latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
Climate change is reshaping our planet: the spaces we live are becoming hotter, dryer, wetter, stormier than they have ever been before. As atmospheric carbon dioxide saturation exceeds 415 parts per million, the places we live, from rural farmland to coastal villages to sprawling metropolises, are faced with shifts in weather and climate that our built world can no longer accommodate. Faced with an enduring climate crisis, spatial designers are being called upon to help produce architectures, landscapes, and urbanisms that will allow us to inhabit our changed climate. Yet, the rush towards resilience has voided much resilient design discourse of criticality. The critical, as Marcuse puts it, is a “an evaluative attitude towards reality, a questioning rather than an acceptance of the world as it is, a taking apart and examining and attempting to understand the world.” In this framing, a critical approach reveals not only the negative, but also “the positive and the possibilities of change, implying positions on what is wrong and needing change, but also on what is desirable and needs to be built on and fostered” (Marcuse 2009, p.185). This essay explores the concept of critical spatial practice in the context of climate change adaptation: specifically, how can we integrate criticality into ‘resilient design’? Notions of the strategic and the tactical – and what lies between the two – help provide one frame for how those involved in spatial design practice might approach the complexities of adapting to climate change.
Strategies and Tactics
The ‘critical’ is often aligned with what de Certeau terms tactics – behaviors which are responsive to their immediate contexts, and which push back against existing hegemonies. De Certeau places tactics in tension with strategies – the macro-scale organization of relationships (de Certeau, 1984; Rendell, 2018). While the tactical occurs on the ground, the strategic view is from a helicopter. In contemporary parlance, the tactical parallels the bottom-up, and strategic the top-down. Response to the climate crisis calls for a form of criticality which questions the foundations upon which modern society is built: critical spatial practice works between strategies and tactics may be more effective in negotiating the multiscalar impacts of a changing climate.
The notions of strategies and tactics map onto the two primary trajectories in designing for climate change. Strategic resilience comprises big plans, like Jakarta’s Giant Sea Wall with reclaimed islands in the form of the mythical garuda bird; or New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio’s recent proposal to extend Manhattan into the East River in an attempt to buffer the Financial District from rising tides; or BIG’s recent floating island scheme for climate refugees. The strategic approach adopts sea walls, polders, widened rivers, reclaimed land, and large-scale development and is driven by multilateral organizations, governments, A&E firms, and starchitects. Meanwhile, tactical resilience strategies are individual or community-led adaptations to climate change. Tactics are often applied in response to the top-down nature of big plans, which may unintentionally or purposefully neglect the needs of marginalized or vulnerable residents. Community resilience tactics include the counterplans (Goh, 2016: 47) produced by grassroots groups, community organizers, and activists in response or resistance to strategic projects. Individual resilience tactics are adaptations at the individual or household scale, be it fortifying the coastline at a beachfront home, elevating the first floor in a flood zone, clearing flammable debris around the house in areas with fire risk, or relocating out of hazardous areas entirely.
Environmental risks are fundamentally interconnected. This is particularly clear with water – like Archimedes in his bathtub, displaced water has to go somewhere. In John McPhee’s The Control of Nature he describes the interdependent relationships of the Mississippi’s flood control infrastructure:
“Anywhere along the river, people were safer if the levee failed across the way. If you lived on the east side, you might not be sad if water flooded west. You were also safer if the levee broke on your own side downstream.” (McPhee, 1989: 41)
Today, as long-shut US floodways are bursting open, and communities are at arms over disparate levee heights, this is abundantly clear. Similarly, sea walls designed to keep coastal waters at bay can heighten storm surges outside of their bounds, on top of their acceleration of erosion and disruption of ecosystems. This interconnection is multiscalar: a household coastal embankment can mean bigger waves on a neighbor’s beach; a new development in a floodplain can exacerbate flooding further down the watershed; and berms, dikes, and seawalls around a city displace floodwaters into the surrounding districts. National policies which promote carbon-intensive economies contribute to rising seas and extreme weather across the globe, and increasingly prevalent proposals for geoengineering the atmosphere will similarly transform the climate for all, likely in uneven and unpredictable ways. Of course, tactical interventions against flooding can also have shared goods: my retention basin will also reduce flooding in your yard.
This inside/outside dichotomy of many flood control infrastructures unsurprisingly leads to contestation. This was made particularly visible during the 2011 floods in Bangkok, where the King’s Dike which encircles the city, while reducing flooding inside its bounds, heightened floods in the surrounding area- outside the city’s political boundaries but within its ever-growing urban agglomeration. This strategic plan led to a tactical response: so-called “flood mobs” from the flooded districts descended on the dike, disassembling it with their bare hands. Lines cannot be drawn around water so easily.
Climate Resilience as collective project
Given the way that individual vulnerability to climate and environmental risks is linked to our neighbors’, our community’s, and also other communities’ both near and far, it is clear that equitable climate resilience is inherently a collective and cross-scalar project. Neither strategic nor tactical responses are sufficient on their own. Normative strategic projects “see like a state,” (Scott, 1998) through their inherent simplifications – which are interlinked with the resilience imaginaries of those implementing the strategies – and as such fail to “see” specific needs individuals on the ground. Those living outside of the dike in Bangkok, or similarly those inhabiting so-called slums along waterways in Manila, Jakarta, and Ho Chi Minh City, are often invisible to strategic representations and as such easily excluded from top-down so-called ‘resilient’ plans.
Tactical adaptation actions are also inadequate, limited to small spatial and social scales. Any project undertaken by a defined group inevitably has an outside. Tactical resilience cannot easily tackle large, systemic problems and moreover, many of the most vulnerable groups lack the capacity with which to effectively adapt tactically at all. In both strategic and tactical versions of resilience, those on society’s margins are most likely to be to excluded, even though these are the groups that will face the brunt of climate risks. Both approaches have limits: adaptation requires strategic thinking across large swathes of time and space; but tactical consideration of local needs and voices is fundamental to ensuring that resilience is not excluded to only elite, vocal, or easily visible populations.
Critical Resilient Design
Equitable models for resilience require an ability to work between the strategic and the tactical, but critical frameworks often prioritize tactical approaches. Following Marcuse’s definition of the critical as a transformative tool, to effectively negotiate spatial design issues around climate risk and resilience, critical spatial practice should provide a framework for working between strategies and tactics. Negotiating across scalar dispositions reframes adaptation projects as fundamentally interconnected “matters of concern” (Latour, 2004). The spatial design disciplines are inherently multiscalar in their work: from the plant to the park, from the mullion to the city. They are also founded upon assembling multiple ways of knowing: urban projects in particular must negotiate between policymakers, engineers, client groups, and the various expert consultants integral to any built project. Recalibrating these skillsets towards considerations around a critical approach to resilience might offer new methods adapting to our climate-changed futures. This approach offers a new positionality for design: one that provides visions of the future, yes, but does so in a way which helps to negotiate the yawning gap between to bottom and the top.
There are already examples of how design/designers might begin to play this role in the context of climate change resilience. The ENLACE Project in El Caño Martín Peña, San Juan, Puerto Rico, for example, is working to reduce flood risk in this low-income informal community by helping families relocate away from a frequently-overtopped canal. The project is organized by a coalition between 8 communities along the caño, who were able to pass territorial legislation to create ENLACE (a public corporation) as well as a community land trust. Designers at ENLACE, through a participation-heavy process, created the masterplan which includes dredging and widening the waterway to reduce flooding. Voluntarily relocated households will receive a choice of a new house in the community, designed by ENLACE with features such as structural reinforcements and first-floor elevation that reduce vulnerability in future disasters. The project operates between the strategic and tactical, working directly with vulnerable families while creating new legislation and forms of land ownership recognized by the state (the land trust) which also works to protect property rights. In the middle, ENLACE is an interdisciplinary team, “including architects, landscape architects, planners, and urban designers.” In this role, designers attempt to see from both the bottom and the top, working between scales and ways of knowing towards ensuring that these communities have agency over their own resilient futures. (Yarina, Mazereeuw, and Ovalles, forthcoming)
Other precedents from across the globe parallel ENLACE’s trend towards cross-scalar critical approaches to resilient design. The Baan Mankong and the Asian Coalition for Community Action project includes “community architects” in a process of translating dispersed visions of the future into larger community-upgrading masterplans, in a way which politicises the marginality of Bangkok slums (Boano and Kelling, 2013) (Boano and Talocci, 2017). The project helped launch the Community Architects Network, which links practitioners in nearly 20 Asian countries. In Japan following the 1995 Kobe earthquake, community-planning groups were recognized by the government in the reconstruction process, and the city funded expert consultants (architects, urban planners) to aid these groups. Many of these “machizukuri” groups were successful in changing the nature of municipal reconstruction plans, and the consultant designers served as key liaisons between the community’s and the city (Itô, 2007). In North America, landscape architects Evans and Lighter’s deeply embedded community-based design work with the Isle de Jean Charles Native American tribe led to a nuanced climate resettlement plan leveraged to successfully win a state-managed $48 million CDBG- National Disaster Resilience Grant (though since the plan’s transfer to state hands it has been significantly fraught) (Barth, 2016). All these examples are sited in marginalized communities which typically lack access to design expertise.
In each of these cases, the architect plays the role of the designer, but also of facilitator, mediator, negotiator: connecting larger scale strategies to tactics associated with individual and small community needs, but also working to bring these micro-needs to the macro, reshaping or creating larger visions from the ground up. The client-architect relationship is turned on its head. ENLACE’s work involved nearly a thousand unique community outreach efforts (del Valle, 2017), but is also enshrined in policy, and is working to fundamentally shift how we understand land rights in the context of the urban poor and environmental risks. Similarly, the Baan Mankong work uses community architects to bring slum rights into political discourse; the Kobe projects reshape the city plan but also how the city approaches planning; and the Isle de Jean Charles plan shows how values-centered design approaches can be used not only to secure funding but to provide a larger vision for how relocation will work in light of future climate risks.
There is no panacea in terms of how to design for climate change, and these micro-cases are offered here as points of discussion rather than best practices. They suggest possible modes of design practice which connect between strategic and tactical visions of resilience, illustrating positionalities for design which understands human-scale specificity and urban/regional-scale social, political, and environmental systems. Though they are for the most part limited to specific communities and rely on pre-existing social networks and strong community leaders, each in their own way offers some potential for scaling.
You cannot see everyone from the bottom, but you also cannot see everyone from the top. A critical, equitable approach to resilient design will ask us to shift who we consider our clients: not just those with the checkbooks but those living with risk on the ground. Working with communities should also mean understanding and pushing back against larger systems of economy and policy. The role of expertise is reframed – in the above projects, designers provide knowledge about built systems, but those on the ground provide knowledge about place, experience, and identity. The lens of critical resilient design further asks designers to deeply examine the ways that risk, vulnerability, and resilience are fundamentally networked: adaptation as ‘hyperobject’ (Morton, 2013). Criticality is also a form of expertise. Under a framework of the critical, we might see design as a form of activism, but also a form of mediation. Critical resilient design asks us to reconsider the boundaries we draw around projects and their impacts, as we attempt to see from both inside and out, from both the bottom and the top.