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Designing Risk

How can work in planning and design lead to development of sustainable and healthy communities under uncertain climate risk?

Resilience is described as the ability for society (an organism in structure) to bounce back or even bounce forward from a severe climate event. If emergence is the risk and threat of catastrophe and succession is the chronological evolution of an entity then the combination of these purports complexity that must anticipate and evolve through perturbance. The word stemmed from ecology when describing a complex matrix’ ability to overcome sever perturbation or external force.

Resilience brings with it an acknowledgement of threat that alters the power structure of urban and architectural construction. Before climate risk, estate agents and developers held power in urban planning whereas the climate threat era of risk gives decision makers and policy makers; planners, the power to alter and amend law. Typical hierarchies of social conditions are obliterated by threat from rising sea and storms as prime property location along picturesque coastline receives the brunt of environmental wrath.

In society, the scale of thinking to incorporate succession of the built environment comes from Planning, where architects are typically unable to conceptualise the period beyond post-occupancy check up. Planning policies and urban design must incorporate a longer timespan of operation to include socio-economic behaviour, infrastructural concerns and environmental policy. Though planning displays the capacity to think beyond the occupancy of a site and even push large scale agenda’s, such as The Orkney Island Councils impetus for de-urbanisation, they typically confine this thinking to boundary conditions and seemingly arbitrary plot lines of ownership. Forgoing any ability for components of an urban agenda to work in tandem physically or infrastructurally.

In a landscape where authorities can conceive of but not readily implement resilient strategies in Orkney, the potency of the architectural and urban designer lies in legitimising the “intangibles”[1] (Easterling, pg 137) of property construction by intersecting Anthropocentric concerns and climate risk with planning procedure and legislation. In the era of climate change, the econometrics of property and planning are altered and superceeded by; proximity to water, low elevation land, soil properties and proximity to risk(y) infrastructure. It therefor becomes imperative and necessary to compliment the individuality of objects within planning, employing components to gain “complimentary risks and benefits or their counterbalancing attributes.” (Easterling). That is to say, individual architectures can operate in a spatial sequence where common agendas can alleviate, ameliorate or even maximise the potential for threat over a common ground.

“Rather than being restricted to the more familiar singular object form or masterplan, leveraging relationships and interdependencies allows architects and urbanists to organise a stream or objects. The artistry involves not the representations of planning arrangements, but the population affects in a larger reconsistututed landscape.” (Easterling, pg 137 wet)

To bounce back from disaster and threat architectural design must operate laterally, working with the landscape and urban scales synonymously. The urban fabric must “gain the capacity to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks.” (Rosenthal, pg 34) To achieve this the urban fabric and design of that fabric must undergo a metamorphosis where nature, society and politics coalesce. It is in this state that the agents of design (Latours qausi objects) can act in tandem to resist, react, and adapt to climatic threat.

Architecture’s role within this problematique is constructing the thickened and fertile ground for planning and development to occur. Stan Allen’s Infratructural Urbanism manifesto outlines critical points that may allow for an urban nervous system of infrastructure to orchestrate the palimstste of forces that otherwise play out over cities and urban areas. By adopting a bottom up strategy where buildings become agents capable of providing new wealth they can command and dictate zones for development by offsetting threat, economic concerns and infrastructural requirements. The new value that these designed interventions offer is; protection against threat, supply of wastewater treatements, incorporation of new ecological zones and a combined larger urban agenda benefiting social wellbeing. By engaging the intangibles, unknown threats that face urban areas, architects begin governing by design. (Henk Ovink, pg 160, wet matter.)

Although architecture cannot fully control the activities of society beyond it’s construction it may use wealth provisions as a mechanism to ensure certain activities may or may not occur. Where constructions are typically confined to a site infrastructures are not. Infrastructures underpin and support the urban fabric, subtly influencing spatial adjacencies by length of standardised pipe, distance from sewer and so on. When Walter Benjamin writes that “construction fulfils the role of the unconscious” he does not account for the invisible mechanics of planning and infrastructure that typically dictate sprawls according to formal zoning, coding and even program. The anthropocene thesis pushes a new zoning of urbanity by scale and proximity of threat. Within the timeline of threat, decentralisation and autonomy become critical. As seen from Hurricane Sandy on New York City, the impact on shared damaged infrastructure upon urban regions can be catastrophic. Thus, an aggregated urbanity of decentralised and autonomous components provides resilience by way of reliability and scale of failure. The second proposal for threat upon urban policy is one of protection, where designed objects can alleviate catastrophe from zones. Damage aversion from a single or chain of architectural actors can increase developable land and increase property value. Both these proposals of decentralisation and catastrophe aversion allow architecture to become an intervention with a systematic urban design that provides both.

“Milieu is a French term that means ‘surroundings’, ‘medium’ and ‘middle’. Milieu has neither beginning nor end, but is surrounded by other middles, in a field of connections, relationships, extensions and potentials. In this sense, then, grounded site, locally situated, invokes a host of ‘other’ places, including all the maps, drawings, ideas, references, other worlds and places that are invoked during the making of a project. ‘Site’ today is a multiplicitous and complex affair, comprising a potentially boundless field of phenomena, some palpable and some imaginary. In making visible what is otherwise hidden and inaccessible, maps provide a working table for identifying and reworking polyvalent conditions; their analogous-abstract surfaces enable the accumulation, organization an restructuring of the various states that comprise an ever-emerging milieu.” (225) Corner

If architectures agency in governing decision making at an urban scale is by bringing planning into the anthropocene then it must make visible the forces that operate beyond it. Within the anthropocene two arguments for the milieu exist: that all nature is denatured, and resultantly an extension of society and industrialization. And secondly that nature is imminent, culturally and societally constructed, meaning that forces and conditions that exist are a reflection of society’s needs and desires. Therefor, the milieu of urbanity is by logic an extension of architectural adjacencies and an extension of society itself.

 

 

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© Hayden White