Diane Davis on the GSD’s Risk and Resilience track: “As we face the global virus pandemic, our mission appears ever more important.”

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In these tough times, when dystopian fears loom large and the design professions are scrambling to find new ways of addressing the COVID-19 global crisis, it is worth reflecting on the history of the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s efforts to offer a programmatic venue for students and faculty to address extreme vulnerabilities in the built environment. The recent global health pandemic may be the latest such crisis, but it is far from the first. We at the GSD have been strengthening our focus on similarly catastrophic events through the Risk and Resilience track of the Master in Design Studies program.

Over the last several years, students who joined our cohort have been addressing built environmental and design challenges related to climate change, health and environmental crises, warfare, and other “natural” or man-made disasters that disrupt systems, societies, and the lives of everyday people. We can only assume that student interest in similarly pressing matters will continue to rise, not just in response to the current pandemic, but also as all humankind faces a world where certainty, stability, and progress are no longer a given. In light of these challenges, we want to share the intellectual and programmatic journey that led to the development of the Risk and Resilience track at the GSD.

Whether conceived in terms of ‘bouncing back to normal after a disaster, or as a means of reestablishing system equilibrium after a shock, embracing resilience can be translated as having faith that with enough attention and adaptive effort, the future can be better.

When I came to Harvard in 2012, the Master in Design Studies program offered a variety of specializations for students, one of which was called “Anticipatory Spatial Practices.” The track already had a small cohort of students enrolled. I wondered what exactly they thought they would be doing in a program with such a title. The moniker seemed pretentious at best, and incomprehensible at worst. I also was of the opinion that everything about the planning and design professions necessarily requires or embodies some form of anticipatory spatial practice. If a program that set as its conceptual ambition a desire to engage the fundamental telos of the design disciplines in their entirety, could it be specific enough to generate something novel? I quickly learned from students that their ambitions were actually quite grounded, and that they found this track an invitation to focus on some of the most important challenges of our times.

The vast majority of our students were—and still are—interested in climate change and environmental sustainability, having understood that rapid urbanization of the built environment had spatially transformed our cities, landscapes, and the globe in ways that were undermining our collective capacities to remain healthy as a species and a planet. In that sense, the title of the track offered an opportunity to think about what could or should be different in terms of spatial practices to push back against these problems. Yet I also noted that a few of our enrolled students had come to the GSD from the world of war, so to speak, having worked in refugee camps or combat situations where both the threat and reality of violence produced its own form of crisis, ranging from forced displacement to death. These students, like the climate and environmental activists, recognized a clear need for spatial preemption of the most egregious losses and vulnerabilities associated with traumatic, violent events. The intersection of these sets of challenges drew me to the track, which I subsequently agreed to co-direct, starting in 2014.

What most captured my imagination were the parallels that thread through the various problems under study. Despite what looked like very different subjects, there seemed to be some common questions that concerned students interested both in the environmental crisis and the refugee crisis. It was not just that students focusing on these distinct topics were concerned with issues of displacement; it also appeared that common languages were emerging across the disparate problem areas. Two of the most obvious terms were “resilience” and “risk.” In recognition of a potentially unifying discourse, the program leadership agreed to shift the track’s title, and used this shift to both craft and reflect new pedagogical aims.

While students would continue to think projectively about alternative futures and how to construct them (i.e., anticipatory spatial practices), they would also be charged with transcending disciplinary and problem-area silos in the study of vulnerabilities. This pedagogy encouraged students interested in environmental crises or climate change to learn from students interested in war and vice versa, as they entered a program asking them to find parallels in these two “battlefields” of action. It also gave them an opportunity to reflect on the languages, theories, and design practices commonly deployed in each of these seemingly incongruent problem areas, and innovate new actionable framings through this cross-fertilization.

With this mandate in mind, in 2014 we formally changed the track’s title to “Risk and Resilience,” and never looked back. We have encouraged students to ask whether the concepts, practices, and assumptions about scales of agency common among those addressing one form of crisis can be applied to another. For example, if scholars addressing the climate crisis deployed approaches that echo those concerned with war, forced displacement, and other risks experienced by victims of ongoing violence, would new possibilities for action emerge? In light of COVID-19, which has been described through languages of warfare—with the virus seen as a stealth enemy that knows no territorial boundaries and that can leave a trail of damage and death in its wake—this decision now seems prescient.

Our mission statement, crafted in 2015 and posted on our web page, was the following:

The world faces unpredictable challenges at increasing intensities—natural disasters, ecological uncertainty, public health crises, extreme social inequity, rising violence—and yet counters and absorbs risk through acts of resilience. Risk & Resilience, a concentration area within the Master in Design Studies, sets out to support novel approaches to sociospatial planning through design. Design as a discipline provides cities, communities, and individuals with tools to effectively prepare for, cope with, and anticipate rapid change within the spatial, social and economic vulnerabilities it produces. The program prepares students to identify, articulate and propose preemptive forms of socio-spatial and territorial practice. While the program is grounded in the physical and tectonic realities of location, social and political conflicts over risk and resilience are just as likely to emerge and serve as sites of investigation (1). 

As we face the global virus pandemic, our mission appears ever more important. With our skill sets as designers and planners marshalled in the service of identifying novel ways to confront this newest crisis, we can learn from some of the pedagogical challenges rippling through the track as it has evolved over the years. One is the importance of prioritizing the concept of risk, perhaps even over resilience, as we confront unknown futures that will undoubtedly present continual new threats, including those not yet anticipated. 

When we launched the new track title in 2014, the notion of “resilience” was taking the policy, design, and urban planning worlds by storm. It defined the Rockefeller Foundation’s global initiative, 100 Resilient Cities, and the language of resilience appeared in a barrage of academic conferences and study centers hosted by universities and multilaterals. It also came to define new programs sponsored by technology corporations and design firms (including the joint IBM-AECOM piloting of a disaster resilience scorecard), and was even featured in the US State Department’s appropriation of resilience as a thematic rationale for international aid. The latter was built around the understanding that environmental vulnerabilities, broadly defined, are inextricably linked to problems of poverty, conflict, and violence. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now also add climate change to the list of factors that lead to migration and warfare.

The point is that when we renamed the track, the notion of resilience was being promoted as the basis for a new and expanding repertoire of tools—from novel technologies to reconfigured mapping and building products—that would guide us to a secure urban and global future. But focusing on resilience, which is frequently defined as the ability to cope and adapt so that individuals or communities survive and thrive, often meant avoiding the hard questions of power, inequality, and the ways that limited resources forced people to fend for themselves.

Whether conceived in terms of “bouncing back to normal” after a disaster, or as a means of reestablishing system equilibrium after a shock, embracing resilience can be translated as having faith that with enough attention and adaptive effort, the future can be better. But as we fall headlong into a state of irreversible environmental damage to the planet, and as some experts are suggesting that the coronavirus may be with us to stay, longstanding faith in this concept may seem a bit naive. After all, the future is still so clearly unknown, and the long-term damages that COVID-19 will produce in the health of individuals, the health of cities, and the health of economies has yet to be fully understood.

From the moment we inaugurated the new track title at the GSD, we understood that “resilience” is a tricky word, readily veering into the ideological. Some scholars have criticized this concept as offering an excuse to let citizens cope on their own while the government and the market continue to aid each other (2). Others argue that a return to normalcy is what we must avoid, because “normalcy” is often what produces crisis in the first place (3). Such an argument is frequently made in discussions of climate change and environmental crisis, which leads to deliberations about how normal it is to have built cities and societies around infrastructures and forms of resource extraction that contribute to skyrocketing carbon emissions.

From the vantage point of MDes, however, our greatest concern was that a focus on resilience might become an invitation to ignore risk, and lead us to ignore the inter-relationalities of risk that may constrain resilience. For precisely this reason, the track defines itself as engaged with concepts of both risk and resilience, and their relationships to each other (4). Our students have been encouraged to examine the trade-offs among forms and patterns of risk and resilience: not just among different residents or locations in the same city, but also in terms of immediate versus long-term gains in livability, such that coping strategies in some domains (say environment) may actually reinforce the structural problems that create risks in other domains (say inequality). To the extent that urban, social, economic, and environmental ecologies are interconnected—both locally and across territories that link cities to regions and beyond—any resilience strategy must be grounded in an appreciation of the entire landscape of a city and its properties as a system embedded in a larger ecology.

So the GSD does not aim to jettison a concern with resilience, but rather, to situate it in territorial scales while also interrogating and reconceptualizing its utility as a concept. One way to do so is to disaggregate adaptation strategies, and understand when adaptive responses to vulnerabilities or crises will establish a pathway toward a better future. Stated differently, under what conditions will adaptations—whether voluntarily undertaken by citizens, mandated by governing authorities, or crafted by planners and designers—diminish rather than increase vulnerability, and perhaps even remain effective in transforming overall vulnerabilities?

In my own work on urban violence, I have proposed that we think more carefully about positive, negative, and equilibrium resilience as three possible outcomes, with an understanding of how strategic and tactical actions may be reformulated by political, social, and economic structures to produce negative instead of positive pathways out of crisis (5). For anyone interested in the relationship between risk and resilience, or in designing new strategies to address vulnerability, the focus must be as much on the context in which adaptations are proposed as on the mechanics or design of the adaptation itself. Design thinking or design and planning action must start from an understanding of this complexity, and with the acknowledgement that any single project or policy intervention will have implications far beyond its targeted scope, both in scalar and sectoral terms.

To enable constructive action in the context of multiplying and interconnected vulnerabilities that unfold at the local and the global scale, we thus return to the idea of risk. In the MDes track, our students build, design, and plan for risk rather than just resilience. They are creating new guiding principles and paradigms in the process. In the heyday of modernism, many professional designers, architects, and planners found inspiration in dreams of order; their commitment was founded on the belief that tensions between the natural and the built and social environment could be managed if not overcome. When modernist paradigms ruled, the tendency to build better reinforced faith in the inevitability of progress, and in the belief that any new urban or built environmental challenge could be resolved if enough technology, money, and creativity were thrown at it.

Now, in the midst of a global pandemic and at a time of accelerating risks, such assumptions are the subject of interrogation. We continue to train our students to be up to the task of facing the 21st century and imagining how it should be if risk is to be contained or reduced. This requires all of us to recognize that many of the strategies associated with the modernist agenda have created insurmountable problems for us today. Some argue that the COVID-19 pandemic is a consequence of our systematic destruction of the natural world in order to acquire territories and material resources—and that by devastating animal habitats we hastened the spread of viruses between animals and humans. Others highlight the impacts of intensifying economic globalization on the flow of goods, people, and yes, viruses, that accompany capital as it moves around the world. At this point it may be too late to turn back the clock on the damages already wrought and the terrors already unleashed; but we do not have the luxury of ignoring where we could and should be heading. 

This is the mandate of the Risk and Resilience track and the committed students who join this program: to embrace a mission to address some of the most fundamental risks of our times. In addition to considering new building and design techniques, they are thinking more purposefully about the form and connectivity of cities, which are conceived as sites that host intra-urban spatial inequalities but that are also networked to their rural hinterlands, their nations, and the globe. Doing so is of great urgency now, particularly because the isolation and quarantine strategies recommended by health professionals are challenging the social and spatial connectivity aims that have inspired innovation in the urban design discipline, even as they are unmasking new inequalities in living standards and neighborhoods among the city’s most and least privileged populations. There is also the looming question of food insecurity, given disruptions in connectivity between cities and the countryside (6). Landscape architects will need to join with urban planners and designers to reestablish those interrupted networks.

Each one of these sectoral challenges will place the onus on our students to learn how to identify, map, and communicate urban, health, and environmental risks or vulnerabilities in ways that are legible to citizens and city-builders. Through open engagement with citizens themselves, and building on our own local knowledge, we can identify the design and building practices that use the future as a reference point for building better cities today.

Finally, and in addition to the huge commitment to enabling a robust urbanism that makes sense in the context of future ecologies, the pandemic may also force all of us to value and embrace flexibility as a concept in the design of buildings, land uses, and urban infrastructure. This will be a departure from the modernist toolkit of the past. Yet as we move forward, the design disciplines may need to embrace the benefits of informality over formality, if only to allow for dynamism rather than fixity in city form and function. 

To be sure, even this unconventional framing of future design action implies a belief in the possibility of conquering risk in ways that may too readily echo modernist sensibilities. To push back against this, it is important to recognize that the notion of risk can be appropriated ideologically, just as has happened with resilience. The stark truth is that risk does not reside only in the domain of science and the “factual.” Risk as a phenomenon or a legible concern is informed by power and social questions, including who has the right or authority to define risk, how risk is distributed, and who pays and who gains from it. In that sense, it is important to avoid  the “tyranny of risk” as a defining principle for action, and to understand that discourses of risk can be abused to justify displacement, controls on  citizens, limits on space, and other forms of exclusion that challenge the social and equity principles that also frequently guide our work (7). 

I close on a note of optimism. The emergence of new risks holds the potential to create new disciplinary synergies and to bring a wide range of experts together to jointly address the multiple vulnerabilities embedded in building typologies, contemporary lifestyles, cityscapes, and the expanding territorial landscapes in which they are all embedded. Universities have long been trying to keep up with the pace of the enormous changes common to what Ulrich Beck called our “global risk society,” but like all institutions they are slow to change (8). At the GSD, we’ve been able to modify and recast our concentration tracks to keep up with and adapt to some of the major developments of our times. The relatively recent “birth” of the Risk and Resilience track, and its ongoing evolution as it prepares students to confront emerging challenges, shows that this is possible in programmatic terms at least.

To stay abreast of our unfolding reality will require continued interdisciplinary interaction and dialogue among the various design, planning, and architectural professionals, along with allies in the social sciences, biological, engineering, technology, and public health professions. Although collaboration has always been central to design practices, the range of risks we face today means we need even more disciplinary partners, beyond the building sciences and the familiar domains of urbanism. The GSD is well-positioned to champion such a mission, and we believe that Risk and Resilience students will be leaders in this ambitious and vital endeavor.

Diane E. Davis is the Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and Urbanism, former Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design, and Area Head of MDes in Risk and Resilience at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.


(1) At the time, I co-directed the track with Rosetta Elkin, professor of Landscape Architecture, and since then we have sought to insure that faculty co-heads span the disciplinary silos of the GSD. The faculty most involved in the track over the last several years are Dilip da Cunha and Abby Spinak.

(2) For example, Kaika (2017) has presented a helpful critique of the notion of resilience, especially as it pertains to the context of urban planning.

(3) See: Latour (2020) and Lorenzini (2020).

(4) I have treated the relationship between the concepts of risk and resilience as they apply to urban design and planning practices in Davis (2015).

(5) See: Davis (2012).

(6) For an historical account of the rise of urban food insecurity and its impact on western forms of governance, see: Foucault (2007), 32ff.

(7) For examinations of the concept of risk and its centrality in modernist ways of thinking, see: Beck (1992) and Giddens (2002).

(8) See also: Beck (1992).



Beck, Ulrich. 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Translated by Mark Ritter. London: Sage Publications.

Davis, Diane E. 2012. Urban Resilience in Situations of Chronic Violence. MIT Center for International Studies/USAID, 134 pp. 

“From Risk to Resilience and Back: New Design Assemblages for Confronting Unknown Future.” Topos, Garten + Landschaft, June 2015: 57-59.

Foucault, Michel. 2007. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978. Ed. Michel Senellart, trans. Graham Burchell. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Giddens, Anthony. 2002. Runaway World. New York: Routledge.

Kaika, Maria. 2017. “‘Don’t Call Me Resilient Again!’: The New Urban Agenda as Immunology … or … What Happens When Communities Refuse to Be Vaccinated with ‘Smart Cities’ and Indicators.” Environment and Urbanization 29, no. 1 (April 2017): 89–102.

Latour, Bruno. 2020. “What Protective Measures Can You Think of so We Don’t Go Back to the Pre-Crisis Production Model?” Translated by Stephen Muecke. Versopolis Review, April 7, 2020.

Lorenzini, Daniele. 2020. “Biopolitics in the Time of Coronavirus.” In the Moment (Critical Inquiry), April 2, 2020.