After the Floods: Australian Design Takes on Rising Seas

Living in Australia provides a glimpse into our climate-challenged future.

One morning in late January, heading for work under thick gray skies, I arrived at the ferry terminal to find it sitting in two feet of water. After days of torrential rain, the river had burst its banks, turning the neighborhood park into a water playground. Children splashed around in bare feet, and would-be commuters milled around bemusedly, taking photographs of the debris floating downriver, which had brought all city ferry services to a halt. The air was oddly calm, which is a curious characteristic of floods. They often creep up slowly, their worst effects happening not during the storm but afterwards, as accumulating floodwaters and tides spill onto sidewalks, into parks and basements, quietly exiting days later, leaving behind a thick coat of mud and mold. Apart from sandbags and the hasty removal of precious belongings, there’s not much you can do but retreat and wait.

As you may have guessed, this was not winter in America, but summer in Australia. While Americans on the east coast were still cleaning up the effects of Hurricane Sandy, the east coast of Australia was experiencing its “angry summer” of 2012-13. A report issued in March by the Australian government’s Climate Commission—a surprisingly concise and accessible 12-page missive—recounted the sobering facts: record-breaking heat and severe bushfires across the continent followed by extreme rainfall and damaging flooding on the east coast. When the remains of tropical cyclone Oswald hit, areas of Queensland and New South Wales received more than 27 inches of rainfall in 24 hours. Towns such as Bundaberg began their second major flood recovery in three years, with around 1,000 properties affected—a grim reprise of the floods of 2010–11, which caused $30 billion in damages in Queensland. The Climate Commission warned that it is “virtually certain” that extreme weather will continue to become more frequent and severe around the globe, and advised that we take “pre-ventative actions” now.

For the commission, preventative action means a commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and investment in clean energy. But beyond policy, legislation, and renewable energy, what can design and designers do? For those of us in the business of educating designers for an uncertain future, it seems that we have some questions to ask. Preventative action might not just mean designing a built environment around fossil fuel–free energy and zero emissions; it might also mean rethinking the whole premise that designers need to keep adding stuff to the world, regardless of whether it’s green, clean, or technologically advanced. It might also mean facing the inevitable and designing for disaster.

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After living in the U.S. for 20 years, it comes as something of a shock to move to a country where climate change is discussed openly and not considered a politically poisoned chalice, to the extent that a carbon tax has made it into law (though not without a fight and potential casualties in the current government). This makes it somewhat easier to embark on curriculum reform in the design program I’m now heading at the 132-year-old Queensland College of Art, part of Griffith University. Established by the theorist Tony Fry, the new Design Futures program aims to break design education out of its narrow professional constraints and deliver something closer to a design and humanities degree for students eager to have some impact on the world’s problems. This requires an ambitious expansion of the definition of design to allow it to encompass everything from pre-industrial tools to twenty-first-century approaches to design thinking. The strategies we’re looking at include elimination design: the idea that a designer might work with an organization to look into where products might be downsized, dematerialized, or completely discontinued. A manufacturer might replace a line of tools with a service, for example; parking garages planned for new condominiums might be eliminated in favor of a free bus service to the local train station.

To embark on this kind of Design Futures thinking requires an overhaul of current assumptions about lifestyle, which also calls for an interrogation of where our assumptions come from in the first place. Australians are famously well traveled, and there’s no doubt that it is easier to inspire students to question their own values when they have at least witnessed lifestyles different from their own. But this has to be a reeducation for teachers too. After all, what’s the point of teaching if you aren’t learning? Looking back at my pre-Australia, 2011 American lifestyle, with a three-bedroom house in Austin, Texas, regulation-issue Toyota Prius, and garage full of Target shopping bags, I’m reminded of how easy it is to dwell in a comfortable, anaesthetized bubble of consumerism. One did one’s “bit for the environment,” but hoped that the real work was being done by experts who could make it all OK with technology and policy (or something). Design Futures suggests that the change begins with us, with our assumptions and habits.

In his excellent chapter on Australia in the book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, author Jared Diamond argues that with an environment more fragile than any other “first world” country (other than, perhaps, Iceland) Australia is facing many problems that will eventually arise elsewhere in developed nations: Overgrazing, soil erosion, introduced species, water shortages, man-made droughts, and infertile soil caused by irrigation methods that bring salt to the surface. Many of the colossal environmental errors of the European colonizers who arrived in the country after 1788 emerged directly from the cultural practices from the motherland: sheep, rabbits, and plants were introduced to make the landscape look more like Britain. Sheep ripped up the vegetation, exposing topsoil for erosion, non-native plants proliferated like weeds, and rabbits bred like rabbits. It turned out that Australia has the oldest, most leached, and least productive soils on the planet. To add to Australia’s farming problems, the wheat belt of the southwest has seen its once-predictable winter rains rapidly decline since 1973, another manifestation of climate change. Diamond is optimistic, however, that attitudes are changing. “Australians are beginning to think radically about the central question,” he writes. “Which of our traditional core values can we retain, and which ones instead no longer serve us well in today’s world?” It doesn’t take much imagination to see this as a design problem.

Design leadership won’t manifest itself here in the traditional sense, as a style movement, a new “ism,” or regional vocabulary. Australia has been playing catch-up for too long, its cultural values coming not from within, but from afar: television arrived a decade after it did in America, modern architecture came about 30 years after Europe started building it, and the nation is still working on high-speed broadband Internet. This is not a country with a great history of high-tech innovation. In fact, its economy is modeled on exploitation of local resources—another legacy of colonialism.  Wheat, wool, minerals, gas, and coal are shipped out, and manufactured goods are shipped in. Timber is exported as cheap wood chips to Japan and then reimported as expensive paper products.

But as Australia reorients itself toward Asia, politically and economically, the possibility emerges that the lessons of a dislocated culture on a fragile continent might be somewhat less encumbered by the political and cultural systems of the West. From my point of view, it’s liberating to shake off the canons and dogma: to write a course on design history, for example, that sets about questioning the European-North American version of modernity’s progress. One great lesson of this country’s Aboriginal design is that ingenious and sustainable improvisation comes from a 40,000-year tradition of nomadism. Rafts and canvases made of tree bark, elevated sleeping platforms made of branches, winter coats made of possum skins: all were products borne of mobility. When the climate changed, the inhabitants moved on. This is design history too. My point is not to romanticize pre-industrial ingenuity, but to raise the possibility of a response to disaster and the extreme weather of climate change that is based on improvisation and adaptation.

Naomi Hay, a colleague, is researching emergency housing design, and has unearthed a whole history of “top-down” errors much like those of the colonizers in Australia. Her hypothesis is that, in the wake of a natural disaster, the best thing to drop from the skies might not be industrially manufactured dwellings, but some tools instead. This point was made in the 1970s by the UK-based Disaster Institute, which argued that infrastructure and local building materials were more valuable than prefabricated shelters designed by outsiders.

Back in January, after the waters receded, my local ferry terminal in Brisbane, a simple painted wood structure with bench seating, was mopped clean and returned to service, none the worse for wear. The floods of 2012–13 have been an interesting lesson in the impermanence of the designed environment. Could houses, even cities, be designed to adapt to rising sea levels and extreme weather? Or is it the inhabitants that we need to redesign? Or both? When you think about it, a design philosophy based on adaptation would be rooted in a human history much older than modernity. The lessons of the past may be a little too prosaic for our current, tech-savvy version of the Future of Design. But the feeling here in the south-southeast is our thinking about the future might need a little recalibration.

Illustration by Polly Becker

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