Climate Change Breaks Landscapes. She Remakes Them.

Landscape architect Kate Orff, winner of a MacArthur “genius” award, designs places that can withstand extreme weather and rising seas.

This story appears in the July 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Making places beautiful is not enough for Kate Orff. The landscape architect also wants to make them adaptable to climate change and its extreme effects. “Every square inch of the planet has been impacted, intentionally or not, by human agency,” she says. “My goal is to translate that into something positive.”

Scape, her design studio, has partnered with New York State (with federal funding) to create what they’re calling “living breakwaters” along the south shore of Staten Island, which was pummeled by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The breakwaters will do triple duty—protect the coastline from future storms and erosion, restore marine habitat in Raritan Bay, and provide places along the shore for residents to learn about the ecosystem and to engage with it.

Orff, who also directs Columbia University’s new Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes, approaches landscape design from what she calls “a stance of activism.” She wants the places she designs to “bridge nature and culture, sociology and ecosystems.” A proposed project to restore Alameda Creek in the San Francisco Bay Area exemplifies that goal: People would be invited to interact with nature along the creek’s banks, while the water’s improved flow would bring sediment to the bay, protecting the area from extreme flooding.

Orff urges people to be activist designers in their communities. In these times of dramatic ecological change, she says, it’s dangerous to “look passively upon the Earth as an aesthetic backdrop.”

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