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- Susan Rockefeller
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Spotlight On:

Parsons School of Design

What's the Story?

Executive Dean of Parsons School of Design Joel Towers has spent over a decade and a half helping develop, oversee, and execute an exemplary program of sustainability at Parsons and the New School in Manhattan, bringing a foundational respect for ecology into both the curriculum at the school and the operations of the campus itself. Now, Parsons is on track to beat many of its environmental goals, serving as an example of a community making serious progress at adapting to the rising demands our environment.

How are they different?

At Parsons, sustainability isn’t just a class; it’s part of the core ethos of the education that all students receive. As Towers explained to Musings, one of his missions is to educate for a generation entering a 21st century paradigm, a post-industrial economy that requires forward-thinking projects. He sees this as an “opportunity to remake the world around us,” starting with giving the right tools to the 1,500 students that graduate each year.

What inspires us?

Towers has always been one of the leading minds in the sustainable design space, going back to his early jobs as an ecology-minded architect. Over the past decade and a half, he has helped lead an important education center become a prime example of how to incorporate lofty ideals into every aspect of operations, from interdisciplinary curriculums that put sustainability first to a campus that beats its own carbon-reduction goals.

Q&A

Joel Towers

Executive Dean, Parsons School of Design

Manhattan’s New School has always had a reputation for doing things differently. That’s a good thing, as we learned from Joel Towers, now the Executive Dean of Parsons School of Design within the university. Over the past 17 years, Towers — an architect and longtime advocate for sustainability — has led the campus in a successful charge to incorporate sustainable practices and philosophies at every step of the way. Today, Parsons students graduate with a core understanding of the importance of sustainability across disciplines, be it fashion, product design, architecture or anything else. And they’re educated on a campus that has regularly beat out its own environmental goals, proving they can practice what they preach. For Towers, sustainability is much more than just a buzzword. It is the urgent challenge facing the fields of design, art, and business. “Sustainability requires us to rethink and redesign basically everything. That’s an enormous opportunity to figure out how to do it better,” he tells Musings. “It also happens to be an imperative for human survival.” I’m excited to have Parsons School of Design as a partner for Musings, helping us put the Spotlight on the next generations of sustainable designers. I’m also proud to  be joining Joel, and my dear friend, Julie Gilhart, as co-Chair of 71st annual Parsons benefit on May 20th. We will be honoring Pharrell Williams along with some incredibly savvy innovative CEOS in the tech world – Julie Wainwright of The Real Real, Katrina Lake of stich Fix, and Michael Preysman of Everlane! For tickets and information please visit: http://www.parsonsbenefit.newschool.edu

You’ve been at the New School since 2002, when you joined the university to help forward the cause of sustainability. Why was that important to you, and how did you pursue that goal?

When I joined, my title was the Director of Sustainable Design and Urban Ecology, which was the first time the university was hiring somebody with the intention of working on sustainability in the curriculum. We were to work together across the colleges to. Previously, I had been on the faculty at Columbia and had run an architecture office. When I was teaching at Columbia at the architecture school, I was doing that work in isolation. Climate, environment, sustainability: it doesn’t stop at the border of any discipline. At Parsons, I began the work of designing the curriculum so that all students — fashion students, architects, product designers — each would have a deep knowledge of the role of sustainability. Now I’ve been the dean of Parsons for ten years. In part, my elevation has been a validation of the importance of sustainability across the fields that we’re responsible for, and a fulfillment of that initial vision.

Let’s back up: what’s at the root of your interest in sustainable design?

Sustainability has been a part of my work since graduate school, and at my first role working in Frankfurt, Germany on a “low entropy house.” The idea was that you could build a project that was energy-efficient, materially thoughtful, and actually was net-energy-positive; this was back in 1992. We codified the work on sustainable design from an architectural perspective.

But even further back, I grew up in the suburbs around New York. My understanding of nature was that it was a thing “out there” — a very romantic, Ansel Adams view of pristine nature. But when I was 16, I spent a month in Wyoming hiking with NOLS. That was a turning point for me. I recognized the core lessons of leaving a light footprint. I saw that human action had a tremendous impact on the environment. Years later, I went back to NOLS in Alaska and did another month-long trip. I believed there was a path for me in the integration of human settlement and the rising importance of climate change.

Sustainability requires us to rethink and redesign basically everything. That’s an enormous opportunity to figure out how to do it better. It also happens to be an imperative for human survival.

What are some of the things you’re most proud of accomplishing in your work?

For the most part, design schools, art schools, and business schools continue to educate students the way they did in the 20th century: for an industrial economy based on mass production, consumption, and planned obsolescence. It’s a linear economy from creation to grave, as opposed to cradle to cradle; very much resource-intensive and extractive, and very short-term. All those things could be accommodated in the 20th century. But not now. So education needed to change to recognize we’re living in a post-industrial society; we’re living in the Anthropocene.

Today, we require a very different approach to education. It has to be trans-disciplinary, focused on complex problems like climate, environment, urbanization, aging populations, food… they’re all interrelated. So what we’ve done that I’m most proud of is to change our curriculum from that 20th century model to one that embraces these dynamics of the 21st century as an opportunity to remake the world around us.

Every student that graduates from Parsons, whether they’re a fashion designer or part of one of 30 of our different programs, should have a foundational knowledge of sustainability and how their work is related to. Every one of them walks out of here sensitized to the role of the designer in the contemporary world. Not every student will be a Stella McCartney, but lots of them will. To me, educating that community of practitioners for the future is the thing I’m most proud of. Every year, Parsons graduates roughly 1,500 students who go out into the world with this knowledge base.

What’s your advice to other practitioners looking to transition to a more sustainable approach?

The field of design woke up to this over the last 30 years. There isn’t a practice out there that isn’t addressing some aspect of sustainability and climate change. People want sustainable projects: they’d rather have energy efficiency in their homes and businesses; they’d rather have healthy products to wear and foods to consume. There are scale questions still to be addressed, but there are massive companies now getting into organic food, sustainable agriculture, more environmentally responsible packaging and shipping: you see that happening. You’re starting to see the beginning of a paradigm shift.

So I would say to any other practitioners: they know this is coming. There are plenty of ways to educate oneself. There’s a lot of learning going on through practice. The thing we’re coming up against now is the urgency required by the moment in which we. In order to hand off to the next generation a planet that’s even viable for human life, we need new performance criteria. The Green New Deal is quite brilliant because it sets up these areas where we need to strive to do better. And it is a true paradigm shift.

What do you see as the biggest challenges right now facing the field?

The biggest challenge facing the fields of art, design, and business — which is a lot! — is the urgency and the time for transition. There’s every reason to believe that we can make these changes; we’ve made radical changes before, like technological change, communication advances. These things happen reasonably quickly. I do think the urgency of this moment and the entrenched interests of the prior economy are really coming into conflict, however. That speaks to the contested nature of change. This is not just about energy. It’s about everything we do and how we function. Some of the fundamental challenges will be about precisely the nature of an individual’s right to pollute as much as they please.

Disruption is never a fun thing. In this case, this is probably the most comprehensive disruption that the species has faced. The planet has gone through lots of them, but usually species don’t survive that. Being someone who believes in a positive future, I choose the more optimistic path. So the biggest challenge is urgency and a just transition.

What are you excited about that you’re working on in the university?

One example: we are partnering with the NorthLight Foundation and the Tishman Environment and Design Center to develop training programs for environmental justice organizations to scale up and support their capacity to help bring about a just transition. We have an inter-generational challenge; a lot of the mainstream environmental organizations are not inspiring youth to engage in this work in the way they need to. So I’m very excited about that.

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Spotlight On:

Coral Vita

What's the Story?

From their base in Grand Bahama, the Coral Vita team is tackling the global crisis of coral degradation by putting to work new methods of growing coral. Their hope? To combat the damage our oceans have already endured. Started by two concerned Yale grads in 2015, Coral Vita has come up with new methods of coral restoration that work fast and are effective at scale.

How are they different?

Coral reefs aren’t just the home of fish; they are critical components of our global ecosystem. To that end, Coral Vita is piloting a program to farm coral terrestrially using a mission-driven for-profit model. Coral Vita’s approach is to build a network of land-based coral farms around the world, using the expertise of top coral scientists to grow corals up to 50 times faster than existing ocean-based projects.

What inspires us?

Not only do coral reefs support 25% of marine life, but they’re also important to the livelihoods of about a billion people globally — and are dying at a rapid pace. To solve a problem that big, you need an equally big solution. Coral Vita’s vision for large-scale restoration, thanks to their innovative farming methods and for-profit model working with local stakeholders, suggests a bold new path to managing planetary health concerns.

Q&A

Sam Teicher

Co-Founder, Coral Vita

For many, coral reefs exist only as seen on vacation: beautiful underwater worlds filled with colorful fish, alien-like anemones and vibrant marine life. But the reality is that coral reefs aren’t just pretty pictures. They’re critical components of our ecosystem and the global economy, supporting nearly 25% of marine life and about a billion people. And they’re in serious duress. More than half of the Great Barrier Reef is dead; 80% of Caribbean reefs are dead; 95% of reefs in the Florida Keys are dead, thanks to recent spikes in ocean temperature. To Sam Teicher, co-founder of coral restoration company Coral Vita, the best way to combat this global crisis is to develop a sustainable, scalable restoration solution. Their approach: farm coral on land, in an innovative practice that puts cutting-edge technology and scientific practices to work restoring corals nearly 50 times faster than other methods. Teicher shared his in-depth knowledge of the current coral crisis with Musings. The takeaway? Projects like Coral Vita prove that hope, backed up by investment and science, can thrive even in the face of overwhelming odds.

Using microfragmenting, slow-growing species like this Brain coral here can be raised in months rather than decades. Photo credit: Mote Marine Lab

What first sparked your interest in coral reefs and reef health? How did that experience kickstart your development of Coral Vita?

Coral Vita’s deepest roots lie in my lifelong love for the ocean. My parents got my brother and me scuba certifications for our bar mitzvahs, and there’s no other place I’d rather be than exploring underwater worlds. Together with my parents raising us on the principle of Tikkun Ha’Olam (“repair of the world”), I was always drawn towards fixing problems. As I grew older, this ranged from public education reform to Middle East peacemaking to, eventually, climate change.

After graduating college, I launched the environmental branch of ELI Africa, a non-profit in Mauritius. While there, I partnered with the Mauritius Oceanography Institute to get United Nations funding to restore a lagoon’s reef. It was amazing to see life return to barren seascapes; fishermen started setting up traps in areas they’d stopped fishing years before.

After Mauritius I started a master’s program at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, where I became friends with my co-founder Gator Halpern. We bonded over our shared feeling that public policy, academia, and NGOs weren’t solving some of the most urgent environmental crises. Together, we came to believe that starting up a mission-driven for-profit could revolutionize coral reef restoration, unlocking a model to sustainably finance large-scale projects. From that back-porch idea, Coral Vita was born.

Not a bad business trip: visiting the Cozumel Coral Reef Restoration Program.

Coral reefs are facing critical health challenges around the world. But for many, they’re out of sight, out of mind. Why should land-dwellers be concerned about the vitality of our reefs?

Coral reefs are one of the most magnificent ecosystems on the planet. They’re also one of the most important. Found in nearly one hundred countries and territories, coral reefs sustain 25% of marine life and the livelihoods of up to one billion people. They’re a growing source of life-saving pharmaceuticals. And through fisheries, tourism, and coastal protection, they generate $30 billion annually, at least.

In addition to serving as homes and nurseries to iconic marine species like turtles, clownfish, and octopuses, coral reefs underpin fisheries that feed people from coastal villages to downtown sushi restaurants. When scuba divers and snorkelers plan their trips, they seek out those same species and vibrant colors. What’s more, for those tourists who prefer lounging on wide open beaches rather than plunging into the ocean, that lovely warm sand? It’s there because of healthy reefs. And coral reefs act like natural seawalls, protecting lives and infrastructure by reducing wave energy an average 97%.

Global reef degradation threatens fishing communities, coastal residents, and industries dependent on reef attractions. It’s going to amplify the global refugee crisis, increase damages from hurricanes and typhoons, and wipe out some of the most majestic life on the planet. Whether you’re an ocean-lover or have never stepped foot in the sea, coral reef health matters to you.

Co-Founders Gator Halpern and Sam Teicher are on a mission to protect the world’s coral reefs.

What’s Coral Vita’s role in helping to rejuvenate the underwater ecosystem? How does your system work? What are the biggest challenges so far? 

Coral Vita envisions a world with healthy coral reefs for future generations. To that end, we’re building out a global network of land-based commercial coral farms that can carry out ecologically and economical scalable reef restoration. We’ve teamed up with some of the world’s leading coral scientists, incorporating their methods to grow corals up to 50x faster while strengthening their resiliency to warming and acidifying oceans.

Very few people have attempted for-profit reef restoration, and none have tried it with land-based coral farming. To our knowledge, no one had tried raising an investment round for a reef restoration company before. It’s been quite a journey. With the support of angels, ocean champions, and institutional investors, we raised nearly $1.5M in our Seed Round to launch our pilot farm in partnership with the Grand Bahama Port Authority and GB DEVCO.

When we were developing Coral Vita, we asked ourselves: Instead of applying for grants to achieve small-scale impact, what if customers that depend on reefs’ immense tourism, fisheries, and coastal protection value paid to restore dying reefs? As reefs die, their bottom lines will collapse, too.

With that in mind, Coral Vita sells reef restoration to such clients, like hotels, developers, governments, coastal insurers, and development agencies. We also turn our coral farms into eco-tourism attractions and education centers. We can then reinvest into supporting more restoration. Integrating local communities is key to our model, too. As they benefit or suffer most from the health of their reefs, their buy-in involvement is crucial.

Coral Vita Chief Science Officer Stephen Ranson and Co-Founder Gator Halpern checking out the tank set-up at the Mote Marine Lab.

What’s your advice to an average observer concerned about reef health? What actions can we take to support the efforts to improve reef health?

The best thing to do for reefs is to stop killing them. Pressure your elected officials to support legislation to mitigate climate change and promote healthy oceans, whether by voting, contacting them, or inviting them to participate in events. Demand industry leaders change their methods if their businesses are killing corals. Find ways to get the media to focus on the importance of this story.

On a personal level, there are some other easy things to do, too. Start using reef-safe sunscreens, as some contain chemicals that can kill corals (Environmental Working Group has a list of good ones). Buy your seafood from places that certify fish were caught using acceptable methods (overfishing and certain practices can damage reef health). Get kids inspired by ocean life from an early age, so they grow up to protect the ecosystems that sustain us all. And come down to Grand Bahama and plant corals with us!

When you consider reef health globally, are there any areas that are of particular concern? What about any places where there’s cause for hope?

Coral reef health is in bad shape globally. On average, more than 80% of Caribbean reefs are dead — though that isn’t as scary as the nearly 95% of reefs dead in the Florida Keys alone. The big news is that more than half of the Great Barrier Reef bleached and died over the past few years from spikes in ocean temperature. Half of one of the largest, richest, miraculous, and important ecosystems on Earth: gone, just like that.

Fortunately, reasons for hope remain. Some corals in places like Samoa, the Red Sea, and elsewhere have demonstrated a natural ability to withstand heat spikes. Marine protected areas, many of which have been dubbed ‘Hope Spots’ by the legendary Dr. Sylvia Earle, are being established in critically important ocean zones, and often show signs of recovery. And breakthroughs in coral farming are helping.

For instance, Organizations like the XPRIZE are launching a Saving Coral Reefs XPRIZE to spur innovation in the field. In the right conditions, coral reefs have been restored in every part of the world.

One of Coral Vita’s most innovative initiatives is growing land-based coral farms, a departure from traditional methods of underwater coral farming. How do land-based coral farms work, and what’s the intended use—and potential benefit?

Instead of the limited ocean-based coral farming system, Coral Vita uses high-tech commercial land-based farms. Basically, it’s an aquaculture set-up: a series of tanks are linked together by a plumbing system drawing in a steady source of clean seawater. Shade cloths are deployed overhead, helping regulate the temperatures of the tanks, which are populated with fragments of living coral. We collect fragments of coral from the ocean (native to the country we’re working in) and bring them back to the farm. Much like grafting or replanting cuttings from trees or flowers, these coral fragments grow in our farms for 6-12 months before we then outplant them back out into the reefs.

By using a land-based farming system, we can achieve unprecedented levels of scale for restoration; we can potentially grow enough corals for an entire country from one farm, with greater control over growing conditions, too. By collaborating with communities, scientists, governments, and the private sector to supply restoration projects with more diverse, resilient, and affordable corals, we believe we can help preserve global reefs despite the threats they face.

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Susan Rockefeller