For Green New Deal Studio, Students Design a Brighter Future
In the year 2030, the Infrastructure Decommission and Reuse Department officially closes Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, to repurpose the site as “a place for restorative justice and regenerative agriculture.” Workers with the Local 109 Planters Union clear and remove old equipment from an abandoned pipeline easement, replanting the corridor with shagbark hickory trees to help restore the forests of Appalachia. After leaving his home in California amid the historic wildfires of 2036, Sam Chen develops a recipe made with eggs, bread crumbs, cheddar cheese, and two cups of fresh mushrooms foraged from the old coal mines around Harrisburg, Illinois, which have been restored for agriculture by the Midwestern Agricultural Regeneration Agency.
Such are the futures imagined by students in Designing a Green New Deal, an interdisciplinary studio led last semester by Billy Fleming, the Wilks Family Director of The Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at Weitzman. The course, a follow-up to a fall 2019 studio, is based on the tenets of the Green New Deal resolution introduced in Congress: decarbonizing the economy and investing in clean-energy jobs. After the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Fleming says, the organizing goals of the Green New Deal movement and the Movement for Black Lives began to merge. The studio was designed to give students the opportunity to take up the goals both, like the abolition of prisons, managing the decline of fossil fuels, and ending industrial agriculture.
Focused on Appalachia, the Midwest, and the Mississippi Delta, students were asked to “produce a digital ‘atlas’ documenting the regions’ carceral, fossil fuel, and industrial agriculture landscapes and a set of ‘futures’ which speculate upon what the investment-led material reality of an implemented Green New Deal may look like.” Instead of designing parks and waterfronts, students produced speculative fiction, podcasts, cookbooks, children’s stories, and programs for future celebrations—the cultural output of a society made more just through the implementation of a Green New Deal.
“Rather than focusing on a piece of technology or faux-ecology, we asked them to think about how they might produce speculative work that advances the project of abolition and climate justice, as described to them by the movements we worked with in the studio,” Fleming says.
Al-Jalil Dameon Gault, a Master of City Planning student, says he enrolled in the studio because of his concern about the climate crisis and an interest in using data to improve emergency response and disaster management. Studying the history of the Delta region, he was struck by the ways that communities, particularly Black communities, cultivated and expressed joy even as they endured ecological disasters in the past.
“Amid crisis, people still find a way to have joy. People still find a way to maintain their livelihood. There are these exciting hubs of culture amid all this disaster,” Gault says. “This commitment to joy is really an opportunity to provide an alternative to the dystopian climate images that we see very often.”
For A. L. McCullough, a Master of Landscape Architecture student, the course was a chance to think through different ways of applying design skills to social issues. They helped produce a “Workbook for Dreaming,” meant to help Appalachian communities develop visions of the future of their region. The exercise is deliberately open-ended, McCullough says.
“The way design tools have been taught to me, they’re tools that are set out for a specific end goal,” they say. “There’s always a predetermined [outcome]. Using design tools for the political process is kind of a hacking of that process … These tools are kind of sequestered in the academy, in firms, and in studios. The idea that regular people can be a part of shaping their own material futures is not necessarily distributed to the public.”
In the previous version of the studio, students staged a public exhibit in Meyerson Hall with maps and posters designed to illustrate their proposed Green New Deal public works. This semester, with activities on campus curtailed by the pandemic, students presented the work completed in the studio online. But Fleming says the web is actually better suited for the kind of “design fiction” that the students produced: anyone who’s interested can either browse a few examples or spend hours studying it closely. And the site will be hosted indefinitely instead of for a single day. Either way, he hopes it illustrates the possibilities not just of the Green New Deal, but of the forms of design practice that students can pursue after they graduate.
“For me, this is as much about students thinking through alternative pathways [for a design career],” Fleming says. “It’s really hard to do [speculative work], period, and it’s basically impossible to do in a design firm. So it’s a place for them to explore how and what they want to work on when they’re done here.”