Building Resilience: The Role of the Architect in an Age of Climate Change

How to create resilient cities and societies

I am intrigued by the human resilience angle that Eric Klinenberg uses in making the case for better urban design in his New Yorker article, “Adaptation: How can cities be ‘climate-proofed?’”

In it he discusses disaster preparedness in general and describes several large-scale engineering solutions to climate change, solutions that are of necessity government backed. He also writes about the role a resilient civil society can play in increasing an individual’s chance of survival in a disaster. A professor of sociology, public policy, and media, culture, and communications at New York University, Klinenberg writes, “Whether they come from governments or from civil society, the best techniques for safeguarding our cities don’t just mitigate disaster damage; they also strengthen the networks that promote health and prosperity during ordinary times.” He mentions Robert J. Sampson, a sociologist at Harvard, who “has been measuring the strength of social ties, mutual assistance, and nonprofit organizations in Chicago communities for nearly two decades. He has found that the benefits of living in a neighborhood with a robust social infrastructure are significant during ordinary times as well as during disasters.”
He adds that “Alonzo Plough, the director of emergency preparedness and response for the County of Los Angeles, says, ‘But it’s not just engineering that matters. It’s social capital. And what this movement is bringing to the fore is that the social infrastructure matters, too.’”

Enter the urban designer and landscape architect. How social infrastructures are enhanced by landscape infrastructure and open space is the focus of studies by the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois, and the subject of an earlier social impact design blog post. We have an opportunity here step up to the plate and play an important role in enhancing and creating the social capital that makes our communities and our society resilient. While I love and value aesthetics and believe fervently that beauty matters, our work as urban designers and landscape architects is more than a matter of creating artful places. We can, and should, learn to design to increase social connectedness. What would that look like? For me, this brings us to questions of morality, and of shared societal values. Shared societal values are one of the ways that a group can create cohesion and a sense of mutual responsibility. The lack of a shared moral system tears down the sense of social connectedness. In the entry on morality Wikipedia says “The phenomenon of ‘reciprocity‘ in nature is seen by evolutionary biologists as one way to begin to understand human morality.”

Reciprocity as in the Golden Rule; remember that “quaint” idea? I was bowled over by movie critic Mick LaSalle’s mention of morality in his recent San Francisco Chronicle piece, ‘Violent Media Poisoning Nation’s Soul’. He derides the violent movies that the Hollywood industry profits from so handsomely and argues that violence should be rated at least as stringently at sex. He also calls on critics, when reviewing ‘cruel and nihilistic’ movies, to say as much. He imagines a critic’s inner dialogue when confronted with a ‘soul-crushing’, ‘anti-life’ movie, writing, ”Yes, it’s sick, but isn’t that a moral judgment? And is it my place to comment on morality and decency?” I know the feeling of wondering if I have a right, or if it’s my place. But when did we cede the right to comment on morality and decency? When did we cede our right to act morally by acting in the best interests of our community by calling a sickening movie, sick? Did it start in the sixties, when youth culture rebelled against the hypocrisy of the dominant morality of the time? And now, given that legacy and in our age of multiculturalism, how could we arrive at a shared moral code? We could start by agreeing on human ‘virtues’. Again from Wikipedia on morality: “…certain virtues have prevailed in all cultures…. The major virtues …identified include wisdom / knowledge; courage; humanity; justice; temperance; and transcendence. Each of these includes several divisions. For instance humanity includes love, kindness, and social intelligence.” Social intelligence, temperance, wisdom, humanity, and kindness–does this sound like a lot of movies you’ve seen lately? We need to stop with the violence.

For those of us who believe that art is part of architecture can we aspire, paraphrasing David Foster Wallace who writes about fiction, to create landscapes and buildings that are “passionately moral, and morally passionate,” that help all of us to “become less alone inside”? We need to start creating an environment where we, and our fellow citizens, are empowered to act in the best interest of our communities and ourselves. It’s shocking to hear that the one of the solutions proposed for gun violence is armed guards. Really? The solution to too many guns is more guns? Is this as depressing to you as it is to me? Instead, those of us who are still committed to finding real and lasting solutions to societies’ problems–we optimists–need to get serious about putting our creativity and intelligence, our wisdom to learn how to create art (places, communities, environments) that support each of us in our individual efforts to be humane, kind, and just. As designers we need to learn how to design places, objects, and tools that foster civil society. We need to build resilience. I would call that a moral imperative.

Cinda Gilliland is a principal and landscape architect in SWA Group’s Sausalito office and is leading the firm’s Social Impact Design Initiative. Read more on SWA’s  Social Impact Design on the SWA’s Ideas blog.

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