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Landscape architects: On the front lines of the battle for resilience

April 19, 2016

By Donna Walcavage

Landscape architects play a critical role in protecting our communities. Find out how.

In designing the built environment, landscape architects are called upon to mitigate risk. Though risks vary in type, scale, and cause – from natural disasters to terrorism – most risks have a common denominator: ultimately transcending individual structures and occurring at a landscape scale.

As landscape architects, it’s imperative that we learn from nature and use our knowledge of environmental processes in designing places that can reduce risk, adapt to climate change, and function as great public open space that is ecologically and aesthetically rich. Before we begin the planning and design of creating resilient places, we need to take into account the risk factors of any given place. Designing for the last disaster is never the best plan.

On the East Coast of the United States, where I am, we are heavily fixated on the aftermath of coastal flooding, storm surge, and sea level rise. Inland, riverine floods have catastrophically impacted riverfront cities, resulting in highly dramatic and photographable imagery. Though considerable, these are not the only disturbances to our environment – extreme heat events are causing North America’s death toll to climb more each year than all other natural disasters combined. Both of these risks, flooding and extreme heat waves, are based on problems of land development and urbanization.

In order to mitigate the impacts of climate change, we need to understand not only the site and its larger landscape, but the interaction of land, water, and temperature, and how they all function by using the natural protection of wetlands, dunes, and maritime forests. Much of the damage caused by flooding is from developing land that is in flood zones: valuable with great waterfront views, but in flood plains that should be free of development, functioning to contain flood waters.

Shade trees and vegetation along Route 9A in Manhattan help keep the West Side cool

Designing to reduce the urban heat island effect – the notion that metropolitan areas are significantly warmer than their surrounding rural areas due to human activity – is a key role for landscape architects. By creating greener park space, we are reducing the heat island impact of a completely paved city. Even in the most urban areas, edge parks can be designed to adapt to rising waters and flooding. Our team in NYC is in the midst of designing a shoreline protection system that includes ecologically sensitive types of structures – from planted dunes to eco-revetments – we are incorporating more vertical systems that incorporated with planting. We are using landscape to protect the upland while improving park access and restoring wetlands and forested areas.

Adequate public space design should foster community. Imagine this: it is a scorching hot afternoon in the middle of July, and you are going for a walk through the park. You want to have the option of taking a break if you get too hot – such as relaxing on a nearby bench or sitting at a table in the shade. The smallest additions to public spaces – such as benches or lining a pathway with trees – can make all the difference. The design of urban spaces that allow people to congregate and socialize informally also creates social resiliency: a shared community of people who look out for each other in the neighborhood. Studies have shown that social resiliency is a major factor in survival rates in disasters whether heat waves or hurricanes. 

Landscape architects, we must remember that our work is constantly on the front lines of resilience and ensure that we continue to maintain a strong role in the evolving interdisciplinary practice of designing for risk.

  • Donna Walcavage

    Over four decades, Donna has led key initiatives that have had a lasting impact on the social and physical fabric of New York City.

    Contact Donna
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