Global warming exists largely beyond our intellectual faculties as designers and practitioners. It has always done, and will continue to do so; the Anthropocene thesis illustrates this. As the canons of architecture and landscape architecture sober to this reality, we are reminded of th paradox, “the law locks up the man or woman who steals the goose from the common, but leaves the greater felon loose who steals the common from the goose.” As an operational discipline, we repeatedly adulterate systems that exist beyond our perceptive faculties. Like the goose who lacked the faculties to perceive its commons, we lack the capacity to fully understand the deterioration of our commons. Global warming is a wicked problem in that it is unique, irreducible, and irreversible—with no way to distinguish exactly when the problem arose and when it will cease. Even if we never send another carbon atom skyward, the events that have begun to manifest must continue to play out.
Contemporary global warming verbiage is concerned with resilience—a policy term laden with the idea of resisting and bouncing back from extreme events and natural disasters, comparing environmental risk to national security. The Presidential Policy Directive (PPD21) on Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience states that “the term resilience means the ability to prepare for and adapt to changing conditions and withstand and recover rapidly from disruptions. Resilience includes the ability to withstand and recover from deliberate attacks, accidents or naturally occurring threats or incidents”. Whereas we find that adaptive capacity, an emerging discourse for addressing global warming defined as the potential or capability of a system to adapt to (or alter to better suit climatic stimuli), speaks more to an interconnected whole and represents a more productive design directive to address the intersection between the city and shifting climate forces. Hard boundaries and defensive infrastructure exacerbate an already increasing dissonance between urbanization and environmental change, as in the example of sea level rise. Normative approaches to resilience are most simply critiqued through the contemporary anecdote that there are two types of dikes, ones that have failed and ones that will. If problems get the solutions they deserve based on the terms on which they are outlined as problems then it is unsurprising that our contemporary design toolkit and terminology is both reductive and ill-equipped to deal with the emerging climate catastrophe.
The design of the future resilient city is predicated on its inherent adaptive capacity—something that cannot be achieved through hard and inflexible engineering solutions. Landscape architecture and urbanism are best positioned to address these problems given their vocabulary of flows, exchanges, and reciprocity, issues largely overlooked by architecture and conventional engineering. Contemporary design can no longer afford to subjugate ecology and climate change—design taxonomies of inflexible, object-oriented structures and systems are maladaptive and ultimately undermine the long-term adaptive capacity of urban systems. Resilient cities demand systems-oriented design thinking, in which complementary design systems contain the potential for transformation and are more closely entangled with emerging climate conditions. Resilient cities will emerge as finely tuned networks of reciprocity between urban and ecological systems.
Resilient design abolishes mono-functionality and reductive aesthetics in favor of open ended design—programming that is multi-faceted, flexible and dynamic, shifting to thrive under new climatic and urban conditions. Finely calibrated, these interchanges between landscape infrastructure, urban systems and architectural design can create cities that are dynamic, flexible and continually activated by shifting ecological and social requirements. As a result, the foundation for the future resilient city is landscape urbanism, an organizational fabric of sophisticated landscape infrastructure and urban systems that work in tandem with ecology and architecture as complementary armatures.
Hayden White and Elvis Wong are designers in the Laguna Beach studio.