Designing the Green New Deal

Designing the Green New Deal

by Julia Farawell, SHV Communications Coordinator

The current political climate seems to parallel the environmental climate: uncomfortable heat, higher stakes, and increased risk of disaster. As the clock ticks towards an uncertain future, the push for a Green New Deal in the United States is abundant. On Friday, September 13th, I attended a conference called “Designing the Green New Deal,” at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The conference ran from nine o’clock in the morning to eight in the evening; and featured speaker Naomi Klein, among many other names I didn’t recognize. I had been reading Klein’s book, “This Changes Everything,” and her name was fresh in my mind. Klein’s book emphasizes a needed restructuring of the economy to fight climate change. In “This Changes Everything,” Klein writes,

What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature (Klein 21).

At the U. Penn. conference, Klein expanded upon these sentiments by showcasing her new book, “On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal.” Klein’s panel was the finale, and the speakers before her presented in-depth research on the individual moving parts involved in shaping a Green New Deal.


What I had not realized at first — but found out during the first set of panels — was that the term “Designing” in the title quite literally referred to designers, architects, and engineers who would fabricate the tangible output of the Green New Deal. There were conversations on biomimicry, placemaking, natural disaster mitigation, and the future of retrofitting buildings. The conference was held in an academic hall named after a landscape architect of the 20th century, Ian McHarg. McHarg once said, “Let us green the earth, restore the earth, heal the earth.”


Landscape architecture is the designing of a community, through reworking the relationship between the built and natural environment. One of the conference’s coordinators and landscape architect, Billy Fleming, recently wrote:

…landscape architects are in a position to realize the projects necessary to the Green New Deal — the creation of a distributed smart grid and high-speed rail network, the retrofitting of vulnerable cities with green infrastructure, and the managed retreat from coastal and desert areas — and to argue that success will depend on our ability to plan, design, and administer radical transformations (Places Journal 2019).

Prior to the conference, I had never associated the importance of architecture and design with the fulfillment of a Green New Deal. Though, with recent hurricanes ravaging the built and natural environments of Bahamas and Puerto Rico, the question of “How will we rebuild this?” becomes more relevant. A second question follows: “How will we fund this?” Wondering where the money will come from is equally relevant when assessing the possibility of a Green New Deal.


Stephanie Kelton, professor of economics at Stony Brook, University spoke in another panel about adjusting the U.S. economy to support the Federal Jobs Guarantee included in her preferred version of the Green New Deal. Not only would job force development be expanded through localizing jobs in infrastructure, but environmental architecture would be fundamental to the creation of many of these positions. Designers and policymakers would create the blueprints; while various sectors of employees built, retrofitted, and maintained the community’s structures and systems. Kelton’s presentation centered on John Maynard Keynes’s book “How to Pay for the War.” Keynes’s book outlines what the U.S. economy would need to shift from a consumer-fixated economy to an economy tailored to producing goods for the war. In Kelton’s view, economically approaching the climate crisis like a major world war would make it possible for the nation to alter our dependence on resources within our infrastructure.


Kerene Tayloe, a Harlem climate activist with WE ACT, brought Kelton’s academic ideas into a real-world narrative. Tayloe said one of the most important aspects of the Green New Deal’s success was the investment in jobs training, especially in the Environmental Justice areas, like Harlem. “America is segregated and so is pollution,” said Tayloe, as she urged the audience to research Dr. Robert D. Bullard’s study, “Toxic Waste and Race.” Tayloe noted that the disasters hitting the Bahamas and Puerto Rico show us that people of color must lead the discussion on climate change, because they are most affected by it today. Tayloe pointed to the lack of diversity of consumers and workers in the solar sector. As a response, WE ACT has launched the “Solar Uptown Now” campaign, for residents of Uptown Manhattan to purchase solar for their homes as a group. Tayloe wants a Green New Deal that will mobilize funding toward publicly-owned energy and electric transportation in Environmental justice communities and beyond.


It cannot be denied that, at the core, the comradery surrounding environmental activism is a collective feeling of basic human desperation to stay alive. This sentiment was eloquently discussed by Mary Annaise Heglar, Director Of Publications at Natural Resources Defense Council. Heglar spoke about the importance of storytelling in the age of climate change. If the Green New Deal was going to work, and be applauded by generations to come, it would have to “tell the whole story of how to save life on Earth,” said Heglar. Heglar then quoted James Baldwin, saying, “the government is the creation of its people.” As I left the conference, the concept of telling “the whole story” seemed daunting. How could one piece of legislation acknowledge the flaws in every institution, alter the nation’s dependence on resources, bring justice to those most historically treated unjustly, and maintain a healthy economy while mending the disparity between classes of workers? I suppose if we are to believe that “the government is the creation of its people” — and its people want legislation that tackles these issues, all while combating climate change — then a robust Green New Deal may not be a pipe dream. I think every panelist at that conference would say we can’t afford for the Green New Deal to be a pipe dream anymore.