USA - Ecosystems as Infrastructure: A New Way of Looking at Climate Resilience
Landscape architect Kate Orff works on rebuilding natural systems to help communities and cities reduce their climate risks. Places with interwoven ecological systems, she says, are more resilient and better able both to respond to emergencies and adapt for the future.
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.
Pennsylvania State University / November 06, 2023
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.
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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.