Land use has a crucial role in decarbonizing and rebalancing the U.S. economy.
By Nicholas Pevzner
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Since the 2018 midterm elections, the Green New Deal has catapulted into the public conversation about tackling climate change and income inequality in America. It has inspired a diverse coalition of groups on the left, including climate activists, mainstream environmental groups, and social justice warriors. The Green New Deal is not yet fully fleshed out in Congress—the most complete iteration so far is a nonbinding resolution put forward in the House by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and a companion measure introduced in the Senate by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA). At their cores, these bills are an urgent call to arms for accelerating the decarbonization of the U.S. economy through a federal jobs program that would create millions of green jobs—a 10-year national mobilization on a number of fronts aimed at reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The resolution text itself is a laundry list of possible goals and strategies aimed at immediately addressing climate change and radically cutting U.S. carbon emissions. These proposals are ambitious in scale and breadth: a national target of 100 percent “clean, renewable, and zero-emission” energy generation; a national “smart” grid; aggressive building upgrades for energy efficiency; decarbonization of the manufacturing, agriculture, and transportation sectors; increased investment in carbon capture technologies; and the establishment of the United States as a global exporter of green technology. What such an effort will entail on the ground is not yet clear, but if even only some of these stated goals are achieved, the Green New Deal will represent a transformation of both the American economy and landscape on a scale not seen since the days of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his original New Deal of the 1930s and 1940s.
THE GREEN NEW DEAL’S NEW PUBLIC LANDSCAPES
Although many Green New Deal proposals appear at first to be purely infrastructural or economic, they will have a dramatic physical effect on landscapes, cities, and communities. The national “smart” grid often mentioned by Representative Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Markey would represent a vast expansion of electrical transmission and distribution infrastructure, connecting the sunny and windy parts of the country with urban electricity markets, a project of interstate energy infrastructure that would affect thousands of miles of American landscape, likely sparking strong local opposition, as power line projects tend to do. At first this might seem to be purely an engineering challenge or a land acquisition challenge—but it is actually a landscape and regional planning challenge of grand territorial scale, on par perhaps with the 1920s regional planner Benton MacKaye’s visions of an Appalachian Trail running uninterrupted up the length of the East Coast. These infrastructural transmission corridors, if designed well, could connect Americans to their nearby wildlands, and be an amenity for recreation and economic development while supporting the push for a cleaner energy grid. But this will be possible only if they are designed as multifunctional trail networks and not simply as utilitarian power line cuts.
In some cases, the connections between landscape transformation and social benefits are not hard to spot. Take, for example, the Green New Deal’s proposal to implement a campaign of “cleaning up existing hazardous waste and abandoned sites.” Other groups have suggested scaling up this agenda, arguing that ambitious environmental restoration efforts should feature prominently in any Green New Deal. Ben Beachy, the director of the Sierra Club’s Living Economy program, for example, has argued for a “Green Brigade” as part of the Green New Deal, which would consist of people hired to do brownfield remediation, wetland restoration, forest replanting, and forest management to reduce fire risks. These kinds of jobs in restorative conservation work explicitly reference the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), one of the most popular of the programs in FDR’s original New Deal. What might such a “Green Brigade” today learn from the original CCC and its successful campaign to reforest vast swaths of cutover public lands, prevent forest fires, build recreation infrastructure, and generally jump-start the American wilderness recreation movement?
In the case of abandoned mine lands and toxic brownfields, there is potential for reclamation and ecological restoration to be coupled once again with elements of the energy landscape for generation or storage. Some abandoned mine lands have already been converted to pumped-storage hydroelectric facilities—basically giant hydroelectric batteries. They can inexpensively iron out the electricity supply differences that an increasingly renewable grid will entail with its variable wind and solar energy sources. If carefully designed, such facilities can become fascinating and dynamic public landscapes. One such project, the Raccoon Mountain Pumped-Storage hydroelectric facility, already anchors an outdoor recreation area near Chattanooga, Tennessee, with mountain bike trails running down the mountainside power line corridors, extensive hiking trails, and a visitor center and picnic area overlooking the dramatic river gorge and the city below. Other abandoned mine lands can become new sites of renewable energy generation, the way that some brownfields and landfills already host impressive arrays of solar panels. With design attention, it is easy to imagine these long-neglected landscapes becoming incredible examples of the technological sublime.
Federal agencies are well positioned to lead the restoration work. As the former U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Jim Furnish described in his autobiography, Toward a Natural Forest, the Forest Service has already pioneered such a switch, informed by landscape architects within its ranks, from a focus on “getting out the cut” (Forest Service jargon for maximizing timber extraction above other goals) to a focus on ecosystem restoration. In the late 1990s, prompted by lawsuits around spotted owl habitat, the Forest Service figured out ways to rewrite its contracts from prioritizing timber extraction and logging roads to performing ecological support services through payments for river restoration and habitat creation. As with the CCC, there is a clear case to be made for the restoration of public lands through labor that benefits workers and the public conservation ethos. Unlike the CCC, a contemporary Green New Deal conservation corps would also have a clear focus on climate change mitigation and adaptation.
In some places, agricultural lands are already indistinguishable from energy landscapes—in Iowa, for example, vast arrays of wind turbines spin for miles above working farm fields. Increasingly, solar farms are sharing space with pollinator habitats and grazing land, with each designed so as not to interfere with the other’s operation. Some farms are now processing their cow manure in biodigesters to generate electricity while reducing methane pollution. These practices already exist owing to forward-thinking farmers and energy developers, but could be greatly expanded through incentives and public funds, and a whole swath of the rural public could be enlisted to participate in targeted agricultural programs under a Green New Deal umbrella.
Agricultural land can also do good carbon work, absorbing and sequestering atmospheric CO2 with the spreading of compost and biochar on fields, no-till farming, alley cropping or other types of agroforestry, combining trees with cattle (also called silvopasture), or practicing any number of other “carbon farming” techniques. Hedgerows can be used for stream protection while simultaneously feeding local bioenergy or biochar industries. These new hybrid practices will need to be disseminated and planned, drawn up and configured, with business plans written and fine-tuned, but perhaps the reorganization of agriculture is not as radical as some opponents of the Green New Deal would have us believe.
For the past century, industrial agriculture has operated as an extractive practice, squandering topsoil, destroying local biodiversity, and contributing to climate change. The next generation of agricultural landscapes must be restorative rather than extractive, and multipurpose rather than monocultural, but this shift must be carefully designed to maximize synergies and reduce conflicts, including a precise articulation in cross section as well as plan. Through a combination of policy and design, agricultural landscapes can be reconfigured to produce renewable energy, build soil, and sequester carbon. If incentivized and supported, farmers can become a core constituency of the Green New Deal.
The most important innovation that the Green New Deal has brought to the climate and energy conversation is a new framing. In the words of Ocasio-Cortez, it is a chance to “rediscover the power of public imagination” in a discourse long dominated by technical details and policy minutiae. Although the Green New Deal agenda so far has been articulated through economic and social justice lenses, landscape architecture is well positioned to lead the remediation and land management conversation. Can landscape architects rise to the challenge of helping develop a new generation of public works that support climate justice while capturing the public imagination? How can landscape architecture’s systems thinking and multidisciplinary reach assist in crafting compelling responses to these complex environmental and social challenges? How does the existential crisis of climate change make more palatable a government-led suite of programs for addressing systemic social challenges, much the way that the economic crisis of the Great Depression gave FDR some license to use the power of government to address economic problems? As the discipline of landscape architecture today grapples with how to speak more clearly about race, class, and environmental justice, can the Green New Deal be an opportunity to help landscape architects articulate their vision of what environmental justice (and climate justice) means for landscape?
Finally, as we consider the potential of the bold and wide-ranging visions that are being proposed for this Green New Deal framework, can we incorporate lessons from the ambitious landscape strategies of FDR’s original New Deal, while avoiding some of its pitfalls?
DESIGN AND FDR’S NEW DEAL
The New Deal was FDR’s grand vision of how to pull the country out of the Great Depression of the 1930s, put Americans back to work, and restore American pride and prosperity using the scale and power of government. The New Deal was an umbrella label that encompassed a number of different initiatives and projects delivered through a diverse collection of agencies and programs such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the CCC, the Rural Electrification Administration, and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), to name a few. Each of the programs had its own focus and agenda, but collectively they strove to provide jobs for a large number of Americans, use federal funds to make possible projects that would enhance economic development, and demonstrate the potential of government to improve daily life in both the city and countryside. The New Deal programs deployed design for its power of persuasion, each in its own way, to build the case that these programs were in the public interest, even in the face of conservatives’ discomfort with such a broad expansion of government.
The TVA built large infrastructure projects throughout the Tennessee Valley, such as dams, roads, and power lines, jump-starting local economies and putting thousands of people to work in their design and construction. But the TVA also went beyond just infrastructure by considering the holistic system of infrastructure and urbanization across an entire watershed and expanding the scope of design and planning. It built dams for navigation, dams for flood control, and dams for industry and rural electricity—codesigned with a system of roads, worker settlements, and even new towns. The TVA incorporated design at multiple scales to build a case for this new infrastructure. Dams were carefully integrated into their surrounding landscape. Approach roads were meticulously designed to reveal the dams in an almost cinematic sequence. Architectural details on the dams themselves heightened their sense of scale and their gleaming modernity. And carefully crafted signage proudly proclaimed in bold typeface that this facility was “Built for the People of the United States.” The TVA was perhaps the most holistic version of New Deal federal planning, coupling large-scale energy production with industrial development, landscape design, town planning, and land management. It not only transformed the economy of a seven-state region, but also crafted a wholly new landscape narrative and design language for public works projects and public landscape.
The WPA focused instead on supporting the construction of an enormous number of municipal-scale public facilities, such as postal buildings, schools, parks, roads, and bridges. It employed some eight million people, creating work for laborers, craftspersons, and designers in the design and construction of these facilities. It also supported the arts in the face of massive unemployment, hiring graphic artists to design posters, theater directors to produce plays, photographers to document public life and New Deal programs, for example—and in one instance, hired model makers to build a 1”=100’ replica of San Francisco, an effort that took two years. The iconic WPA posters of national parks, created for the WPA’s Federal Art Project, captured the drama of these public landscapes, and WPA photographs and documentaries celebrated the optimistic and occasionally sublime quality of New Deal public works. The WPA not only supported the arts through the Great Depression, but did so with a narrative that emphasized the civic and beneficial role of public buildings and landscapes.
The New Deal program tasked with environmental conservation—and arguably the one with the most resonance for contemporary visions of a restorative landscape workforce—was the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps. According to Neil M. Maher’s history, Nature’s New Deal, from 1933 to 1942 the CCC provided jobs to more than three million unemployed young men (most from urban families on relief rolls), to plant trees, stabilize eroding hillsides, and help build recreation amenities in national and state parks and forests. All told, the CCC planted more than two billion trees, fought erosion on 40 million acres of farmland, and constructed more than 800 state parks. The CCC began its work initially by answering the call of Gifford Pinchot, the elder statesman of American forestry, to fight the looming “timber famine” and to teach the country about the conservation of natural resources. CCC enrollees assigned to the Forest Service enabled that agency to increase its afforestation efforts nearly ninefold. It was CCC labor that enabled the reforestation of the George Washington, Jefferson, and Allegheny National Forests, for example, which had all been purchased by the federal government over the previous two decades as cutover timberland from private ownership. Similarly, it was the CCC that led the reforestation efforts in the Tennessee Valley watershed to slow soil erosion into the TVA dam reservoirs. CCC “boys,” as they were called, collected seeds, started tree nurseries, planted trees, thinned forests, built firebreaks and fire lookout towers, fought fires, and blazed access roads.
The Dust Bowl in 1934 prompted the creation of the Soil Conservation Service and the expansion of the CCC’s mission to include soil erosion, including on private farmland. These soil conservation enrollees helped farmers build terraces, revegetate gullies, plant hedgerows and buffer strips, and build demonstration projects to teach strip cropping and contour farming to other farmers. The CCC was also instrumental in the construction of the Great Plains Shelterbelt, the heroic vision for a 100-mile-wide, 1,200-mile-long transcontinental windbreak stretching from Canada to Texas, although the bulk of the labor was done with WPA funds and workers. The Shelterbelt was never implemented in its entirety, but the 200 million trees that were planted are no small feat, and the scale of its territorial and environmental ambition is something sorely lacking in many landscape conversations about “green infrastructure” today.
The early forest conservation work constituted a dramatic transformation of state and national forestland; the subsequent soil conservation work represented an equally profound reshaping of the agricultural landscape—the soil conservation demonstration projects, and by extension the CCC itself, were embraced by farming communities—with widespread impacts on the ways large swaths of the nation’s land were managed, and continue to be managed today. By the mid-1930s, CCC work was extended into state and national parks to include facilities for outdoor recreation. CCC boys built thousands of miles of motor roads and trails, including the road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park up to Newfound Gap and onward up to Clingman’s Dome. In Grand Canyon National Park, the CCC built new access trails through some of the toughest terrain, including the Clear Creek and Colorado River Trails, and constructed many park facilities—the Bright Angel Campground, Phantom Ranch swimming pool, restroom facilities and reservoirs, and well-built stone walls along the Rim Trail and overlooks. Among the 800 new state parks that the CCC helped build are beloved gems like New York’s Robert H. Treman State Park, California’s Mount Tamalpais State Park, and many others. More than anything else, it was this new recreation infrastructure and this expanded access to parkland that sparked America’s outdoor recreation boom in the 1930s and 1940s and into the postwar decade. The names of many of the authors of the design decisions in these iconic public landscapes are lost to us, although the Living New Deal project out of the University of California, Berkeley, has attempted to compile and document a full list of all the facilities built by the CCC and by the New Deal more broadly. Collectively, the quantity and quality of design integration in this immense collection of public projects is staggering, even if we cannot always track down the names of the specific landscape architects, architects, and civil engineers involved.
REFLECTING ON THE NEW DEAL
Although the CCC’s heroic feats of revegetation and the TVA’s transformation of Appalachia introduced Americans to the ideas of conservation and the ethos of wisely stewarding natural resources, the speed and scale of New Deal programs sparked a rebellion against the blunt-force character of its tactics, which resulted in the postwar grassroots environmental movement. Although the CCC’s work on reforestation, fire protection, and forest thinning initially drew widespread support from prominent conservationists, for example, it soon began to be seen as operating counter to emerging understanding of ecological land management. Aldo Leopold, the famed forester and environmentalist, though initially a booster of the CCC, criticized the corps for planting monocultures and for eliminating rare and threatened habitats in its zeal to replant the forest. The Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation railed against its use of poison for “predator control” and its draining of wetlands for mosquito control. Advocates for wilderness protection such as the renowned forester and wilderness activist Bob Marshall, who originally worked for the CCC, turned against the agency’s plans for proposed skyline roads along the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, which would shatter the emerging wild character of landscapes that the CCC had recently helped create. Wilderness conservation organizations fought against proposed CCC roads in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, the Green Mountains in Vermont, and in the Presidential mountain range in New Hampshire, effectively halting these infrastructure projects.
Responding to criticism from conservation groups and wilderness societies, the New Deal policymakers eventually pioneered a new kind of “ecological planning” that led to the TVA’s approach of trying to balance land use decisions so as to benefit both forest restoration and local economies—a balance of “natural and human development.” FDR’s conservation adviser Morris Llewellyn Cooke began urging New Dealers to “plan the whole job” and “get the whole thing mapped out” so as to avoid missed opportunities between different agencies and different CCC efforts—arguing for a kind of proto-regional planning.
As for the brownfield reclamation and remediation challenges that the proponents of today’s Green New Deal proposals envision, some of the person-power and funding challenges of forestry and environmental restoration today remain the same, and forest fire protection has arguably become even more salient, but in the intervening three-quarters of a century since the original CCC was disbanded, there has been a sea change in ecological understanding and a whole new generation of brownfields and abandoned mine lands with new toxic legacies. These scarred landscapes pose a new kind of reclamation challenge, necessitating innovative techniques for remediating toxicity and jump-starting ecological transformation. Landscape architecture, having come into its own largely owing to the prominent urban brownfield remediation and urban development projects of the 1990s and early 2000s, now needs to set the agenda for how brownfields and abandoned mine lands can do more than simply go back to predisturbance conditions—how these landscapes can instead become inspiring, restorative engines of multifunctional social, ecological, and infrastructural production.
The original New Deal must also confront criticism about its history of discriminatory policies on issues such as gender and race: The CCC, for example, segregated its camps and kept black enrollees out of the public spotlight, and the benefits of employment disproportionately bypassed women and communities of color. And then there are the New Deal-era policies of redlining and the establishment of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, which targeted certain urban neighborhoods for disinvestment while showering public largess on others, laying the groundwork for the persistent income inequality that continues to haunt society today. This legacy is why the recent Green New Deal resolution explicitly recognizes that “many members of frontline and vulnerable communities were excluded from many of the economic and societal benefits” of the government-led mobilizations of the original New Deal and of World War II. It resolves to counteract historic injustices and to make sure that the good green jobs and economic benefits accrue equitably to all communities as part of what the text refers to as a “fair and just transition.” It is also why advocates for today’s Green New Deal, such as the Sunrise Movement, are explicitly building a coalition in which indigenous peoples, migrant communities, communities of color, women, rural communities, low-income workers, the poor, the elderly, and youth can all articulate their needs and demands through a participatory public process.
Despite its flaws, the New Deal still represents a moment in American landscape history that resonates today for several reasons. It was a moment when public lands and landscapes held unequivocal social value and their wise management was a civic calling. With projects like the TVA, planners working for the federal government managed to actively expand the public understanding of environmental conservation and radically scale up the idea of what planning and landscape were capable of in holistically empowering large territories. These projects were most successful when designers were at the table, and designers took this role seriously by articulating public visions of what public works and public land could do for the public good. Today, landscape architecture and planning professionals may make the case for green infrastructure or for “landscape as infrastructure,” but the design professions as a whole are strangely missing from the political scene in making the public case for new visions of public infrastructure. The landscape architecture profession has internal work to do in grappling with its own issues of race, class, and representation; working on the Green New Deal could be a critical opportunity for landscape architects to partner with and learn from incredible organizers in the labor, environmental, and social justice movements.
In a 1940 speech at a symposium at the University of Pennsylvania titled “On Total Conservation,” Morris Llewellyn Cooke urged farmers and stockmen to team up with nature lovers concerned with wilderness protection and sportsmen concerned with game habitat, so as to bring together groups otherwise politically pitted against each other under a unified banner of “total conservation.” To make lasting, sweeping progress on issues such as land management or labor, building coalitions was and still is essential. Such coalitions are going to be even more critical today if the Green New Deal is to have any chance of success. The great potential of the Green New Deal is that in proposing to holistically rethink agriculture, energy infrastructure, carbon sequestration, and brownfield remediation—strands that are historically distinct yet overlap with the kinds of restorative landscape work that contemporary landscape architecture has been pursuing—it can bring together new coalitions in forming a new kind of public landscape agenda. Tasked with rapidly designing and developing clean energy infrastructure on a continental scale, the Green New Deal cannot simply be left as an engineering challenge or jobs program, but must be thought of once again through a lens of ecological planning and total conservation, updated for the Anthropocene and the demands of addressing climate change.
The Green New Deal is still in its infancy, full of possibilities and unanswered questions, but in the coming months, it will likely be fleshed out into specific programs and proposals which will affect real places and actual people. The Green New Deal’s backers are actively soliciting feedback, staging a series of traveling town halls to hear what kinds of social, economic, and environmental concerns are central to members of its coalition. Whatever the final details, the Green New Deal will undoubtedly inaugurate a new generation of public landscapes; it is essential that they are inclusive and regenerative. Through the work of designers and policy makers, we also need to ensure that they are multipurpose landscapes that bridge the historic distinctions between conservation land, productive agricultural land, energy facilities, and industrial or postindustrial land. Stephen O’Hanlon, a spokesman for the Sunrise Movement, has said that “The Green New Deal is not just another climate policy. Like the original New Deal, it is a call to redefine politics and establish a new social contract for America, in line with the economic and ecological realities of the 21st century.” It is also a chance to redefine landscape architecture, its engagement with the most urgent environmental and political issues of the time, and what it can offer to a new national and local American identity. Will landscape architects participate in this conversation?
Nicholas Pevzner teaches in the department of landscape architecture and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania. He is coeditor of the open-access digital publication Scenario Journal and cofounder of the speculative design practice Uncertain Terrain.
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