During the Great Depression, the policymakers pushing the New Deal sought out conservative areas most suspicious of the plan and signed them up for buckets of federal funding first, effectively turning detractors into supporters. The New Deal’s would-be 21st-century sequel, the Green New Deal (GND), will have to overcome these coalition-building challenges and many more if it’s to meet with anything resembling success. A sweeping new pedagogical project spanning 140 design studios at scores of colleges and universities hopes to enlist a rising generation of landscape architects and designers in this cause.
The starry-eyed hope of the Green New Deal Superstudio is that the design disciplines can broaden the appeal of the GND while tiptoeing along the partisan divide. Unprecedented in its scope and ambition, the Superstudio is an effort to coordinate design studios across the entire country for fall semester 2020 and spring semester 2021, focusing on conceptual and actionable projects that align with the Green New Deal’s mandate for economy-wide decarbonization and racial and economic justice. While the Superstudio is open to all built environment design fields, it emanates squarely from the landscape architecture discipline, with key organizers including the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF), The McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture, and the Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes at Columbia University. The work produced during the Superstudio’s run will be featured at LAF’s fall 2021 summit.
The Superstudio accepts the bill introduced last year by U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey as an RFP of sorts, defining the scope of the GND and asking for collaborations on projects. A critical factor, outlined in the Superstudio brief, is that the GND is aimed at “merging interests of blue-collar workers, climate activists, and frontline communities”—to move beyond the realm of elite technocrats and into the homes and businesses of people who often feel left out of the political process.
And no matter how alien the world of public policy can seem to designers, the sort of visualization and planning only they can provide is a critical part of building inroads into grassroots groups that span the racial and socioeconomic diversity of America. The Superstudio is encouraging teams to work with policymakers and to ask them to promote schools’ plans as concrete examples of what the GND looks like in their communities. “The visual material is so visceral and tactile for them to engage with in ways that a 30-page policy brief or a piece of legislation is not,” said Billy Fleming, director of The McHarg Center.
In the short term, Fleming explained, on top of getting the attention of policymakers, one measure of success will be getting the plans that come out of the Superstudio into the hands of a wide swath of climate and economic justice activists, so that “Waterloo, Iowa, [can] compete with Brooklyn, New York, for the same pool of funding.”
That would be a boon to Jessica Canfield, a landscape architecture professor at Kansas State University. Her school is leading three GND studios, examining the legacy of redlining in Kansas City and on the city’s peri-urban edge, with a focus on food, energy, housing, and climate change. “The issues that we’re talking about transcend disciplines and borders,” she said. “[It’s] going to require communities and politicians and professionals to come together and engage in dialogue and work in ways that might be atypical or even uncomfortable.”
Longer-term, the Superstudio will have to overcome fierce opposition to building the sort of omnipresent public design client the GND demands, which would require the coordination of new political coalitions, which is itself a design challenge. For now, it’s left to the Superstudio’s organizers and academics to accentuate or downplay any partisanship.
“In the beginning, we suffered so much [wondering], ‘Should we call it the Green New Deal? Is it too political?’” said Barbara Deutsch, CEO of LAF. “But what do you call it if you don’t call it the Green New Deal? Is it sustainability? Yawn. We want designers to be facile with these ideas and how the process works and who the decision makers are so they can be more engaged and influential.”
“When we’re talking about these things in class, we don’t always say, ‘Green New Deal,’” said Charlene LeBleu, landscape architecture professor at Auburn University in Alabama. “We talk about decarbonization, environmental justice, jobs.” LeBleu and colleague Thomas Hogge’s studio is examining how Auburn’s Donald E. Davis Arboretum might fit into the GND, probing climate change, inequality, and (considering the school’s legacy as a land grant university that seized land from Indigenous populations) “bigger thematic questions of reconciliation [and] resilience,” Hogge said.
From talking to a handful of participating academics, one gets both the sense that presenting the GND Superstudio in explicitly partisan terms is unlikely to benefit anyone and the contradictory realization that its work is already explicitly political. “We are inherently designing political spaces, not just ‘public’ spaces,” noted Hogge.
North Dakota State University landscape architecture professor Dominic Fischer teaches in a staunchly conservative state, but he’s quick to point out a still-extant spirit of prairie populism that complicates this picture: To this day North Dakota maintains a state-owned bank and grain mill. “We have these histories here that we don’t really talk about,” Fischer said.
His studio will examine the troubled intersection of North Dakota’s economy and ecology. One of Fischer’s design briefs concerns the flood management of the Red River, which runs through Fargo, North Dakota, and Moorhead, Minnesota, the hope being that the studio will generate alternatives to the $2.75 billion, 36-mile flood diversion channel currently underway. As in much of the Midwest, wetlands in the Red River Basin have been drained in favor of agricultural fields that don’t slow and retain precipitation but rush water downstream into population centers, causing catastrophic flooding. Instead of turning to mono-functional gray infrastructure, Fischer and his students will study how flooding can be managed by harnessing natural ecosystem services, such as remediated wetlands that can hold and slow floodwaters or plantings that can filter and purify water. Fischer especially wants to see how these processes can aid economic development. “If we’re going to spend $3 billion, is there a way we can connect that to better jobs?” he said.
Fischer presents this pedagogy through the concept of “economic sustainability,” he elaborated, as framed by Paul Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce, which posits an economy where the private market can work in harmony with ecological values. To align with the priorities of North Dakota governor Doug Burgum (a former Microsoft executive), Fischer is also framing the GND as an innovation driver. “Making an ecologically sustainable economy is something innovative that would bring more stable and better-paying jobs,” he said.
And precedent shows that designers are significant beneficiaries of economy-changing federal works. It’s common to think of the New Deal as something like a blue-collar jobs guarantee, but Fleming points to the dozen-plus government agencies that spent funds on landscape architects and architects, spelled out in Phoebe Cutler’s 1985 book The Public Landscape of the New Deal.
To correct the grave errors of the New Deal (like leaving Jim Crow unchallenged in the South), Fleming said, the Green New Deal will “require the sharing of power with historically disempowered, disenfranchised communities at the state, local, and national level.” And this means changes in how design is practiced.
Fleming added that this necessitates a pivot away from the traditional private-sector fee-for-service model, which predominates in all design professions and largely serves narrow, unaccountable interests, in favor of a new coupling with a reinvigorated public sector and movements for racial, economic, and climate justice. “We should embrace the idea that a larger, better-funded, more activist, more powerful state that’s attuned to the interests of the people in our communities does offer a lot of really exciting opportunities for designers,” he said.
This would require commensurate changes in design school pedagogy as well, like teaching public management and political theory. “It’s not enough to be a good designer,” said LAF’s Deutsch. “You have to be an activist designer.”
This activist model of practice is also a way to teach students to examine their own discipline. “I hope we’re teaching students to be critical of how they work, where they work,” Auburn’s Hogge said, “and who they serve.”
Zach Mortice is the web editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine, which is published by ASLA.