a group of students standing outside in greenland
Fleming and the students of his course “Designing a Green New Deal.” Courtesy Billy Fleming.

Billy Fleming and His Students Are Designing a Green New Deal

In his recent studio course, designer and University of Pennsylvania educator imagines a more just landscape architecture studio…by taking his students to a uranium mine in Greenland.  

Billy Fleming has a problem with travel studios, the jet-setting courses that typically offer design students a glimpse of bustling megalopolises and the career opportunities that await them. “Sending students around the world to gallivant around for a week at a time, often in rich global cities like Paris or Hong Kong, is a pretty terrible feature of most schools,” says Fleming, the Wilks Family Director of the Ian L. McHarg Center in the Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania. Instead, his students head to a former uranium mine on the southernmost tip of Greenland.

For the last several years, Fleming’s studio course titled “Designing a Green New Deal: The Spatial Politics of Our Response to Climate Change” has been exploring the roles designers will play in managing the nation’s response to climate change. First, the studio began with students “unbuilding and transforming the coalfield-to-prison pipeline of Appalachia,” and later investigating “the plantation-to-prison pipeline” of the Mississippi Delta. Initially planned as a 3-year initiative, it is now entering its fifth year, after students and fellow Green New Deal thinkers urged him to refocus overseas. “What I heard from students and from others is ‘This is great but what about the rest of the world? It’s awfully large, and the U.S. tends to meddle in almost all corners of it’.”

Fleming and the students of his course “Designing a Green New Deal.” Courtesy Billy Fleming.

So, Fleming took the students to Narsaq, a small sheep farming town, which sits next to a largely untapped deposit of “green minerals.” For decades, this area supplied Europe and the United States with uranium to power homes and build nuclear weapons—meanwhile “spewing radioactive dust and tailings and all kinds of other things” around Narsaq, he explains. Now it’s in high demand as the world’s second densest deposit of rare earth elements such as neodymium which is needed for wind turbines and the motors in electric cars.

Here, Fleming’s landscape architecture and city planning students have the opportunity to imagine career paths outside of elite design firms, by learning from the frontlines of environmental crises and energy transitions. The studio’s main goal is to forge alliances with activists and the majority Innuit community, including from the movement Urani? Namiik! (Greenlandic for “Uranium? No!”), which fought to close the uranium mines, and Innovation South Greenland, a government agency that combines the roles of tourism board and conservation agency. Above all, the studio asks students to work in close collaboration with the communities they are designing for, to envision alternative futures.

This challenge begins with a hair-raising journey to Greenland’s tiny Narsarsuaq Airport (often listed among the world’s scariest landings.) This year, weather held up some students in Iceland.

Fleming’s studio introduces students to landscape architect Jane Hutton’s theories of reciprocal landscapes and considers how the “far-away, invisible landscapes where materials come from” are linked to cities where most consumers—and designers—live. Narsaq was chosen as one such place, against competition from the lithium rich salt flats of Atacama Desert and Cobalt-mining regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Places like South Greenland are only on the radar of climate scientists and mining operators, and, obviously, the people who are from there. Those are places where the work you do in a studio—and the work you do after a studio, the work you do in academic and design research—can not just move the needle, but actually be part of much longer term, substantial and transformative.”

The Arkansas native’s criticism of design education is informed by his own zigzagging journey to pedagogy. Fleming, a landscape architect by training, worked in the Obama administration’s White House Domestic Policy Council’s Office of Urban Affairs and Economic Opportunity, before turning to organize opposition to Donald Trump as part of the Indivisible movement.

Today, he credits his time in politics to how he thinks about design and questioning: why do so many designers get the climate crisis so wrong? “The average design practice, however well-intentioned, is one of many contributors to biodiversity loss and climate change around the world,” he says. Fleming’s 2019 article in the journal Places made an example of Rebuild by Design, a design competition that invited firms to bid for funding for New York’s post-Hurricane Sandy recovery. The biggest awardee was The BIG U, a headline grabbing proposal for $335 million flood barrier system around lower Manhattan by architects Bjarke Ingels Group that included retractable floodwalls and waterfront parks. Rebuild by Design made admiring headlines with promises that designers could make climate resilience “playful”—before largely being shelved for a system of concrete seawalls. “It’s impossible to argue that the net impact of professional design practice has meaningfully reduced carbon emissions or addressed issues of spatial injustice,” says Fleming. “There are exemplary projects in each category, but they’re often a very small part of any firm or field’s broader practice or practices.”

Five years on, he has put flesh on the bones of the policy proposal for the Green New Deal. The McHarg Center’s 1200 Project: An Atlas for the Green New Deal imagines that the nation will be ready at some point for “massive, national-scale action on climate” and tries to populate the missing spatial design solutions that it would need.

He wants students to be a part of this process, in envisioning, “high-impact built projects and prototypes for the resilient futures we’ve been promised.”

He remains unconvinced that the travel studio—with its emphasis on fleet-footed global adventures—can ever make sense in today’s climate. But if this journey can make Narsaq more visible to the world outside, perhaps it can also be redesigned as a prototype for building lasting collaborations. “It’s a place that matters deeply, not just to me, but to any question of a just transition or internationalism or climate justice. And it’s a place where I do feel like the work that’s possible within the constraints of an academic school of design can actually have an impact.”

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