Jun 01 2020, by Fleetwood Urban

Climate for Change

2019 saw Climate and Biodiversity Emergency Declarations made by both the International Federation of Landscape Architects and its local sibling, the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA). But what does it actually mean? We sat down with the new CEO of AILA, Ben Stockwin, to find out.

FLEETWOOD URBAN: You only joined AILA as CEO in March of this year, Ben. But given your extensive background in green infrastructure and primary industries, is it fair to assume ‘climate’ is already high on your list of priorities?

BEN STOCKWIN: It certainly is. One of the things I’ve long been concerned about is ‘nature deficit disorder’ in western society – that is, the disconnect in developed nations with the very things that sustain us as a species. There’s a growing schism between how we live on a day-to-day basis and whether that’s actually sustainable, so a tremendous focus for AILA is in strategies that help mitigate or improve this situation. This was actually the thinking behind the urgency of last year’s climate emergency declarations. We can simply no longer continue on with business as usual. It’s actually going to require adaptation and very real changes, some simple, some dramatic. And it requires them now.

FW: So it was an idea that’s time had well and truly come?

BS: With any type of leadership, you can only go so far at a time. If you jump too far ahead you can lose momentum entirely. In terms of declaring a climate and biodiversity emergency, it’s a discussion that began back with the 2015 Paris agreement which committed Australia to reduce its emissions by 2050. But it’s taken several years to reach that planning level around asking ‘what does this actually mean for the industry?’ International and national governments have been talking about it at broad policy levels, now it’s starting to trickle down through the states and to direct individuals and businesses. Peak bodies like ours are also taking real action.

FW: What kind of ‘action’ are you talking about?

BS: In the landscape architecture and green infrastructure space, we’re really looking to help with the coordination between industry groups and disciplines, particularly those in the design and planning stages such as the Planning Institute of Australia and the Australian Institute of Architects. We need to start working together with a whole range of strategies around how we can better meet climate and biodiversity challenges as a unified industry.

FW: Are you seeing an appetite for more industry collaboration?

BS: Yes, absolutely. It’s happened in the past on a range of issues and climate is clearly one of the biggest right now. All three key organisations have a part to play, in a Venn diagram way, in the context of urban design. None of us exist in isolation, whether it’s the design of the city, the design of the building or the design of the landscape that surrounds it, all three need to be considered and working together. Obviously for us, it’s specifically about the role of landscape architecture in designing the outdoors spaces we live in and enjoy – that’s at the forefront of people’s minds right now given the COVID-19 crisis. I don’t think there’s ever been so much value placed on outdoor spaces.

Look at the role landscape architecture has to play in cooling cities, for example. That’s a very distinct mitigation strategy to do with climate change which can involve both passive and active initiatives. From ‘green’ buildings to the integration of landscape architecture into water run-off water retention programs, these are the kind of things that are becoming more and more critical and where we, as an industry, have an important part to play.

FW: Do you see AILA’s primary role as advocacy and lobbying with policymakers? Or is it more to encourage members to get on the front foot when it comes to climate initiatives?

BS: It’s definitely both. Landscape architects have a long history at both an individual and practice level of being very integral to this issue and it will continue to be something that’s very relevant to our professional offering and the ways we look to support our members. But we’re also looking to really increase our focus on advocacy at all levels of government. That’s been part of our mandate for a long time, but certainly now we need more renewed and direct advocacy strategies around biodiversity and climate change. The time really is now. 

FW: At that government level, what are some of the key levers you’re pulling?

BS: The immediate strategy is to continue lobbying so there’s a widespread recognition of the climate emergency at all levels of government. Some councils have really got on board and have already made their own climate declarations. They’re charging ahead and certainly I think a lot of that is to do with the challenges of increased heat management. For example, if you look at last summer in western Sydney where the data shows some communities consistently experienced temperatures 5° higher than past averages, it certainly creates more urgency for action from local governments. But we’re still some way from having a full bipartisan approach in Australia. Addressing this is an ongoing process, especially if we hope to attract sufficient resources for real and long-lasting change.

FW: Resources will always be a major factor in driving fundamental change, won’t they?

BS: That’s right. Australian practitioners are already doing some fantastic work around green infrastructure and water strategies and they’ll continue to do so. But what we’re missing is that broad-based national strategic framework that really encourages and supports them – including resources. Until that happens, we’ll only have a limited ability to change things. The good news is it’s entirely logical to assume there’s going to be some kind of major infrastructure stimulus package coming as a result of the current economic conditions, so obviously that’s an immediate target. There’s absolutely no reason some of these infrastructure projects can’t focus on climate and environmental issues in our communities.

FW: So, whilst we’re still in the midst of this coronavirus pandemic there’s lots of manoeuvring around what is expected to be a significant infrastructure stimulus package?

BS: Yes, and some of the conversations we’re having now are very important for setting that up. Traditionally, governments have been more interested in ‘shovel ready’ projects like new roads and road refurbishments. While these can certainly provide a short-term sugar hit economically, what we’re advocating is more of a focus on ‘design ready’ projects. By that we mean projects at a smaller local government level, that not only provide economic stimulus right now but also deliver social and environmental benefits for years to come. That’s a big opportunity for the industry and collectively we need to do everything we can to grasp it.

Covid-19 certainly has allowed people to re-focus on what’s important in their daily lives and their communities. Obviously life outdoors is a big part of that. We’re not desperate to spend more time in buildings, are we? We just want to get back outside for some sunshine and fresh air!

FW: Would it be fair to say if you can get a few of these wins on board, some positive signs from governments and councils, it will help to re-energise landscape architects across the country?

BS: Australia’s landscape architects are already a highly energised bunch of people! But of course it will help to foster that energy even more and also encourage greater collaboration between professions – architects, planners and landscape architects. Again, having that broad-based national strategic framework is vital.

FW: Awards have always been a high-profile part of what AILA does. How important is it for the industry to celebrate iconic projects, especially with the added context of climate change?

BS: We’ve recently closed off our 2020 entries for State awards. Judging will start soon and after that we’ll start rolling it out at the National level. That’s a really dynamic opportunity to celebrate great projects and ideas. From what we’ve seen from the entries so far, we’re going to be able to showcase some really tangible examples of what great ‘climate’ thinking looks like at an individual project level. That’s critically important.

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