Worried About Climate Change? Call This Landscape Architect

Jennifer Bolstad, co-founder of New York-based Local Office Landscape and Urban Design, helps coastal communities cope with rising sea levels.

By Christina Kelly

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Jennifer: We’re in the Rockaways. The impact of Hurricane Sandy was really dramatically disproportionate to the impact on the rest of New York City. And that’s because this is a place that faces the ocean, it’s a barrier island, so the force of a three-story ocean wave hit their buildings, their infrastructure, disrupting this community for many years.

TEXT Jennifer Bolstad – CEO + Co-Founder – Local Office Landscape and Urban Design – New York, N.Y.

Jennifer: Local Office was formed with the idea to use landscape architecture to protect communities from the impacts of natural disturbances and to protect the environment from the impacts of development.

TEXT Jennifer grew up on her family’s farm in Wisconsin.

Jennifer: I always have had this very innate connection to the earth and the landscape, whether that be the seasonal process of gardening or kind of the longer cycles of a place that has been my family’s livelihood for over a hundred years.

TEXT At school Jennifer was a self-declared nerd. She loved math and science.

Jennifer: When I applied for colleges, I applied to be an engineering major. And it was at that time really unusual for women to be interested in engineering and have the chops and the test scores and the, you know, the coursework and letters of reference to make that happen.

TEXT Jennifer went to Harvard in 1994, planning to study pre-med.

TEXT But she changed her mind her first year.

Jennifer: I took an elective in a department that was called visual and environmental studies. I found out that design was this perfect marriage of understanding scientific forces and reasoning and logic, but working creatively, which really appealed to me.

TEXT Jennifer graduated in 1998. She got her master’s in landscape architecture in 2002.

Jennifer: I had been in Cambridge for seven years too long. I was, as if fired from a gun, ready to get out of there.

TEXT In 2002 Jennifer moved to New York to work for a landscape architecture company.

Jennifer: It was a wonderful learning experience because I was managing all aspects of the projects that I was running. Managing the design and production, interfacing with the client. And at the end of the day I was responsible to make sure that we came in on budget for the project.

TEXT In 2006 Jennifer married her longtime boyfriend, Walter Meyer.

TEXT And they started Local Office Landscape and Urban Design.

Jennifer: Walter and I did it the way most entrepreneurs do. We bootstrapped it. We’ve had this mission of working in coastal areas to heal the environment and protect those places from disturbances.

TEXT Their first project was a waterfront park in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico.

Jennifer: When we got to Mayaguez, we realized that the infrastructure of this place was very broken. All the runoff from the city was exiting directly onto the beach and out to the reef. It basically was a dead part of the Caribbean Sea because of all this impact from the drainage off the city. So the project became about creating a series of manmade dunes and wetlands that could both treat that water coming off the city and also serve as flood storage.

TEXT The company grew steadily.

TEXT Then in 2012 Hurricane Sandy hit the New York region.

Jennifer: We had a lot of built work in Florida and the Caribbean and places that sort of understood themselves to be in the hurricane zone. So for better or worse we were in a great position after Sandy to be able to address the challenges of right here in our backyard in New York City.

Jennifer: This is a public affordable housing complex. It got hit really hard in Hurricane Sandy. We were brought in by the developer to look at elevators, their exit path lighting, the most basic things that keep people safe in a disturbance. One of the first things we suggested is to use alternative energy sources to power their basic safety features in their buildings. And we’ve done landscapes that help keep that water out of the infrastructure to help relieve chronic flooding.

TEXT The company continues to work around the country – in New York, San Diego, Coral Gables and Miami.

Jennifer: Miami is a place where the governor has said that you cannot use the words climate change in any official documents or any official speech. So that’s about as hostile a climate to the work we’re doing as you can get. And yet there has been an upwelling of developers who understand that regardless of the political climate, for their investments to pay off, they must address the future sea levels. Their livelihood depends on it.

TEXT Local has eight employees and $750,000 in revenues.

Jennifer: The work we’re doing doesn’t depend on climate change, global warning, call it what you will, being real or not. Catastrophic disturbances are a fact of life. What matters is that we understand that it’s all of our responsibility to protect our communities and to protect the environment.


Posted: December 20, 2017

Christina KellyWorried About Climate Change? Call This Landscape Architect