City and Regional Planning

Posted January 14, 2020

Landscape and Planning Studio Envisions ‘A World Built by the Green New Deal’

What could a world transformed by a just, egalitarian transition to clean energy become? That was the question posed in last fall’s interdisciplinary studio Designing a Green New Deal.

At the beginning of 2019, when Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced resolutions in Congress “recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal,” The McHarg Center was still gearing up for its public launch. Since then, The Center, and particularly Wilks Family Director Billy Fleming, have carved out an influential role in the public conversation on climate change adaptation and infrastructure. In an April article in Places Journal titled “Design and the Green New Deal,” Fleming called on landscape architects to reassess the role they play in shaping the built environment and join forces with campaigns calling for broad public investment in low-carbon infrastructure and clean-energy jobs. In September, The McHarg Center hosted dozens of activists, scholars, designers, and elected officials for a series of panel discussions on the topic of “Designing a Green New Deal,” which packed Irvine Auditorium with attendees.

Over the course of the fall 2019 semester, Weitzman students added their voices to the discussion, as part of an interdisciplinary Landscape Architecture and City and Regional Planning studio called Designing a Green New Deal: The Spatial Politics of Our Response to Climate Change. The studio was split roughly 60/40 between planning and landscape architecture students, says Fleming, who led the studio. For many of the students, it was their first chance to work alongside students from outside their own program, while developing design and planning skills in the context of an urgent political debate.

Because the Green New Deal remains a relatively amorphous package of ideas, living both in House Resolution 109 and in the various climate plans of the 2020 Presidential candidates, there was no road map for exactly how the studio would unfold. “It was kind of unclear at the beginning what it was going to be,” says Sara Harmon, a third-year student in the Department of Landscape Architecture. “We all kind of figured it out together along the way.”

The focus of the studio, like the Green New Deal itself, was on responding to climate change, advancing racial and economic justice, and creating new low- and no-carbon jobs. The studio took H.R. 109, introduced by Ocasio-Cortez, as its starting point. Students spent the first part of the semester marking up the proposal—which was described on the syllabus as a compromise document produced through “intense negotiation between a diverse coalition of environmentalists, labor unions, activists and organizers, and technocrats”—to highlight its strengths and weaknesses. Then they studied the legacy of the original New Deal of the 1930s, focusing both on the successful precedents it set for public investment and on its failures. Specifically, as students put it in a video at the final review, “racism and bias were baked into every aspect of the New Deal.”

During the second half of the semester, students studied Green New Deal “prototype” projects like Rebuild By Design, China’s Grain for Green Program, the Great Green Wall of Africa, and other large-scale initiatives that Fleming and others at the Weitzman School had explored for Design With Nature Now, a summer 2019 exhibition and companion book. Then, students were asked to develop a series of “spatial propositions” for the Green New Deal, “the priority sites, investments, infrastructures, and interventions in the built environment in the service of decarbonization and adaptation to climate change,” according to the syllabus. These propositions included policy research, regional planning analyses, maps, and site-specific design proposals, and were focused on three regions of the United States: Appalachia, the Mississippi River Delta, and the Corn Belt of the Midwest. The students chose those regions based on opportunities for decarbonizing the economy, but also because of political considerations, Fleming says. Under the original New Deal, President Roosevelt directed early investments to areas of the country that opposed him in the election, as part of a strategy to build enough support to make lasting change.

“What are the regions of the country that we absolutely have to get right to win the goals of a Green New Deal?” Fleming says. “How do we de-carbonize, center frontline communities, and create millions of clean-energy jobs? What are the place you have to invest in first for that to be possible?”

The studio culminated in an exhibition of design proposals, plans, maps and propaganda posters designed by students, a series of student-led panel discussions in Meyerson Hall, and a policy report outlining the built environment agenda a Green New Deal might pursue. The exhibition combined detailed planning with speculative design. The section focused on Appalachia, for example, featured a proposal that would create an 1,800-mile Appalachian regional rail with the creation of just 100 miles of new railway. It also included student-invented oral histories and ephemera from a future “Appalachian Heritage Project,” illustrating the changes to the environment and daily life that would take place under the Green New Deal. Landscape architecture student Sara Harmon says she initially focused on the Appalachian region because she wanted to explore the transition of mining lands to other uses.

“The land reclamation piece of it was interesting to me at first, but then as we went on and learned more, it became a lot more about the people’s story to me,” she says.

The final review attracted nearly two dozen scholars and designers from Penn and around the country: Associate Professor Architecture Daniel Barber; Stephanie Carlisle, lecturer in landscape architecture and architecture; Assistant Professor of Sociology Daniel Aldana Cohen; Professor of City and Regional Planning Tom Daniels; Peggy Deamer, architect and professor emerita of architecture at Yale; Steven Higashide, senior program analyst, TransitCenter; Bob Kopp, professor and director of the Institute of Earth, Ocean and Atmosphere Sciences, Rutgers; Carolyn Kousky, executive director, Wharton Risk Center; Assistant Professor of City and Regional Planning Allison Lassiter; Rennie Myers, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee; Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture Karen M’Closkey; Ellen Neises, executive director, PennPraxis; Julian Brave Noisecat, vice president of policy and strategy, Data for Progress; Kate Orff, professor and director of urban design, Columbia GSAPP, and founder and design director, SCAPE; Nick Pevzner, senior lecturer in landscape architecture; Lisa Servon, Kevin and Erica Penn Presidential Professor and chair of city and regional planning; Leah Stokes, assistant professor of political science, University of California, Santa Barbara; Lisa Switkin (MLA’02), senior principal at James Corner Field Operations; Kate Wagner, architecture and cultural critic; Richard Weller, professor and chair of landscape architecture and Martin and Margy Meyerson Chair of Urbanism; Damian White, dean of liberal arts, RISD; and Barbara Wilks (MLA’93), founding principal, W Architecture & Landscape Architecture.

Joining the visiting critics was Rennie Myers, John A. Knauss Policy Fellow for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Randy Abreu, a legislative assistant in Ocasio-Cortez’s office who focuses on the Green New Deal. “In the early part of 2020, with all these campaigns that are going on and the opportunities they present to share stories and messages, we need to take it by the horns and let people know what the Green New Deal means for them, and specifically show them maps,” Abreu says. “And I think that’s what they’re doing here.”

In addition to running the studio and hosting events, Fleming and a team of students published original research meant to inform the legislative implementation of the Green New Deal. Abreu says he believes communication is the key to winning a Green New Deal, and independent efforts like The McHarg Center’s Atlas are a crucial supplement to the limited Congressional office budget.

If the Green New Deal has been divisive for elected officials, it didn’t work out that way in the studio. The students who signed up generally support the broad political agenda, says Chelsea Beroza, a second-year student in the Department of City and Regional Planning. But they didn’t see eye to eye on every policy they considered and the studio gave them a chance to talk through specifics. There was a long conversation about the viability of a four-day workweek, for example. 

“The challenge was really to check your assumptions about what would be an obvious solution if you have a certain political ideology, and try to break that down and talk about how that would actually work,” Beroza says. “It actually divorces the conversation from politics and grounds it in the applicability of policy.”