As the atmosphere warms, weather worsens and sea levels threaten coastal communities worldwide, a new band of heroes is rising. Sarah Ell meets the landscape architects who are not going to take a few carefully placed shrubs for an answer.
A new generation of activists are emerging but they're not taking to the streets, armed with placards, to protest about climate change. They're landscape architects, led by outspoken and passionate young designers such as American Billy Fleming.
Fleming, 34, is director of the Ian L. McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania, running an interdisciplinary think-tank promoting the development of practical, innovative ways to improve the quality of life in places most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. He's also a high-profile campaigner for the so-called "Green New Deal", proposed new legislation in the United States that seeks to address both climate change and economic inequality.
So are landscape architects really coming to save the world? You betcha.
As I am speaking with Fleming in Philadelphia, Auckland is being lashed by north-easterly gales from a storm system dropping out of the north Tasman. Meanwhile, the southeast coast of the United States is preparing for a sideswipe from record-setting Hurricane Dorian. While Philadelphia might be comfortably inland, it still sits on the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, which are both brackish at this point and the city sits not that far above sea level. Climate change is coming for us all.
"Because they don't live next to the sea in this city, most people don't think that much about it," Fleming says, although he is a notable exception. He knows the need for "climate adaptation" — changing the way we live, build and design our cities to survive in a new, uncertain era — is urgent everywhere.
Fleming makes his first visit to New Zealand this month to deliver the Sir Ian Athfield Memorial Lecture as part of the NZ Institute of Architects' Festival of Architecture. He's interested to see how we are — and aren't — facing up to the challenge of climate change. Each of the three cities he is speaking in — Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch — have large areas of commercial and residential land at or near sea-level, yet very little has been done to prepare for what Fleming believes is surely coming.
"Many people still talk about climate change as a future we will get to shortly. We are living in it," Fleming says bluntly. "We could shut off all the carbon emissions right now but we've already baked in 1.5 degrees [Fahrenheit] of warming, which will cause sea-level rise and intensified storm activity. And we still haven't turned the valve off." [An incremental change of 1.5F relates to around 0.75C.]
Fleming's presentation here will centre round an article he published in the journal Places earlier this year, titled "Design and the Green New Deal". In it, he suggests that if landscape architects want to remake the world, they should start by remaking their discipline — moving it away from the idea of "serving the interests of the economic elite" through private practice into engaging with social and political movements.
"If the design profession is serious about climate change, it's not going to be driven by a handful of private offices. We need to be thinking about what are the other options for designers if we're serious about the challenge of climate change."
The political aspect of Fleming's landscape architecture career was sparked when he was still a student at the University of Arkansas. Hearing then-Senator Barack Obama speak on the presidential campaign trail in 2007 led Fleming into student politics, then into a position in the White House Domestic Policy Council's Office of Urban Affairs and Economic Opportunity, during the Obama administration.
He is putting his beliefs into action through the work of the McHarg Center, named for the visionary American landscape architect Ian McHarg who, 50 years ago, published his seminal book, Design with Nature. This work is credited with influencing fields as diverse as geography and engineering, environmental and ecology; laying the groundwork for modern environmental and development planning.
As part of the anniversary of the publication of Design With Nature, Fleming and his team have also curated a touring exhibition featuring a selection of 25 landscape projects from around the world, showcasing "dynamic and visionary approaches to landscape architecture around the world". One of the projects making Fleming's cut is right on our doorstep: the Western Waiheke Entrance Landscape, designed by D J Scott Associates.
Here, landscape architect Dennis Scott has spent the best part of 30 years working with private landowners and local government on the staged development of the 430ha around Matiatia, the main point of arrival for visitors to the island, master-planning the conversion of farm and scrubland into a "settled" landscape that preserves natural features and wildlife.
The exhibition also showcases projects tackling the challenges generated by rising tides and increased storm activity, such as "The Big U", a system of protective berms and barriers envisaged to protect lower Manhattan, designed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and New Urban Ground, a more environmentally based approach to the same aim.
The fate of coastal population centres looms large in the climate adaptation conversation. As Fleming says, "Every single major coastal city in the world needs to face this question over the next century."
He says governments and local bodies — and designers — need to be thinking about solutions, ranging from hardening and "armouring" coastlines with physical barriers like breakwaters and dykes, to the euphemistic "managed retreat". That basically means packing up and moving inland.
"There are things we can do to buy us time. We need to think about the long-term future for these places, to enable the resources to undertake the reinforcement and armouring of coasts, using hard and soft landscaping that will allow people to stay in place longer," Fleming says.
However, he adds, "in some places sea-level rise is going to overthrow anything that's built. We need to give people time so they have some agency to decide where they will go and when, rather than being forced to move after a natural disaster."
Fleming says the solutions look different for different cities. Manhattan is a relatively discreet area, mostly around 7m above sea level, "so it's easy to imagine some smaller structures keeping it in place for the rest of the century". But in places like the coast of Virginia, south of New York, including the biggest port on the eastern seaboard, are just 1.8m above sea level, with a complex and crenulated coastline that doesn't lend itself to being protected by physical structures.
"Then there are cities like Miami, where the coastal topography is like Swiss cheese and water is going to come up from underneath it. If Miami has a future at the end of the century, I don't think it's one that we can imagine at the moment, it's going to be so radically different," Fleming says.
"I don't know the topography of New Zealand as well as I do these cities but I imagine that some combination of these different strategies will happen all along the New Zealand coast. Some places will be better positioned to adapt than others."
Unfortunately, he can point to few projects internationally where he sees solutions heading in the right direction. The closest is the Room for the River project in Nijmegen in the Netherlands, where measures have been taken — and homes and businesses relocated — to accommodate changing water flows and flooding.
"People need to be proactive and invest in these things. In the US we like to think of ourselves as exceptional in all ways but we're really, really bad at this stuff. We need to be looking elsewhere around the world for how to deal with these problems — at the moment we don't have many options ... We need to be okay with experimenting with new ways of approaching climate adaptation."
One of the big things lacking, worldwide, seems to be political will. While the New Zealand government hesitates about declaring a climate emergency, in the deeply divided United States, Fleming notes, only one of the two political parties even acknowledges that climate change is a reality.
"I wish that we had two or three major parties that both agreed on climate science and their points of difference were how to address the problem. Here, we only have one party that even acknowledges that climate science is real and has only one set of ideas to deal with it," he says, his equanimity ruffled. "As long as that's the case, we are trying to inject design intelligence into those views."
Next month's local body elections in New Zealand are a chance to bring climate to the political table and Fleming has some guidelines on what questions we should be asking our aspirants.
"The best approach [to climate change] is always going to be mitigation, so you should be asking your candidates what their commitment is to get New Zealand to a net zero or zero carbon future and how they're going to do that. The more carbon we can get out of the atmosphere, the less we have to adapt our cities to cope with sea-level rise. Mitigation is always the best adaptation strategy.
"Then I'd come back to how are they going to make sure that the most vulnerable people are going to be taken care of the next time there's a [climate-related] disaster. What are they going to do when it comes to recovery and rebuilding, when it comes to building infrastructure and how are they going to go about financing and funding these things."
This touches on the second underlying theme of the Green New Deal manifesto — that climate-change adaptation is not just about preserving the seaside property of the rich but has a social equality dimension. Fleming notes that in the United States it has often been the most disadvantaged communities that have been most greatly affected by the damage caused by major climate change-driven storms such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
He believes our civic leaders have a duty to take responsibility for making good design and planning choices, to ensure our cities — and all their inhabitants — can survive what lies ahead. In a biting article following Hurricane Harvey, Fleming wrote: "Houston's catastrophic flood will be framed by leaders in Texas as an unforeseeable act of God. It isn't. Houston's unfettered sprawl into the marshland of southeast Texas was a conscious choice by policymakers. So was building a global city on a slowly submerging swamp."
So with all this doom and gloom and impending disaster, does he ever wish he'd taken a quiet life in private landscape design practice?
"I tried to do that — I spent a few months in a small design firm and found out very quickly it was not for me," Fleming says, wryly. Instead, he's on a path of politicisation and education, trying to change his own industry from the inside out for the better of the planet.
"There are things we can do that's not the plazas and parks and luxury design work that we traditionally connect with landscape architecture. We can take it towards other aims," he says, pointing out that we don't have any more time to waste.
"All that's left is to act."
•Billy Fleming, NZIA Resene Sir Ian Athfield Memorial Lecture, 6pm, Monday, September 23, ASB Waterfront Theatre; free. festivalofarchitecture.nz. Objectspace Gallery, Ponsonby, holds the exhibition Making Ways: Alternative Architectural Practice in Aotearoa from September 4-October 12, looking at how our architects are crafting a sustainable future.