“High-consequence risks have a distinctive quality. The more calamitous the hazards they involve, the less we have any real experience of what we risk: for if things ‘go wrong’, it is already too late.” Anthony Giddens NASA’s recent finding that regardless of what humanity does, the world is locked into a roughly three-foot sea level… Read more »
“High-consequence risks have a distinctive quality. The more calamitous the hazards they involve, the less we have any real experience of what we risk: for if things ‘go wrong’, it is already too late.” Anthony Giddens
NASA’s recent finding that regardless of what humanity does, the world is locked into a roughly three-foot sea level rise is extremely troubling given that many major cities were constructed on coasts before climate change was even an issue. Living in Manhattan when New York City was struck by Hurricane Sandy was an eye-opening experience. While the wind and rain were bad, they caused only a fraction of the damage wrought by the storm surge. Entire neighborhoods in lower Manhattan were flooded, and the subway system, the city’s lifeblood, was shut down.
While the city has bounced back from this disaster, it’s hard to understand how such a forward-thinking metropolis with great resources didn’t anticipate the potential for a disaster of this magnitude. Even so, there was a silver lining: Now that everyone there is acutely aware of risks, they are becoming more proactive in putting their considerable resources to work in an effort to make the entire region safer.
Living in Southern California now, I’m experiencing another urban region grappling with risks that could be more crippling than a one-time hurricane event. California has long understood and attempted to mitigate the risk that earthquakes have posed to the state; but as weather patterns continue to shift, the population continues to grow, and developed land area increases, the drought we are experiencing will become increasingly severe.
While California has faced droughts before, the current drought is proving to be among the worst ever recorded. The most visible effect to the average person has been the mandated residential water usage restrictions. But this represents only a small part of California’s response. As landscape architects we are required to design with stricter Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (MWELO) guidelines, reducing the amount of water used by our designs. This may have little short-term impact in terms of alleviating the current drought; but over years of designing with these regulations, California will be in a much better position to withstand the next dry spell.
Having lived in two different cities that are facing drastically different risks, it’s clear that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for preparing to face the risks of the future. Rather, cities need to adapt to environmental crises through a strong understanding of their unique aspects and challenges, and how they are affected by larger changes taking place in the world. The repercussions of climate change are farther-reaching than many of us have considered: Recent scholarship traces the Syrian refugees’ civil unrest and subsequent persecution to a six-year drought during which 85 percent of their livestock died and from which farmers never recovered. “We are experiencing a surprising uptick in global insecurity…partially due to our inability to manage climate stress,” explains Marc Levy, Deputy Director of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), a unit of The Earth Institute at Columbia University.
As the professionals helping to design this fragile future, it is our responsibility to advocate for proactive, responsible, long-term solutions to the risks facing those wherever we work.
Daniel Dobson is a designer in the Laguna Beach studio.
Image of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, from November 2012, courtesy of Sgt. 1st Class Jim Greenhill, Army National Guard, via Flickr Creative Commons.