Meet Our Cornerstone Event Keynote Speaker, Kate Orff

Kate Orff, Founding Principal of SCAPE

Image Credit: SCAPE

September 28, 2022 Andrew Muir

AGNR will host its 4th annual Cornerstone Event on Wednesday, October 12 at The Stamp Student Union, University of Maryland in College Park. This year’s event will celebrate and build partnerships around the college’s strategic initiative: Optimize Urban Environments through Green Design, Technology, and Community Engagement.

We look forward to welcoming keynote speaker, Kate Orff, founding principal of SCAPE, a design-driven landscape architecture and urban design studio, which addresses the challenges of climate change and social and environmental justice. 

Kate caught up with us to preview her talk and encourage us all to think and act more climate forward. 

Q: Can you tell us how you think landscape architecture and green design/technology can contribute to combating climate change and some of our more pressing global challenges? Are there some recent examples that provide hope and inspiration to you?

Kate: The seminar I am teaching this semester at Columbia is called a BLUE NEW DEAL. We have to interweave decarbonization, re-naturing, new forms of ocean farming and energy technology together alongside our ongoing social justice work. For designers, this means embracing a nonlinear process and making tough decisions across micro and macro scales every day, from the selection of an individual paver to a flood risk reduction alignment across an entire city. You have to be okay with productive friction. Our field has so much to learn from the advocates who fought tooth and nail to get our current climate legislation through Congress—with all the decades of painstaking modeling, patience, diplomacy (where needed), and unshakeable drive that it took. That was inspiring! But policy is just the runway. Now it’s time for us to pick up the baton and to design and plan like the living world depends on us – because it does.

As a firm, SCAPE has a seat at the table with many of the agencies, regulators, developers, and decision-makers who will shape how our built environment looks a decade from now. We have to use that seat, however small, to push for broad-front decarbonization across the design and construction industry, especially as billions of dollars pour into its coffers over the next few years. The era of 'business-as-usual' infrastructure—seawalls, bulkheads, and shored-up, hard lines—is over. We need to integrate more blue-green infrastructure—oyster reefs, mangroves, corals, marshes, land-building sediment diversions—not in a nostalgic way, but because it's essential to the future of coastal life. Let’s also get a lock on the interrelated sets of financial and insurance tools that incentivize equitable retreat and discourage climate gentrification at the water’s edge. The University of Maryland Business School and real estate programs should be here at this event too!  

Q: This is a homecoming of sorts for you, returning to the state of Maryland, where you grew up. In what ways are you hoping attendees of AGNR's Cornerstone Event might heed your words to address some of the environmental and social justice issues here in the state?

Kate: I grew up in Crofton, Maryland — a prototypical American suburb, with wide streets, single-family homes, two-car garages, a golf course, and a four-acre pond called Lake Louise along the highway. While planners, landscape architects, and developers were busy laying out these kinds of towns, the world was in steep ecological decline: plummeting biodiversity; warming, acidifying, expanding oceans; the pollution and paving-over of urban rivers and streams across the U.S. I love Maryland but we need an even stronger land policy for brownfield development and densification of our existing cities and towns and an even bigger embrace of the Bay and protection of the rivers that sustain us. Sprawling greenfield development, widening roads and big box stores is not the way to go. Somehow, despite the amazing environmental work in the region, we’ve lost the planning and land policy scale.

Q: What advice can you give to people who want to make a positive environmental and societal impact in their communities but don't necessarily know how to get started, or are facing pushback from others?

Kate: Whatever your focus or eventual career, you can make your job a climate job and create action in your immediate surroundings—whether that's volunteering as a Super Steward in your local park, planting oysters and eelgrass in our rivers and bays, or pressuring our local politicians to protect forests and riverbanks.

Our colleague, the very inspiring Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, says that to sustain climate action and make it something you can do in the long-term, focusing on the work itself isn't enough—you need to find joy and community. This is the work of our lifetime, and we can't afford to burn out. The All We Can Save Project—the nonprofit she founded with Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, named after the book of the same name (which I contributed a chapter to)—is one example of that. It's a group of women climate leaders across fields who, yes, have some of the most compelling words you'll hear on the imperative for action. But we also support each other's work in a hundred other ways, in Zoom rooms and in real life. The lesson for young people who care about climate is: find people you like and can learn from, find joy in the natural world and with your colleagues, and take this with you wherever you go.

Register for our Cornerstone Event:

Learn more about Kate and the impactful work at SCAPE: