Growing up on a 100-acre farm in rural Missouri, Pamela Conrad spent virtually all of her childhood outdoors. Wading through swollen creeks in springtime and helping her father bale hay during harvest, she developed an early awareness of the often precarious relationship between humans and the powerful natural world.
“Living that closely to the environment helps you truly understand life and death,” she says. “If your garden fails, you don’t have food. If the cows get out, you might get hurt.”
Majoring in plant science at the University of Missouri, where she became the first person in her family to attend college, Conrad started to see how the land around her could not only sustain life but also be deployed as a tool for engineering a better society, from restoring fragile watersheds to combating rising temperatures.
An internship for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took Conrad to Los Angeles, where she earned a landscape architecture degree at nearby Cal Poly Pomona and collaborated closely with biologists to restore ecosystems ravaged by LA’s rapid urbanization. After working in Portland, Oregon, and Shanghai, Conrad landed at CMG Landscape Architecture in San Francisco, where she joined a project that kickstarted bigger regional conversations about water and resiliency: a plan to redevelop Treasure Island, a former military property situated just adjacent to the Bay Bridge.
Treasure Island, Conrad says, is where she remembers first confronting climate change in a visceral way. “When designing a new city surrounded by water that’s rising,” she says, “you feel a sense of responsibility: How fast is the water going to rise, how do we design in a way that can adapt to it?” Working with an almost geological timeline, Conrad saw the island as a living machine to help prevent future ecological disasters.
“She was working in a capacity that was more than a designer—she was really an advocate,” says Julian Pancoast, the former manager for the Treasure Island redevelopment project, who is now director of development for the San Francisco Giants.
Treasure Island and neighboring Yerba Buena Island were both overgrown with eucalyptus trees, an invasive species that introduces significant fire risk. The first task was felling the non-native giants and processing the wood into benches and stair treads for use throughout the island. But Conrad went even further to protect the island’s habitat, says Pancoast, setting up a native plant nursery that could help them gather seeds and propagate plants primarily sourced from the islands themselves. “Her success is not only in coming up with the ideas but also coming up with a solution for them on a technological level,” Pancoast says.
Conrad’s work ensured that Treasure Island’s ecosystem would remain intact for generations to come, says Pancoast. “She is remarkably ideologically driven.”
If Treasure Island allowed her to grapple with the reality of sea-level rise, Conrad’s next major project for the city allowed her to apply what she learned to protect San Francisco’s economic livelihood.
Hugging a precarious 3-mile stretch along the Embarcadero, San Francisco’s crumbling seawall is the only line of defense for beloved destinations like Fisherman’s Wharf, the Ferry Building, and Oracle Park, the city’s baseball stadium. A multi-year study of the Port of San Francisco undertaken with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers revealed what was, in fact, a triple whammy of threats: rising seas inundating city infrastructure, a transportation corridor that’s flooding more often in high tides and storms, and significant seismic risk.
“We’ve got a 100-year-old wharf and a major league ballpark sitting on what were determined to be very, very weak soils,” says Brad Benson, the Port of San Francisco’s waterfront resilience program director.
Not only do the city’s most iconic locations pose some of the greatest known danger to local residents, but protecting them also might require significant—and potentially unpopular—changes. As part of the project’s outreach, Conrad’s team created a community mapping activity dubbed “game of hazards” that delivered this information in a playful, accessible way to the city’s app-savvy audience. The public was invited to plot favorite spots along the waterfront, and, when they did so, would also see the potential dangers the locations faced due to rising waters or seismic activity.
“These are complex problems, and we’ve been paying attention to how we approach decision-making,” says Benson. “Pamela is helping us engage the public in ways we haven’t before.”
The emerging seawall isn’t just a way to hold back rising waters. Conrad sees it as a new type of landmark—one that can serve as an active, everyday reminder of the city’s climate efforts. “We’re not just adapting the waterfront to climate change but having it be part of the solution,” she says. “We want it to be greener and more accessible to everyone.”
As she was reimagining the waterfront, Conrad saw she had a unique opportunity to intervene that might stop the water from rising so quickly.
While dialing in different landscape options, she found herself evaluating various infrastructural elements based on how much they reduced greenhouse gas emissions and increased carbon sequestration. There was no tool that did that, so Conrad decided to make one.
As part of a Landscape Architecture Foundation fellowship she was awarded in 2018, Conrad created a carbon calculator that’s designed for landscape architects. The app helps designers and architects envision how effective various types of trees, plants, and grasses are at storing carbon. It also gives those designers and architects a clear way to consider “embodied carbon”—how the choice of materials and even maintenance methods can help eliminate carbon from the atmosphere.
Putting those tools into the hands of her colleagues could usher in a dramatic transformation for the industry and cultivate a new type of leadership role for landscape architects in public policy, she says. “We’ve never measured anything. By measuring the performance of landscaped environments, we can learn from our behavior, getting us to the table when we make these climate decisions regionally.”
In September, as 5 million people on seven continents marched in support of climate action worldwide, Conrad launched the Climate Positive Design Challenge, which challenges her fellow landscape architects to share projects that have reduced their carbon footprints using the app’s metrics.
“She hasn’t just gone out and created an app; she’s taken this much broader picture of it and created a challenge for the entire landscape design community,” says Kristen DiStefano of Atelier Ten, who worked with Conrad to develop the metrics and datasets for the app. “She’s reinforcing the fact that they have a very unique role to play.”
New York City-based landscape architect Martha Schwartz—who discusses projects and big-picture ideas with Conrad weekly as part of a “climate coffee club” support group—thinks Conrad is onto something even bigger. “This is a revolution for landscape architecture,” she says. “Pamela’s metrics really show the impact landscape architects can achieve when we collectively scale up our thinking. Every landscape architect should support Pamela’s effort so that we can become more effective as a profession.”
The past year demonstrated a heightened urgency to publicize these solutions. During the Bay Area’s attempt to mitigate wildfire risk by shutting off power to millions, Conrad wandered into a local grocery store where employees struggled to keep depleted shelves stocked and customers huddled around outlets to charge their phones. “It looked like we had just had a major natural disaster,” she remembers. “People were affected by the outage who never would have imagined that climate change could ever affect them or impact their everyday lives.”
The next step, says Conrad, is helping those city dwellers make the connection between the climate disasters of today and their own power to shape a different future through their relationships to the landscape around them.
“If we restore nature to our cities, we add so much to everyday life,” she says. “We’re creating places that bring people together on common, neutral ground—places that improve social connections and well-being. And at the same time, we’re taking carbon out of the atmosphere, protecting our homes and economic centers from rising waters.”
That requires not just a radical shift in how landscape architects work, but advocating for an entirely new type of city: one filled with green, densely planted neighborhoods; unpaved streets leading to permeable plazas; and sidewalks lined with abundant, mature trees. “Everyone will need to do something to take action,” she says. “We must demand radical transformation.”