Design and the Green New Deal
Billy Fleming is the Wilks Family Director of the Ian L. McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design and a senior fellow with Data for Progress. He will present the 2020 Richard F. Hansen Lecture in Architecture at Iowa State University and serve as a guest juror for the Richard F. Hansen Prize competition.
Americans are living through the early days of the climate crisis — through Hurricane Maria and its impact on the Puerto Rican diaspora, through Hurricanes Sandy and Harvey and the drowning of America’s coastal cities, through last spring’s record flooding in the Midwest and its devastating effects on farming communities and Indigenous lands, through the wildfires in Paradise and 2018’s second Big Burn, and through last summer’s roiling heat that can no longer be viewed as a wave but as the beginning of our planet’s big, long sweat. Yet the conspiratorial neglect of climate change by Republicans and its trivialization by Democrats at the federal level has left the nation in a perpetual state of triage — trying earnestly, if hopelessly, to recover from these disasters with limited funds and authority while an endless queue of worsening floods, storms, droughts and wildfires approach. The climate crisis is here and there is no plan to address it.
The absence of federal climate action has given some urbanists leeway to trumpet claims that cities and metropolitan regions are now leading on the issue. At its most basic level, this is true — without any real federal investment in climate change, cities and regions have had to become leaders, regardless of the insufficiency of the measures taken. It is easy to lead on climate when the bar for doing so is on the floor. Mayors simply must step over it.
This is not to say that cities and mayors have no place in whatever national action that might be taken on climate. Quite the opposite, as any national-scale plan will require coordination by local officials in cooperation with municipalities across the country under federal oversight. But whatever action we take on climate, most people will not experience or comprehend the scale, scope and pace of transformation by turning on a light powered by wind instead of coal or natural gas. Rather, they will experience it through the building energy retrofits that result in new, electric appliances and green roofs of public and market-rate housing. It will be recognized through massive investments in public transportation, including electrified Bus Rapid Transit systems and High Speed Rail between cities. It will be recognized through the cleanup of every single toxic or polluted parcel of land in this country, an effort that could form the backbone of a federal jobs guarantee that puts millions of people to work in communities long abandoned by the government. These, and many other major spatial propositions, are at the core of the Green New Deal.
On Feb. 7, 2019, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-13) and Senator Ed Markey (MA) introduced H.R. 109, a non-binding resolution “Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal.” In it, they provide a framework for a “10-year national mobilization” that calls on Congress to pass legislation that builds resiliency against climate change-related disasters, repairs and upgrades the infrastructure of the U.S. (including universal access to clean water), establishes a zero-emission energy standard, develops an energy-efficient and distributed “smart” grid, upgrades every existing building to and requires that all new construction in the US achieve maximum energy and water efficiency (among other standards), reinvigorates federal industrial policy to guide the growth of a “clean manufacturing” sector, works collaboratively with farmers and ranchers to lower agriculture-driven GHG emissions, overhauls the US transportation system through the development of inter- and intra-city public transit, invests in conservation lands and other ‘low-tech’ carbon sequestration solutions that also enhance biodiversity, remediates or repurposes hazardous waste and abandoned sites, and focuses on several other technology-driven emissions reducing investments.
In their press conference announcing the resolution, Ocasio-Cortez remarked that the public should view the Green New Deal legislation as a “Request for Proposals…we’ve defined the scope and where we want to go. Now, let’s assess where we are, how we get there, and collaborate on real projects.” Since then, a new body of policy development and economic research, headquartered at New Consensus, has emerged. But the work accomplished to date on the Green New Deal has been focused on abstract, national-scale economic and political strategies. None of it has dealt directly with the unprecedented scale, scope and pace of landscape transformation that it implies.
This lecture will focus on the ways in which a national climate plan like the Green New Deal will be understood by most people through the buildings, landscapes, infrastructures and public works agenda it inspires.