When Hurricane Ida hit the Gulf Coast 16 years after Hurricane Katrina, all eyes were on New Orleans’s new levee system. The levees that had failed so disastrously in 2005 had been rebuilt—and this time they held. You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief, but MacArthur award–winning landscape designer Kate Orff believes that “gray infrastructure” (levees, flood gates, and sea walls) can only take us so far. The infrastructure we really need, she says, is green. Orff, recently profiled in The New Yorker, insists that ecology is the infrastructure of the future. Her work with SCAPE Studio restores and harnesses—rather than resists—natural systems to ensure the livability of our rapidly changing world.

—Laura Flanders

Laura Flanders: Kate, you and your firm, SCAPE, work on design projects in many parts of the United States, including in Louisiana and New York. When you saw Hurricane Ida barreling towards both those places and others too, what went through your mind?

Kate Orff: I had a flashback to the evening that Superstorm Sandy hit. You can’t imagine watching the meteorology and it looks like a comet headed straight for your region. And in the case of Superstorm Sandy, it went directly up the New York bight. And the case of Ida, it came through Louisiana and up and over the central United States. Just the tale of these two storms describes how the risk that we face is truly diverse. There’s not one kind of climate risk in our built environment. There’s not just sea level rise to contend with or extreme heat. We are looking, in the case of Ida, at a rainstorm that dropped incredible amounts of rain on our built environment, which we’ve largely paved over. So, we had a very, very different set of challenges here after Ida—flash flooding, some very tragic deaths in my borough of Queens, people living in basement apartments that are located in a former lake. So, we’ve covered up much of our nature-based infrastructure, and we filled it in, and now we are living with the risks that we have built.

LF: You’ve just put your finger on a variety of challenges that are changing all the time, unpredictable, complex systems intersecting, not just with our habitat, but our habits of development, and housing, and where we put people. Talk for a minute about how that relates to the point that I hear coming from you that any one solution, particularly, a built concrete–type solution won’t be all we need to deal with climate change. And instead we need this kind of collaborative approach where we work with nature for something that you call “regenerative design.”

KO: I feel like 1927 was a seminal time for America. We had major floods in the Mississippi River area, and there was a big movement to build levees and put up gray infrastructure up and down the Mississippi River system. And that set into motion this approach, which was build a wall and then if it floods, build it higher, spend more money, and then more and more money to try to reduce risk through hard infrastructure, to try to lock natural systems in place. But, of course, that is not the way that natural systems respond. And that obviously is wholly insufficient for a climate-changed environment where we’re experiencing more intense rain in many regions, where we are facing more extreme heat, where sea levels are rising. The old rules, frankly, do not apply.

LF: Am I hearing you right, that it would be a mistake for people to say, “OK, look, what we’ve been doing works. It worked with respect to Ida. Let’s just pour more concrete”?

KO: We have to do the opposite. We need to remove, depave, and undo many of the mistakes that we’ve made in the built environment, particularly here in the New York region. We have to soften our shorelines. We need to remove roadways. We have to integrate different forms of non-motorized transport into our built environment. Otherwise, flash flooding will get worse, and our biodiversity will continue to plummet. We will have more incidents of extreme heat, because that is also very related. What I’ve been trying to do, and what the SCAPE office has been trying to do in many, many different contexts, is to try to integrate and revive ecosystems—not just to bring nature back in a kind of a nostalgic way. It’s really about propelling us forward into the next century with a vision around how people, nature, and society can co-exist and how we can reduce our climate risk.

LF: Could we even go back if we wanted to? Is rewilding, as some people call it, even an option at this point?

KO: I love the term rewilding because it inspires people. They’re like, “I get that. That sounds great.” However, just rewilding for the purposes of bringing species back isn’t enough. I’ve tried to be very, very vocal about recasting and framing ecosystems as next century infrastructure. So it’s not just about rewilding, it’s about thinking critically about design, about engineering, and about this new hybrid world, where we’re weaving ecosystems back into the urban landscape where they have been decimated—like in the New York Harbor. Almost 25 percent of our harbor was oyster reefs. That number is now around zero to 1 percent, but those reefs cleaned the water and slowed the waters.

LF: You mentioned Storm Sandy, and the lives that were lost then, including in Staten Island, that drew your attention to an area that you’ve been working in ever since. And your work there has reached a kind of tipping point, it seems to me. Talk to us about what these Living Breakwaters are, and what is happening right now. Will it go ahead after what we’ve just seen?

KO: We’re leading a project called Living Breakwaters, which is a chain of breakwaters that are seeded with oysters, with the Billion Oyster Project. They clean the water, they slow down the water, they take that dangerous wave action out of the equation. They help replenish beaches and reduce erosion. But they’re also designed to foster critical structural habitats. There’s a big social component to the project, too. It’s a community organizing project. It’s designed to bring educators to the shoreline and to promote citizen science in the form of reef monitoring and oyster gardening. It’s a different model from “Let’s build a wall and throw a billion dollars in this one tiny thing that may or may not help and that may or may not account for that very dynamic environment that we find ourselves in.” We have to use more tools in the toolbox. Right now, we are thinking about the future with the tools of the last century. And so I think this way is really the way to proceed.

LF: Is there other legislation that you’ve also got your eye on, and what would be your best-case scenario outcome of this moment?

KO: We have a dwindling window to act. We desperately need a robust infrastructure bill to pass, and we cannot spend the money on this infrastructure bill on widening roads and on carbon-intensive forms of infrastructure. We have to do the opposite. And so, I’m incredibly hopeful that in the bill, there is language in there around nature-based infrastructure. I’m truly hopeful that these projects can be moved front and center. Also, Laura, you asked me about what else I’m interested in, I do feel like the Civilian Conservation Corps concept has tremendous potential.

LF: So the Civilian Conservation Corps was what we had in the ’30s. This time it’s a climate corps, is that right?

KO: Yes, the Civilian Climate Corps. And I’m so excited about the potential of the Climate Corp to be tied to this infrastructure bill. That would be a dream job for me, which would link these two things up because we do need to invest in an infrastructure, but we also need to invest in science-based learning. I think about what the Living Breakwaters project represents, which is integrating, the seeding of the reef by school children, eighth graders, middle schoolers, and high schoolers, and think about the tremendous potential of integrating the next generation who wants to participate.

LF: We need federal government action, but are there things that people can do to change their habitats, their habits, the soft architecture of our lives?

KO: We haven’t broken through in terms of (A), just making sure that everyone is aware of the risks that they face in their immediate environment. And then (B), I don’t think that we’ve invested enough in preparedness and education. We also will probably face very, very difficult choices in the next decades. I do feel like that’s where this kind of softer human infrastructure will come into play. We may need to move people out of harm’s way. We may need to kind of develop a national framework for equitable managed retreat. And we will need to expand the ways that we’re beginning to address some of these challenges and not just say, throw billions of dollars at a single wall.

LF: You say you don’t ever give up hope. You never despair. What keeps you going?

KO: Oh, I despair. I despair. I just also feel like it’s an emotion that you have to sit with but then move through. It cannot be the final word. At this moment, when we have this opportunity in front of us to invest in ecology as infrastructure, to invest in the future, to invest in a climate adaptation roadmap for the nation and all kind of bioregions, we simply have to act.