Sustainability, Urban Resilience, and False Resilience

by Dr. Carl A. Smith, Int. ASLA

The Botanical Garden of the Ozarks in Fayetteville, AR, is a cherished community resource that provides aesthetic delight and an introduction to native plants. However, much of the site is vulnerable to floods of increasing severity and frequency, and the garden relies on the energy and dedication of its volunteer staff to rebuild after storm events. In a sense, the garden is resilient, so long as this support culture is in place so that it can rebuild and continue. However, interest in a more authentically resilient approach has led the garden to discuss the creation of floodable gardens. This opens up a conversation related to aesthetics and ecological performance of the site, and also to its place within an urban watershed affected by development and climate change. / image: courtesy of the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks

Despite a rich, broad, and mature literature that has emerged over the past few decades, the concepts of sustainability and resilience are still sometimes used interchangeably. Even among experts the terms are considered somewhat difficult and lack generally agreed-upon definitions. Here, I provide some thoughts on workable definitions, and a sense of how the concepts of sustainability and resilience—specifically in an urban context—resonate but might also differ.

I have just attended (and presented at) the Cities in a Changing World: Questions of Culture, Climate and Design conference, hosted by the New York City College of Technology (City Tech), CUNY. The event featured many international presentations relating to urban sustainability and/or resilience within the context of an emerging era of post-COVID green recovery. Although there were very few landscape architects in attendance, I believe our community could have much to offer, as our cities move towards less carbon-dependent and more socially equitable futures. Therefore, a further consideration of nomenclature around key terms of sustainability and resilience—building on Sustainability vs. Resiliency: Designing for a Trajectory of Change, a Field post by Keith Bowers, FASLA, from 2018—is timely.

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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.

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