When people think of landscape architecture, small-scale recreational spaces like urban parks, gardens, and golf courses may come to mind. MacArthur “Genius Award” winner Kate Orff has a grander and more ecologically ambitious vision.
Orff, director of Columbia University’s Urban Design Program, believes that architects should do more than just create beautiful spaces: They also need to work with nature to create resilient living environments that both help to knit human communities together and protect them against the ravages of climate change.
SCAPE, the New York City-based design firm that Orff founded in 2007, is currently working in Louisiana on a project that will counter sea level rise and land loss in the Mississippi River Delta. SCAPE has also partnered with the Atlanta Regional Commission to create a 125-mile-long trail and greenway along the Chattahoochee River, which aims to bring racially diverse communities along its banks together, based on their shared love of the river.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Orff said that it is not enough simply to restore natural systems to their former condition. “There is no ‘pure nature’ that’s outside of us, untouched up there in the foothills somewhere,” she said. “We’ve ‘made’ the world what it is already, so now we need to take a very, very strong hand in the remaking. … A big part of climate adaptation may simply be unbuilding what we’ve already built.”
Yale Environment 360: What is the role of landscape architecture in an era of climate change?
Kate Orff: Since I went to school in 1997, the world has radically changed, and so have our views on what is necessary and important. So what I’ve done is taken the tools that I’ve learned as a licensed professional landscape architect — horticulture, grading and drainage, shaping the ground and the earth. But I’ve used them with a very different purpose.
One goal of mine is to think of landscape architecture not as a top-down thing where I impose my vision, but much more as a community-driven way to channel many voices. The second goal is to focus on the impact of climate change and to shift the whole profession towards large-scale climate adaption projects.
e360: You set up SCAPE to engage in these kinds of ecological projects.
Orff: That’s right. SCAPE is a private design practice, so we have conventional projects like waterfront parks and gardens, but we also do really large-scale resilience and adaptation planning.
One example is that we worked with Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority on a massive plan that essentially looks at the state and helps guide investment and projects for the coastal region.
Louisiana has lost about 2,000 square miles of land to anthropogenic factors like sea level rise. We’ve been helping to develop a master plan for coastal restoration and risk reduction that combines marsh creation with bottomland reforestation, sediment diversions, and related landscape restoration and job-creation strategies.
“What we’re trying to do is integrate many local projects into a larger scale systemic approach, into a larger scale resilience plan.”
e360: So basically you are looking at this large region and proposing what to do in various parts of it?
Orff: Yes, so that it all comes together. Often we are only responding in a piecemeal way. We have system collapse, but we address it with single limited projects here and there. What we are trying to do is integrate many local projects into a larger-scale systemic approach, into a larger-scale resilience plan.
e360: Tell us about the Living Breakwaters project. What stage are you at, and what are your goals there?
Orff: After Superstorm Sandy hit in October 2012, New York City’s Department of Housing and Urban Development started this project called Rebuild by Design. We worked with them to develop the Living Breakwaters project in Staten Island. It’s essentially a stone-core breakwater that is seeded with oysters, a structure that takes that harmful wave action out of the equation and helps rebuild the beach. It’s also bringing a critical intertidal marine ecosystem back into the urban landscape where it has been decimated. Next year oyster cultivation is going to start up.
e360: Oysters were once an important species in New York Harbor.
Orff: Right, they were a keystone species until they collapsed in around 1900. We went from a harbor that was maybe 20 percent oyster reefs to zero. That was a profound physical change. We essentially went from slower, cleaner water to faster, dirtier water, because oysters filter the water, especially of excess nitrogen. It led to a collapse in much of our marine life.
e360: A project like this entails a new way of thinking about landscape architecture, doesn’t it? You are not just designing the physical landscape. You are taking an active hand in designing the biological environment as well.
Orff: Now, with the sixth extinction, we need to think radically differently about what infrastructure means. We need to include life and see that living landscapes are a form of infrastructure in the sense that forests, for example, clean our water and our air. Oyster reefs clean the water and buffer the shore, and mangrove forests help keep our coastal shorelines intact. An exciting change is that we are reframing ecosystems as infrastructure, and we are testing and modeling their efficacy.
e360: This is sometimes referred to as green infrastructure, isn’t it?
Orff: Yes, it is essentially the design and deployment of living systems — reforesting, restoring coral, building bio-swales to capture and hold water. It’s basically thinking about the physical landscape and the ecological systems that sustain us and weaving them back into cities, weaving them back into the fabric of our communities in order to help us adapt in the long term, not just to respond to emergencies.
e360: I’m intrigued that, in talking about such matters, you don’t generally speak about “restoring nature.” You speak instead of something you call “regenerative design.” What’s the difference?
Orff: Restoring nature is trying to bring back nature for nature’s sake. As much as I, too, am guilty of that desire at times, this is simply not possible because our water quality has changed, and our air and water temperatures have changed. What I’m trying to do is rebuild natural systems in a strategic way that reduces climate risk for communities.
“Rather than thinking of design as merely additive or ‘beautifying,’ we need to think about undoing our environmental mistakes.”
e360: You’ve been quoted as saying: “There’s no more natural nature. Now it’s a matter of design.” What did you mean by that?
Orff: We humans are profoundly impacting the planet. There is no “pure nature” that’s outside of us, untouched up there in the foothills somewhere. We’ve “made” the world what it is already, so now we need to take a very, very strong hand in the remaking. It is a matter of design in the sense that it requires work, intention, design, funding, political skills. It’s not a naive or nostalgic attempt to restore the past. Instead, it’s layering up natural systems to reduce risk, building this hybrid future of stewarded nature.
e360: In Staten Island you are building a breakwater offshore, but in other places you have advocated tearing down some built structures to allow water a place to go during floods.
Orff: We have to soften our shorelines, we need to remove roadways from critical migration paths. Otherwise, flash flooding will get worse, and our biodiversity will continue to plummet. So a big part of climate adaptation may simply be unbuilding what we’ve already built. Rather than thinking of design as something merely additive or “beautifying,” we need to think about undoing our environmental mistakes, like damming rivers, bulkheading our shorelines, and concretizing streams. We need to start making room for rivers and floods.
e360: We’ve tried to control nature with big infrastructure projects. But that can backfire, can’t it?
Orff: For decades, infrastructure has been constructed as “single-purpose,” often designed by engineers to isolate one element of a system and to solve one problem. For example, on Staten Island, during Superstorm Sandy, a levee designed to keep water out was overtopped, resulting in a “bathtub effect” that trapped water inside a neighborhood rather than keeping it out and resulted in several deaths. We try to lock natural systems in place. But, of course, that is not the way that natural systems respond, and it is wholly insufficient for a climate-changed environment where we’re experiencing more intense rain in many regions, where we are facing more extreme heat, where sea levels are rising. The old rules, frankly, no longer apply.
e360: One region that you’ve thought a lot about is the Mississippi River. You’ve proposed a Mississippi River National Park. How would that work?
Orff: We need to think more comprehensively about the American landscape. We used to do that — even if it was Route 66, which went across the country, or when we set up the National Park System. There was a time when we were thinking at a bigger scale. Now we are so polarized, so fragmented, that we’re only able to think about the next thing that is immediately possible in a small area.
So the Mississippi River National Park was an idea that proposed a larger vision, connecting the river back to its floodplain and connecting its stakeholders — from the Iowa pig farmer to the Louisiana shrimper — and, in my mind, ultimately reducing the risk that some of these communities would be facing.
“The [Chattahoochee] project is also about bringing people together from communities that don’t always have much interaction.”
e360: The national park framework would be a way of bringing the river back to a healthy state?
Orff: The national park framework, as flawed as that might be, is a way to pull together these lands for recreation and climate adaption purposes and to bring the river back as a living system. Because right now it is not. The river is fragmented and exists in the lower Mississippi as a pollution drain, and the upper river all runs behind constructed levees so when we do have a flood it is just massive.
e360: On a somewhat less ambitious scale, you have a project in the Atlanta metropolitan area called the Chattahoochee RiverLands, a 125-mile-long bikeway and greenway that passes through both white and Black communities. You’ve said that such projects can help bring polarized communities together.
Orff: For this project, we cut through red tape, charting a path of access through a mosaic of public and private lands. It’s a radical effort to stitch together a historically fragmented public realm that showcases the river’s ecology and history. Beyond its physical footprint, the goal of the RiverLands is to raise public awareness, improve connections and access, address a long legacy of environmental racism, expand mobility for underserved communities, and build on a strong regional legacy of water resource conservation and protection.
It is also about bringing people together from communities that don’t always have much interaction — and that is already working. Rivers have such power to bring people together, to link up disjointed places, and bring life back into cities.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.