Designing with resilience to prepare for a changing world

Design and planning experts gathered on campus to take up the challenge of preparing for climate change.

in a conference setting, seated presenters listen as one makes a point, gesturing for emphasis.
The Building Resilience in Design event drew a dynamic lineup of speakers and audience members for presentations and discussion to mark the launch of the School of Design's Urban Resilience Certificate. Architect and urbanist Matthijs Bouw, at right, leads the program.

No doubt, the climate is changing. Yet uncertainty lies in predicting precisely how those changes will affect individual communities, cities, and natural landscapes. So how can we prepare for the impacts, whether it’s a super-sized storm like Sandy or Katrina, saltwater entering drinking water sources, or increased flooding from rain or sea-level rise?

A desire to confront these challenges was the impetus behind two events held at Penn this week. The first, “Building Resilience in Design,” timed to commemorate the launch of the School of Design’s Certificate in Urban Resilience program, gathered a rich cross-section of leading academics and practitioners for a day of presentations and discussion on how resilience is being integrated into the practice and teaching of design.

The second, hosted by the Water Center at Penn, involved some of the same actors as well as other experts tasked with considering a specific site of concern: the growing Indonesian coastal city of Semarang, where portions of land are literally sinking into the ocean at a rate of 15 centimeters per year.

Speaker at conference, seated, gestures to indicate a point.
A leader of the Rebuild by Design initiative, architecture professor Marilyn Jordan Taylor touched on the innovative features of and thinking behind some of the winning proposals to emerge from the competitive process. 

“We are moving from a stable period to a period of great uncertainty and unpredictability in terms of climate change and associated hazards,” said Matthijs Bouw, an architect, associate professor of practice, and director of the Urban Resilience Certificate Program, who helped lead both gatherings. “But reacting to shocks and stressors is only the tip of the iceberg. To understand resilience, you need to come to an understanding of the areas below the surface, which are often cultural, systemic, and political.”

A focus on adaptation

PennDesign Dean and Paley Professor Frederick Steiner opened the “Building Resilience” event with a meditation on the word that has inspired a design movement. “From a health perspective, ‘resilience’ involves how we respond to stress,” he said. “It helps individuals prepare for life’s challenges.”

Speaking in the Lower Gallery at Meyerson Hall to an audience of dozens of colleagues, students, and practitioners, Steiner underscored the clear ties between design and health. “Health is absolutely fundamental to our enterprise,” he noted, citing the ways in which disciplines such as architecture, landscape architecture, and city planning all serve to protect and promote public health and well-being. “Resilience is fundamental to our profession.”

Audience members sit at a table and, beyond, on stairs, paying attention to a presentation.
Attendees at "Building Resilience in Design" spilled out onto the staircase to participate in the dynamic discussion. From students to faculty to practitioners, the participants represented a diversity of fields.

Steiner’s predecessor as PennDesign Dean, and now professor of architecture, Marilyn Jordan Taylor, offfered context for the School’s new certificate program, describing her leadership role in Rebuild By Design, an initiative of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. Intended to spur innovation in urban design, the program launched in 2013, in the wake of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy.

Some of the leads on the six winning designs that emerged from that competition were in attendance on Tuesday, sharing their innovations and lessons learned, including Bouw, whose firm One Architecture & Urbanism proposed “The Big U,” a plan to protect lower Manhattan from floodwater and storms.

Bouw kept the day’s conversation rolling with an overview of the new certificate program, which will offer professional graduate students an understanding of how to “design with risk” when facing an uncertain future. “We need to be bold and modest at the same time,” he said.

Some facets of such a design toolkit were illustrated by Richard Weller, professor and chair of landscape architecture and Meyerson Chair of Urbanism. Pointing to his Atlas for the End of the World, a visually arresting online project which documents land use, urbanization, biodiversity and conservation milestones globally, Weller suggested that “blunt tools,” such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, can be tailored to offer insights into local and regional planning.

“In the context of rapid urbanization, it’s not enough to write reports,” he said. “We have to develop spatially explicit plans. That’s the work that designers should be involved in.”

A multi-faceted approach

Complementing the designers in the room, German literature and language professor Simon Richter from the School of Arts and Sciences, added the perspective of one who has explored sustainability as a cultural practice that varies across countries and regions. In conversation with architect Barry Beagen, with whom he has worked on the challenges facing Semarang, Richter emphasized the need for experts to remember that community members must be engaged with design projects in order for them to sustain and succeed over the long haul. “That may mean asking, ‘What does it take to think and feel like a citizen?’” Richter posed.

A man stands, hand gesturing in the air, as others, seated, look on.
Experts from outside of Penn were key presenters at the event. Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist from New York University, underscored the need to build trust to move forward with ambitious design ideas. "To engage with a resilience project, we need to rebuild some sense of common purpose.”

Through the day, working architects, urban designers, and community organizers offered case studies of their efforts to design spaces and programs to protect cities from New Orleans to Boston to Istanbul to Norfolk to Semarang from the varied impacts of rising seas, fiercer storms, and other climate impacts. In many cases, presenters also touched on strategies for communicating the need for such forward-thinking design to stakeholders.

A presenter speaks with a bit of his PowerPoint presentation showing as audience members in the foreground
Howard Neukrug, head of the Water Center at Penn, spoke of the need to break out of the silos of academia to solve "real-world water needs."

In a session moderated by PennDesign’s Candace Damon, Alyssa Cobb Konan of NYC Parks described how her pleas for adaptation weren’t getting enough attention until she started sharing dramatic renderings of sea water and vicious waves inundating iconic sites, such as the running track in Manhattan’s East River Park.

Howard Neukrug, executive director of the Water Center and a professor of practice, made an appeal for cross-campus collaboration with an introduction to the Center and its goal of encouranging innovation around the issue of water. Known internationally for the Green Cities, Clean Water initiative formed while he led the Philaelphia Water Department, Neukrug is aiming to leverage Penn’s academic expertise and “help bridge that gap from the academic to applied research to solve our real-world water needs.”

Speakers didn’t shy from the fact that resilient design isn’t free. Marilyn Jordan Taylor spoke of the need to identify partners to help support the considerable costs of resiliency design efforts, in part by “providing an accurate cost of inaction.”

It’s a point that policy expert Carolyn Kousky of the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center considers daily in her work examining how insurance and policy can be deployed to protect natural resources and infrastructure from climate change effects.

“You can’t insure everything,” Kousky said. “But insurance can provide financial incentives to invest in protecting natural resources. There’s a lot of optimism about the role of insurance in promoting this type of behavior change.”

Satellite image of port of Semarang with vulnerable coastal areas labeled "Industrial Greenbelt" "Future-ready Port" "Resilient Kampung, "Re-Water"
Representatives from the Water Center at Penn heard proposals from a team with One Architecture & Urbanism on how to help the Indonesian port city of Semarang deal with current water challenges and plan for a sustainable future. (Image: One Resilient Semarang)

Kousky was part of the final session of the day, moderated by PennPraxis executive director Ellen Neises, which showcased collaborations in academia moving forward the idea of resilience in urban design. Academics from New York University, Columbia, Harvard, and Penn described projects and lines of inquiry ingrained in resilience and risk. 

In sharing her research on water management projects on both the West and East coast of the U.S., PennDesign’s Allison Lassiter, for example, highlighted the pitfalls of seemingly positive initaitives like municipal tree-planting. “There are substitution effects,” she says. “If a city plants a tree, a homeowner may be less likely to plant on their own property.”

With such phenomena rooted in human decision-making and psychology, it was only appropriate that the closing session also had perspectives from social scientists. As Erik Klinenberg, an NYU sociologist reflected, “it’s hard to motivate action or investment on something like climate change if we don’t care about our neighbors or the next city or the state across the river from us or another nation. To engage with a resilience project, we need to rebuild some sense of common purpose.”

Resilience in practice

On a more intimate scale, an event held at the Inn at Penn on Wednesday morning illustrated many of the key takeaways from the Tuesday meeting, this time zeroed in on a single site, the port city of Semarang. Bouw is leader of One Resilient Semarang, a project that entails devising a strategic plan for the growing urban center home to 1.7 million people, which is facing serious threats from subsidence—literal sinking—as a result of out-of-balance groundwater extraction.

Hosted by Penn’s Water Center, the One Resilient Semarang team laid out their initial findings and strategies for the city, led by Despo Thoma, the project manager. Thoma laid out “the cycle of vulnerability” the city has been experiencing, with industrial facilities on the coast pumping groundwater at unsustainable rates, triggering dangerous rates of subsidence.

Meeting attendees around a horseshoe shaped table pay attention to a presentation at the front of the room.
Parts of the city of Semarang are literally sinking 15 centimeters each year due to groundwater extraction, the team found. (Photo: Penn Today staff)

Pulling in a multi-disciplinary team that includes architects like Bouw, humanists like Richter, experts in development, community organizing, and engineering, and stakeholders in the city itself, the team from One is a few months from completing their proposal, and came to Penn seeking feedback on their plans.

Senior fellows from the Water Center joined with designers from One and other invited guests to listen and then respond to the proposal, which focuses primarily on engaging the industries on the coast in adopting more sustainable practices.

“By focusing on industrial actors, you get more bang for your buck,” said Bouw. “Their actions can be managed in a way those at the household level cannot.”

A roundtable discussion included feedback from Neukrug on the planning horizon. “My time scale is 50, 100, or 200 years,” he said. Water Center senior fellow Scott Moore, who comes to his position at Penn from the World Bank, added input on working with stakeholders. “Is the highway department the most powerful decision maker? Or is the state government where the power is held? That changes the pitch you’re making.”

Achieving a resilient urban landscape in a place like Semarang, or any other city, will be challenging and complex. These are tasks that will require open dialogue and exchanges of the sort that played out at Penn this week. As Taylor described in the “Building Resilience” event, discussions within and across disciplines are the best way we have to keep our buildings and landscapes resilient in the face of new threats. Though the future obstacles are daunting, the hope is that future graduates of the Urban Resilience Certificate Program will be prepared to face them.

“I hope we see this event as a bridge to a continuing conversation,” said Taylor. “We need each other.”

Post-it notes with pink hand-written comments overlay a map of a coastal area.
Participants the Water Center event offered feedback on One Resilient Semarang's strategies to handle alarming rates of coastal erosion and subsidence. (Photo: Penn Today staff)