Climate change is teaching designers to expand their horizons—or at least it should

The Changing Tide

Climate change is teaching designers to expand their horizons—or at least it should

A future flood map of Mastic, New York. Right: A plan for densifying the town’s high, dry ground and retreating from the shoreline. (Courtesy Rafi Segal and Susannah Drake)

A lot can happen in the space between a book’s title and subtitle, as A Blueprint for Coastal Adaptation: Uniting Design, Economics, and Policy (Island Press, 2021) demonstrates. Here, in a reversal from the norm, the subtitle assumes the more evocative bent by elevating design to the same status as economics and policy. To some, this might seem a spurious move, but the volume lives its creed: Its editors include two design academics and a business school professor, to say nothing about the myriad backgrounds of its contributors.

Blueprint goes deep into the policy decisions that have shaped the brittle condition of coastal infrastructure. It coalesces into a convincing picture of the wider context in which design operates, with the aim of making the built environment more equitable for those caught on the front lines of certain climate change cataclysm.

The cover of Blueprint for Coastal Adaptation: Uniting Design, Economics, and Policy
Blueprint argues for drastically rethinking waterfront development. (Courtesy Island Press)

Much of the book gets down in the weeds, which is arguably an appropriate place for it to be, considering its predilection for soft barrier-planted landscapes that act as permeable water breaks. There’s an entire chapter on flood insurance, which reminds us that it’s impossible to fully insure against flooding and other climate-related events that are guaranteed to grow in frequency. We learn of the discrepancy between FEMA disaster relief funds for homeowners and renters ($35 billion vs. $1 billion, according to 2017 figures) and of the unexpected knock-on effects of coastal inundation, like what happens to the 1,000 superfund sites prone to leaching out a toxic slurry when wet. And, just to remind us that climate has a habit of revealing the interconnectedness of systems, there are investigations linking saltwater encroachment in the Delaware River with Philadelphia’s drinking water. Lastly, and more conventionally for these types of anthologies, there are design prescriptions for threatened coastal cities that don’t quite add up to a blueprint.

Though it presents a mix of solutions ranging from the reformist to the transformative, Blueprint is consistently, if implicitly, critical of the private sector’s ability to get to grips with the problem of coastal adaptation. The editors are much more frank about the polarities that characterize the system within which architects and planners—but also economists, lawyers, and policymakers—find themselves. In one of the most compelling chapters, contributors Karen M’Closkey and Keith VanDerSys call to account the social and financial inequities that have left Black and Brown communities especially vulnerable to climate change. There can be no meaningful adaptation for coastal towns and cities, they argue, without a massive wealth transfer that reverses the tide of current political economy.

I interviewed Billy Fleming, director of the McHarg Center at the University of Philadelphia, who edited the book alongside Carolyn Kousky, an executive at the Wharton Risk Center, University of Pennsylvania, and Alan Berger, MIT landscape architecture and urbanism professor and founding director of the school’s P-REX lab. We discussed where design activism starts and stops, what’s driving the climate adaptation projects that are happening right now, and how the threat of climate change alters the timeline for coastal mitigation.

A long stretch of coastline
Elevation-based zoning is one of several strategies considered in the book. (Courtesy Rafi Segal and Susannah Drake)

Zach Mortice: One of your co-editors is from a business school, and the book has as many chapters on policy as it does on design. What are you trying to say to designers?

Billy Fleming: That we can just think of design as a professional service like any other, not as this wholly unique field populated by creative geniuses. It’s that view that leads designers to make what are pretty libertarian, deregulatory arguments about why they should be able to do whatever they want to in the built environment. For this book, it was important for us to think about design as one of many pieces that are needed to think through the generational, century-plus challenge of adapting to the climate crisis. It’s certainly true that the best mode of adaptation is mitigation, and that’s where we should be directing significant resources. But we put so much carbon into the atmosphere that we no longer have the luxury of investing ourselves in [a debate over choosing] mitigation or adaptation—we have to find ways, within and well beyond design, to do both at once. So I think this book is about trying to situate it in that larger ecosystem of climate adaptation and helping designers—and then the other folks who are a part of the ecosystem—figure out how to relate to one another; how to do the work that’s needed over the next 20, 50, 100 years better and faster. Because we need to do it much better and faster than we’re doing it now.

Landscape architecture moves through cycles of wanting to tackle “big” problems and pursuing more localist approaches. Why is fusing policy-based advocacy with design like this a more novel approach?

There’s not a culture of organizing; there’s not a culture of advocacy or political engagement in landscape architecture. No one gets any political education during their time in school. And once you leave school, you are forced to work too many hours to even begin engaging with the world outside the walls of your firm’s office. So it’s just going to take some time. One of the things that is heartening to me is that every time I put out something on this topic, the flood of notes I get from junior and early-career designers and academics is just overwhelming. There’s a real appetite in the field for this. If we think the climate crisis is a generational challenge, then we have to put people in positions of power who are of the generation that will have to face that challenge.

How do you want this book to be used?

For us, it was important to get this book together when we did because we were hopeful that a future administration—our present administration—would take it seriously and incorporate it into the first 100 days or first-year of policymaking. What [such an administration] would really need was a central reference that they could go to, and not have to dig through a mountain of literature and experts. So for us, the hope was always that this book could bring these different threads of expertise together. As for our other goal, we’d like for it to bring designers into this larger set of conversations about all the other forces that shape and bound their work, which are obviously much larger than any one project, any one firm, any one local government.

A plan indicating different street elevations
These street sections illustrate how elevation-based zoning would work, with more development clustered on high, dry ground. (Courtesy Rafi Segal And Susannah Drake)

What did you learn about how we typically fund and execute climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies?

The current mode of climate adaptation is basically triaging, in which wealthy cities like New York, San Francisco, and to a lesser extent Miami and Houston can—at least for the short-to-medium term—afford to do small-scale climate adaptation work through financing luxury real estate development. So every TIF or special increment financing district that’s set up in those places is designed to do essentially that: to incentivize luxury real estate development somewhere, often along the waterfront, and to use the excess tax revenue from it to pay for local climate adaptation infrastructure. That creates problems in a myriad of ways. The two most important is that it’s a system in which only the wealthiest cities in this country will ever be able to afford climate adaptation. For lots of reasons, I think that’s a horrible system to perpetuate. The second is that even in those cities that can at this moment afford to do it, that kind of shell game just isn’t going to last for very long.

In their chapter, Joyce Coffee and Sarah Dobie compare adaptation responses in cities and in the rural hinterlands. The former is a closed-door process between technocrats and the private sector, whereas the latter appears to be grassroots-driven because of the absence of institutional support in those areas. Without those institutions, designers have a difficult time finding work in a place like rural Louisiana. How can the situation be helped?

Well, there are firms like Kate Orff’s SCAPE, Susannah Drake’s DLAND, and Chris Marcinkoski and his colleagues over at PORT that have been working in the South for a long time. But like you’re saying, they’ve been able to do that work by going through cultural institutions that in some ways insulate them from market forces. I think this gets us to one of the fundamental differences between the profession and the academy. If you’re in the profession, you’re bound by market forces and really have no choice about that. Even nonprofit practices like MASS Design are largely bound by the larger forces of global capitalism that direct, or deny, investment to certain places. They can only go where money flows.

For those of us in the academy, we are to some degree unencumbered by such constraints. We can devote ourselves to long-term engagement and trust-building work in places that are never going to be well-served by this country’s political economy. The rural parts of Louisiana that Joyce and her colleagues are talking about fit that description, as do parts of Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, the Corn Belt, the Great Plains, and Montana’s Big Sky country, once you get away from of all the billionaire cabins up there. As leaders of design studios, we should be spending our time in these areas. And what’s interesting is that the people we work with in those places can have a much more radical vision for the future than any designer is capable of dreaming up. What they are sometimes missing is that little bit of work that they can organize themselves around.

A rendering of east harlem covered in greenery
In this proposal for East Harlem, hardtop is replaced with layered, permeable landscaping. (Courtesy One Architecture & Urbanism)

In one of the final chapters of the book, Fadi Masoud and David Vega-Barachowitz introduce the idea of flux zoning, where zoning parameters change automatically in response to external conditions and performance metrics. For example, as more households become rent-burdened or more climate refugees flee to a given area, the percentage of affordable housing required in new developments would rise. But automatically triggered zoning changes could be tied to solar power generation, biodiversity, open space, water retention, and more. Given the continually worsening effects of climate change, does it not make sense to apply this “flux” approach to other regulations beyond zoning?

Flux zoning is basically about building some ability to learn from experience into your zoning code, which we don’t really have in the United States. I think it’s a fabulous sort of ending to the book that begins to synthesize some of the pilot designs of projects that are present at the beginning of the book with some of the more wonky policy, legal, or economic contributions that come toward the center and end of the book.

In some ways, flux zoning has roots in something called rolling setbacks. In island nations, especially nations in the Caribbean and South Pacific, where a significant chunk of their economy is based on tourism, inevitably those things are knocked out every however many years by a hurricane or by some other kind of event. A rolling setback basically says that when that happens, that property is essentially, at least for a period of time, turned over to the state. It’s almost like eminent domain: The property owner is compensated in other ways, either financially or with other property elsewhere on the island.

Where does this idea of continually shifting parameters regarding design and regulatory systems leave our definitions of sustainability and resilience? What gets left out when designers, planners, and policymakers talk about reaching some kind of static equilibrium—a permanent state of resilience?

There is this idea that when you solve the project delivery questions, then you’re kind of set because you get to go build a bunch of stuff and then the task is over. We can look at the rest of the world around us to know where that kind of thinking has led us, which is to a bunch of crumbling infrastructure that’s filled with water when a slightly heavier-than-normal rain event happens. Or if you’re in Texas, you have an electrical grid that collapses when you get a weeklong cold spell. I think Fadi’s contribution is really interesting in that it’s arguing that climate adaptation work is never done. That’s an important message to have in a book like this, because it’s easy to just say, “Well, the way that we solve the climate crisis is spending X trillion dollars on Y amount of infrastructure,” and not thinking through those larger, longer-term sort of operational and management questions. It’s just how people live with the legacy of the built environment that was delivered to them.