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Climate change and natural disasters: the landscape versus engineering


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The Conversation

Esperanza Marrodán Ciordia

Associate Professor of Theory, Urban Planning and Projects department

Climate change is a reality. There is no point in arguing about who is to blame, or about whether the attitude of those who are leading the fight in this field is self-serving. It is clear that our actions are alarmingly accelerating the rhythms of nature. And these altered conditions have sometimes catastrophic consequences on our habitats.

The Sendai Convention identifies four priorities in relation to these disasters: understanding risk, strengthening governance to manage risk, investing in risk reduction and increasing disaster preparedness for effective response.

Thus, while governments around the world are working to address the causes that provoke and accelerate change, architecture, urban planning, engineering and landscape architecture are proposing solutions aimed at the last point: adapting our environments and protecting ourselves from change.

Since its origin, it has always been a natural instinct of man to defend himself from adverse climatic circumstances. That is why he created the home, his shelter. Now it is a question of defending our common home - the city - from the consequences of increasingly extreme changes. And defence must necessarily be approached in terms of resilience, that is to say, of adaptation to adverse conditions and the capacity to return to the initial state once they have ceased.

To do so, it is necessary to overcome the vision of protection in static terms and work with natural dynamics. To rely on what nature itself teaches us and, on that basis, to contribute a creative dimension aimed at the enjoyment of society.

Landscape vs. engineering: designing with nature

Since the invention of the machine, humans have confronted nature with engineering works. These works have been effective for some problems, but in some cases they have had negative consequences both environmentally and socially.

It is also the case that the acceleration of climate change is such that these works, sometimes pharaonic and with exorbitant economic investments, are proving ineffective.

In any case, it should be noted that for several years now, in the context of an increasingly widespread sustainable awareness, framework , there has been talk of green or blue infrastructures as a way of overcoming these other "grey" infrastructures. They are systems that are planned with ecological instructions , extrapolated to different scenarios, in which aesthetics are not important, but rather the services provided by the ecosystem.

The idea is not new. It is the basis of Ian McHarg's book Designing with Nature (1966), a text that is still relevant today. Designing with nature means intervening in the environment so that natural and cultural systems coexist in balance.

Projects should be based on an in-depth analysis of the functioning of the natural environment: where a river would flow in the event of flooding, how far the tide would reach, which local plants can withstand drought and why, and so on. For McHarg, the rules of nature should be the basis of design, which at the time was a real novelty compared to the traditional anthropocentric view.

However, this ecological view runs the risk of placing the values of nature above the rest, forgetting other dimensions such as the social, the cultural or the creative, which are nevertheless very present in the concept of landscape.

The approval of the European Landscapeagreement in 2000 marks the beginning of the evaluation of landscape as a complex reality, which moves away from the purely artistic or solely environmental vision. Landscape is then offered as the most complete alternative to engineering works.

Landscape urbanism

Following the path opened by McHarg, in 2006 the English landscape architect James Corner proposed landscape urbanism as the model way of working in the city. A model based on the study of the behaviour of nature, but without losing sight of the complexity of the urban condition and, above all, the creative capacity of landscape projects.

Thus, in contrast to the construction of engineered infrastructures, public spaces are designed with multiple functions and are transformed when necessary, while still offering society beautiful, attractive and functional spaces.

Numerous projects proposed from this perspective have demonstrated their capacity to adapt to natural disasters. They are less invasive, require less investment and, above all, offer citizens new spaces for relationships. Some examples are the following:

  • Flooded parks also act as storage reservoirs to cope with extreme drought conditions, such as Singapore's Bishan Park;

  • mountain paths that, if necessary, act as protection against avalanches, such as the Siglufjordur avalanche barrier in Iceland;

  • developments that adapt to cope with unexpected river floods or torrential rains, as in the case of the Copenhagen Cloudburst;

  • Even, with an emphasis on the artistic dimension of the landscape, sculptures that serve as windbreaks, such as the beautiful Rozenburg barrier in the Netherlands by Martin Strujis and artist Frans de Wit.

In the words of fellow architect and landscape architect Chris Gray, this way of doing is distinguished from other practices by its unique potential to give a poetic dimension to environmental processes.

In a time like the one we live in, changing and complex, we must be able to adapt to changes in a natural and reversible way. It is no longer possible to impose our anthropocentric, static and deterministic vision on nature. Nature has its rules and we must learn to listen to them.

Thus, as opposed to engineering works or a purely ecological vision of the environment, discipline of the landscape offers a valid alternative capable of dynamically combining natural phenomena with the creative dimension, creating extraordinary, functional, adaptable and at the same time poetic places, also contributing to cultivating the spiritual dimension of society.