“Can we get to zero?” That is a question that Clinical Assistant Professor Steve Austin is asking his students as well as the landscape architecture community.

Austin’s editorial on the climate crisis, its impacts on landscape architecture, and how landscape architects might lead in getting to zero carbon emissions was featured in a recent edition of Landscape Architecture Magazine, the professional journal of the American Society of Landscape Architects. His essays on the topic have also been featured in Land8, a social media network for landscape architects.

Austin, who joined WSU in 2013 after a career in landscape architecture and planning, first became concerned about climate issues about 15 years ago. In recent years, his concern has grown as the scope of the global change problem has become more evident. On his website, he features a potent reminder of the problem – Austin calls it “the only number that matters” or 414 parts per million. That is the current level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is far above the 250 or 350 parts per million that have comfortably sustained humanity throughout time.

“So many things are vitally important, but if we don’t get this right, nothing else will be (important),” he said. “Once you’re fully aware of the impending crisis, you can’t fully turn it off.”

Austin teaches six classes per years, including design studios, design theory, and urban planning, incorporating climate change, regenerative design and sustainability into class discussions. One of the big challenges, or what Austin calls the elephant in the room, is how the profession will manage without fossil fuels, since many of the
materials used in the industry as well as the work itself have required intensive fossil fuel use – at least for the past 50 years.

“We have got to move beyond 20th century landscape architecture theory in our work and focus more on systems thinking — repairing and restoring rather than decorating,” he said.

“There is a growing awareness in our students about this urgent crisis,” he added. “We bear a responsibility to bring them up to date.”

An important first step, he says, is to bring people together to begin tackling the challenge and acknowledging the crisis at hand.

“There is a need for dramatic response — after that, it’s simply good ideas and a lot of brain power,” he said.

Landscape architects can and should be leaders in discussions on ecological restoration and retrofitting urban landscapes, says Austin. Trees are one important solution, for instance. They can be used as canopies to mitigate increased heat effects as well as a sink for carbon dioxide.

“In a post-fossil fuel world, we want to look at aesthetics but relative to how much carbon is used or how it can be sequestered,” he said. “We want to get the conversation started on what are the aesthetics for a post-carbon age. I don’t really know, but I want to put the question out there.”

The climate change challenge promises to be daunting for students, the landscape architecture industry, as well as for the public, he says. At the same time, he adds, it’s an exciting time with hopeful signs – as people are beginning to tackle the challenge and to change business as usual.

“It’s a challenge we can feel good about because we’re trying to do the right thing,” he said. “I wish I were 30 years younger because there’s so much important work to be done.”