Has “climate resiliency” lost its meaning? Jesse M. Keenan and Chris Reed discuss in Metropolis and elsewhere

Project by Xun Liu and Ziwei Zhang

A project by Xun Liu and Ziwei Zhang for Chris Reed’s studio "Endless Liquid Surfaces" envisions the re-wilding of Houston's bayou, spurred by rising water levels.

As Mimi Zeiger observes in Metropolis, natural disasters occupy our cultural consciousness with mounting regularity and intensity. These scenarios appear to be increasing in frequency, and advances in media technology mean they are documented, shared, and discussed with greater speed and spread.

With an eye toward the intersection of natural-disaster risk and the built environment, Zeiger and the designers she interviews note that the concept of climate resiliency may prove less constructive than one of climate adaptation.

Harvard Graduate School of Design faculty across departments have woven questions and discussions of climate adaptation, risk, and resiliency into studio work at the School. Among them are Jesse M. Keenan and Chris Reed, both of whom spoke with Zeiger for her Metropolis piece and have edited recent books on climate-adaptation projects and proposals.

Keenan teaches courses and conducts research in the fields of urban development and climate adaptation, and has spoken widely on the risks posed by climate change. He’s currently the editor for the Built Environment category of the 4th U.S. National Climate Assessment. Following previous federal public service appointments, Keenan currently leads adaptation efforts for a state governor and was recently nominated by the U.N. to serve as Chair of Adaptation Finance for IPCC Cities.

In Metropolis, Zeiger draws from Keenan’s recent book Blue Dunes: Climate Change by Design (Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2017; co-edited by Keenan and Claire Weisz), which looks at the development of WXY Architecture and West 8’s post–Hurricane Sandy proposal, also entitled Blue Dunes. The proposal calls for a chain of artificial barrier islands centered around the New York/New Jersey Harbor in the Atlantic Ocean, intended as a multi-purpose line of defense against coastal storms.

“People need to change the way that they produce and consume in response or in preparation to climate change,” Keenan writes in Blue Dunes.

Speaking with Metropolis earlier this year about the book, Keenan discussed the synergies, and conflicts, between climate resilience and climate adaptation as concepts.

“There are different categorical variants for resilience. …. They all mean slightly different things, but they primarily reflect this idea of a single equilibrium, which is that there’s something inherent in the processes of resilience where one reverts to the relative status quo,” he said.

Regarding adaptation, Keenan continued, “Adaptation, though, is more fundamentally about the incremental, transitional, and transformational definitions of system processes that transform us and bring us to a wholly different domain of operation. In the built environment, this means that we have to build in different places, with different densities, different infrastructure, and different communities. We have to transform our way of life. Perpetuating ways of life only through certain types of resilience will never address our underlying vulnerabilities.”

These and other topics are bound to lie at the core of Keenan’s Spring 2018 course, “Climate Change Resilience and Adaptation.” Read about Keenan’s thoughts on “climate gentrification” and the case of Miami.

Reed is professor in practice of landscape architecture as well as co-director of the Master of Landscape Architecture in Urban Design degree program at the GSD. Reed’s current teaching and research examine the role of landscape in imagining and structuring the contemporary city, within the context of climate change, social and economic inequities, and increasing cultural diversity. Reed and his firm Stoss Lansdscape Urbanism have been recognized for, among other accomplishments, their innovation in using landscape as a mitigating force.

Among other work, Reed’s Trinity Waterfront project in Dallas addressed a vacant flood zone of land that had divided downtown Dallas from Trinity River. The original RFP asked designers to connect the downtown area to the waterfront, but Reed and his firm Stoss instead expanded the landscape by drawing the river and wetlands into the city, while extending the city out into the flood zone.

Earlier in 2017, the City of Boston released a public RFP around the city’s Imagine Boston 2030 plan, which concerns itself with a good deal of riverfront development. Of the six neighborhoods named in Imagine Boston 2030 for waterfront renewal, two—East Boston and Charlestown—were awarded to Stoss. Read about Reed’s 2016 proposal to reimagine a mile-long stretch of Los Angeles freeway as a vibrant, eco-sensitive public space.

“Resiliency has gone the way of sustainability—it has lost its meaning,” Reed tells Zeiger. “I subscribe to an ecologist’s definition of resiliency: the ability to adapt to new conditions. A wetland, for instance, changes and evolves over time.”

Reed’s Fall 2016 GSD option studio “Retooling Metropolis: Working Landscapes, Emergent Urbanism” examined pre-Hurricane Harvey Houston with an eye toward using landscape to address modern-day challenges, including climate. The studio produced a number of proposals that reimagined industrial sites along Houston’s Buffalo Bayou as socially connective, and ecologically constructive, powerhouses.

The studio’s output and discourse was catalogued in an eponymous GSD Studio Report publication. The book has been recognized as one of “25 Architecture and Design Books to Read This Fall” by Metropolis and one of the year’s “notable developments in landscape architecture” by the Huffington Post.

While climate change and resultant risks remain complex, approaches and solutions seem to hinge on interdisciplinary synthesis and collaboration.