The Green New Deal and its implications for the design professions have been areas of sustained focus for The Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at Weitzman since 2019, when Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey (MA-07) and New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) introduced a House Resolution with a sweeping plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the US and make the country carbon-neutral. Faculty and students have dedicated whole semesters defining a broad set of proposals to address climate change and social injustices through investments in infrastructure and high-quality jobs. For Palak Agarwal (MLA’21, MUSA’21), there was still something missing from the conversation.
“It was too American-centric,” she says.
So last year, Agarwal approached Billy Fleming, the Wilks Family Director at The McHarg Center, who has led three studios on the Green New Deal, to talk about a project that would envision what a Green New Deal in the US might mean on a global scale. The result, launched earlier this year, is Field Notes Toward an Internationalist Green New Deal. Collaborative and student-led, the research project is “intended to open new terrains for scholarship, organizing, contestation, and struggle in the fight for a globally just Green New Deal,” as described on the website. The site hosts data and visualizations on dozens of topics relevant to the Green New Deal, including deforestation, mass extinction, oil and gas reserves, international development, and global carceral infrastructure. In an essay describing their approach, the organizers write that the project focuses on the built environment because it is “a critical site of contestation in the fight for climate justice.”
“We do not expect people to walk outside in 30 years and notice, viscerally or materially, that there are fewer carbon molecules in the air,” they say. “We do, however, expect that investments in people’s homes, offices, schools, transportation options, and other elements of the built environment will drive real quality of life improvements, fight historical injustices, lower carbon emissions, and offer opportunities to grow the political coalition supporting frameworks like the Green New Deal beyond a few enclaves in major cities.”
The founding contributors include Agarwal and Fleming along with Ian Dillon (MLA’21), A.L. McCullough (MLA’22), Yixin Wei (MLA’21), Selina Cheah (MCP’22), and Zane Griffin Talley Cooper, a PhD candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication.
Agarwal, who now works at a nonprofit in Washington, DC, says the project is an overdue, and still unfinished, exploration of how green investments in the Global North affect economies in the Global South. Team members, some of whom received support through The McHarg Center or PennPraxis, generated topics based on their own interests and affinities, and divided tasks based on their strengths. Dillon put much of his efforts into writing essays for the website, and says he was proud to participate in a push, led by The McHarg Center, to explore the broader consequences of design rituals and practice.
“I think design is inherently social and political, and especially in landscape architecture, there’s been a tendency to rely on the ecological as a justification that everything we’re doing is great and wonderful,” Dillon says. “There’s a whole other aspect that needs to be interrogated.”
A lot of design work is focused on specific sites, says Dillon, who is living in New York and looking for work in landscape architecture. And even with a push to consider design work at multiple scales, there are few opportunities to interrogate the whole global system of development and design, he says.
“The thing I’m perhaps most proud of is speaking in an international context within the design field and trying to push design past its insular focus on specific sites or even regions at the landscape scale, but asking [designers] to look at the justice implications of these things,” he says. “What does this actually mean beyond our site, our region, the US?”
Fleming says he expects to issue future calls for research and contributions around specific topics. He says he’s always tried to let students take the lead with their own ideas in his studios, and an independent research project devised by students takes that ethos a step further.
“I don’t know of many other projects like it, but we need lots more like them,” Fleming says. “The students who are involved are not the future of the field—they’re the present. And the sooner we realize that the better.”