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Can better parks fight climate change?

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The Climate Positive Design Challenge aims to help landscape architects create green space with global implications

A new waterfront park in Brooklyn, with a view of Governors Island in the distance.
Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City. The new Climate Positive Design Challenge, an effort by landscape architects to design more sustainable projects, wants to create more green spaces that suck up carbon emissions.

Weeks of climate strikes and summits have shown a global appetite for more action to combat climate change. Now landscape architects believe that their profession—one intimately in touch with nature and the earth—can evolve its processes and procedures to better fight pollution, carbon emissions, and rising temperatures.

The Climate Positive Design Challenge, which launched earlier this week, seeks to empower landscape architects to design with the climate in mind by offering tools and resources to calculate a project’s potential environmental impact. The ambitious goal is for all landscape architecture projects created between now and 2030, such as new parks, corporate campuses, or playgrounds, to be designed in such as way that they sequester, or store, more carbon than they emit. Organizers estimate that over time, this effort would remove a gigaton of CO2 from the atmosphere by 2050.

Over time, as projects become carbon neutral, their benefits continue to pay off. For instance, a new park that requires carbon emissions to move and plant trees will eventually become carbon neutral, and then the trees and plants in said park will go on to absorb carbon after it hits that cutoff.

A website showing a rendering of a park project, as well as its climate impacts.
This case study showcases the kind of recommendations Pathfinder will make to spur more sustainable landscape projects that focus on carbon sequestration.
Courtesy Climate Positive Design Challenge

The centerpiece of the project is a web-based application called Pathfinder. Designed in collaboration with Atelier Ten, a Bay Area environmental design consultancy, the app helps landscape architects figure out how to adapt design strategies that sequester more CO2 than they emit, making a specific project climate positive. The app is effectively offering first-hand knowledge of impact, and increasing awareness of the changes, small and large, that can make projects more sustainable.

“Many of the challenges surrounding the climate crisis are around communication and education,” says Pamela Conrad, Principal of San Francisco-based CMG Landscape Architecture and founder of the initiative. “Everyone wants to help, but they don’t quite know what to do. It is my goal to make climate-smart decisions easy to do and easy to communicate. Then maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to make a difference.”

Pathfinder users input the designs into a calculator, focused on three main inputs: sinks, or the trees, plants, and flowers that absorb carbon; sources, such as fences, walls, and paving, that emit carbon when they’re made or transported; and costs, or the maintenance efforts, such as fertilization or maintenance, that will emit carbon over time. Projects then receive a Climate Positive score, with recommendations on how to alter the project so it offsets emissions faster. The project aims to create parks that become carbon positive after five years, and streetscapes and urban projects that become carbon positive after 20 years.

Over time, data from Pathfinder will be collected and reviewed by industry advisory panels, including the Landscape Architecture Foundation, the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects, and the International Federation of Landscape Architects.

It’s generally understood that, for instance, planting trees would help absorb carbon over time, according to Conrad, and has incredible potential to combat climate change. But the more precise online tools and guidance made public due to this new design challenge will make it easier and clearer for the profession to favor strategies that can help save the planet, and hopefully turn these types of efforts into best practices across the globe.

“To date, we have not had the tools, guidance, or resources to make this contribution,” she says. “With these now in place, it is time that we rise to the climate crisis. It is not only an opportunity to reimagine how we design our world from every aspect, but a responsibility.”