Kate Orff (College '93), a Macarthur Fellow
Genius. It’s a word that gets thrown around a good bit these days to describe people who excel in any number of fields. But there is a special fraternity of people who wear the tag by earning it in the form of the prestigious MacArthur fellowship, or as they are more commonly known, to the dismay of most recipients, as genius grants. Joining those ranks this year, and receiving a $625,000 no-strings grant in the process, is Landscape Architect and UVA alumna Kate Orff. Orff, the first landscape architect to receive the honor, majored in Political and Social Thought at UVA before going on to receive a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Harvard.
She has been a regular presence in the School of Architecture in the years since leaving Grounds, including serving as its Benjamin C. Howland Memorial Lecturer in 2012. Orff recently told UVA Today that her diverse, multidisciplinary academic experience at UVA has played an important role in her career success. “I got to pursue my interests in politics, ecology and environmental science,” she said, “and bring all those to bear on my career as a landscape architect.” As a student studying in the Political and Social Thought program at UVA, Orff put together a major called eco-feminism through which she was able to deeply investigate women’s studies, environmental studies and issues of social justice through a political lens. Years later, when she founded the landscape architecture and urban design firm, SCAPE, in 2007, these critical connections played an important role in the ethos of the practice which fosters a culture of advocacy and research. The firm is known for systemic, visionary projects that combine ecological revitalization with community engagement. This approach builds on the interdisciplinary nature of her studies at UVA and coursework in women’s studies, anthropology, environmental sciences, and the fine arts. Orff’s commitment to proactively build a constituency of engaged eco-citizens is another meaningful aspect of SCAPE’s work. As such, despite the singular honor of the genius grant, Orff is quick to recognize that her work is manifested by community engagement and collective visioning.
One of the highlights of her firm’s work has been Living Breakwaters,an initiative she and her team designed in response to the Rebuild by Design competition that was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the wake of superstorm Sandy and the structural and environmental devastation it caused throughout the coastal communities in New York and surrounding areas. The project is focused on revitalizing the southern shore of Staten Island in order to ensure that it is better prepared when future storms strike. The concept is to replenish the eroding and increasingly vulnerable shoreline with offshore breakwaters that create structural habitat for marine life, and protective onshore dunes. The project, which is being implemented by the NY State Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, will include a robust education program in coordination with the Billion Oyster Project, where Orff also serves as a Board Member. The benefits include reducing the negative impacts of wave damage and erosion, thus maintaining the beauty and health of the Staten Island shoreline for residents and marine life. Especially given the ongoing dangers to coastal cities around the globe, caused by climate change and more frequent and often unpredictable storms, Orff points out the value of projects like hers. “We absolutely have to think differently about the relationship between cities and water,” she told UVA Today, “and be proactive about not only planning for resilient communities, but planning to rebuild ecological systems.”