Why ecology is the infrastructure of the future

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When Hurricane Ida hit the Gulf Coast 16 years after Hurricane Katrina, all eyes were on New Orleans’ new levee system. The levees that failed so catastrophically in 2005 had been rebuilt – and this time they held. You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief, but MacArthur Award-winning landscape designer Kate Orff believes that “gray infrastructure” (levees, sluice gates and sea walls) can only get us this far. The infrastructure that we really need is green, she says. Orff, recently profiled in The New Yorker, insists that ecology is the infrastructure of the future. Your work with SCAPE Studio restores and uses, rather than opposes, natural systems to ensure the quality of life in our rapidly changing world.

—Laura Flanders

L.Aura Flanders: Kate, you and your company SCAPE are working on design projects in many parts of the United States, including Louisiana and New York. What was on your mind as Hurricane Ida hit this and other places?

Kate Örf: I had a flashback to the night Superstorm met Sandy. You can’t imagine watching the meteorology and it looks like a comet headed straight for your region. And in the case of Superstorm Sandy, it went straight to the New York side. And in the case of Ida, it came through Louisiana and through the central United States. The history of these two storms alone describes how diverse the risk we are exposed to. There is not a single climate risk in our built environment. It’s not just sea level rise or extreme heat. In the case of Ida, we are faced with a rain shower that caused an incredible amount of rain to fall on our built-up area, which we have largely paved. So we had completely different challenges here after Ida – floods, some very tragic deaths in my borough of Queens, people who live in basement apartments in a former lake. So we’ve covered and filled in much of our nature-based infrastructure, and now we’re living with the risks we’ve built up.

LF: You have just addressed a multitude of challenges that are constantly changing, unpredictable, complex systems that overlap not only with our living space, but also with our development and living habits and the place where we house people. Talk for a minute about how this relates to the point I hear from you that a single solution, especially a built concrete solution, is not going to be all we need to deal with climate change. And instead we need this collaborative approach, where we work with nature on what you call “regenerative design”.

KO: I have a feeling that 1927 was a game-changing time for America. We’ve had major floods in the Mississippi River area, and there has been a great movement in building levees and putting gray infrastructure in the Mississippi River system. And that set in motion this approach, which was to build a wall and then when it gets flooded, build it higher, spend more money and then more and more money to try to reduce the risk by having hard infrastructure, to try to lock natural systems in place. But of course natural systems don’t react that way. And that is obviously completely inadequate for a climatically changed environment in which we rain more intensely in many regions, in which we are confronted with more extreme heat and in which the sea level rises. The old rules, to be honest, don’t apply.

LF: Do I understand you correctly that it would be a mistake for people to say, “Okay, look, what we did works. It worked for Ida. Let’s just pour more concrete ”?

KO: We have to do the opposite. We need to fix, relieve, and undo many of the mistakes we’ve made in the built environment, especially here in the New York area. We have to soften our coasts. We have to remove lanes. We need to integrate different forms of non-motorized transport into our built environment. Otherwise, flash floods will get worse and our biodiversity will continue to decline. We’re going to have more cases of extreme heat because that’s very related too. What I’ve tried, and what the SCAPE office has tried in many, many different contexts, is to try to integrate and revitalize ecosystems – not just to bring nature back in nostalgic ways. It’s really about moving us into the next century with a vision of how humans, nature and society can live together and how we can reduce our climate risk.

LF: Could we even go back if we wanted to? Is rewilding, as some people call it, even an option at this point?

KO: I love the term rewilding because it inspires people. They say, “I understand. That sounds good. “It’s not enough just to feral the species, however, to bring the species back. I have tried to be very, very vocal about the transformation and design of ecosystems as infrastructure for the next century. So it is not all about It’s about rewilding, but about thinking critically about design, technology and this new hybrid world in which we weave ecosystems back into the urban landscape, where they have been decimated – like in New York Harbor. Almost 25 percent of our harbor consisted of oyster reefs Number is now zero to 1 percent, but these reefs have cleaned the water and slowed the water down.

LF: You mentioned Storm Sandy and the casualties back then, also in Staten Island, which brought your attention to an area in which you have been working since then. And it seems to me that your work there has reached a kind of turning point. Talk to us about what these living breakwaters are and what is happening right now. Will it go on after what we’ve just seen?

KO: With the Billion Oyster Project, we lead a project called Living Breakwaters, a chain of breakwaters seeded with oysters. They purify the water, they slow the water down, they take that dangerous wave motion out of the equation. They help replenish beaches and reduce erosion. But they are also designed to promote critical structural habitats. The project also has a large social component. It’s a community project. It is designed to bring educators to the coast and promote citizen science in the form of reef monitoring and oyster gardeners. It’s a different model than “let’s build a wall and throw a billion dollars into this one tiny thing that may or may not help and that may be responsible for this very dynamic environment we are in.” We need to use more tools in the toolbox. Right now we are thinking about the future with the tools of the last century. And so I think that this way is really the right way.

LF: Is there any other piece of legislation that you have in mind and what would be your best scenario at this point?

KO: We have an ever smaller window of time to act. We urgently need a robust infrastructure law that we must pass, and we cannot spend the money for this infrastructure law on upgrading roads and on carbon-intensive forms of infrastructure. We have to do the opposite. And so I am incredibly hopeful that there is some language in the bill regarding nature-based infrastructure. I am really confident that these projects can be brought to the fore. Besides, Laura, you asked me what else I was interested in. I feel that the Civilian Conservation Corps concept has tremendous potential.

LF: So the Civilian Conservation Corps was what we had in the 1930s. It’s a climate corps this time, isn’t it?

KO: Yes, the civilian climate corps. And I’m very excited about Climate Corp’s potential to be bound by this infrastructure bill. For me, that would be a dream job that would combine these two things, because we have to invest in infrastructure, but also in science-based learning. I think about what the Living Breakwaters Project is, which is integrating the reef seeding by school kids, eighth graders, middle schoolers and high school students, and think about the huge potential of integrating the next generation who want to get involved.

LF: We need action from the federal government, but are there things that people can do to change their living spaces, their habits, the soft architecture of our lives?

KO: We have not broken through on (A), we are just making sure that everyone is aware of the risks they are exposed to in their immediate vicinity. And then (B) I don’t think we’ve invested enough in preparation and education. We’re also likely to have to make very, very difficult decisions over the next few decades. I have a feeling that this is where this type of softer human infrastructure is going to come into play. We may need to get people out of the way. We may need to develop a national framework for a fairly managed withdrawal. And we need to widen the ways we begin to address some of these challenges, rather than just throw billions of dollars on a single wall.

LF: You say you never give up hope You never despair. What keeps you going

KO: Oh, I’m desperate. I despair. I also feel like it’s an emotion that you have to sit with but then get away with. It can’t be the last word. At this moment, when we have the opportunity to invest in ecology as infrastructure, invest in the future, invest in a roadmap for climate adaptation for the country and all types of bioregions, we just have to act.


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