Scaling Up Performance: Integrating Resilient Thinking Across Campuses, Districts, and Cities

At a Think Tank panel discussion held at SmithGroup’s L.A. office, experts describes the challenges and rewards of integrating resiliency into projects.

SmithGroup los angeles think tank resiliency
SmithGroup’s waterfront plan for the city of Euclid, Ohio Courtesy SmithGroup

Like its corollary “sustainability,” the term “resiliency” has become a handle for different constituents to grab onto. Architects use it, planners use it, community activists use it. This extensibility is one of the concept’s great strengths, argued a Think Tank panel discussion held at SmithGroup’s L.A. office in December 2018.

Resiliency can, of course, be defined any number of ways, but panelists deferred to the definition laid out by the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative: “City resilience reflects the overall capacity of a city (individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems) to survive, adapt, and thrive no matter what kinds of chronic stresses or acute shocks they experience.”

From this basic understanding, speakers offered their own interpretations. “I would call it a people-based, human-centered infrastructure,” said Steven Baumgartner, principal and urban systems strategist at SmithGroup. “These issues hit multiple actors at multiple scales, such as campuses, districts, and cities themselves.”

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SmithGroup los angeles think tank resiliency
The panelists, from left to right: Wendell Brase, associate chancellor for sustainability, University of California, Irvine; Martha Welborne, senior advisor, HR&A Advisors, and project director for L.A. Aerial Rapid Transit; Steven Baumgartner, SmithGroup principal and urban systems strategist; and Avinash Rajagopal, Metropolis editor in chief. Courtesy ©Woodwalk

Wendell Brase, associate chancellor for sustainability at the University of California, Irvine, underscored the importance of scalability. He illustrated this notion through the unit of the building, which “often [embodies] worst-case design thinking,” he said. Like laboratories, buildings “tend to be over-designed because they have so many systems and use so much energy”—in the case of UC Irvine, they represent two-thirds of the campus’s energy consumption and CO2 output. By using CO2 and light sensors, Brase and his team have been able to fine-tune energy use campus-wide.

The ultimate goal of such campus- or district-scale design—what Baumgartner characterized as resiliency at the “mesoscale”—is to create a flexible, comprehensive environment that incorporates technology, serves community needs, and withstands the test of time. SmithGroup’s City of Euclid Waterfront on the shores of Lake Erie, currently under construction, conforms to many of these ideals, as does the firm’s award-winning master plan for the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The challenge for architects who are committed to this point of view is finding equally committed clients and partners willing to invest in the long, and not just short, term. “It’s something you don’t give up on,” said Martha Welborne, senior advisor, HR&A Advisors and project director for LA Aerial Rapid Transit. “With projects like the extension of the Metro Gold Line or Grand Avenue, you have to keep your eye on the prize, work with diverse stakeholders, and trust the process.” Given the reality of climate change, there couldn’t be more at stake, she said. “This is an issue of public safety and wellness, so leadership is key.”

The Think Tank discussions were held on December 5 and 6, 2018, in Los Angeles. The conversations were presented in partnership with DXV/GROHEDWR ContractLutronSunbrella ContractVisa Lighting, and Wilsonart.

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