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Kate Orff is a landscape architect, founder of SCAPE and a 2018 MacArthur grant winner. Photo by John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Why MacArthur ‘genius’ Kate Orff says designing for nature can protect our cities

If you had asked Kate Orff about landscape architecture 25 years ago, when she was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia studying political and social thought, she would have said ‘what’s that?’. Today, her groundbreaking work in the field has earned her a 2017 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, an award that recognizes commitment and originality in creative pursuits.

“I tried to bridge the environmental activism that I was interested in with my actual talents in art and design,” said Orff, who is now the director of Columbia University’s Urban Design Program. “It was really something that was a combining of multiple skill sets.”

Orff specializes in designing urban habitats that can adapt to climate change and other human impacts on local ecosystems. The self-declared activist also champions approaches that engage community members in the design process while encouraging them to become stewards of their environments.

Orff’s team has developed a library park in Queens, New York that allows rainwater seep into the ground via permeable concrete surfaces and a 2.5 mile series of parks and trails in downtown Lexington, Kentucky that promote stormwater management by uncovering a creek once buried by streets and sidewalks and used for waste and sewage.

But Living Breakwaters, an upcoming project from her landscape architecture firm SCAPE, may be her largest endeavor yet. The one-and-a-half mile concept, slated to begin construction in late 2018, aims to revitalize Staten Island’s southern shore with 4,000 feet of storm surge-fighting breakwaters that double as oyster reefs and juvenile fish habitat.

NewsHour spoke with Orff about her work, the importance of integrating a space’s natural attributes in design and what homeowners can do with their lawns to reduce their environmental footprint.

Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

What was it like to hear you would be a MacArthur recipient?

It was shocking and overwhelming to receive “the call.” Mostly because I wasn’t fully aware that landscape architects or the kind of work that I do was really on the radar of the foundation. What I am trying to do is science-driven, community-informed, large-scale architecture. My distant understanding of the MacArthur program is [past recipient and Hamilton playwright] Lin Manuel Miranda or a person doing mathematical equations on a whiteboard. So, it was just exciting thing to be recognized by the foundation.

Orff’s urban landscape designs promote natural ecosystems while encouraging community engagement. Photo by John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Orff’s urban landscape designs promote natural ecosystems while encouraging community engagement. Photo by John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

As a landscape architect, you focus on challenges posed by urbanization and climate change. Why is it important to consider both factors in design?

One thing that is clear is that we’re facing increasing uncertainty relative to shifting regional ecosystems and shifting bioregions, like changing water levels due to sea level rise and potentially radical shifts in temperature and moisture regimes. We have to design adaptive landscapes that can accept flood waters or extensive green roofs and streetscapes that absorb rain. But we also need to mitigate the projection of carbon in the first place and decarbonize our built settlement pattern. For me, that is the combination of landscape design and urban architecture that I try to operate in.

My book “Petrochemical America” with Richard Misrach was an exploration of how America got on the path of becoming a machine for consuming petrochemicals and tried to map that extractive landscape process and show alternative futures. With that book, I was trying to describe some problems as I saw them writ large in the American landscape — like how our settlement pattern is really driven by subsidized by oil and gas energy. The book ends by suggesting we should live closer, live more densely, have more shared public transit and try to preserve larger, contiguous landscapes and corridors for wildlife.

As our population grows, especially cities, what do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing urban design?

There are so many challenges. I’m also a professor with Columbia University and teach in the urban design program there. We went to Calcutta, India, to study the Calcutta wetlands system, which is this truly remarkable urban ecological system. It’s a large area of ponds east of Calcutta that essentially accept as much of the sewer water from Calcutta [as possible] and treats it through a series of planted ponds and agricultural fields. The fields themselves, after a series of treatment beds, produce food and support agriculture. There are also fish ponds. This kind of joint urban-ecosystem project holds the most promise for our future cities.

Unfortunately, these kinds of landscapes are under threat all over the world. As a designer, you can begin to understand and chart these interrelated cycles of human ecosystems and natural ecosystems. You try to combine them in such a way that you are making a regenerative, positive cycle rather than what we’ve done in the past — which has frankly been extractive and exploitative. We’ve designed a world pretty much for us and not allowing other species to persist.

The Living Breakwaters project’s 4,000 feet of breakwaters will create oyster and fish habitat and reduce storm surge impacts.  Images by SCAPE

The Living Breakwaters project’s 4,000 feet of breakwaters will create oyster and fish habitat and reduce storm surge impacts. Images by SCAPE

Your Living Breakwaters project will be implemented by the New York Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery and is funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as a response to Hurricane Sandy. What is its general concept and goal?

Living Breakwater is basically a one-and-half mile linear chain of ecological breakwaters that are designed for finfish and shellfish habitat. They help to reduce wave action, restore sediment to the shoreline and reintroduce this civic shoreline as a place for recreation. At the same time, the project is fostering an on-shore culture for education through the Billion Oyster Project. What we are trying to do with this multi-purpose project is not to think about things in isolation or single purpose infrastructures, but rather set in motion a regenerative landscape that cleans the water, calms the water and brings educators and citizens back to the shoreline. We want to rebuild this critical ecosystem of structural habitat that has been eradicated writ large from the New York Harbor.

You’ve said you practice landscape architecture with a stance towards activism. What do you mean by that, and why is it important to encourage citizen involvement in design?

For me, the concept of activism is a broader notion of radical sharing and participation and a stance of joint and mutual learning. For example, for our work on Town Branch creek in Lexington, Kentucky, we set up a framework plan for a series of spaces along a buried stream bed. Lexington had covered it, which is typical of cities across America. Rather than just present this as a static plan, we did a whole series of outreach to bring people together to show what this water body was, how it moves and where is goes in the city underground. We worked with University of Kentucky students and did a podcast and walking tour. It is really that broad, open, educative and frankly fun processes that inspires people to be involved and to create a more direct connection with the immediate environment, which for me is a form of activism in landscape.

SCAPE’s Town Branch Commons creates a 2.5 mile series of trails and public spaces along a once-buried creek in downtown Lexington, Kentucky. Images by SCAPE

SCAPE’s Town Branch Commons creates a 2.5 mile series of trails and public spaces along a once-buried creek in downtown Lexington, Kentucky. Images by SCAPE

Do you have advice for easy-to-implement, environmentally conscious choices people can make around their own homes and communities?

There are so many choices that you can make on an individual level or family level that can make a tremendous difference. First of all, no more lawn. The monoculture of flat grass lawn across the American landscape could be completely remade as habitat for pollinators likes birds and bees, even if it were just every third home.

Another big thing: I worked on a whole series of guidelines called the Bird Safe Building Guidelines to reduce bird strike impacts on glassy buildings. We should absolutely have bird safe design in every building at every scale, whether it is a house or skyscraper. That would really reduce avian mortality.

And obviously, the concept of sharing a ride, driving less and reducing the carbon footprint of our per capita would be important. I guess that’s easy for me to say as a denizen of New York City [who] riding subways everyday. But as cities become greener and our air quality improves, living in more dense urban cores has got to be more and more attractive. And hopefully, it’ll be good for people who are economically challenged to be closer to job centers.

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