Pamela Conrad: Opportunities for landscape architects in the context of climate change
Pamela Conrad: Opportunities for landscape architects in the context of climate change | Pioneer
Pamela Conrad is a Principal at CMG Landscape Architecture and Founder of Climate Positive Design. Conrad focuses on climate mitigation and resilient design in the public realm. Her work is informed by a background in Plant Science and a passion for the environment rooted in growing up on a farm. She is an ASLA Climate Action Committee member, 2018-2019 LAF Fellow for Innovation and Leadership and recipient of the 2019 NCRE Women of Influence Award. She is a recipient of the 2018 Landscape Architecture Foundation Fellowship for the development of the award-winning Pathfinder landscape carbon calculator app and the Climate Positive Design Challenge.
LA Frontiers: Could you briefly share your upbringing and design experience with Chinese readers?
Pamela: I was born and raised on a farm in the middle of rural United States, in Missouri. I was very lucky because I could run around and play and get dirty on the farm. We had lots of animals and also lots of work to do. That is where I learned a very strong work ethic, but also developed a deep connection to nature. Ultimately, it's why I became a landscape architect – because I fell in love with the earth and felt our responsibility to take care of it.
▼Young Pamela on a farm
I started working at a very young age. It began in my neighbors’ yards because I loved gardening. I would help them with landscape projects at their houses. At some point in time, one of those neighbors told me that landscape architecture was a profession, and she put a Landscape Architecture Magazine in front of me and said, “You can do this someday. You’d be great at it.” No one in my family had gone to college before, so I was a potential first-generation college graduate.
In high school, I started working for a local landscape architect. At first, I worked in the nursery, but I realized I actually wanted to be outside and build landscapes. So I joined the crew. I was the only female. I did a lot of physical, hard labor, right alongside the men, and eventually was in charge of them at a very young age, maybe 16 or 17 years old. For me, I am used to hard work and overcoming challenges. Often times not involved in things that other girls in my age were doing.
I continued working through college. My first degree was Plant Science. I wanted to appreciate the mystery behind plants and ecosystems. So that was my first step into the profession. Then I realized to make larger scale impacts I would need to expand my education with a Master of Landscape Architecture degree, which I received from California State Polytechnic University at Pomona, outside of Los Angeles.
My connection to LA was because I interned at the Army Corps of Engineers, a federal agency in the United States. So that's where I started my career and found the work very complementary to my grad school degree, which focused on regenerative design and large-scale watershed management. Wanting to learn more, I started working at the SWA group. It was a really great place to get a lot of experience on different types of projects worldwide.
Several years later, I moved to San Francisco and worked at the Office of Cheryl Barton, a smaller-scale women-owned office doing great public work, even through the Great Recession. While I deeply connected with the design ethos, when I learned of the chance to help SWA open a Shanghai office, I realized what a great opportunity it would be to live and work on projects in China and get to know an entirely new culture. It was one of those life-changing moments.
I was grateful when I worked there to spend most of my time working on the Nanjing Youth Olympic Park project, which is a 100-acre waterfront project for the Youth Olympic games. It was a long riverfront, and I spent most of my time focusing on the design of the water systems. That was one small but important aspect of the park creation – designing it to treat the contaminated river water through a series of polishing wetlands. For me, that was one of the most fulfilling contributions – to provide ecological benefits to ecosystems and health benefits to people. I feel it is my way of giving back.
▼Nanjing Youth Olympic Park
I joined CMG Landscape Architecture here in San Francisco, California about eight years ago. Most of my time at CMG has been focused on large-scale redevelopment or adaptation projects that respond to climate change impacts. I have worked on all kinds and scales of projects and carry forward all of my learned experiences, but what helps me to focus is my ecological background. The Treasure Island redevelopment project was a representative one. That's an over 500-acre redevelopment project on an artificial island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. The mixed-use project was the catalyst for new sea-level rise adaptation policies in the entire bay area, which didn't exist before. Because this large project is surrounded by water, knowing that sea-level rise is coming, it was an opportunity to learn about what regulation should be guiding developments and how to plan for all other projects in the region to adapt to future sea-level rise.
▼Bird’s eye view of Treasure Island
It includes 300 acres of all different types of parks and open spaces to trails that are more ecosystem restoration focused. We're collaborating with our client Treasure Island Development Group (TIDG) and the Treasure Island Development Authority (TIDA) along with a local grower Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ) and SF Department of the Environment (SFE) to grow and replant indigenous salvaged plants and seed on the island. One of the really interesting things to see is the on-site nursery. It helps to ensure the success of the plants by growing them in the exact micro-climate.
At CMG we've also done a lot of wood reuse and salvage to minimize our carbon footprint. Many of the invasive trees that were removed for habitat restoration purposes are being milled into site furnishings to maintain the rustic character, utilize the resources on the island, and retain the carbon stored in the wood. So that's one of the other big projects that I've been working on since joining CMG.
Over the last four years, I've also been helping lead the planning and urban design for the Port of San Francisco Waterfront Resilience Program. The scope includes working with the Port of San Francisco, Jacobs Engineering and SITELAB Urban Design Studio to understand how we can adapt to reduce the risk of sea level rise and earthquakes along 7.5 miles of San Francisco shoreline. The waterfront is at risk from both of those threats today. With this challenge exists the opportunity to reimagine the waterfront not only to be safer but to be better for people – to improve opportunities for all to have access and recreation, healthy air, comfort, and provide habitat that sequesters carbon and supports biodiversity. All these good things are coming out of the need for change, but we see it as the chance to make a better future for the San Francisco waterfront.
▼Port of San Francisco Waterfront Resilience Program
▼Discussion of Port of San Francisco Waterfront Resilience Program
And most recently, I founded and lead the Climate Positive Design initiative, which is being implemented in many of our projects, including the Atlanta BeltLine, an urban trail system around Atlanta, Georgia. That has been an opportunity to work with a broad design team, including Atlanta BeltLine Inc. and Alta Planning and Design, on evaluating the current phase of design to improve its carbon footprint.
▼Climate Positive Design program
▼Partial bird’s eye view of Atlanta BeltLine ©️ Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau
LA Frontiers: One of the most important research outcomes of the Climate Positive Design is Pathfinder, a free application to calculate the landscape carbon footprint and encourage carbon sequestration design. So since the launch of this application, what is the influence of this tool and research around the world?
Pamela: Over 500 projects that have been logged in the Pathfinder for the last two years are planting around 1.6 million trees. Those projects show that they're sequestering more carbon than they emit by the year 2040. That amount of sequestration beyond their project emissions by the year 2040 is about 1.8 million metric tons, equivalent to taking nearly 400,000 cars off the road. It's starting to tell us that when we incorporate these changes together around the world, they can really add up to make a difference. We can understand that impact in relation to the overall carbon budget left in the world before we surpass dangerous temperature tipping points.
▼Part of research outcome of Climate Positive Design: (from left to right) Pathfinder app, Website resources, The Challenge
▼Strategies for reducing carbon footprints: (from left to right) bicycle infrastructure, walkability, biochar, minimize soil disturbance, local/reclaimed materials, alternative cement
▼Strategies for increasing sequestration: (from left to right) green roofs/cool roofs, bamboo, shrubs for lawn, forests, coastal wetlands, seagrasses, mangroves
Our goal is to make a greater contribution in preventing those thresholds because that's the main challenge we're up against right now. By doing that, we can prevent billions of people from being exposed to severe heat, floods, drought, and fire. We can make significant professional contributions and are lucky that within our everyday design toolkit we have trees, plants, and landscapes that take carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It partially feels like a responsibility, but it's also an opportunity for our profession.
Another aspect that we are learning from Climate Positive Design is better understanding our existing impacts. Right now, about 75 % of all of our emissions in landscape architecture come from the materials that we use. It is very helpful to better understand this so we can target those items and products.
There are many strategies to reducing our project carbon emissions, including using cement substitutions in concrete, using local materials, and materials that have lower embodied carbon in the extraction, manufacturing and transport like using wood or decomposed granite instead or concrete. It helps us to understand our current “business-as-usual” impacts, focus on what we can do, and get the most out of the changes that we're going to make as a profession.
▼Using less carbon-intensive materials and reducing carbon emissions in landscape design projects can have an important impact
LA Frontiers: Do you have some research feedback about the users and outcomes from China? What kind of people use Pathfinder, designers or scholars, or any projects have been tried from China?
Pamela: China has been within the top ten of website users since the beginning. Today, China is in the top five countries globally that have submitted the most projects in the Climate Positive Design Challenge. That's really great to see. There is a mix of students and academic projects, also professional projects. We do find that the usage has increased over time. The more projects that are logged, the better we can understand each country’s contributions.I'm looking forward to your support in helping get the word out, so more landscape architects in China will know about the resources available to them and their projects.
The View of China
LA Frontiers: 10 years ago, you lived and worked in Shanghai for 2.5 years. Could you share some deep thinking about the Chinese landscape architecture industry?
Pamela: When I was there 10 years ago, landscape architecture seemed to be a growing profession in China. There were many students in school, but not as many firms as compared to the United States. It was an opportunity for international firms to work in China and collaborate with the local design institutes to share our lessons and experience. We always teamed up, then ultimately ensured that the projects were implemented with a high quality. I definitely see the increased presence of landscape architects from China and other developing countries around the world moving up into a higher level of design in the field.
▼Pamela and her colleagues of SWA’s Shanghai studio
▼Pamela working in Shanghai
LA Frontiers: Based on your research and work experience, what do you think about Chinese ecological projects compared with the design practices in the US?
Pamela: I've seen many wonderful projects installed in China, and very quickly too. It is great to see the concept of “Sponge Cities” being implemented. Designers have done a lot of impressive work around projects that I visited, especially in Shanghai. It is admirable seeing landscape architects in China restoring waterways to help make sure that people have clean water to drink, clean food to eat, and are safe and healthy. I see that as a trend or priority of making healthy communities in China, which is important to support while countries and populations grow quickly. As far as I can tell, China seems to be heading in the right direction.
But I think it is still challenging, especially for developing countries, to meet our emissions reduction goals. While it seems that many projects are heavily planted and support ecosystem services, it is helpful to raise awareness about the emissions that come from our work so we can improve that aspect. It starts with recognizing every material installed has associated greenhouse gas emissions. That's something that we all need to tackle really understand. And that's why we're measuring it.
The Future of U.S.
LA Frontiers: As you have joined the 2021 ASLA Conference, what do you think about the conference? Is that different from the one held last year?
Pamela: This past year I joined a panel with Christopher Hardy-Ng from Sasaki and Deanna Lynn from the Wildland Workshop. My focus was on the global impacts that we can make as a collective profession. I shared outcomes from COP26, where Kotchakorn Voraakhom, the IFLA Climate Action Working Group Chair presented at the COP on our behalf. The active commitment unites over 70,000 landscape architects around the world from 77 nations and supports the 1.5 ° COP26 Communique developed by Architecture 2030.
We also talked about design strategies to reduce emissions, sequester more carbon, and get into the details about soil and carbon. It's a very complex subject – how carbon sequestration works, and how soil sequesters and stores carbon. There were also some great conversations about carbon and concrete, along with strategies to improve that impact.
We need to keep improving the message that climate change is not just about counting carbon numbers and calculator apps. We're really trying to help people and ecosystems at the end of the day. This is a climate crisis, and it's important to recognize all the other co-benefits that we can provide with Climate Positive Design. With these approaches, our goal is to help protect communities that will be the most impacted by climate change.
Every landscape architect can do something to help and there's a lot of space for people to get involved.
▼The IFLA Climate Action Working Group Chair, Kotchakorn Voraakhom (1st on the right), on COP26
Inter disciplinary Difficulty
LA Frontiers: Can you communicate very smoothly with each other? There might be a gap between the research and design and also the interdisciplinary cooperation and policy. Do you have a consensus?
Pamela: Part of the work that I've been doing is trying to break down the silos between the different disciplines. We're working closely now with Architecture 2030 in particular. They provide leadership on how to improve the carbon impacts of buildings worldwide.
I'm working to help landscape architects do the same with the exterior built and natural environments, and we're also starting to collaborate with engineers from structural to mechanical, electrical and plumbing. The COP 26 message was intentionally inter-disciplinary and framed as a unified message from the entire built environment. We have now a commitment to work together, and we'll continue to do that.
We can now show how we're addressing the 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions that are coming from the urban built environment. About 40 % of those are from the building, and architects and structural engineers are working on those. The other 35% comes from outside of buildings. That's a space for landscape architects, planners, and civil engineers. We should work together to improve that.
▼75% of global greenhouse gas emissions coming from the urban built environment, 35% of them coming from outside of buildings.
In terms of the research, it has been challenging to get good data on active bio-genic carbon sequestration from natural ecosystems especially. We've been collecting the best and most well-vetted information to use in the Pathfinder database. But more research still needs to be done.
We all need more scientifically proven and peer-reviewed data to inform our work. That's an openness to collaborate directly with academia. Once available, we can more readily pull that into our design work around the world. We must make space for more collaboration.
But the other way is that manufacturers and suppliers can develop and provide us with Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) that disclose the emissions associated with making materials or products. Once we have that number listed as the Global Warming Potential (GWP) measured in carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), we can plug it into the Pathfinder app and continuously expand the database. But until people start providing that information, it's still a black box to us. We don't know how good or how bad something is from an emissions standpoint unless people are willing to make it more transparent.
I do see that more collaboration is happening and there's a real openness for it. But we must do more.
LA Frontiers: Not every designer can experience things like you with a global view, public design experience, and different skills. Would you mind giving some advice for young landscape architects in their careers? What should they pay much attention to?
Pamela: Being a little stubborn and determined, I have a hard time when someone tells me I can’t do something. Part of that comes naturally from within. There are also lots of opportunities out there if you look for them. Living in China was a great experience for me to see the world from a different perspective.
Now, even though I'm back in the United States, I still think about the world as a whole. There are opportunities for people to study abroad, to work in other countries. It is something I definitely encourage because we're operating at a global scale, and landscape architecture is a global profession. We all live in the same era and share the same issues of climate change right now. I think it's important for our profession to expand our mindsets and think more globally.
For the next generation of landscape architects, I wouldn't focus on learning the skills you see being taught right now in the profession. Instead, I would pay more attention to the issues around the globe and thinking differently about what the world needs from landscape architects and what will be needed in 10 years or 20 years. Then, you can focus on how to get there, build your strengths, and evolve the profession.
It starts by being really open, listening, watching, going, exploring, and understanding what these complex issues are that we have in the world. Landscape architects can play many different roles, like mayors or policymakers. I think that we could use more landscape architects in non-traditional positions that can help elevate the profession.
Also, where are there gaps in knowledge? I created the Pathfinder app because it was something that we needed as a profession. It was a gap that I filled. Keep asking questions, and when you see something like that, don’t give up on it.
Yishuang She：Director of the Editorial Department at Landscape Architecture Frontiers,
Lu Yan (Rita)：Part-time editor at Landscape Architecture Frontiers, PhD student at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT).
Ruiqi Shen (Rick)：Part-time editor in Landscape Architecture Frontiers, Landscape Architect/Urban Designer at Arcadia Landscape Architecture.
All images provided by Pamela Conrad.