Landscape architecture projects, as beautiful as they are, can contribute to the climate crisis. If projects are not designed and constructed in accordance with their carbon footprint, they are in all likelihood injecting more greenhouse gas emissions to the air than they can sequester during their lifecycle. Projects can include an overabundance of concrete and other carbon-intensive materials, a minimum of trees and shrubs, or be in need of industrially produced fertilizers or gas-powered mowers or pruners for extended maintenance, producing long-term emissions.

Landscape architects should create projects that are carbon neutral and climate positive, so that they sequester more greenhouse gas emissions than are produced.

To aid landscape architects in the attainment of this objective, Pamela Conrad, ASLA, a principal at CMG Landscape Architecture in San Francisco, has developed an innovative platform known as Climate Positive Design.

She challenges landscape architects to make abundant use of this platform, saying that landscape architects could reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions by 1 gigaton by the year 2050.

According to Conrad, Climate Positive Design is not just a chance, but a responsibility.

With the help of the website’s Pathfinder tool, landscape architects and designers can generate sequestration and emission reduction targets for their projects. A target of five years is needed to offset carbon footprints for green worksites such as parks, gardens, campuses, and mixed-use developments. For urbanised projects that involve a greater degree of hardscape to facilitate programming, 20 years is the targeted offset duration.

By way of her research, which encompasses illustrative and useful case studies generated with CMG, Conrad discovered that targets could be accomplished without transforming the program or skimping on quality.

The website provides a design toolkit that educates landscape architects about how to include more trees and shrubs and preserve carbon in soils, and how to replace carbon-intensive materials featured in pathways and walls, fences, furnishings with low-carbon alternatives. Conrad offers much in the way of sustainable options.

Landscape architects or designers who log a project in the system app are requested to list the sources of carbon, which could include about 80 different varieties of landscape project materials like paving, walls, fences, etc. and their level of ‘embodied carbon’ derived from processes of extraction, manufacturing, transportation, installation, use/maintenance and replacement. The data is taken from the Athena Impact Estimator.

Then designers are requested to include data regarding carbon sinks inherent in their projects, which could include trees, plants, wetlands and certain types of meadows/lawns that take CO2 from the atmosphere and place carbon into the soil. Finally, landscape architects and designers can figure in “carbon costs,” representing emissions affiliated with lawn maintenance activities. These emissions are released across the project’s lifespan and are called ‘operational carbon’.

Once all info is inputted, landscape architects will get a Climate Positive score that determines the length of time it will require to offset the carbon accumulated throughout the project. The website will even send design recommendations geared toward lowering emissions and enhancing sequestration at a far more accelerated rate. And each included project will feature a dedicated webpage.

Data gathered will be reviewed by advisory partners that include the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF), American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), Canadian Society of Landscape Architects (CSLA), International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA), and the Landscape Architecture Canada Foundation (LACF).

Conrad developed the system during her Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) fellowship, the resulting product of research and collaboration with Atelier Ten.