World Landscape Architecture Month: Celebrating Martha Schwartz

By Kristin Faurest

As a profession, we focus a lot on adaptation. Adaptation is important but it assumes that there will be a plateau we can adapt to. If we don’t address the root causes of climate change through mitigation, change will keep happening too quickly for us to adapt.

—Martha Schwartz, landscape architect

Martha Schwartz; photo courtesy of Harvard University

On the occasion of World Landscape Architecture month, it’s a great opportunity to celebrate the lifelong work of pioneering landscape architect Martha Schwartz. Landscape architecture isn’t just about the design of beautiful spaces – the profession plays a critical role in the livability of our communities, particularly when it comes to climate change.

Schwartz has been in practice for more than forty years. Some of her earlier projects like the “Bagel Garden,” are whimsical and artsy. But in recent years, she has become a prominent activist on the international stage, focusing her design, public speaking and teaching work on how landscape architects are uniquely positioned to turn the tide on climate change. Her work and teaching focuses on the urban public realm landscape and its importance in making cities climate ready. Schwartz foresees landscape architecture as the leading profession to face the challenge of climate change and has played a key role in getting the profession as a whole to pay more attention to the threats our planet faces.

At the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s 2016  summit, her declaration on climate change became the key proponent of the industry’s current position that climate change is a central issue to the practice. Landscape architecture as an industry has responded to the climate crisis by creating a number of tools to assess the potential impact of designed environments on mitigating climate change.*

Bagel Garden, Boston, MA; photo courtesy of Martha Schwartz Partners

Core to her activism is promoting the climate solutions laid out in Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. Edited by Paul Hawken, the book and its companion website, Project Drawdown, offer the 100 most effective existing solutions to address climate change, with the goal of rolling back global greenhouse gas emissions within thirty years.  Eighteen of the book’s solutions are landscape-based solutions. Fifteen of the total solutions account for 65% of the needed reduction in emissions, and six of those fifteen solutions are landscape-based. Most of them relate to establishing and protecting forests and implementing regenerative agriculture practices — two areas in which Bernheim demonstrates best practices.

Many municipalities and organizations – including Bernheim in its ongoing work on a Climate Crisis Action Plan (to be released later this year) –  are using the strategies laid out in Drawdown to inform their own climate conversations and goals.  A recent study based on data from Climate Central ranked Kentucky the ninth worst state in the country for climate change, with high risks for extreme heat, drought, inland flooding, and wildfires. At the current rate, by 2050, Kentucky will have 72 dangerous heat days, a 95% increase in summer drought and fourteen more days at risk for wildfires.

Rendering of Shenzhen Super Bay, Shenzhen, China; courtesy of Martha Schwartz Partners

Schwartz is inspiring as an example to remind us of how critical our green spaces are  in keeping all of us healthy and safe now and in the future. Dense and walkable communities, green roofs, water-efficient design, use of sustainable materials and carbon-sequestering landscapes like forests and grasslands are all key to the drawdown of atmospheric carbon dioxide. But it is essential to remember that landscape architects alone can’t solve the problems before us. Climate-resilient designs still need to be funded and constructed.  Our elected leaders need to be pressed by the public to make decisions that support good solutions in climate-resilient planning and also protect existing forests, wetlands, meadows, and other natural landscapes from destruction and unsustainable development. And we need to work together – in our own communities, nationally, and across national borders. We have so many incredibly innovative tools at our fingertips, thanks to landscape architects and other professionals, but it will take all of us to ensure the next generations have a healthy and safe place to live.


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