by Alice Guess
The conversation around resiliency in the built environment in the face of Sea Level rise and climate change has reached a fevered pitch. Maybe it is because in the last month the southeast has seen a thousand year flood event and record setting high tides in the past week. Maybe it is because of devastating drought in California and the mudslides that followed the rains when they finally came. Maybe it was the threat of a super storm on the west coast of Mexico, that thankfully was not as catastrophic as predicted. But people everywhere are talking about what we can do now to prepare ourselves for extreme weather calamities and gradual rising temperatures and rising water. And most of the talk isn’t pretty, because the facts aren’t pretty. It is indeed sobering to think about familiar places, that we have invested our professional and personal lives in, becoming uninhabitable for our children or grandchildren. Imagery on websites like NOAA’s coastal flood exposure website contribute to this bleak outlook as we see a familiar coastline engulfed in shades of red and orange. It is enough to make us throw up our hands, move inland and leave our coastal cities to become tomorrow’s Atlantis.
Maybe we should fall back on the wise words etched on the cover of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “DON’T PANIC.”
Maybe we need to look at this issue another way. Maybe we all need to meet these problems like architects and designers would meet them. Think about it. Good architects take challenges and turn them into opportunities. Since we first started making buildings, settlements, and cites we have taken the vulnerabilities of humans persisting on this planet amongst the elements and turned them into opportunities to elevate that experience into something greater than the sum of the limitations themselves. An architect knows that a roof can be more than shelter; a wall can be more than just a screen from the wind. Good architecture responds to the particular challenges of that roof and that wall in that place at that time. No matter how high the water gets, that same thinking still applies.
So architects need to take the lead on this conversation. For the most part, we have been doing that at the level of individual projects that anticipate disruptive changes in given environments. Now that the conversation is reaching the level of municipalities and regions, we need to raise our voices to address resiliency at a much larger scale. As daunting as the challenges facing our current infrastructure seem, we need to remember that one hundred years ago much of those systems didn’t exist. The projected consequences of sea level rise and climate change over the next century are pretty clear at this point, so now we need to start imagining what our new infrastructure needs will be and how they will change how we live in the places we love.
Architects are, by the very nature of what we do, best positioned to lead the response to these challenges in a way that not only insures we can persist but that persisting can be beautiful and comfortable and safe and functional. So architects need to step up and take our seat at the table and start leading the way. We need to reclaim the conversation from the insurance industry and statisticians who focus on “hazard” and “risk”. Let’s start talking about possibilities and opportunities, to start designing our future. And remember to bring your towel.
Alice Guess is a professor of Architecture & Urban Design at SCAD.