The POV / featured

Shifting the Conversation on Climate Change One Design at a Time

Brian Deal

“Climate change is the most important thing we have to deal with. Period. And this discipline is the one that needs to show the way.”

In the 1990s, Brian Deal was practicing architecture in Chicago. He was frustrated that people weren’t designing energy efficient buildings even though the technology was there. He realized that technological solutions were only part of the answer. Understanding science and engineering disciplines, Brian could put parameters around problems. To truly address climate change, a much more holistic approach is needed. Brian returned to school to get a PhD to pursue this more holistic approach.

Now, Brian is a Professor of Landscape Architecture. He teaches classes on sustainability and climate change in theoretical and practical ways. His students explore theories about food, energy, water, and land, and apply these theories to physical problems in real places.

Brian uses a geodesign platform in his studios. “We take spatial datasets and manipulate those datasets into useful things. Landscape architects are the ones who take the data, plans, and policies and respond to them with physical, concrete solutions.”

Students in a recent Geodesign studio examined water quality issues in Sangamon County. Nitrogen from farms was leaching into the lake, and city officials were talking about creating a new one. “You don’t need a new lake,” Brian told them. He believed the problem could be solved in a softer way. Creating a new lake should be the last resort, not the first one.

His students used Geodesign techniques to map water quality, runoff, and the topography to better understand where the nitrogen was coming from and where interventions would be helpful. Using this data, they developed strategies to solve the problem.

Some strategies clean the water in the lake. They filter the nitrogen out of the water and use plants to clean it up. Other strategies use plants to prevent the nitrogen from getting to the lake. Strategies also address other issues, like economic development and human health. Intervention sites became tourist destinations, parks, and bike trails where people could relax, socialize, and exercise.

“Sometimes my students fear that climate change is too big of a problem to solve,” Brian says. “I’m more optimistic than my students. Put 10 people out there, they do 10 things. Put another 10 people out there, they do another 10 things. They aren’t radical things, but they are slowly shifting the conversation.”

I’m Brian Deal. I’m a professor in landscape architecture at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.

I moved from practicing architecture in Chicago and realized that we knew how to do good buildings in 1990. We knew how to build net-zero buildings – but we didn’t.

And why weren’t we doing it?

I started to realize that good buildings are not the end of the answer, it’s part of an answer. Good buildings in bad places are still a really bad idea.

I think climate change is the most important thing that we have to deal with and I think that this discipline is the one that needs to deal with it because the science disciplines parameterize the problem in a way that makes it solvable.

But it also makes it difficult to understand and speak in ways that people don’t get as a designer. You have to be able to take really complicated issues and translate them into physical things, and scientists can’t do that.

I have classes that talk about sustainability and climate change in theoretical terms – treating all of the issues (e.g. food, water, energy) as different issues. And then I teach classes on taking that theory and applying it to physical problems.

Right now, I’m using a geo-designed platform, which is a process of taking spatial data sets and manipulating these data sets into useful things and then acting on those useful things in a design sense. That’s what geo-design does.

This year, we did a geo-design studio in Sangamon County in Springfield, Illinois. We went through the process of understanding the problem they have with water quality in Lake Springfield, which is filling in and nitrifying from the farm runoff – it’s got all kinds of problems.

So, they’re talking about building a whole new lake because of this one issue and we’re saying you don’t need a new lake, you need to solve this problem. Just like climate problems, you need to solve the runoff problem and you need to solve the siltation problem. Then, you don’t need a new lake.

The students came up with strategies of how to do that, how to filter the water, and how to clean the water that’s there and maybe circumvent billions of dollars for another water supply.

So, you put 10 people out there and they do 10 things, and you put another 10 out there, maybe do another 10 things. They’re not radical things, but they are slowly shifting the conversation.

That’s why I’m optimistic about it because there are kids out there who know how to do it. And when they’re asked to do it, it’s not impossible now – it’s possible.