infrastructure for on-site solar and wind power generation.
  • Providing sites that protect critical natural resources against an advancing development front:
    • Design with buffers, reuse previously disturbed land, and reduce urban stormwater runoff.
    • Replicate natural systems that work, using biomimicry techniques.
  • Providing sites that work with technology, not against it:
    • Providing free internet access and on-site renewable energy charging stations.
    • Placing sensors for climate, traffic, and other performance data to generate continuous feedback loops for adjustments.
  • Providing sites that reduce carbon footprint and urban heat island effect:
    • Planting more trees and reducing hardscapes.
    • Locally sourcing materials and goods to minimize internal combustion engine vehicle exhaust.
  • Providing public sites that foster social equality in access, use, safety, assembly, and increased prominence:
    • While the world may not care about the details, the public generally appreciates when we ask what they are looking for.
    • Take the same approach to design and construction no matter where the site is located.
ASLA 2020 Professional Research Honor Award. Climate Positive Design. Pamela Conrad, ASLA. / image: CMG Landscape Architecture

While landscape architecture, construction, and maintenance, as a business, must adapt to an ever-changing and passing economy, the profession, at its core, will never change. We are the foundation of a world that society has become accustomed to—they expect it to just be, none the wiser, of what goes into maintaining it. As pandemic, famine, war, and recession will come to pass, the mission of our profession, as artisans, will remain constant. We create the world that allows one to say: this, too, shall pass.

Cue ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ by The Byrds.

Michael Igo, Affiliate ASLA, PE, D.WRE, LEED AP, CID, is President of Aqueous Consultants, LLC Of Andover, Massachusetts. Mike is a Professional Engineer with over 20 years of experience, licensed in 12 states, designing and managing water resources projects. As a self-proclaimed “right-brained engineer,” his dual love of science and graphics resonates with architects. Mike fulfilled his lifelong dream by founding Aqueous Consultants in 2014. His unique education with a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering and M.S. in Civil Engineering lends to design of both mechanical (irrigation, pumps, controls) and civil systems (ponds, tanks, drainage). He has documented over 100 Water Efficiency credits for LEED and programmed Aqueous’ computer climate model. Mike has spoken at many national and regional ASLA events, and currently serves as chair of ASLA’s Water Conservation Professional Practice Network (PPN).

2 thoughts on “This Too Shall Pass: Landscape Architecture and the Green Industry in a Post-COVID World

  1. JudithElken May 19, 2022 / 4:58 pm

    With many thanks & gratitude for your inspirational essay. Now more than ever, creative partnerships & collaboration will be required across all disciplines in moving forward with more compassion, vision & love. An educated citizenry must become a top priority, including an integrated leadership curriculum at all levels.

    • migo01810 May 29, 2022 / 10:43 pm

      You are very kind, Judith, thank you! Couldn’t agree with you more: compassion and education are top priorities right now.

Leave a Reply to JudithElken Cancel reply