Groundedness as Risk: Adaptive Strategies for Ground Failures in Seattle

Areas of combined risk in Seattle

by Arthur Leung (MDes ’17)

This thesis argues that the conditions of the ground—the mutable material conditions of the earth—are fundamental to both understanding the full implications of geologic risk and engaging in responsive design practices in an unpredictable context.

“Groundedness” implies a sense of stability and permanence. Our reliance on the presumed fixity of the earth under our feet has led us to lose sight of its dynamism. From macro stress-releasing tectonic readjustments to micro fluvial sediment transport, these natural processes are part of an adaptive cycle that oscillates between stasis and “creative destruction.” Ground modifications for urban development, which are predisposed to engineering resilience, have exacerbated disasters by attempting to fix, control and manipulate ground without considering the recombinant and indeterminate systems that contribute to ecosystem resilience.

Seattle is the largest city in the Pacific Northwest, a region due for its “Next Big One”—a megathrust earthquake in the Cascadia Subduction Zone. This high-magnitude perturbation would occur in an urban context already sensitive to natural hazards, such as landslides, liquefaction and sea level rise. This project explores how the city can survive the destructive forces of ground failures while respecting the natural processes that are constructive forces necessary for our environment. It uses sediment as a resource that should be conserved for ecosystem health and allocated to adaptive strategies, amongst other earthwork projects. Organized into three parts, Part I assesses risks for multiple natural hazards, Part II tells the story of the evolving ground of Seattle, and Part III speculates on potential adaptive strategies.