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Landscape architect Kate Orff shares visionary goal of nature-based infrastructure


Geoff Bennett: If you think landscape architecture, you might conjure gardens or parks, but in a rapidly changing climate fueled by the summer's intense heat, flooding, fires, and now hurricanes, architect and designer Kate Orff is helping redefine her field and push us all toward new climate adaptation solutions.

Jeffrey Brown has the story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Kate Orff, Landscape Architect: We're here in Tottenville, which was known as the town the oyster built.

Jeffrey Brown: A walk on the shore of Staten Island, New York, with landscape architect Kate Orff.

But this is no day at the beach. And despite the gentle lapping of water on a hot summer morning, this is anything but a healthy coastline.

In 2012, this area was overwhelmed by the storm surge caused by Hurricane Sandy, which caused widespread flooding in many parts of New York City. More than half of the 43 people killed were on Staten Island. And the destruction extended well inland.

Eleven years later, Kate Orff is watching the final stages of an experiment she hopes can point the way towards a healthier ecosystem and mitigate future disasters. It's called Living Breakwaters.

Kate Orff: The breakwaters are kind of a strategy about helping to slow the water, helping to clean the water, helping to replenish this incredibly eroded shoreline, actually reverse erosion, and then start to rebuild this kind of critical three-dimensional mosaic of subtidal and intertidal rock marine ecosystem that we have literally decimated in the New York Harbor.

It's down to about 1 percent of its former extent.

Jeffrey Brown: Orff is founder of the design firm SCAPE based in Lower Manhattan.

She is a leading voice in her field pushing efforts to address the climate crisis and its many impacts. She was the first landscape architect to receive a MacArthur genius award, directs the Urban Design Program at Columbia University, and this year was named to the TIME 100 of the most influential people in the world.

One mantra, adapting to a changing climate, requires adapting her own profession.

Kate Orff: It requires rethinking our training, our perspective, our assumptions about what is land, what is water, what is engineering, what is art?

I think every profession today is now your existing profession, plus climate emergency.

Jeffrey Brown: You use the term climate adaptation clearly behind a lot of what you're after. What does climate adaptation mean?

Kate Orff: Climate adaptation in the built environment means looking with a clear-eyed view at what we have built now and where we have built, and how can we -- knowing that all of these sort of factors are in flux, what can we do to look at that built environment in a synthetic and holistic way and try to make adaptations to make us safer in the future?

And a lot of times, the answers are murky.

Jeffrey Brown: Like the waters of Raritan Bay, where the Living Breakwaters are being constructed, with $107 million in funding by New York state and the federal government.

The idea, build a set of barriers that will hold back water with eight partially submerged structures of stones and concrete. A nonprofit called the Billion Oyster Project will seed the structures with oyster larvae, eventually recreating an oyster reef, a return to an earlier era, when oysters were an enormous part of New York's economy and natural ecosystem.

The oyster as an answer to a lot of these problems?

Kate Orff: This would have been a thriving salt marsh. You would have had oyster reefs covering the bay.

Jeffrey Brown: Which would have prevented erosion, yes.

Kate Orff: Right. And these intact landscape systems protect and sustain us, full stop.

And so the oyster is a Keystone of that landscape. And the reason is, it is -- it kind of can create reefs. It can build up. It can form wave-attenuating reefs. It's food for migrating birds. It creates shallow waters for the horseshoe crab. It kind of sets into motion these more sort of shallow, intertidal, protective landscapes.

Jeffrey Brown: So the idea is millions or a billion oysters create a new ecosystem?

Kate Orff: Right. And we have to start, so oyster is the first step. It's not the answer, but it is a first step.

Jeffrey Brown: It's a step that's catching on, including a similar smaller project highlighted on the "NewsHour" recently under way in Louisiana.

Orff herself is working at sites around the country and, more and more, the globe, mostly small-scaled, client-driven projects. But she wants to work and wants us to think bigger, a Mississippi River National Park, for example, bold, transformative ideas for the American landscape.

If all of this is so obvious, why isn't it the norm? What are the barriers?

Kate Orff: And the barriers are many, right? These big projects that we need to conceive of that may cross state boundaries, they may cross watersheds. They certainly will cross city boundaries. They're really more at a regional scale, kind of don't have an owner, if you will, or a way to kind of like nest into the system.

Jeffrey Brown: What's your job in making us see it differently?

Kate Orff: Right.

Well, I think so much of the rhetoric around climate change is, you can't do that, or you can't do this, you can't drive this way, you can't put your house on this coastline.

Jeffrey Brown: And then people say...

Kate Orff: And then people react.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Kate Orff: But I really see there, to me, this -- an incredibly beautiful, rich, textured environmental future that we should be running towards.

Jeffrey Brown: When you talk about changing the way landscape architecture or other parts of the design world are done, you include activism.

Kate Orff: That's right. We can't just be passively accepting and assuming what's -- what's coming on the plate is not what needs to be done. We need to be defining the projects that are happening or that are coming our way. And so...

Jeffrey Brown: You mean you want to be putting the projects forward or the designs forward, rather than waiting.

Kate Orff: Yes. I want to be suggesting what needs to happen.

Jeffrey Brown: Another part of her practice, education at all levels. The project engages schools on Staten Island to get young students involved.

Knowledge and ownership, she believes, are fundamental to any future change.

Kate Orff: There's this sense of despair, frankly. There's a sense of, I'm inheriting a world that I did not make and that I am now responsible for.

And I just feel like its too much of a cop-out to say to the next generation, oh, you're going to be the solvers. That's really not fair. I really want to feel like they -- that we are making a huge difference and that we're at least setting a pathway that these students feel like they can -- they can see themselves on.

Jeffrey Brown: Her hope, one day soon, that will include enjoying a healthy and inviting beach near home. Completion of the Living Breakwaters is expected by the end of next year.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown on Staten Island, New York.

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