What we think when we think about climate



Urban Design operates in the interstitial state between architecture, landscape architecture and planning. Working between the aesthetic considerations of architectural objects and clairvoyance of planning, urban design forever aspires to the constructions of utopic ideals in different forms; from Olmsteads Emerald Necklace to Norman Foster’s Masdar City. Today’s best urbanism is constructed by yesterday’s best architects, meaning that ultimately urban design in its initial definition is constructed architecturally as a fleet of objects across space. Where each object or aggregation of objects are autonomous in idea and early urbanism is left with a disinterest in ‘the idea of the other man’. Urbanism constructed as a patchwork of individualistic intentions portrays cities as conglomerate utopias, where the best aspirations of different designers butt against one another over an urban gameboard. This is the result of architectural thinking scaled up to city and territorial levels. If architects scaled up thinking to the need for urban demands and rapid urbanisation they would acknowledge a disparity between the bottom up thinking of architecturally operated urban design and landscape architectures formation of urban planning as a top down mechanism to contemplate the balance between nested autonomous objects and urban requirements.


“The real ambition right now… is for architects not to satisfy themselves and their constituency… but rather to penetrate into the mechanisms of power, money, policy making, and knowledge that actually form the basis for the transformation of our cities and communities.” (Vanstiphout, Harvard Design Magazine, 39, Pg 8)


Between the formal concerns of architecturally orientated urbanisation and formulated overarching goals of planning sits an emerging power of market econometrics in western cities that proliferate and limit the intentions of urban design.  Since power in the U.S. has been in the process of being handed over to banks since the 1980’s, capitalism, then branded as salvation for economic stability, has spread across much of the globe from the west faster than anticipated. As capital markets continue to proliferate deep into societal actions and transactions it claims more power over urbanisation in its decentralised state. Real estate developers have now become the primary source of urban development and construction, in turn hindering the ability for the design professions to enact any sense considered design beyond that which might drive up the lucrative profit margin of real estate. This paper will discuss the state and agency of urban design through the terms: succession, emergence and resilience.






Urban designers do not consider a fourth dimension of designed strategies; for example a trifecta of agents exist in urban discourse whom operate at differing timescales, from the length of a single project and post-completion retail value up to the lifespan of the city. To understand the morphology of urbanism and the topography of players, one must understand the faculties and toolkits that each of these trained agents bring to the city, what their limits of operation in space and time are and also what the agenda of those operations are. Where densification of human populations had once reflected natural conditions; from topography for defendable positions to proximity to waterways for merchant shipping, today the natural environment is a reflection of, and even an extension of urbanism and urbanisation itself. The Anthropocene[1], a new geological epoch us Neil Brenner’s consideration of physical limitations of urban design the Anthropocene argument posits a global denatured landscape that emerges in a new classification defined by global urbanisation and production of landscapes. The Anthropocene reconsiders the material palate as well as the physical limit of what may be considered urban.


“Insofar as the dominant model of capitalist urbanisation continues to be based upon the generalized extradition, production and consumption of fossil fuels, as it directly implicated in a form of global ecological plunder that has permanently altered the earths climate while infiltrating the earths soils, oceans, rivers and atmosphere with unprecedented levels of pollution and toxic waste” (Brenner, Harvard Design Magazine47)


What the Anthropocene thesis offers, and what Brenner is appealing to is a reclassification of what is considered urban but also overlapping events and intentions in time. As we consider the agents of urban design; planners, developers and designers we also set the professions limits of operation. Neil Brenner’s reclassification of the boundary in Harvard Design Magazine between urban and non-urban considers a proliferation of urbanisation, which is also supported by Manuel Castells condensation of space time between urban entities offered by technology and productivity. The global operation and production of landscapes and cities allow arguments to be framed around the limitless nature of urbanism and increasing speed in which it spreads. However, the extent of urbanisation is not only classified by the increasing population of urban areas. Here we are reminded of China’s forceful uprooting of five hundred million people to sustain urban economic growth. What rapid planetary urbanisation also arrives with is the transformation and terreformation of landscapes to sustain urbanisation. If we think of China’s rise to the global market table it has resulted in an environmental situation where over seventy percent of waterways are eutrophic and too polluted to sustain biological life. The contemplation of boundaries also enter the concept of territorialisation and its strain on landscapes and cities when China empty waste water into rivers and conduits that travel into other Asian regions. Similarly NYC pay countries to receive waste, infamously resulting in the Khian Sea, a ship carrying ash waste from incinerators circumvented the globe for twenty four months, unable to convince cities to receive its waste, finally depositing some as “topsoil fertilizer” in Haiti and illegally dumping the rest in the Idian and Pacific Oceans. (Jim Detjen. 1993).


What cities contend with is a succession of intentions as they relate to the agents outlined here but also the larger platform of the biosphere. Two contrasting examples of territorial urban advancement between urban agents and biospherical relationships are Barcelona and Beijing’s respective hosting of the world Olympics. Barcelona’s hosting of the 1992 Olympics catalysed the cities expansion to global proportions but also compacted the city to the point where planners bought out housing units to be demolished for parkways. Barcelona’s booming growth required the formation of urban infrastructure that could sustain its population. The city has redeveloped its infrastructure to where metropolitan river ways and large scale infrastructural landscapes “reveal the role of large-scale landscape as an element of urban infrastructure.” (Waldheim, pg 39). Contemporary landscapes are as much designed and engineered to sustain growth as the creation of housing. However the engineering of urban landscapes at a territorial scale is not restrained to the ground plane, where Beijing famously cloud seeded leading up to the Olympics to deter unpleasant weather and relentlessly cleaned up the city for its global exhibition. Thus the Anthropocene introduces new material conditions and palette within the blurry distinction between organic and inorganic. Here one may recall Lefebvre’s The Production of Space in which he identifies two mutually reinforcing fallacies; the illusion of transparency, the idea that the world can be seen as it really is, and the idea that space is innocent. Architects and the built environment have also presumed time as innocent, where set pieces of industrialisation and development are placed upon the global gameboard without due consideration of the wider ramifications for future players. Within an era of industrialised nature and denatured biospherical concerns, urbanism is directly implicated in the emergence of environmental concerns to the degree in which new urban paradigms may be sought for how urbanism is considered.




The arrival of the Anthropocene brings with it an array of problems at an urban and territorial scale. Widespread urbanisation and production of planetary resources has in turn caused an increasing strain on natural systems within the biosphere.


Brenner says “Lefebvre suggested, such tendencies would entail a relentless, if fragmentary, interweaving of an urban fabric – a “net of uneven mesh” – across the entire world, including terrestrial surfaces, the ocean, the atmosphere, and the subterranean, all of which would be even more directly operationalized to support the voracious pursuit of capitalist industrial growth.” (Brenner, Harvard Design Magazine, Pg 44)


Alongside the ecological disorder emerge a series of large scale environmental events that threaten our cities. Rising sea levels, compounded by an exponential increase in frequency and severity of major weather events create a threat to populations across the globe that had established settlements in proximity to water. The large timescale in which these events lie prove difficult for designers to conceptualise, where designers are largely limited the individual lifespans as a period of consideration of interventions and problem formation. Linda Pollak asserts that the common recourse of architects to a figure-ground relationship creates a tendency to view the term environmental as an abstract container, separate from designed objects, events and relations that operate within it. (Pollak, Pg 127) What these new scales of threats require is larger system scale thinking of landscape and ecological urbanism, where issues can be analysed and potential opportunities for solutions formulated across an array of strategies beyond simply fortifying and defending against the hostility of such events.  The period in which the city itself is considered an object or a conglomeration of bespoke units is irrelevant within the Anthropocene. In its place is the introduction of systemic and scalar relationships such as Lefebvre’s concept of nested scales and more recently Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory in which each scale has reciprocal networks that tie it to every other scale simultaneously.




A catalogue of threats emerging within the overarching issues of global climate change places urban design in a position to negotiate the risk era. The risk that large-scale threats issue forces them to be problematized in advance. Threats from sea level rise and storm activity potentially displace such large populations that relocation is not a viable option and the potential failure of designed interventions risk the lifes of many populations in exposed cities such as Mumbai, Manilla and even Boston where large amounts of infill and low elevation expose most of the city to inland flooding and storm surges. Almost all of what is now considered Greater Boston is reclaimed land for industrialization so that ports were pushed further out in the bay to accommodate larger ships. A once lucrative relationship that cities held with the sea by way of trade and aesthetic ideas rendered these areas prime development land. Whereas today shifting hydrological forces at bay flip development paradigms on their head as water is increasingly seen as both a threatening and unpredictable risk. The scale of risk to society stemming from such ‘hyper’ events force designers to problematize their formation reflexively as a means to sharpen potential toolkits (Waldheim, Lecture) and even begin implementing solutions that could potentially take decades to complete. Architectural technologies take years to be rigorously tested and placed into ‘pioneering’ projects, where todays most advanced construction technologies were created up to a decade ago. (Vollen, Lecture). This timespan of research versus implementation increases dramatically over large scale and urban projects that can take decades to complete. Thus the toolkits that Charles Waldheim discusses must not only be rigorously tested in advance but also implemented. This in turn offers flexible urban strategies that can straddle and respond to alternate futures and emergence of threats – risk security for risk emergence if you like.


“Our communities will always be more resilient if they are prepared, and more prepared if they proactive, rather than reactive, in their adaption to current and expected changes.” (Rosenthal , Harvard Design Magazine, Pg 32)


The creation of hypothetical futures in which to test design solutions is something Liam Young refers to as Monstorology and Donna Harroway calls the formation of Monsters. Urban design should take seriously Timophy Morton’s philosophical contemplation of these events in the provocatively titled Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. We must consider the idea that the end of contemporary urban life, as in the model of the dis-astron, has already occurred and we, as designers are only now catching up to the sobering reality of this. Urban design operates on a territory of borrowed land, both by way of extended shorelines and infill but also theoretical weaponization of land resources as appendages for urbanization throughout time. The bio-spherical homeostatic effects of this operational framework present the profession, and the larger global community, with an ultimatum and indignation that we currently run on borrowed time.




Harvard Design Magazine outlines an array of contemporary urban concerns that plague cities, from re-urbanising suburbanites, to concerns of developer driven design and shrinking cities like Detroit. This essay makes the case, however that although each of these concerns have merit in their own right they are not distinct. To borrow from Alex Kriegers comment on Jane Jacobs, cities are environments of multiple complex problems that are endlessly interconnected (Krieger, Pg 72). Although the myriad of unique problems facing urbanity today cannot be compared directly they can be sized according to scale in both time and space. Therefor urban design must tackle first that which emerges last. The most ominous rumble comes from that which we lack the lens to see yet, but is so omnipresent that it shakes the metaphorical ground beneath our feet, and indeed our buildings. The risk that climate change poses is so pervasive within the Anthropocene thesis that there is no urban region that will not be altered (possibly drastically) over the next century. Although climate change nay-sayers may argue the slowness of the threat, this does not exempt humanity from its exponentially increasing array of destructive forces; namely storms, droughts, land erosion and sea level rise. When running as presidential candidate against George Bush in 2000, Al Gore compared the mass public to an experiment in which a frog is placed in a pot of water that is slowly heated and the frog dies. The experiment revealed that slow change in temperature was not drastic enough for the frog to realise and escape. For urban design however, if the opportunity to jump out had existed it has long since past.


The risk era illuminates social inequality in urbanity as low-income and un-official settlements receive the brunt of destruction. What the Anthropocene epoch and the risk era require are new paradigms of risk management and distribution within existing, undeniable market economies. Designers can sharpen a toolkit of solutions that were required yesterday by problematizing the emerging threats of tomorrow within the theoretical context of academia, where speculative competitions and design practice can flourish outside the constraints of real estate driven free market capitalism. Urban designs must operate within four dimensions and incorporate redundancy into multi-lateral strategies for projected problems. The incorporation of complimenting flexible designed solutions for hyper yet unpredictable threats allow urban designs to straddle space in time, allowing cities to be equipped with mechanisms of resilience and ultimately reduce risk in the emergence of catastrophic events.








Morton, T. (2013) Hyperobjects: Ecology and

Philosophy After the End of the World. 1st ed. Minneapolis: University of

Minnesota Press


Pollak, L. Constructed Ground: Question of Scale. Landscape Urbanism Reader, Princeton Architecture Press, 2009. NYC Pg 125-141.

Turpin, E, 2013. Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Design, Deep Time, Science and Philosophy, 1st ed. Open Humanities Press


Young, L. 2013. Architectural Monstorology. Landscape Futures, ACTAR publishing.





Brenner, N. 2014 Urban Theory Without an Outside. Harvard Design Magazine, n 37. Pg 42-48


Easterling, K. (2014). Interplay. Harvard Design Magazine, 39: pg 135-139


Krieger, A. 2014 The Kind of Problem an Urban Region Is, Early in the 21st Century. Harvard Design Magazine, n 37. Pg 66-74


Rosenthal, J. 2014. Superstorm Sandy and The Age Of Preparedness. Harvard Design Magazine, n 37. Pg 30-36


Vanstiphout, V. 2014. Ditch Urbanism Revisited. Harvard Design Magazine, n 37, Pg 6-12



Online Articiles:


Jim Detjen. 1993. Khian Sea Ash Dumped In Ocean, Captain Testifies It Was Done On The Orders Of The Ship’s Owners, Said Arturo Fuentes. [ONLINE] Available at: http://articles.philly.com/1993-05-25/news/25966325_1_john-patrick-dowd-khian-sea-coastal-carriers. [Accessed 05 October 15]





Vollen, J. Lifespans of Buildings. Lecture given at OneLab Studio, Brooklyn on 7 July 2012.


Waldheim, C. Landscape Urbanism. Lecture and discussion given at Harvard Graduate School of Design on 30 September 2015






[1] Merrian Webster Definition: The period of time during which human activities have had an environmental impact on the Earth regarded as constituting a distinct geological age <Most scientists agree that humans have had a hand in warming Earth’s climate since the industrial revolution—some even argue that we are living in a new geological epoch, dubbed the Anthropocene. — Nature, 12 Feb. 2004>

© Hayden White