Global problems meet regional politics in the field’s most ambitious venture in a century.
By Aaron King
Yuehui Gong, Courtesy LAF.
In March of 2020, Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, the CEO of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF), hosted a small gathering at the foundation’s office in Washington, D.C. Among those in attendance were Billy Fleming, ASLA, the Wilks Family Director of the Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania; Kate Orff, FASLA, the director of the Urban Design Program at Columbia University and a board member of LAF; Thaddeus Pawlowski, the director of the Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes (CRCL) at Columbia University; and Richard Weller, ASLA, the chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture at Penn’s Stuart Weitzman School of Design. The five had convened to discuss LAF’s plans for its 2021 summit, which were facing some pressing challenges.
After the foundation’s 2016 “New Landscape Declaration” summit, at which more than 700 participating landscape architects called for a meaningful response to the climate crisis, LAF’s board began exploring ways it could further that work. It had strongly considered hosting a series of regional workshops, led by landscape architects and other experts, to develop conceptual projects that addressed climate issues in contextually appropriate ways. But a lapse in funding and a snowballing epidemic had made that plan untenable.
Board members had also considered another idea: a multi-institution studio that responded to the Green New Deal legislation. Fleming, Weller, and Orff had overseen successful Green New Deal–related studios at their respective universities. But the breadth of the legislation and its issues had challenged them. An open-invite studio would crowdsource the effort, allowing students and professionals across the country to break off and process pieces of the Green New Deal. Deutsch found the idea compelling, which left only the LAF board’s approval. And as far as LAF or anyone knew, the growing epidemic would recede in weeks. By the time the Green New Deal Superstudio officially launched in August 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had placed the academic and social landscape under tremendous strain.
“It was a bit of a leap of faith putting it out there,” Orff, who is also the founding principal of SCAPE (where the author is a landscape designer), said of the Superstudio’s launch five months into the pandemic. Megan Barnes, ASLA, a program manager at LAF, said that she and Deutsch were uncertain whether they would attract “10 or 50” participating studios. “We planned for 50.” Between March and July of 2020, Deutsch and her team formalized partnerships with the McHarg Center, CRCL, the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA), and the American Society of Landscape Architects. With LAF spearheading, the partners developed the Superstudio program, built a website, and attracted interest among a group consisting primarily of undergraduate and graduate design students and their instructors. The Superstudio launched August 1, and LAF hosted an informational webinar later that month attended by more than 600 viewers. By the following spring, the Superstudio had 105 participating studios, including those from 66 accredited landscape architecture programs. “It was way more than we expected,” Barnes said.
House Resolution 109, introduced in 2019 and known as the Green New Deal, reads like a series of studio prompts. Consider the following line from the bill: “Restoring and protecting threatened, endangered, and fragile ecosystems through locally appropriate and science-based projects that enhance biodiversity and support climate resiliency.” Or another: “Cleaning up existing hazardous waste and abandoned sites, ensuring economic development and sustainability on those sites.” Fragile ecosystems and abandoned sites are topics familiar to many landscape students and practitioners. The novel challenge facing Superstudio participants was in addressing the Green New Deal’s three tenets: jobs, justice, and decarbonization. Doing so would help differentiate Superstudio projects from “landscape architecture as usual,” Deutsch said. In and among the Superstudio requirements were school or instructor-mandated goals: learning geospatial analysis, for instance, or section drawing, or design of a park. And all these goals would be reached, ideally, with compelling results.
The opportunity to participate in a national, and what most hoped would be a meaningful, conversation about environmental and social matters drew many of the Superstudio’s participants. “The green recovery is the most important issue that landscape architecture can and should be a part of,” said Carl Smith, International ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Arkansas, who participated with his undergraduate students. “There’s an agenda here that could see landscape architecture reclaim some primacy and some prominence in a really vital area of discourse.”
It was a view echoed by other landscape architecture faculty. “I think we’re hungry to be relevant. Any sort of opportunity that seems bigger than a particular program, a particular class, is exciting,” said Forbes Lipschitz, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the Ohio State University.
Lipschitz was among hundreds who had traveled to Philadelphia in September 2019 to attend an event that would serve as a precursor to the Superstudio, the “Designing a Green New Deal” symposium. Led by Fleming and his collaborators at the University of Pennsylvania, the symposium featured policy experts, activists, and academics, and attracted close to 1,400 attendees and several thousand online viewers, according to organizers. Weller described the event as “youthful, high energy, a bit rough around the edges,” suggesting a desire among landscape architects to critically engage with policy and activism.
The Superstudio’s structure was outlined in the Green New Deal Superstudio Brief, a 19-page document that provided background and a suggested approach. This included reviewing the legacy of the original New Deal, performing regional analysis, considering relevant project precedents, and developing conceptual projects. But the most important pedagogical decisions for each studio were left to their instructors. Participating studios were encouraged to collaborate. “The more people we can have sharing and collaborating, the more we can learn from each other,” Deutsch said later. Representatives from LAF’s Superstudio Task Force made themselves available to studios as guest critics and speakers, and LAF scheduled a series of informational webinars “at key points” throughout the academic year, according to Barnes. The webinars featured sample Superstudio work and helped to set expectations for participants. Superstudio planners I spoke with agreed that the projects should present physical and spatial manifestations of the Green New Deal’s three tenets. Beyond that, expectations for what they hoped to see were far ranging.
Orff said LAF chose this nonprescriptive approach to help reduce friction in adopting the Superstudio framework and enable wider participation. “We didn’t see [the brief] as a syllabus that people were teaching to. It was really a framework around which multiple studios could plug in. If a teacher had a site or had a community partner, they could adapt their studio to be part of the Superstudio.”
That plug-in approach was popular among participating instructors I spoke with, many of whom supplemented the brief’s methods with their own. Sarah Karle, an associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, had wanted to run a studio exploring the synergies between landscape architecture and agroforestry with her colleague Gary Bentrup, ASLA, a landscape planner with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. When the Superstudio was announced, she said, it “gave a really great venue to connect the conservation work that Gary is doing to a teaching and learning environment and contextualize it within a larger national landscape architecture movement.” She and Bentrup used the Green New Deal as a jumping-off point for their studio, called “A Vision for Agroforestry: Healthy Soil, Healthy Food, Healthy Community,” which examined how policy could help build upon conservation efforts already underway. “It brought the policy conversation in,” Karle told me of the Superstudio brief, helping her students have “a robust conversation around agricultural policy more broadly.”
Maggie Hansen, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, drew upon her academic interests in the Blackland Prairie, a landscape endemic to the Austin and Dallas region, to use as a basis for a Green New Deal studio. With collaborators Gwen Cohen and Isaac Cohen, ASLA, both associates at Studio Outside in Dallas, Hansen developed a syllabus that investigated the potential for urban prairies. Her syllabus mentioned the Green New Deal only glancingly, but, like Karle, she required her graduate students to understand the policies and regulations that would affect their designs.
In April 2021, LAF published a schedule of Superstudio final reviews that would be hosted online and invited participants to sit in on the reviews of other studios. I joined the final review for Hansen’s studio, called “Prairie Time: Growing Dallas’s Green Quilt.” Some instructors had attempted to mitigate the complexity of their studios by narrowing their scope, or hyperfocusing on a subset of the Green New Deal’s three tenets, but Hansen’s studio was unapologetically ambitious (she uses the term “aspirational”). Students were asked to familiarize themselves with the Blackland Prairie ecology, frame the issue on which they would work, research and identify a site of intervention, and produce a design that considered jobs, justice, and decarbonization. Add to this an inability to perform site visits because of the pandemic as well as a critical failure of Texas’s energy infrastructure in February, resulting in a harrowing period without power for several students, and it would be fair to say the class had its hands full. But the projects shared at the review were thoughtful and well-presented, consistent in quality with the work of final-year graduate students.
Among the jury critiquing the work was Allan Shearer, FASLA, an associate dean for research and technology at the University of Texas at Austin. A good critique is thorough, and a thorough critique can appear oppositional. Shearer’s critiques were very good. After the review I asked what he thought of the student projects.
“Did they get to full resolution? Maybe not. That’s okay. It’s an educational process. We’re asking our students to try to solve problems that, quite frankly, the faculty haven’t solved ourselves.”
Shearer suggested that phenomena such as climate change create problems resistant to common technical solutions. The Superstudio benefited students by requiring them to consider the social alongside the technical, framing climate change and other issues in a “political and economic context.”
Taylor Davis, one of Hansen’s students, took a localized approach to addressing jobs, justice, and decarbonization. Davis’s project focused on Dallas’s Tenth Street Historic District, thought to be one of the country’s few remaining intact Freedmen’s Towns, according to the City of Dallas website. Also known as Freedom Colonies, these were communities that former slaves settled after emancipation. Davis researched the land management practices of Freedmen’s Town settlers and developed a landscape-based program that would help reinvigorate the deteriorating neighborhood both economically and ecologically. She said that centering the stories of Dallas’s Black residents was critical to her project. “These stories offer alternative understandings to our work with landscapes and within the built environment. Black people’s relationship with the land is dense and emotionally charged and has changed throughout time. As landscape architects, we need to understand how our work affects that relationship and work toward goals that are healing, both spatially and emotionally.”
Davis added that the jobs and justice component of the Superstudio allowed her to “understand how ‘work’ can be talked about outside of the confines of capitalistic expectations and within concepts of community care. Work that is for and by the community can have a lasting impact and can be used to expand knowledge and steward the environment around you.”
Not everyone embraced the framework for the Superstudio in the same way. Instructors I spoke with said some of their colleagues had raised concerns over attempts to pivot design education toward the tenets of the Green New Deal. For them, having students consider issues like jobs and justice detracts from learning more traditional skills such as planting and grading. When I put this critique to Fleming, one of the Superstudio’s primary architects and perhaps the field’s most vocal advocate for bridging the worlds of design and progressive politics, he agreed with it.
“Adding anything on to what’s already a weighty, exhaustive educational and training experience is a lot to ask both faculty and students,” Fleming said. But not engaging these issues “is a recipe for stagnation,” he continued.
“It would be a mistake to look around at the state of the world and conclude that the status quo of anything, whether it’s landscape architecture, or architecture, or politics, is doing us all the kind of good that it needs to. It’s time to stretch ourselves.”
More than a year before the Superstudio’s launch, and five months prior to the “Designing a Green New Deal” symposium, Fleming published an essay in Places Journal titled “Design and the Green New Deal.” In it, he methodically dressed down the profession of landscape architecture for capitulating to private interests and neutralizing its own ambitions for a more ecological, healthier world. It’s difficult to write an essay that reverberates through a professional community, but Fleming did—the essay has been visited more than 50,000 times, according to Places editors. Some readers bristled at the tone of the piece, which was chastening, or found Fleming’s opinions transgressively political. But for others, it spoke a repressed truth: Landscape architects should reorient their practice toward the public interest in order to meaningfully confront climate change and environmental degradation. Some of those readers went on to participate in the Superstudio.
“It was a really nice ego check,” said Olivia Pinner, Associate ASLA, a landscape designer at SWA Group. Pinner was one of six landscape designers participating in the Superstudio under the collective name WKSHP. The group modeled its effort after a traditional academic studio, going so far as to craft its own syllabus, and Fleming’s essay was required reading. Another WKSHP member, Adam Scott, Associate ASLA, said Fleming’s essay forced him and the others to spend significant time “grappling with what our profession is and how it operates in practice.”
When I spoke with WKSHP’s members in July 2021, I mentioned that they were among only a handful of individual, practicing landscape designers involved in the Superstudio. Pinner was sympathetic to the idea that many practitioners might have lacked the time or resources to participate in the Superstudio. But Scott added that it might suggest “a lack of vision. This is a huge opportunity,” and referenced the infrastructure bill that would become law in November as a potential catalyst for Green New Deal projects.
The WKSHP members were dispersed across several states and collaborated almost exclusively online, and they said the Superstudio offered them a social outlet amid the pandemic. They worked consistently through the pandemic’s ebbs and flows on a project that imagined a revitalized Calumet region, a heavily industrialized and polluted area straddling Illinois and Indiana along the shore of Lake Michigan.
One of the Superstudio’s unmitigated successes was the relationships it helped create between participants and community organizations. WKSHP members connected with Calumet Collaborative, a community organization in the area, to better understand the issues they would be addressing. For their sustainable agriculture studio, Karle and Bentrup solicited the help of Graham Christensen, a cofounder of RegeNErate Nebraska, an organization that represents a network of landowners transforming their family farms using regenerative methods. Christensen helped supplement Karle and Bentrup’s expertise with knowledge of issues facing farmers and the communications skills necessary for outreach. Karle said that he came to be “a really important voice for the students.”
During closing remarks made at the final review for Karle and Bentrup’s studio, both Christensen and another critic alluded to the negative reactions the term Green New Deal elicits in some agricultural areas of the country. Christensen told me the Green New Deal incurred “a black eye” during its 2019 rollout that’s made mentioning the bill while doing outreach unpopular. Like any other population, Christensen said, Nebraskans are subject to intense partisanship.
LAF deliberated over attaching the name Green New Deal to the Superstudio, according to several board members I spoke with. Weller, a board member emeritus, said he and his colleagues weighed the Green New Deal’s ostensible divisiveness but believed it would also have a galvanizing effect. “My argument was [forget] politics. Let’s do it anyway. Because the ideas of the Green New Deal are not going away in the 21st century.”
Sadik Artunç, FASLA, the head of the landscape architecture department at Mississippi State University, said he encountered hesitancy around the name. Artunç was transitioning into his one-year term as president of CELA in the spring of 2020 when LAF reached out to request CELA’s partnership. Artunç said he “loved the idea of the Superstudio” and agreed to lend the help. While promoting it, he heard “grumbles” from CELA members asking, “Why is CELA pushing this?” But not just CELA members. Artunç, who hoped to involve his students, approached his university administration with the idea. According to Artunç, the administration said students could participate in the Superstudio with the stipulation that they not associate their projects with the Green New Deal. “Some in my university would have considered assignment of the Superstudio project as lobbying, which is not allowable,” Artunç said. “I was not told this verbatim by any of my administrators. However, that was the message.”
Artunç added that he suspects instructors from other institutions faced similar resistance, based on his conversations. Still, other factors may have limited Superstudio participation, according to Malcolm Cairns, FASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at Ball State University. Cairns said he’s almost certain that complications caused by the pandemic were to blame for the fact that none of Ball State’s 13 landscape studios participated in the Superstudio. “When we found out about this, we [were] in the middle of trying to figure out how to reopen for fall semester.” He suggested the Superstudio may have seemed like an additional puzzle to solve. “I would be surprised and chagrined” if the name kept instructors from participating, Cairns said.
“Is the Green New Deal too politicized, too partisan, to do the kinds of things you want to do with it?” Fleming asked. “I think it’s a reasonable question to ask. But I think it’s been answered.” He marshaled as evidence the fact that the Superstudio drew participants from throughout the country, including from the rural South and Midwest, “places that might not be top of mind when you think about the Green New Deal.”
Fleming said that as an advocate for the Green New Deal, he has visited places like the Mississippi Delta to “meet with folks who are living in a community that’s been a site of disinvestment for 50 years. Whose crops are now washing out or frying every other year because of heat or because of drought or 500-year floods. Things at the core of the Green New Deal are also on the tip of their tongues.”
You would have to revisit the 1970s to find any landscape architecture endeavor approximating the Superstudio in scale, regional representation, or purpose. That was the last decade in which a program called the Landscape Exchange Problems was administered. It was an annual design competition coordinated by CELA and CELA’s predecessor that, at its height, attracted submissions from more than 20 landscape architecture programs.
When I spoke with Cairns about his perception of the Superstudio, we also discussed the Exchange Problems, a topic on which he has written. He said that “the world of landscape architecture education was expanding in the 1920s…changing dramatically from horticulture and agriculture to something we would recognize today.” The Exchange Problems, which ran from the 1920s through the 1970s, began as a way of standardizing what was a fragmented approach to landscape architecture education, according to Cairns. And like the Superstudio, the Exchange Problems attempted to address what the field considered to be pressing issues. During the early years of the Exchange Problems, that meant competitions focused on the design of country estates. By the 1930s, participants were designing aerodromes. The Exchange Problem for the 1942–1943 academic year gave students five weeks to design an army air base. “For the purposes of this problem it is to be assumed that the base is within range of enemy attack,” the brief states.
If the Exchange Problem briefs were tightly written to produce a narrow set of submissions, expectations for the Superstudio submissions were necessarily much broader. The loose brief that had eased the adoption of the Superstudio framework had also invited wide interpretations of what constituted a Green New Deal project.
LAF had received 670 project submissions by the deadline of June 30. Submissions were subjected to review by a panel of Superstudio task force members, LAF board members, and board emeriti, among others. Results of the review were published in mid-October to the Superstudio website. In late October, at a Superstudio Showcase webinar, Orff discussed the criteria that she and the reviewers believed differentiated exceptional submittals from more conventional ones. Among the eight criteria listed were an emphasis on how design can influence policy, an appreciation of the labor and effort required to build the proposed projects, and a sense of urgency along with a timeline for implementation that our environmental and social crises warrant. Some submissions featured “spectacular landscape architecture work,” Fleming said, “but it’s not clear that there’s a strong connection to jobs, justice, and decarbonization.” Other projects addressed those three tenets but failed to tie their viability to the Green New Deal’s enactment.
One interpretation is that most landscape architecture projects emerging from the academy reflexively embody Green New Deal ambitions. It would be understandable if some participants, using traditional strategies to achieve Green New Deal objectives, believed they were producing a Green New Deal project. But traditional strategies risked feeling rote in the context of the Superstudio, according to Weller. He said there is a tendency among designers, Superstudio participants being no exception, to “talk about equity, economy, society, and ecology all in one mouthful, [assuming that all they’ve] got to do is design a bit of public open space, and that public open space will equal all those things.” That approach is not without some merits, Weller added, but it also “profoundly underestimates the scale and the difficulty” of something such as decarbonization, for instance.
On balance, the work is “pretty remarkable,” Fleming said. He told me he believes the submissions comprise a much-needed visual library of ideas that can serve as the basis of future projects. To that end, LAF has cataloged each submission and made them available to freely browse on the digital library JSTOR.
Two years after her meeting with Fleming, Orff, Pawlowski, and Weller at LAF’s offices, Deutsch says her immediate goal is to maintain the momentum of the Superstudio. Last month, CELA hosted its annual conference in Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico, featuring an LAF panel discussion on the pedagogical lessons of the Superstudio. And this month, LAF will host the follow-up to its 2016 summit, titled “Grounding the Green New Deal: A Summit on Design, Policy, and Advocacy,” in D.C. “Whereas the 2016 summit was more of an internal conversation about the discipline,” Deutsch says, “this is more external,” and will feature civil servants, nonprofit organizations, and elected officials.
When we spoke last May, Shearer told me landscape architects will not attain the sophisticated skills needed for addressing decarbonization, jobs, and justice without testing those skills in a studio. “Learning how to structure an unstructured problem, as vast as what [the students] were given, was an important thing for their education.” One measure of the Superstudio’s success will be whether the effort to develop these skills continues. Most participants I spoke with hoped the Superstudio would return in some form or another.
For her part, Orff was philosophical about the Superstudio’s outcome. “There are a couple of gaps, but the work is incredible. I just think of a student in the basement of their parent’s [house] in Cleveland, or St. Louis, or Queens, and they’re doing this work, and they’re part of this big national conversation.”
Aaron King is a landscape designer and writer based in Brooklyn.